The year 2017 marks the 500th since Martin Luther, a German monk of the Roman Catholic persuasion, posted a list of debate topics on the door of a church in his hometown of Wittenberg, Germany. Talk about the “law of unintended consequences”! What Luther meant to do, as a scholar, an observer, and an agonizingly conscientious practitioner of the Christian faith as he knew it, was to begin the long-overdue process of cleaning up the overgrown garden of the Roman Catholic Church.
You know how it goes: plant one thing here and another one there; let the perennials get out of hand; neglect the weed patches; let some greedy gardeners take over the place; and pretty soon, you’ve got a tangle nobody can control that strangles the good fruit you meant to produce.
The Roman Catholic Church, the prevailing religious and political power of 16th century Europe, had grown weedy to say the least. Martin Luther wanted to invite others to join him in a sincere attempt to straighten things out from within the church, a church that he loved. What happened? Protestants parted company with Roman Catholics, and began to grow their own ideas. If you ask me, a new weed patch got going, too. But that’s another story.
As a devoted monk, Martin Luther aimed to make his life perfect to please God. Trying to be perfect nearly drove him nuts. Happily, making ourselves perfect (and trying to make other people perfect) isn’t God’s idea. Knowing that we are loved (and trying to love others) comes closer to God’s idea. We–all of humanity–are already absurdly, undeservedly, eternally loved by God. There’s proof.
On a really bad day, please keep that in mind.
Awake all night in a cold sweat of prayer,
he hears the devils writhing underneath
his bed. In the shut cell, their sickening breath
prickles his nostrils with the foulest air.
What must he suffer never to be pure?
What punishment of everlasting death
shall he deserve for merely being Luther?
What anguish and uncertainty endure
who cannot find a goodness nearer God’s,
and would not buy the way to paradise?
Brained by lightning, marching as to war,
at last he stakes his life on holy odds,
takes the stone steps, a pirouette of grace,
and nails his mighty doubts on heaven’s door.
published in The Christian Century