Deuteronomy 6:4-7, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
At our annual Reformation Day celebration I heard a minor commotion in the kitchen. My granddaughter, 11, had surveyed the preparations, made some basic inquiries concerning the menu, and then asked, “Why is all the food and drink German?” Her uncle replied, matter-of-factly, “Because Martin Luther was German.” This answer, however, did not satisfy, but only piqued her curiosity. “How could he be German? I thought he was African!” she protested. It was at that point that the minor commotion broke out. “You had better go see your Pappy!” she was told quite spiritedly. That was when I got involved in the conversation. Dutifully, she found me in another room, and related the events to that point, as described above.
Her naïve the-emperor-has-no-clothes-like remark is very instructive in a number of ways. First, it shows that an eleven-year-old child has enough awareness of the world to expect Germans to be white. (She would be utterly dismayed to learn of current population trends in Germany - and, indeed, in all of Europe - today). Second, it shows that “political correctness” has done its job perhaps too well. The bleeding-heart liberal types who insist that blacks must be referred to as “African American” probably didn’t expect young children to come to think of them simply as “African.” Third, it shows that the influence of popular culture and public “education” is very, very powerful. My granddaughter is not a total product of the popular influences. Our recent Reformation Day observance was not the first time we ever had done such a thing. Of course, she had heard of Martin Luther, the 16th Century German, before. But the popular influences had succeeded in crowding out her budding and struggling awareness, and in substituting the approved icons of the age.
“Martin Luther was a man who lived many, many years ago,” I told her.
“Oh,” she assented with genuinely widening eyes as I continued my remarks.
“He was very courageous and very well known, and that is why Martin Luther King’s parents wanted to name him after Martin Luther.”
“Actually,” one of her aunts broke in, “his parents did not name him that. They originally named him Michael. But one day his father simply decided to begin calling himself Martin Luther King, and made it known that his son was to be called Martin Luther King, Jr.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” I remembered.
“Let’s get the facts straight.” My daughter exhorted.
My granddaughter was not terribly concerned with these technicalities, and eagerly wished to resume the main gist of the conversation. “What did he do to become so famous?” She asked.
“Well,” I went on, “the church during that time had a lot of problems. Many things were not at all right. Martin Luther saw these problems and was very upset about it all. He knew what needed to be changed and knew just what should be done about it. Finally, on October 31, 1517 - nearly 500 years ago - he went up to the big, wooden door of the Castle at Wittenberg, and nailed to it some papers he had written to try to get some things changed.”
“Oooh,” she almost whispered.
Some have thought the nailing of documents is apocryphal, and others maintain that there is adequate historical support for such an occurrence. Even if an actual occurrence, it doubtless was not quite the obstinate gesture such an act would be if done today, for in historical context it was but a customary manner of posting documents for popular review. However, the obstinance that we read into such an act was indeed present in Luther’s overall mood and determination, though perhaps not indicated via hammer and nails.
“His doing that started a big movement that lasted a long time. A lot of people didn’t want anything to change in the church. But Martin Luther, along with other courageous men, like John Calvin, didn’t want to change things just to be changing them. They wanted wrong things in the church to be changed into right things. It is because of what they did all those years ago that we have churches like ours today.” (The poor dear would be mortified to realize that churches that are heirs of the Reformation today stand more in need of reform than the Roman Church of Luther’s day.)
She sat quietly for a few moments, quite clearly mulling things over. At last, the thoughts had moved along through her mind to another juncture at which it appeared dialog would be helpful.
“Pappy?” She began, as the interval had made it necessary for her once again to plea for my attention.
“There’s this kid in my school, and he’s pretty smart, and he says he doesn’t believe in God because there is pain and suffering.”
Ah, yes. The unbeliever’s dearest ally: the so-called Problem of Evil, the supposed Achilles’ Heel of Christianity. In all my discussions with college-educated unbelievers, every time, without fail, resort quickly was had to the comfortable subterfuge of the Problem of Evil. Now, here is an eleven-year-old girl reporting that “a kid in her school” is pulling this rabbit out of his hat. My, my, how advanced and sophisticated the schools are getting these days!
“Go back and tell him that pain and suffering does not mean that God isn’t there, but only means that people are sinners.” I challenged her.
She pursed her lips and knit her brow, as though trying to think what a fellow like him would say next. “Hummph” was all she could manage. Then, it was not long before she had another of his gems to share.
