Saturday, February 28, 2009

Recovering Depression-Era Values

One of the more enjoyable aspects of being a pastor is being able to spend time with living history. By "living history" I mean the elderly; people who possess a rich depository of firsthand experience with the past. The elderly most interesting of late involve those with experiences from the Great Depression. Now in their 80's and 90's, this generation, like those of WWII, is disappearing at a rapid rate. Few remain to pass on their wisdom. So when I am able to, I deliberately try to get them to talk about those days. I don't care if it derails a Bible class temporarily, or if it prolongs a shut-in visit. Their experiences will too soon pass into secondhand recollection and I need to hear their voice of faith before it fades forever.

These unique treasure keepers possess for us an especially valuable memory: survival in one of history's most devastating economic disasters. Every day I listen to increasingly depressing reports of a failing economy. Every day I am told of how matters are teetering on the precipice of a free fall into catastrophe. Fear is our regular companion.

Then I look at these dear gray-haired saints and remember a time that once existed when people accepted a simpler world where less meant more, and the future was borrowed only to tomorrow. I look at my church and remember that this 120+ year old family of believers weathered crop failures and foreclosed farms and grasshopper plagues and rationed gas and herd-destroying diseases, and still woke up to face another day. A church that did not have to close its doors and a pastor who continued to serve when his only pay at times was probably no more than a donated chicken and a cart load of fire wood.

This was an era of much simpler times, and that may be part of its secret. A time before the assumption that every American was automatically owed a home, two cars, a house full of toys and technological trinkets, an unlimited health care policy, an updated wardrobe, and a vacation to get away from it all. It was a time when family and faith meant more than it does today. But then that was often all that you had.

I have no idea where our troubled times will lead. Will it mean socialized health care and nationalized banks and an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor and a disappearance of the middle class? Will it mean a second-rate nation on the world stage with more violence and less security? Will it mean a shrinkage of the freedoms we once enjoyed and a less hospitable climate for people of faith? I don't know. The future is known only to God. Thank goodness.

But what I do know is that as God did not abandon His people in times more troubled than ours, He certainly will not abandon us now. And as the church survived then, it will survive once more. By God's grace we will pass through the waters with a different outlook on our world, and a renewed set of values. Perhaps the church may learn to stop trying to entertain itself and get back to the real work of Word and Sacrament ministry. Maybe we will become more detached from our dependence on things and be freed to live more hope-filled lives that look increasingly to the coming of our Lord and our citizenship in heaven. Maybe we can reclaim something of what we lost in that last great Depression as the last survivors walk into the mist of eternity....

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