Sitting at my father´s table is one of my favorite memories. There was plenty of space. So that not just nine kids – with three grandmothers – enjoyed my mother´s gastronomic gifts. There was the mission secretary Hanns Gnauk, who was a long-time bachelor until he married my father´s cousin, a mission nurse in Itshelejuba, but that´s another story. Well, Hanns was a regular visitor at our 3 standard mealtimes – breakfast, lunch and supper. Having a corner-bench (Eckbank) made it possible to fit in more and more – just as needed. You just had to squeeze up a bit – like in a church pew. We did put in an extra table now and again – and sometimes we just sat outside around the fire pit. There was hardly a limit to the number of chairs then…
There were frequent guests from the mission field. Vicars, who learnt either Zulu or Tswana with my father and together with their growing family stayed in our house for as long as that language course lasted: Manfred Nietzke, Gerhard Heidenreich, Heinrich Dammann to mention some. Pastors and missionaries, who cooperated with my father in his ongoing translation projects concentrating on Sunday sermons, the Lutheran confessions, and dogmatic writings of the church.
Family and friends, who were eager to see “real Africa” in Zululand – rejoicing in views of Ncomboshe (Confluence of the Buffalo and Tugela rivers), Ukahlamba (Drakensberg), San art, Lutheran tapestries & paintings at the Swedish Mission in Rorkes Drift, traditional carvings at a Zulu wise man near Keat´s Drift, petrified forest, joining my father on his mission trips to Zulu kraals in Ngunjane etc.
There were plenty reasons to come and stay at “Enhlanhleni” (Literally: “The good place!”) Some lost their way and sought directions. Like Professor Maurach from Unisa, who together with his wife and kids became a regular too and with time a good friend of my parents. For me as a child it was home and the favorite place to be. Glorious times. Long gone!
Since those times, I´ve sat at a lot of other tables. Narrow school desks in Uelzen and Wartburg preparing for similar contraptions at university and seminary later. I´ve joined other families at their tables: Albers, Scharlachs, Straeulis, Reinstorfs, Niebuhrs, Pontows, Büttchers. They´ve made me feel at home in far off places. I´ve lived in hostels, fraternities, soldier´s quarters and many tables have made those stays comfortable and mostly even enjoyable.
Together with Angelika we´ve even come to have our own table fellowship – with family, friends and visitors. We´ve had good guests and happy times with Ackermanns, Schönes, Voges, Fehrmann, Simojoki, Buthelezi, Rao, Kleeblatts, Gevers, Fischer and so on.
Coming to Luthercity Wittenberg was a game changer. We downsized. The circle of friends was reduced to couples and even singles. All before Covid restrictions. Thankfully, Angelika still has a regular full class of students at the school, so she doesn´t miss guests too much. It was arduous for her in the first place. In good German tradition, I go out to join this and that Stammtisch, society and association. These circles are quite as sociable as I those I recall back home. Tales told by hunters, fishermen, theologians, and other storytellers are similar everywhere, I guess.
Looking at pictures of our reformer – Dr. Martin Luther – I noticed him being depicted regularly seated at a table or standing next to one. That is, if he´s not preaching in some pulpit or lying on his deathbed. They even have some of those original tables of his here in town for all to see. There´s Luther´s table in the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament into German during his forced exile from Wittenberg. There´s the famous table in the Marburg castle, which I visited with my brother Bishop Tswaedi some years back. It´s the site of Luther´s confession, that bread and wine are (“est”) our good Lord´s very body and blood in His sacrament given and shed for us + He chalked that on the table to uncover when challenged by intellectualist Calvyn. That´s as strong a standpoint as was Luther´s unerring conviction even in his afflictions, that he too was baptized (“baptizatus sum”). This he scrawled on his table for himself to see and have these clear words to cling to literally.
Luther gathered around the table in his house (The “Lutherhouse” here in Wittenberg, which still has the biggest collection of Lutheran artefacts, memorabilia, pictures and texts on site to see) with his friends and colleagues to translate the bible, to theologize with them and prepare reformational writings as were needed. Painters depict Luther with enemies around tables too, but the ones with friends dominate. We see him standing across the table of cardinal Cajetan or then at a relatively small table in Worms with his writings, refusing to recant.
The Lucas Cranach altar in St. Mary´s depicts the Lord´s Supper at a stone table – much like our altar in the chapel of the Old Latin School – but his depiction of the same theme in St. John´s at Dessau for the epitaph for the count Joachim from 1565, shows them seated at a wooden table – much like the ones we now have in use in our foyer.
Now that the pandemic has troubled us for some years, people are starting to feel the strain. My cobbler and the local stamp-maker down the street have called it quits. So has the tattooist across the street and the “Haus des Handwerks” (House of trades) across from the Luther house. We used to meet in the last mentioned place where the “Elster gate” was every Thursdays. Sometime after 19h00 it was time for “English Stammtisch”. Local tour guides trying to up their English, foreign students learning German and keen to speak in their mother tongue, Lutherans from the States visiting Luther sites, they all frequented this oasis. Now the landlord has given up. He´s had enough. No more sitting up, with no guests pitching. Our mixed group is too small and meets far too infrequently to keep his enterprise running.
So, we´re meeting in the Old Latin School. We´ve got plenty room downstairs. We´ve got official permission to sit outside. So, we´re hoping for a good summer. We´ve even got a lovely cellar in case of bad weather or seriously late nights, but the entry is still too small to make it official and public. For now, we gather in the foyer.
We´re following Luther´s lead with his table talks – where he gathered friends and family, colleagues and students, guests, and visitors from across old Europe – sharing insights on God and the world, whilst being served good things by his dear Katie and her staff.
We´ve got some nice sturdy tables – handcrafted by a relative of one of our regular participants. The tables are made of local oak. Dark to fit. And we can stack them high with good things to invigorate all partakers in these current table talks in Wittenberg in old Lutheran tradition