March 31, 2020
The ongoing pandemic brings three things together that might not have much in common as topics-- new technology, prayer, and every Christian’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land. I want to share with you some of the good things going on here at church today that show how those three things interrelate.
First, new technology. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on our recorded church services, along with many good suggestions on how to improve them. Today we recorded a school chapel service for tomorrow morning. We used a new camera and recording system that looks extremely promising. Tomorrow morning we’ll be recording the Lenten service, and we will know how to do it with better sound and more versatile and interesting viewing.
For me, this was encouraging. I found it amazing how much potential this new system offers in terms of remote services and teaching. As I’ve aged, I’ve become less and less inclined to keep up with all the new technological innovations; we all tend to get comfortable in a groove with what is familiar. But this time of separation forced us to look at new ways of doing things, and some of those improvements will outlast the virus and the time of separation. Being forced to learn what I wouldn’t be otherwise inclined to learn has been humbling, to be sure, but also exciting. It takes away some of the helpless feeling we might get when it seems like the world is passing us by.
Which brings me to the topic of prayer. Technology certainly does amaze, but it has its limits. While it is a tempting mistake to just let the world of technological innovation pass you by, it is an even bigger temptation, and even more disastrous mistake, to look to technology and science for answers to the human condition in the long term. This is where prayer comes in. It became fashionable in recent years for people in the media to mock prayer as a do-nothing approach to our problems. That mockery, I’ve noticed, is gone. When a disaster strikes, people realize our essential helplessness. Yes, we look to scientists and technology for vaccines and cures for this virus. But dealing with the problem forces everyone to realize that there is no vaccine or cure for death itself.
Too often even Christians fall into the habit of thinking of prayer as a last resort, something to do when all else fails. It is really the first course of action given to us. I suspect and hope that this time of isolation has cause many members of St. Paul’s to refocus on prayer even as we focus more on technology. Whether we had to be forced into it or not, the fact remains that a Christian congregation filled with people active in prayer is a tremendously good and powerful thing. And I think we are one such congregation now even more than we were before this all hit. If nothing else, just that improvement can illustrate how God brings good out of evil.
The feeling of helplessness that inspires even the disinclined to learn new technology, and drives even those who don’t normally pray much to a healthier, more active prayer life, also strengthens every Christian’s yearning for home. No one will keep up with rapid changes of the world indefinitely. Everyone will at some point be able to sing “change and decay in all around I see.” And with an active prayer life, they can then sing the next line with confidence—“O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”
You are a pilgrim in this world. The pageantry of history—pandemics, terror attacks, recessions, wars, elections, dangers and victories—continues to unfold in all of lives, no matter when we’re born and die. But we know this world and the whole story of it as centered in Christ and as something we pass through on our way to an eternal city. So we serve the Lord today, we take up our cross, but we always do so secure in the knowledge nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
March 30, 2020
“April is the cruelest month…”
That’s the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem called The Waste Land. It seems appropriate for today as we approach the end of March with the news that things are going to be shut down through the month of April while this virus tries to lay us to waste and we seek to resist the spread of it. That means we will have to do everything differently for the very biggest church celebrations of the year; nothing will be normal. Cruel indeed.
But one thing that will seem very odd, but which is actually just things going back to normal, is the idea of Christian teaching taking place in the home. The first line of Luther’s catechism, which we have used for five centuries to teach the faith to the next generation, is “As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household…” In Luther’s eyes, ongoing, daily learning in the home was normal. By contrast, the ways we in the modern world have compartmentalized our lives in separate, unrelated spheres—church, home, school, work, sports, social life, etc. would be abnormal to him. My guess is that he would see what we consider to be normal as somewhat spiritually debilitating.
One advantage, among the many disadvantages, of teaching the catechism remotely online, is that it lets us take at least one step toward better reintegrating church, school, and family. To be clear, such integration is always one of our goals at St. Paul’s, even in “normal” times. But increasingly, modern life militates against that goal. Integration of faith into all the spheres of life is easy to have as a goal, but seemingly harder and harder for many people to have as a reality.
The Reformation itself disrupted the world’s routine in the name of getting things back to normal, to the way they should have been. The reformers saw that the way everyone was leading their Christian lives had taken a bad turn. One of those bad turns might be familiar to us—compartmentalization. Monasteries were communities of worship (meaning Scripture teaching and learning, prayer, and praise) and service of the community and the wider world. The Church had begun to teach that people who lived in such communities were earning righteousness, were on a higher spiritual plane than regular people. The reformers would know—many of them, including Luther, lived in such communities.
