Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reformed Reflections

Even as a Catholic, I have a special place in my heart for Lutherans, particularly the ELCA Lutheran church. It all began the fateful day when I realized that if I really wanted to experience music in college, a Catholic university just wasn't going to cut it. Whatever you want to say about the Reformation, Martin Luther had something right when he returned the gift of music to the people of the church.

And so I matriculated at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I, a good German Catholic girl, well-acquainted with Friday night fish fry, Vatican II and incense, was enrolled in a four-year intensive course in "How to Speak Norwegian Lutheran" à la Garrison Keillor and Weston Nobel.

This week, I was again doused in all of the best of the First Protestant Church.

Today, Sunday, the Northwoods Brass Quintet added its voice to a special service celebrating the 20th anniversary of Prince of Peace Lutheran church in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Throughout the service people shared memories of the first days of the "mission church" in Eagle River and the construction of the building and sanctuary boasting beautiful acoustics and a warm, welcoming atmosphere - an atmosphere that reflects directly the personal warmth of the congregation that inhabits it. A small church in northern Wisconsin, but with a full-voiced choir of the type that would inspire Luther to post his 95 theses all over again.

Lutherans say music is second only to Word in the liturgical experience. Luther College seeks to instill this in all of its students, and often it is the students themselves that further push the envelope in how music can best be used to express that which is inexpressible.

One of those students who used music as a bridge across cultures and religious experiences has been lost to this world. Ben Larson, Luther graduate of '06 and fourth year seminarian, died when the main building of St. Joseph's Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, collapsed on him during the earthquake on January 12, 2010.

Ben, the younger brother of my twin sister Luther compatriots, lived for music and for the Lutheran church. On Friday I had the honor of attending his memorial service at Luther College. In true Luther style, the event was meticulously planned and hastily thrown together. Every detail was attended to (as one might expect of a memorial service planned by a family of musical pastors and ex-bishops with a contingent of advising pastors and bishops for a near-pastor), but the execution of the event was up to a motley crew of those with various musical talents gathering that day. The result was seamless, and a highly appropriate mix of decorum and informality.

This, to my experience, is the essence of the Lutheran tradition, and the one that the Catholics stand to learn the most from. Ritual guides the practice, but a deep, underlying humanity colors the actual event.

Every human being, regardless of religious creed, should have the type of memorial I witnessed this week. Less the particular ceremony, and more the intent and emotion behind it. Sometimes you need to leave your own tradition to rediscover it in another.

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