We were asked by the clergy in Leipzig yesterday about how we expeienced Kirchentag–both in Wittenberg and Leipzig. It’s a question I continue to think about.

For me, Kirchentag was defined in moments that captured what it is to be the church in the world–across cultures, countries, and languages. While there were many moments that achieved this, two were particularly illustrative for me.

The first was the moment you’d expect–the one that was probably even planned. The Zum Licht program, a visual, musical, artistic display of the church in the world, began with a reenactment of the Reformation Disputation in Leipzig. The tension built through the confessions of the damage done through the battles fought with the belief (on both sides) that God was with “us.”

It didn’t end there, though. The final moments of the program were spent with everyone joining their voices to sing, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Give us peace.

As we sang this prayer, it became clear that the work of the church is not done yet. There are better practices for the earth and environment to implement, more people to care for, more understandings to achieve and perspectives to hear. We are not called to be complacent with things the way they are, not when we have been given a vision of what could be.

And the second moment–one of the little ones that just happens at events like this.

I had gone to find the brass concert in Augustusplatz, and I ended up sitting on a ledge by the sidewalk surrounding the square.

As the musicians warmed up, a woman walked up and asked whether the next space on the ledge was free. I replied in my poor German, “Ja, es ist frei,” and proceeded to move my stuff to clear a space.
I explained (in English) what I was doing, and was responded to with the brief phrase I have come to know very well, “Auf Deutsch.” 

I was beginning to apologize, and I could see her confusion, too, when the first notes sounded from the square. 

We just laughed and let the music fill the space. 

As it turns out, there are still a few languages we can all speak, like mathematics, music, hospitality, and kindness.

Sunday in Wittenberg

While much of the sight-seeing and even relationship-building we have participated in during this trip could be replicated in the future, Sunday worship was an experience we likely will not have the opportunity to repeat in our lifetimes.


Group members have described what happened on Sunday morning as “Lutheran Woodstock” (keep in mind, most group members were born long after Woodstock!). We caught the train from Leipzig to Wittenberg, and then made our way into a large open field on the banks of the Elbe River, with the towers of Wittenberg’s churches and university in the background. Sunday was a beautiful, sunny, hot (88 degrees!) day.

Earlier blog posts have mentioned the marvelous hospitality our hosts have demonstrated. We saw this hospitality again on Sunday, not only from our host families who provided food, blankets, umbrellas, etc. for us to use, but also in the attention to detail that was invested by Kirchentag and Reformation 2017 planning staff as they prepared this worship service for 300,000 people in Wittenberg, a town of 50,000.

Rev. Martin Henker, the superintendent of the Leipzig district (the church body to whom our Minneapolis Area Synod relates, so his position is analogous to a synod bishop) told me that nothing like this has been planned for this area before, but it was felt that in the Reformation’s 500th anniversary year, this culmination worship service could happen nowhere other than Wittenberg. Preparing for all these guests included reseeding the entire area last fall with a grass that is stands up well to heavy foot traffic. All along the walking route from the train station to the field (and back again when we left), volunteers were handing out free bottles of water and holding large signs with clear instructions on how to get to the various entrances and transportation options. Temporary stairways, ramps, and walking paths had all been installed, ready for any kind of weather. And my goodness, I have never seen so many and such nice porta-potties in my life! A phrase from the prayer of the day described the gathered worshippers as “exhausted by the abundance we have experienced” in these Kirchentag days, and that sums it up well on so many different levels!



What really surprised me on Sunday was the realization that I had gone in assuming this liturgy would be a kind of “Reformation Sunday on steroids” – a service heavy on nostalgia, as we often do such services in the United States. But this liturgy, in the heart of Lutherland, was not nostalgic. There was no “if only we could go back to an imagined golden era of the past,” no “rah-rah, Lutherans are the best.”

Our preacher was Anglican: Archbishop Thabo Magkoba, from South Africa. No one was in 16th century costumes. We sang in Latin, Greek, and German, Hebrew and English. We did not sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Music included Mendelssohn and jazz, music especially composed for this event as well as familiar favorites from the American South and the United Kingdom, Bach chorales and hymns from contemporary German composers. The offering went to support “Mediterranean Hope,” a Protestant ministry in Italy serving on the front lines of welcoming, supporting, and advocating for refugees who have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. All of these aspects of the service undercut any notions that our gathering was primarily about something that happened 500 years ago, or about a man named Martin Luther, or about having a pep rally for our team.

