Twenty years ago I watched bishops pour three pitchers of water into a large bowl as the life streams of three churches flowed together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That water came from rivers whose waters carried Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, Finns and several other nationalities into the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
The water in that bowl at the ELCA Constituting Convention was clear and sparkling, representing the font of God’s baptismal grace that would create, nourish and sustain the “new” Lutheran church.
God’s grace has indeed flowed from that font for the past 20 years as the members of the ELCA have worshiped God, proclaimed the gospel, shared one another’s joys and sorrows, and served the world in thousands of ways.
In those 20 years, the ELCA has expanded its ecumenical commitments remarkably, forging closer ties with both Protestant and Roman Catholic church bodies. Its educational institutions and social service agencies have brought Lutheran scholarship into the academic world and loving care to people in need. Millions of people in thousands of parishes have had their vision of the church expanded as we moved out of ethnic enclaves into a more inclusive fellowship of baptized Christians.
While the water of baptism remains clear and sparkling, the seas we sail in our daily lives together are sometimes dark and stormy. Not all ELCA members have been happy with our ecumenical commitments or with the ways we have engaged the world and its challenges.
At 20 years of age, the ELCA is a young adult. It is “grown-up” but not yet mature. Moving out of the homes where we were raised, we aren’t always sure what to take with us or what to leave behind. One brother complains that we are dishonoring our parents, though a favorite aunt cheers us on in our new life. That’s the way it is in families: generations rarely understand each other—at first.
When the ELCA Churchwide Assembly convened in Chicago this August, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents sang and prayed and ate together like families do when they gather on special occasions. We also argued a little, and worried that some parts of the family were drifting away.
I often think of that huge font of clear water that symbolized our “new” Lutheran church at our constituting convention. I wish more people had seen it and experienced the joy and optimism of that day.
I like to imagine the water from that bowl making its way into the baptismal fonts of the more than 10,400 ELCA congregations. It bothers me that some only watch from afar and never dip their hands into that water as those of us who were there in 1987 did. We seem to have some family members who want to stay away from our picnics and anniversaries.
But good families grow together more often than they fall apart. Because the ELCA is founded in the waters of baptism—waters that flowed into that bowl 20 years ago—I believe God intends it to be a good family.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers