The third question has to do with my “personal faith.” What is it? And a follow-up: How do I, as a pastor, go about teaching the faith to adults, teens, children?
It may be useful here to draw a distinction between “the faith” and “the tradition.” Lutheranism is really more of a tradition than a faith. In a religious setting, when we talk about faith, we’re talking about the English translation of the Greek word “pistis,” which really has more to do with trust, and that trust is based on a reliable relationship with what you would call your God. (See Luther’s explication of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism for a good explanation about what “God” is or what it means to have a god.)
So, bearing that distinction in mind, I think this question is more about teaching the tradition than anything else, although a teacher’s personal relationship with God is definitely going to underly and influence how that teaching comes across. You might call it a hermeneutic of trust.
Let me start with the relationship question. In the first of the Personal Questions, I talked a bit about my own background. Lots of tragedy, lots of chaos, right? And yet, I survived. I may have gone down a deep, dark hole, but I never felt abandoned by God. God, in other words, has always proved worthy of my trust, and I don’t expect anything different in the future. No matter how dark and grim and grisly things get, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” How do you know God loves you? Jesus. How do you know God can be trusted, ultimately? Jesus. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I continue to live it. Everything else is commentary. Not sure if that makes sense, but that’s my grounding that goes beyond intellectual statements of belief, theological doctrines, anything else.
That intimate knowledge gives me a lot of freedom in my self-understanding as a Lutheran. Luther and his rediscovery of grace (he didn’t invent it, but rather found the message in his reading of Paul’s letters) by faith/trust was a game-changer for the world. But it needs to be stated right off the bat and quite clearly that Luther was not Jesus. In fact, Luther was wrong. About a lot of stuff. He was especially wrong about the Jews, and by the time of his death, he was a disgusting, raging anti-Semite.
Still, his instinct that there MUST be a loving and merciful God was – if you’ll excuse the crass phrase – dead-on-balls accurate. This is where all teaching about Lutheranism, the movement that bears Luther’s name, needs to begin. It’s also where it can end, depending on the context. Jesus never told us, “Go ye forth into the world and make Lutherans.” Instead, he told us to go into the world and make Jesus followers in all nations.
I happen to think a Lutheran way of following Jesus, by and large, is important, especially here in North America at the beginning of the 21st century, when there are many, many false gospels (that are actually the opposite of Good News) proclaimed through culture and even from pulpits. We have a unique understanding that the world needs. Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” (over against a theology of glory) is what I spoke of in the opening paragraphs here. The ugly, torturous cross is where God in the flesh fully identifies with a suffering humanity. The god who pops out of the box at the end of the play (or the end of a Hollywood feel-good movie) (also known classically as the deus ex machina) died in concept and in reality on Golgotha on Good Friday. God doesn’t swoop in to save the day like that. I think it was Fr. Gregory Boyle (or maybe Fr. Richard Rohr) who said that God doesn’t protect or save us from anything, but God does sustain us in everything. Trials, tribulations, temptations are bound to come. God doesn’t abandon us, but rather sits with us. And on the other side of it, if we were unfaithful, God shows that God has been faithful. That’s salvation. That’s grace. That’s the God I place my trust in.
Now, that explanation might not fly with kindergartners. They don’t have a developed neocortex to take all that in. But they understand what it means to be loved and to be in safe company. The content of their faith education is less important at this stage than the reality that Jesus people love them, care about what they care about, will stand by them (hmm, just like Jesus does!) as they go through their struggles in life. This is more critical than any particular educational program or curriculum. Build relationships between the generations and watch as they stay connected beyond “graduation” from “Confirmation.” Kids are not just the future of the church – they are part of its present.