“You Can’t Call God on the Telephone” and Other Christian Teachings Specifically for Children

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telephoneI have a very clear childhood memory of siting at a tiny little table in a room full of toys, coloring a picture of different types of telephones and then crossing them out while listening to someone explain that you can’t call God on the telephone. I was five years old and it was part of a Sunday School lesson on prayer. To my mind, it seemed that I was being taught a great theological truth about the nature of God and telephones. This idea was reinforced by the fact that “You can’t call God on the telephone” was a maxim that was repeated whenever prayer was the topic of a Sunday School class for the next several years. Apparently, this is considered a good way to begin discussing prayer with small children.

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can't hear you unless your head is bowed!

*sarcasm alert* Look, kids, Jesus can’t hear you unless your head is bowed!

That strikes me as being extremely odd. Evidently, the point was to distinguish prayer from human-to-human conversation, but why is that such an important point to make? Why do people think that it’s the first and primary thing about prayer that young children need to know? Wouldn’t it be more significant to point out that prayer actually is sort of like talking to a person, and that it’s a really special blessing to be able to talk directly to God? Besides, it’s not as if a telephone somehow blocks prayer from reaching God’s ears. If someone was to pray while holding a telephone to their face for some reason, that wouldn’t negate the prayer. But that is also an unnecessary point to specify when defining prayer for children, because the topic of prayer is not intrinsically linked to the topic of telephones. At least in my case, the discussion of telephones was a distraction from the subject of prayer, not an instructive illustration of the concepts being taught.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Cutting out pictures of butterflies is a very edifying activity.

Little-kid Sunday School, at least as I remember it, relied on a lot of canned phrases and irrelevant craft projects to discuss things in vague terms that would have been better if they were just taught explicitly. We were told over and over again that “God is everywhere” and that we were supposed to “Always trust in God” without any additional explanation or discussion of those concepts. Old Testament stories were taught as if the whole point of them was how righteous certain “characters” were and how we should be just like them. Bible stories from the gospels were learned by coloring pictures of Jesus and talking in vague terms about how loving Jesus is and how He always cares for us. The epistles were completely ignored until around fifth or sixth grade, at which point those teachings were incorporated into Sunday School lessons by having each student look up a certain number of verses, all taken out of context, that related to a certain theme. That theme was sometimes moralistic (like how important it is to love everyone) and sometimes encouraging, (like how God doesn’t want bad things to happen to Christians) but it was always something fairly vague and rarely had to do with salvation and justification. Instead of learning the Ten Commandments or discussing Law and Gospel, we looked at cartoons of children engaged in various activities and pointed out which ones were misbehaving and which ones were being good. Coloring on the walls is bad, setting the dinner table is good, pulling people’s hair is bad, and helping a friend who fell down and scraped his knee is good. Maybe the occasional Sunday School lesson happened to mention Jesus’ crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins, but if it did, that was a trivial point compared to the primary purpose of telling stories illustrating goodness and badness, or reminding us that God is [insert any generic adjective with a positive connotation].

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

When I was little, I thought that coloring on the wall was an unforgivable sin, because Sunday School kept telling me how naughty it was.

For teenagers and preteens, most Sunday School lessons try very hard to prepare students for the possibility that they will have to defend themselves to peers who may tease them for going to church. I remember many, many lessons that involved watching videos or looking at stories written in comic book form, showing a Christian teenager explaining to his/her friends that he/she can’t participate in a certain social event on Sunday morning because he/she had church. The friends would laugh at the protagonist, say that church wasn’t important, and (horror of horrors) call the protagonist a “religious nut.” Then the protagonist would resist peer pressure, meekly walk away from the conversation, decide that those kids are terrible people and bad influences with whom no Christian can be friends, go home, do his/her chores and homework, and read the Bible for an hour before going to bed and getting at least eight hours of sleep because that’s the right thing to do. He or she is a good and faithful Christian, everyone else is bad and should be avoided, and the lesson is over.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad with teaching kids moral values, emphasizing the greatness of God, or warning teenagers about peer pressure and anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture. But I don’t understand why most adults think that children can’t understand anything beyond empty clichés and the distinction between good and bad. It would be so easy to take a stereotypical moralistic Sunday School lesson and expand it into a meaningful Law/Gospel lesson by adding a few words to the effect that Jesus died on the cross to pay for all our sins. That’s not an intellectually challenging concept; at least one of my younger sisters was able to articulate it as soon as she was old enough to talk in sentences. It would be so easy to take a popular theme or Bible story and expand it into a meaningful message by taking the fluff out of Sunday School lessons and using that time to read entire Bible passages instead of individual verses. It would be so easy to remind Sunday School students what their church teaches in addition to what their friends are likely to think about their church. Little kids would benefit a lot from having some substance in their Sunday School lessons, and older kids would benefit even more because their lessons tend to follow an even narrower theme than little kids’ lessons do. Just because teenagers face peer pressure doesn’t mean that all they need to hear is how important it is not to give in to it.

