A Love and Dear John Letter to the Lutheran Church

“Luther is my Homeboy” shirt, “Lutheran Chick” mug, Luther playmobil toy, and socks saying “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders” on this 499th year of the Reformation…

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a Lutheran colleague’s sister. I drove to the southwest of Wisconsin and was awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. I remember thinking that I’m not surprised that “my people” (Lutheran farmer immigrants) settled there.

There must have been something in the air. I’m still somewhat amazed that that even crossed my mind because as I was leaving the church I stumbled on a display of photos and memorabilia of the original church. There they all were. Maybe 75 Scandinavian farmers from the turn of the century, proudly sitting in front of their beautiful new Lutheran church in their new American home.

I started to cry.

High school me would have been dumbfounded at my reaction. I was never one to be “proud” of my heritage or my Lutheran roots. It seemed like no one even knew what a Lutheran was for most of my American life. And when most of the people you know are either Jewish or Roman Catholic, it doesn’t really cross your mind that your denomination is much more interesting than the color of your hair (of course, some friends loved to make fun of my family’s Christmas tradition of dressing me up like Santa Lucia. I mean, who lights candles and puts them on a child’s head as they pass around cookies???).

That all changed when my family moved to the Lutheran “mother-ship”, Minnesota. For the first time in my life my heritage really meant something. I had “people”. Being Lutheran was cool. I could throw a stone and come across 15 different churches with totally different approaches to being Lutheran…and I fell in love with my church, with my heritage, and with my faith.

I was surprised that that’s what my faith became…something not about me at all. It became about my family. It became about something so much bigger than my ups and downs. I would hear about Middle Eastern Christianity and how their faith is about their community, never about themselves – and I felt like I had a glimmer into that feeling of being a part of something bigger.

Honestly, that’s why I think I can’t leave. Even those years that I actively tried to leave because I was in so much pain. That connection deep down to my roots, my DNA, prevented me.

There are times that I’m jealous of people’s ability to come and go through churches by how they are or are not fed. However, there are times that I’m sad that people don’t have this connection to the church. Any church.

It’s deep. It’s raw. It’s painful. I hate it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I would pay money to be set free. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Recently there has been a really important movement. The #decolonizeLutheranism movement.

Every time it shows up on my Facebook feed, I have to admit that I’m a little ashamed that the way to my deep faith and Lutheran identity, is the very way that isolates so many and makes people leave the very church that I love so much.

Has anyone else felt that way on the topic?

I think my church has an insane amount to offer people. I want people to love it. Even those years that I hated it, I still defended it. I can’t even recall how often I thought to myself, “why are you getting so defensive?” when people put it down.

I desperately want my kid (maybe one day, children) to love this church. To love his “people”. To claim his Lutheran identity as something to be proud of. To drag around my “Lake Wobegon” tote bag while wearing his Norwegian sweater and signing a letter with his commemorative LWF pen.

But I’m realizing more and more that that’s a problem.

The Lutheran Church isn’t a church that is supposed to be about claiming my German or Scandinavian roots and the lived faith that that theological marriage bred. It’s a church of the world that should be accessible and welcoming to people from Guatemala to India to Detroit.

I’ve visited churches that revolved around a nationality. The Roman Catholic Church that I fell in love with was very much Irish. But no matter how much I loved it, because I wasn’t Irish, I was always kept at arm’s length. I could never really fully be a part of that church. I don’t want that for other people even though that system admittedly worked for me.

I’m grateful for my journey. The faith journey that leads me to be so connected to my church that I cry at the sight of Lutherans more than 100 years ago. A faith journey that has me walking into churches from those in the farmlands of Wisconsin to the corners of Jerusalem knowing that they are mine – that I am a part of many many many saints. I wish this for other people, but to do that I need to start a different journey of letting my church go a little and hoping that it’s strong enough for a multitude of other people to catch it and make it theirs.

Whatever that looks like.