Luther demolished the idea of earning forgiveness with good works, no matter how good those works might be. But when he left the monastery, his point was not that the things they did were bad. The point was that those things ought to happen in the Christian home. We don’t need to flee “worldly” callings to pursue spiritual calling. We need to integrate them. We need to make the Christian home the hub of all the facets of Christian life.
Basically, your house is a monastery. I know it probably feels like that more than ever these days. But seriously, your house is nothing other than a community of worship and service (and this is true even if you live alone). Everyone in the house wakes up with a calling from God not only to be strengthened in faith via the Word, and pray, but also to serve the household and the wider world according to each person’s role within it. The idea of strict compartmentalization—church for churchy stuff, school for facts, work for earning money, home for rest and amusement—insults the dignity of the home.
Today we begin a walk through the basic teachings of Christianity via video link. I’m no tv star, but I will be posting a 5-15 minute video each day, or most days, that go through the catechism bit by bit through the month of April. The confirmands are assigned to watch them, but I hope the whole congregation will join in. But here is the key. Watch them together with anyone else who lives in your house. Don’t take turns, or watch with headphones, or sit in separate rooms. Make it something you do for a few minutes together. Doing so will bring together, that is, integrate, church, home, and school at least partially in your Christian life. You should be able to link to today’s video below, or from the website soon.
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
Dear St. Paul’s family,
By heart. That’s an evocative term. When we know something by heart, we keep it in our heart and it is there even when we’re not aware of it. We can call on it at a moment’s notice. Typically, what we mean when we say we know something by heart is that we know it word-for-word. Even after some time has gone by since we last said it, we can recall it with some prompting, or at least recognize it as deeply familiar.
The best way, really the only way, to know something by heart is repetition. Any instrumentalist has a long repertoire of pieces they can play almost automatically, because they’ve practiced them so often. That’s repetition. Athletes also need to know things by heart, and their practice is called “reps,” that it, repetitions.
Businesses know this. They run commercials over and over because they know you won’t really know what they want you to know unless they drive it into your head with repetition. That’s why they tell you their phone number four times. And they sing it to little jingles; melody and rhythm help the memory, and also drive the information deeper into the mind.
One of the more poignant scenes you’ll ever see is a dying person being sung to, especially songs they knew in their youth. Such singing has the power to cut through the fog of illness and anesthesia and go directly to the heart. Every Christian should be so blessed as to have a heart full of the Church’s sung Scripture to sustain them on the threshold of death.
Because we cannot offer communion to the congregation gathered in worship, our online service this week follow the service of Matins. Many generations of Christians have known this service by heart, including here at St. Paul’s. It connects the present to the past generation and the whole history of God’s people. It also has the power to connect people from many places. All over our church body, in any state, there are people who can sing along with Matins.
The beauty of liturgical worship is that it not only makes you know the Scriptures, but it puts those Scriptures into the context of worship. Rather than having a head only full commercial jingles, someone who sings the Scriptures week after week, in a congregation and wider church that sings the same things the same way, drives the words, the context, and the community of believers into our hearts.
Sunday will feel very strange for me not going to church, as I’m sure it will be for many of you. Please worship via our online service, either from the link in the email or via the website. Even as we are all apart in this time of quarantine and cannot go to church, it can be all the more meaningful to join in with “O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation…”
March 27, 2020
This is the day the Lord has made!
First thing most mornings I use a little prayer book by John Baillie called A Diary of Private Prayer, which has a prayer for every morning and every evening the month. I’d like to share a portion of the prayer for the 27th day of the month (slightly edited, since Baillie uses archaic, King James language). After giving thanks for the work of Christ, the prayer continues as follows by giving thanks for what we have received from all those who have gone before us and asking God to incorporate us into that ongoing, glorious history:
For the power of His cross in the history of the world since He came; For all who have taken up their own crosses and followed Him; For the noble army of martyrs and for all who are willing to die that others may live; For all the suffering freely chosen for noble ends, for pain bravely endured, for temporal sorrows that have been used for the building up of eternal joys; I praise and bless You holy Name.