Kids, don't give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

Kids, don’t give in to peer pressure or Jesus will be sad.

It’s true that Christians are subject to hurtful stereotypes, especially on the internet, and that Christians do sometimes experience peer pressure that will try to turn them away from the church. It is very true that Christianity is distinctly set apart from the secular world, which is why “secular” is even a word in the first place. And it makes sense to occasionally warn teenagers about the anti-Christian messages that they will often encounter. (Here, I use “anti” both in the sense of “opposed to” and in the sense of “instead of”) But despite the non-Christian values of our society and the negative view of Christians that is propagated by certain aspects of the media and held by many individuals, this culture is still a very safe and easy place to be a Christian, at least in comparison to many parts of the world. In this country, not only is it legal to be a Christian, but it’s fairly normal.  Peer pressure and anti-Christian stereotypes are issues that Christian teenagers face in this society, but it isn’t exactly the constant hardship that Sunday School lessons tell them to anticipate. For one thing, Christianity is common enough that most Christian teenagers have friends who share their faith and would never tease them or alienate them for their beliefs. Besides that, very few atheists will suddenly dump a best friend for being Christians. Sure, religion does occasionally tear relationships apart, but it’s unlikely that those kinds of issues will occur out of the blue sometime when someone teases you for going to church on one specific Sunday.

I myself have never been directly and specifically mocked by a peer for being a Christian. There have been occasions where someone has questioned my values and beliefs or has expressed surprise and confusion about my unwillingness to skip church on a whim, but (unless you count the occasional hateful anonymous internet comment) I have never been victimized on account of my religion. But there’s something else I have encountered quite a lot, something that Sunday School never told me might ever happen. People ask me genuine, sincere, curious questions about religion all the time. Atheist or agnostic friends are curious about what exactly Christianity is all about, non-Lutheran Christians wonder what exactly Lutherans believe, and occasionally, people who are completely on the same page as me want to hear what I know about a particular topic. It’s a good thing that I go to church and Bible study regularly and grew up in a Christian home, because Sunday School alone wouldn’t have prepared me to be able to give even the most basic explanation of what my religion is. As it is, I admit that there have been a number of cases in which I have responded by mumbling something random and inarticulate that may or may not have resembled actual words. But there have been quite a number of other times where I have had a very interesting theological conversation with someone who genuinely wanted to hear about my faith and who had no intention to respond with insults or mockery. Those kinds of conversations are always good experiences, and I’d like to think that the other person gets something out of them, too.

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

LIKE AND SHARE IF YOU LOVE JESUS!

At any rate, I think it’s an important thing for Christians to know and be able to articulate what they believe. It seems to me that Christianity in general is following the dumbing-down trend set by Sunday School lessons. Just take a look at the ways people express their faith on the internet. It’s impossible to avoid the “share if you love Jesus” facebook posts and the inspirational “Christian” quotes that have nothing to do with Christ. When we were kids, we were taught that faith means being good, or being able to tell when other people aren’t being good, or resisting peer pressure by letting everyone know just how much we love Jesus, or making generic and vague statements about how good God is. So that’s what Christianity means in our culture now. And, based upon what I have seen and heard, the result is that some Christians and most non-Christians really are unaware of what Christianity is. People actually don’t realize that Jesus’ death and resurrection is what’s important, and that the central teaching of Christianity is that His death and resurrection gives us salvation from our sins. That’s a much more important teaching, not only for the grownups, but for people of every age group. When it comes down to it, there’s no distinction between Christian teachings for kids and Christian teachings, because kids should be allowed to know what their religion says.

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Why I Don’t Like Liturgical Dance

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I was a dance major in college, and on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that I ought to do liturgical dance in church. That disturbed me, especially in one particular case where it was a visiting pastor who said it. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about the idea of liturgical dance, because I know a number of well-meaning and sincere Christians who have participated in liturgical dance, and besides, there technically is nothing heretical about it. But there are a number of reasons that liturgical dance just isn’t a very good idea. I was reminded of all these reasons when I saw a youtube video on facebook yesterday of a liturgical dance performance in a Lutheran church. I should acknowledge the fact that the person who posted the link and the other people who commented on it shared my dislike for liturgical dance, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who don’t see what’s wrong with it. As someone who has had to express a specific opinion on this issue before, I’d like to offer a list of reasons why I don’t approve of liturgical dance.

