By ELCA pastor James D. Engh, in the November 1995 issue of The Lutheran, pages 20-21.
I face the altar on Sunday mornings before I turn to greet the congregation. And I pray silently: “O Lord, our maker, redeemer and comforter, we are assembled in Thy presence to hear Thy holy word. We pray Thee so to open our hearts by Thy Holy Spirit, that through the preaching of Thy word we may be taught to repent of our sins, to believe on Jesus in life and in death, and to grow day by day in grace and holiness. Hear us, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that prayer. This opening prayer from “The Order of Morning Service” in the 1913 Lutheran Hymnary still ushers me into God’s presence. It reminds me that my roots run deep into the rich soil of a great religious heritage—faith, piety and a people, a particular people with names and faces. These people rooted me in the gospel.
Our small wood church sat on a windswept hill on the prairies of northeast South Dakota. Meant to be white, wind and sand, and extremes of heat and cold had long since weathered it gray. The steeple pointed to a rooster, a weather vane, and beyond to the heavens. Deeply grooved wooden steps testified to the tens of thousands of feet that continued to return here.
I recall a Sunday in June. The doors stood open as flies buzzed in and out. Arriving worshipers could hear the strains of Holy, Holy, Holy drifting out the doors. I know that’s what the organist played—she always played it before services, Sunday after Sunday.
People filed in, found their pews and nodded silently to those whose eyes they met. These shy farmers had a tremendous capacity for silence. But what went through their minds?
Some were laying out plans for Monday’s work. Others likely remembered with regret something done or said since they last sat in this place. Some prayed for rain and a good crop this year, if it be God’s will.
Above all, they prayed for the children. They were all there, from one in her mother’s arms to one who was leaving home to her seek her fortune in Minneapolis. “Yes, protect them from the evil one, Lord; keep them from harm and danger. Have we done enough for them? Will they remember their Bible stories, their catechism, their God?” Their parents’ prayers spoke a love deeper and stronger than they were comfortable expressing.
While they prayed, others studied the picture above the altar; Jesus, in a boat with his disciples, calming the storm. That picture interpreted their lives.
These farmers had a deep reverence for this church. It wasn’t much to revere, I suppose. It groaned in the wind, the ceiling was stained from leaks and it needed new windows and a coat of paint. But it was a place like no other in their lives. It was where God’s people gathered to worship. It had been made holy through the years by baptisms, confirmations and weddings. People had their sins forgiven here; they’d heard the gospel and received the sacrament here.
For an hour each week something extraordinary happened—people met God. And I was a part of it. As a result, I was rooted in the gospel, bit by bit, week after week.
I loved that place. I loved those people, though it took me a long time to recognize who they really were. To me they looked shy, awkward, uneducated. They were farmers on the verge of being driven into poverty by the next drought, storm, or drop in prices. Faces leathered by the sun, some dressed in patched, soiled clothing. Dirt and grease had stained their callused hands beyond cleaning.
A few of them drank too much. Some were nigh unto impossible to live with. Others were not exactly willing to resist temptation. Some could hardly talk without using foul language, and all were plagued by doubts and unspoken fears.
Not a very “spiritual” looking crowd, some might say. And they’d be right. They could be petty, judgmental, unkind, unforgiving, and they could hold grudges with the best.
And they knew it. They hung their heads and marveled that God could love such as them. But they were God’s gift to me.
Such as they were, God still chose them to bear a treasure. They were the first to speak God’s “I love you” to me. Awkwardly stumbling over words, they somehow managed to speak powerfully of Jesus. The Spirit breathed through their words and my experiences with them.
I have vivid memories of these folks– who had known much more tragedy than I– kneeling under the picture of Jesus calming the storm. That image has pulled me through my faith-testing times.
I remember the old woman our pastor helped to an open casket below that picture. Placing her hand on the cold, lifeless face of her husband of 58 years, she traced the sign of the cross with her bony, arthritic fingers. In that moment, I knew I was in the presence of one of God’s special ones.
I especially remember sitting next to my friend Roger, trying to help him memorize his Bible passage for the Christmas pageant, puzzled why this bright boy couldn’t memorize a few lines from Isaiah. Later, I watched as the teacher led him back to his seat when, during the program, he couldn’t say anything intelligible. Bewildered and frightened he sat beside me. I cried for him then, and I cried for him a few weeks later at his grave. It was a brain tumor, I think.
I remembered his lines and even then understood something of what they meant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). I learned something on that sad, wintry day about Christian faith and hope as I watched Roger’s parents’ eyes move from the casket to the pastor as he repeated a promise: “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ…”
This is the stuff on which I was nourished. It’s available only to those who live among God’s believing, worshiping community.
The church building no longer stands on that nameless hill in northeast South Dakota. Most of those voices that once were raised in praise to God are now stilled. Many lie in the cemetery behind the place where the church building once stood.
It’s lonely there now, yet the strains of Holy, Holy, Holy cover this place like a blanket and are almost audible. I can wander among the graves, read the names on the headstones, recall their faces and remember their stories—stories of failure and tragedy, of hope and shattered dreams, of sin and doubt, stories of faith that still nourish me.
Bowing before the altar on Sundays to pray, I often wonder where I would be if it were not for those South Dakota farmers. It’s unlikely I would be before this altar, praying the prayer they taught me. I may not have been rooted in the gospel at all. The treasure intended for me may not have been delivered. God’s “I love you” may never have been whispered in my ear.
And bowing before the altar, I sometimes think—often with fear—of the next generation. Of all the voices competing for their attention, will they, by some miracle, hear our voice speaking to them of Jesus?
I hope they will remember us kindly and not judge us too harshly. I hope someday they will thank God for the priceless treasure they received from undeserving people.
I Peter 2:9-10 — You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Psalm 78:1-7 — My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth… I will utter things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us… We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done… 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.
A PRAYER AS WORSHIP BEGINS:
O Lord, our maker, redeemer and comforter, we are assembled in Thy presence to hear Thy holy word. We pray Thee so to open our hearts by Thy Holy Spirit, that through the preaching of Thy word we may be taught to repent of our sins, to believe on Jesus in life and in death, and to grow day by day in grace and holiness. Hear us, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
–-Lutheran Hymnary, 1913