In the fall of 2006, I was a rare Lutheran at a Catholic Worker national gathering in Iowa—the only others were all former. Waiting around for dinner in the large hall that first night, I struck up a conversation with a woman who soon was joined by her good friends—the legendary folksinger Utah Phillips and his wife, Joanna. After I sat down at the table with them, Utah began asking me questions about myself. On learning that I was a Lutheran pastor, he asked wryly, “So, where do you Luth?” I don’t remember what I said after cracking a smile and thinking of the smart-aleck answer “Duluth.” At that time I was five years out of full-time parish ministry, doing only supply assignments while reluctantly awaiting a call, so I wasn’t sure where I Luthed, or even if I did at all.
But even more than his question, his bold admission the next night helped spur me on to an answer. Utah began his performance by introducing himself as “an unrepentant Unitarian.” To someone like me, who had a hard time declaring myself an “unrepentant Lutheran,” his “heretical audacity” got me thinking about my relationship with the denominational title I’ve borne my whole life—about my reservations and the possibility of claiming it unapologetically.
Of all the criticisms that I’ve heard and voiced of Lutheranism over the years, the one that has stuck with me the most is that Lutheran belief seldom translates into life. Admittedly, it’s not too far from Gandhi’s observation of Christianity in general, that Christians are so unlike their Christ. One easily could counter by pointing out that such remarks place emphasis on the sinner instead of the Savior and therefore deal with exception instead of essence. Granted, Lutheranism has a long and vibrant history of missions (both foreign and domestic), as well as a variety of diaconal or social ministries, but the criticism isn’t so much an institutional attack as it is an address of personal and congregational failure. To borrow Utah’s terminology, it’s a matter of not Luthing where we live.
Lutheranism is self-defined by the exposition of belief set forth in The Book of Concord, but as an expression of Christianity, it is a lived faith that encapsulates all of earthly existence from birth and baptism to death and resurrection. It involves doctrine, yes, but doctrine is not its whole reality. It is incarnational and sacramental; it concerns being the Body of Christ and enfleshing the gift of salvation in this good but wounded world.
Beginning with Luther’s Small Catechism is proof enough. With his treatment of the Commandments, Luther demonstrates that holding to the true God in faith and life leads not only to the personal avoidance of wrongdoing but also to the active engagement in the wellbeing of others. And at the end, he reminds that the Lord’s Supper is needed not only so that we learn to believe that Christ died for our sin, out of great love, but also that through the sacrament we learn from him to love God and all people.
It’s far from fair to say that Lutherans are quietists entirely disengaged from the world of which we are a part, but it’s also far from true to say that the Pietists were only concerned with individual salvation and the state of one’s heart. The father of Pietism, Philip Jacob Spener, in his celebrated 1675 treatise Pia Desideria, called for reform in a Lutheranism as individually and corporately corrupt as the Roman Catholicism of the previous century that Luther had railed against. Spener recalled these words of Ignatius, “Those that profess themselves to be Christ’s are known not only by what they say but also by what they practice,” as well as Gregory Nazianzen’s words that Basil’s “speech was like thunder because his life was like lightning” (82, 104). Right belief and right livelihood cannot be had at each other’s expense.
Lutheranism, like its child Pietism, can devolve (as can any expression of Christianity) into a self-satisfied and self-concerned way of being that has little, if any, engagement with faith or life in their fullest meaning. Taking writings like Luther’s “Fourteen Consolations” (written in 1520 to comfort Prince Frederick during a severe illness) might give the false impression that Luther thought of faith as solely concerned with internal evil and insular blessing. Yet Luther articulated and held to a faith in which believing and living, praying and doing, receiving and giving all center on God enfleshed among us, engaging the world he came to redeem. Summarizing Luther’s vocational theology, Gustaf Wingren wrote: “That faith is coupled with love is in fact the same miracle as that in which God became man…. When faith works in love, it descends and is incarnated, as God became man in Christ…. Man’s action is a medium of God’s love for others” (41, 180).
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh set forth “the fourteen precepts of engaged Buddhism” so that his tradition would not be purely personal and cut-off from wider humanity. I have come to think in terms of engaged Lutheranism. By engaged, I mean both senses of the word: pledged to as well as involved with. Since Christians are engaged to Christ as bride to groom, it follows that we are tied to him. We exist, as does Christ our Lord, for the sake of each person in the world. And because of that, we involve ourselves with the pressing needs of our “neighbor” while waiting for “the marriage feast of the Lamb which has no end.”
Two years ago, while observing the environs of the parish I had just begun to serve, I noticed a steady stream of diverse people (throughout the day) walking across the remote end of our deep back lot adjacent to a subsidized apartment complex. Once back there, I gazed down at a hard packed winding footpath and began to wonder. Thanks to parishioners willing to take a risk with me, we cut that footpath straighter and wider and lined it with gravel; and behind it we started a community vegetable garden. As a joint venture, the path and garden have enabled us not only to acknowledge our neighbors’ presence but also to meet them while sharing several kinds of sustenance and making their lives a bit better. (Many thanks also to the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, which awarded this endeavor an extremely helpful grant.)
I still have reservations about the “official representations” of Lutheranism as a denomination, the various limitations and extremes entailed, but I’ve made real progress toward being an “unrepentant” Lutheran since meeting Utah. In large part, it’s due to the restored understanding and practice among Lutherans of the works of mercy as integral to the life of faith. And I can honestly say that I’m encouraged by the renewed sense of vocation that is leading people to get engaged and Luth where they live, as well as in those far-flung places of need otherwise out of sight.
Utah died in the spring of 2008 at the age of seventy-three. Less well-known than his rich legacy of story and song is his final testament of social engagement: a rotating shelter in his hometown of Nevada City, California, that provides lodging, food, and “the ministry of presence” to people who have nowhere else to go. Utah called it Hospitality House—a tribute to the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Utah that literally saved his life decades before. Area churches still carry on that good work, and as Utah was glad to tell me, and I’m even gladder still to know, two of them are Lutheran.
Joel Kurz Luths in and around Warrensburg, Missouri.
Luther, Martin. “Fourteen Consolations, 1520,” Martin H. Bertram, trans. In Luther’s Works, Vol. 42. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
Spener, Philip Jacob. Pia Desideria, Theodore G. Tappert, trans. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964.
Wingren, Gustaf. Luther on Vocation, Carl S. Rasmussen, trans. Evansville, Indiana: Ballast Press, 1994.