1. Dance is a performance art where the focus is on the performer

praise danceIn general, a choreographed dance is intended to display the skill of the dancer(s) and/or to be a form of artistic self-expression for the choreographer and dancer(s). Either way, the focus is on the dancer(s) themselves, and the viewers’ impressions and reactions are supposed to reflect that. Yes, dancers and choreographers can and do use dance to tell stories, to convey emotions, and to express ideas, but those stories, emotions, and ideas are based upon and centered around the dancers’ bodies. I think that dance is the most performer-centered art form. If you don’t agree, think of what happens when dancers and musicians perform together. From the audience’s point of view, and usually from the performers’ perspective as well, the dancers are the real stars and the musicians are just providing accompaniment. I am not saying this to insult dance as an art form or to imply that dancers are egotistical. As someone who has spent an awful lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears on dance, I definitely think that dancers deserve appreciation for their talent and dedication. But I also think that it is inherent in the nature of dance that it is impossible for the audience’s focus to be on anything other than the dancer. For that reason, dance does not belong in a worship service. Even if the dancers genuinely are doing it in praise of God, the audience is paying attention to the dancers, not God.

2. Liturgical dance tends to have theological problems

I suppose that it would be hypothetically possible to choreograph a dance piece that had accurate theological significance. But all of the liturgical dance videos that I can find on the internet seem to fall into one of two groups: they are either a meaningless and repetitive series of generic dance moves set to a theologically shallow praise song, or they portray a personal struggle that ends with the main character finding her way to God. (I say “her” because I actually haven’t seen much of any liturgical dances featuring men) I realize that there really are some Christians who actually believe that Christianity is all about winning a personal struggle against evil and achieving faith and salvation, but that’s not a biblical idea. If these dances were theologically accurate, they would first make it clear that the main character is a sinner herself, not an innocent victim of vague evil powers, and then show that it is God Himself who brings salvation to the sinner, rather than an individual’s own personal victory. The choreography also ought to work the crucifixion and resurrection into its story, because those are absolutely central to Christianity, and any “Christian” message that leaves them out is running the risk of not really being Christian. If the congregation doesn’t want to see a liturgical dance that doesn’t portray the individual Christian as the hero, then they obviously don’t have the kind of devoted faith in God that their lead liturgical dancer shows at the end of her performance, and probably are confused about what faith is anyway. Faith is not wearing a white dress and making graceful gestures towards the altar while nobody dressed in black pulls you back anymore; it is belief in God and the salvation that comes from Him. These people would benefit a lot more from hearing the law and gospel in their service than from watching an artistic expression of what the Christian life is like.

3. “Do everything to the glory of God” isn’t just about the church service

I'm really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

I’m really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

This oft-quoted phrase is from 1 Corinthians 10:31, and it is often completely taken out of context, since that passage is about whether it’s okay for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods. That isn’t an outdated and irrelevant passage because it applies to other situations where the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. But it really has nothing to do with the worship service. A variation of this phrase also appears in Colossians 3:17, but it’s still quite a stretch to read that passage as saying that a person is compelled to display all of their God-given talents in the worship service. There’s this thing called vocation; it means that it’s good and godly for us to do whatever we’re supposed to do in every aspect of our lives, and not just in the worship service. Even a world-famous professional dancer wouldn’t be compelled to dance in church in order to justify the fact that dance is his/her God-given talent. After all, the church service can’t encompass everyone’s individual abilities. What if you’re a rocket scientist or a marine biologist or a soccer player or something? Good luck finding a way to showcase those useful and significant God-given talents in a worship service. If everyone actually believed that doing something to the glory of God required doing it in church, the worship service would be nothing but a talent show. I think it’s really a symptom of the trend towards Sunday-morning-only-Christianity that anyone would believe that performing in a church service is somehow more Christian than using whatever talents you have been given throughout your life, even in contexts that aren’t exclusively Christian.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really... edifying. I'm sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really… edifying. I’m sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

4. Liturgical dance is not liturgical, it’s a distraction

I got this on google but I can't figure out what the original source was.

I got this on google but I can’t figure out what the original source was.

