Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rostered and Called

Late last month, word came that I am now officially rostered in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a minister of word and sacrament. The Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA has formally called me through its synod council to serve as a professor of theology at Valparaiso University. This call is the culmination of a three-year candidacy process. Back in the fall of 2015, a few months after I had been expelled from the LCMS, I contacted Rev. Heather Apel, assistant to I-K Synod Bishop Gafkjen, to begin a discussion about how I could become rostered in the ELCA. At the time, I told her that I did not want any special treatment and that I wanted to go through all of the steps of the normal process. She and Bishop Gafkjen, along with the I-K Synod candidacy committee, have been very gracious and helpful to me in this time of discernment. Indeed, these three years have allowed me to reflect more deeply on my sense of vocation and the future direction of my service in the ELCA and at Valpo. I'm grateful for the insights I have gained along the way.

This year marks the 90th birthday of my teacher and friend, Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, who is also rostered in the ELCA. He, too, has been a great "encourager" to me (for nearly thirty years!). His little autobiography, By Way of Response (Abingdon, 1981), made a deep impression on me when I first read it as a student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Indeed, it was a key factor in leading me three decades ago this fall to matriculate at the U. of C., where I continued my graduate studies after seminary.

As a part of the ELCA candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. So I've decided to share a portion of that material here and in some future TM posts. Consider these altogether as my own very modest and brief "By Way of Response."

(1) Autobiography. I was born in Salem, Oregon, on 10 September 1962 and baptized twenty days later by my paternal grandfather at St. John Lutheran Church, where he too had been baptized and ordained. At the time, he was serving as St. John’s interim pastor. My paternal uncle, also an LCMS pastor, was one of my sponsors. Twenty-seven years later I would be ordained in this same chancel.
            The main foci of my childhood were my family and its circle of friends, St. John, and the public schools I attended. Despite the severe injuries that my dad received in the Korean War (he was legally blind, partially deaf, and half paralyzed), he worked for thirty-five years at the regional office of State Farm Insurance. My mother was a legal secretary for much of that same period. Our family participated regularly in the divine services at St. John, and my younger sister, brother, and I hardly ever missed Sunday school or the children’s choir. Later we were very active in our church’s high-school youth group. All of these events, and the individuals who led them, deeply shaped my Christian faith and piety.
            In high school I was a member of the German club, the debate team, and the ski club. While some of my teachers encouraged me to think about studying one of the sciences in college, by the age of seven I was already convinced that God wanted me to take the same vocational path as my grandfather and his elder son. Still, the sciences, especially aeronautics and astronomy, have always attracted my curiosity. On clear nights throughout the year I often make time to gaze at the night sky through my telescope.
            In the fall of 1980 I matriculated at Concordia, Portland, a small Lutheran college, where I concentrated on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English literature, among limited extra-curricular opportunities (e.g., student government, drama). While I initially struggled academically, I did pretty well in the final two years and ended up graduating with honors. Several professors helped me to clarify and strengthen my commitment to the vocation of pastor. Two of them have been mentors and close friends ever since then, especially after I joined Concordia’s faculty ten years later.
            Following college, I attended Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the alma mater of my grandfather (class of ‘24) and uncle (class of ’54). Decades earlier it may have been the premiere Lutheran seminary in the country, but all that had changed by mid-1974. My seminary education was thus quite stifling, apart from a few professors. More than once I thought of leaving. Nevertheless, I kept at it, hoping that after those few years of mostly stale, parochial theology I could return to the more ecumenical and “moderate” LCMS of my native northwest. I spent most of my time in the library, often out with friends, or at a nearby cinema. Along with a few classmates, one of my professors, Dean Hempelmann (who had been my childhood pastor and who has had a significant, positive influence on my education and pastoral formation), also encouraged me to stick it out, and so I did.
            After escaping seminary with a M.Div., I headed north for further study at the University of Chicago. Here I was blessed to encounter such scholars as Martin Marty, Brian Gerrish, David Tracy, and Paul Ricoeur. In these years, after my ordination in 1989, I also began serving full-time as an assistant pastor at Bethlehem, West Dundee, Illinois. So I became a commuter graduate student/pastor.   
            The high point of that half decade was meeting my future wife (on a blind date). At the time, she was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. We dated for three years, a period that included being ostracized by her father and suffering the death of her college roommate. I baptized Detra at Bethlehem’s Easter vigil in 1993, and we were married that summer. (Members of her mom’s side of the family—all native Greeks who are Orthodox Christians—could have played themselves in the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”)
            After serving Bethlehem for five years and doing additional interim work at a south-side congregation, I became an assistant professor at my undergraduate alma mater in 1994. There I taught courses in the New Testament, Greek, church history, and the humanities. I also regularly team-taught science/theology courses with a microbiologist. This occasioned some public attacks against my scholarship by a few zealous LCMS clergy. Thankfully, my ecclesiastical supervisor repeatedly vindicated my teaching and writings. Indeed, I became one of his closest theological advisers when I was twice elected secretary of that district (which comprises 270 congregations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, China, and Vietnam). I served on its board of directors for seven years.
            Despite that support, however, I decided to seek a new academic position beyond LCMS control. In these years I had endured several heresy trials, and my family was tired of the strain they had caused. So in 2004 I became a visiting associate professor of theology at Valparaiso University. I was then granted tenure in 2007, just as I began serving for two years as the director of Valpo’s study-abroad program in Reutlingen, Germany. In addition to my teaching, I have published several essays, encyclopedia articles, and book chapters. I have also written a large book on fundamental theology and another on the life and theology of Johannes von Hofmann (1810-77). I have also edited a book on nineteenth-century Lutheran theologians. Two years ago I began editing and co-translating six volumes of writings by Edmund Schlink. The first volume appeared in January 2017. Around that same time, I was advanced in rank to full professor.
            Alongside my full-time teaching at Valpo and during the time that I wrote Fundamental Theology, I also served as the interim pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind., from October 2010 to March 2014. For more on this, see
            On 1 July 2015 I was suspended from the clergy roster of the LCMS in the wake of an official charge of heresy that had been leveled against me by the Montana district president for an essay I had published on evolution. When I refused to appeal that suspension, I was removed from the clergy roster on 15 July 2015. On that day, I was leading a Valpo alumni tour in Rome. For more details on my expulsion, see

            Finally, and most importantly, since March 1999 my wife, who is the assistant to the dean of Valpo’s library, and I have been raising our son, Jacob, who is a junior in high school. [Update (8/1/18): Jacob will be a freshman at Valpo this fall, and will likely be majoring in electrical engineering.] These days, he’s mostly interested in computers, calculus, and German, but when he was four he suffered a life-threatening injury, a sub-cranial hematoma from a torn artery, which led to seventy-five ml of blood pooling on his brain. An injury that could have resulted in his death, or at least in his being severely disabled, has only minimally impacted his motor skills and cognition. He now has a question mark of a scar on his scalp as a consequence of the neurosurgeon’s three hours of delicate work. This miraculous outcome, however, was tempered by the death of my sister’s son, who was born the same year as Jacob and who died from neuroblastoma just a few months after Jacob’s emergency surgery. From those darker days to the present ones, we have lived with a sober awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life, but also with deep gratitude to God and for the hopeful promise that is given in our baptism, to which we return daily. We move forward under the sign of the cross.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Becker, if you want to share, additional comments on why you liked Dr. Marty's "By Way of Response" might be interesting. I had never heard of the out of print book before. I ordered a used copy through Powell's Books. I assume that he goes into his history in the LCMS?