I am “pure Swedish”. That’s what my parents used say to us. What they meant was that all four of our grandparents were of Swedish ancestry; three of them were born in Sweden. It also meant that dad grew up speaking Swedish; my parents both attended the same Augustana (Swedish) Lutheran congregation in Illinois; and both graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, a Swedish Lutheran college. Their heritage was a source of identity and pride.
When I met Kristi, she felt it as something different. Sometimes the “pure Swedish” thing came off feeling like a bit of superiority. Was this a suggestion that others were impure? For her, it was personal. Kristi’s ancestors had been in the United States for many generations. Former ethnic identities had long ago lost their significance; her heritage was more blended. Did my family think that being “pure Swedish” was a notch up on everyone else?
I have also come to realize that much of my way of being a Lutheran Christian is mingled with pieces of that cultural heritage. And that is fine; God is always present among us in the specifics of our lives. That Swedish Lutheran heritage has given us “Children of the Heavenly Father” and some really good theologians. Yet, our heritage can get to be a problem when we impose our cultural forms as a requirement on to the faith of others.
Recently, I read “Baptism in Muddy Waters” by Bishop Leila M. Ortiz, a contribution to a 2018 book on global Lutheranism. She is Bishop of The Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the ELCA. She describes herself as mestiza because of her mixed Spanish, African, and indigenous ancestry. She adds that she is also culturally mestiza, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York; and never regarded as “American” enough or Puerto Rican enough by either one. And to add a bit more to the mix, she was formed in the Pentecostal tradition and at age 27 she says she was “liberated by Lutheran theology.”
Bishop Ortiz shares that she has met other women with similar stories. These women now cherish their Lutheran Christian faith, offering them new space to breathe that they did not know before. They hear the promise of the Gospel, not the weight of the law; grace, not guilt or shame; life and promise, not death or damnation. Yet, the challenge for them has been finding ways to embrace the things that they loved from their Pentecostal tradition. They miss exuberant worship, praying out loud together, joyful singing, and even crying. They long for the vibrant and expressive spirituality of their previous church tradition.
Could there be a way to hold different things together and imagine them becoming a new thing? Bishop Ortiz offers the image of the estuary. The estuary is a coastal area where a freshwater river meets the salt-water ocean. Water levels rise and fall with ocean tides and river flooding. This is a place of beginnings and endings. Some plants or animals cannot exist in this difficult environment. And yet, the estuary is home to unique and diverse life forms that exist only here. An estuary is one thing that is, in fact, the coming together of many things.
Bishop Ortiz suggests that the church could be a kind of estuary. This imagery makes me think of Carl and Kelsey Grulke. Kelsey (daughter of Tim and Sue Erickson) grew up at Fjeldberg, formed by what could be described as “traditional” Lutheran practices. Now, she and husband Carl are in Botswana with Lutheran Bible Translators. Daily, they live in the mix of different languages, cultures, nationalities, story-telling practices, religious experiences, social and economic structures. Some of their traditions and practices that they brought with them may not work in this new environment. And yet, what does grow in this new setting will bring diversity, excitement, and life to Christ’s Church.
This blending of languages, cultures, and traditions is not just “over there” in far off places. In recent years roughly half of new ELCA congregations have been among non-European or immigrant communities. Bishop Ortiz reminds us that “more and more of our Lutheran membership will come from various cultural and theological backgrounds, submersion into the estuary is necessary for the growth and edification of our church.”
This is not just about demographics or population trends. It seems that the Holy Spirit is moving here with a type of Pentecost fire; new people, new traditions, new practices, and new words flowing and rising together. The Spirit will give us new eyes to examine and explore the beauty of our own tradition through the experiences and practices of others. The Spirit is doing something among us; and the Church will be better because of it.
Pastor Erick Swanson