O Lord my God, You dwell in pure and blessed serenity beyond the reach of mortal pain, yet look down in unspeakable love and tenderness upon the sorrows of the earth. Give me grace, I beg you, to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I myself am called upon to endure. Deliver me from fretfulness. Let me be wise to draw from every dispensation of Your providence the lesson You would have me learn. Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all my burdens on You.
During this very strangest of spring breaks, one of the blessings I’ve experienced is God forcing me to adapt, which I’m not naturally inclined to do. But I think St. Paul’s will be a better congregation next year and year after because of some of the ways we’re adapting now. We’ll be more focused on what is important, and more able to communicate and serve people in different circumstances.
Spring break ends this weekend and school starts again Monday via remote learning. Our teachers have been hustling and scrambling to learn new technology, prepare different lessons, and make it possible to keep teaching despite the circumstances. I’m going to do the same thing (lest those energetic darn teachers make me look bad!) with various Bible studies starting next week. You’ll need either Zoom or Facebook Live to participate in real time. Not ideal, but better than nothing. And I think even after this craziness ends, we’re still benefit from some of the changes we’re being forced to make today.
Keep an eye on your email Monday for instructions on how to participate in Bible study next week.
This weekend’s church service will be matins from LSB, and should be available for viewing by Saturday evening. We hope to begin live-streaming services next week.
Peace be with you!
Dear St. Paul’s family,
I hope you were able to participate in the Service of Prayer and Preaching for our Lenten service last night. There were a few unexpected delays, and we understand that we need to change how we do the sound, but every first effort is a learning experience. We hope to be able to live-stream starting next week, and also make recordings of the services available on the website. Thanks for your patience as we all figure this out together. More on patience below!
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Gal. 5:22-23
Times like these put everything to the test, but also provide plenty of opportunity for the fruit of the Spirit to shine like a beacon in a storm. There can be laws about all kind of things. There can be good laws and bad laws, annoying laws and critically necessary laws. But it is impossible for anyone to mandate that you be hateful, joyless, angry, impatient, mean, immoral, faithless, harsh, or irresponsible. How we respond to tough times is up to us, and by pointing us to Christ and building us up in faith, the Holy Spirit enables and empowers to respond with the fruit of the Spirit.
Of course we fail. That’s why forgiveness is at the heart and soul of what makes us God’s family. But we never stop trying to be what God called us to be in Holy Baptism, children of God worthy of His Name. Today provides you with a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities to let your light shine. Don’t read it today as condemnation or let it remind you of your failures; that’s for another time. Today, remember Christ’s forgiveness, and use that list simply as encouragement—God is with you, and this is what He is helping you to be.
We could look at any of the things in St. Paul’s list from Galatians and see how this pandemic is making them harder but also more important. It hard to be filled with joy, for example, when everything seems to be going wrong. But precisely for that reason, joy is a more important thing than ever to experience and spread. Peace, too, can be hard to come by, when the news is filled with bitter political wrangling and there is so much uncertainty and fear. People at peace with God can be at peace in times of distress, and just by having that peace end up sharing it with their neighbor; joy and peace are more contagious than any virus. And we could go on to make the same point about all nine items in St. Paul’s list.
I want to focus today, however, mostly on patience, and I want to speak especially to and about those who are living alone. Patience is always one of the hardest things for people because it is so easy to recommend and so hard to accept the recommendation. Even authors of fiction admit that the weight of time on a character is an almost impossible thing to convey to the reader. Something we can endure easily for a day, or a week, easily becomes unendurable when it just goes on and on. And one such burden that time makes exponentially worse is isolation.
There is a reason extended solitary confinement is considered a human rights violation even for prisoners of war. In some cases it rises to the level of torture. Being bereft of human company is the very first thing that God said wasn’t good even in Eden. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” We aren’t designed to live apart. Therefore, we all need to be aware that the burden of having to be patience is not something spread evenly among our members. For some of us, quarantine is a very bearable disruption. For others of us, every day is a marathon.
Please be mindful of that fact. We might not be able physically be together. But we need everyone in our community to know that we are in this together. Personal phone calls, emails, text messages, even (perhaps especially) nice hand-written cards sent through the mail, need to keep us connected.
If you are feeling lonely and isolated, please know that you are not forgotten—not by God, not by His Church. We all acknowledge that not everyone can understand what you’re going through, but we all want you to know that you are not alone. It can sound hollow when people say to be patient, but let God give you that patience. Be sustained by the truth that you have a loving Father and His loving family.
