More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too…but that’s another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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Space Shuttle Challenger–January 28, 1986

It was twenty-three years ago today that the United States space program suffered the first in-flight loss of one of our crews when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded one minute and thirteen seconds after liftoff.  I will never forget my mother making a special trip to school and finding me in the lunch line at Emerson Elementary to tell me the news.  With countless other millions worldwide, the remainder of the day was spent glued to the television set to try and understand what went wrong that day.

In the words of President Ronald Reagan:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

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More Thoughts on Vocation

As I’ve written about before here and here, one of the great contributions of the Lutheran wing of the Reformation to Christian theology was the emphasis on vocation and the normalcy of the “ordinary” Christian life.  While Luther wrote on this quite a bit, the emphasis on the theology of vocation did not die within Lutheran circles.  This excerpt comes from the pen of C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  His take on vocation has a different emphasis from Luther’s and focuses on the Christian living out his or her life and vocation as a testimony to our faith:

We see that Christians should justify their faith before the world, above all, by conscientiousness and faithfulness in their offices and callings.  Unfortunately, many who show themselves as zealous Christians in pious exercises are slow, careless, and unfaithful in their callings.  They think the essence of Christianity consists of diligent praying and reading and churchgoing, of refraining from the vanity of the world, of pious speech, and of the holy appearance of many works.  When the world sees that those who boast of faith are indeed diligent in such seemingly holy exercises but are unfaithful in their work, as well as terrible spouses, parents, and workers, the world concludes that the faith of the Christians is an idle speculation, making people useless for this life.  In addition, it views Christians as either poor beggars or hypocritical deceivers.

Therefore, whoever wants to be a Christian must justify his faith before the world by the manner in which he conducts himself in his vocation.  The faith of a husband and father leads him to care for the temporal needs and the eternal salvation of his family, to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and to raise his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  The faith of a wife and mother prompts her to be subject to her husband in all humility, standing at his side as a true helper, caring for her children with tenderness, and teaching them the first letters of saving knowledge.  The faith of a businessman results in good work for his customers; if he works for himself, he does not enrich himself from the sweat of the poor, but rather regards his poor workers as better than himself.  The faith of the servant or day laborer is revealed in work that is performed, not for the sake of mere wages or for display before the eyes of men, but to serve men as Jesus Christ Himself.  The faith of those who work in churches, schools, and communities causes them to act out of love for their Savior rather than for financial or other worldly gain.

In all our pursuits, let us demonstrate that faith makes us the best we can be.  In this way, we justify our faith before the world.

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John Chrysostom Day

John Chrysostom was a presbyter and preacher in the fourth-century church at Antioch.  He eventually was made patriarch of Constantinople and was a revered preacher and teacher of God’s word.  His sermons are famously Christ-centered and wonderfully direct.  These words today come from a homily on First Timothy:

“He gave Himself a ransom,” he said, how then was He delivered up by the Father?  Because it was of His goodness.  And what does “ransom” mean?  God was about to punish them, but He did not do it.  They were about to perish, but in their stead He gave His own Son and sent us as heralds to proclaim the cross.  These things are sufficient to attract all and to demonstrate the love of Christ.  So truly, so inexpressibly great are the benefits that God has bestowed upon us.  He sacrificed Himself for His enemies, who hated and rejected Him.  What no one would do for friends, for brothers, for children, that the Lord has done for His servants; a Lord not Himself such a one as His servants, but God for men, for men not deserving.  For had they been deserving, had they done His pleasure, it would have been less wonderful.  But that He died for such ungrateful, such obstinate creatures, this is which strikes every mind with amazement.  For what men would not do for their fellow-men, that has God done for us!

Awesome stuff!  Our God in Christ is a “God for men, for men not deserving.”  Amen.

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Rev. Lowery…My Final Thoughts

Several people have replied to my earlier post on this blog and made statements elsewhere on the web in defense of Rev. Lowery’s benediction during the inauguration.  In short, the response has been that his words should not be interpreted as racist remarks.  The rationale for dismissing his statements as not racist are essentially three:

  1. Whites have never been treated like other races in the United States…so get over it
  2. His statements were thanking God that the day mentioned in his song had arrived
  3. He was merely quoting an old song familiar to many in the civil rights movement

To the first objection, my response is simply this:  You’re right, whites have never suffered the horrible atrocities that other races have been subjected to in United States history, but two wrongs don’t make a right.  This objection is bogus.

