Forgiveness beyond time and borders

The engines of the small airplane rattled loudly as if they were exhausted from the quick climb through turbulent north sea weather. My eyes fixated the slowly disappearing islands as if they wanted to hold on to them as long as possible. As I admired the beauty of the Orkney islands glistering in the sun, memories of a lifechanging time in ministry flooded my thoughts. I could almost feel the warmth of a nice cup of tea and the overwhelming admiration of the spectacle evolving in front of my eyes as stormy waters crashed over the Churchill barriers. The view of the old Church of Scotland Manse was one of a kind and had left a lasting impression on my mind. Not only because of its unique and spectacular beauty, but more so for me as German minister. Eleven years ago I had been allowed to care for the people of the East Mainland Church of Scotland, over whom and uncounted others my German nation had brought terrible pain and suffering. I very soon in my call learned a very deep and moving lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Churchill Barriers with Kirk Sound and Italian Chapel

Almost every day as I was working in the study of the Manse, my eyes traced the tracks of the life destroying Nazi fleet as it sailed through Kirk sound into the natural harbor of Scapa flow killing brutally quick in an unexpected attack 883 men out of a crew of 1219. As my own German grandfather had served in the Nazi navy fleet, I over and over couldn’t believe that the very same people, who suffered under my nation had welcomed me and my family in such a heartfelt way into their daily life. They soon changed my life’s path forever as grace and forgiveness took hold of my calling as a woman of faith.

As if to make it sink in, I looked at the view unfolding beneath the Manse over and over again. October 14, 1939 was according to a parishioner one of these rare very calm Orkney nights as captain Günther Prien sailed around Kirk Sound into Scapa Flow  as “HMS Royal Oak” lay there on anchor. This well accomplished battleship had fought successfully at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, but by 1939 had not been as versatile as the modern warships of the Kriegsmarine, which were much smaller and faster battle cruisers. As war broke out, the “Royal Oak” had been stationed in Scapa Flow as part of a large naval fleet and it was presumed that it was perfectly safe from any foreign attack. But the starry and calm October night shattered this illusion as torpedoes fired by the German submarine ripped holes into the well accomplished battleship forcing it to sink very quickly. 883 men, amongst them many boy sailors, lost their lives. As disaster and devastation struck their families and Great Britain as a whole, this crime was celebrated as the first big success in Nazi Germany. Today it is one of the largest war graves, reminding everyone of a brutal and destructive Nazi dictatorship. As the commemoration of this brutal event will be marked for the 80thtime in October 2019, this large war grave may warn all nations about the brutality and destruction mankind can bring over one another.

Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Royal_Oak_(08)#/media/File:U-47_raid.svg

It has been this exact spot that had filled my life and identity as a German with a unforgettable lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness as I was accepted as a human being beyond my national identity and once even asked to be part of a service commemorating the lost lives. As prayers and readings filled the small Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, it was a tender experience of grace that flooded my being and made me understand Paul´s words to the Ephesians in a deeper way (4:31-32):

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

A tender ripple shook the small plane as if to wake me out of my thoughts. I blinked as the beautiful Islands of Orkney disappeared completely under a soft, bright blanket of clouds surrounding me of a warm feeling of thankfulness. The privilege of ministering in Orkney had both gifted me with the beautiful gift grace and had put my determination as a minister on the path of bringing reconciliation and forgiveness into our broken world.

When stubborn altar candles are witnesses for Christ

Sunday mornings always follow a beloved ritual: after preparing the sanctuary for the upcoming service, I welcome worshippers one by one as I make my way through the old sanctuary.  And as usual, I could already see the dismay of an elderly lady, who sat at the far right side in one of the last pews, as I moved towards her. After greeting her and exchanging small talk, she pulled me closer to herself. “Pastor!”, she said in a load, booming voice, “haven’t you seen the tall right altar candle? It´s crooked again!” As every Sunday I apologized to her and then moved quickly through the isle, up five steps to the altar, reaching up high to the stubborn candle and shifting it back into its place.

When I passed the elderly congregant, she nodded in approval and the service could begin. Hymn by hymn, prayer by prayer, reading by reading passed. And slowly but surely, the altar candle as most Sundays made it´s way back into it´s original position. Leaning in a self confident inwardly as if it were pointing towards the cross.

Seldom one Sunday passed without this kind of interactive ritual. After thoroughly looking at the candle holder and applying all kinds of remedies like paper and other material to keep the candle from slipping, I gave in to the stubborn altar candle. Submitting myself to the always present ritual of being adamantly reminded, correcting the candle and watching while it made it´s way back into the old position.

