In Utero Catechesis—The Word to the Child in the Womb
Central to the Church’s task of catechesis is the foundational belief that faith in Christ is created, sustained, and nurtured by the Word of God, and that Christ and all the blessings of His salvation come to us in no other way but through the divine Word. Thus, the Apostle Paul firmly asserts, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The miracle of faith, which is inextricably connected to the proclamation of the divine Word, is profoundly illustrated by Jesus when He opens both the ears and the mouth of the deaf mute by speaking a Word, “Ephatha!” (Be opened). The Word of God is not only that which faith believes; it is also that by which faith itself is created. The Catechism reinforces this by saying, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel” (Third Article Explanation).
The Word of God creates and gives the blessings of which it speaks! This should cause us to rethink the timing of our catechesis. Parents, believing that children can’t really understand the Word of God and can’t really participate in such things as the Divine Service often keep their children away from the Divine Service and catechesis until they are older. This is a mistake! In the meantime, these children are hearing all kinds of voices that are anything but God’s Word, and the voices that they are hearing are forming them in ways that are contrary to faith in Christ. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come to Me, for of such is the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:14). Traditionally this has meant bringing children to baptism, Sunday School, catechesis, and Divine Services when they are young. But bringing children to God’s Word can begin even earlier than the preschool, toddler, or infant ages. Bringing the Word of God to children can begin while they are still in their mother’s wombs!
There are many examples from the Bible of faith and the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of children before they were born. In all of these examples the Word of God is directly involved. The Angel Gabriel prophesied that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). At six months gestation in Elizabeth’s womb, the preborn John recognized the voice of Mary who
greeted him and his mother with the Word of God. Luke records that at the sound of Mary’s greeting, the babe leaped for joy in his mother’s womb (Luke 2:44). The Lord said of the Prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; and I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). These passages speak not only of the reality of infant faith, but that such faith is a miracle of the Holy Spirit through the Divine Word.
Since this is the case, it ought to be our holy joy and delight to speak the Word of God to our children while they are still in their mothers’ wombs. Confess the Creed, pray the Lord’s Prayer, recite the Ten Commandments, and sing hymns over the mother’s womb when she is pregnant and do it often. Come to church when you are pregnant and allow your unborn children to hear the singing of the liturgy and your own voice echoing the Word of God. In this regard, repetition of those texts and songs which are the most foundational to faith is critical: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei of the Liturgy. If children heard these things regularly before they were born, they would respond positively to them later after birth.
Over the past twenty years, scientists have learned that unborn children recognize words and sounds in the womb. Steven Ertelt, a reporter for Life News writes, “Babies learn to recognize words and sounds in the womb . . . and the baby does so well at recognizing the words that he or she has memories of them after birth, research shows.” Citing several scientific studies, Ertelt writes, “Research shows babies can distinguish between their native language and foreign languages when they’re just a few hours old.” The bonding of a mother and child begins not at birth, but as the child begins to learn and recognize the voice of his mother while still in the womb. And when these words and sounds follow familiar patterns that are repeated often, like the confessing of the Creed or the signing of a familiar part of the liturgy, the response can be similar to that of the preborn John the Baptist.
Studies and reports like this should not surprise us as Christians. They are simply reinforcing what we already know to be true from God’s Word: communion with God, the mystery of faith in Christ, and our reception of all the wonderful gifts of salvation that Jesus has for us are all communicated to us by the oral Word of God. Why not let our children begin to receive them even before they are born!
In Christ, Pastor Bender
An Apologetic of Beauty: Proclaiming the Faith Through Song
What if instead of offering arguments for the Christian faith, the church offered a song, so that drawn to the music, people paused to wonder about the longings of their heart, moved to hope that the words of the song could be so, and considered more deeply the proclamation of the gospel? Peace seeks to answer that question by sharing the gift of song in Sussex, Waukesha County, and the greater-Milwaukee area. By doing so, Peace reaches into its community through an “apologetic of beauty” rather than through a rational-based apologetic, or defense of the faith. In a culture which embraces a subjective view of truth and lacks Biblical literacy, objective beauty is a convincing, subtle argument which elicits joy in the hearer, a longing of the heart for the object of its satisfaction, and a desire to know more about the Christ proclaimed.
Reaching into the community through music, and especially the church’s song, has been a long-held vision of Pastor Bender. As Kathy May explained, “The human voice is the most personal of instruments which can be used in praise and service of our Lord. The Lutheran tradition has helped to encourage the people’s song through its hymns and chorales, using the vernacular language of the people, and allowing them to participate with their own voices.” A confluence of Peace’s leadership encouraged outreach, through the cooperative efforts of the Academy’s Headmaster, Kimberly Hughes, and Kathy May, who together coordinated students, rehearsals, and appearances during and after school.
