Sunday, August 20, 2006

Perverse Lutheran

I've been posting to this blog on and off for about six months. It's time to write about the title.

First, the story: I was editing copy for some publicity material for my church. The copy included a three-part trinitarian statement of what the congregation believed about an important facet of its ministry. The language was a little overblown and a bit dated, and the origins of the statement were uncertain, and this led me to ask some questions, via email, of our pastors and two other congregational leaders.

I knew I was being a pain in the butt. I was supposed to be finishing the publicity brochure, not questioning essentials, much less asking whether the essentials were truly essential. But hey, I believe that words should be carefully chosen, because someday, someone is going to take them to mean exactly what they say. Graphic designers who say they know, because they prepare lots of printed material, tell me that nobody reads all that grey type. But this does not dissuade me from considering how specific words will be read by the various individuals who encounter them.

In sending these essential questions around, I did what I often do when I'm afraid that being too smart and too critical is going to make me unpopular: I added humor. Ingratiating, self-mocking humor. The idea is that if I can let you know that I know I'm being a pain, maybe you won't hate me.

So the email went out with a subject line that read "Questions from a perverse Lutheran" and an introductory paragraph that turned the refrain in Luther's Small Catechism "This is most certainly true" into a question--"Is this most certainly true?"

The questions I asked did not get resolved. They were good questions, but were postponed to a vague group process in the vague future. But this was not the end of the Perverse Lutheran. When all the emailing was done and we were all politely acknowledging and thanking each other, one person wrote to me, "I like questions from a perverse Lutheran. It sounds like the title for a blog."


I had hoped to be clever in this blog, to turn established thinking on its ear and have fun upsetting whatever monuments of Lutheranism, substantial and otherwise, seemed ripe for the picking. I hoped to write quickly and casually enough that mixed metaphors (refer to the previous sentence) flew by uncorrected by self-editing. I saw myself writing more from the head than the heart, attempting to razzle-dazzle 'em, rather than play on their emotions..

It hasn't turned out that way. (Perverse, huh?) So many questions come from the heart, not the intellect. The head gets involved when something doesn't feel right in the gut. The brain, with its creeping branches of neurons, tries to organize our visceral reactions. It is the higher organ. It likes to think it's on a journey that makes sense, that follows a discernible path, that has a goal. We need this kind of understanding, but . . ..

Too often, in religious thinking, the head's efforts to explain life and speak for God produce answers that defy or deny the heart's reality. Received religion may tell the believer's heart what it should be feeling or what it should give up and confess, shamed by God's goodness and power. The Lutheranism of my chilldhood did this. It was "stiff upper lip" Lutheranism, the kind where you said, I have faith, I can face anything, and then worried that something would happen one day that would reveal your cowardice and the whole Christian community would know that your faith was not strong at all and that you weren't worthy to be called Christian.

I try not to tell my heart all the time that it is wrong. This makes my troubles more complicated. (The Complicated Lutheran--that would be another great name for a blog.) But it recognizes that much of what the head is doing, even sometimes its most rational thought, is just an attempt to make sense of the feelings that begin in the gut or the brainstem or what we call the heart. This is not all that perverse an idea for a Lutheran. Luther's great drive to proclaim the gospel came from his own gut-wrenching experience of feeling guilty before God.

Faith, to me, is not about trying to be good. It is about seeking, speaking, testing, and feeling truth.

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