The Half-life of Reform

Walking westward, finally closing in on the spires guiding me like the Bethlehem star, I was in for a disappointing surprise…

“I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home as well as a beautiful wife, or should I say boss?”  Cranach-Luther

The town of Wittenberg is a thousand years old, but took nearly half that time to produce the famous reformer who wrote this about his wife.  The half millennia since have seen Martin Luther’s thinking spread worldwide, including the little church in Florida via Scotland where it set the tone for my upbringing.  By that time the reformer’s boldness was so entrenched that our unadorned assembly was fiercely non-denominational.

A nun on the run

I had the fortune to visit Luther’s home town alongside a Germany work trip in 2015, where the town was busy shaping up for today, the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 thesis on the Schlosskirche doors.  Walking around the tidy cobblestone town on an overcast, almost-need-the-raincoat day, my journey to the doors started about a mile away, at the Lutherhaus museum.

The combined house and art museum made it clear that it takes a village to create change.  From the students Luther challenged late into the night, to his friends carrying upsetting thoughts to church apple carts everywhere; from the incredible timing of new ideas to the new printing press technology that disseminated them; Luther’s reformation was far from Luther’s alone.

Cranach-VonBoraAs usual the life of the woman behind the man gets lost in history, but Katharina von Bora’s vast contributions were as important to the process as the printing press.  The two met after she escaped from a convent (a nun on the run?) and the unlikely pair were wed, the 41 year old monk to a 26 year old vestal virgin¹.

While walking through the house Luther and Katy shared for 35 years, I learned that she managed the estate, hosted students, ran a brewery, grew the garden, raised 6 kids and many more farm animals — all in needed contribution to the family finances.  It is even said she smartly plowed some of the earnings into more real estate to increase their holdings.

A one time deal

A few bicycles quietly peddled around me as I moved westward through the older part of town, stopping into to the Stadt-Kirche (kirche is German for church).  Known as the “Mother church of the Reformation,” Luther preached here regularly and it is known for housing the first protestant services in German, among other things.

Luther didn’t want to start a new denomination, in fact he was heartbroken his own tradition wouldn’t fully reform.  He saw a light and wanted to show it to those he loved, worshipped, and worked with.  But once the light was shown, it took on a life of its own, repelling some and guiding others who followed it to their own conclusions.

Undoubtedly Luther’s sermons here, as any sermon worth its salt and light, ended with a  call to action.  I wonder what call to action we’d hear today from Luther.  Would he, on  Reformation Day 500 years later,  see his revolution as a one time deal, something that happened and is no longer needed?

In contrast to this is the idea that we might live in constant reform, iterating the past until it becomes the future, and then gets improved again (the engineering field calls this agile development).  We may circle inward toward understanding, but being unlikely to find a straight line, we live with a sense of humility toward God, surely, but also toward the way we‘ve chosen to follow God.   (For more on this see my post Time Travel)


A disappointing surprise

Walking westward, finally closing in on the spires guiding me like the Bethlehem star, I was in for a disappointing surprise.  My door destination, the Schloss-Kirche was under construction — I wouldn’t be able to see the famous doors after all.   It wasn’t clear if the work being done was to preserve the church exactly as it had been, or update it to our current time, but this is indeed the question.

Now with extra time, I decided to take the longer way back, looping outside the Wall Straβe bordering the old town.  To my delight, in what first seemed to be a park, I discovered a plainly profound living monument being planted.  The Luther Garten project has invited 500 churches as far flung as Africa and South America to plant 2 identical trees:  one in their home garden, and the other here, in Wittenberg.

The trees represent the uniqueness of each church, branched out across the world, each tracing their roots to the small town of Wittenberg, Germany.

Among the trees in Luther Garten

Half-life is the time required for an isotopes’ radioactivity to fall to half its original value. Luther’s specific complaint (indulgences sold by the church to pardon sins) seems to have fallen all the way down.  But has the church’s openness to change reached its half-life already? Does it need a recharge?

To put it another way, how does a people built on reform react when it’s time to reform ourselves?

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” Martin Luther told his accusers. “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.”

¹According to Here I Stand, a local student wrote to a friend: ‘A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”  (Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Penguin, 1995, c1950.)

Paintings of Luther and Von Bora by their friend, Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Source: workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 Replies to “The Half-life of Reform”

  1. Your “disappointing surprise” of finding The Luther Garten project was a wonderful surprise for me, your reader! This is such an all-inclusive, visible way of remembering Luther’s extensive impact on the world! I of course loved the “nun on the run,” Katy has quite the story too…
    Thanks for giving us “The Wife & Half-life of Reform!” Timely. Well-done.


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