Sunday, April 7, 2013

thoughts of Luther at mid-career

Ruth pointed out to me that my blog has accumulated some spam comments, so I took a few minutes to clean that up.  Now that I'm here and have a minute, perhaps it would be good to offer a thought or two.  After all, if I merely subtracted the spam comments and didn't add something, then I would only be doing something negative, and we wouldn't want that.  I am, if nothing else, a positive Lutheran.  Where have I been lately?  Working.  Which is cool, considering that there was a while there, in 2011, when I was out of work.  And indeed, there was a couple years, from, say, '08 to '11, where I was moving from one abusive and/or otherwise soul-crushing job to another.  So I am quite blessed with my current work situation.  But it makes for long days.  A goal for the next few months will be to try to regain some space in the week for blogging, etc.  Badly mistaken you would be if you were to conclude that the slowness of posting here is due to sparsity of things on which to write.  In the coming weeks I might just get to some of them.  For now, a note on Luther at mid-career.

Today at Luther Memorial Chapel, in the Bible study after Mass, we began what will probably be several weeks on the Johannine epistles.  This is a massively significant part of Holy Writ, and I look forward to the discussion that will surely develop out of it.  Because I am strange, when the topic was announced after Mass, it reminded me of Luther's 1527 lectures on 1 John, and Luther's life-situation at the time, and for a moment, while walking down the stairs to get in line for coffee, I became unstuck in time, and went to Wittenberg, 1527. 

Why did Luther choose to lecture on First John that year?  I believe it was in large part because of what was happening in his life.  Despite it being the ten year anniversary of the "crushing of the indulgences," it was otherwise a hard year for Doctor Luther personally, and for the church around him.  1527 proved in many ways to be a year of crisis, and for Luther himself we might even say it made for a real mid-life crisis.  First, consider his productivity.  In that year he preached on average a bit more than once per week, wrote over a dozen tracts or treatises, wrote on average two letters per week, was engaged in his ongoing work on the German Old Testament, this besides his lectures and his ongoing battle with Zwingli over the truth of Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist.  Second, consider his standing in the greater world.  He was still an enemy of both Rome and the Empire.  Third, consider that he became a husband two years earlier.  He cared deeply for his wife and children; at this time Kate was pregnant with her second child. 

We must now add into that mix his troubled health.  Luther suffered severe headaches, dizziness, bouts with the kidney stone, a buzzing in his ears which caused him great pain, and severe chest pain, which brought him to what he and everyone else feared was his deathbed.  He had Bugenhagen hear what he thought might be his final confession, and even expressed concern for the physical and spiritual care of his wife and children. 

If all this were not enough, the plague came to Wittenberg that year.  Luther firmly believed and taught that men of public responsibility ought not flee the plague, so while the university was temporarily moved to Jena, Luther, with a few others (notably Bugenhagen and Georg Rorer), stayed in Wittenberg, where the former friary, now the de facto Luther home, became a veritable hospital.  Many people close to Luther, and close to his heart, fell victim to the plague or other physical afflictions not made any easier by the presence of the plague. Rorer's wife Hanna died after giving birth to a stillborn child.  Here I must interject that while Luther is widely known as a man of great passion in his writings, many do not appreciate that he was also a man of great compassion, which is to say that he empathized, or suffered with those around him.  When Rorer's wife died, Luther mourned as though it were his own wife that died.  In the midst of all of this, they worried for Luther's son, John, who was teething, and indeed, for Katherine, who was with child.  To this we can now add Luther's bouts with depression, and his spiritual anfechtung

What does a man of God do in times like this?  He prays, even more than when times are good.  And he is there for the people.  That is, he clings to the Word, for his own sake, and for the sake of his hearers, and the church at large.  That Word includes the comforting texts of the letters of Saint John, who in the midst of his own persecution, by both false brethren and the empire of his day, steadfastly remained attached to the worship of Christ, our Immanuel, the One Who walks among the seven lampstands, and makes His presence, His very real and fleshly presence, among us.  He walks with us even in the fiery furnace of the worst moments of this life, when the world, the flesh, and maybe even synod refuse to walk with us.  The Gnostic temptation, in the first century, as in the sixteenth or the twenty first, is to conclude that the world is essentially evil and also that it is unfitting for God to join Himself to actual flesh, and thus to join us to His divinity.  Luther knew that in Christ we have a Brother Who has joined Himself to our flesh, and also to our suffering.  In fact, no one has suffered what He suffered.  By the end of 1527, Luther may have already written, or begun to write, his great hymn paraphrase of Psalm 46.  Even when the devil and the world do their best to weaken us, we can stand firm in the confession of what John in his letters calls "the truth," which I take in part to mean Christ Himself, the Man Who lives, and Who fights for us.  Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth. 

(I am reminded that Philipp Nicolai, another great Lutheran churchman and hymn writer, also served in the midst of great suffering, as his parishioners in Westphalia in the late sixteenth century died by the hundreds from the plague; and he too fortified and comforted his people in part with hymns, such as "Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying".  But I digress.)

So I look forward to this study of the letters of Saint John, the beloved disciple, who has so much to teach us today about the love of God in the midst of the false love of the world.

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