Grafted in place

/ 12 April 2019

And here is yet another piece from The Concord, this one from 2014:

I arrived at Luther 14 years ago, fresh PhD degree in hand from a Jesuit university. I wonder sometimes if there could have been a greener prof than me? Those early years are a blur in my memory, as I struggled with my first full time faculty position while parenting two very young children, and while my husband commuted to his job at MIT for most of every week.

Even through the blur, though, I have vivid memories of individual faculty who sought to help me integrate into this place. Most of those faculty are no longer here, for a variety of reasons. Some have retired, others have left, one died. But I needed them desperately, because finding myself in the midst of this community without losing my own identity has not been easy. I was then — and remain – the only Roman Catholic on our faculty.

Actually, when I arrived, I was only the fourth “non-Lutheran” member of a faculty of 46. That means that when I think of my life at Luther, I don’t think so much of what it means to be “rooted,” but rather of what it means to be “grafted” on to something.

I’m not a gardener, but for me the metaphor of grafting means having a fully realized, unique identity which becomes stronger by being joined with a different, fully realized, unique identity. Luther Seminary is rooted in the Lutheran confessions, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it can also be open to the gifts and contributions of other communities.

Grafting doesn’t always work, however, because not every kind of plant can grow off the roots of another plant. Finding adequate nourishment can be difficult, and plant grafts need to be tended carefully to ensure that neither the root stock nor the graft is harmed.

There have been so many people who have helped “tend” me in these ways. I remember Jean Justice, who used to hold a full time position supporting so-called “ecumenical” faculty and students, commenting to me at the end of a chapel service once, “this place has a very high Christology!” and the sheer relief which coursed through me with that simple comment, as she named what had been nagging at my senses.

I remember sitting through a chapel service which commemorated the Reformation by having, instead of a sermon, two people read Martin and Katie Luther’s letters to each other – passages from which condemned the Pope as the “anti-Christ.” It was yet another jarring reminder that this place is not my “root stock,” but rather a place into which I have been grafted.

From the very beginning Dick Nysse mentored me, sharing his deep sense of what it means to be “simul justis et peccata” in the midst of this place, and helping me to feel grounded through connections to my own passion for learning. Gary Simpson also became one of my mentors, translating some of the more challenging elements of Fordean theology into a language I could grasp.

I think the nutrient that has helped my “grafting” the most, however, comes from the deep commitment this place has to biblical engagement. Every time I’m tempted to flee from the difficult complexities of “thinking Catholic” in a Lutheran space, I return to chapel to get grounded in prayer and scripture. There are many a time when I do not resonate with the music, or agree with the preaching, but there is always biblical witness to engage, and the Holy Spirit’s presence in which to abide.

Maybe this is a useful metaphor for Christian community more generally? Clearly there were many, many Gentiles who fell in love with the God of whom Jesus spoke, even though they were not Jewish. Over the centuries some of this grafting has been deeply generative – but there have also been powerfully destructive ways in which Christian communities have sought to eliminate their Jewish roots.

I continue to pray that we might listen carefully for the Spirit in the midst of our diverse selves, and celebrate our differences as a way into deeper engagement with Christ. I don’t think we should fear the grafts, but rather cherish both root stock, and those who are being grafted onto it.