Worship was about our Triune God in whose name we had gathered. It was about the gathered community on a field outside Wittenberg 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, and the ways in which German history and South African history might give us insight into living out our faith in the “narcissistic, nationalistic, dangerously rambling” times in which we now live. “Martin Luther made it safe to want to belong to something bigger than ourselves,” Archbishop Magkoba said, and that something is a shared life in joyful service to our neighbor. We are mirrors of God’s love to the world, and “we are challenged to bless others with this love, to see them, and to journey with them despite our fears and in the midst of the brokenness around us.”


One of the guiding questions for the events of this “Reformation Summer” is, “Can I be farsighted by looking back?” In other words, what aspects of looking back help us to have clear vision for the future? This question has challenged me as a person of faith and as a pastoral leader as I’ve engaged in conversation with other group members and with our German hosts. I am grateful for the ways in which this question has been embodied in many of our activities in these days together, including in Sunday worship.


God keeps finding us

Today’s gifts of the trip included a worship in the the Church of St. Thomas, or Thomaskirche, where J.S. Bach was the choral director for the final 27yrs of his life. It included the famed church boys choir, a small orchestra, and other singers offering Bach’s Reformation cantata based upon Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.

I admit, in the wake of travel, a later than normal prior night, constant strife of overcoming language barriers, and the natural anxiety of being in an unknown place far from home, I was tired, and I relished the chance to be still.  I also confess I may have even “rested my eyes” a bit during the sermon! Heaven forbid!(Forgive me, it was in German).

And yet, there were moments in the worship when the familiar and consistently proclaimed promises of God broke through even to my weary heart, soul, mind, and body.  In my limited German I heard the words from Isaiah 41:10.

“do not fear, for I am with you,do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you,I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

We’re here learning from each other. Leipzig and Minneapolis. Clergy and parishioner. Local and pilgrim.  We’re confessing the difficulties and nuances of particular contexts and circumstances.  In the midst of this, it is good to hear and remember that there is a word which is in, with, under, over, and for us which continues to find it’s way to be heard.

I took joy two days ago when our tour guide, a historian born and raised in Wittenberg, made known to us that the baptismal font currently in the city church is the same font from the time of the Reformation. The way he said it, “This is still a church, not a museum.  Martin Luther’s children were baptized in this font. I was baptized in this font. People continue to receive the promises of the gospel in this place.”

It wasn’t the item which made it so meaningful, it was the word, the promise, the hope, and the constant way that God keeps finding us.

We’ll continue learning, struggling, and traveling along, but I take hope in that for me today, for us, and for whatever’s ahead for the church.

In the midst of all things trying, difficult, confusing, exhausting, and unknown, the old hymn still has a truth to it, “one little word” keeps finding us.  Thanks be to God for this gift which will not end.

Ordinarily Amazing

I must have dozens of pictures on my phone right now.

This is our third day here, and we have seen so much–Leipzig, Wittenberg, Kirchentag, new friends, colleagues, churches, events, etc. My phone storage is quickly disappearing.

It’s the pictures I didn’t take that matter the most, though. These are the moments that don’t transfer to a photograph.

A picture of a train platform does not capture what it means to have traveled for twenty-four hours, sleeping one, and then hearing a string of instructions you know you can’t process. Just as you feel the familiar pressure of stress pushing out your chest and jaw, a very quiet, “Don’t worry. I’ll bring you,” is spoken. 

As many on this blog have pointed out, our hosts here have been more than gracious and hospitable during our time here. Without such kindness, our trip would be very different.

And it’s not only them. Unpictured moments of kindness seem to permeate our days wherever we are.

Today, it was the moment someone realized our group spoke very little of the language here and just began translating, because this person felt it would be good for us strangers to know what was going on.

It was the moment we were running for the tram, and the person at the bus stop pointed to the button to open the door–because in our hurry we might not have thought of that.

It’s the general respect shown to all people in the value of punctuality–keeping appointments–without rushing. It’s slowing down and being present in the times between. It’s making a meal a social event. It’s the ordinary moments when there is someone caring for someone else.

It’s being willing to look at and really see the whole picture, not just the parts we want to show off, as an earlier post pointed out. I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to hope that these things are not unconnected. The practice of truthfully acknowledging who we are and have been influences how we step into the world tomorrow. Knowing our history gives us the perspective to envision who we want to be now, and lean into ordinary actions of simple kindness and integrity.

