Monday, November 25, 2013

Why do you ask that question?

            “Why do you ask that question?” Probably the most frustrating and liberating question anyone who graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia will ever hear.
            During the second semester of seminary all Lutheran students go through a class called “Lutheran Confessions” taught by Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, or as some people call him Herr Wengert.
            In this class we learned about The Book of Concord, about the historical circumstances surrounding the Lutheran Reformation, and about our own theological assumptions. Dr. Wengert knows The Book of Concord backward and forward, as he should, he and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s scholar Dr. Kolb are the translators of the American edition of the work. Dr. Wengert is like a time machine when it comes to the era of the Lutheran Reformation, he makes it come so alive that you realize the questions and answers of that time were a matter of life and death, and still are today. But the gem of Dr. Wengert’s class was the hour each week when we met with him in small groups and asked him questions about what we’d learned the previous week.
            To every question his initial response was the same, “Why do you ask that question?” And he really meant it, he interrogated where you were coming from with your questions and concerns about the founding theological pieces of Lutheranism. He figures everyone coming into his class is a closet heretic, and by the time you leave his class you still might be a heretic, but you’ll at least know why.
            This self-proclaimed “Theological Doctor House”[1] shaped us profoundly. Initially, we cowered at this question, “Why do you ask that question?” But after at time we realized it was actually a very pastoral question. He was really asking, “What troubles you about the Faith and your experience of it?” It gives the Pastor a context from which to hear, really hear, the concerns of the faithful.

            Why am I bringing this up? Because Herr Wengert has retired… in fact this last Tuesday he gave his final public lecture, on Luther’s tract “Freedom of a Christian.” It was magnificent, with many interesting insights, but I’ll leave you with this one.
            The Freedom of a Christian is like retirement. Dr. Wengert is free from the day to day work of being a Confessions Professor, and therefore able to serve the wider Church by working on new projects he’s put off because of what he had to do and serve his new grandbaby by being a joyful grandfather. Or at he pithily put it, the ELCA’s slogan should be, “God’s Work, Our Hands, So We Don’t Get Bored.”
            “He doesn’t really mean that does he?” You ask.
            “But don’t we have to do something?” You inquire.
            “How can retirement be the whole of a Spiritual Life?” You wonder.

            “Why do you ask that question?” He responds.

[1] The fictional TV Doctor at Plainsboro Medical Center who often heals his patients by nearly killing them.