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Gal. 5:25
I would like to offer the following challenge for today. The Bible talks about the fruit, not fruits, of the Spirit. Therefore, I think the best way of understanding the verse is to say that the fruit of the Spirit is Love. God is Love, that Love for us is in Christ, and we are connected to Christ by Spirit-inspired faith. So we walk in love. The next eight items in St. Paul’s list—joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control-- are all facets of what a loving person has and does.
So let’s practice walking by the Spirit. No, we aren’t earning the forgiveness we already have. We’re simply making a point of deliberately doing what we want to be doing even when we’re not thinking about it. Make yourself a physical list of those eight items, and find one thing you can do even in quarantine to experience and share the fruit of the Spirit. Make a point of doing something kind. Make a point of responding with gentleness to someone else’s anger, frustration or frayed nerves. Do the whole list merely as practice. Such practice is the burden of time turned to a positive.
Above all, stay in contact. Just as you might help someone who needs food, help someone who needs contact and togetherness, something for which a human being hungers just as much as food. People need to be reminded: You are not alone!
Lenten greetings to the St. Paul’s family,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We should thank God for the technology that allows us to stay connected somewhat during a time a separation. As we temporarily try to worship together without being together “in the flesh”, so to speak, we rejoice at the gift of electronic communication. But I want to highlight the importance of the physical and some of the pitfalls of online worship, so that we all get the most out of the opportunity to worship remotely without falling into any spiritual snare.
Most obviously, watching worship is not the same thing as worshiping. Please don’t tune in to our services the same way you would to a tv show. This will be harder than it seems. Speak the words of the creed, don’t just listen to them. Pray, don’t just listen to the prayers. Sing the hymns and liturgical parts aloud, don’t just have them in the background like a radio. (Again, make sure you have a hymnal in your home—you can check one out from church.) It will seem strange doing this out loud in your house, especially with other people sitting on the couch or across the room. But so be it. Unlike watching a movie, in worship, you are a participant, not an observer. In fact, making a point of this will help us all even when we can be back in church, because we all have a tendency to lapse back into the role of observer even when we’re sitting in the pews.
More importantly, doing things remotely can give us the mistaken impression that the Church is an abstraction, a mere idea, rather than a concrete reality. If we mistakenly believe that worshiping remotely is the same thing, basically, as worshiping in person, then we’re missing out on one of the great mysteries and gifts of Christianity. In the Church, you, that is, your flesh and blood, are being incorporated (note the root of that word!) into the Body of Christ and therefore God.
Consider God for a moment. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess, “I believe that God has made me…” How? Did he just imagine an idea of you? No. He made you a flesh and blood thing, and used physical means. Spoiler alert for any young children who may be reading this, but there was icky, physical contact and biology involved in God’s work. Babies are not abstractions, nor are they begotten in the abstract. Yet we confess that the making of every human being is/was a holy act of the Creator with eternal, spiritual ramifications.
And consider Jesus. He came in the flesh. That is of crucial (literally) importance for the faith. There is no Jesus apart from flesh and blood. God became a Man. We don’t put our trust in the abstract idea of God being nice and loving and merciful. We put our faith in the concrete, fleshly manifestation of the Truth. Countless ancient heretics have tried to get around the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, but to no avail. There is no Christianity or Church without it.
So far so good. But now consider the Holy Spirit. How does He work to create faith and give us new life? In purely spiritual ways unconnected to the flesh? No! He works through means. One of those means, the spoken or written Word, can be communicated remotely via electronic media to flesh and blood eyes and ears. But that is not the extent of the Spirit’s activity. C.S. Lewis, in his famous book Mere Christianity expressed the gist of the idea this way:
“And let me be clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean something simply mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps this explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like Baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution* [*meaning gradual transformation, not the theory of origins]—a biological or super-biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not. He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
This is why we treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul says any individual Christian’s sexual immorality is a sin against the whole Body of believers. This is why we put so much emphasis in funerals on the resurrection of the body, not just souls going to heaven. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Life Together book we went through last fall, said Christians in isolation quite rightly long for the physical presence of other Christians, who bring with them in their person the presence of Christ.
