In fact, nailing a note to the church door was a typical way of communicating, and it was probably one of his students that did the actual nailing. (It’s perhaps a bit like President Barack Obama’s admitting that his official White House tweets are actually written by a 20-something intern.)
While most remembered for a simple piece of paper attached to an ordinary door, Luther’s enduring message was that the ordinary parts of people’s everyday lives are pleasing to God and become sacred when we share our truest selves in community.
Songs that we now call “traditional” were secular pub tunes that Luther paired with the common language of the people in his community.
Bringing fir trees indoors during the winter was a common pagan practice that today is hard to think of apart from the story of Jesus’ birth, thanks to Luther’s reinterpretation.
The best way to keep the spirit of the Reformation alive in our world today is to begin incorporating signs and symbols from our ordinary, everyday lives into our worship and prayer lives. Some of the ways I’ve done this in my life and ministry:
- Inspired by the parable of the lost coin, I pick up pennies. Pennies litter our streets because they are deemed too worthless to take the time to pick up. As I pick up pennies, I remind myself that nothing is worthless to God.
- I invite members of the congregation to bring a plate and cup to be used for communion. This simple act helps participants have a visual reminder to follow the words of the communion prayer: “Each time you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, do so in remembrance of me.”
Historically the elements were covered to prevent bugs from getting in the bread and wine or to prevent those who believed that communion had magical powers from trying to steal the bread (No, really).
Most churches no longer have these issues, so sometimes I let the congregation know that I’m leaving the bread uncovered to remind us that there are many people who are hungry outside the walls of the church and that our evangelism is not done until all people are able to share the same banquet table.
The poetry of the message is lost a bit at congregations who use wafers.
These days, individual reformations happen when people are simply willing to say their truth out loud. Of course, I’m not talking about the easy truths like: kittens are cute; the church needs more youth and young adults; and Jesus loves the same people we do.
Rather, reformation truths sound like: I’m an alcoholic; I need help; I think that’s illegal; I will not let you abuse me; this church is dying; it hurts my hands to pass the peace; and Jesus loves you, even though I don’t yet know how to like you.
Telling the truth can change a life, a country, a war or a pocketbook. When I am honest about my student debt ($52,000 to become a pastor), disabilities (ADHD and on the autistic spectrum), sexuality (lesbian) and other issues in my life, then others are able to hold me accountable, I feel less alone and I’m able to get help when I need it.
While Luther was famous for his line “sin boldly, and believe more boldly still,” I encourage you to reignite the spirit of the Reformation as you “truth boldly, and believe more boldly still.”
Two notes of caution for Reformation truth-tellers:
- Telling the truth got Jesus hung on a cross, a death warrant for Luther, Bonhoeffer killed in a concentration camp, Martin Luther King Jr. shot, the Gospel writers martyred, Joan of Arc burned on a stake and countless others killed or tortured in ways we would probably call terrorism today.
- Luther’s impact was enhanced by the printing press, which was just invented and created mass production of his writings that could be distributed quickly and cheaply. Today we have blogging, tweeting and other quick and cheap ways to share truths with a larger audience.
Part of the blemish of Luther’s legacy is that some of his angry anti-Semitic, misogynist, anti-Mennonite writings were used in the Holocaust or to continue discrimination and abuse long after his life. The Lutheran church continues to apologize for this underbelly of his legacy. So, dear reader, please think twice before you hit “send” or “post.”
Here’s hoping future Lutherans will not need to apologize for us!