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What it Means to be Lutheran and Why I’m Part of the #decolonizeLutheranism Movement

Lately I’ve become involved with a movement within my Lutheran Christian world and I want to tell you about this movement and why it has captured my heart.

The movement is called #decolonizeLutheranism.

A fundamental question of the #decolonizeLutheranism movement is what does it mean to be Lutheran? And honestly, I didn’t know this answer on a theological level until I got my theology degree. But I experienced it to the bone in my home congregation in my youth without knowing that’s what was happening.

Now, there are a lot of cultural norms that come out of predominately white, European-decent Lutheran expressions in the US. But those are not the core of what it means to be Lutheran.

To me, what it means to be Lutheran is to be a people so intimately acquainted with the grace and goodness and love of God that we can’t help but live grace and goodness and love as we move about our lives.

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Art by Jennifer Clark Tinker

When I look back on my childhood congregation, that’s what I remember of the people who touched my life most profoundly.

Sondra Johnson

Marv Schmehl

Marie Renner

Ric Barnes

These are just a few of the people who lived and breathed grace to me in how they related to me as a child of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church (HRLC) in Pickerington, Ohio.

As a mission congregation, started in the 1970s, HRLC drew a crowd of Christ-followers from various religious backgrounds. To my knowledge, we had folks who were raised Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, as well as those raised with little to know religious upbringing. We were not your typical, established, European-ethnically-Lutheran congregation. We were predominately white because of our location in a the suburbs, yet in many ways we were outside of a lot of Lutheran cultural norms.

My family didn’t even begin attending church at all until after I started school. We chose HRLC as our church home because of the grace and warmth we received there from the very beginning. This mission congregation, despite its position on the fringes of Lutheran culture, was right in the heart of Lutheran theology. And it spoke to each member of my family of origin. My mom had grown up Methodist, and my dad had grown up without a church, my brother and I were unsure of church coming into our lives in our childhood, but we all resonated with what the Spirt was doing in and through HRLC. My mother joined the church, eventually my brother was baptized, then I was baptized too at the age of 9. Finally, even my father was baptized at HRLC.

But as time went on, I grappled with the faith. I have never been one to accept easy answers to complex questions. And as a youngster who wasn’t a “cradle Lutheran,” I had a lot of questions. I mean, a lot, a lot. I don’t recall always being particularly tactful in asking them. Sometimes I was outright irritated about what I was being asked to believe about God and Jesus.

I know I can be argumentative. I know I can. In fact, in 8th grade, I had a teacher tell me I ought to be a defense attorney because I was one of the most argumentative people he had ever met.

I tell you, I can be difficult. If you don’t believe me, just ask the other students from my Sunday school and confirmation classes from the time.

In another time and place, in another congregation where people didn’t know grace so intimately as the folks at HRLC did, this may not have ended well for me. But the teachers and other adults graced me with their patience and forbearance. They gave me answers when they had them, but they didn’t make stuff up when my questions were too hard. Sometimes they just let me have my questions. They just sat in my questioning with me.

HRLC is closed now.

There is a Starbucks where my childhood congregation used to be.

But I carry the legacy of HRLC in my heart. The grace upon grace I experienced at HRLC in my youth is what it really means to be to be Lutheran. Anything that holds us back from doing and being this needs to be shed, laid at the cross.

We’re not great at diversity in my particular denomination of Lutheranism–the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA), but we’re not just a white, European denomination. We do have people and congregations among us who are of other cultural backgrounds. It’s sad then that even people of color who have been born and raised in historically Lutheran congregations get asked, “When did you become Lutheran?”

Never in my white, Lutheran life have I ever been asked when I became Lutheran. When it comes to heritage, there are black Lutheran congregations that go back for generations! In fact, the oldest ELCA congregation is Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Virgin Islands; it is a black congregation that was established in 1666. They are more firmly rooted in Lutheranism than this questioning little soul from Methodist and unchurched parents. But no one questions whether I belong because I’m white?

Cultural presuppositions about Lutheranism are in the way of the Good News of Jesus Christ actually getting out. If an impertinent, back-talking girl like me can be permitted access to the grace of God, I want that grace flung far and wide. And where that grace is already abounding and shaking up our safe, cultural ideas, I want to see us learn from that and lean into that.

These are the kinds of things I see the #decolonizeLutheranism movement doing, and this is why this movement is so very close to my heart.

