My sojourn in LCMS was influential since those five years included confirmation. There was much I learned that I still value – and I frequently refer back to the notes I dutifully made at the pastor’s instruction in the margins of my Small Catechism. But the experience also placed roadblocks in my faith journey.
As a child, Sundays were spent at church and Sunday school. My father’s family had deep roots in Augustana Synod–including a great-great-grandfather who was a charter member and Dad’s grandfather and uncle. Mom readily converted from Methodism when she married.
When I was an infant, my family moved to northern NJ, where, in the absence of an Augustana presence in our town, we joined a ULCA congregation (later LCA, now ELCA). It was more than a Sunday habit; it was an important community in our life. When I was 10, we moved to another town and joined the only Lutheran church there. It happened to be LCMS. I don’t think my parents were aware at first of how very different LCMS would be. This congregation was large– there were 40 in my confirmation class. It drew from a wide geographical area so we did not see other members outside of Sunday mornings; I know my mother missed the easy camaraderie she had had with our former pastor’s wife, the Altar Guild and the women’s organization. My parents started to be concerned about some of the things we kids would say when we came home from Sunday School or confirmation class—both political conservatism but also religious exclusivism.
While first year confirmation was taught by a vicar/intern, whom we all loved, 2nd year was taught by our pastor. I learned a lot that I still value – those aforementioned notes in the margins for one, but also a strong sense of stewardship (I love when LCMS members join a parish for that reason). On the whole, however, that year was boring and confusing-mostly memorization and listening passively. When someone dared to ask a question, the refrain was usually “You don’t have to understand. Just have faith.” The main lesson I learned was “don’t admit any doubts; you might have to leave.” I didn’t want to risk losing my place in Walther League, but more, I had somehow acquired the notion that LCMS Lutheranism was the one and only key to heaven. I could recite things about justification by faith, but wasn’t sure I could afford to think too much lest I lose that faith.
My parents decided to leave that parish at the start of my 10th grade. They told me I was welcome to continue going there if I wanted, but I would have to find my own rides – not a likely prospect since no one lived nearby–except the pastor himself who lived around the corner. I ended up joining an RCA congregation with the rest of my family; it was within walking distance and I knew many of the youth from school. Needless to say, the LCMS pastor refused to give us a letter of transfer, but the Reformed congregation was not hung up on such matters. My parents were active there until my father’s death and my mother remarried—to an Augustana Lutheran!
In the mid 1960’s,while still at that LCMS parish, I remember hearing that the national LCMS had just decided congregations could allow women to vote in congregational matters; I was not yet conscious of the extent to which women were segregated into some roles and excluded from others in both church and society. Several years later, when other Lutheran bodies made news by removing barriers to women’s ordination that seemed strange. It had never occurred to me that women might sense a call to that ministry. But during my undergraduate years at Yale, I reconnected with my Lutheran roots—still not sure what if anything I believed, but enjoying the modified liturgy and the warm community. And, as I met some of the women in Yale Divinity School and saw some guest preachers in the university chapel, I began to ponder ministry as a direction I might explore. Not sure of my denominational identity, I started at Harvard Divinity School but was again drawn back to Lutheranism through a field ed placement and finished my MDiv at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
As mentioned earlier, my sojourn in LCMS set some roadblocks in my faith journey. Even in the open and questioning Ivy League context, I found it hard to stay engaged in faith questions when something felt over my head or, worse, threatened the literalist version of Bible and religion I had learned in confirmation. (I knew that didn’t work for me, but didn’t know what options were out there.) I went through an Intro to New Testament course in college, but literally repressed much of that information; much later when I glanced at those old course notes, I was shocked to discover I had already learned source theories about synoptics and John, for example, or questions about the Pauline authorship. Finally, I felt safe enough to confront my own questions and doubts — Frank Moore Cross’s work on the first part of Genesis opened up a whole world to me of understanding the interplay between God and human in producing the Bible. Tillich tapped into my undergraduate psychology background and let me look at my old LCMS confirmation notes in a new way. I grew comfortable living with questions instead of feeling the need to have all the answers. The rest, as they say is history. I’ve learned that “you don’t have to understand, have faith” may be an appropriate answer to someone who has already spent time wrestling with questions and life, but it’s not an appropriate starting point for middle schoolers!