Confessions of faith
A man who grew up atheist in East Germany discovers confessional Lutheranism in the United States.
Ann M. Ponath
To come full circle, to return to a starting place, an original position. Upon examination and in retrospect, how often don’t our lives reflect God’s circular motions as he uses our past experiences in our present lives to his glory, the strengthening of the church and our own faith? Utz Wiegner is an excellent example.
Growing up athiest in East Germany
“I had wonderful parents and family,” says Wiegner, a native of Leipzig in communist East Germany, “but I grew up atheist. Except for frequent family gatherings and vacations within the confines of the Eastern Bloc, life was grey and hopeless. The state controlled almost all areas of life; secret police (Stasi) had an eye on everyone.”
He continues, “Biblical teachings and churches were far from outlawed in East Germany. However, since the beginning of the Soviet occupation, Christianity had been discouraged. By the time I was born, the Christian population had shrunk significantly. Atheism was the norm.”
Wiegner knew few churchgoers, however, reminders of Christianity remained. Wiegner lived about a mile from St. Thomas Church and attended St. Thomas School, both famous for their connections with J. S. Bach. “Bach played an important part in my life, and I became very interested in his music. It was mainly this way that I became familiar with biblical teachings,” he says.
Wiegner also was living in the midst of Martin Luther’s old stomping grounds. Although East Germany was under the Communists, “Luther was regarded as a social reformer and revolutionary,” says Wiegner, who was aware of Luther and the Reformation. “At a very early age, I got to visit the Lutherhaus and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg as well as Luther’s birth and death houses in Eisleben. I was fascinated to learn about his translation of the Bible into German and how Luther changed the course of history and Western civilization.”
He continues, “Not much was said about religious reforms, except for that this was how the Protestant Church started. The Bible was regarded as significant only in a historical or cultural sense.” Still, young Wiegner, had Christian ideas planted in his mind and heart—and “as with many other things, I early on suspected Eastern propaganda.”
Wiegner was still living in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall came down. In 1999, 28-year-old Wiegner relocated to Florida to attend flight school.
It was on his first Christmas there that Wiegner visited a German church in Winter Park. “I thought it would be nice to meet some fellow Germans,” he says. “Most of the churchgoers were elderly and had lived in the United States for a long time. I enjoyed hearing about their life experiences.”
Wiegner became active in the church and made many friends. “I found Christ mainly through the hymns, individual Bible study, and fellowship with other believers. Unfortunately, the saving message of the gospel was not to be found in the sermons, and the pastor was clearly teaching contrary to Scripture.”
Since services were only held once a month, the pastor recommended that members look for a second church for the other Sundays. As God would have it, Wiegner lived across the street from an Evangelical Lutheran Synod church in Kissimmee. He visited the church twice and, in talking to the pastor, was introduced to The Book of Concord. “I immediately bought a copy and decided to not fully commit to any church until I had finished reading this book,” says Wiegner. “After about two years of thoroughly studying The Book of Concord and doing a lot of research on it, I knew I wanted to be part of a confessional Lutheran church.”
Wiegner joined a Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) church in Orlando. “Being part of that church was a huge blessing,” he says. “I made a lot of good friends, became part of the church council, and attended preseminary classes to learn more about Scripture, The Book of Concord, and the Christian faith.”
Fast forward to 2007. After a couple of “tedious years as a flight instructor,” Wiegner decided to pursue his childhood passion—language. He began working at Wycliffe Bible Translators, where he met his wife, Grace. They married and moved to Atlanta, Grace’s hometown. They joined a small LCMS church, but it closed a year later.
The couple visited Faith, Sharpsburg, “the closest confessional Lutheran church,” the next Sunday. “The moment we entered the church, I was completely taken aback at the large crowd of Lutherans—so much laughter and joy, so many children. I felt that this was the right place for me,” says Wiegner
Faith’s pastor, Jonathan Schroeder, soon invited Wiegner to FaithBuilders class. He told Wiegner that the classes “give people interested in becoming members the opportunity to examine whether the church teaches according to Scripture—which was a perspective I highly appreciated,” says Wiegner. “I also liked the pastor’s opinion about having our own Bible translation, that the church should not translate the Bible according to its beliefs but rather teach according to the Bible.”
In the summer of 2012, Wiegner became a confirmed member. “I feel well protected in the church against false doctrine because I know the church teaches in accordance with The Book of Concord, which teaches and faithfully explains Scripture.”
Using talents to God’s glory
Wiegner assists with congregational tasks such as church cleaning, ushering, lawn care, and auditing. Recently, however, Schroeder, a member of the WELS new hymnal committee, asked him for help with a special project—translating hymns for the new hymnal. “I started translating old German hymns into clear English prose so that English poets can make new arrangements,” says Wiegner. “I find it interesting how the meaning of some of the terminology has shifted over the centuries. Translating these hymns accurately makes you think very deeply about the intended meaning, the train of thought of the writer, and the circumstances under which he has written them. Some of the hymns have never been translated into English; others only partially, inaccurately, or poorly.”
Schroeder says that having Wiegner involved has been a great blessing. “As a native German speaker and English copy editor, his facility in both languages is excellent. Our hope is to give his prose to English poets to produce quality new hymn stanzas from great, old texts.”
By God’s grace, an atheist became a Christian, using his gifts to translate hymns from his native German to the English that more (including Wiegner and Grace’s six-month old daughter) may hear, as he once did, the saving message of the gospel in words and music.
Wiegner’s favorite hymn texts are the 400-year-old works of Paul Gerhardt. He especially loves “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”), translated by Gerhardt into German from a medieval Latin poem. The hymn also happens to be part of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, first performed on Good Friday 1727 in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.
“I grew up in a culture that had little regard for the sanctity of human life or the inherent value of each individual,” says Wiegner. “When I came to Christ, I learned to appreciate his loving regard for each of his children.”
Wiegner’s life has come full circle as God’s good planning continues in the lives of him and his family. As Bach would say: Soli Deo Gloria!
Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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Author: Ann M. Ponath
Volume 102, Number 5
Issue: May 2015
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