If this sounds like something you want to be part of too, join me at the first ever #decolonizeLutheranism gathering in Chicago on October 22 and/or donate to the cause.

My Resolution for 2016

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I thought I wasn’t a resolution kind of person, but I’m actually finding a way to make the New Year’s Resolution thing work for me. Last year my resolution was to doodle more and call it art. And that worked because it was something that my heart and soul needed!

Resolutions that don’t work for me are those that my inner critic “shoulds” me into. I know I should exercise more, I should get out more, I should keep my temper in check, and I should write X number of words everyday.

Oh, I should do a great many things.

Whenever I’ve based resolutions on these kinds of “shoulds,” two things generally happen: (1) I fail quickly, and (2) I feel even worse about myself when I don’t measure up.

There are always going to be the “shoulds” of life and they are relentless. Even if I successfully fulfilled one of the “shoulds,” there would be another and another and another. I could run myself ragged trying desperately to be who I think I should be and do what I think I should do.

It is an exercise in futility. And is the fast-track to burnout.

I think I’m still recovering from my burnout of 2014–that was a year with a lot of “shoulds” and I ended up dropping a lot of things by the end of that year.

I’ve tried since that year of burnout to pick back up only the things that I can’t not do. Maybe that’s a weird way to say it but it makes sense in my head. I mean, there are all kinds of influences that tell me what I should do, but there is often a still, small voice that gives me sweet inspiration. These are the things I can’t not do because if I don’t do them, then my heart and soul atrophy, and wilt.

When I follow what the “shoulds” tell me, good may come of it. But just as likely I will feel run ragged.

But when I listen to that still, small voice and do what I’m inspired by it to do, then good always comes of it. That goodness is sometimes just something that happens in my own spirit–joy, relief, energy, vision, etc. But most often that goodness radiates out to others who see or hear what I’ve done or who I interact with after having done it.

With all of this in mind, I am making my 2016 resolution as inspired by that still, small voice.

Oh, the “shoulds” clamored at me as the calendar was beginning to turn. They wanted to weigh in with their demands of how I ought to be better, smarter, kinder, more social, and so on. And they make some good points.

It was tricky, but I let those “shoulds” recede into their din.

I focused in on what my heart and soul truly need in this new year. Then I came up with something beautiful and rich and life-giving. It is so simple as almost to be ignored for its profoundness. I know now that the single, most important resolution I can make is…

Create and call it therapy.

This is somewhat of an extension of last year’s resolution, yet it is more broad to account for the various forms of creativity I enjoy. At the same time, this year’s resolution is more specific–that the purpose of creating is to be therapeutic for me.

I wrote once before about how ranging so broadly creatively has made it hard to feel like I have something to “show” for myself. But creating for the sake of therapy frees me from worry about where any of it will end up, and allows me to create whatever I need to whenever I need to.

There is part of this resolution that sounds a bit selfish. And I really don’t want to be selfish. Relationships and the connectedness of us all are very important to me. It’s just that I know that when I am creating art/music/writing, that it shifts my spirit in a way that helps me relate better.

When I let myself be dominated by my inner critic–“shoulding” all over myself–I feel worse about myself and I behave worse toward others. I sometimes shut down and withdraw altogether even in relationships that are the most important to me.

I assure you, even if this new resolution sounds selfish, it has all of our best interests at its heart.

May you too find the resolve to do that which nourishes your heart and soul in this new year!

Here, There, Everywhere, and Right Where I Belong

Lately I’ve felt like I’m all over the place and yet have little to “show” for myself. And oddly enough, I’m increasingly okay with that. Somehow the seemingly different directions I’m going are all part of what amounts to my vocation. And the “measurable” marks of vocational “success” are most often the temporal things that are not really at the core of what I’m about anyway.

I’m still writing, but a lot of my writing time lately is for projects that are months or even years from publication. And I haven’t had any new writing contracts since the work I did for Augsburg Fortress over a year ago.

Okay, I admit getting another writing contract is a “measurable” that I do covet. But in my heart of hearts, I want my writing to serve a purpose, to speak grace and love and truth and beauty to people’s hearts. If the contracts aren’t coming through to be able to do that, then I’m just gonna keep plugging away, slow and steady on projects that I believe can do that someday.

