Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5


Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
Ibid
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

Fat and the Reformation

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In an earlier post, I mused on the coincidence of the divisions of the European Reformation and the breakdown of Indo-European language families. While listening to an episode of Andreas Viestad and Pia Skevik’s brilliant podcast Radiomat, I became aware of another coincidence. Viestad points out that the Reformation lines also mirror the division between butter and olive oil as primary cooking fat. Northern European countries, where olive trees cannot grow, relied on butter as their primary cooking fat. As Viestad tells it, Roman fast days outlawed butter, but not olive oil, causing resentment on the Northern European side.

To add a note of caution, his division only accounts for majority of the Protestant/Roman split. It doesn’t explain the Calvinist/Lutheran split, or why Poland (a land bereft of olive trees) remained staunchly Roman Catholic. That said, it adds another layer to the varied forces of religion, culture, and environment that laid the groundwork for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

 

A Note on Humility and Diligence

As an academic with a short attention span, I have the tendency to bounce from subject to subject. Yesterday, I studied the Norwegian-American church, today I study New Testament. Yesterday, I read a book about the history of China, today I’m reading a book about geology. With that in mind, this devotional from Martin Luther struck me, and reminded me that no matter how many degrees I pile up, I have to return to some things over and over again.

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Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. – 1 Timothy 4.13

I am often aware of my temptation, and even to this day can scarcely guard myself sufficiently against it. This I confess openly as an example to any who are interested, although I am an old doctor and preacher and am so much more versed in the Scriptures, or at least ought to be, than all those wise ones who attack me; I must still grow daily, like a child, saying aloud every morning the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and such precious psalms and sayings as I choose, just as the children are now being taught to do, although I have daily to study the Scriptures and to fight the devil. I may not say in my heart: You know the Lord’s Prayer, you know the Ten Commandments, you know the Creed by heart, etc. No, I must go on learning every day and remain a pupil of the Catechism. I feel how noticeably it helps me, and I find by experience that the Word of God can never be exhausted, but that it is really true as Psalm 147 says: “His understanding is infinite.”

-From Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Meditation’s from Luther’s Writings, ed. Margarete Steiner and Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 348.

You Cannot Serve the Lord! A Lutheran Response to Socrates

This is the last in a 3 part series on the relationship of Lutheran theology to Socratic ethics. Part 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

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If you can remember back to the last post on Socrates, you’ll know that for Socrates, ethics fundamentally involved a problem of knowledge. People who know the right thing to do will do it. In this post, I’m going to delve into a different way of looking at the problem, a way that involves the peculiarly Lutheran idea of the bound will.

For Lutherans, the fundamental problem of ethics is not that people lack the knowledge necessary for right action. The fundamental problem is that people are not free actors. In their natural state, people can do nothing but the wrong thing. Even with full knowledge of the right and wrong, people will do the wrong thing, because people are captive to sin, death, and the devil. The farewell discourse of Joshua in Joshua 24 illustrates the problem. After Joshua explains the difference between right and wrong to the Israelites for several long chapters, he presents them with a choice: to serve God or to serve false idols. The Israelites respond, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:18). Now, it appears that the Israelites have made the right choice, and the logical thing for Joshua to do is to affirm them and go get buried. Instead, Joshua replies, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God!” (Joshua 24:19). Joshua, you see, understands the bound will. He knows that even when people pay lip service to the right choice, their hearts are in another place. Joshua knows that despite his lecture and despite their answer, the hearts of the Israelites are inclined away from the true God and that they will not serve him.

Lutheran theology acknowledges that the deck is perpetually stacked against humanity. The state of humanity after the fall turns all of humanity’s efforts to do good into pious idolatry. To put it in another way, Lutheran theology recognizes that ethics is not an ethical problem, but a religious one. The turn towards a religious understanding of ethics happens in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Standing beneath the shadow of the crucified Lord, Lutheran theology sees that human distinctions between right and wrong pale in comparison. In the light of the crucifixion, there is no longer right and wrong. One is either in Christ or outside of Christ. Those who are in Christ see that all of the works are laughable attempts at self-justification, regardless of their standing in human eyes.

And so, finally, the Lutheran response to Socrates is to point to Christ and to proclaim that no amount of knowledge can help you to do the right thing, because the definition of right and wrong resides in the person of Christ, not in a set of propositions.

Wadi you do? Elijah, the Drought, and Problems in Translation

“And it shall be that you will drink from the intermittent water course/wadi/torrent/creek, and I will command the ravens to nourish you there.” – 1 Kings 17.4

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Not a nachal

As the rain has steadily fallen over the past few days, I have been translating 1 Kings 17, the story of Elijah and the drought in Israel. As I’ve worked through the Hebrew, I’ve run into a problem both linguistic and cultural: How do you translate a uniquely desert vocabulary into understandable terms for the land of 10,000 lakes.

At the heart of the problem lies the Hebrew word nachal. A nachal is body of water that flows in the rainy season and dries up during times of drought. Like most Germanic languages, English doesn’t have a word for intermittent water courses. In his German Bible, Luther translated nachal as Bach, literally “stream” or “creek.” Stream or creek gets the flowing part across, but not the intermittent part. We do have several loan words in English that get both parts across: From Arabic, we’ve borrowed the word wadi, and from Spanish, we’ve borrowed arroyo. But, neither wadi or arroyo is common parlance in the upper Midwest; I’m doubtful that either one would provide greater clarity than simply leaving nachal untranslated (although a reader would have an easier time looking up wadi and arroyo).

In short, there is always a tension between elegance and explanation. “Intermittent water course” lack elegance, but explains the idea. “Stream” or “creek” immediately conjure up images for English speakers, but don’t convey the dynamic of the Hebrew word. “Arroyo” and “wadi” get the idea across and are sort of English words, but will be lost on segments of readers. In other words, there’s no slick solution for translating nachal for the Minnesota mind, but it’s a good example of why learning the biblical languages can be a fruitful endeavor.

A Meditation for Chinese New Year by Martin Luther

I find this short meditation by Martin Luther good to consider at any new beginning, lunar or solar.

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The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. – Psalm 33.5.

God’s wonderful works which happen daily are lightly esteemed, not because they are of no import, but because they happen so constantly and without interruption. Man is used to the miracle that God rules the world and upholds all creation, and because things daily run their appointed course, it seems insignificant, and no man thinks it worth his while to meditate upon it and to regard it as God’s wonderful work, and yet it is a greater wonder than that Christ fed five thousand men with five loaves and made wine from water.

-From Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Meditation’s from Luther’s Writings