Often, students in the Academy have already heard the Church’s song in the Divine Service since birth. Yet, Peace’s children’s choir is comprised of students from its own elementary school as well as public and home schooled students from member and non-member parents. “The challenges arise when children come in to the Academy and Cherub choirs either without having been raised in a singing church or without having music played or sung to them in their infant and toddler years. Finding the ‘head voice’ can be a challenge, but with much one-on-one repetition and modeling and lots of trial and error on the part of the child, most children can be taught to sing,” explained Kathy. “The joy is watching them realize they are beginning to sound like the other children around them, and that they are now a legitimate part of the team. It’s a lovely sense of belonging to a team that’s not about beating someone else’s team, but about joining together to create something of beauty that is a blessing to those around them.”
Home schooling parent Becky Boehlke and her son, Samuel, agree, “After only a month or so of choir, I noticed a difference in the way Samuel was singing as we sat in church. Now, after three-and-a-half years, he is trying to harmonize, usually singing the alto part when he can. Some of our friends are trying the choir now, and after the first time they sang with the other choirs in church. Samuel said, ‘I think they like singing now!’” For Kathy, “Children know they are doing something of value when they see the reactions of those listening to them sing. Ultimately, our goal is for the children to be able to participate and share in the richness of the Church’s liturgy and hymnody.”
Peace’s outreach has both immediate and long-term effects. When the children’s choir sang at the Sussex Community Center, Peace began a partnership with the community. “We were thrilled that Rev. Bender reached out to us, as we are always looking for meaningful partnerships with the Sussex Community Center. This partnership is especially great because of the close proximity of Peace Lutheran Church and Academy. The school children were able to walk down to our senior center on the day of the performance. Our staff and seniors were very impressed with the ‘angelic’ voices and lovely appearance of the school children. They performed at our Mother’s Day celebration lunch, so it was truly a special day! Many of our seniors do not have their family in the area, so it is especially meaningful to have interaction with children,” said Jean Horner, Senior Program Coordinator of the center.
Similar phrases resound from nearly every audience. Coupled with the Word of God, music speaks to the soul and stirs a desire to be united to it. At the Tree Lighting of Merton village, the children sang “Oh, Christmas Tree” as part of the festivities, but when the final words of “Silent Night” faded into the candlelight, Julie Ofori-Mattmüller, Deputy Clerk-Treasurer, Village of Merton, expressed her overwhelming emotion with a spontaneous hug for Kathy May. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were open to and welcomed sacred Christmas music,” said Kathy.
When the choir sang the national anthem prior to a Milwaukee Brewer’s baseball game, it was a high point for the children. “A fourth grader told me that she’d never forget this, but you could see after they were done singing, those oldest boys cared about one thing only—being so close to those Major League players! The littlest children just seemed to take it all in stride and not even realize they had just sung for 30,000 people,” said Kathy.
During the Sussex “Lions Daze” parade, the final event for the singing season, Pastor Gary Gehlbach noticed many people were singing along with the children’s patriotic songs. If familiar national songs can generate unity among the multitudes, what could happen if the Church incorporated that same beauty within her church body? Could that unity of song and familiarity of word serve to create and to sustain identity in Christ, the Beautiful One?
Johann Gerhard, Pastor-Theologian
“Come, come, Lord, come” were the last words of Johann Gerhard, the greatest Lutheran theologian of his time, who died August 17, 1637. Born in October 17, 1582, in Quedlinburg, Saxony seventy-five miles west of Wittenberg and just north of the Harz mountains, Gerhard was made a theologian, as only Luther could articulate it, through prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and spiritual attack (tentatio). His relatively brief life of fifty-five years endured life-threatening illness and physical infirmity. He witnessed death brought about by plague and the barbarity of the Thirty Years’ War. Intimately, he faced his own death, the death of his wife, and that of his infant children. At the age of fifteen. Gerhard developed consumption and dropsy, which left him bed-ridden for nearly a year, only to recover and become victim to the plague the following year. While the plague of Quedlinburg claimed over 3,000 lives, his life was spared, having received double-dose of antidote, an “error” to which Gerhard credits God as saving his life. Through the ministrations of his pastor Johann Arndt and the firm conviction that God had spared his life, Gerhard devoted himself to the study of theology. His early study of philosophy and theology were momentarily derailed for two years’ study of medicine. Following a severe sickness, he returned to the study of scripture, reading night and day, along with the study of the church fathers. Gerhard is credited with developing patrology. During Christmas of 1603, Gerhard is so near death that he writes his final confession of faith and last will. The physician bleeds his vein, and after three weeks, he recovers. In 1605, he falls ill again, during which Gerhard writes his popular Sacred Meditations, published 1606 as a student of theology. In the “Dedication,” he compares the theologian with the physician. “[T]he true goal of the theologian is the regeneration of the inner, spiritual man, which, as the Truth testifies, occurs through water and the Spirit (John 3). . . . The Creator suffices for me since, by means of my study of theology, I am able to gather that, as is true in medicine, the best theology is practical doctrine.” So while Gerhard may be best known for his dogmatics (his Theological Commonplaces are being published in English for the first time by Concordia Publishing House), for Gerhard, all theology had its primary purpose in the care of souls and in the practical application of man’s salvation by faith in Christ.