The big surprise for me this year has been how I have branched out musically. I’ve always loved to sing, but never quite found an instrument I could really make my own…until this year.

I got my first guitar when I was 14. I got it to impress a boy I liked because he played guitar. That didn’t work out very well because I wasn’t serious about the instrument and somehow boys can tell these things.

Well, I worked on guitar in fits and starts over the years and eventually had to replace my old one. I got a nice Washburn for a good price because it had a “finish flaw.” But I think my Henrietta (the guitar) is beautiful just the way she is.

I picked up Henrietta this year to play in a band at the church where I was serving as an interim minister at the time. I was just singing with them at first, but then when they found out I had a guitar, I wasn’t going to hear the end of it unless I started playing too. And since the folks at that church and in that band are some of my favorite people on this earth, it was the safest place I could imagine to try at something I wasn’t too sure about.

Two things happened with the guitar that surprised me. First, I was able to recall way more than I expected. And secondly, my coordination improved more quickly than I would’ve ever thought possible. I really can’t stress enough how much the band’s support, encouragement, and gentle advice bolstered my confidence.

But as much as I was becoming more comfortable with Henrietta…it was when I bought my first ukulele, Cornelius (named after Yukon Cornelius in Rudolf the Red-nose Reindeer), in April that this music thing got even more interesting. I learned how to play Cornelius really quickly. The band members embracing this new instrumental voice was just the encouragement I needed to really take off with the uke. Now, it’s to the point where I feel like the ukulele is practically an extension of myself. It’s pretty cool.

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Art by Jennifer Clark Tinker for day #26 of the Daisy Yellow 2015 Index-Card-A-Day challenge

With being in the band and playing my instruments and being around music so much, I also got into some songwriting. A lot of songwriting actually. I had written songs in the past, but now with my ukulele confidence, I’m actually playing songs I’ve written in public! And I’m loving every minute of that.

I’ve even brought Cornelius into the pulpit with me a few times when I’ve preached and that has been really well received. See what I mean about all these apparently diverging paths all being part of my vocation?

And then there’s the art thing. It was my New Year’s Resolution to doodle more and call it art. And I have. And it is. And it is wonderful! Having art as a regular part of my life has been really therapeutic for me in a lot of ways. The process itself has so many benefits. And the products are just getting better and better the more I practice!

My big art adventure was in June & July when I took the Index-Card-a-Day challenge hosted by Tammy Garcia of Daisy Yellow. The deal was that we were supposed to make art on an index card every day during those two months. Tammy provided daily prompts and lots of inspiration and encouragement. And I am proud to say that I met that challenge!

I’ve been posting my doodles/art on social media and I have been really surprised at how many people have told me how much they enjoy my art. Some of it has distinctively Christian themes, but some of it just happy or silly or just abstract. But it is connecting with people in ways that I would never have expected. And so somehow fulfilling that resolution has been another important component of my vocation.

So, I’m doing a lot of different things creatively and sometimes I’ve worried that I’m ranging too broadly. But somehow all of it has been meaningful, not just to me, but to others as well. Since connecting with people is my main thing, then even as all-over-the-place as I feel, somehow wherever this is that I am is exactly where I need to be.

Are We Bound By a System?

Bound

In Mark 6:14-29, we learn that Herod is haunted by thoughts of John the Baptist because he ordered John’s beheading despite himself. Are the forces that led to Herod making this choice that different from forces still at work in our world today?

Lectionary Thoughts for July 12, 2015
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Text: Mark 6:14-29 (Quotations here are from the NRSV)

“The king was deeply grieved” by his daughter’s request for the head of John the Baptist (v 26) because “he liked to listen to him” (v 20). Up until this point he had protected John the Baptist from his wife’s grudge against him (vs 19-20).

What changed in this incident that he would retract his favor from a man he feared, revered, protected, and liked listening to (v 20)?

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her” (vs 23, 26). 

He gave his daughter a wide open promise that she could have anything she asked for (v 23). And he had witnesses to this promise he had made—for he made the promise in front of his guests. Honor was at stake.

If this happened to one of us, we’d probably clarify that we meant “anything within reason,” or “anything *you* want, not what your mother tells you to ask for.” And everyone would understand the limits implied in such a promise.

We would not have to worry about disgrace for refusing the girl’s request. But that was exactly what Herod was facing. Refusing the request would have been to disgrace himself and to disgrace his guests. How could they ever trust his word thereafter?