I have heard people comment with surprise about the fact that churches of different denominations sometimes have very similar liturgies. For example, the traditional Lutheran liturgy is pretty similar to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. That is not just a weird coincidence. It’s a result of the fact that every traditional liturgical church can trace the history of its liturgy back to the early church. Over the centuries, many traditions have stayed more or less the same because they just work so well. It’s not just a matter of the aesthetic beauty of an “old-fashioned” church service; the ancient liturgy is theologically rich. Law and gospel are embedded within the order of the service itself, most of the responses come directly from the Bible, and old hymns tend to be much more meaningful and didactic than modern praise songs. That’s not to say that innovations are evil. There’s nothing wrong with singing a hymn that was written relatively recently, just as long as it is theologically accurate and actually says something. There’s nothing wrong with using an instrument other than a pipe organ, just as long as that doesn’t lead to singing songs that aren’t theologically accurate and don’t actually say anything. There’s nothing wrong with using technology in the church service, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. And by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with adding something new and artistic to the liturgy, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. But liturgical dance doesn’t serve a purpose because it doesn’t offer anything that the ancient, traditional, liturgical service is lacking. It just interrupts the flow of a service that has a logical and meaningful order without it. At least a musical solo can be smoothly incorporated into the service because the liturgy is already characterized by music. People who want to see liturgical dance or other diversional performance acts in the worship service are just looking for entertainment, and that’s not the purpose of worship. In fact, catering to people’s desire for entertainment in church can be dangerous because it reinforces the belief that religion is just another kind of recreational hobby.

In conclusion, I think that liturgical dance is parallel to popular Christian praise music. Both are creative art forms that have little or no theological value and don’t belong in the worship service. But in both cases, they are perfectly acceptable and maybe even good things outside of the divine service. There’s no reason that mainstream art and culture can’t include non-satirical references to God, sincere praise for God, and positive portrayals of Christianity. If Christians find those types of music and dance to be likable and entertaining, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy them in their everyday lives. Maybe some people will even find that such things reinforce their beliefs and values to some extent. But no religious-themed but theologically shallow art form is faith-giving, or acts as an acceptable substitute for the divine service or for any aspect of it.

Some Thoughts on Genesis 24

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Disclaimer: After I finish the long quotation from Genesis, the end of this blog post is just some things that have occurred to me regarding this particular Bible passage. I’m not trying to claim that what I’m saying here is official doctrine or that my thoughts constitute theological truths. In fact, since the notes in the Lutheran Study Bible (which are extensive and very awesome) don’t make these connections, I’m willing to accept the possibility that they aren’t valid. It is entirely possible that I’m really stretching things and that it’s just plain wrong to take these things from this text. If anyone reading this has anything to say, particularly if it involves quoting Bible verses or good biblical commentary, your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Rebekah at the wellGenesis 24 is the account of how Abraham sent his servant back to his native land to find a wife for his son Isaac. The chapter begins with the conversation between Abraham and the servant, and then the servant sets off on the journey. Starting at verse twelve, here is the text as quoted from the ESV (English Standard Version):

And he [Abraham’s servant] said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink’, and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord has prospered his journey or not.

RebekahWhen the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” She added, “We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” Then the young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. As soon as she saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” So the man came to the house and unharnessed the camels, and gave straw and fodder to the camels, and there was water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.” He said, “Speak on.”

[Verses 34- 49 are spoken by Abraham’s servant and repeat everything from the previous 33 verses. Then Rebekah’s father and brother agree to send Rebekah back with Abraham’s servant, and they all eat together. The next day, Rebekah and the servant depart, and Rebekah marries Isaac at the end of the chapter.]

This is what I find really interesting about this passage: Abraham’s servant recognizes Rebekah as Isaac’s bride because of the words she speaks (“Drink” and “I will water your camels”) and the water she gives, in the same way that Christians can recognize the true church by the words it speaks (the Bible) and the water it gives (Baptism). In fact, the reason that Abraham’s servant has to take this trip in the first place is because any potential brides in Isaac’s current homeland belong to pagan religions, which is to say that they’re associated with false churches.

I'm reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it's a cool sign.

I’m reusing this picture of a sign I stuck on my dorm room wall, because it’s a cool sign.

That’s something I noticed while ago that I thought was cool, but this morning it occurred to me that the order of events in this account could be significant, too. First comes the part about the water, then Rebekah and her brother invite the servant into their home, then they talk things over and agree that Rebekah will marry Isaac, and then Abraham’s servant eats the food that Rebekah’s family provides. (The Lutheran Study Bible does have a note that points out that it would have been customary for the guest to eat before such a discussion, but in this case, it was important to the servant to get that matter taken care of first.) Likewise, Christians enter the church through baptism; baptism can occur even before a person makes a conscious decision to enter the church. (In this case, my opening disclaimer doesn’t apply. It is official doctrine in the Lutheran Church that infant baptism is valid because baptism is a gift from God that does not require a deliberate decision to accept Jesus. It is something that the church can give to us even before we have the knowledge to recognize what we are receiving in baptism.) However, when the church offers us food, (Holy Communion, aka The Lord’s Supper, aka the Eucharist, etc.) before we partake in this meal, we should be sure that we’re in the right place and that we are in agreement with the congregation with whom we’re eating. In the case of Abraham’s servant, that means negotiating the betrothal before accepting dinner. In the case of communion, that means two things. First, unlike baptism, communion isn’t something that should be offered to babies or to people who have not yet been instructed in the church’s teachings. Second, it’s an argument for close communion (aka closed communion), which is the practice by which a congregation only offers communion to members or to visitors who believe the same thing. (Basically, that means members of another congregation of the same denomination.)