This is one reason the writer to the Hebrews instructed Christians not to stop meeting together. This is a big part of the problem with Christians trying to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is the main reason we bring communion to the homebound even though they can worship regularly via some electronic format. Christians have long struggled to understand how Christ can offer us His body and blood in the Sacrament, but it has always been obvious that the real presence of our own body and blood is a prerequisite for receiving that spiritual gift.
So, again, we give thanks for the opportunity to be fed with a Service of the Word via electronic media. It is a huge blessing, especially on a temporary basis in a time of necessity. But it can never be the ideal, or even an adequate solution in the long term. Our efforts will remain a work in progress. Every way of doing this – Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, etc.—has its pros and cons. There are copyright issues, sound quality issues, access issues (e.g. not everyone uses Facebook), etc. So please be patient as we find our way, and please help one another participate. And really participate, don’t just watch.
We look forward to the day when we can gather as God’s family in this place and receive all the gifts He has for us. Until then, let us receive the Word gratefully and resolve to be Christ to our neighbor however God enables us.
March 24, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
In consultation with the Board of Deacons and Pastor Stock, I have decided to suspend our worship services, both Wednesday and Sunday, for at least the next two weeks. Instead, we will make services available via our website, with instructions for accessing them to follow in the coming days. We will then re-evaluate, and hopefully be able to have at least Holy Week and Easter services.
Please know we do not make this change lightly, but we do make it voluntarily. No secular law can prevent us from offering Word and Sacrament ministry. But in weighing the many pros and cons of any course of action and what ultimately has the best chance of keeping the flock fed and unified without distraction, I think this is our best option for the time being. I’m sorry to those who disagree, and reiterate that the pastors will bring communion to people in this time by request. We will be constantly re-assessing as events unfold.
We will continue to provide daily updates, links to other services and Bible study resources, and will work toward doing as much preaching and teaching as we can via the website. As usual, please help those who do not have access to the website or the daily emails. In some cases, helping them might mean printing off copies and delivering them to your friends’ mailboxes. We want our church family staying connected. One silver lining in all this disruption is that it will ensure that we have good contact information.
Considering the possibility of going even a short period without gathering for worship is a difficult prospect for Christians. I offer the following thoughts on communion and separation in the hope that it helps us all reflect on what is truly important.
C.S. Lewis wrote a science fiction story called The Great Divorce, which opens in a place where everyone lives in their dream house but everyone also lives alone, and further and further apart, so as not to have their dream bothered or interrupted by someone else’s. “I won’t be a bit player in someone else’s dream; they must be bit players in my dream.” So everyone is the center of their own little universe, all alone. That place turns out to be hell. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously expressed this approach to life when he said, “Hell is other people.” Other people impose on us. Our interactions with them must be voluntary, and cut off whenever they cease to be enjoyable.
Christians know better than that. We don’t live for ourselves, or at least we aren’t supposed to. But sometimes our lifestyles conform to the world’s ways without our even realizing it. Sometimes the patterns of our lives reflect the world’s assumptions and priorities more than is befitting followers of Christ. It is then that we need our loving Father’s correction.
Sometimes God’s toughest discipline involves letting people have what they want. He “gives us over” to our rebellious ways, forsaking the artificial punishments that might have corrected us, and instead lets us see what life is like when our choices go unchecked. Thus, in the Old Testament, God warned the people about wanting a king, but the people demanded one anyway. And God, knowing they would regret it, let the people have a king, and even let them choose make the foolish choice of King Saul. And they did regret it. But God didn’t give up on them. Ultimately, He incorporated even their foolishness and rebellion into His gracious plan by making Jesus, descended from King David, the final King of Kings.
We know the phrase “Have it your way” as a promise, which might be fine when applied strictly to hamburgers. The problem is that we don’t apply it strictly to hamburgers. We demand that the same concept be applied to everything. But in the mouth of God, “Have it your way,” means harsh discipline is coming. He knows that His way, not our fallen, sinful way, is the only way that gives us life and true freedom. The book of Proverbs constantly extols the benefits of a well- timed rebuke and wise correction, and constantly warns that folly ends up being its own punishment in the end.
Even prior to this outbreak, our society has long been walking very deliberately toward realizing Lewis’s vision of hell, mistaking it for heaven. It isn’t just the physical things, like smaller and smaller families in bigger and bigger houses, further and further apart, as though hell were other people. It’s also our private schedules and demand for more and more options. Not even 100 channels is enough. Isolation and loneliness have become among the chief problems facing people who get what they want. Not wanting to be bound by anything or imposed upon, we have for many generations been relaxing, chaffing at, and cutting all the ties that bind, seeing them as curses rather than blessings. And then we find ourselves adrift.
