“People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn.” New York Times columnist David Brooks made this point lately to illustrate the need for us to consider our posterity in the way we live. He rightly cites all three tenses that command our attention.
What role do religious communities like church and synagogue play in nurturing this view? A role no others can play as well.
Before coming to the horizontal, let me add the vertical dimension, so to speak. When you worship God week by week, you lift your head. You raise your sights. You see a dimension above this life that frees you from slavery to this life alone.
Where else will children learn of that sacred canopy that hovers above them at all times from which heaven protects and oversees earth? Whether singing hymns or hearing prayers and preaching, worship brings us to our knees beneath a gracious and guiding Providence that alone can give abiding meaning to our lives.
Nothing else and nowhere else can do that job as well: not schools or the ranch or the lake or the latest self-help book. If the faith of our fathers and mothers is to be passed on to our children, then our children’s fathers and mothers will be the ones doing the passing. And the pew is where that peace (as well as the plate) is passed.
Now, to the arrows of time. Our compact with the dead includes keeping them alive to us in every way possible. The grave doesn’t silence the dead, the living do that by forgetting them. When we study history, repeat stories of their lives, read their written words, and remember how they lived, we honor them and keep faith with them.
G.K. Chesterton, that 20th century British wit, claimed that honoring tradition is the most democratic thing a people can do because it gives a vote to the dead. It gives them voice, too. It allows the dead to join the conversation and inform us about the way things were. If we believe in permanent things, as the poet T.S. Eliot called them, we can’t just wake up in the morning and think a new day means a new world.
The reading and studying of Scripture in worship and Bible classes keep us in contact with the communion of saints that lives now with God. These practices keep us rooted in our humanity and within our faith traditions.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These words, along with sayings like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” reinforce our compact with the living. They remind us that we are not the only ones alive. They temper our individualism, with all its tempting selfishness. They bind us to one another in generous community.
Will this be learned in front of a TV or at the mall? People sitting elbow to elbow with others of every social and economic and ethnic stratum can hardly get out of a house of worship without knowing that they belong to fragile company of fellows who are affected by every decision that an individual makes.
Our compact with the unborn is nurtured by a robust hope in the promises of God. Biblical faith holds that history is going somewhere. It’s not a never-ending cycle from which we can never escape. Even death does not thwart the hope of Earth, because heaven awaits us with the assurance that wrongs will be righted and right rewarded.
What will we hand off to the generations to come? We are in spiritual debt to those who came before us. Every generation must fight the prospect of living only for itself and passing on material debt to those who come behind us. They deserve the largess of our sacrifices.
I’m prejudiced about this, but I believe our clearest view is from the pew.
George Mason is pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church. The Worship section is a regular feature underwritten by Advocate Publishing and by the neighborhood business people and churches listed on these pages. For information about helping support the Worship section, call 214.560.4202.