Matthew 6The English major part of my brain is wondering if there’s something metaphorical to say about the camels. It seems important that Rebekah is so attentive to them, offering them water and then assuring Abraham’s servant that her family has plenty of straw and fodder for the camels, even though he hasn’t specifically asked about that. Obviously, Rebekah was a generous and caring hostess, but if there’s a parallel to be drawn here, I’m going to guess that it’s along the same lines as what Jesus says in Matthew 6: 25-34. (See accompanying picture) If the camels stand for something, they stand for Abraham’s worldly possessions, and the fact that they are well provided for stands for the fact that, by God’s grace and love, our worldly needs are met, in addition to the forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that God has already given us.

The end. I reiterate that comments, corrections, and additional remarks are welcome and requested.

Why Young People Leave the Church

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I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I've taken myself. So here's a picture of my family's church in Arkansas.

I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I’ve taken myself. So here’s a blurry and low-quality picture of my family’s church in Arkansas.

I frequently read or hear things about how few “young people” there are in churches, and how the youth of this generation doesn’t care about religion and is falling away from the faith. The definition of “young people” will vary depending upon the context; it could refer to a specific narrow demographic group, usually high-school aged kids, or it could just be the opposite of “elderly” in a binary system where everyone is either young or elderly. It doesn’t really matter; regardless of how you define youth, it is statistically true, at least in many congregations and denominations, that there are a lot of elderly people and few young people. At least in this society, it is accurate to say that young people as a demographic group are falling away from the church. Sometimes people comment and complain about this in order to criticize young people for leaving the church and sometimes they’re criticizing the church for losing young people.  In either case, it’s understood that something must be done to bring young people back into the church.

People offer lots of reasons for why young people might have a tendency to leave the church, and most of these reasons imply possible solutions. For example, it is often said that young people don’t like liturgy, and that a contemporary worship style encourages teenagers and young adults to attend worship and to develop an emotional affinity for church. I had thought this was actually a very recent idea, but I once saw a non-denominational hymnal from the 1920s that claimed that young people are so emotional that they can only be drawn to religion by singing hymns that are very emotionally charged. Hence, I-Love-Jesus theology becomes preferred over Jesus-Died-For-Me theology. This is a problem, and I highly doubt that it has any success in drawing young people into the church.

Then there are some people who say that young people leave the church because church is boring or irrelevant. I think this may be a more valid argument because I actually have heard former Christians or Christmas-and-Easter-only churchgoers say that church is boring. It would seem that this actually ties very closely to the reason in the previous paragraph, because the proposed solution is often the same: dispense with the liturgy, change the musical style, and present a more modern and socially relevant image to the world. Let youth group activities take precedence over worship, use pop culture references to keep things interesting, and make sure that the clergy come across as being cool and fun people. The problem with this is that it turns church into a social group and a genre of entertainment. If the desired young people start coming to church for the fun and the society, they will only stay for the fun and the society. People can get tired of a favorite band or a favorite genre of movies after loving it for a few years, and people can drift away from a set of friends over time. In the same way, people can get bored of a fun and culturally relevant church just as easily (and in fact, much more easily) as they can get bored of a liturgical and confessional church. You can’t combat a person’s tendency to get bored by catering to their changing tastes. But boredom becomes irrelevant when the topic at hand is understood to be important. Someone can stop liking their favorite food, but they can never get tired of eating. Someone can stop liking their favorite TV show, but that won’t drive them away from television itself. Someone can get bored with their favorite hymn or stop being fascinated by their favorite Bible verse, but they won’t get bored of religion if they realize that religion is more than whatever personally relevant message they are currently getting out of it. A clear law and gospel message is always relevant, and if that’s what people are hearing, people aren’t likely to get bored and aren’t likely to let temporary boredom drive them away from the church.

