During worship, instead of singing together, half the room stood up and the other half sat down, while both sides argued about why they were doing the right thing. So, before the next year’s meeting, Bishop Andrea called her predecessor to get his advice.
But, he couldn’t remember how that part was supposed to go.
When Bishop Andrea talked about how frustrating it was when some stood up and others sat down and all the arguing it created, the previous bishop exclaimed: “Yes! That’s it. That’s how we’ve always done it.”
Not seeing beyond the past
Tradition is often used to prove that generations long past agreed with “us,” came to folly because they were not like “us,” or conversely that “we” have strayed from a noble past and charted our own course toward calamity. Many long for a revival of traditional Lutheranism, that if embraced, would enable us all to live happy, faithful lives.
However, the Lutheran tradition has always been a collection of traditions, and when we’re honest about it, we have to admit there has never been a time when all agreed.
Our confessions were an attempt to articulate a series of compromises about personal and civic life and faith in a way that achieved political gain, built coalitions among reformers or was simply an attack on the pope.
It was not a litmus test for Lutheran faith. In fact, our confessions include more than one draft, because we don’t even know which version the early reformers were able to agree on — more likely an altered later addition exists precisely because they were not of one mind.
Most people probably think of pioneer Lutherans when they think of the earliest Lutherans in America. And yes, the story of rugged Lutherans — surviving all manner of Exodus-like conditions and at times ordaining their neighbors as pastors because they got tired of waiting for “official” pastors to come and share communion — is one worth celebrating.
Particularly, because there are some land mine-like grudges between congregations in the same city (often within blocks of each other) that often stem from the language differences of the early worshipers and their painful journey that led some congregations to begin services in English and others to continue/begin worshiping in the native tongue of their members.
Yet, in my American Lutheranism class at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, I remember how amazed I was to learn about the brand of Lutheranism that originated in Pennsylvania, the pioneer congregations that were all black and the many other diverse ways that Lutheranism traveled to America.
Not only have Lutherans in America celebrated many traditional ways to live Lutheran, but we have always been diverse.
Though often painted as shallow Christians more concerned with cultural differences than the heart of worship, American Lutherans are probably more likely to leave their congregation over concern that the hymnal cover has changed colors than because of issues about sexuality.
Lutheran theology simultaneously unites us and causes some of our greatest disagreements.
If there is anything we can learn from the history of American Lutheranism, it ought to be that we must not try and separate ourselves or call for a single way to preach, worship, make music, bind our conscience or to vote.
Rather we should honor the diversity of the many strands and traditions that, when woven together, make a much stronger cord linking us back to those great reformers of the past who were just as incorrigible, motley, sinful and full of assuredness about where they stood and their inability to conform, refrain or change their course.
American Lutheranism is as diverse as every American that identifies as Lutheran.
May your faith light the sky like fireworks in deepest darkness.
May your life inspire others to do justice.
May we all learn to sing together with unity of spirit, truly experiencing God in the vibrating of our throats, filling of our lungs and in the fullness of our lives.
And may the ways we speak about American Lutheranism enfold you and the great multitude of believers throughout the ages who did their best and encourage us to do ours.
Megan M. Rohrer is an ELCA pastor called by five congregations and has been a missionary to the homeless in San Francisco since 2002.