I'm sure teaching John Calvin to sixth graders is no picnic--the Institutes in comic book form, Calvin as superhero. I saw it attempted a few weeks ago at Grandparents Day, an action-packed tale chosen from Calvin's bio plus a half-dozen sure-fit questions to be sure the episode wasn't just scanned by eyes and minds vastly more accustomed to iPads. It was--and I admit it--more than a little painful.
My guess is I too learned Reformation history right about then, at least somewhere in junior high, when Luther and the Reformers tried their darndest to fight off the demons of Halloween. In my day, Protestants hadn't yet given up the battle against the ghosts and goblins known to arise from late October miasma. Way back when, October 31st was really--although we knew better--the day Luther's balpeen hammer nailed up those 95 thesis (you can hardly say the word in seventh grade) on the door at Wittenburg. In the Christian school I attended, Reformation history wasn't just another spelling test.
In my mind I can still see some image of Luther, hammer in hand. Somewhere back then I also took a healthy shot of Fox's Book of Martyrs, a book whose detailed executions held bloody fascination to adolescent boys largely incapable of being grossed out.
Reformation history, like all history, I suppose, is intricately complex; so much so that it sometimes seems it's taken me a lifetime to unlearn what junior high taught --that Luther was downright saintly and Calvin seemed divine, who they were and what they taught and believed.
You've probably heard the one about two guys in Grand Rapids, one of them, Clarence, showing the other one, Vince, around town. "Here's Calvin Church, and there's Calvin junior high, and there's Calvin College, and Calvin Seminary," Clarence says. "Good grief," says Vince, "what all this about Calvin?" "My word, Vince!" Clarence slaps back. "Don't you read your Bible?"
That kind of thing.
For more than a year now, I've been reading Mother Teresa, whose vibrant faith empowered her to establish the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, where degradation and horror on the streets of the city went far beyond anything your and my imagination can conjure. People were starving, dying, literally, daily. Oddly enough, Mother Teresa has been teaching me a great deal about Martin Luther, even though his Wittenberg campaign began 500 years before and she likely wanted no part of it.
Blessed Mother Teresa is a saint, pure and simple (that's no a cliche). Yet, at the very time her work among the poor was gaining universal acclaim, at the very time she modeled to the world unselfish Christian charity, she suffered greatly on the rack of her own despairing doubt. For decades, at the very time her work with the poor grew in every possible way, she felt her Lord and Savior had abandoned her. She dared speak of the absence of God in her life only to her superiors, her spiritual mentors; and when, years after her death, the darkness she lived in and with was discovered, her adoring world went slack-jawed.
No one desired to suffer more than Mother Teresa. No one wanted to know Christ's own suffering more fully than she did. No one wanted to feel the nails in her hands and feet like "the little bride of Christ."
I don't know that anyone will ever understand how it could be that the woman most idealized as the quintessential Christian believer of the 20th century could have thought herself, for so long, so deeply estranged from the very God she served.
But something about that life-long trial helps me to understand Martin Luther's own fevered insistence on the efficacy of grace. I have no doubt that right now the two of them are sitting somewhere this Saturday morning, having tea and smiling with eternal radiance, but during her lifetime that woman suffered greatly.
Today, the birthday of Martin Luther, I think I'm more capable than ever before of understanding him, his theology, the Reformation he begat at Wittenberg, because I've read the story--the letters and journals--of a woman who never once questioned the Roman Catholic church of her time, even if at times she questioned God's own love.
Mother Teresa was, in every way, the beautiful Christian servant the world still knows her to be; but this morning, on his birthday, I'm thankful anew for a man I first met, quite superficially, in junior high, Martin Luther, who simply insisted, with a hammer and nails, that grace, God's grace, is all-sufficient.