Salem Lutheran is a little country church in northeast Kansas that Joyce Hazelton attended as a child. A few years ago she went back to Salem for the congregation’s 125th anniversary. She was asked to write a piece about her memories of growing up in the church. The title of her piece was simply “Remembering What I Learned at Salem,” and it was published in The Lutheran Digest.
Hazelton began the article by saying that the most important thing she learned was that God loved her, and that Jesus died on the cross to forgive her sins. She then went on to list several other things that she learned by going to church (adapted):
I learned the discipline of patience from sitting next to my parents in church, who encouraged, coaxed, and then threatened me into sitting still and being quiet for the hour long worship service.
I learned the importance of giving thanks for daily bread as we paused from play to sing ‘Be Present at Our Table Lord’ before the meal was served at church dinners.
I learned the joy of music, from singing together in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, and, as a congregation in worship. Still today, no matter where I am, the singing of certain hymns, especially Christmas carols, brings me back to that little country church out on the prairie.
I learned about the beauty of art as I spent many hours gazing at the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.
I learned the fundamentals of public speaking as I practiced my piece for the Christmas program, and my mother coached me on how to talk slow and loud so people could hear me.
I learned that it is good to give, from putting my coins in the Sunday School offering and from seeing my parents give in church.
I learned that death is a natural part of life as my friends and I walked through the country cemetery looking at the stones and the names and the dates. From attending funerals at our church, I learned that even though people are gone from us here, they are not gone forever, because John 3:16 says that whoever believes in Jesus shall have eternal life.
I learned that there was a world beyond Salem and that life could be very different from our own, as we heard on mission Sunday when missionaries would come and tell of their experiences in faraway lands.
I learned that it is fun and rewarding to work together, from seeing the ladies make quilts, seeing the congregation serve dinners together, and by being a part of youth service projects.
It is in simple settings like Salem Lutheran Church that faith is planted and nurtured and passed on from generation to generation. Many people have such memories of the congregations where their faith was nurtured.
In a box of my grandmother’s old photographs, I found a picture of the entire Sunday School in my home church, taken back when Grandma was a Sunday School teacher. The picture was from the middle 1950’s, so it was just before I started Sunday school and I am not on it. But I know almost everyone in the picture. I know several of the teachers, because most of them were still teaching when I was in Sunday School. They are all dead now, and many of the kids in the picture are also dead. It was that photo that comes to mind when I read the article by Joyce Hazelton. Week after week, year after year, those faithful servants were passing on the faith to the next generation, just as the Psalmist describes in the verses below. I am in the faith yet today, because they, along with my parents and grandparents and other loved ones, took seriously that command of God to pass on the faith to the next generation, and the Holy Spirit worked through them. Others probably did the same for you, and we owe them our gratitude. It is now our duty to do the same, and the Holy Spirit will also work through us and bless our poor efforts.
I have thought much about faith, and how it takes root and grows, and how it sometimes does not. I wonder about how people can have such different reactions to the same experiences– sometimes tragedy strengthens faith, sometimes it destroys faith; sometimes blessings lead to gratitude to God, sometimes blessings lead to pride and unbelief. I wonder about how the Holy Spirit works in that process of coming to faith and remaining in the faith, and what part our own will plays in this. I still don’t know how it all works. I do think about it all with a great deal more depth than I did in Sunday school, though my understanding isn’t anywhere near the depth of Karl Barth’s wisdom and knowledge. But Barth’s comment in yesterday’s meditation points us in the right direction. “How do you know God exists?,” he was asked. “Because my mother told me,” he said. And that is what we should be doing as parents and grandparents and teachers and members of a church– making the best use of every opportunity to pass on the faith to the next generation.
Psalm 71:17-18 — Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.
Psalm 78:5-7 — (The Lord) decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.
Almighty God, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us grace also to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.