On October 10, 2004 two sheriff’s vehicles drove up to the home of Nathan and Connie Backstrom in rural Hampton, Minnesota. The deputies were there to inform the Backstroms that three of their sons, Matthew (20), Jacob (17), and Justin (16), were in a car accident that evening. Two were killed instantly, the other would die the next morning. Their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver who was speeding and talking on his cell phone.
There was extensive media coverage of the tragedy. Reporters wanted to hear from the family, and the parents spoke freely. They spoke of their faith in Jesus, and of the strength they were receiving from God. They spoke of their gratitude for their boy’s lives and faith. They expressed their forgiveness for the young man who was responsible for the death of their sons, and said they were praying for his recovery. They later visited him in prison to give him their forgiveness in person. They prayed that others might learn from this tragedy, and in the years since have spoken to many groups of young people about faith, and about doing the right thing and avoiding bad choices.
How were they able to face such unspeakable tragedy with that kind of faith and courage? Where does such strength of character come from? I do not know the Backstroms, but I do know a bit about faith, and you can be sure they did not just pick up on all those godly virtues that morning on the radio. You can be sure that faith, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson, has indeed been a lifelong endeavor for them. You don’t just hear about it once, and then have that kind of faith and strength. It takes years of listening and years of praying; it takes persistent attention and devotion for that kind of strength and those kinds of virtues to get into your ears and then into your head and then down into your heart.
I heard the Backstorms speaking in an interview for less than a minute, but those few words were filled with all the great themes of the faith. I listed those themes as I listened, and was amazed at how much they communicated in such a short time. They were COMFORTED in their grief by the faith that God was with them and would bring them through this. They were upheld by the friendship and FELLOWSHIP of other believers. They had HOPE in the promise of Christ that they and their boys would meet again in heaven. They spoke of GOD’S WILL, and their belief that God must have allowed this tragedy for some reason, or could work some good out of it; and so they would submit themselves that that WILL OF GOD. They were able to FORGIVE the other boy whose sinful choices killed their sons. They were PRAYING for that boy. And they were filled with GRATITUDE to God for the lives of their sons. Almost all the beliefs of the entire catechism were expressed in that brief interview. You could tell faith had been a part of their daily life and the life of their boys. They had been paying attention. They had been persistent in the relationship with God. And now, in their time of grief and affliction, they were receiving the benefits of that persistence.
Faith is a gift, says the Bible, and it is also, says the Bible, a lifelong endeavor. The teachings of the Bible go back and forth between the expressions of God’s freely given grace, and the commands of God to be responsible in our obedience to his commands.
This balance between gift and responsibility is described best by Paul in Philippians 2:12-13 where he described the faithful life in these words: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Jesus told his disciples the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge to show that we should always pray and not give up, and not lose heart.
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.
Galatians 6:9 — Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
II Chronicles 15:7 — As for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.
Luke 18:1 — Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not lose heart…
Grant us, dear God, in all our duties, your help; in all our uncertainties, your guidance; in all our dangers, your protection; and in all our sorrows, your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.