After all, those seemingly small actions can really grow to change the world.

Dona nobis pacem.


I’m writing this on Friday morning–as I sit by the window in my room in the Pfarrhaus (parsonage) in Lützschena, a village just outside the central city of Leipzig. Birds are singing and the sun is shining on the garden. The bells in the old Castle Church just chimed the hour. It’s a beautiful morning, and this has been a beautiful trip so far. Our hosts have been so gracious–meeting us at the train station and taking us into their homes. (I’m staying with Helge and Anke Voigt, who lived in Minneapolis last year as part of the Leipzig Connection’s pastoral exchange program.) On our very first day here, we were welcomed to a worship service in the historic Nikolai Church (specifically designed to celebrate the Leipzig connection) and invited to share a festive meal (for about 100 people!) in a restaurant right across the street. Then yesterday, on Thursday, we were treated to a spectacular day in Wittenberg, our hosts shepherding us through train stations and from place to place as we shared Bible study and a meal with our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and a lively, informative tour of the city of Luther.
Today, on this beautiful morning, my first thought is this: to express gratitude for the remarkable hospitality we have experienced thus far. Our hosts have so much to do in this year of the 500th anniversary of the reformation. And they are treating us like honored guests. It is heartwarming and humbling to receive such gracious hospitality.
A second thought has to do with remembering. We are here in this 500th anniversary year to remember the events of the reformation in Germany. Such remembering was unavoidable as we walked the streets of Wittenberg yesterday. However, one of the things that strikes me about our German hosts is how careful and keen they are to remember well. And that means earnestly seeking to remember not just what is glorious and great in their history, but also that which is painful and difficult to bear. At our opening meeting together, Pastor Voigt passed out information on the Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” that one finds around the city–small brass plates embedded in the cobblestone streets with names and birth and death dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. 
You’re walking along a charming cobblestone alley, and then you trip over one of these stumbling stones and you are invited–maybe even forced–to remember one of the most painful, wrenching moments in history. The other evening our hosts took a few of us by a public area in which Jews in Leipzig were held for days before being taken to concentration camps. A monument has been placed there. It’s a boulder-like bronze etched with the words, “Wo ist dein Bruder?” “Where is your brother,” Genesis 4:9. The words of God to Cain after he had killed his brother Abel.
This kind of remembering is so, so hard. And yet it is so necessary. If we have any hope of living honestly, if we want to live with any hope for healing and justice we must learn to remember well. We have much to learn from these German friends. It seems to me that we in the USA have a harder time remembering well. We like our history full of glories and accomplishments. We have a much harder time with ambiguity–and with the sin, evil, and injustice that are so clearly part of our American story, too. 
I’m so grateful to be here, meeting these dear sisters and brothers in Christ. We have important things to learn. 
Erik Haaland

You see me.

The art for the reformation 500 in Wittenberg has really caught my attention. Not just because of the cute cartoon animals and bright colors, but also the questions they pose. I don’t know if you can see these photos clearly but the green one with the seal reads-“Do we change the world or does the world change us?”. The second photo of the blue sign with the bear and the adventurer asks “can we be farsighted by looking back?”
Both of these questions greeted me as we began our day in Wittenberg.
We started with a Bible study lead by Bishop Eaton who shared a beautiful new way to look at the Magnificat through the story of Hagar. By being seen, these women and many others throughout the Bible were given an incredible hope when they thought they were invisible, forsaken and forgotten. By being seen, by knowing God’s action of love and grace for them, the whole world shifts. They are no longer invisible but witnesses to this love and because of this love, life has new meaning. This love calls us to action to see those who are invisible, to point to God’s unconditional love wherever it may be found. I continue to chew over these things. How can seeing these important places from our faith past- help us recognize God’s love here and now? In so many little things God has appeared for me-the hospitality of our host homes, the way the daughter in my host family takes such joy of dancing with a dandelion, the simple pleasure of walking, the gratitude of people in history standing up to power, sharing in worship when I cannot understand a single word spoken, deep welcome, waiting, laughter, human connections across tables, the horrors of war, oppression, refugees, the work of freedom
and peace yet still to be done. . .
The last picture I want to share is from the town church in Leipzig- the first protestant church. It may be hard to see… it is a steeple and at the bottom you will hopefully notice a pig. This was meant to be a derogatory image towards the Jewish neighbors across the street and this wasn’t the only Protestant church to have such art work back in the Middle Ages. You would think this symbol today would be taken down or destroyed. But our tour guide shared, and a colleague echoed later, that this and other painful parts of Germany’s history are left intentionally as a reminders. They become visitor centers and stopping points for tours. They are visible marks, the scars of history meant to be acknowledged and discussed. They serve as reminders that these are symbols we can no longer use, no longer embrace. But even so because they have been a part of history, they need to be seen. Just as God saw Hagar in the midst of utter abandonment, just as Christ enters into our suffering… we as people of faith need to be willing to look at not just the beauty around us but also the ugly painful people, places and things we would rather forget,destroy, place in a closet never to be displayed again. I wonder what it would look like to be brave like our German brothers and sisters and leave these carins of truth in the open for continuing conversation,lament and remembering.
I continue to be grateful for this trip and the chance to see all that east Germany has to teach me. The beauty in the painful past, the invitation into honest and difficult conversations about what is happening right now in our world and the presence of God that continues to surface into the tangible. I look forward to what these next days will bring. God’s peace be with you.
-CJ Valenti
Pastor at Salem Lutheran, Dalbo