101_9768Another commonly offered explanation for why young people might not like to go to church is that religion is too full of rules and accusations, and that most of these Christian values are hypocritical anyway. If we want to bring young people into the church, we should therefore tone down the morality and emphasize God’s love. In other words, we need less law and more gospel. That would certainly be true in a congregation that was too legalistic in the first place, but it doesn’t work to remove all references to sin. If you do that, you’re throwing out every aspect of theology, because things like forgiveness and grace and salvation lose all of their meaning when sin isn’t acknowledged. The result of this is a church that portrays God as nothing more than a benevolent guiding spirit who loves us. That is certainly appealing, but in the long run, it’s much less appealing than the message of a God who loves us so much that he sent his only Son to live a sinless life and die to pay for all of our sins so that we might have eternal life. That story has some gruesome and disturbing chapters, but it’s a story with a much happier ending, and besides, it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious what’s really driving young people away from the church. It isn’t that church is too boring, too old-fashioned, or not cheerful enough. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The problem is that this society doesn’t acknowledge the fact that children are intelligent and easily interested. Our culture caters to children’s short attention spans, propensity to become bored, and undeveloped thought processes when those are traits that children don’t actually have. I think we actually encourage kids to become bored quickly by letting them know that we’re afraid they’ll become bored, and we discourage them from being curious and intellectual by letting them know that we’re afraid they won’t understand things. Therefore, everything is dumbed down for kids, and that includes religion. For example, when I was a little kid in Sunday school, I frequently was made to sing a certain fun, interesting, and easy-to-remember song that went like this:

“Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT, HEAD! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord!”

If you’re still reading at this point, I’m betting that you skipped most of the words of that song, or at least skimmed over it pretty quickly. I got pretty annoyed and impatient just typing it out. I was going to cut it off in the middle, but I decided not to do that because my annoyance and any reader’s disinterest in those lyrics is exactly the point I’m trying to make. In contrast, here is a song that Martin Luther wrote for children in 1531:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word/ Curb those who fain by craft and sword/ Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son/ And set at naught all He hath done./ Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known/ For Thou art Lord of lords alone/ Defend thy Christendom that we/ May evermore sing praise to Thee./ O Comforter of priceless worth/ Send peace and unity on earth/ Support us in our final strife/ And lead us out of death to life.”

Do you notice a slight difference between these two songs? For example, do you notice that the first one is repetitive, boring, and demeaning to the intelligence of anyone who is told that they’re supposed to like it because of the fact that they’re a child? And do you notice that the second one is more interesting, more meaningful, and doesn’t drive you berserk with its utter inanity before you’re even halfway through the second verse? Do you notice that the first song would make you want to rip out your own vocal chords if you were forced to sing it on a regular basis while the second song is something that would actually be enjoyable to sing frequently? Also, it’s worth noting that it has a tune that is more interesting and aesthetically pleasing (by virtue of the fact that it has a range of more than three notes) while still being quite simple and easy to sing. As a young person and as a former small child, I feel qualified to say that young people don’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted by stupid and annoying ditties and that young people have good enough attention spans and enough emotional maturity to be capable of understanding that church isn’t supposed to be a form of entertainment. If young people are being driven away from the church, maybe a good solution would be to stop forcing young people to sing “Father Abraham.”

Happy Epiphany!

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EpiphanyToday is Epiphany, one of those holidays that I think should be a much bigger deal than it usually is. Then again, as I often use this blog to say, I am in favor of holidays in general and think that every holiday should be a really, really big deal. However, I think that Epiphany in particular is one of the most underrated holidays in the entire year. We should celebrate Epiphany not only by observing it in church, but also by baking Epiphany cookies, going Epiphany caroling, posting Epiphany greetings on our facebook pages, and not being in school yet. This year, Epiphany conveniently falls on a Sunday, but when it doesn’t, we should have Epiphany Day church services anyway. And it goes without saying that we should write blog posts about how much we like Epiphany.

Google translate says that this is "Epiphany" in Greek. Greek is awesome; it saddens me that I don't know it.

Google translate says that this is “Epiphany” in Greek. Greek is awesome; it saddens me that I don’t know it.

I like Epiphany a lot. I’m not making comparisons here; I’m not necessarily saying that I like it any more than any other holiday. But it is cool. The word Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation, which is a fancy word for an event that shows something. (Therefore, the word epiphany has also entered the English language as a word that refers to a sudden realization.) In terms of the holiday, the thing being shown is the incarnation of Jesus, and the event showing it is the famous journey of the wise men.

