Picking up on a thread — more like an internal dialog — that started last month when I was reading a copy of James Hazelwood’s new book, Everyday Spirituality, in the doctor’s office. Hazelwood is the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s New England Synod, and he had some interesting things to say about the Epistle of James — a book that gives many Lutherans the blue willies.

So I put up some notes and quotes on the blog, under a headline that started “Theology, shmeology …” — intending to get back to it. Of course that never happened. So I’m coming back to it now.

In the meantime, some other things came up, and I’m coming back to it with new eyes.

Luther’s problem with James, to oversimplify it a bit, was that it conflicted with his theology. James proclaims that faith without works is dead. Luther says faith alone, through the unmerited grace of God, is enough for salvation. Sola fide. Sola gratia. Et cetera, to use another Latin phrase.

Pretty heady stuff to be reading in a doctor’s office!

Bishop Hazelwood says Luther’s emphasis on individual salvation spoke to people of his time, the 16th century, but James might also have something to say to our century, the 21st. “In our era, we ask a different question,” says Hazelwood. “We wonder about more earthly matters. How can we make a difference? Is our lifestyle sustainable for the planet? What is my purpose here?”

That’s about where I got to when the doctor was ready to see me, and I put the book away. We chatted through the med check, did some bloodwork and I was free to go.

That night I did a Google search and found a commentary on Luther Seminary’s Working Preacher website. It was by Craig R. Koester, a professor of New Testament at Luther, and in so many words it says both James and Luther are right: Faith is everything, but faith is more than “a simple series of truth claims.” It requires action. “People might say they believe one thing and yet do something completely different,” Koester explains. “Therefore, James will insist that true faith is whatever is actually operative in your life. Faith that is not active is not faith at all. And in this, James agrees with both Paul … and Luther.”

In other words, and I’m paraphrasing very loosely here, both James and Luther say to get crackin’.

So I put my notes up on the blog, and promptly forgot about them. If good intentions aren’t active, if they aren’t actually operative in one’s life, like Craig Koester of Luther Seminary suggests, they aren’t much good at all. But I got busy with other things.

One of those things I got busy with was a followup on that labwork in the doctor’s office. My white cell count was a little elevated. Nothing to worry about, they said, but they made an appointment with a hematologist-oncologist. So when I got on Google and found out what an oncologist does, I got nervous.

So let’s just say, without trying to be too dramatic about it, I had one of those moments when you consider what you want to do with your life and how much time you have left to do it in. To paraphrase James, Luther and professor Koester again, it’s time to get crackin’.

And one of those things I’ve always wanted to do is to write a book. But I put it off from year to year when I was churning out newspaper copy, and later as a teacher when the only writing I ever did was in the margins of student papers. Be specific — circles around incorrect punctuation marks — What’s your thesis? Be specific. And then, when I retired, I was going to write a book.

But the book turned into articles on 19th-century camp meetings, traditional music and, increasingly, Swedish immigration. And then, after the 2016 election, it turned into arguments with total strangers on social media about snowflakes, libtards and the latest antics of the president of the United States.

But I still want to write a book. At least to get my research project about Swedish-American church history off the back burner.

Turned out James Hazelwood has something to say about that, too.

As Hazelwood tells the story in an online introduction to Everyday Spirituality, he had a book in mind, too, and “[n]ew topics and chapter titles kept bursting forth in my dreams, in my ruminations and readings.” Sounds familiar. But he was stopped short by “that voice inside my head, the nagging voice of self-doubt” — Hazelwood has a name for the voice: “Earnst. As in earnest, as in you’ve got to earn every single thing in life, including grace. Earnst … is the ultimate party pooper.” That sounds familiar, too.

Then in 2019 Hazlewood decided he was turning 60, time was running out and he’d better get cracking on the book.

“Time is no longer my friend,” he explains. “I’ve got things I’ve always wanted to do, but have put them off because, well, I had time. So despite Earnst and his ever-present voice, I was going to get this book written.”

So, to make a long story short, he finished it in October.

Maybe it’s like faith. Remember what the guy at Luther Seminary said? Faith isn’t just about what you believe, it’s about what you do. Like writing a book when you’re in your 70s and time is running out. Time, paraphrasing Hazelwood again, to get crackin’.

That wasn’t the only thing on my mind when I went to see the guy in the hematology-oncology department at St. John’s. Let’s say I had also rediscovered the spiritual practice of intercessory prayer (which I like to refer to sometimes as Emergency Room spirituality) about the time I looked up what oncology is all about. And I had been making promises, one of which had to do with starting back to work on Swedish-American immigration.

Time, in other words, to get crackin’.

Well, as it turned out, they drew some more blood; the doctor looked at the numbers, rummaged around in my online medical records and announced my white cell count was back to normal and I was in the clear. It felt like a reprieve, and on the way out I remembered my promise and Bishop Hazelwood’s story about how he found the grit to sit down and write his book. It was somewhere between a gentle, gracious reminder and a kick in the pants.

Yep, you guessed it: Time to get crackin’.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but right after Christmas I picked up where I’d left off on the research into Swedish-American history, and I’m still plugging away at it a month later.

Then at the first of the year, I looked up the call for papers for an Illinois history conference to be held here in town — at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — in the fall. So I’m back to reading, looking over the drafts I started earlier, posting notes to my research blog and, in general, starting to pull together a proposal.

It’s bad luck to talk about books — and articles — you haven’t written yet. Bad psychology, too, because the more you talk, the less you write.

But I did post to the blog a bit of Christmas day journaling that gives some of the conceptual framework. I it headlined “Ebenezer Scrooge, Luther’s sermons and Swedish -American history: A New Year’s resolution (of sorts).” With some light editing and judicious pruning, here it is:

***

… Luther’s sermons, or postils, which were commonly read aloud in immigrant congregations in the absence of an ordained pastor, were strongly at variance with the prevailing American orthodoxy of predestination, conversion and election. In a passage in a Christmas sermon he delivered in 1534 that’s especially clear in its implications, Luther said by grace sinners are “received into citizenship of the dear angels” who proclaimed the good news to the shepherds in Bethlehem:

They, the dear angels, … do not say: I do not like this sinner, this stinking corpse, these condemned, unclean whoremongers and profligates. No, they do not say thus; but they rejoice heartily that they now have such sinners for friends and associates, and praise God for this, that we, being delivered from sin, come with them into one house and under one Lord. 

That’s about as far as you can get from the fire-and-brimstone, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God theology of 19th-century American camp meetings — even though I think it’s fair to say, especially with 150 years’ hindsight, many of the 21st-century heirs of Calvin and Luther have ended up in pretty much the same place: Love God, love your neighbor. …

Especially at a time when white evangelical Protestants seek to impose their values on on a diverse, secular nation and America — at least the current American government — has turned its back on immigrants and its heritage as an immigrant society, I believe these things have resonance. A historical article or two might be a worthwhile addition to the debate.

All of that comes later, though.

For now, it’s a matter of sitting down, getting off Facebook for a minute or two, outlining, drafting, seeing what happens when I actually start putting words on paper (OK, OK, pixels up on a screen). …

***

In other words, it’s time to get crackin’.

2 thoughts on “Theology, shmeology — take 2: When is an answered prayer like a kick in the pants?

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