Friday, October 30, 2009


Sorry to scare you, but I’ve been getting in the Halloween mood. Yes, I have a costume. Or more specifically, a wig. You just may see it again in Halloweens to come. As an environmentalist, I think it’s my duty to purchase a sustainable costume that I can return to. And it’s really a good wig!

Y’all might remember that I attended a Dutch Reformed High School. They had a particular way of celebrating Halloween, and by ‘they,’ I mean the Bible Teacher, Mr. Zylstra. Kids would come to school dressed up, and Mr. Z would excitedly walk the halls, saying, “Happy Reformation Day!” Freshmen would always ask, “What’s he talking about? It’s Halloween.” Seniors would respond, “Mr. Z’s a church history nut.” And the festivities would continue.

Apparently, Mr. Z’s plan worked. To this day, I can’t think about Halloween without saying, somewhere deep within, “Happy Reformation Day! ” So I wanted you to share that joy with me.

Here’s the story of “Reformation Day.” Martin Luther was a 16th century German monk, Biblical Scholar and really intense guy. Really, really intense guy, whose deep spirituality led him to frequent questioning of the religion he practiced, as well as acts of self-mortification. It’s said that once he sat in an ice-cold river for thirty minutes, naked, to punish himself for sinful thoughts and tendencies. Really intense guy. But Martin Luther was deeply committed to his faith. And the more he compared his expanding Biblical understanding with the workings of his church’s bureaucracy, Luther got concerned.

He lived in a northeastern German town named Wittenberg. One day, a man, Johann Tetzel, showed up raising funds for the Papacy’s newest project- the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. His efforts were in keeping with Church doctrine at the time, which claimed that faith was not sufficient to merit God’s forgiveness (and entrance into paradise), but that good living and faithful support of the Church were also required. One way of achieving the latter was through donations, and marketers like Tetzel would solicit these donations under the term ‘indulgence.’ So if a person bought indulgences, they would help secure God’s favor. But Martin Luther didn’t like this, on social and theological grounds. He questioned the wealthy Pope’s soliciting money from poor people for a project he could fund personally. And besides, the way Luther had come to understand Scripture, it seemed that God, mysteriously, did not require goodness on our part to redeem humanity. God had already done the work and invited us into intimate fellowship through Jesus’ life and death. All we needed was to muster the faith to say, “Yes, Lord. I’ll follow you.”

So Luther composed a list of questions, the famed 95 theses, which laid out his complaints. On October 31st, 1517, he nailed that list to the door of Wittenberg’s Cathedral. This occurred during a time of revolutionary change in communication technology- the printing press had been invented- so within weeks, pamphlets of Luther’s questions saturated Europe. The effect was that people from all over came to share Luther’s concerns about the Church, and the Reformation Movement began, which continues still. Hence, Reformation Day.

To be fair, there’s a LOT more to that story that deserves careful nuance and consideration (i.e. say, “No” to Catholic bashing), but the broad outlines are worth pondering this Halloween. We’re in the midst of revolutionary technological change, and so, like people in Luther’s day, we have remarkable means to communicate bold ideas and form world-changing relationships with diverse people. As in Luther’s day, many fear the disorienting effect these changes will bring. But the deep lesson of Reformation Day, I believe, is that God remains faithful to people who put faith in God, and God will guide God’s people into creative new ways of loving ourselves and our neighbors if we muster the courage of faith to say, “Yes, Lord. I will follow.” So Happy Reformation Day! May you find renewed faith to follow our Lord Jesus, and step boldly into an unknown future secure that the Hand which fashioned this world still holds you closer then you could possibly imagine. In all things,

Grace and Peace,