Here’s a fun fact that is fairly well known, but still worth saying: We don’t actually know how many of them there were. Matthew 2:1 just says “wise men from the east”, it doesn’t specify a number. Apparently, the reason we tend to assume that there were three was that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Also, it is worth noting that “wise men”, “magi” and “kings” are not synonymous. As far as I know, there’s no reason to believe that the wise men were royalty. They were probably rich, since they had gold and frankincense and myrrh to bring as gifts to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean they were kings. In fact, the title of the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is wrong on three counts, because there also is no reason to believe that the wise men were from the orient. I’ve heard that they were probably from Persia, although I don’t know how certain that is. The Bible also makes no mention of rubber cigars, but I’m inclined to believe that part of the song.

wise menFor me, the really interesting part about the wise men is the fact that they brought myrrh. I bring this up partly because it was mentioned in the sermon in church today, but I’ve heard it a number of times before and have always thought it was interesting. Once upon a time, I didn’t know what frankincense and myrrh were, so I just linked them together in my head with gold because I knew what gold was. As I have since learned, frankincense is a type of incense; you set it on fire and it smells good and acts as a metaphor for prayer rising to heaven. Myrrh is a spice which was used in burial. Those are some odd gifts to give a baby. I mean, the gold could obviously be set aside for his college fund, but I’m sure Mary and Joseph didn’t want to encourage Baby Jesus to play with fire or to take up embalming as a hobby. The reason that the myrrh is interesting in this context is that it foreshadows and points out the fact that Jesus’ death and Jesus’ birth were linked; they were part of the same mission. The other two times that myrrh is mentioned in the New Testament both have to do with the crucifixion: Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh to drink while he is on the cross (Mark 15:23) and he is buried with myrrh. (John 19:39) I’m not claiming that there are great theological hidden meanings in the motif of myrrh; Jesus’ crucifixion is equally significant regardless of what gifts he was given as a baby, but I still think it’s kind of interesting.

Just to round out my Epiphany Day blog post and to make sure that there’s something of substance in it, here is a link to one of my favorite Epiphany hymns, and here is the tune. And one more thing: you now have my official permission to take down your Christmas decorations if that’s really what you want to do. My own Christmas tree will stay where it is for a few more weeks, but at this point, that’s a matter of personal preference rather than an expression of the fact that it’s still Christmas. Because it actually isn’t Christmas anymore.

I’m too lazy to give this a title

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This morning, I saw a thingy that said, “Is God your steering wheel or your spare tire?” That question kind of bothered me, I think mainly because I’ve had so many car problems lately that the idea of putting any trust in either steering wheels or spare tires is pretty scary. I understand what the question is asking, and maybe I’m carrying the metaphor a lot farther than the question intended, but I still didn’t like it. So I found a pen and a blank page in a notebook and copied the question, and underneath it I wrote, “Neither. God is the driver. And I am the passenger who sits there doing nothing and maybe even dozing off, but who can still have complete confidence that I will arrive safely at the destination.” In retrospect, I like my answer.

During church this morning, I had a killer headache and a distracting buzzing in my brain, and I admit that I wasn’t as focused on the service as I should have been. I also admit that this wasn’t exactly the first time ever in my entire life that I was in some way distracted during church. But the thing is, it didn’t really matter that much, because I was there where God’s Word is, and the point of church is God’s Word, not my brain. Maybe I couldn’t think clearly this morning, but I could still get something out of being in an environment where phrases like “forgiveness of sins” and “gifts of God” and “salvation through Christ” surrounded me and seeped into my brain through my ears, even if my mind didn’t really feel like doing anything with them at the moment.

‘Tis good to be Lutheran. ‘Tis good to be Christian. ‘Tis good to know that salvation comes by grace through faith, and this is not my own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works. (paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-9)

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Afternoon

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There is no particular reason for this picture to be here, but I like it.

1. One of the coolest things about having a car is that it’s a lot of fun driving home (or rather, back to campus) from church. I don’t know why that would be more fun than driving any other time, but it totally is.

This is how it ended

2. On the website where I play correspondence chess, there’s this one person that I’ve been playing repeatedly for practically the whole time I’ve been using that website, and I’ve almost always beaten him. I don’t know why, because according to his rating, he’s considerably better than me. This last time, I thought for sure I’d lose because I made some stupid mistakes very early in the game that led to him preventing me from castling, taking my rook on a8 for free, and gaining a couple pawns. Somehow, I won anyway. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to do that; it must be because I’m clever.

3. Sometimes I have a weird nagging fear that I’m wrong about what day of the week it is. Today was one of those days. On the way to church, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t really Sunday, so I was glad to see other cars at the church. Just as I was about to pull into the parking lot, I saw a squirrel in the middle of the road. It noticed me at the same time, and was so startled that it jumped several feet straight up, then landed right in front of me again. I had to slow down practically to a stop in order to avoid hitting it, especially because it was so stupid that it still took several seconds to decide to run away. But this story ends happily, because the squirrel survived, and because it was a Sunday, just as I had thought.

