encouragement, theology

A Reformation Day Tabletalk for Children

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As I sit here typing, I have, to my left, a toddler shoving fistfuls of oatmeal into his mouth, a newly-minted six-year-old staring begrudgingly at his bowl and pining for the energy bar he wanted instead, while the oldest boy embarks on another of his near-eternal bathroom visits and the lone, middle girl gets some much needed rest after the unparalleled show of tear-filled obstinance and discontent she gave us last night.

Needless to say, children are a pretty big part of my life. Therefore, so is teaching.

Even if you don’t homeschool your children, by mere virtue of having them in your life, you are, to one degree or another, their teacher.

As a homeschooling mom, I have a thing for quick, easy, seasonal unit studies. Learning about all things fall toward the last week of September, spending a week or so learning about the conditions leading up to and after the American Revolution every late June and early July, you get the idea.

As a reforming Christian (I really need to prioritize finishing reading that 1689, y’all), I have a thing for church history. So, it’s a natural, exciting thing for me to be able to teach my children about the history of the Protestant Reformation, and I’ve been incredibly blessed by myriad free or low-cost resources to work into my busy life to learn just how magnificent God’s providence in that momentous event really was.

Now, my kids (who are now covered in oatmeal) are not any kind of philosophical virtuosos who soak up classical literature and grasp the complexities of every lofty concept I like to learn about. They’re kids. The oldest one has a hard enough time keeping his underwear clean for a whole day without having to worry about infralapsarianism or supralapsarianism or untangling whatever mangled analogy for the Trinity you cobble together for them (don’t.)

But, they can sing their catechism questions and answers and remember them, and they can think, and they can feel.

They can be reasoned with using illustrations that meet them where they’re at. In an early morning tabletalk with my oldest, who is seven, that illustration begins with a LEGO Voltron set.

Anyone reading this who has sat anywhere near us at our church is at least somewhat familiar with my son’s obsession with this set in particular, which, has added appeal to him because he knows he won’t get it until he turns at least 10. So, to set him up with a little bit of context on the significance of the Reformation, I asked him to imagine that I gave his brother this LEGO set, but banned him from ever even touching it, let alone finally experiencing the joy of building it.

Further in my illustration, I guided him through the idea of being so jealous of someone else’s belongings that you were even willing to kill them for it. But, you know that not only is murder a sin, the coveting that led to it is as well. Now, imagine being able to go down to church and talk to Pastor Steve (If you’re reading this, P. Steve, you find your way into my illustrations often because the kids don’t have any other point of reference for ecclesiastical authority figures, sorry!) and negotiate a cash value for these sins in order to have them promptly forgiven. Say, $3 for the coveting, $15 for the murder, circa 1517, not adjusted for inflation. In addition, I was able to give a quick run-down on Purgatory (not to be confused with Porg-atory as my Star Wars fan son suggested) and Tetzel’s wicked concept of a soul springing into heaven upon the ringing of the coin in the coffer.

Now, my kids have the benefit of being catechized with Songs For Saplings (SFS), which is based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Right away, they are able to answer with minimal prompting the apparent errors in the understanding of justification present in the Roman Catholic Church in this historical context. That’s a great first step, and I’d advise you to begin working through SFS with your kids right away unless you want to add an extra hour or two to this tabletalk with your own children. One song sung and discussed daily for a week before moving onto the next is a good pace for us.

The most important part of this morning’s discussion, however, wasn’t just the backdrop. It wasn’t just the absurdity of practically selling God’s forgiveness to people who could be severely punished for owning a Bible they could read for themselves. It was the God-given boldness and tenacity of Jan Huss, William Tyndale, and specifically Martin Luther that made the events of October 1517 stand out among church history.

To give an explanation of just how brave Martin Luther had to be in order to do what he did on that day, I told my son this:

Imagine you’re starving. You haven’t eaten in days, and the last time you ate it was only a couple of crackers, just enough to subsist and stave off death for another day. Imagine how bad your tummy would hurt going that long without good, healthy food to fill it up and fuel your body. Awful, right?

Now imagine you’re in a famine. It’s not just you who’s starving—it’s everybody. Mom, dad, brothers, sisters, neighbors, people at church, people in line at the bank, the bank teller, people walking down the street. Everyone is experiencing this widespread famine. Scraping moss off of rocks to eat. Boiling shoe leather. The works.

