This will be brief.
Certainly contrary to the intention of its founders, this has again been a painful day for many. I recognized this early on as a parish pastor, from whom was expected at least a token mention of the day–if not in the sermon, then in the announcements or while greeting worshippers after the service. While a happy and pleasant day for many women and families to be sure, I also knew it to be only a perfunctory-at-best or often painful day for others, because I knew a little about the lives of those women and families in those pews and how this day was once again resurfacing heartbreaks and opening emotional wounds that would never entirely heal.
In short, I knew as a pastor that I had to be especially well-prepared on this Sunday each year, to preach the Law without driving to despair, and to preach the Gospel in a manner that would be truly good news to all–especially those coping with a less-than-happy Mother’s Day.
We are a sinful lot, that’s for sure. But thanks be to God who has redeemed us at an amazingly great price.
“Who were the three people who never had parents?” Answer: “Adam and Eve,” of course, and then also “Joshua, the son of Nun” (Josh. 1:1).
The riddle came to mind with all the talk these about “Nones,” the 30 percent of our population today who, when asked for their religious affiliation, answer “none.” A goodly number of these people once graced the pews of our LCMS churches. Among them are the children who were baptized but not confirmed, or the children who were confirmed but did not stay with the church as young adults. They may still consider themselves Christian, but their priorities have been changed by circumstances surrounding or impacting their lives. To such, immersed in today’s Internet-driven, “modern” way of life, the simple story of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus can easily seem out of touch.
While it is certainly not safe to stay away from the church and the means of grace, hopefully many of these Nones will be okay. When times get tough, as they always do, many of them, brought up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), will not have entirely departed from it, as promised. They will still remember their baptisms, their upbringing in Christian homes, the consolation of the 23rd Psalm. A spark of faith is a powerful thing.
Of greater concern must be the next generation, the sons (and daughters) of Nones who will not have a Proverbs 6:22 background. Through no fault of their own, they won’t be able to recall their baptisms and upbringing in Christian homes. There may not even be a spark to be fanned into flame. How important it will be for the church to remember them as it plans its outreach, helping them to become comfortable when they show up one day, catering to their particular interests and needs, holding out the Gospel to them as the one thing needful, being there for them when they begin to realize that they are falling, providing opportunity for the Gospel to reach their hearts–even though they happen to be sons and daughters of Nones who never had parents who were active Christians.
It snowed in St. Louis last night. A blanket of four inches of perfect white piled up very neatly, flake by flake, on every surface with anything close to a horizontal plane. It would have been quite something to watch. But it happened while most of us weren’t watching, winter’s reminder of another blanket of white that covered the earth one other night while most were sleeping.
We celebrated that night recently, the night when the world slumbered in the cold wintry grip of a long winter’s night of sin and death. Snow had been in the forecast, broadcast by prophets centuries earlier: “Behold,…! Unto us…! But thou Bethlehem…!” One had it predicted most accurately, a major snowfall, a perfect covering of white: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow!” But few were still watching when it snowed that night–a blanket of salvation sufficient to cover the earth and all mankind.
Last night’s gentle snowfall in St. Louis served as a reminder of the season past. But it was more. It was also perfectly timed to awaken us to the season soon upon us, when we will watch and remember again how it was that our though-as-scarlet sins were covered, leaving us white as snow. Today in the Soulard neighborhood of our city is the increasingly popular dog parade, marking (and marketing) the beginning of another Mardi gras celebration that will lead up to Shrove Tuesday and the season of Lent. Even putting the best construction on the parade’s purpose, we really wouldn’t need it this year. We need only look out the window this morning. We had the best of reminders last night, a blanket of four inches of perfect white,…while we weren’t watching.
All of us find our emotions reeling this weekend in the aftermath of the horrible destruction of innocent childrens’ lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Random senseless shootings are awful every time. Random senseless shootings of young children too small to defend themselves strike us as even more awful. Without wishing to minimize in any way this terrible tragedy and this weekend’s suffering by parents, siblings, grandparents, and community . . . just an observation.
In the earlier days of ”legalized” abortion, there were warnings of the long-range effects on our society of wholesale abortion, of the careless destruction of the most defenseless among us, of its devaluation of human life. It was feared that a society that brutally takes the lives of its unborn children will become hardened and, in due time, reflect that brutality toward all human life.
