Last week I got to go to the Celebration of Biblical Preaching (#cpb2013), an annual conference at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Were there celebratory balloons? Dancing? No, but there were a lot of great people and ideas swarming around, bouncing off one another. So, intellectual dancing? Let’s just end that metaphor there.
Anyway, I had a great time. So over the next three days I’ll be reflecting on three major take-away’s; things that are still resonating with me a week later. Nothing mind-shattering – I mean, it’s SUPER MIND-SHATTERING!! Anyway, I hope its a fun chance to reflect on a “continuing education” experience and maybe even commiserate with other recent higher education graduates who are sometimes (all the time) starving for intellectual stimulation. So, what did I learn?
Take-away #1: Lutherans need to get over their fear of works righteousness.
Now, I totally respect these theologians. But the views that surfaced got my wheels churning on a pervasive cultural slogan that Lutherans love to bash on, for lack of a better term.
On Monday night David Lose, Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren had a “Conversation on ‘The Future of the Church'” (Public was invited). At one point Lose mentioned that he and his family decided to have his son participate in swimming instead of confirmation, both being Wednesday evening learning experiences. Lose said it made his son feel stronger, more confident in his swimming skills, etc.
Brian McLaren asked, (paraphrased) “What would happen if church was like that? Two hours later after the experience, everyone walking out of the church would say ‘I felt stronger in this ______ way; my skill in _______ was strengthened; as I follow Jesus, my walk has been sharpened/clarified in this _______ way.'” To this, Lose responded, jokingly, “Some might think that’s works righteousness!”
We all laughed. In a terrified I-hope-he’s-not-right kind of way.
McLaren pushed it. He cited the three biggest churches in Louisiana and Texas to make the point that whoever checked the box “Yes, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 is operational and probably won’t cause a massive oil spill in a few days!” probably lived in Louisiana or Texas. McLaren wondered that perhaps churches in that area failed its people by not preaching that being Christian is all about loving your neighbor and Jesus, serving your neighbor, keeping yourself and your neighbor accountable, understanding that creation is God’s, not ours, and a gift we’ve been entrusted with our vocations. Preaching, for McLaren, has real-life consequences. The way we frame our theological perspective on the world, on the way and things we teach, on our preaching, on our actions – these things have real-life consequences.
Lose mentioned “works righteousness,” which is a church-y phrase that means the good deeds (“good works”) you do in the world will be rewarded with salvation by God. Lutherans are quick to point out: the assumption underlying “works righteousness” is that you are the master of your fate – because if you choose to do good things, you are choosing to be saved by God. Yay! If only it was that simple.
This assumption rubs Lutherans the wrong way because works righteousness stomps on the idea that salvation is the work of God, not the work of people or things. Most Lutherans believe that “being saved” has nothing to do with our good works or good deeds, but has everything to do with God’s undeserving, mysterious grace coming to us through the person of Jesus (and the world).
McLaren is suggesting in his comment that churches should teach/facilitate how people understand the Christian walk of love, humility, justice and community in a measurable way (so things like the oil spill won’t happen or at least their severity will be lessened). This “teach/facilitate”, to some, might look like “good deeds” that a “works righteousness” perspective requires. Do you see how Lutherans might be nervous about McLaren’s idea, even though it is for the sake of the world?
Yes, his idea risks the assumption that the Christian walk could look like works righteousness. But I would rather risk looking like I’m all about works righteousness than letting myself be paralyzed by fear and not contribute to the common good at all, and worried I’m “doing theology wrong” or “doing preaching wrong”. Maybe God’s grace is far-reaching to even cover that risk, because even in 2013, in the midst of a government shut-down, in the midst of an ecological crisis, in the midst of one of the most medicated ages the US has ever seen (yes, I cited Oprah) – Lutheran churches especially (which are people, not buildings, people) need to start preaching and living in the world through a loving, theological lens in a more intentional way that acknowledges “Yes, our work has real-life consequences! No, we are not doing it to be saved in the future – but at least we’re lending a helping hand today!”
Maybe I’m being too direct and dramatic. I don’t think Lose and other Lutheran thinkers are frozen in action. But I think there is an element of frozen-ness in Lutheran circles, avoiding anything that so much as reeks of works righteousness. I really think we are at too ripe an age to be paralyzed by the fear of looking like we’re doing works righteousness and abstaining from sharing what it means to live in the world as a Christian for the sake of the world. If this risks looking like “works righteousness,” then that’s what it looks like. Why do we care so much about what other people think anyway?
I’m not sure if anyone else thinks about this Lutheran culture of avoiding “works righteousness” to the point of inaction. Is there a risk of appearing to do works for the sake of becoming saved, even if it is for the sake of the world?