Connecting Pastors


It was a long day of travel through Newark and Berlin to Leipzig, which concluded with a warm and joyful welcome from our local hosts. These pastors are so gracious to have us in their homes during a busy week. In addition to their usual family and parish responsibilities, they are preparing for Kirchentag, the church festival tradition at Leipzig and throughout Germany. It is a church festival on steroids this year thanks to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!

It is a gift to be in their midst. Experiencing their hustle and hospitality is holding up a mirror to our own life and work in the Minneapolis Area Synod. We are already sharing about practical theology, church context, call stories, and mutual challenges like conservative nationalism, secular culture, and church structure. With each conversation, we remember how much is shared in the body of Christ and that we have so much to learn from each other.

We worshipped at Nikolaikirche, the home of the peaceful revolution, and watched leaders from our synod, the Leipzig district, and LSS-MN renew our partnership with signatures, smiles, and hugs. 
Our hosts treated us to a hearty German dinner before our yawns took over and we returned to their homes for bed. 

Arriving in Leipzig

We were blessed to meet and spend some time with our host families, and then enjoyed an evening of worship at Nicolaikirche followed by supper at the School Building next door.

Bishop Ann Svennungsen preaching at Nicolikirche

Alte Nicolaischule

A 21st Century Ode to the 15th Century Technology that Powered the Reformation

gutenbergpressThere is very likely not a single written account of Reformation history that doesn’t mention the incredibly instrumental impact the printing press had on the success of this religious movement pioneered by Martin Luther. Today, 500 years after the Reformation I’m typing on my feather light mobile word processor like it’s no big thing, and oh yeah, I’m also flying in air over an ocean on my way to Germany! Here in the 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation, I get to be part of a group delegates from the Minneapolis Area Synod invited by our sister synod in Leipzig Germany to be hosted for the premiere commemoration of this momentous and historic anniversary of the Reformation!

As our group prepared for the trip we were informed that gift exchange is a celebrated part of German culture, and that we should come prepared with gifts to exchange. How exciting! Being one who is generally drawn to the creative side of life, my mind started whirring. I brought a few things from a Christian book store at synod assembly, as a back up, but I was still hoping to come up with something a bit more creative and personal.

Currently halfway through a biography Martin Luther: The Man and His Vision by Scott Hendrix, the thread of the story that has been really sticking with me is just how Martin Luther managed to leverage the budding, awkward, and at times failing craft of printing into a power tool that not only truly the mobilized Reformation message, but was also clearly instrumental in the success of the Reformation campaign. If Martin Luther was the fuel for the Reformation, then the printing press was the engine upon which that fuel ran!

Now, 500 years later, we are actually in another new and equally awkward era in the world of printing, and that is in the area of home 3D printing. As as pastor with an undergraduate degree in computer science who just nearly began graduate studies in industrial design, the low cost home 3D printing hobbyist community is right up my alley! Right after Holy Week this year I built my first 3D printer, and got to work making big messes of over-heated, under-extruded biodegradable corn-based plastic! Much like the early years of the printing press, while promising to be repeatable, process oriented, time/work saving machine, printing in three dimensions is still more of an art form than a science.

