Hans-Peter and Verena Lang were the brains behind Wittenberg 2017. The brawn as well. And for decades before we met them, they carried a spiritual torch of reconciliation which lit the fires of our gatherings.
In 2010 Thomas and I traveled to Europe for an Antioch Network retreat. George Miley had arranged some appointments for us with Lutheran pastors in Germany, opportunities to share our vision for a prayer gathering on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. He warned us ahead of time that Germans tend to be reserved, wanting time to weigh the possible pitfalls of a proposal against its potential benefits. (I must say we learned a lot of wisdom from our German colleagues in this regard!) The first two pastors we met were cordial and affirming. In the years that followed, they attended our meetings, but they felt no call to join us in leadership.
Then at George’s urging, we shared our vision with the Langs. Though we had met them some months earlier, we did not know them well. We were aware they had participated in ecumenical efforts in Austria as lay people, like us. Hans-Peter was a forester and Verena a historian. The Langs listened quietly, carefully. When we were finished, they said they needed time to think and pray. The following evening they asked to meet with us privately. Much to our surprise, they presented us with an impressive list of European leaders, people they knew personally, whom they were willing to contact in support of this vision. That list included a Catholic bishop, the archdeacon of Vienna, the international leader of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a leader of the German Lutheran charismatic movement, Fr. Peter Hocken, and the Austrian Round Table. My stomach grew queasy and my knees felt weak. I knew then and there that this Wittenberg thing was going to happen!
The Langs have always been people of vision. And hope. And action. In their early years they spearheaded a campaign to block construction of a nuclear power plant near their town. Verena told me, “this was a wonderful, active time, combined with courage, and a lot of hope that we can win the battle. Everybody at the right place - the men sticking anti-atomic posters in the night and we housewives in front of a table in the middle of our town distributing papers.” The Langs did indeed win that battle, and went on to win others.
In 1997 Hans-Peter and Verena joined an ecumenical group of representatives from various Christian confessions in Austria. This group was called The Round Table, and in this setting, Hans-Peter learned that Austrian law discriminated against free churches. Catholic and Lutheran churches in Austria enjoyed rights and privileges not granted to evangelical, Pentecostal, or Anabaptist congregations. This injustice infuriated Hans-Peter and he worked alongside his free church brethren to see the law changed. It was not until 2003 that free churches had equal standing under Austrian law.
The Langs were seasoned warriors when we met them. Their zeal was tempered with a wisdom far beyond our own. We imagined Wittenberg2017 as a one-time gathering lasting several days – an occasion for lamenting division, praying as Jesus prayed for unity in the Church, and worshiping our Father together. We knew that such a meeting would take years of preparation. We would need time to share the vision, to work out logistics, to invite worship leaders and speakers. We did not understand the depth of spiritual preparation necessary.
Verena the historian informed us immediately that we could not simply show up in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 2017. There were too many wounds leading to and proceeding from this tragic rupture. Without addressing those spiritual strongholds in prayer, we could not hope to see much fruit from a single meeting she warned. Thus Wittenberg2017 became a series of meetings, or pilgrimages of repentance, each addressing different aspects of our painful history.
We met in Ottmaring, in Volkenroda, in Trent, in Rome, and in Wittenberg in the years preceding 2017. As a community of Catholics, Protestants, and Mesianic Jews, we grew in our understanding of the issues which divided us. We grew in our understanding of one another. We mourned together and comforted one another. We prayed for healing of the wounds in the Body of Christ and for our Lord’s return. We learned to love one another.
Looking back on those years I see the great, unforeseen gift our Father invested in us through Verena’s wisdom. He gave us the gift of time together – time on the ground, time in prayer, time on the phone. In that time, though we were not consciously aware of the fact, He was forming us into a sacramental sign of the unity for which we longed.
How I wish every Christian might have the opportunity to work on a leadership team like the W2017 council! Serving with those mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the faith was a life-changing experience. In every meeting, every phone call, Thomas and I were learning from their examples. These saints were confident enough in their own gifts that they loved calling forth gifts in others. They felt secure enough in the Father’s love that they had no need of public recognition. They readily submitted to the wisdom of others. At the same time, they were willing to challenge one another in love, determined not to short-circuit the fullest blessing of God for quick or comfortable solutions.
Thomas and I continue to marvel that such an august group of leaders - Europeans with more experience, more connections, more education than our own - would look to us as leaders. This was especially true of the Langs who bore the logistical burden for our early meetings, who invited all the key players, who carried the game plan most of the time. Still they honored us, serving quietly behind the scenes without fanfare.
The Langs served this way because they are humble. They have become like their Lord, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.” Christ’s humility opened doors of grace and healing for the whole world. The Lang’s humility opened doors of grace for Wittenberg 2017.
Thomas and I wanted to offer Jesus a gift in W2017. We wanted to join Him in His prayer for unity, bringing many along with us. I believe Jesus saw our hearts and received our gift. Our Father also saw, and He gave His Son an even better gift. He answered Jesus’ prayer, in part, by making our group one.
Hans-Peter and Verena, I love you!