After my parents, one of my heroes of the faith growing up was a man named Frank Knoll. Growing up at Immanuel Lutheran Church outside of Radium, MN in the 80s and 90s, Frank was a good role model for all us kids of the congregation. Like most men of Immanuel – Radium, Frank was a Northwest Minnesota farmer. He had a wicked sense of humor, contagious laugh, and always made deer hunting and ice fishing a hoot.
He was also in many ways the patriarch of our congregation, sang the hymns with joy and conviction, and happened to be my Sunday School teacher in 8th grade. For the dozens upon dozens of Sundays I spent in Sunday School as a child, Frank taught me the most memorable Sunday School lesson ever.
I forget what the specific lesson was about. But one Sunday morning, as he was making a point, Frank rattled off a line which should be familiar to most Lutheran ears – words which I will never forget: “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.”
We know that these words come from Luther’s famous explanation to the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism. They were familiar to me as our good pastor had us memorize them for confirmation class the year before when I was a 7th grader. But there was something about the way Frank said those words, something very different than the way I said them. For one, you could tell those words were on his heart and at the front of his mind.
Though I had fairly recently memorized those words myself, there was no way I could rattle them off the way he had just done in Sunday School class. But what’s more, you could tell that he loved those words and the Gospel message that they carried. That made quite the impression on me. I remember thinking in my mind that I wanted that. I wanted to love those words like he did and share them like he could.
But like many people do, I simply assumed I could never get there. Frank was far more godly and dedicated than I could ever be. This type of thing was something only pastors or those old-school Lutherans could pull off, or so I thought in my 14- year old mind. So my life went on. I went and finished high school. I got a college degree. I even went to two years of seminary, where in my second year I had to memorize the Small Catechism all over again like I had in junior high.
A lot of the same thoughts came back to me. I knew in my heart that there was something special about the Small Catechism, that it was a very excellent thing for Christians. But memorizing it was hard and even drudgery sometimes. And then I remembered my Sunday School teacher and how much he loved those words and their beautiful Gospel teaching. Here I was in the middle of my training to become a pastor, and I still wasn’t even at the point my dear old Sunday School teacher was. How would I get there?
I made baby steps. I had a very good vicarage. I spent a good bit of time in the Small Catechism as a vicar, and I learned how to teach a catechism class very well. Still, I knew I wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be. Finally, during my last year of seminary, an idea came to me. I had a schedule for praying the Psalms. Why didn’t I make my own schedule where I just looked at a little bit of the Small Catechism every day? And then another idea came to me. Luther’s Small Catechism has six chief parts. There are seven days in a week, and you go to church on Sunday. Why don’t you just review one chief part a day, and then take Sunday off? So that’s what I did. I made a schedule for myself. It looks like this:
Monday – 10 Commandments
Tuesday – Creed
Wednesday – Lord’s Prayer
Thursday – Sacrament of Holy Baptism
Friday – Confession and Absolution / Office of the Keys
Saturday – Sacrament of the Altar
I started reading one chief part of the Small Catechism every day, usually with morning devotions. With the Small Catechism, I finished seminary and began serving in the parish. For me, this turned out to be a great breakthrough. I not only learned those words better. I learned to love them like Frank did. Like he once inspired me to do, I could start reciting Luther’s explanation to the Third Article right off the top of my head, no matter where I was or what I was doing. And it wasn’t very hard. There was no deep Lutheran secret like I thought there had been. There was no torture involved, either. You just spend a little time in the Small Catechism every day.
Eventually, I learned in my own heart how this is exactly what Luther intended. We read Luther’s words in his Longer Preface to the Large Catechism:
“But for myself I say this; I am also a doctor and preacher; yes, as learned and experienced as all the people who have such assumptions and contentment. Yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning – and whenever I have time – I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must still read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism, and am glad to remain so.”
Now after about eight years of following this little routine, I think I understand what Luther was saying. Few spiritual exercises will benefit the Christian as much as spending a little bit of time every day in the catechism. It schools us in the pure doctrine. It makes us wise in tending to affairs in this world. Even more, because the catechism consists of basic Scriptural teachings, it makes us wise unto salvation and sharing this good news with others.
My only regret in all this is that I didn’t get to discuss all this with Frank before he died. About a month before I started that important last year of seminary, God called him home. Being it was he who taught me the most memorable Sunday School lesson I ever learned, I wish I could’ve had that chance. It would’ve been a great conversation in the ice house or while roasting sandwiches on the fire at the deer camp, so I still don’t know how he came to know the Small Catechism so well.
Maybe those old German Lutheran pastors in the black and white confirmation pictures at church were just very good at drilling it into him when he was young. Maybe his parents did. Maybe he did like I do now – just reviewing a chief part every day. But that is a conversation which can wait until I am in heaven too.
The point is, we have much work to do in imprinting the words of the Small Catechism on our hearts and on the hearts of our children. As Luther says, we can never learn it well enough. If we truly want our children to grow up to be Christians in this hostile age, I’m not sure we really have any other choice. The good news is knowing that this doesn’t have to be a relic of Lutheran yesteryear. It’s not the sole possession of old German Lutheran pastors or the godly Midwestern Lutheran farmers who learned from them. It’s ours still today, and reviewing those precious words just a little bit every day will carry us a long way.
 LC Longer Preface, 7.