As a child I was taught to be deeply suspicious of liturgical churches. Both my parents are cradle Catholics who became charismatic evangelicals during their courtship. So, because most of our family on both sides remained Catholic, I was regularly exposed to a historic liturgy by attending baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
When it came time for the sacrament, my six siblings and I sat quietly in the pew as my parents had instructed, instead of filing up to the front of the church with our extended family and their fellow congregants. I remember piously congratulating myself that we were not “religious” like our Catholic family and friends, those poor, misguided souls who only had boring old hymns to sing instead of exciting 1960s-style rock ballads.
You see, we believed in the freedom of the Spirit, not a dead, dry, formal religion. In our churches, people danced, fell down, and raised their hands, and you could never tell how long the service would be. It was all up to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes he would keep us there all day.
This is how I thought as a child, but as I grew older, things got more complicated. Underlying all the religious excitement was a deep restlessness. Our churches were fractious because people came precisely to feel a spiritual high. Once they got their hit, they moved on. We began to attend churches in bursts, floating here and there for a few years or even months at a time. It unsettled me. I wanted a spiritual home. Life was unstable enough to transfer that instability to the one domain that ought to offer eternal surety.
The religious enthusiasm also weighed on me. I felt emotionally manipulated by my peers, family, pastors, and other religious leaders. Why should my feelings be the standard by which to measure God’s presence, let alone truth? How was it just to imply that a person with a quieter, less suggestible personality is less affected by God “moving” (whatever that means)?
Desperate for spiritual highs, my family and many of our friends made regular pilgrimages to “revivals” across North America—places the Spirit had gone, I guess, because he apparently wasn’t with us all the time. Or at least not with us all the way all the time. We were to believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to us directly with personal advice, like a sort of combined personal therapist and horoscope reader.
People who couldn’t make sense of these insults to God’s character were considered lower forms of Christians—not openly, of course, but all by suggestion and implication. It was the logical conclusion of their thoughtworld. It led to absurd things like people insisting God had “told them” to do things like wear two different colors of socks or send money to this particular preacher. More darkly, it caused people to despair of salvation or God’s love because they didn’t feel forgiven or couldn’t rid themselves of besetting sins.
In college this kind of emotional manipulation and doublespeak began to weigh on me more deeply. I started to compare what the charismatics said with what the Bible says, and the charismatics kept coming up short. They seemed to ignore or explain away big chunks of the Bible, such as commandments to attend church and beware of false prophets. Why were we focusing so much on “saving the world for Christ” when the church couldn’t even save its own children for Christ? As churches focused more and more on emotional appeals and fund drives for “reaching the lost,” their congregants’ own children were losing their faith. I watched it happen to scores of my own friends. How, I wondered, could these folks “save the lost” in Africa or Detroit when they couldn’t even save the lost in their own pews?
Providentially, I landed at one of the few good colleges left, so as I filled in more knowledge about world history I became enthralled with the beauty of old things, with the sense of belonging one can develop by joining a specific set of traditions people have been preserving for centuries. It was a comfort to someone who felt spiritually homeless. College opened the wonders of history to me for the first time, and this deepened my love of and desire to know the church’s heritage. For this was—is—my heritage now, too.
Historic churches no longer seemed “religious” and “stuffy”; they seemed beautiful. Their mystery now attracted rather than repelled me. They had a depth I felt I could spend my whole life searching out. So I started to look into specific Christian faith traditions, starting with Catholics. Because of my parents’ hostility to the tradition they’d spurned, I didn’t tell them. I inquired alone.
Even so, my parents shaped my spiritual inquiry by having taught me as a young child to treasure the Bible and trust it as true, every word. Although I wanted very much to connect myself to the historic Christian church, I just couldn’t get over all the things the Catholic Church teaches that aren’t in the Bible. (Sorry, Catholics. Love you anyway.) As fate—or perhaps the Holy Spirit?—would have it, I knew a few conservative Lutherans. One handed me Gene Edward Veith’s “The Spirituality of the Cross.”
After that, it was over. I kept re-reading that thin little book, saying to myself, “But I already believe this! Is this Lutheran?” It took an inquiry class with a local pastor to help get me through infant baptism and the Real Presence, but largely he just had to show me how the Bible says “Baptism now saves you” and “This IS my body.” I was done with people trying to interpret away God’s plain word. He said it. I believe it. The end.
It was a comfort to think that I didn’t have to get a specific “word from God” about every single thing in my life and muddle about in perpetual worry that I could be misunderstanding him and thus accidentally committing colossal, irredeemable blunders. God has already given me all the sure and certain words he thinks I need. On the rest, I’m free to decide what socks I wear, what man I marry, what job offer I’ll accept. What a paradox that accepting limits to God’s words actually creates rather than stifles one’s sense of freedom.
That dear Pastor Roger James confirmed me, and then I was a Lutheran. When I “came out” to my parents, they nearly disowned me. It cost me my wedding, many sleepless nights, and much else. But there, as a confessional Lutheran, I stood. I could do no other.
Perhaps now you can see why the historic liturgy is such a treasure to me, a person who has been fed Christianity broth for most of her life instead of the meat. The Word and Sacrament truly do feed my soul, and their faithful administration according to centuries of Christian tradition protects me from feeling spiritually manipulated again. It’s so important to us that the availability of a church that offers us and our children this feast perpetually was a deciding factor when my husband and I discussed moving from Washington DC to Fort Wayne.
We are blessed beyond measure to attend Redeemer Lutheran Church in downtown Fort Wayne. It’s a singular church within a singular expression of the ancient Christian faith. Praise be to God for taking his spiritually homeless child and giving her a home in his own church, where he feeds her his own precious body and blood for life everlasting.
Joy Pullmann is the managing editor of The Federalist. She lives walking distance from Redeemer Lutheran Church on Rudisill, which she attends with her husband and four children.