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It was one weekday afternoon that completely changed my view on this ritual. As I walked through the Sanctuary tired and weary from a incident, the beautiful silence of our church calmed my turbulent thoughts. I sat down in the front pew to find guidance in the daily scripture reading, but instead of giving me relief from the troubles around me, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was one I surely didn’t want to hear today. I sighed as I read about Jesus way to the cross.

It was the unbelievable ironical words of one of the criminals, who was crucified together with the messiah, which sent shivers down my spine. ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’  His words seemed to me a symbol of complete resignation to the world, to God and the messiah.

Instead of waiting for a reply from Jesus, the second criminal answered to this grim question: ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

As the words of the second criminal unfolded in the biblical reading, my eyes went from the bible up to the right altar candle, which was still stubbornly leaning inwards to the cross.

The brave answer and confession of the criminal led to a wonderful eternal perspective as Jesus articulated a promise beyond the criminals guilt: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’  By confessing his sins, the criminal had completely laid his faith and trust into the hands of God. And it seemed to me as if the candle was not able to do it differently, but to lean towards the cross.

The stubborn altar candle was a silent, but very persistent witness of the crucifixion. Now, Sunday after Sunday, I see the Gospel as it is enacted by these two candles, reminding us to lean on God. For we are not saved by humanly power, but by the grace of the cross through Jesus Christ.

 


Luk 23:26-39 (NRSV):

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Seeking Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century

The High line park near my Church was busy as always on a bright Sunday morning. Many people enjoyed the late fall sun before the icy winter would send cold winds through the New York street canyons.

A small scholar in black and white stood in front of a huge graffiti while Henry Taylor´s art work “The floaters” talked in bright colors about a relaxing day at a pool. The little Playmobil toy set a more earnest tone. Holding a scribes quill in one hand, “Little Luther” held the Holy Bible in a tight grip as it was glistening in the morning sun. The black letters spoke in a self-confident and brief way of a serious matter that is woven through Martin Luther´s Theology: “The End of the Books of the Old Testament … The New Testament translated by Doctor Martin Luther“. (1)

When I first received the small toy from Germany, I didn’t grasp it´s significance and how deeply embedded into lives this difficult theology can be. Generations of Theologians like Martin Luther and many others saw Judaism coming to an end with Jesus as the Messiah. (2) This misconception of salvation raises difficult questions for a Christian-Jewish dialogue: How can we reconnect even though generations before us have set us so far apart on the basis of these theological misconceptions? How can we rediscover the common ground of the Thora after turning against our Jewish brothers and sisters? What first seemed as neat toy for young and old, is becoming a increasing issue for me as I grow deeper into the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in New York City.

As part of the so called Generation Y, I have been raised with a dominant and strong picture of a perfect reformer, who lead Christianity into freedom from oppression. Who wouldn’t know the different, almost folk like tales, when Martin Luther threw the ink against the wall to scare away the devil? Or when he nailed the 95 thesis to the Church door in Wittenberg?

While emphasizing the German hero Martin Luther, most of the difficult facts have been successfully kept from us during our childhood. And like peeling an onion, layer by layer, the negative sides of the foremost “brilliant” reformer come to the surface. And this uncovering is causing a identity issue within Lutheranism:

Martin Luther´s strong anti-Judaism, which played a huge inspiring role in leading Nazi-Germany towards the crime of the Holocaust. His words might have been part of a larger societal crime, but neither his grief for the death of his daughter nor his senility can ever explain his false theological opinions. Or his political misconceptions, where Luther sacrificed the peasants to their oppressors in order to endure in the power struggles of Church, Lordship and the normal people.

Layer after layer the Lutheran Identity is challenged. We are now facing a long overdue and cleansing identity crisis within Lutheranism. The “great hero” of the Reformation is demasked as failing and sinful person. His own words may be a consolation to us in the midst of transformation: we all are sinners and saints.

The 500rd celebration of the Reformation might be the perfect time to reflect and to uncover the “real” Martin Luther learning from his theological brilliance AND his terrible theological failures. A great opportunity might be at hand to bring Luthers core discovery to its true significance: Transforming Lutheranism as a means of hope beyond failure, grace beyond sin.


(1) Playmobil has altered its 1st edition, deleting the “Ende” due to the difficult theological implication of the writing.

(2) Paul in contrast states that the Jews are saved – see Rom 11.