In his book Prairie Parables Lutheran pastor Dave Johnson writes:
It is now easier than ever to get to Oldham, South Dakota, my hometown. The old Meridian highway, now called Highway 81, has been much improved over the years. I can remember when it used to take a wide circle around sloughs, when portions of it were gravel, and how it would rise and fall with the contours of the fields and pastures. Now that road has been straightened, leveled, and paved… Oldham is nine miles west of this Meridian highway, if you turn at the corner where the old Meridian gas station used to be. In the past, that road into town was a gravel, washboard road… and we would bounce our way into Oldham in a swirl of dust… But now that road has also been paved and entry to Oldham on that nine mile stretch is smooth and easy. So it is easier than ever to get to Oldham these days. But in spite of that, I think it is safe to say that never have so few people been going there as now.
Like so many other prairie towns, there just isn’t very much going on in Oldham anymore. So as the years have gone by the road has become better and easier to travel, but the travelers have become fewer and fewer. Pastor Dave goes on to say that he sees similarities to that trend in life, especially in the life of the spirit. I will continue now with a few more of Pastor Johnson’s thoughts, paraphrasing and adding my thoughts as I go, and then move on into my own application of this little parable.
Over the years people have often had to travel a ‘rough road’ in order to practice their Christian faith. In other times, and yet today in other lands, people have risked their lives or endured great hardship in order to openly declare their faith in Jesus and worship him in a congregation. Think of the rough road for the early settlers on the American frontier, struggling to make ends meet and feed their families. But though they faced many tasks and challenges, one of the first things they always did was build a church. They would then gather together in those churches, traveling several miles in their wagons pulled by horses, in all sorts of weather, in order to hear God’s Word. I remember my grandmother telling me childhood memories of huddling together under the straw and blankets of the uncovered wagon for the very cold ride to church. Oftentimes it was a real effort to get to church, and even then it was not always certain the pastor would be there. He often had four or five churches to serve, and bad weather might delay him or prevent him from coming at all.
Today it is easier. Our churches are close at hand, our warm cars bring us right to the door, church schedules are convenient, and most churches have their own pastor who is always there for the worship service. There are also opportunities for education and fellowship for all ages, opportunities to serve others, and opportunities to share one’s musical talents. There are warm friendly greeters at the door with name tags for easy identification and so much more. What’s more, we experience little, if any, opposition to the practice of our faith. In many places even now, gathering together to worship Jesus is illegal and means putting your life in danger. But has it ever been more convenient to be a believer than it is for us right now, here in the United States?
When writing the United States Constitution, the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that the new government would not ever be led into religious tyranny and persecution, and so they included in the Bill of Rights the right to freedom of religion. Our ancestors in the faith struggled to begin and to build up our churches. They worked to make them strong and secure, and yes, even convenient for us. In so many ways, being a Christian is much easier these days than ever before. But just as the improvements made on the road to Oldham have not increased travel to that little town, so the easier road to faith does not seem to have as much traffic on it as it used to.
I think back to many cold and blustery Sundays in the parishes I have served. It would not have to be a blizzard or even a storm, but only some drifting snow and a bite in the wind, and people would stay away from church in droves. But the same weather, even at night, would not keep the same people from a dinner engagement or a basketball game. I also think about the first nice days of Spring, or any nice days any time of year, and again, one can expect that the attendance will be down. People plan things to do on nice days and one cannot expect church to interfere. So, in bad weather and in good weather, you can expect a decline in church attendance.
In few places in the world is worship as free and as easy as in the United States. But where has this easy road led us? The statistics are disappointing and getting worse. Of course, a large percentage of the American people has some connection to a Christian church and do worship sometimes, but less than a third of those members are in church on any given Sunday. Less than twenty percent are committed to being there every week, and less than a fourth read their Bible as often as once a week. The road is much easier, but the traffic is down.
Many centuries ago, God sent the prophet Amos to a people who, like us, were blessed with much ease and comfort, but who were, more and more, forgetting all about the God who had so richly blessed them. Amos said to them, “Woe to you who are at ease.”
Amos 6:1a — “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion…”
Jude 1:20-21 — But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
II Timothy 3:14-15 — …Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for thee. Amen.