Why Is Luther Winking?

A friend of mine, just back from a conference at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s headquarters in Chicago (our “Vatican”), sported a sassy new T-shirt. On the front was a colorful portrait of Martin Luther, giving the world a jaunty wink. And on the back, the money question: “Why is Luther Winking?”

Why, indeed? Less interested in the answer to the question than in the shirt, I went online and ordered one. I knew it would garner comments, though they’re usually of a different sort than I’d expected. Most people want to know why I’m wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Christopher Columbus on it. “Same funny hat,” I tell them, “very different historical figure.”

According to the ELCA, Luther is winking because he was an earthy and fun-loving guy. We are, evidently, trying to get people over the Garrison Keillor-inspired notion that Lutherans are dour and gloomy. My own, personal view, however, is that he’s winking because he’s come to know — maybe a little more than most people — about the love and mercy of God. This man, who suffered through a youth tormented by fear of a wrathful deity, lived long enough to make his peace with God.

I sometimes think my dad must have been a changeling. Some of the sour Lutherans begat him, then left him on the doorstep of my happy-Lutheran grandparents. Most of our relatives have a fairly sunny and liberal outlook on life. But Dad has always been a bit of a grump.

Since the beginning of this year, I have been back living in my girlhood home. Dad was in congestive heart failure following a major heart attack, and only a few months thereafter, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. More than ever before in his life, he had real reasons to be grumpy. And there seemed to be times he reveled in them.

The holidays were an especially tense time. I played a gender-nonspecific, politically-correct Wise Person in my church’s Christmas Eve pageant. As we Three PC WP’s paid our homage to the Cabbage Patch doll who starred as Jesus in the manger, Dad sat at home, reminiscing about all those Christmases long past when presents had to be opened on Christmas Eve. This year, he was the only one who didn’t want to wait. Time, for him, now seemed to drag by.

At the end, all days were alike to him. Until that day when he simply didn’t wake up. My memories of that dark morning will always remain a horrific, half-awake jumble: his caregiver sobbing, the 911 operator’s instructions as she thrust the cordless phone into my hand, my father’s cold and stiff ankles as she and I hoisted him from bed to floor so she could perform CPR. And then the resignation on the faces of the paramedics who stormed Dad’s bedroom like gangbusters, unable to do anything but stand around exchanging their professional patter when they saw they were too late.

He lay there on his back in the incomprehensible dawn, hairless from his second chemotherapy, his face drawn into a bitter, puzzled frown. He reminded me of Charles Foster Kane, from Welles’ film classic. I wondered if he’d muttered his own “Rosebud” just before he closed his eyes.

Certain totally ridiculous people (who shall here, mercifully, remain nameless) ask me how I can still sleep in the house where my father died. Am I not worried I’ll hear him some night, moaning and rattling his chains? “He was my father,” I remind them, wondering if, should I shine my flashlight in one of their ears, I’d truly see the beam come through the other. This should put them in their place, and it usually does. All I feel still left of him now, in that big house haunted by memories, is his love.

For years, from the majority of my other relatives, I hadn’t felt the love. Dad and I were estranged for three years, and had a terribly strained relationship for much longer than that. It seemed, to me, that most people in the family sided with him. And he was not shy about furthering that impression. In fact, it’s what he came right out and told me.

News of Dad’s death traveled along the family grapevine at unfathomable speed. Within hours of the call I made to my sister, everybody seemed to know. Then began the condolences, and expressions of concern I could tell were real. For the first time in what seemed like eons, I felt the love.

Maybe it isn’t love quite yet. Perhaps it’s simple family loyalty, or affection offered for the sake of the love they had for my dad. Love grows only in the soil of relationship, and relationship cannot exist in a vacuum. I imagined (with some help from Dad, but also from a non-relative jealous of the family’s affection for him) that many of those in the family looked down their noses at me. Little did I ever stop to realize that they probably thought I was doing the same thing to them!

Nobody can love a person they don’t know. Not, that is, in any personal sense. Scripture enjoins us to “love” God. The problem with defining God down to some impersonal force, like gravity or El Nino, is that this makes it impossible to love God. Luther’s wink reassures us that he no longer fears Judgment under the Law — an impersonal force — because he now knows God, in the person of Jesus. El Nino could never have been said to love anybody, but God, as Jesus has revealed “Him,” most certainly can and does love us.