“He says that if God exists, why doesn’t he talk to us?”
“Go back and tell him that He did
talk to us.”
“Oh, yeah!” She assented as the lights came on. She sat in the glow for several minutes. All around us was a bustle of various other activities and conversations. There was so much I would have liked to have told her, but in my years of relating to children I have learned that my instinct is to try to tell too much. I find nowadays that I get further if I answer the questions, and maybe elaborate a little, and then hang back and wait for more questions. It appeared for the moment as though our conversation had concluded, and we began to become absorbed into the general atmosphere of the gathering. But before long there was again that plaintive tap upon my arm and the urgent call of “Pappy?”
“Yes?” I turned my attention to her.
“Where is heaven?”
Now it was I with pursed lips and knit brow. It was not so much that I didn’t know what to say - I just wasn’t quite sure how to say it to an eleven-year-old child.
“Well, you can’t really say where
“It’s not really a place like some place you can travel to….I mean, you couldn’t draw a line from here to there.”
“I don’t get it.” Her tone was more inquisitive than challenging.
“Well, the idea of where
does not apply. You can’t say where
it is in the same way that you can say where Germany is.”
“You mean it isn’t real?”
“No, no, I don’t mean that at all.”
“Then, if it is real, doesn’t it have to be
“Yes, but we talk about where
something is that is in the world we live in, because once we know where it is, then we might be able to travel there. Even if it is something outside our world, like the moon or something, still we could draw a line between here and there and at least think about traveling there, even if we never could actually go. But heaven is not like that. It is not part of the same kind of reality that we live in. You can’t talk about where
She thought about this for quite some time. For a moment I had thought that she might have done with the conversation. However, it turned out that really she was deep in contemplation. At last she turned to me and said, quite simply, “What sentence can you make about heaven?” In other words, I told her that she cannot make the sentence that she began by wanting to make: a sentence that tells us where
to find heaven. I was holding a pretty hard line, insisting that one cannot use the term where
. I left no room at all for popular pabulum such as, heaven is in your heart, or in your dreams, or in the eyes of someone special. With all those avenues shut off, I was very pleased to see that she successfully perceived the position I left her in: if one cannot make a sentence concerning heaven that states where
it may be found, then is there any positive sentence one can make?
“Heaven is a special place prepared by God for the unseen hosts of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, and will be the final home of those whom God was pleased to redeem in Christ.” I declared.
I think she appreciated somewhat the inspirational quality of this description, however, it seemed to be something less than satisfactory, as are all abstract concepts in the concrete minds of children.
“People usually think of heaven as up there somewhere,” she gestured toward the ceiling, “and….and…,” she hesitated, trying to come up with a suitable synonym, whereas she was under strict instructions not to say “hell,” and finally satisfied herself that I had caught her meaning as her hand bobbed, indicating the floor.
“Yes, well, we normally think of up as good and down as bad.”
“And,” her uncle chimed in, “light comes from above, but under the earth is only darkness.”
“But that doesn’t mean that heaven is up there somewhere,” I cautioned. “That’s just a handy way of trying to think about something that is not part of our world. The things that we think and say about life as we know it do not really tell us about something beyond our world, like heaven. We can’t discover it with a telescope or a microscope. We just have to listen to what God tells us about it in the Bible, and believe what He says.”
The adult conversation in the room seemed rather tame or subdued compared to my granddaughter’s energetic curiosity. Her fearlessness in blurting out the best understanding of “Martin Luther” that her naivety could muster, and then her persistence in following up with question after question to drive understanding deeper and deeper, was quite refreshing. I imagine that our brief time of conversation provided a small glimpse of the ideal that Moses exhorted Israel when he commanded them to speak of the things of God to their children “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Now our appetites for conversation seemed to be sated, and the rich aromas from the kitchen evoked in us appetites of a more natural sort. I mused upon our conversation as we distributed generous portions of sausages, sauerkraut, pretzels, and potatoes (and beer, for those of age) and enjoyed the special fellowship that only a shared meal can provide. Afterward we had a time of rousing song. I distributed song-sheets, found the pitch suitable to everyone’s range, and led the assembly in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” My granddaughter followed the words intently as we sang. At the conclusion I got her attention and declared to her, “Now you know Martin Luther a little better: he wrote that hymn.”
“Really?!” She exclaimed with eyes widening in all sincerity and wonder.