For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
When? People have been asking that question about so many things lately. When will school open? When will we be able to go back to church? When will the stores open? When will sports return?
Naturally, people disagree about the specifics of when this or that should happen. Indiana and Illinois seem to disagree. People in stores seem to disagree as to what measure remain necessary. We all have our own preferred “experts” whom we trust, and those experts disagree. When the Bible says that there is a time for everything, it doesn’t say with specificity when those times begin and end. Some disagreement and give and take is just a normal part of life in the world.
What Ecclesiastes is really getting at, though, is not a timetable for everything but that everything comes to an end. There is nothing permanent under heaven. Normal is not permanent. Abnormal is not permanent. Neither health nor illness endure indefinitely. That’s why Ecclesiastes lists pairs of opposites—a time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to weep, a time to laugh, etc. No particular time just goes on and on.
A time of disruption, therefore, invites to consider what is permanent and eternal. Nothing “under heaven,” that is, in this life and world, really is permanent. Nothing, that is, except the Gospel. Christ, who is eternally God and Man and who lives forever, became incarnate in this world “under heaven” for us. Christ is the only thing about which we can say “always,” to any “when” question.
The day-to-day details of the shut down can frustrate people. We do not know how to plan anything. But the shut down can also make us look at the larger scheme of things, our phases and stages of life, and big picture aspects of how we have organized our lives. But the little picture and the big picture get their meaning from Christ, who is all in all.
If you find yourself getting frustrated by the little inconveniences or overwhelmed by larger changes going on, put it into context. The only eternal context. This day and your life are redeemed and therefore have eternal significance beyond the “under heaven” futility of Ecclesiastes. Christ who has conquered all and gone through the heavens remains with you in this life in the Word and Sacraments.
“…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Heb. 12:1b
Yesterday I had a Zoom meeting with a group of pastors from other denominations, one of whom I hadn’t seen in many years. He told the group that this verse has been rolling around in his mind for many weeks because of the all the disruption to church life (along with every other kind of life) brought by the pandemic. I think many pastors have come to a new appreciation of this verse because we have been unable to plan things the way we normally do. The whole group shared that sentiment. We all pastor different kinds of congregations in very different contexts, but this verse rang true to all of those situations.
Sometimes the key aspects of this verse get lost amid the famous words that come before and after. Heb. 12:1 begins with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” We often refer to those famous words when we consider salvation history from the Old Testament all the way through the history of the Church. Heb. 12:2 begins, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” and we often refer to those famous words for obvious reasons. But wedged in between there are the words above, which contain two ideas that pertain to today.
The first is endurance. It is an easy thing to think about and a hard thing to have. At a marathon, anyone can cheer the runners on. Not everyone can keep running. We can all hear and know the truth of encouraging words, but that doesn’t mean we can act on them easily. When all this began we needed courage and wisdom (and we still do, of course), but now that it has been going on a lot longer than we first anticipated (remember when we thought we’d be back in school by mid-April?) we need endurance. We need to keep drawing strength from the Word after the novelty of the whole thing has worn off and the frustrations of it persist.
The second key aspect of the excerpt is that the race we run is the one that set before us, not the one we choose. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what we would have done or could have done in some other circumstance. We take up the challenge God gives us, not the challenge we give ourselves or the challenge God gave to Christians in other times and places. The times you live in, with all its wonders and conveniences like instant Zoom meetings, all its quirks and absurdities like masking tape exes on every floor, and all its particular terrors and sufferings, from ICU units to careers destroyed, these times, and no other times, mark the race that is set before us. This context, and no other context, is where God gives us an opportunity to bring Christ.
One of the most famous scenes in The Lord of the Rings features Frodo saying that he wishes he lived in different times. The wise old Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” It is the same sentiment—don’t focus on the imaginary challenges (or lack thereof) you wished you faced. Focus on the real challenge you face. The race that is set before you is the only race you can run with endurance. It, and nothing else, is your true calling.
So many of our good intentions begin with “If only…” The Hebrews verse begins with “Therefore…” It grounds your day in reality, not unreality. But the reality it grounds your day in stems from the truth of salvation history and the presence of God in our context as well. Live the life God gave you. Run the race set before you. We at St. Paul’s and you in your personal context are part of the grand and glorious story of those redeemed by Christ.
“Keep your life free from the love from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” Heb. 13:5a
This morning our economic stimulus check arrived from the IRS via direct deposit to my bank account. I don’t know what to think about that in terms of economics or politics. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about it.
I could feel happy. Why not? Free money! Who wouldn’t be happy about that? I could feel guilty. After all, it is money I did not earn and I’m not among the people who have lost their jobs and businesses. I could feel outraged about the strange set of government decisions leading up to such an odd circumstance, which seems to violate much of what I normally consider to be responsible fiscal and regulatory policy. Confused? Cynical? Thrilled? I could feel a lot of things. So might you.
