Friday, August 15, 2014

Open Dialogue over the Faith Boundary

He drew a circle that shut me out–
 Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
 We drew a circle that took him in!
—Edwin Markham, “Outwitted”
The traditional approach
Note: The presentation reviewed here was made more powerful by an example of its author practicing what he preaches; the bottom half of this post contains a gracious reply I received to my open letter.

During its annual Summer Services last month, my old church’s pastoral director Keith Waaraniemi gave a talk entitled “How to approach another person.” It was based on a work presented a year earlier at a large gathering of the church’s sister organization, the SRK.1

The presentation was excellent. There is much in it to praise, even for someone as vocal as I have been about issues confronting the church and its doctrines.

Laestadianism does not emphasize individual preachers, and I try to avoid doing so as well when critiquing their sermons and writings. My points are about the organization and what it teaches, not the people doing the teaching. This time is different, though: I want to offer credit where credit is due, and have decided to do so by name.2

Indeed, the whole point of this remarkably thoughtful presentation–encouraging human contact and understanding, even between people of differing views–makes me a bit hopeful that a personal approach would not be unwelcome for this blog post. So, I will take it a step further and address Mr. Waaraniemi directly, with an open letter.

Keith (as I will presume to refer to him from this point on) and I are an unlikely pair for undertaking any correspondence, even without a thousand or so people looking on. I left my childhood faith after forty years, and in a very public way that caused a great deal of upset among people in the church. Keith has dedicated his professional life to the Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC), serving for many years as a preacher and in leadership roles of its central organization. But hopefully my letter will be taken as it is intended–friendly, complimentary, with a few points gently made along the way to advance mutual understanding.


Dear Keith,

I really liked the presentation you gave at Summer Services recently. It was warm, compassionate, balanced, and showed a great deal of understanding about human needs. I know this sort of praise is unusual to hear, even from believers, but hope you won’t be unsettled by it.3 The sense of service and humility on the part of preachers in the LLC is quite refreshing, actually. It’s something I think you guys really do get right, in the midst of a country full of ego-driven, money-grubbing televangelists and megachurch pastors.

Slide #20

For me, one of the highlights of the talk was where you and Aimo Helén provided a simple and reasonable summary about the way to maintain human relations: “We care for them by coming close, and talking” (28:20). I appreciated how you encouraged contact not just with believers, but non-Laestadian neighbors as well (28:50), and elsewhere, how everyone is actually your neighbor.

Including me! An open letter from this outspoken LLC apostate is probably one you read with some reluctance, and that is entirely understandable. Thanks for doing so, though. It’ll be fine.

There is, I know, another motive for believers to engage in such unequally yoked contacts, the desire to “convey living faith to another person” (19:40). That’s understandable, too. You have a message that you feel is of great urgency to people’s eternal salvation, so of course you will want to share it! “We have been given the task of being ambassadors of Christ. God speaks through us,” you say, adding that you and your listeners have been entrusted with the message of forgiveness. “God makes his appeal through us, through his own. We implore the world on behalf of Christ, that they would be reconciled to God” (20:20).

Slide #38

The desire almost always comes from genuine concern–especially for the people closest to you. During the talk, you indicated that many of those listening could think of some loved one they would’ve liked to have alongside them. No doubt that’s true. It’s a natural human drive to share what we value; I do it, too, though of course with very different viewpoints from yours.

One thing we should all keep in mind, though, is that our loved ones do not want to become our conversion or de-conversion projects. When I visit with friends or relatives who are happily living their lives as believers, it hardly ever seems appropriate for me to bring up issues involving the church. They all know that I’ve left it for my own reasons, and if they want to know why, all they have to do is read my book or blog posts. Similarly, those who have left the LLC know the positions held (or at least professed) by those who remain, including about them.

Now, that doesn’t mean the church can never be mentioned. Doing so in a neutral way can actually defuse tension in the room. I’ve had enjoyable conversations about shared memories, humorous stories, and ongoing church activities. Someone who will always remain close told me with a laugh about hearing that people “who think like me” are “Ed-heads,” and I laughed, too. On another occasion, two of us–one a believer, one not–fondly recalled the old songs that we both grew up singing. I miss them sometimes. There was no preaching about how I really must feel a longing to repent (I don’t), just understanding about my continuing to value, in a way, something that was so much a part of my life for so long.4

Slide #16

Your slide No. 16 is headed, “Approaching without prejudice.” You point out how believers might have stereotypes or fears about approaching someone different, and I smiled at your lighthearted mention of the “irritating bunch of skateboarders” hanging out by the library. And so, you acknowledge, the approach often is made “with prejudice, pre-conceived notions.” But, you added, “we find when we do approach, that we find people, and that our fears are often unjustified” (26:40, my emphasis).

Indeed. May I make one point about doctrine here? If we as mere frail humans can both realize that we are all just people, shouldn’t an almighty God be able to as well? We have some mutual friends, Keith, and I have heard about your good humor and big heart. My faith in people, yourself included, remains strong–much stronger than any faith in an angry, judgmental God who cannot behave as well toward us as we do (in our better moments) toward each other.