I imagine he got considerably more careful about the promises he made after that. But this one, he had to keep.

He just had to.

Even though Herod liked to listen to John’s teaching…

He just had to go through with it.

He was bound by the system of which he was a part. In Herod’s case it was the system of honor and shame. He would not go back on his word; the honor and shame system required him to keep his word in order to keep his honor and to maintain the honor of his guests.

Who of us can do better when we remain bound to systems that conflict with our values?

It is easy for us as outsiders looking into the honor and shame system to say we wouldn’t do that. We can see a different path because we are not bound to that system in the same way. We critique it from a safe distance.

But are we so scrupulous, so savvy about the systems to which we are bound?

Do we even recognize them?

Dylan Roof sat for an hour in Bible study. He almost didn’t go through with his plan.

But he just had to.

Even though the group was so nice…

He just had to go through with it.

He too was bound by a system—some system in which he had only one choice that made any sense to him.

That system of thought rose up among us, on our soil, in our land.

It’s harder when it’s so close to home to see ourselves as bound to a system that would extinguish life in order to preserve the system.

Do we even recognize it?

Why Bad News Sells

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News travels fast in our world these days. And bad news travels fastest of all. And as quickly as we hear the bad news we’re ready to anathematize whoever is responsible!

It’s handy, you know. We can look at the perpetrator of some heinous crime and say how horrible he or she is, advocate for the most strict penalty, and go back to our regularly scheduled lives feeling better about ourselves.

“I would never do that!” we insist, whatever “that” may be.

Another white person unleashes unspeakable harm against a person of color? “We’re past racism in America.” “It’s an isolated incident.” “I have plenty of friends of other races than my own.”

Another celebrity pastor ‘falls from grace’ in an affair? “Those Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites anyway.” “I never trusted a word that preacher said.”

There’s always something about the ‘newsworthy’ cases that makes the villain clearly in another whole category–perhaps having mental problems, maybe less than human, or maybe evil incarnate.

But none of the evil-doing in our world happens in a vacuum.

An act of racial terrorism doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Somebody doesn’t just wake up one day and suddenly decide that people of a certain color need to be eliminated. There’s a history in how the person’s ideas about race have been shaped over time in both conscious and unconscious ways.

A marriage doesn’t get broken in a day. Clothes don’t just fall off by surprise, and people don’t just happen to wind up in bed together. There can be any number of vulnerabilities in a person’s life or in a marriage that contribute to the ease with which a partner becomes unfaithful.

In a way, I wish that categories of “good” and “evil” could be so simple as just to say “I’m good and that guy over there who did that heinous thing is evil.”

I mean, I spit-shine my halo every day. Don’t you see how good I am?

But it’s a lie.

The people of our world aren’t so easily divided into good and bad.

You know the country that raised up that racial terrorist? I live there too and so do 315-million or so other people.

The vulnerabilities that contribute to the temptation to look in the wrong places for love? I am not exempt from those. Nobody is.

Any other evil you want to mention? It would be folly for any of us to say we wouldn’t, couldn’t ever even so much as think about it.

But it’s worse than folly. It’s actually counter-productive, potentially destructive even.

If I claimed to be above anything even remotely racist, then I would be absolved from ever taking responsibility to bridge racial divides. If I pretended to be holier than thou with respect to marriage, I would not see the need to take the very concrete steps I do take to protect my marriage.

When we distance ourselves from evil, as if we’re above it, and we anathemetize those we think of as “evil-doers” we give evil greater chance to take root in our hearts and minds.

But looking more squarely at subtler forms of evil and recognizing a downward spiral before it starts can be tremendous opportunities for growth for ourselves, our relationships, and the communities of which we are a part.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just pretend to be good. I want to submit myself to scrutiny so that I can confess what in me is not affirming love and life. It is only in that honesty that I am truly open to becoming more fully loving.

It’s risky to have that kind of honesty–to admit that I’m not all good, that I don’t actually have a halo. But to me it is a far better thing to examine what in me is amiss rather than look to anathematize that guy on the news. Maybe then, I can be part of the solutions for our world rather than contribute to the problems.

It may not make the headline news to live this way. But being in the news is a precarious place anyway.

Editor’s note: This post was previously titled “The Measure by Which We Anathematize”