“God is love,” say the crusaders against gay and lesbian civil rights, even as they try to slip past the American people a proposed amendment that would, in actuality, violate four existing amendments to the Constitution. And in the next breath, they boast of their patriotism! Are there any voices of honesty left? No honest American would ever support a constitutional amendment that would actually destroy this, our nation’s most cherished document! And anyone who calls him – or herself – a Christian, while at the same time pursuing a ministry of hate, serves not Christ but Antichrist.

No one can experience love any other way than to be treated with love. How utterly ridiculous it is for conservative Christians to call themselves “Biblical literalists” when they stone-heartedly ignore the most basic teachings of the Man they call Lord of Lords and King of Kings! They insist that every story in Scripture is “literally” true — yet give no evidence that they’ve learned anything from it at all beyond the bizarro notion that the God Who so loved the world has commanded them to hate.

As John Dominic Crossan has said, Jesus may be the Lamb of God, but that doesn’t mean that Mary Had a Little Lamb. We may, very well, have reached a point where we have obsessively literalized God right out of the Bible. The Gospels suffer particularly from this. Was God’s lesson to future generations of humanity really that Jesus was God in the same sense that Clark Kent was Superman: a sort of superhero, disguised as an ordinary man?

I certainly believe that Jesus is God in some sense. But I’m beginning to realize that, far from illuminating Jesus, the whole “Superman” concept actually obscures Him. John Shelby Spong theorizes that rather than seeing Jesus’s basic nature as having been one with God’s from the beginning, we should understand that the real likeness Jesus bears to God can be seen in how profoundly He embodied God — showing us, at the same time, how we might, too.

As long as Christians place their emphasis on how different they are from Jesus, they cannot take up their crosses and follow Him. Only the realization of how much like Jesus we each have the capacity to become will we be empowered to reach the potential to which Christ calls us.

Scripture tells us that we are Christ’s Body on earth: His eyes, ears, arms, lips, hands and feet. Do we ever really stop to consider exactly how much power God has vested in us? What a staggering responsibility “He” has given us? If we don’t do God’s work on this earth, it will not get done. This does not mean God may not have given other people — those who do not follow Christ — their own share of “His” work to do. To have created all those billions of folks but given them nothing to do would have been an awful waste, and if there’s one thing God is not, it’s wasteful. But there are also vast multitudes who never would have found their connection to God if not for Jesus. Those of us who follow him have been given the map to an awesome treasure.

In my time of sorrow and confusion, when my mind is tangled with worries, I am far from being alone. God has come to me, in this time, through the family members who have rallied around me — all those people I so mistakenly believed had left me for road kill.

God does not operate as the nitwit fantasies of the Religious Right would have us believe. “He” doesn’t stride the earth like a giant, hurling thunderbolts and Hurricane Katrinas at the people “He” doesn’t like. The thing I find most entertaining about programs like The 700 Club and Praise the Lord is those folks’ puppet-like insistence that God is behind every move they make. Special, special them! And for just a few hundred of our hard-earned dollars, we can be special too…

As disgusted as Martin Luther got with the religious hucksters of his own day, when all they were selling was a fire-retardant suit for the hereafter, I can scarcely imagine what his reaction would have been to the televangelists of today. Whereas their predecessors merely sold peace in the world to come, there sharpies hawk not only that, but the promise of riches in this one.

Now this crowd is opposing marriage for same-sex couples. Their dim-bulb reading of the Bible tells them, you see, that God is offended when certain people love others. The same God that the Bible tells us sent Jesus to the Cross to show how totally God identifies with us. You see, somebody else told them how to read the Bible, and nothing terrifies them more than the possibility that they might do Holy Writ greater justice if they’d make the effort of reading it for themselves. Five hundred years after the Reformation, just behold the sad, servile and witless state to which many members of the Body of Christ have been reduced!

When I remarked that Dad was being cremated, in compliance with his own wishes, a few of his friends expressed concern. “How will he get up,” protested one good-hearted soul, “at the Resurrection?”

“Don’t make me get out that flashlight,” I had to bite my tongue to keep from warning her. Were we to worry that God wouldn’t raise Dad because — for whatever reason — he’d left instructions for his cremation after his death? What odd, limiting notions we get into our heads about God’s capacity for love!

We get notions very nearly as weird about our own, and that of others. I look forward to getting to know the relatives who have (by my own fault, as much as anyone else’s) been such strangers to me. And I find it amazingly easy to love them. When we banish those old messages of judgment and condemnation from our minds, our hearts are free to soar to heights we’d never previously imagined.

My “Winking Luther” shirt makes me happy. Happier, still, by far, is the glow of love — both given and received — it never fails to kindle now within me. For the shirt itself is nowhere near as interesting, after all is said and done, as is the answer to its question.