Aimo Helén’s original paper (p. 3) includes something that is very encouraging for us “unbelievers” to read. I was very glad to hear you pretty closely repeat it in your talk (35:00) and see it on your slide #20.

Authentically respecting one’s neighbor means giving him or her human value irrespective of his or her characteristics. The love that God gave as a gift teaches us to accept ourselves and our neighbors as unique persons created by God. We can value humanity by respecting different cultural and religious customs and by treating our neighbor as an equal regardless of his or her differences and possible inadequacy. However, valuing diversity does not mean approving of sin and an indecent life.

“Treat all people as equals created by God,” is how you put it. “We respect different cultures and religious customs, but not at the expense of faith and good conscience” (35:45). What more could anyone ask, without becoming dogmatic themselves in an opposite way?

Later in your talk (53:30), after an interesting and useful discussion about helping someone with difficulties (including mental health issues), you return to the issue of understanding us unbelievers:

The kind of upbringing that we’ve had, the kind of parents that we’ve had, the kind of place that we’ve lived, values that we’ve developed, may be different than others. But we want to try to understand one another. We of course can’t accept everything, but we want to respect our neighbor for who they are. All neighbors, even unbelieving neighbors.

As your Finnish colleague puts it (p. 5), this is done out of “true neighborly love,” which “gives us readiness to meet even a diversity of cultures with an open mind. We cannot approve of everything, but we can value our neighbor as an equal irrespective of his or her background and different way of thinking.”

Bravo! And consider how important this sort of treatment is to you, too. Imagine, for example, how you would feel in this hypothetical situation: A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church and afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children. Now, I’ve never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. But, I must gently add, I’ve heard plenty about people in the LLC belittling and mocking the changed beliefs and lives of people who have left the church. Your presentation will hopefully go a long way toward helping to improve that situation. I really do appreciate what you and Aimo Helén have done.

The issue of acceptance is somewhat different when it comes to people who are still in the organization. You note, I think accurately, that “some of [your] friends–that is believing friends–think differently about matters of faith and life than is taught in God’s Kingdom. They still claim to be believers, even though their tie to the congregation may have been severed. They may want to believe on their own terms” (1:00:00). That is, of course, the right of every person in a free society, but so is the right of the LLC and SRK to maintain norms of behavior and belief for those who wish to be members. You may be surprised to hear that I respect that.5

Personally, it was important to me to make a decision about what I actually believed and then act accordingly. I didn’t want to cloud things by trying to live one way and profess belief in another. The “temptations of the world” were never that big a deal for me; the issues were. Of course, now that I’m no longer concerned about conforming to the LLC’s standards, I enjoy movies, TV shows, and a wide variety of music. Why not?

Now, there are people who don’t want to leave the church, even though they find no good reason not to partake of such activities, or to back away from the heavy demands of nearly annual childbearing. This is where I will be most critical of a work I find encouraging and excellent otherwise: Your advice to fellow believers to “search for answers within God’s Kingdom,” the so-called “pillar and ground of truth,” which you feel is guided by an “unerring advisor” (1:06:00). Do you realize, as an insider, that those answers all tend to be of the form, “It has been revealed in God’s Kingdom...”, or “God’s children have seen it good that...”? The invitation to be “free to ask questions” when it doesn’t work out that “the spirit that is in each child of God answers the spirit that speaks in the congregation” (1:07:00) rings a bit hollow when the spirit always seems to just wind up referring back to its own authority.

Slide #41

So why don’t these people just leave, to stop sowing weeds in your midst, as you and Helén put it? I can’t speak for them: They are individuals, with their own private thoughts and emotions. But I think you provide one answer yourself: the longing for contact, for love, for fellowship (1:02:00). Thoughtfully, you recognize that it’s not just difficult for believers when their loved one leaves the church, but “it’s difficult also for the person who has left” (1:09:00).

You like to call it “the Father’s house,” and Laestadianism also makes a lot of references to “the mother.” And of course, there are “brothers and sisters in faith.” These analogies illustrate the very deep emotional bond that is established when people grow up with each other in a distinctive subculture, do almost all their socializing with each other, and reinforce their ties by seeing each other as a group on a weekly basis. It doesn’t hurt that many of you really are extended family, either. The connections run deep.

I am glad, though, that you recognize, “Each person must make their own choices in life, even giving up faith” (1:08:00), that you must “accept their decision, though so very hard” it is to do (1:11:00). And it was wonderful to hear those “very important words” your wife’s believing friend told her about your own son who had left: “Love him, love him, love him” (1:09:00). That is what you desire to do, you said, and so do we.

Thank you for this presentation, Keith, and Aimo Helén as well.

Fond regards,
Your former brother,
Ed Suominen


I was happy to receive a thoughtful response from Keith, which he gave me discretion to quote from or post in its entirety. He expressed his thoughts well, and with considerable trust that I’d treat them fairly. So here they are, verbatim–everything after his initial salutation and a friendly line about this being a busy summer for him. I really appreciated the reply, all of it, and encourage you to read it as well.