So here I am traveling to Germany in a few days, and it hits me; I have the means to create a fitting token to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (with a wink to the instrumental role that  the printing press played in it),  so I got to work 3D printing special 500th Anniversary pendants, keychains, and luggage tags based on design of of Martin Luther’s Seal (lots of really neat theological imagery infused in it’s design, also worth reading up on). In the last 24 hours before heading to the airport I was able to print enough to give one to everyone of my traveling companions (including 15 pastor’s and Minneapolis Area Synod Bishop), and a handful of extras to give to my host families.

But there’s more! Just days before my brother gave me a very special PLA filament for my 3D printer that has UV photosensitive pigment embedded in it, so these pendants, keychains, and luggage tags turn from milky white to dark blue when exposed to the sun! I like to think that they let you know when you’re in the mission field ;^)

Finally, as I watched these print one at a time, I reflected on how moments in the printing process mirrored moments in the journey of Reformation History, particularly during the early layers where the printer was laying down material around the empty space where the characters “500th” would soon emerge, and when the molten filament was bridged across those gaps literally suspending itself in mid air with no support material used to hold it up. As I watch them print, I thought about how Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach and other important contributors of Reformation must have felt. Were there at moments when they felt like they were running in midair with no support; when the only thing keeping them going was their own inertia and a the nudgings of the Holy Spirit? Of course there were some supporters around them like Frederick of Saxony standing vigil at the sides of the gap, but it was still up to them to make a bridge through empty space where no one had ever before journeyed.

That was the work the Reformation was all about. It was turbulent work. It was messy work. It involved a lot of failure and experimentation along the way. It was work that while a lot of change and a lot of disruption to the church was necessary, the core never changed. When we step back in time, look back with the perspective of 500 years, perhaps the Reformation was more just a necessary change in flavor of the church than it was a change in its essence, and maybe the Lutheran church is due for another change… Perhaps we can learn from the turbulence of our past, that we might learn to grow through evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change. Either way, we will journey on and I, for one, am thankful that rather than turbulent battles to recreate, we travel turbulent skies to commemorate! As you read this blog and journey with us back home, we are all glad to have you join us as traveling companions on this wild journey Reforming Forward. May we all find a new way forward together.

Twin Cities Lutheran Delegation to Participate in Germany’s Reformation Celebration 

A 16-member Minneapolis Area Synod delegation has been invited to participate in Germany’s largest celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. As a companion synod of the Leipzig District of the Lutheran Church of Saxony, the Minneapolis Area Synod will be represented by Bishop Ann Svennungsen and this delegation May 24-June 1 in the heart of Lutherland.

“As we prepare for the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation this year, our synod has been given an extraordinary opportunity,” explains Bishop Svennungsen. “The Lutheran Church of Leipzig has invited us to bring a small cohort of young pastors as their guests for Germany’s premier celebration.”
“Our Lutheran theology is one of our greatest gifts to God’s church and world,” she adds. “I am thrilled with the possibility of bringing 16 gifted and faithful pastors to Germany to gain an even richer understanding of that theology and its origins.”

Hosts are expecting as many as 300,000 people to gather for worship and festivities in Wittenberg on May 28. Many regional Reformation celebrations will lead up to that historic day. Participants in this trip will engage in pastor-to-pastor conversations about a 21st Century Lutheran witness and will stay in people’s homes.

In addition to Bishop Svennungsen, the delegation includes Kristine Carlson, Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis; Meta Carlson, Zion Lutheran, Minneapolis; Babette Chatman, Redeemer Lutheran, Minneapolis; Kelly Chatman, Redeemer Lutheran, Minneapolis; Matt Fleming, St. Andrew Lutheran, Eden Prairie; Erik Haaland, Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis; Eric Hoffer, Prince of Peace Lutheran, Saint Louis Park; Amber Ingalsbe, St. Barnabas Lutheran, Plymouth; Jason Lukis, Cross of Hope Lutheran, Ramsey; Ingrid Rasmussen, Holy Trinity Lutheran, Minneapolis; Bill Russell, Augustana Lutheran, Minneapolis; Charlie Ruud, Normandale Lutheran, Edina; Sarah Timian, St. John Lutheran, Belle Plaine; CJ Valenti, Salem Lutheran, Dalbo; and Morris Wee, Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis.

“I believe this will be a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the young pastors participating in this celebration,” Svennungsen concludes. “Members of the ELCA will benefit for years to come through the lessons gained by these participants.”