Sunday, July 10, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Mullan

(Part five in an ongoing series.)

My lasting impression of today's Lutheran service is that the sermon was, well, quintessentially Lutheran. And that was nice. Even if I'm not exactly a fan of Martin Luther himself, I like being able to step into a place of worship and know precisely where I am simply by the way the place does church. But as old denominations die out, those distinctive characteristics of each one will sadly die with them, potentially leaving behind a Christianity with much less doctrinal direction. 

Before I delve any further into today's service, let me tell you a little bit about Mullan, Idaho. 

This quiet little town, the last one on I-90 before you leave the Silver Valley and cross into Montana, lacks the historical draw of Wallace, the retail destinations of Kellogg or Smelterville, or the tourist attractions of the former two. It was named for Capt. John Mullan Jr., a surveyor and road-builder known in these parts for selecting the course of the first wagon route to cross the Rockies into the Inland Northwest. Mullan today boasts a working mine, an Olympic-size swimming pool that my daughter loves to swim in, and a pretty good burger joint. The drive from Wallace to Mullan is also quite scenic, as the highway twists between tall pine-covered hills along the 9-mile trek.

There's even a curious local landmark along the way: Elmer's Fountain, made from old mining parts and fed by a freshwater source. It looks especially neat in the winter, when ice formations take shape around the still-running water.  

My daughter and I got to Mullan earlier than expected, so we drove around a bit and came across a charming old wood-frame Episcopal church.

St. Andrew's closed way back in 1980, meeting its fate many years before Wallace's Episcopal church ended worship services and became a museum. 

Finally, we parked in front of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, which was our destination for the day. Emmanuel sits at the front end of a cul-de-sac, with the Mullan fire department and city hall sitting behind it, and a monument of Capt. Mullan situated in a landscaped median. 

Inside, we were greeted by Deacon Jeff Arthurs, who's affiliated with Christ the King Lutheran Church in Coeur d'Alene. The deacon runs services here as well as at Bethany Lutheran Church in Osburn, some 13 miles west of Mullan, as neither church has its own pastor. I wanted to talk to him more about that, as it suggests more of the denominational decline I've seen around the Valley, but we had to cut things short when the 9:30 service time rolled around. 

We did, however, touch briefly on the general decline in civic organizations, and he also mentioned that there was a grand total of one person in attendance at Bethany the previous weekend. At least there were around 20 people in the pews today in Mullan, though it's a fairly gray-haired congregation. It felt like a place where Grandma and Grandpa might go on a Sunday, while the kids and grandkids are, for better or worse, off dedicating themselves to other life priorities.

Emmanuel is affiliated with the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, a conservative strand of Lutheranism. I'd never been to an LCMS church before, so I didn't know what to expect from the service. Turns out it was quite structured and liturgical, very similar to a Catholic Mass, complete with hymns at designated times, three scripture readings (Old Testament, epistle, and Gospel), the Nicene Creed (complete with filioque, but with the word "catholic," in the sense of "universal," being replaced by "one holy Christian and apostolic church"), and the Our Father -- but, notably, no communion. The deacon even spoke the words of the sign of the cross, but I was the only one who crossed myself -- with three fingers, left to right, Orthodox syle, but still.

Back when we lived in Washington, I did spend some time in a church that was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which theologically leans far more to the progressive side of the spectrum than the LCMS. That church was led by a female pastor; that wouldn't be possible in an LCMS church, which has held fast to the traditions established by the first Lutherans, from Luther's Small Catechism to the Book of Concord

The solas were also crucial to the first Reformers, perhaps none more so for Luther than sola fide, or the concept of faith alone. The others are sola scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria -- scripture, grace, Christ, and glory to God alone. These principles, the cornerstone of Protestantism, were intended to distinguish Reformation views from the theology of the medieval Catholic church. Without getting into the weeds on a theological dissertation, the emphasis on "alone" in each point signified a determination to simplify the faith that the Reformers thought had become too entangled with the institutional Catholic church and its far-reaching power. The church was unquestionably selling indulgences and engaging in Simony, proof to the Reformers that power corrupts, and when Luther submitted his 95 Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany -- the story of nailing them to the church door is probably apocryphal -- it sparked a religious revolution across Europe.