To objection number two, if you look at the transcript of his benediction on my first post, Rev. Lowery prays that God will “help us work for that day…”  Clearly this is not thanksgiving for the arrival of said day but a pleading that we will get there in the future.

The most common objection is the last one, that he was merely quoting (or alluding to) a song familiar to those in the civil rights movement.  Wonderful!  If Rev. Lowery wishes to pay homage to those who have labored in the civil rights movement against adversity, persecution, and the horrors that have been a sad part of our nation’s history, I will be the first to stand by his side (as a Caucasian) and say, “Amen!”  I for one am horribly ashamed of the racism that has been and arguably is still part of U.S. history.  To quote or allude to a song that itself is racist (which this lyric clearly is…whites after all are the problem that needs fixing in this verse) as a tribute to Civil Rights leaders is so blatantly wrong and hypocritical, I honestly struggle with the fact that we’re having this discussion in the first place.

If I, as a Caucasian, were to be in the position of Rev. Lowery and quote any kind of racist poem as part of my benediction I would rightly be called to account for my actions.  Why the same standard is not being applied to a Civil Rights leader, who from his own hallowed experiences should know better, is beyond me.  If we are to move beyond racism in this nation, this sort of language must perish from the lips of all.

The New Iconoclasm

Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the theology behind them, and a brief outline of the history of iconoclasm (“icon smashing”).  Though he doesn’t develop the point further, as it does not pertain to the thrust of his article, one line has been running around my mind since I read it.  He says:

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

Throughout history, but especially since the time of the Reformation (at least in the West), people have reacted violently against icons and have worked themselves up into a frenzy at times to destroy them with great violence and rage.  This iconoclasm, Fr. Stephen writes, is “a spirit of hate and anger…[mistakenly] attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance.”  It is a sad testimony to Christian history, that brothers and sisters in Christ have reacted so violently against one another, especially in the name of piety and purity.

As unfortunate as religious iconoclasm is, my contemplation has not focused on God’s work and iconography but on God’s work and humanity.  Judaism and Christianity have always maintained that men and women (i.e. all of humanity), are wonderfully made in the image of God, the imago Dei.  In Genesis 1, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.  (Gen 1.26-27, NLT)
God is the original icon maker, and the original icon (image) of God is humanity.  Sadly, our society reacts toward these icons created of flesh and blood in exactly the same way as the Iconoclasts reacted against the icons created of gold and paint–with violence, hatred, and rage.   Murder, abortion, rape, verbal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, hatred, racism, genocide, pornography, and violence / abuse of all kinds…these are the “new iconoclasm.”
The legacy of religious iconoclasm, according to Fr. Stephen, is secularization.  But what of the legacy of this “new iconoclasm”?  May God have mercy upon us…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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Luther on Living in Christ

There is no doubt that Martin Luther was tormented regularly by sin’s accusations against him, especially in his early years as a monk.  As mentioned previously, I share this struggle from time-to-time, which quite honestly was part of the initial enticement to read Luther.  Fortunately, Luther received some wise counsel from his Father Confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, who repeatedly pointed him back to the cross.  Luther ran with this advice and repeated it to his hearers again and again.

Luther asks, “What should you do when the thought of death frightens you and your conscience bothers you?”

Continue to live in Christ.  You must believe that you can accomplish nothing by your own works and that the only way is through Christ’s righteousness.  John 6.29 says that the work of God is believing in the one he has sent.  So when Nathan corrected David, and David confessed his sin, Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin.  You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12.13).  David simply lived in grace.  He didn’t even think about trying to satisfy God with his works.  When Nathan said, “The LORD has taken away your sin,” he was proclaiming the message of grace.  And David believed it.

After Adam sinned, he could do nothing that would bring him into a state of grace.  But God said that one of his descendants would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).  It was by this promise Adam was made alive.  Because he believed in this word, he was saved and justified without any works.  Our nature struggles fiercely against being saved without our works and tries to deceive us with a grand illusion of our own righteousness.  So we may find outselves attracted to a life that merely appears to be righteous.  Or because we know we aren’t righteous, we may be frightened by death or sin.  Therefore, we must learn that we should have nothing to do with any way of becoming righteous except through Christ alone.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 30:263)

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