But, one day, you’re out playing in the backyard (or, more likely, hoping to stumble upon a rabbit or a squirrel to eat) when you stumble upon a hidden cave. You’re seven years old, so you’re pretty curious, right? You go to check out the cave. It’s dark, but you feel your way around a bit until you bump into something surprisingly soft. You pick it it up, hold it up in the dim traces of light, and see that it’s a cheeseburger.

Or, you know, whatever their favorite food is. My son said sushi, cheeseburgers, and broccoli.

Now, you haven’t eaten in days. You’re ecstatic, overjoyed to find that the cave is in fact packed to the ceiling with all kinds of delicious, nourishing food—food that will save your life. And better than that, this food isn’t just amazing, it’s perpetual, it’s eternal, it’s inexhaustible, and you will never run out of it no matter how much you eat. Naturally, you begin stuffing your face with as much food as you possibly can until you experience a feeling you haven’t known in who knows how long: satisfaction, fullness, joy.

Now, here’s the test of your character. What would you do? Would you guard the cave? Keep it a secret? Maybe never even leave it? Or, would you tell others?

To my delight, my son interrupted me to say he would “cut down 500 trees to have enough paper to make posters” that would tell as many people as possible about the magical cave that would save them from starvation.

And that’s exactly what Martin Luther did.

In God’s perfect timing, another man, Johannes Gutenberg, had developed the printing press, which allowed Martin Luther’s writings on the true nature of justification (by faith in the work of Christ alone, unable to be improved, perfected, or added to by our own suffering, good works, or payments of any kind) to spread throughout the known world.

It’s hard for adults these days to understand just how unavailable information was from one region to the next, but my kids also have the benefit of being very young and having very little exposure to the so-called “information superhighway” that is the Internet, so this wasn’t a difficult concept for my son to grasp. He immediately thought of having to manufacture his own paper and manually disseminate that valuable, life-saving information, which is close enough for my purposes to illustrating even the logistical adversity Luther and the earliest Reformers had to overcome.

Speaking of adversity, imagine how the church leaders of the day are going to feel about all this. Imagine that church is the only place people can go during this widespread famine to get what little food the priests determine to dole out to them. And, imagine how furious they are that some little punk just alerted the whole city to the existence of this magical cave.

We adults cannot underestimate the financial factor of the Reformation. As W. Robert Godfrey points out, the Roman Catholic Church bore the brunt of the fall of the Roman Empire, which ’til a certain point maintained infrastructure, social programs, etc. Especially after the Black Plague, the church was beginning to be pretty strapped for cash, an important bit of context to the initial rise of the sale of indulgences.

Now, imagine the church and the civil government are, to simplify things, one in the same. Not just all churches, in case your kids are as naive as mine to be unaware of all the different kinds of churches around today, but the Roman Catholic Church in particular. We are already familiar with today’s civil government having the power of the sword, the power to imprison or even execute those found to be guilty of high crimes. Back then, as our children must understand, the church had the power to imprison or execute those found to be guilty of spiritual or ecclesiastical crimes.

So, not only did the church want to kill you for spreading the word about this magical cave, they had the legal authority to do so.

But remember that ache in your tummy, those tear-filled nights wondering if you were ever going to be freed from this hamster wheel of starvation. You don’t want to go back to that. You couldn’t even if you tried. And, out of love for your fellow image-bearer, you don’t want them to have to go back either.

Here you stand, you can do no other, so to speak.

That is exactly why Martin Luther did not—could not—give in. That’s why William Tyndale couldn’t give in.

That’s why we don’t pay for our sins (or those of our deceased loved ones) with money today.

That’s why the Reformation still matters today.

It breaks my heart that the church today neglects to teach these timeless truths to their own adult members, let alone the children we are tasked with training up. Let us not be condemned to repeat the history we’ve nearly forgotten.

Let’s remember the Reformation and the tremendous debt we owe to the men and women, greater and lesser, who were ready to give their lives in defense of the truth about our justification, how us sinful wretches are made right with God. We bow the knee to Christ Jesus with nothing but empty hands and childlike faith.

Let’s carry on their legacy and teach our children to do the same.


Addendum:

In addition to this tabletalk, there are some resources I highly recommend for teaching young children like mine about the Reformation. There are many more than these, but the two I plan to use this year are:

—Videos from the Torchlighters: Heroes Of The Faith series (which are free to watch with a Right Now Media account, a JellyTelly account, or an Amazon Prime account) and free printable workbooks from Torchlighters on William Tyndale and Martin Luther,
and
—the free Reformation lesson from Little Pilgrims Theology, which includes a brief lesson on the Reformation, scripture verses to memorize and apply, and a fun quiz activity.

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