Gerhard is situated between two theological movements: pietists who are described as embracing a “warm and liberating devotion concerned with practical matters of faith and the cultivation of piety” and dogmaticians, described as “cold and lifeless orthodoxy concerned with the believer’s intellectual assent to pure teaching or doctrine” (Handbook of Consolations, trans. by Carl Beckwith, vii-viii). However, “What makes a figure like Johann Gerhard compelling and, in some sense, unique, is his ability to move freely from the rigor of the classroom lecture to the simplicity of the preached word, from the arena of polemical and ecclesial debate to the bedside of a sick and dying friend without compromising his theological commitments” (Handbook of Consolations, viii-ix). Gerhard’s piety and dogma do not compete, but complement each other, like righteousness and peace have kissed, in Christ, “His concern is always the same: proclaiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of all people” (Handbook of Consolations, viii-ix).
In addition to the Theological Commonplaces being published by Concordia, the publishing house has also recently published Matthew Harrison’s translation of Gerhard’s devotional Meditations on Divine Mercy (Exercitium Pietatis Quotidianum), a work accomplished when Harrison was Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care Ministries. Harrison offers the work for the church, for those who have the vocation of mercy, “to which each of us is called by virtue of our Baptism and our participation in the Sacrament of the Altar.”
What each prayer offers is a fully, scripture-saturated meditation that addresses God in prayer and confession based upon the Word. Line upon line echoes the words of scripture, spoken as one’s own confession of sin and confession of faith in a merciful God who forgives on the basis of Christ. For example, “O Holy God, just Judge, no one is innocent in Your sight. No one is free from the uncleanliness of sin (Job 14:4). I do not possess that glory that I must bring with me when I stand before your throne of judgment (Romans 3:23).” (Meditations, 36). Each of these confessions do not end in despair, or in a pietistic self-solution, but in looking to Jesus: “For these sins that I commit every day of my life, I offer to You, O holy Father, the precious blood of Your Son, which was poured out on the altar of the cross. His blood cleanses me from all my transgressions (I John 1:7)” (Meditations, 37). His prayers are thoroughly grounded in justification by grace through faith in the atoning work of Christ.
Similarly, in the final section regarding praying for others, Gerhard repeatedly speaks back to God the words of scripture, “O omnipotent, eternal, and merciful God, Lord of hosts, You remove kings and set up kings (Daniel 2:21). All powers in heaven and on earth are from You (Colossians 1:16)” (Meditations, 138). Gerhard gathers scriptures into meditations that help the reader to confess, pray, praise, and give thanks, not only by providing words to speak, but also by providing an example by which he may learn to pray.
Alluded to earlier, another recent publication by Gerhard has recently appeared, Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death (trans. by Carl Beckwith, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009). As Beckwith explains, the Handbook of Consolations falls in a category of Christian devotional writings referred to as “art of dying” literature. The writings serve as practical encouragement for those approaching death and those attending the sick and dying. This type of literature emerged amidst economic and social unrest caused by plague, disease, famine, and war. Gerhard’s intention in his devotional works, as well as his dogmatic works, was not to “add” to Luther but to carry on, just as Luther directed the people to the certainty of salvation in Christ’s saving work. “For Luther, the Reformation was not just about doctrine and the content of the faith but also about faithful dying and therefore faithful living. Such faithful living, praying, suffering, and dying, however, could only come about by preaching and teaching the purity of the Gospel and its peace and joy that passes all human understanding. When people know that they are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone, they can approach death with confident hope and assurance in God’s promise of salvation in Christ for them” (Handbook of Consolations, x).
The comfort of the Gospel that Luther taught, Gerhard continues in his Handbook of Consolations. His vast understanding of scripture, theology and church history accumulated through hours of meditation is presented in an easy-to-understand manner. The Handbook presents forty-some temptations, or trials, as a dialogue between the Tempted, who expresses the uncertainties that confront believers and the Comforter, who responds to these doubts through scripture and theological reflections of the Church Fathers. For this reason, the Handbook is suitable for all Christians who struggle with the temptations of life, not only those who are looking squarely at death. For example, the Tempted says, “I fear, therefore, that my faith has indeed perished and is utterly extinct. If my faith is extinct, what hope or salvation shall remain for me? I examine myself (2 Cor. 13:5) and, behold, I feel no faith in my heart” (Handbook of Consolations, 37). The Comforter, as the voice of Christ, encourages the tempted. In response, the Comforter says, “Truly, Christ dwells in your heart through faith, even if you do not clearly feel that indwelling grace (Eph. 3:17). Gerhard accomplishes his practical goal for theology. For Gerhard, pastor-theologian, the basis for the care of souls is the incarnation and the redemptive work of Christ for our salvation; all pastoral care finds its source in the blessed exchange and our union with Christ in His body and blood. The Handbook provides the comfort of the Gospel, but also provides instruction for those at the bed of death and those who attend the dying.
At the time of the writing of the Handbook, Gerhard endured the death of his newborn son at seventeen weeks old. After finishing the work on May 1, 1611, his wife of failing health died May 30. As Gerhard wrote in his preface, these consolations were also for him. The Handbook Of Consolations provided the comfort of salvation in Christ alone and the assurance of eternal life for both the reader and its author: “Come, come, Lord, come.”
The publications are available through Concordia Publishing House, Repristination Press, and other on-line booksellers.