There are, of course, many “dots” that can be connected to random killings–mental illness, violent video games and entertainment, etc. But can we sometime soon also connect the abortion dot? While violent killings are as old as Cain and Abel, random acts of violence against innocent human life continue to increase in number and horror, underscored by what happened on Friday. Brutality toward women and children, once shrugged off as a problem elsewhere in the world, now occurs too often in our own society not to connect this dot.
One of the great messages of this Advent Season is the coming of Christ again. We can only wonder how that will be. But the tragedy in Connecticult must also cause us to wonder how it will be if Christ does not come again soon. As Vice-President Mueller put it in his letter to the Council of Presidents on Friday, the evil one is ”thrashing about” on this earth. Things can and may get really ugly.
However that will be, one thing we know for sure. For those who are in Christ, even the ugliest events of this world and life are always followed by a final dot, announced by that wonderful three-letter word “but” in St. Paul’s words to the church at Corinth: “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). It’s the final dot that counts the most.
A blessed advent to you and yours.
Each year as October 31 approaches, my thoughts return to a Lutherland tour nearly 30 years ago, when Tamara and I joined a group of American Lutherans to visit the sites of the Lutheran Reformation. This included three days inside East Germany where some of the most important sites were located. One in particular I will always remember.
On this particular day we visited the house where Martin Luther was born, restored by the East German government for the benefit of the thousands of wandering Americans interested in marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth. Given the state and appearance of East Germany at the time, gray and impoverished and firmly in the iron grasp of an atheistic communist government, the house was like a Luther’s rose amid thorns, the only house with fresh paint and blooming windowboxes that we saw in Eisleben. Already the kind of thing you remember for 30 years.
But still not as memorable as our walk next door to St. Peter’s Church, where day-old Martin was brought by his parents to be baptized 500 years earlier. Its exterior showed the wear and grime of the passage of time. Its interior was massive, cold, museum-like. After being shown the portion of the baptismal font said still to survive from the day when Hans and Margaretha brought their day-old son, we had opportunity to walk through the church and view the chancel, with the pastor of the congregation serving as our guide.
In the chancel, along the wall on the left, we saw a row of eight chairs. I remember asking their purpose. We were told that those were for the congregation that meets on Sundays. Apparently more than enough chairs. Eight chairs would suffice. So sad. So memorable.
That memory again came to mind two weeks ago while reading an article in the October 14 St. Louis Post Dispatch, ”Churches Seek to Reclaim the Religiously Unaffiliated.” The article by Tim Townsend covers a presentation at a local library by an apparently well-known “hero to the growing number of young Americans who are rejecting institutional religion,” Harvard professor Steven Pinker. A goodly number of these young Americans were in attendance.
The article also discussed a set of statistics released a day earlier by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, reporting that one of every five Americans today is a “none,” as Pew names them, persons claiming no affiliation with any religion. That number increases among young Americans under age 30: one of every three. Pew reports:
- Males comprise 56 percent of nones.
- A third of those under 30 declare themselves to be nones; this number drops to 9 percent among those age 65 and older.
- Among these nones, 71 percent are white, 11 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent black, and 4 percent Asian.
- While 27 percent of nones say there is no God, 68 percent say that they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 55 percent identify themselves as either spiritual or religious.
- Nones lean heavily democratic and are more likely than the nation as a whole to support abortion rights and gay marriage.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pew report found that its latest numbers show an increase of five percent since its last report in 2007. Which brings us back to those eight chairs in the chancel and Pinker, the Harvard professor. He believes they are inevitable. In his thinking, Europe always leads and the West will be catching up.
Whether that is so remains to be seen, but we certainly are noticing this trend away from the church among us and probably also in our families. We have no 500 years of theological undermining and a persecuting East German government to blame. But we do have a massive onslaught on the minds and hearts of our young people from many quarters, reminding us of words from Luther’s hymn: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.” We will need to do what we can to stop their preying upon our young people and to help this young generation as much as we can, but we will also take comfort and courage from Luther’s words that follow: “We tremble not, we fear no ill–they shall not overpower us….The Word they still shall let remain.”
Ray Hartwig, LCMS Secretary