I just downloaded the Small Catechism app for my iPhone. The moment I did I thought, ironically, “What does this mean?”
What does it mean for me to invest space, digital and mental, in this historic text? Is it relevant? Does it still have any power?
At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton called for the church to read the Small Catechism between now and next October. While on the face of it, asking the church to take up such a task isn’t difficult (most editions are less than 100 pages). In practice, it’s actually a pretty steep challenge, especially for a culture that prizes explicit and immediate relevance over the hard work required to mine old words for nuggets of truth and grace.
But imagine the inquirer, burned by a Christianity that demanded impossible behavioral and confessional conformity, who walks into your assembly and hears Martin Luther’s explanation of the creed’s third article, namely that we trust God does the sanctifying. Then imagine the weeping. The relief. Not our striving nor even our actions or “right beliefs” can make us holy—only God in the Spirit does that. How freeing that would be for someone taught that God demands a so-called “perfect” life.
Don’t underestimate the power of well-articulated grace to change lives. The scene described earlier is the spiritual biography of more than one of my seminary colleagues—and more than one of the people who have walked through my office door. And that’s not surprising because it’s Luther’s spiritual biography too. He had to be freed from his faith to be free to be faithful.
Perhaps even longtime Lutheran Christians need that freedom. The siren of untainted orthodoxy has brought most everyone close to crashing on the shores of self-righteousness at one time or another on this Christian journey. And anyone who says otherwise, well, perhaps they should check out Luther’s order of confession and forgiveness in either catechism, for truly the truth is not within them.
We don’t have to look too far in this season to find relevance in Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment. A refresher course for all politicians currently seeking the highest office in the land would be helpful. Even local school board candidates would do well to remember that we are to certainly interpret everything our neighbor does “in the best possible light.” It makes for bad political ads but for good society.
Remember, Luther wasn’t speaking into a vacuum at the time—the politics of his day were just as contentious.
One of the gifts of my re-entry into the catechism has been the resource for morning and evening prayers. I’ve practiced meditation for many years, finding God speaks well through intentional silence and calm. Unfortunately, my toddler sons who have taken up residence in my home in recent years don’t quite feel the same about such quiet.
The simple but mindful words of the morning and evening prayers have given me a rhythm and pattern that help me find my center again. I’m convinced that we are craving spiritual disciplines in the church in these hurried days of immediacy. We would do well to re-engage these simple prayers as a pattern for our hours.
I’m finding the Small Catechism popping up all over my life these days in wonderful moments of serendipitous beauty. David Truemper, a pastor and my mentor, had a favorite line that still walks with me even now, a decade after his death: “God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and will not let you go!” For one who had walked through the valley of the shadow of atheism back into faith, that statement was no small thing.
Is no small thing.
I recently realized that this is, at its core, a distillation of Luther’s explanation of the creed’s second article. I’ve been using the old words of the Small Catechism to feed my faith for years without knowing it.
That’s still pretty powerful if you ask me.