Take meals, for example. They are necessary for nourishment, of course, but also have always been about fellowship. To break bread together was a meaningful act, not just a matter of convenience. Two years ago when we did the 10 Commandments of Table Meals during Lent, we talked about the recent invention of drive-through meals to illustrate this general drive toward isolation and away from fellowship. It is not a good direction, but we follow the same path in some many areas of life.
We’ve farmed out to institutions the rearing of the young, care for the elderly, helping the poor, and anything else that might be considered a burden on our individualistic lifestyles. We’ve refused to be formed by the Church, but have insisted instead that the church conform to our schedules and tastes. We barely even know our neighbors anymore, living as we do in our cars and behind our garages, and if we love them at all, we do so purely in the abstract by supporting whatever faceless program is supposed to be taking care of them, not in any concrete action that makes demands on our time. Sad.
This quarantine just gives us more of what we’ve demanding. The restaurants are all drive-through, no sit down. All home-theater, no real theater. All virtual classroom, no real classroom. And now, for a time, even church must follow suit. We’ve struggled mightily never to be inconvenienced, to make sure we can do whatever we want without having to leave our own bedroom. And now we see it all realized and think, “Wait a minute; where is the community, the human contact, the sense the belonging? Have we simply been preparing a place for ourselves in our own, isolated hell where everything revolves around our own convenience and nobody else ever comes?”
Perhaps this time of forced separation can prove to be a cautionary tale. God might be using this to show us the folly of the road we’ve been walking, perhaps as individuals but certainly as a society for a long time by giving us a glimpse of where that path leads. Maybe being forced not to visit with our neighbors will make us question why we always avoided visiting with our neighbor in the first place. Maybe all the days we sat dreaming of the chance just to stay in bed and watch Netflix were not visions of heaven after all.
Jesus promised that He was going to prepare a place for us. He never promises to let us go and prepare a place for ourselves in the Father’s house. It will be perfect, but only because He prepared it for us rather than letting us do it the way we really want. And it will be in the Father’s house, a place of community, of love and togetherness, of singing together, of a common table and feasting. Pray that this unexpected and difficult time of dealing with separation will make us yearn ever more strongly for the gift of weekly worship together in communion with heaven and all the Saints.
Pray that it opens our eyes to any wrong roads our lives might have been taking and gives us the chance to change course. May we emerge from this temporary crisis with renewed faith and an even stronger congregation due to God’s gracious guidance and discipline. In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Questions about why God allows natural disasters to happen are as perennial as the disasters themselves, and those question invariably lead to the question of punishment. If Christ bore God’s wrath for the sin of the world on the cross, why is there any punishment left over in the form of plagues and disasters? If specific people or particular sins bring down God’s wrath, why do innocent people also suffer? And if God really is God, why doesn’t He do anything to stop all this?
The disciples in yesterday’s reading who asked Jesus why the man was born blind weren’t interested in blindness in general or its relationship to the Fall of mankind into sin. They were interested in what, specifically, this particular blind man did, or maybe his parents did, that resulted in God making him blind. Jesus, by contrast, simply points to what God was accomplishing by making the man born blind. As Pastor Stock pointed out in his sermon, when we see by the light of the cross, we see things truly.
By the light of the cross we see ourselves truly as children of God. Hebrews 12:7 tells us, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons [and daughters].” So how might we look at our current circumstance in light of the cross? How might God be making this work out for your good? In Christ we know God isn’t refusing to forgive us, or just mad at us, or wanting the worst for us. His love for us is secure. If you want to know whether God is disciplining you, assume that He is and that He is doing so because He is your loving Father. How it might these circumstances draw you closer to Him and make you more like Him?
Every deprivation calls us to repentance for ingratitude. Only spoiled kids (and adults) feel entitled to and ungrateful for all the good things they have. For one small example, having to search for toilet paper can potentially make you grateful, perhaps truly for the first time, to have toilet paper. Maybe for the first time you’re becoming grateful for the work of people whose jobs you always took for granted before. Children of God, who know that everything is an undeserved gift, should lead lives marked chiefly by constant, overwhelming gratitude. If nothing else, we can emerge from this time of quarantine with renewed gratitude for our routines, our freedoms, our health, and normal human contact.
