Christian unity week calls for kindness to strangers

Prof. Dr Dirk Lange speaking at the LWF Assembly in Namibia. Photo: A.Hillert/LWF
Prof. Dr Dirk Lange speaking at the LWF Assembly in Namibia. Photo: A.Hillert/LWF

LWF’s new head of ecumenical relations reflects on prayer, liturgy and reconciliation

(LWI) - Showing “unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2) to strangers in need is the theme of the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebrated by churches across the world from 18 to 25 January (or around the feast of Pentecost in parts of the global south).

This year’s reflections and resources have been developed by Christian churches in Malta and Gozo. They compare the kindness shown by local people to the Apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked near those islands, to the call to welcome all those in need of help today.

“In this regard, the prayer for Christian unity is also a prayer and an engagement for the well-being and reconciliation in the whole human family,” says Prof. Dr Dirk G. Lange, newly appointed as the Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Early ecumenical experience

Lange comes to the LWF from Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota where he was teaching liturgy and served as Academic Dean. An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he is well known to many ecumenical partners through his work in developing a Common Prayer service for the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of 500 Years of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, in 2016, at which Pope Francis co-presided with LWF leaders.

Ecumenism has been part of Lange’s life from his earliest years. Raised by a devout immigrant family in Canada (displaced from eastern Germany after World War II), his home church of St. Stephen and St. Bede in Winnipeg was a pioneering pilot parish for Anglican-Lutheran dialogue. “My own ecclesial reality was nurtured in two ecclesial traditions and communities that sought to witness and proclaim the gospel together,” he notes.

As a young man, he recalls how he was attracted to the vision of reconciliation as it was lived in common prayer and witness at the Community of Taizé in Eastern France, founded by Swiss pastor Roger Schütz. “Brother Roger’s vision of the church deeply impacted me, a vision rooted in his own spiritual heritage that links faith and action (contemplation and struggle) and in the call to reconciliation, not only among the churches but also within the human family.”

Prayer and witness with Taizé

As part of the Taizé Community during the 1980s, Lange visited with many clandestine prayer groups in eastern Europe, especially in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia, encountering different faith traditions and their own unique yet common witness and resistance to forces of oppression and injustice. “In the midst of these prayer groups,” he says, “I experienced and learned prayer as a total abandonment to God’s action.”

After ordination, Lange served parishes in Atlanta and Philadelphia before turning to writing and teaching. His first book, entitled Trauma Recalled, explores how liturgy sends us into the world to bear the suffering of our neighbor. It draws on post-structuralist French philosophers and trauma theory to propose an understanding of Luther’s sacramental theology as a disruptive moment of God’s in-breaking into the midst of a community, opening its doors to share in the traumas of individuals and the historical trauma of peoples.

A second book, Today Everything is Different, in the final stages of editing, focuses on baptismal spirituality rooted in Luther’s understanding of the connection between baptism and prayer as an exercise of faith.

Ecumenism is at the heart of my existence, as it is at the theological heart of the Lutheran witness.
Prof. Dr Dirk G. Lange, LWF’s incoming Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations

Lange has written and lectured extensively on ecumenical relations and documents produced by the LWF, by the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and by the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II’s landmark text ‘Ut Unum Sint’. “Ecumenism is at the heart of my existence, as it is at the theological heart of the Lutheran witness,” he says. Since 2013, he has served on the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Commission on Unity, leading to his role in developing the Common Prayer service for the 2016 Lund Event and subsequently helping national and local churches to bring that liturgy to life.

“My life has been shaped by a commitment to the gospel and by my encounter with the neighbor who has greeted me so generously and from whom I have learned so extensively,” Lange concludes.

During Christian Unity Week, he adds: “We are reminded that at the heart of life is God’s abundant, generous, out-pouring of mercy, God’s immeasurable goodness that embraces us and traces a path of reconciliation. It is this merciful embrace with which we approach the neighbor, the one suffering in our midst, the refugee, the foreigner as we live into what it means to be a human family.”