My Theology

ExPluribusUnum, or "one from many", is the Shortest Way to Describe My Theology.

I believe that we are all mere human beings trying to make sense of our existence; so we should keep that in mind when we interact with one another. We are one people, composed of many persons. "God" is found in the love we share. The only way to get to that holy place is to practice more love!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Palm Sunday in the ELCA

Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, I attended a service at a Lutheran Church for the baptism of my partner's and my newest nephew. Over the years that I have been with my partner I have changed a lot, and my feelings about Christianity have evolved and broadened. Still, the only times I set foot in Christian churches for a service over the past decade have been for weddings, funerals, and for the past eight Christmas Eves with my partner's family at their Lutheran Church. Every year, my internal dialog leading into Christmas revolves around whether or not to take communion. So far, my resolve has been not to participate, both because I respect the rite for what it means to the community in which I am a guest, and also because I respect that the rite in that format doesn't mean much to me. After all this time, I figure that folks in the congregation have grown accustomed to my stepping aside and observing while they line up rather than joining them up at the altar. Going to a service, in the daylight, at the start of the holiest week in the Christian liturgical year...that was going to be something different altogether!

Except, that it wasn't. Despite my admittedly small anxiety over the question of communion, I wondered what my reaction would be to doctrine around the last few days of Jesus' life and his pending resurrection. I wondered what my reaction would be to the sacrament of baptism, understood in most Christian communities as an initiation into the Christian fold. Would I bristle at the exclusivity of it all? Would I find the tone of the service arrogant and condescending? Would I hold my breath and pray for it to be over so we could take pictures and go back to the farm for lunch with family?

No. None of that happened. In fact, I was actually very pleased with the whole experience. The people were warm and welcoming, as they always have been. The hymn tunes, for the most part, were familiar and comforting. The scripture reading from Isaiah spoke to me, and the gospel reading was touching, if somber. The baby was ever so peaceful and neither cried nor woke during the baptism service. Included in the time for intercessory prayer were words of inclusion which, while affirming the primacy of Christ for the congregation at hand, yet still honored and respected people of differing belief! I was amazed and pleased. And, though I'm not sure of the exact reason (perhaps because of the quiet tenor of anticipation during Holy Week), there was no communion!

As they say in the United Church of Christ, God is still speaking! And I am indeed pleased with strides made of late in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), specifically with regard to attitudes on human sexuality. My assumptions about what Christianity is are biased by my experience of what it has been, and are crumbling in the face of what it is becoming - which is ever-more inclusive and tolerant of diversity, at least in certain corners of the United States.

Here's what I was confronted with on Sunday:
Isaiah 50:4-9(a) {NRSV}
The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty? 
I listened to the reader, and I heard the still, small voice within me say "God has a use for you". I felt like, yeah, maybe one day I will actually go to seminary. I thought of all the bad experiences I had in the past and into the present with those who profess the love of God while inflicting spiritual harm on anyone who is different than they are, and I heard "you are a child of God, do not be ashamed". I heard the foreshadowing of "they know not what they do", and while I began to feel pity for people who claim Christianity yet do not follow Jesus' command to love, I realized that those pitiful people were not the ones with whom I was worshiping. No, these people were a community of people striving together, struggling together, to be the best people that they could be. These people were Christians the way God intends Christians to be. It was a revelatory moment for me, hearing the scripture read in this context. It wasn't until later that I discovered that, at least according to the program insert provided by the ELCA, these words of the prophet Isaiah were seen as predicting the Messiah and were to be read as though Jesus said them. No matter. God was still speaking through Isaiah's words, and I heard what God wanted to say to me, in my heart.

Later, toward the end of the baptism portion of the service, came the intercessory prayers:

Returning to the Lord with all our heart, let us pray for the whole people of God, the earth, and all who cry out for healing.

{A brief silence.}

Form in the church the mind of Christ, that we may empty ourselves for the sake of the world you love. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Open the ears of civil authorities, that they may hear the voices of those facing insult and degradation, and those who cry out for bread and shelter. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Rescue the earth from abuse and pollution, and bring an end to famine, disease, terror, and bloodshed. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Bless the Jewish people as they celebrate Passover, and grant that the religions of the world may grow in mutual understanding and respect. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Draw near to all who feel abandoned, or who face alienation, death, or illness this holy week {prayers inserted here for local community members}. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Teach us to walk the way of the cross, that we may be a community of forgiveness and mercy. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

{Here other intercessions were offered.}

We remember all the martyrs and saints who at death were commended into your merciful hands (especially Oscar Romero). Bring us, with them, to the joy of the resurrection. Hear us, O God.
Your mercy is great.

Hear us according to your steadfast love, O God, and in your great compassion bring us to resurrection and rebirth in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Can you believe it? I hardly could.

At the end of the service, church members came up to this large group of people, mostly out-of-towners just present for the baby's baptism, and sincerely welcomed us, inviting us back for next week's service! The pessimist in me thought "they are a tiny congregation and it must feel nice to have more people present for services", and this is probably true. But the optimist in me thought "these are people of God, behaving in a way that is pleasing to God."

And we all laughed, and smiled, and rejoiced. It didn't hurt that our nephew (like all our other nieces and nephews) is the cutest most adorable most well-behaved kid on the face of the planet*.

*The bias here is all mine, and I'm not ashamed!


Raising Faith said...

Beautiful post. I went to an ELCA service on Ash Wednesday and too was moved, and surprised, by the intercessory prayer offered. (speaking of which, how did you get the words--were they printed in the order of service? I wanted to blog about the prayer, specifically--it was one that could easily and movingly have been offered in a UU church, and I think a lot of my friends and fellow congregants would be shocked to discover that--but it wasn't in the OOS or the Lutheran Book of Worship.)

Anyway, I think they're serious about wanting to welcome you, and to welcome you back . . . at least if having had a similar experience on a different day and in a different church is any indication. I would love to see UU bring in some of the reverence, depth, and celebration that I feel happening in the ELCA now. Oh, and here's hoping that still small voice leads you to Meadville. See you there? :)


Anonymous said...

Beautifully put, as always, Adrian. Thank you!

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