Formed for the Ethical Life

Imagine a man who joined the Marines right out of high school.  Let’s say he served 10 years before leaving the military to go to college and get a job in the business world.  You can imagine how, even years out of the military, his military formation continues to shape the way he views the world and his place in it.  Perhaps he still rises early, and makes his bed with precision.  Perhaps his shoes are always shined, and his dress formal and respectful.  Perhaps he shows great loyalty to his company, and to his boss.  Perhaps he is diligent in the tasks that are assigned him, doing what is asked of him without question.

Now imagine a woman who has gone to church all her life.  Let’s say she was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and even continued attending through her college years.  Can you also imagine how, now that she is on her own, working as a teacher, or a lawyer, or a nurse, her ecclesial formation continues to shape the way she views the world and her place in it?  Somehow, it’s not as easy. 

This is exactly the question my students and I were discussing in class on Wednesday.  As the conversation progressed, we quickly realized that while we have rich and profound theological language to describe, for example, the significance of the sacraments for human existence in general, and the importance of the repetition in the liturgy for inculcating particular ideas and images about God, we do not have such precise, compelling language for how those things make a concrete, specific difference for our ethical life in the world.  We were all in firm agreement that they do—we believe in the value of the formation that happens each Sunday [and beyond] in church—but it was much more difficult for us to explain exactly what that looks like in practice, especially when trying to talk about it to someone new to the faith.

I have continued to think about this question, and the one thing that is clear to me is that Lutherans need to work much harder and much more intentionally on emphasizing the connection between theology and ethics.  By that, I mean stating explicitly the relevance of all the important theological statements we make each Sunday in both our words and actions for the quotidian ins and outs of life outside the walls of the church, where we make a variety of ethical decisions big and small every day.

At the same time, however, I did think of an example that seems to really epitomize the best of what this connection can and should look like in real life.  I have a good friend who is the best hostess I have ever met:  she is a great cook, she loves people, and she throws a fabulous party.  But more than that, she embodies the Christian value of hospitality better than anyone I have ever known.  She is always on the lookout for the newcomer in our midst:  Has anyone welcomed him with a meal?  Has he been included in community gatherings?  Has he been introduced to others and invited to fellowship events?  She seeks out the stranger, the outsider, the person who sometimes gets overlooked, and intentionally invites them to her home to eat, to stay, to visit, to talk.  She personifies what it means to be welcoming, gracious and hospitable to everyone, not just insiders, friends, and neighbors. 

Now, observing this behavior, I am going to venture to guess that her embodiment of this core Christian value has been nurtured and shaped by her life-long, robust participation in the Lutheran Church—both domestically and globally.  To me, at least, it sure feels like her practice of hospitality stems directly from her understanding of Jesus’ own life and ministry, her appreciation of the church’s own hospitable table fellowship in the Eucharist, and even her participation in more coffee hours, Lenten suppers, and potlucks than she probably cares to remember. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in addition to her Sunday morning regular church attendance, she rarely misses daily chapel.  It’s all connected.

So, I continue to think about what my church attendance, my participation in the larger life of the church, and the nourishment that comes through Word and Sacrament mean for my ethical life; and I continue to think about how I can help others think constructively about these questions, too.  If people come to church without a sense of how the gospel we proclaim makes a difference for how they conduct their business, raise their families, spend their money, engage in our political system, treat both friend and stranger, well, we’re not doing something right.

In the meantime, I’ll be grateful for the example of my friend, and seek ways that I can be a good example for others myself.