Rev. Donavon Riley
I didn't grow up a Christian. I couldn't have told you the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Baptist. None of the kids in Mr. Pelstring's class who attended religion classes at their churches every Wednesday looked like Christians I'd seen portrayed on television or in movies. But growing up in Minnesota, our family knew more than a few Lutherans. Our neighbors, when we lived in Grove City, were Lutherans. One time, they invited us to Christmas Eve service. I didn't understand why she'd accepted, but after supper my mother drove the two of us across town, past the gun club and snow-blanketed baseball fields, up the little hill to the church.
For a ten year old boy who'd never been to a Christmas Eve service before it was a lot to take in. I remember everyone looking at us when we walked into the church. During the service I didn't know what was happening. There was singing. The pastor said something. There were decorations. After service, a few people said "Hello," and "Merry Christmas," and "Good to see you" to my mom. Then we went home. It would be more than fifteen years until we attended church together again.
In college I dated Lutherans. My roommate was a Lutheran. His friends were Lutherans. That meant whenever I'd go home with them I'd end up in a church. My girlfriends would say, "If I'm going out to have fun with you Saturday night, then you're getting up to go to church with me Sunday morning." My roommate's parents treated me as one of their own, which meant if I was going to come home for the weekend I was going to church. And even though I was an outspoken atheist that was alright with them. "We love you no matter what you are," they said.
That's how Martin Luther's Small Catechism ended up in my hands. I was twenty six years old. I'd just returned from Mexico where I'd volunteered for more than seven months at an orphanage. I'd taught band and choir. I was living on my friend's love seat - my college roommate's brother - and had no job, nowhere to be. So everyday after he went to work I'd wash up, dress, and walk down twenty-third avenue in Portland to a coffee shop. I'd read my Bible and play chess for money. Enough to pay for a bottomless cup of coffee and lunch.
That was my daily routine for six months. Get up. Dress. Walk downtown to read, drink coffee, and hustle people at chess. Sometimes I'd grab a book off his shelf to take with me. At other times I'd carry around a book the pastor down the street from our apartment would hand me after church Sunday morning. One book he handed to me was a small, navy blue book with the words "LUTHER'S SMALL Catechism" inscribed on the cover in faded yellow letters.
Hanging around all those Lutherans in college I'd seen the book before, but I'd not read it. So one day when I'd finished reading my Bible and there was no one to hustle I opened up the Catechism. I read quickly through the first part on the Ten Commandments. Then I moved on to the Creed, and that's when it happened. I read Luther's explanation for the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed.
I'd been a Christian of sorts for three years. At first, I'd believed there was a god. I could even work myself up to admitting that the god I believed was there, was a "he," and "he" was personally involved in my life. That Jesus was my Savior and God took some time though. Also, my first exposure to Christianity had been living with born-again Christians. I lived for almost a year with Charismatics, Pentecostals, and non-denominational types at a mission base in Mexico. And although they'd instilled in me the importance of reading my bible every day. Praying every day. Going to church at least twice a week. There was always an "if...then" waiting to pummel me with a jab and left hook. If you don't read your Bible, or pray, or don't go to church, or make changes to your life, or if you get drunk, or smoke, or do drugs, or fool around with women... then you're not a Christian. For someone like me who hadn't been searching for God and wasn't looking to convert to Christianity the "dos and don'ts" of Christian living appeared to be open doors that called me out and away from Christianity. And I took every open door as an opportunity to run and say to God, "I dare you to bring me back in this time!"
That's why when I read Luther's explanation that, "I believe that 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", for the first time I felt another Christian was writing to me. This was written for me! I believe I can't believe... Finally, someone else gets it! I don't want to believe, but I believe. Now what?
That night after he'd gotten home from work I said to my roommate, "I read the catechism today, and if this is what Lutherans believe I want to be one!" Since then I've learned there are plenty of Lutherans who don't think Luther or his catechisms are too exciting. Not enough to get them excited about being a Lutheran anyway. Not enough to hold them back from chasing after other, what they imagine are better, teachings.
But for me that's why I'm Lutheran. Martin Luther's Small Catechism - and the Large Catechism is in many ways even more outstanding. That's why I remain a Lutheran and why as a Lutheran pastor I'm still excited to put Luther, put his catechism, in other peoples' hands. I want them to read it so I can read with them, talk with them, teach them, and maybe get excited with them when they get excited by the astounding, life-changing words Martin Luther wrote, that:
"I believe that 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, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ."
More than that, I'm a Lutheran because Luther lead me to the Word of God. He pointed to Jesus. He pointed me to Jesus Christ, to His cross, to His blood and death, to all that God the Father has done for me and all his creatures since the beginning of creation. I'm Lutheran for the same reason Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church. We believe terrible sinners like us can't be saved by checking off a daily list of dos and don'ts for Christian living.
Instead, we confess that we can't believe, even if we're feeling optimistic and want to. But it's not about us. It's not about our feeling optimistic about what we can accomplish today. It's all about the work of God, the grace of God, that comes to us through the preaching of His Spirit. The Gospel delivered to sinners that says, "Don't worry, sinner. I call you, enlighten you, make you holy, and keep you in the true faith. I do all that for you. You're in, not out, and there's nothing anyone, not even the devil and all his angels, can do to change what I've done for you. Now go, be at peace, live, and in the living and the doing and the telling, I am with you always."
That's why I'm Lutheran... because I'm a Christian.
Rev. Donavon Riley is pastor at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Webster MN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created: June 23rd, 2015