4. My hair is insanely curly today. I like it when my hair is insanely curly.

5. Some people may think that I put too much lemon juice in my lemonade. I say I’m supposed to use lots of lemon juice; it’s called lemonade, not waterade. The only reason I use any water at all is that my parents taught me how to make lemonade, and they said it should have water in it. Since I am a very good daughter and always do exactly what my parents tell me, (I can hear my family members rolling their eyes as they read this) I continue to put at least a little water in my lemonade.

6. When I was little, I thought that the part of the Confession that says “…But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them…” said ‘hardly sorry’ and I was very confused. It was quite a revelation when I learned how to read and saw what it really said. The moral of this story is that learning how to read is awesome.

This is actually the view from the window of my dorm room last summer. I can’t get a picture from my current window that does the view justice.

7. The view from my window is really incredible. I can see quite a lot of the city. Birmingham is beautiful; it has forests and hills and skyscrapers and city lights, and they’re all visible from this little glass-covered hole in my bedroom wall.  Windows are a pretty brilliant idea. I know they aren’t exactly a recent invention, but I still think that they deserve acknowledgement as one of the cleverest human achievements of all time.

8. If there was really any such thing as the fashion police, I expect that they would come to arrest me today. In my defense, I like these socks and I like this skirt and I like this shirt, which is a common link between them, and thus, they go together. Although it’s true that I’m simultaneously wearing horizontal stripes, diagonal stripes, and a floral print, I don’t think that’s really the important point here. The important point is that I’m wearing awesome clothes today. I have such style and class.

9. I am vaguely aware of the fact that if anybody else was to walk into my dorm room and look around, they would inevitably come to the conclusion that I am weird. I suppose it’s already a little strange that the top of my desk is completely hidden under stacks of books, (which are piled on top of a finished jigsaw puzzle) a chess board, and various papers and notebooks. What’s a little odder, though, is that one of my walls has nine pieces of notebook paper taped to it, all of which are covered in letters and numbers. Two of them are about chess games, but the other seven are all records of random stuff written in forms of notation that I had to invent myself.

10. I hate my internet connection. It will hardly ever stay online for long enough for me to actually do stuff. I’m really sick and tired of losing chess and scrabble games just because I keep losing my internet connection. I suppose that those technically aren’t the most important things I do with the internet, but they definitely are the most time-sensitive things. So far today, I’ve won a couple games by playing well and have lost quite a lot of games by losing my internet connection. If there was a list of the most frustrating situations in the universe, unreliable internet connections would be pretty close to the top.

11. Last night, it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I soaked bits of marshmallows in the paprika water in which I had previously baked apple slices. There’s only one way to find out. They’ve been soaking for half a day now, and I think it’ll soon be time to take a look at them and see if anything interesting happened. If not, I can always microwave them, because microwaving marshmallows is always interesting.

12. I remember the last time I was bored. It was April 12, 2007.

13. Once upon a time, I had a dream in which my brother challenged me to figure out a system of 26-variable calculus in order to convert language into mathematical equations. (Incidentally, as bizarre as that sounds, it really is the kind of thing that my brother and I would think about doing) Even though it was only a dream, I took that challenge seriously, and I am annoyed by the fact that I still don’t know how one would go about doing that.

14. ‘Tis raining, which is odd considering that it was a beautiful, sunny, summery day just a few minutes ago. But actually, this is a very nice summer rain, and I bet it won’t last for long anyway. I’m just really glad that I decided not to leave my car windows open a crack. Oh, what d’ya know, it just stopped raining. That was quick. Alabama weather is weird.

Here is a random picture from last summer that shows the cat messing up the scrabble game my sister and I were playing. It’s automatically a cute picture since it has both my cute cat and my cute sister in it.

15. My vocabulary really is sadly deficient.  For the last couple weeks, I’ve been keeping track of all the words I can find that I don’t know, and the list is outrageously long. Every morning, I write all the new additions to the list on little slips of paper and put them in a box with the others, and then, at intervals throughout the day, I take a few words out of the box, guess what they mean, and look up their definitions. If I was right about what it is, I make a mark on the slip of paper before it goes back in the box; I can take it out once it has five marks.  I’m starting to think I should be using a bigger box for this.

16. Someday, relatively soon, I will be an adult and will no longer live in a college dorm, and I’ll have my own kitchen and be able to cook my own food and will have a well-balanced and nutritious diet. I am looking forward to that very much. Nonetheless, I am currently quite content with the fact that my diet lately has consisted mainly of chocolate oatmeal, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, yogurt, microwaved s’mores, and excessive quantities of ice cream and milkshakes.

17. Great camaduka, that’s a weird-looking cloud.