A man discovers grace through faith, Martin Luther, and the promise of heaven.
The neighborhood I grew up in was an old, working-class, ethnic settlement on a busy street. As a young child, I entertained myself in the backyard playing everything from frontier army scout to excavation contractor with toy trucks and earth movers. Playmates were scarce, and I was left mostly to my own devices and imagination. I had no siblings.
Sometimes I could hear the bell ringing vociferously from the Wesleyan church down the street. Something about the sound of it enchanted me. My parents and I did not attend church, but I looked forward to hearing the distinct peal as I reloaded my musket on quiet Sunday mornings, ready for imaginary threats.
The closest church to my house was St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic church. It was only about six city blocks away, easily navigable for an experienced army man and frontiersman. I convinced my parents to let me walk there for Sunday services. The Mass was celebrated in Latin, and it was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. I had no idea what the priest was saying, but the lyrical cadence of the chants was mesmerizing.
The ancient church was appointed with large statues of the saints, one of the virgin Mary, and a huge crucifix above the altar. The Lord hung on it in perpetual agony. There were Stations of the Cross, incense, and even something they called holy water.
The next move in my “walk,” a term I learned watching TV preachers when the weather was too bad to walk to church (or more likely I overslept), was to successfully lobby my parents to let me switch from public school to St. Vincent de Paul in the fifth grade. It was grand. At one point, I’d even considered the priesthood. Repetition and recitation of directives and church laws were etched in my mind, and I developed an unshakable faith. I don’t recall studying much Scripture, though.
Once, in early spring, I came home from school starving, as most teenaged boys are apt to do. I spotted a hunk of Italian salami in the refrigerator, a delicacy recently discovered at a friend’s house. It made a glorious sandwich and I began to devour it. Suddenly my blood ran cold, and my soul went dark. It was a Friday in Lent, and I had a mouthful of salami. When I opened my eyes again, things thankfully seemed as they were. No fiery cherubs came to remove me to a warmer environment.
Soon after, I met a girl who worked at the local pizza parlor. She was a nice girl from a good family. There was only one hitch to the budding relationship. She and her family attended a Protestant church, a place I learned never to set foot in if I didn’t want celestial forces to immediately carry me off to the pit. Predictably, I was eventually invited to Sunday service with them at St. Andrew’s Lutheran. They never knew what courage it took for me to accept the invitation.
The church interior looked like any other, but with far fewer adornments, and instead of a crucifix above the altar, there hung an empty cross. Great, I mused, even Jesus doesn’t want to come here. I followed the family to a pew, sat, and waited for the earthquake. Perhaps the roof would cave in. To my immense relief, nothing happened, but I had no idea what the sermon was about.
I heard the minister preach something about grace through faith and then speak of the Reformation and Martin Luther. I was under the impression that Martin Luther was some sort of religious criminal and the Reformation was an illegal uprising of heretics against the holy church. Who but a trouble maker would have the audacity to nail a list of complaints to his church right on the front door? But a tiny notion was forming as my mind wandered back to when I first heard that Sunday bell. Could there possibly be truth here in the Lutheran church?
It could be a reasonable possibility that instead of angry angels ever at the ready to cast me into judgment, the Holy Spirit was quietly guiding me to a new path bereft of peril and fear. Secretly, I figured I wasn’t going to be saved come judgment day anyway; too many sins needed penance. I just kept mentally hearing the words of that Lutheran minister over and over—grace through faith, grace through faith—verify everything in Scripture. This beauty-in-simplicity was something definitely worth pondering.
I began to ask questions. I began to understand and like the answers. The teachings and admonishments of Martin Luther struck a chord within me as nothing before ever could. This opened up a new world for me, and before I knew it, I was enrolled in adult catechism. I found out what God’s grace really was, and was so thankful that not only were prescribed penances unnecessary, but they were fruitless. My question became: Just who was Martin Luther exactly? I intended to find out.
I eventually became a teamster driving long distances. At one point I became the owner of an iPhone with downloadable MP3 capability, and the selection of audiobooks was endless. I wondered whether iTunes had any books by and about Martin Luther.
To my surprise, there were plenty. I downloaded many and listened. Some were published directly by Luther himself. Slowly I got to know Martin Luther, the man.
Luther had grown on me to the point that I could easily regard him as Uncle Marty. I learned every aspect of his life from start to finish, but what stood out the most was that he seemed to be a regular guy. He had no qualms about having a beer or a couple glasses of wine with the boys, always in strict moderation. In Here I Stand, he displayed an appreciable sense of humor about married life and the compromises and sacrifices required. He married a woman, Katie, an apostate nun, and together they had six children—three boys and three girls. He enjoyed gardening, wine making, and a form of lawn bowling. And, as with most men, his wife’s insistence on constantly changing the bedsheets became an irritant.
The more I got to know him, the more I truly enjoyed his company. He was the kind of man with whom you could strike up a conversation in the market square about practically anything—and not be nervous. He taught students at supper seminars in his home about faith. Little did he know, but 500 years after the Reformation, he was still helping people—me. He escorted this old teamster to find his way to grace in a way no one else could.
Now it’s years later. I still have the original girlfriend—she’s now my wife—and together we brought up four children in the faith. From time to time I encounter old classmates from the elementary school, and there’s no animosity. Someone may invariably ask about how and why I made the decision to leave the former faith. I just politely but firmly respond, “Here I stand.”
James White is a member at Grace, Tecumseh, Michigan.
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Author: James White
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017
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