Tomorrow I want to explore the importance of that last one—human contact, and what an important gift it really is, and how we so often throw it away because it makes demands on us. But for today, make a list of things you failed to be thankful for until this quarantine made you scramble to find them or do without them. Then you’ll see at least one way this time of upheaval can bring you closer to God.
In-home exercise for today: recite Luther’s explanation of the First article of the creed from memory, or read it aloud ten times. I won’t print it here, because the other part of the exercise is to make sure you have a copy of the catechism somewhere in your house. Please don’t google it or use an online version, because translations vary and we want the whole church family working on the same version. Tip: the whole catechism is on pp. 321-330 of the hymnal for those who checked on out of church for in-home use during the quarantine.
Next month the Board of Deacons is going to post a long list of St. Paul’s members on a bulletin board with a request to the congregation to help us to know their situation and/or contact information. I’d like to explain why we’re doing that so as to avoid misunderstanding, confusion, or embarrassment.
Pastor simply means “shepherd” and refers to the one who shepherds souls with the Word of God and being the Holy Spirit’s instrument in calling people to repentance and faith. But in this era we pastors have a harder and harder time even knowing where anyone is, much less the state of their faith.
The number one reason people are getting harder to shepherd these days is that the typical church member comes to church less often. Pew Research says that one generation ago people who considered themselves regular church-goers attended their church 3-4 times per month on average. Today that number is down to 1.6 times per month. This trend, of course, is contrary to the 3rd Commandment, terrible for people’s spiritual lives, and probably also bad for society generally. But it is an unmistakable trend nonetheless.
Another reason the pastoring task is growing harder is that people are far busier, far more mobile, and far more protective of their time and privacy. My grandfather pastors could walk around the neighborhood during the week “making calls” on church members who had missed church. Today there is an issue with even having up to date and reliable contact information for those people, even assuming we could coordinate our schedules for a visit. It’s a different world.
At St. Paul’s we do our very best to pastor/shepherd all the members of the flock/family. Members of the Board of Deacons assist the pastors by each taking a portion of the alphabet and attempt to contact anyone who has not been in church for a full month to find out if there is some problem the church can be helping with, a conflict that needs to be resolved, or perhaps simply the need for a little encouragement to get back into good habits. At every monthly meeting each deacon reports on his efforts from the previous month and gets a new list of people to contact. And each deacon makes contacts in his own way. Some write cards, some use email and Facebook, some call on the phone (often simply leaving messages) and some try to make personal visits.
The individual deacons do have some successes in tracking people down and encouraging them to come back to church or (in cases where people have moved) helping them transfer their membership to a congregation close to them. And we try to account for snow birds, college students, shut-ins, deployed military, or people who we know come to church but just never sign the book for whatever reason. But after accounting for those cases we still usually have a lot of people left, and our monthly reports include fewer and fewer successes in contacting them and more and more “I couldn’t get in touch,” or “Not sure this phone number is still good,” or “I heard this person took a new job out of state but there is no forwarding address.”
Despite the ongoing efforts of the Board of Deacons we have a long list of people who have not been in church here in two years as far as we know and whom we’ve had no success in contacting about it. In short, it’s a list of people in our flock/family whom we are failing to shepherd or be a family to.
This problem affects the whole family here, and the whole family can be part of the solution. The Board of Deacons and the pastors might not know the situation of each person on the list, but surely somebody in the congregation does. We need the whole family acting as a family and being their brother’s keeper in the case of absent members.
There are lots of perfectly innocent reasons your name might appear on this list. In some cases it might simply be a typo in an email address. But in other cases it might be something more serious like an illness. The goal is not to embarrass anyone. The goal is make sure St. Paul’s is able to minister to and shepherd everyone in the flock to the very best of our ability.
I’m writing this in advance of posting the list just to prepare people and explain it. Given the divine mandate to shepherd God’s flock and our ongoing struggles to fulfill that mandate for every member, I think posting the list is a positive step as long as people understand the intent. I also know it is an easy thing for people to take the wrong way. So when the list gets posted in April, please check it for your own name or anyone you know. Then talk to one of the pastors or to your deacon (the appropriate deacon’s name and contact info will accompany each name on the list) to make sure we have good contact information and any other knowledge that will help us serve the whole family better.
See you Sunday (or Saturday).
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana