Professor Jane Strohl Goes To Finland!

by Professor Jane Strohl

My transatlantic flight went from Memphis, Tennessee to Amsterdam. When I went through passport control there, the officer asked me about my final destination. “Helsinki,” I said. He dropped my passport on the counter and looked at me curiously. “Do you mean you have come all this way to Europe where there are so many beautiful places to see, and you are going to Helsinki?!”

I had been invited to the 12th International Congress for Luther Research, hosted by the University of Helsinki, August 5-10. So I boarded my next flight and landed in Finland mid-afternoon. My Dutch friend was unfair.

After getting settled at my hotel, I took a long walk through the city, which offered unexpected combinations of colors, the salty scent of the harbor, and a lovely central promenade, just blocks from my hotel. This is a wonderful part of European life. Restaurants, coffee bars and shops line the street, and the broad sidewalks are full of tables and chairs. Folks sit there enjoying a beverage, chatting, or just sitting comfortably in silence, watching the activity.

I was mesmerized by the number of white-blonde Finns with astonishing blue eyes, and when I stopped looking at them, I started looking in the shop windows. The stores displayed clothing brands that are familiar to us here in the United States, but the clothes themselves were not the same. There is a European look, some of it a little wild for my American taste and some of it just gorgeous.

Later in the week I returned to Helsinki’s major department store to get my daughter a sweater (in the gorgeous rather than wild category). Exploring a foreign department store is so interesting, beginning with the furniture on the top floor, all the way down to the lunch counter in the basement. You really know you are abroad when you see what folks buy for lunch! All that excitement before the Congress even began!

The theme of our gathering was “Luther as Teacher and Reformer of the University.” We had plenary sessions each morning with an invited lecturer addressing some aspect of the topic from his or her research interests. The official languages of the Congress were German and English, so we all had the opportunity to exercise our foreign language skills. Usually we received a manuscript of the presentation as well – a real life-saver for me, when I got lost trying to find that crucial German verb!

In the afternoon we worked in seminar groups. Participants listed three choices at registration and then were assigned to one of those. The offerings included twenty-two possibilities. I got my first choice: Luther Reception in Asia and Africa. In the past I have gravitated toward the more traditional theological topics in Luther studies; that is, after all, my first love. But this time I decided to branch out and work with a subject about which I knew very little.

Most of the members of my seminar had extensive experience in Africa and Asia. We had representatives from Tanzania, Hong Kong, China and Korea (the Korean professor had been one of my students in the doctoral program at Luther Seminary – what a thrill to see him again!).

Thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Carol Jacobson, I was able to prepare a case study about the Lutheran Church in Rwanda, which generated an impassioned and thoughtful debate about the way Christians respond to genocide. The best part of being with these scholars was listening in on their conversations about how the church should relate to the government, about evangelism, and about the dangers their communities faced. I was surprised at their fierce confessionalism, Lutheran convictions their churches have made their own and articulate in distinctive ways. There was so much laughter and good will among us!

Having grown up in the 60’s, I never imagined sitting next to a real person from mainland China. Yet now I think often of the bishop, who listened with his eyes closed and then entered the conversation passionately to remind us of the plight of house churches in China. However much progress has been made – and much has— his people are still fighting for the Gospel at great risk. Now when I read Luther, I think of those people who are reading him too. The first volume of Luther’s works in Mandarin is hot off the press! When I pray for the church, I now see the faces of these people seated around a table in a small room at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Helsinki.

These are not easy times for PLTS financially, and so I am deeply grateful to President Anderson and Joel Wudel for making it possible for me to attend the Congress. I have come home with so much to think about and teach about and pray about.

Allow me to end with a personal note. Right after my graduation from seminary I served as pastor of a small church in northeastern Connecticut. The congregation was founded by Finns. The oldest members were first-generation immigrants. Once a month they held a Finnish-language service (how I navigated that is a whole other story!), and no one had the pastor over for dinner without substituting sauna for happy hour (and hopping buck naked into that with members of the church council is another story!). Some of these folks were forced out of their homes when Russia took over part of Finland. Others came to the United States because of economic hardship. They made good lives here and were grateful for that.

But when I visited their homes, there were always pictures of Finland. They showed them to me and spoke with longing. In the middle of the week of the Luther Congress, we had a field trip. We boarded a boat and sailed on the Gulf of Finland to the town of Porvoo. There we saw the cathedral and enjoyed a festive dinner. (And no, I never acquired a taste for reindeer meat.)

For me, however, the high point was the boat ride. You could see little sauna huts near the shore and houses of green and yellow painted wood peeking out from the trees behind them. It was those trees, the tall dark firs all along the shore that took my breath away. I saw for myself the land that would always be home to the parishioners I loved. Not just a picture, not just a description, and in the wonderful way of the communion of saints, my Finns were with me again.

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.