First of all, thanks for your complimentary comments about the presentation. For the most part, I borrowed what Aimo Helén presented a year earlier in Finland. For that reason, I want to credit the original source and above all thank God for the words that He has given. In answer to your question about using my photo and quoting from or posting this message, I will leave that to your discretion. In any case, I prefer not to personally comment or participate in online public forums where questions of Laestadian Christianity are discussed.

Yes, it was a surprise to get a message from you! I’m happy that you felt free to write to me. I want to carry you in prayer and love. Regarding the critique you have given, I do not see a need to answer point by point. The presentation is what it is. All glory and honor goes to God. Any weaknesses are mine.

I hope that Laestadian believers, former believers, and all people for that matter would remember that carrying bitterness towards another person hurts the carrier more than anyone else. As you pointed out, we have the freedom to believe as we wish. No one is forced to believe. It would be good to remember that our focus needs to be on the issues at hand and not attack the person. Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment reminds us not to speak evilly of our neighbor, “but apologize for him, think and speak well of him and put the best construction on all he does.” Who of us can say that we have been exemplary in this? I certainly cannot. Our human corruption is close.

You gave a hypothetical example, “A young woman who left the LLC after having just two children comes to a wedding at church…afterwards belittles the pregnant mother of the bride for continuing to have children.” You stated that you have never heard of a former believer behaving so thoughtlessly. Well, I must say that I have seen anger, thoughtless words, evil speech, etc., both from believers as well as former believers. In our Christianity we endeavor to speak about the evil deeds of that little member, the tongue. It’s hard to keep it in subjection. Regarding former believers’ speech, I’d ask you to consider their blogs. Do they speak well and put the best construction on the words and deeds of their former friends in faith?

You take issue with the kingdom of God being the pillar and ground of truth and our belief that we have an unerring advisor, the Holy Spirit. I would point out that it is a kingdom that holds the Bible as the highest authority for doctrine and life. The Spirit is the key to understanding the Bible. The spirit of Christ resides in the body of Christ, the congregation. For that reason it is unerring. How could God’s Spirit speak against itself, or disagree with itself? I believe that as God is God, He doesn’t make mistakes. That is why the congregation is unerring.

It is so, as you state, that each person is free to believe or not to believe. Those who believe have not been able to do so of themselves, but have been called by God. Luther teaches in the explanation to the Third Article of the Creed: “I believe that I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith, even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus’ Christ in the true faith; in which Christian Church he daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”

We can believe only through the grace of God. I am thankful to be a partaker of this grace, which I have not deserved. I am happy to be a child of God. My sins are forgiven and I have the hope of reaching heaven one day. I join with the Apostle Peter when some could no longer follow Jesus due to his teachings. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” I cannot find the peace of God anywhere else than in His kingdom, among His own upon earth. That which I have received, I desire to make known to others.

You are in my thoughts and prayers, Ed. 


Waaraniemi’s thumbnail portrait is from his entry on the “Contact Us” page of the LLC’s web site. Thumbnails of the “Approaching Others” presentation were exported from his PowerPoint file. The “traditional approach” composition, using a photo of my own plus a thumbnail of the By Faith book from the LLC’s online store, is Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen; you may freely use it for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Waaraniemi’s first slide says it is based “on Aimo Helén’s presentation at 2013 SRK Speakers and Elders Meeting: Toisen ihmisen kohtaaminen” The MP3 audio, is quite legible at 2x speed if you want to save time. Also, check out the Powerpoint slides

  2. Waaraniemi’s name is on the work, after all, and on the webpage where it is publicly available. 

  3. I use the term “believers” here to refer to Conservative Laestadians–as they refer to themselves–along with “unbelievers” to mean everyone else. A lot of non-Laestadians don’t like being distinguished in that way, as most of them have sincere religious beliefs of their own. Personally, I don’t mind, especially when engaging in a dialogue with Laestadians. 

  4. Believers might also consider the converse side of such an open dialogue, one that is a bit challenging for them: politely acknowledging some of their friend’s “worldly” activities. I’m not talking about burning incense on an altar to Satan in the middle of the night, but things that are an everyday part of life for most everybody outside the LLC. If the friend lets it slip that junior hurt his knee at soccer practice last week, an expression of sympathy, perhaps a little joke about Laestadians saving on medical bills in that regard, at least, can go a long ways toward keeping a long-valued relationship intact and mutually respectful. Sure, there is a possibility that the ex-LLCer might wonder, “Hmmmm, maybe he doesn’t think school sports are such a big deal.” But consider the other thought that occurs to the one lucky enough to have such an understanding friend: “I’m so thankful he is secure in his beliefs and doesn’t need to be a fanatical sourpuss about everything.” 

  5. I would suggest, however, that you guys dispense with the charade about there being no rules. Of course there are–many of them! If there weren’t, then people could do as they pleased. And it wouldn’t bother them much at all, without the pressure to conform, given how ordinary and harmless most of the supposed sins really are.