The Crumbling Sacred Canopy

Waiting at our local Conrad’s Tire and Auto, I saw a hard-covered book on the history of this 30-store chain.  It was started after the War by Joan and Ed Conrad. They were and are a staunch Irish Catholic family. They and their kids went to Catholic schools I recognized from the old neighborhood.

Their story brought to mind a classic Irish Catholic neighbor of ours.  Their family’s kids and ours played a lot together. I admire this Mom of seven children.  Raised in a faithful Irish Catholic family herself, she did and does go to mass every morning.

As I reminisced, I thought, we know who we are and why we’re here.  We are created by God to worship him and to serve others.

Back then both Catholic and Lutheran church bodies had strong institutions, especially with grade schools, high schools and universities.  Those institutions are in retreat. The Catholic bishop of Cleveland closed or merged 50 parishes. In the Cleveland area, we lost four Lutheran grade schools in the past ten years, and the city congregations still remaining are barely hanging on.

How many children and adults today know with strong conviction that they are created by God to worship him and to serve others?  How many have any answer at all to the fundamental life questions, who am I and why am I here? For several generations, our public schools have been forced to teach our country’s apparent theology that there is no God and we are just products of evolution with no purpose to our living and no reason for character development.

The old church institutions provided what sociologist Peter Berger called the “sacred canopy” for living.  From birth on we experienced an integrated understanding of God and our roles in family, church and work.  It was impressed on many of us in Sunday school, church grade school, church high school as well as a church university.  Spend twenty years in those church and school institutions and you know who you are and why you are here.

We were in constant contact with many adults who reminded us who we are and why we are here.  Guilt provided a lot of motivation to behave as expected. We learned valuable lifetime habits, like praying and going to church.  Most tried to live out their confirmation vow. But when institutions crumble, the habits they ingrained start disappearing, as do the motivations based on habit.  Children raised on evolutionary theory no longer see human life as special, let alone sacred.

When I was a Navy Reserve chaplain billeted to a unit in St. Louis, I would be called on to do funerals for Vietnam casualties and as well as veterans on their request.  I remember one vet who gave no indications of spiritual life or admirable qualities. I complained to a Jesuit chaplain friend about how uncomfortable that made me. He set me straight.  That man was created in the image of God. His body deserves to be treated with dignity. Do your duty.

That was a fresh insight to me about the meaning of the Genesis statement that God created humans in his image.  Scholars debate exactly what that image and likeness consist of. At a minimum, it means humans and their God-created bodies are special and different from the rest of creation.  The word for that is sacred—set apart to be treated with dignity.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery is sacred space for Americans and is given the dignity of an around-the-clock honor guard.

Do your own survey of young adults about whether they live with biblical assumptions.  Where would they ever learn the biblical worldview? They could get that historic view only from Christians and their churches.

Include in your informal survey of teens a question about how many have ever been in a church for a worship service.  You will be amazed.

Probably the best way for us elders to engage youth in this life-defining discussion is to insist that life is sacred, and then challenge them to define what that means.

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