From Blue Collar Calvinist to Lutheran Pastor: “I’ve Found the Freedom to Love”
My friend, Dwaine Sutherland, was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) this weekend in Minnesota. I’ve known Dwaine for some years and from the first moment I met him in the library of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, I realized, by observing his body language and listening to his Southern accent, that he was not your typical Lutheran. Like me, he has a background in evangelicalism. This is the story of his struggle away from double predestination Calvinism toward becoming a Lutheran pastor. Congrats on your ordination Dwaine! May you be a faithful shepherd of God’s flock.
I have opened many sermons, preaching at congregations that had not met me before, with a humorous, “No I am not from Minnesota”. My southern accent does stand out and it is a novelty for some to hear the liturgy done with a Tennessee country accent. So, how did a small-town Tennessee boy end up as a Lutheran Pastor in the Midwest? I get this question quite often.
It goes deeper than marrying a South Dakota Lutheran lady and us deciding on one congregation for the family. By the time we decided the ELCA Lutheran Church would be the church we would be attending with our growing family, I had already drifted from the church anyway and the choice didn’t seem to matter that much to me at the time. The reason I had drifted from the church provides clues to the question of how I became a Lutheran Pastor.
I grew up in a very conservative evangelical Baptist church. The church consisted of very caring and loving people who took their faith very seriously. I learned to be caring and to love my neighbor. The people who taught me to do this were blue collar folk, work-with-your-hands type people, who would give the shirt off their back and feed you their last meal. This was the blessing I received from this church but there was more to the story.
Before I knew exactly what theology was affecting me in this Baptist church, I knew it was a theology I didn’t agree with. I had many questions and most of them weren’t answered mainly because the adult church leaders did not truly understand these questions themselves. I was either given an answer that didn’t make sense to me or I was told to just have faith. It didn’t settle very well with me.
To explain why I was in disagreement with the answers that my Baptist church provided me with, I must explain something about the theological roots of the evangelical movement that my church belonged to. Many churches in this movement have their roots deep in a Calvinistic belief of predestination. I’m limited in word size here, so, if you want a detailed understanding of Calvinism, you will have to read up on this. It’s not hard to find books on this topic. A simple understanding is that God has predestined all things. God chooses who God chooses, so salvation is predetermined. No one can resist the Holy Spirit once you receive the Spirit. It’s not your choice but you are chosen to be part of the Kingdom of God. This issue has been debated for centuries among theologians.
What did this mean for me when I was young? I can remember one Sunday at church that a very loud thunderstorm rolled through. This is not uncommon in the south. The thunder and lightning were truly giving us a show of the power of our God. I became very afraid because if I’d be struck by lightning before I got back to my parent’s car in time, I might not have salvation. I felt I needed to rededicate my life right there and then. Did I have salvation? Not sure! How many times did I have to rededicate my life to Jesus to ensure I was saved? There’s no way to know.
Calvinism On Steroids
I became wrapped up in this cycle of fear of doing something wrong, of not living my life correctly and consequently being reminded that all I need to do is give my life to Jesus. I realized later in life that this was Calvinism on steroids. After all, God has total control; everything had already been decided. No matter what we do (like me rededicating my life to Jesus again and again) salvation has already been decided.
How is this significant?
When I returned as a veteran from the wars in the Middle East, I found myself in a dark place, people don’t go to war and come back the same. Being forced to see so much pain and anguish there—both in experiencing it and by having to participate in it—comes at a deep spiritual cost. I found myself questioning everything I ever believed in. How could a loving God predestine me and others to deal with such things? Why did we have to make decisions that ought to damn us, having been put in situations where we couldn’t make any possible choice that could be considered righteous? Was I predestined to die and go to hell because God needed a soldier?
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I was at a point where I believed in God. This God, however, was someone who chose to love others; those who would follow the rules. This God had nothing but pain and misery for me. I was beyond angry and so were so many of my peers who have served. We were told all the violence was justified because we were fighting for our country. My conscience, however, told me it is always wrong to harm others. Since these wars, we have 22 veteran suicides a day in America. Of course, Calvinistic theology isn’t to blame for these suicides, but it didn’t leave me with answers either to cope with the war experience. I had simply been predestined to be a soldier unto damnation.
I’ve been told theology doesn’t matter since theology doesn’t bring salvation. But I’ve come to realize that theology does matter. It determines how we see God and consequently explains how we see the Kingdom of God. After the war, I sat down with my Lutheran Pastor who could see through my pain. The short story is that he told me he couldn’t understand what I had dealt with in the war since he had never served. But he also didn’t justify the war experience. God’s plan wasn’t for me to experience such things, he said. However, as I had no choice in what went down there, God forgives me of all sin and calls me one of God’s children. He told me God has freed me to live and to heal. I was destined to die but I was given grace and in this, I could live. While hearing this didn’t cause a bolt of lightning in my life, I understood that I didn’t have to fear.
I’ve heard it say that “do not fear” is mentioned 365 times in the Bible. I haven’t counted myself but I know it is mentioned many times. In the theology that comes with being a Lutheran, I have learned that, yes, I am chosen to be a child of God. We all are. We can’t do anything to earn this as it is given freely to us by a loving God. Can we choose not to accept it? Yes, we can as we have the freedom to make those choices. I can go deeper into the theology behind this, but I need to get to the question of how a Tennessee country boy ended up becoming a Lutheran Pastor in the Midwest.
Theology does matter and there is theology out there that is destructive and harmful. This evangelical Calvinism on steroids I was part of is dangerously destructive and drives the poor in spirit away from God. Most Christians don’t understand the theology that is taught in seminaries today. I’m an egghead theologian who loves Systematic Theology and church history but I understand that most don’t want to listen to the big worded religious language that comes with this.
So, I’ve learned that it isn’t about dumbing it down but putting it in a common language that most can understand. So, I went to seminary in my 50s, learned Greek and Hebrew, systematics, church history and all the other many classes needed to become a Lutheran Pastor. Why? To get the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the world by doing my part in God’s Kingdom. I pray I don’t do harm but teach and live out the compassion of Christ. Part of how I do that is to remember that theology matters. It doesn’t define how God loves me but it explains how I take God’s love to others.
Don’t misunderstand me, I know us Lutherans have some theological issues as well and we aren’t perfect. But in the Lutheran Church, I have found the freedom to live out Christ’s love in God’s Kingdom. Thanks be to God.