Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lutherans at 500

Lutherans celebrate Reformation Sunday the last Sunday of October because it was October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. 498 years ago. As you might imagine, there are all kinds of celebrations and commemorations as we approach the 500th anniversary. This well-known painting of Martin Luther was painted by Cranach in about 1515.

First, a brief summary of the “reformation.” Martin Luther was a monk who studied and taught theology. He wanted to be a good Christian, which at the time meant a good Catholic. He never wanted to leave the Catholic Church but, from his study of the Bible, he thought the church was mistaken in some of its teachings and sought to correct the error. Catholics believe the when we die, good people go straight to heaven, bad to hell, and most everyone goes to purgatory – a place in between where they wait to become good enough for heaven. Prayers and masses for the dead can speed up that process. In Luther's time, the church taught that good works on earth and those done by others on our behalf could also help. Good works often involved giving money to the church. This was a time of major cathedral building which was very expensive. In 1516 the pope offered the sale of indulgences to help fund the construction of cathedral. Indulgences were certificates bought to get souls out of purgatory.

Luther wrote a scholarly paper entitled, "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" asking for clarification and correction of theological teachings that were not bibilically based. (He may or may not have ever posted this document, which is better know as the 95 theses, on the door of the church in Whittenberg.) The result of his paper and its dessimination was a split with the church (in time) as Luther was ex-communicated, or thrown out of the church. The protestors became protestants. Luthers followers eventually became Lutherans – the first of many protestants.

(Note: Luther presented a theological challenge leading to a split. Previously, “from 1378 to 1417, several men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418).”

Luther's challenge and split became widely known because the printing press had recently been invented. Copies of the 95 theses were printed in 1518 and were widely circulated. The printing press also greatly aided Luther's work as he translated the Bible into German (and others translated it into other languages).

Nowadays, we acknowledge that Luther was a product of his times. He was, for example, vocally anti-semitic – maybe even more than those around him. Hitler used this part of his teaching to justify his actions during World War II. Still, Luther's main theses are as important and clear today as they were 500 years ago: people are saved by grace alone (not good works), that we must trust in faith alone, and the Bible is the only yardstick by which we measure all teachings and actions. Words of hope. Teachings of inclusion.

Other practices became common place because of Luther: the mass or liturgy in the language of the people, Bibles translated into the languages of the people, other teaching materials, such as the large and small catechisms, written and used (in the people's languages), the belief that people could go directly to God in prayer without the intermediary of a priest, priests (later called pastors) who were/are permitted to marry, etc.

So, it is little surprise that Lutherans worldwide, and especially in Germany, are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the reformation (or the start of it...). Lutherans in Germany are celebrating the decade of the reformation from 2008 to 2017. “Exhibitions, concerts, church services, festivals and theatre productions will highlight the importance of the Reformation and the role Martin Luther played in the places he lived and worked." Each year has a theme. ( Luther can also now be purchased as a small action figure!

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is sponsoring a project to get women to tell their stories – about the past reformation and the ongoing one. See for more information.
Many tourists are visiting Wittenberg and other sites that were important in Luther's life. Lots of restoration and renovation has/is happening. Did you know that Wittenberg is in what was formerly known as Eastern Germany and was for many years "behind the iron curtain"?

I started thinking about the reformation not only because of the Sunday we use to remember it but because of President Ndanga-Toué's visit to Europe. As the newly elected president of the EEL-RCA the Lutheran World Federation invited him and other new church leaders to meetings/seminars in Geneva. Part of this program included visits to some sites in Germany. Churches and organizations worldwide are planting 500 trees to commorate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The Evangelical Lutheran Church – Central African Republic has sponsored tree number 293 in Luthergarten in Wittenberg. Here are some pictures of President Ndanga-Toué planting and watering the tree along with the certificate he received. (I heard the story in Garoua Boulai as the president was headed back to Bouar, CAR. He agreed that I could help spread the word about his trip and their tree.)

President Ndanga-Toué stayed in Germany after the LWF event to meet with EEL-RCA's partner OLM (the German Lutheran Church). He said he got to see even more sites important in Luther's life and work.

Reformation work still continues. Human arrogance and error tends to distort beliefs as they are turned into “religion” and institutionalized. We need to continue to go to the Bible as we work to correct all errors – even Luther's.

Happy 500th anniversary! (almost)

Update: I am in Yaoundé to apply for a new passport and am taking advantage of the time to buy supplies for myself and others. My new screen door in Garoua Boulai is made and installed. I am adapting to my borrowed computer (and have installed programs and updated everything I could think of). Life is going back to normal, whatever that is.

The security situation in CAR is still difficult, in fact, worse in Bangui. Travel on the roads is a challenge although it is better between Garoua Boulai and Bouar if travelers go with the UN military escort. Elections have be re-rescheduled for December and January (first and second rounds). However, peace and security need to be much more firmly established for them to be successful.

Plans are moving ahead for Pope Francis' visit to Bangui in November. Maybe his presence will add weight to the peace work being done by Central African religions leaders – Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim.

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