Why am I Lutheran?
Kirstin Contreras (pronounced KURS-tin ken-TRE-ruhs) - October 19, 2020
This was the question posed to my husband Dennis, who then passed the question off to me. If you read far enough here, you will get a taste of his answer to (for him) a very personal and serious question. I on the other hand, have a seemingly easy, common answer to give: because I was born into it.
I was baptized at one week old into a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Anchorage, Alaska, along with my childhood best friend, Marta, who was two weeks old. I was told I was born in a snowstorm that March 15th. There was probably still snow on the ground that Sunday, a week later. I imagine my mother in her heels, crossing a parking lot made treacherous by icy spots, me in my father's arms, my 2 year-old brother's hand held tightly in hers. The church was situated in an older neighborhood of a young city- an area that had the colorful name of Bootlegger Cove. You can walk about two blocks from that building to reach a lagoon, barely sheltered from the wind and icy waters of Cook Inlet.
What does it mean to be raised in a Lutheran church, in the Last Frontier? I have cherished memories of our magnificent, loud, pipe organ; of men arriving in their suits each early Sunday morning, shedding their snowy galoshes with their coats and hats in the narthex. It was a building filled with designated spaces: from the choir loft up in the rafters, down carpeted stairs to the basement Fellowship Hall, with its perennial, slight dampness. As a very little person, I was minded in the nursery- dropped off for a spell, my fine hair filled with static from the dry winter air, wearing tights and stiff dress shoes. Then there was the small education wing of classrooms with their accordion wall separators, and as I got older, I was permitted entry into the small Sacristy to put on an acolyte robe.
In the sanctuary growing up, I spent Sunday after Sunday, puzzling over the cloudy, blue and white mosaic behind the cross, as I sat restless in the pews. I later learned that it depicted incense rising to heaven. Before I could read, I'd lie on my stomach with the hymnal open in front of me. I'd pretend to sing along to the hymns, singing Jingle Bells instead. I remember the gradual awakening of my childhood intellect, to where I could and would listen to the sermon. It started to hold a message, even for little me- the peace of the Lord that passes all undestanding, and the promise of the life everlasting. Then at 18, I left that shingles-and-wood stronghold on the edge the cold ocean. I went to a small, Lutheran college, where I took my stabs at independence thousands of miles from home. Life happened. Small tragedies and real hardships, thankfully balanced by abject joy... at least some of the time.
Now as a wife, a mother of two and stepmother to another, I can claim the name of Lifelong Lutheran, even with, in spite of (because of?) some wandering in the wilderness in the interim. I have had the rare chance to humbly bear witness to my husband in this role, who comes from a different faith; we had those boys baptized here at Christ Lutheran Church- the church which warmly welcomed us as a visiting couple, over a decade ago.
Here is the heart of it: the message of Grace by Faith Alone has been with me, ever since I could understand what it meant: that "God loves, forgives, and saves us NOT because of who we are or what we do, but by the work of Jesus Christ." NOTHING I can do can earn me entrance into the kingdom of God. NOTHING I can do can deny me entrance, either. What a relief! It has been done for me already. It is done. God is eternal.
I remember learning about Martin Luther- how he struggled and struggled toward having a perfect heart, a spotless mind, so acutely aware of his gross shortcomings as a mortal man, shortcomings that manifest themselves every passing second. The child version of me latched on to Luther's plight, and his answer. I would protest when feeling criticized, "nobody's perfect!" In the intervening years, I have learned how true that is. It is ONLY God's grace that gives me peace with my imperfections, a peace that quiets the anguish of a turbulent adulthood, that somehow landed me in the shelter of my own family, here in sunny Charlotte.
If I had a scorecard on my job at being a "Good Christian," in a word, I would fail. My knowledge of Bible verse is an ongoing project. I get irritable. I worry. My progress on being a helpful citizen, a good neighbor, and volunteer is as ongoing as my ability to quote scripture. However, lucky me- I was raised in a church that taught me, you are attempting the impossible. Lighten your load. Forgive yourself, as God has forgiven you.
Looking back, I think the finger of God traced the path that led me to my Lutheran college, where suddenly, hilariously, I was surrounded by midwestern kids who were also miraculously Lutheran! When I left it, I realized what a relative haven it was, filled with well-meaning, caring professors, there on the edge of the prairie, perched above the Minnesota River Valley.
That same divine finger seems to have led me the long way, to a marriage of serendipitous, ironic contradiction- where my husband, who with the help of my Lifelong Lutheran-ness, has found similar relief in God's promise of Grace, as preached by the Lutheran church. It will always be a process for him, quieting that voice from the past telling him he is always falling short on his path.
There is an irony: when I despair, me with my imperfect faith, my husband will be the one to remind me where I need to seek my solace. Sometimes I get angry with him when he does this, probably because I know he's right. Then I'm humbled when he is better at this Lutheran thing than I am. Very funny, God! It's a good thing we are not keeping score.
These recent years, I've been grateful to call on that comfort borne of Grace, and offer it as a parent. One of my kids went through a significant period of frustration, self-doubt, and self-criticism. It was so painful to watch, at such a young age, and me with all of that fierce, motherly love. I reminded him over and over: nobody but God is perfect. If we were perfect, we would be God. No one expects you to be perfect. God loves you, I do, too (Amen).