That's a matter of documented history, and it's incontrovertible. But if you were raised Catholic, as I was, you also learned about Luther's dark side -- in particular his obsessive scrupulosity that had him bringing lists of sins to the confessional, where he would remain for hours daily, confessing the same sins over and over again. He saw no escape from God's wrath and punishment, and he projected his dilemma onto all of humanity, proclaiming that we are all no more than dunghills, foul piles of excrement, that are utterly incapable of ever doing anything good. 

Luther eventually found an escape from his neurotic dilemma through his interpretation of Romans 3:26, where he hit on the idea of justification by faith alone. Suddenly, it didn't matter how sinful he or anyone else was; faith alone would guarantee salvation. This was Luther's get-out-of-jail-free card.

That brings us back to today's sermon. Deacon Jeff said he struggled with what to say about Romans 8:17, where it appears that Paul places a condition on salvation: "Now if we are children, then we are heirs -- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if [my emphasis] indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we might also share in his glory."

So we have to suffer to be saved? Well, Catholics do indeed talk about redemptive suffering, but not as a condition of salvation. And, of course, Christ himself told us to pick up our crosses in imitation of him. But from a Protestant, and especially Lutheran, point of view, anything that suggests putting the onus on us to do something, anything, to "earn" our salvation is an unacceptable reading of scripture -- an idea that goes straight back to scrupulous Martin Luther and his humans as dunghills, incapable of doing good because he thought of himself as such. Indeed, Luther exhorted people to "sin boldly," precisely because he believed that if you simply had faith, it didn't matter how much you sinned, since you can't quit sinning anyway. In my view, this is why there are so many Christians in the world who act so un-Christian: If you get saved regardless of how you live your life, then why would you bother to put in any effort to be a good person?

This is precisely why Luther wanted to expunge James, which he called an "epistle of straw," from the New Testament: James contradicted Luther's view of faith by flatly proclaiming that faith without works is dead. It's not that James mandates a set amount of "good works" as a condition of salvation; it's that authentic faith will demonstrate itself through the good works the faithful do for others. Jesus says as much all throughout the Gospels, from the Sermon on the Mount to the parable of the Good Samaritan to the separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. "Let your light shine before men," Christ says, "that they may see your good works [emphasis mine] and glorify the Father in heaven." Even Paul speaks of the charitable fruits of the spirit that will be evident in all the faithful.

In any event, Deacon Jeff went on to say that the need to suffer as a condition of salvation is the wrong way to understand the passage from Romans. Instead, he said that Christ's paschal sacrifice was an act of suffering for all humanity, one that we could never take on by ourselves because we can't suffer enough to "earn" our salvation. We think "faith alone" sounds too good to be true, the deacon said, and so we tell ourselves we have to do something to earn our way into heaven. Giving Luther the benefit of the doubt for a moment, that was precisely the dilemma he found himself in. That's why I found the sermon today so utterly Lutheran in nature. And as much as I chafe at Luther and the theological ideas that sprang from his personal hang-ups, I wouldn't have it any other way. Driving home sola fide is exactly what I expect to hear in a Lutheran sermon. 

Here's why this matters. If there's a shortcoming among evangelical and "nondenominational" churches, it's that you really don't know what to expect from them, theologically speaking. And that theological amorphousness makes them all somewhat indistinguishable, such that you don't really go to church so much for the theology as for which pastor you like best. There's nothing wrong, in my view, with finding new interpretive angles within scripture, but the lack of a denominational underpinning to guide seekers can lead to a kind of spiritual anarchy where every Christian becomes his own pope. This has always been the Achilles' heel of Protestantism, of course: If there's no central authority to interpret and hand down meanings from scripture, then church bodies will forever splinter into smaller and smaller groups over minute disagreements on what a specific passage means.

The weight of history and tradition that underpins old Christian denominations at least tempers that process, by way of giving folks some idea of what to expect when they enter a church that's labeled Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or what have you. That's a net good, inasmuch as it gives seekers a baseline when they're looking for a church home. And it's a big part of the reason I don't want to see these old traditional churches fade away. 

Maybe their demise is inevitable, given the seismic social shifts we're experiencing. But I hope not.     

No comments:

Post a Comment