By Sue Sprang
LANSING – With 2017 being the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Reformation, Lutherans across the globe are planning celebrations and events in observance of this important date in church history. Some will involve thousands of people, travel, tight schedules, lots of ritual or formality or pageantry, and years of preplanning.
On the other end of the scale, a small group might hold an impromptu observance of some sort, nothing fancy, just “taking it as it comes”. But no matter who or what makes up the event, there is a common denominator: our thankfulness to God for the gift of reform, for raising up men and women today and throughout history to call the church back to its roots, and for filling us with joy and a healthy pride in our Lutheran heritage.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lansing, has already begun its intentional Reformation observance. Named “ReformationLIVES”, the celebration began this past Sept. and will run through Reformation Sunday 2017. The seed was planted by Pastor Matt Smith and took root as others in the congregation latched onto the concept.
“As our congregation looks toward celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in October 2017, we’re reflecting on the stories of the Lutheran Church, our congregation, and the people of our church family – the stories that bind us together,” Smith said. “Stories define us and are expressions of who we are.
“Our overarching story is the story of God’s love for creation and the salvation given to us through our trusting faith in the death and resurrection of Christ,” he continued. “Our Reformation faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace that finds expression in liberated service to others. As we celebrate our stories we’ll see how faith has led us in service to others.”
Smith pointed out that “LIVES” in “ReformationLIVES” is both a noun and a verb.
“We’re celebrating the shared stories of our LIVES,” he said, “but it is also a verb, because our stories show how reformation LIVES in all of us, leading us to grateful service to others.”
ReformationLIVES kicked off on Sept. 11, which was the 15th anniversary of 9/11. It was also the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s annual “God’s Work, Our Hands” day, when congregations are encouraged to serve their neighborhoods and communities in kind, intentional, and sometimes unexpected ways.
On that day, Bethlehem celebrated the shared stories of its first responders. Members who are active or retired EMS, firefighters, and police officers were recognized during worship. Pastor Jim Schalkhauser, who retired as pastor of Bethlehem after 29 years of service and as chaplain of the Lansing Fire Department after 27 years of service, was the guest speaker for the day.
The following Sunday, the congregation celebrated the shared stories of its Feeding Ministries. It reviewing the long history of Bethlehem’s food pantry and the food baskets members provide those in need at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Reformation Sunday, Oct. 30, saw a celebration of the history of music in the Lutheran Church and in the congregation. The lives of members serving in or retired from the armed forces were celebrated on Nov. 13. On Dec. 4, members gathered to celebrate their family trees and family Christmas traditions.
In January will be the celebration of the history of civil rights and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. To some folks, this may seem odd for a congregation that, except for one family, is white. But the focus will be on how the civil rights movement impacted the congregation by sharing stories of members who marched in protests of that time.
“The story of protest certainly touches on the Reformation and the life of Christ,” Smith said.
Planned for the rest of 2017, the members will celebrate…
- their journeys of health and wellness and those who work/have worked in health care (Feb);
- current and past youth of the congregation (March);
- the care of God’s creation (April);
- the history and current work of the women of Bethlehem and of the ELCA – with a dash of Katie Luther added for good measure (May);
- those who have jobs in the trades; the people and industries that built Lansing and Bethlehem Lutheran Church (June);
- camping ministry and how it has impacted the lives of so many (Bethlehem has had 12 members serve as staff at Stony Lake Camp of our synod) (July);
- the congregation’s work with global mission, and mission trips across the country and in Michigan (Aug.);
- those who work or have worked as educators and Christian educators (Sept.); and
- each member’s story and the stories that connect them to Bethlehem. (Oct).
“On Reformation Sunday, our focus is going to be on how all our stories connect with each other, the church, the Reformation, and Christ,” Smith said.
Until then, Bethlehem is emphasizing and celebrating the story on a particular Sunday each month. Aspects of that story are highlighted in the weekly bulletin.
“What shape the story takes in worship is guided by what the story is,” Smith explained. “Sometimes there will be one speaker, sometimes maybe more. We’re also using photos, videos, and other resources that come along.”
Although ReformationLIVES is primarily an “in house” series, the congregation is intentionally open to community involvement.
“The shared stories we celebrate will often lead us out into the community,” Smith said. “For our first responders celebration, we did invite the Lansing Fire Department to our service and church picnic. A good planning question for each month is: ‘How is the community we serve part of this story and how can they be part of the celebration?’”
As stated above, ReformationLIVES was Smith’s brainchild, but it didn’t take long to bring others on board.
“The idea grew out of my need, being newly called [as senior pastor], to have contact with every member household this year,” Smith explained. “I wanted those contacts to be authentic, and that is where the idea of story came in, and celebrating the stories that we share – the things that connect us.
“Also, being aware of the 500th anniversary just around the corner, I didn’t want to pass by with just a nominal celebration. So I developed the initial idea and met with our music directors, and it started to grow. Amanda Schneider, our Bell Choir director and lifetime member, really ran with it.”
Prior to meeting with Amanda and the other music directors, Smith had come up with a basic description and a list of possible shared stories to celebrate.
“Things just evolved from there,” Smith said. “The series is a synthesis of ideas: contact, story, Reformation, celebration. The title “ReformationLIVES came from conversations with the council chair about the series and wanting to come up with something to hold it all together.”
Bethlehem’s stories reach back to the formation of the ELCA, to immigrants bringing their Lutheran faith to the shores of America, to Martin Luther nailing the 95 Thesis to a castle church door 500 years ago, and, finally, to Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection is the story that ultimately connects all – past, present, and future – who confess his name.