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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

How Wide Are the Fences?

I have pictures of myself from the 1970s wearing a leisure suit. It was, as I recall, burnt orange in color. I had a colorful floral print polyester shirt to go with it and a really natty wide white belt and white shoes and classy looking very long sideburns. At the time I thought I looked great. Forty years later I look back and am appalled. (If you haven’t had that experience yet, be patient. You will. I have one word for you: Tattoos.)

About that time I was teaching confirmation using a curriculum produced by “the church” that today I would consider the equivalent of a leisure suit. I am embarrassed by some of the materials we were using then. But I remember one truly excellent lesson.

At the beginning of the chapter there were two pictures. One picture showed a man in a black suit standing in a grave. He could barely move. The other picture was of some beautiful horses running free in a fenced-in field. The topic of the chapter was confessionalism. How do you experience the confessions of the church? Does it feel like you are in a grave with no room to move around? Or does it feel like you have the freedom of movement within a fenced-in field? Personally I like to think of the confessional nature of the Lutheran church as setting some limits, but also giving a good deal of freedom of movement within the fences. I am wary of those who are ready to define “Lutheran” narrowly.

Every year some interns have the challenging experience of going out to serve in congregations that represent a very different kind of Lutheranism than they have previously experienced. High liturgy people find themselves getting acquainted with praise bands, while lifelong praise band people enter the world of chasubles and incense. Every now and then an intern will wonder if this congregation, this supervisor, is “really Lutheran.” After all, they don’t see things the same way that old home congregation or that beloved seminary professor saw things.

Seems to me that what said intern is experiencing might just be a Lutheranism that is more at home in a different part of that large fenced-in field than said intern has visited previously. It also seems to me that this is a healthy experience and a wonderful learning opportunity. Some of our best learning takes place in settings that make us uncomfortable as we deal with people who challenge us.

So if you are an intern feeling a little tense about the Lutheran bona fides of your internship congregation or even your supervisor, lighten up! Lutheran confessionalism is a broad field, and there is room in it for many different expressions of faith within the fences. If somebody tries to narrow your fences, resist!

And no, I will not show you those pictures of me in a leisure suit.

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