The Game of Christian Education

Martin Luther

Carl Trueman, in his lectures on the Reformation, points out that though Luther said in 1520 that liturgy should be in the vernacular, he didn’t make that change until 5 years later, in 1525.

Why wait 5 years before making a change Luther was convicted was necessary?

Trueman:

“People are disturbed enough by what’s going on. The game of Christian education is to get people to where they need to be. It is not to disturb them, it’s to draw them gently to where they need to be.”

Trueman says that for Luther, the pastor should:

“use the language with which people are familiar, but we fill it with new content, in a new context. If you like, we slowly but surely subvert them…

…You don’t go in and hammer people with the new jargon. What you do is use the language they’ve got, but you slowly and surely transform it into meaning what you want it to mean.”

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We get a completely new set of people

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Thomas Long, writing in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, imagines a funeral for a wife and mother named Annette. The funeral he imagines is, like so many others, “sweet and nostalgic”, featuring readings of Psalm 23 and Proverbs 31, and celebrating that she “was a good woman, a good Christian”. He continues:

“we go to the grave where Annette now lies next to her husband and her parents in the family plot in the cemetery, and it will forever be this way. ‘We will always remember her,’ we say.

But of course it’s a white lie; we won’t remember her always. All of the pieces of Annette’s funeral were fine as far as they went, but the fact is, they were built on the illusion that this land is our permanent home. We get a completely new set of people every 100 years, and it will not be too many generations before no one living much remembers Annette at all. If history rolls on long enough, her church will disappear, the building will disintegrate, the congregation will be scattered, and the cemetery will be covered by the dust, the tombstones long disintegrated.

This is exactly the perspective on life and mortality that is so common in Scripture, and so uncommon today. Rather humbling, in fact, and sobering. And a perspective that even at a funeral is hard to get people to face. But that is precisely why a Christian funeral should not be simply nostalgic and sweet, but built on a more clear-eyed view not only of the reality of death, but also a firm proclamation of Christian hope. For:

“if Annette will be forgotten to history, she will be remembered by God, and she worships now in a building not made with hands. The funeral, then, should honor this land – the person Annette has been, the things she has done, the relationships she formed – but the funeral should not be consumed with nostalgia for Annette’s past nor ours, because our hope does not lie in this land alone, but in the city whose architect and builder is God.”

daily by an open grave

Eugene Peterson:

“Jan and I were visiting a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico. One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave.

Jan said, ‘Oh, did one of the brothers just die?’

‘No, that is for the next one.’

Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be ‘the next one.'”

two kinds of suffering

“I sometimes use this analogy when I speak: ‘If one of you walked out of this meeting and a guy with a mask walked up to you in the dark parking lot, took out a knife, stabbed you in the stomach, took all your money, and left you in an unconscious state, you would call him a mugger. Someone would call the police, and they would try to find the perpetrator.
But if you left this meeting, drove down the street to the local hospital, and a guy with a mask came to you in a brightly lit room, took out a knife, cut your stomach open, took all your money, and left you in an unconscious state, you would call him a doctor and thank him for helping you. One is a mugging, and the other is surgery.’
Suffering is a lot like that. There is therapeutic suffering, and there is destructive suffering at the hands of evil people. The key is to be able to tell the difference between the two and to apply the right kind of experience to each.”

the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”

prophets of a future that is not our own

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in this lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No sermon says all that should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

Often attributed to Oscar Romero, these are the words of Ken Untener

more than thin air and thoughts

Eric Metaxas, in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, on Bonhoeffer’s instruction to his students while a lecturer in theology ┬áin 1932-33:

“Bonhoeffer was not interested in intellectual abstraction. Theology must lead to the practical aspects of how to live as a Christian. Karding was surprised when Bonhoeffer asked his students whether they sang Christmas carols. Their answer was noncommittal, so he said, ‘If you want to be pastors, then you must sing Christmas carols!’ For him, music was not an optional part of Christian ministry, but de rigeur. He decided to tackle this deficiency head-on. ‘On the first day of Advent,’ he said to her, ‘we will meet each other at noon…and we will sing Christmas carols.’ She remembered that he ‘played the flute wonderfully’ and sang ‘magnificently.'”

Just one of the ways that Bonhoeffer’s faith had a wonderful practicality, an earthiness. He would later write to his fiancee that,

human beings were taken from the earth and don’t just consist of thin air and thoughts.”