But of all the things I might have felt, you know how I did feel? Embarrassing as it is to admit, the first, fleeting feeling (thankfully it only lasted half a moment until I was able to laugh at myself over it) was disappointment. You know why? Because it was Because it was less than I thought it would be. I thought four of our children would be eligible, but it turns out only three them were. I quickly chided myself for reacting so selfishly, but if I’m honest I can’t claim I never had that fleeting reaction.
That’s how quickly inflated expectations and a sense of being owed something can rob us of contentment. Gratitude, by contrast, brings with is instant contentment. The Hebrews verse quoted above is not just some law that is there is show us how greedy we are (though it can do that!); it is practical advice to those who know their God and want the good gifts He gives. Contentment with little is a greater gift than possession of much.
Even more so than a check from the IRS, everything in all of creation is a gift. Your body, your time, your story—you didn’t earn it. It was just given to you. Receive it with gratitude, and contentment will follow no matter your circumstance. Think of it all as something you have coming to you by rights and disappointment and bitterness will follow, again no matter your circumstance.
The truth of God’s Word apply to normal and abnormal circumstances. The Commandments and Creed cannot be temporarily suspended by order of the governor or replaced by the largesse of the federal treasury. What we learn in “normal” times applies to difficult, extreme, uniquely challenging times. Conversely, the lessons we learn by enduring those challenging times apply even to normal times. No matter what the circumstance, knowing that God is for you leads to a sense of security and contentment, even where such feelings might seem most out of place.
Greed and complaining are always out of place, no matter how naturally they come to us. I’ve heard lots of good ideas from people about what they plan to do with the stimulus checks. Some focus on the secular purpose—stimulating the economy in the short term. Some focus on just making it through by paying their own bills. Some focus on spiritual things and charity. My goal is not to tell you what to do with it. My goal is to continue to teach by word and by example the truth of God’s Word during this shutdown. And I know that contentment is a gift God wants for you, and that you have an innate tendency to rob yourself of it with ingratitude.
Here’s an assignment. Look up the rest of verse 5 quoted above from Hebrews and keep reading the next few verses. I guarantee they apply to you whether you are sick, unemployed, overworked, irritated, lonely, or anything in between. A reminder that God is on your side does wonders for your day.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt. 6:34
April showers bring May flowers. On the other hand, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” After yesterday was such a surprise nice day to be outside, I have to admit it was a bit depressing to wake up to gray skies and rain that looks to be settling in to stay all day. It is amazing how much the weather can affect moods, especially when there is really no place to go. If we had a choice about the weather, we’d have to weigh the benefits of May flowers tomorrow against having a nice day today.
Balancing the need to live for today while planning for tomorrow has always been a mysterious task. Just because we aren’t supposed to anxious about tomorrow doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to take tomorrow into account at all. Planning for tomorrow is part of today’s to-do list. The difference is that St. James tells us all our plans should contain the tacit caveat “God willing,” since we don’t know for sure what will happen. And Jesus says not to let tomorrow gnaw at you with worries and fears, but to plan for it, wait for it, and takes whatever it brings in full confidence that somehow it will be full of God’s grace. We who sow seeds do so in view of the harvest down the road. Today we focus on today’s work of plowing and planting.
Those of us in charge of planning the near future at St. Paul’s have been frustrated by our inability to know what the laws and health recommendations will be tomorrow. Indiana’s stay at home order expires tomorrow, but there has been no indication yet as to whether it will be extended, modified, eased, or cancelled. Obviously, such a situation makes it hard to answer any questions. Our Board of Deacons has been meeting weekly to consider the situation. We’re looking at how and when to being the process of opening things back up at St. Paul’s. When we do that, we will do it with all the proper safeguards in place to ensure that we’re being good neighbors to our members and our community while putting first things first in our earthly lives.
We’re all getting antsy to ease back into normal life. For now, though, answers to specific questions will have to wait for the May flowers. I do not know, for example, whether Confirmation will be able to happen on May 31, but I do know families need more than a moment’s notice to prepare for it the way they’d like. I’m not sure yet when we will be able to have a communion service in the sanctuary. Today we will continue receive God’ gifts with thanksgiving. Those gifts include the rain that waters the earth and makes it fruitful, the time we have to work, read, and pray, the church family we have at St. Paul’s, with whom we remain one in heart even as we inhabits different homes, and especially the Word, which bids us not to worry. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Rom. 12:18
One of the silver linings to any unexpected disaster is the way it brings people together. A power outage becomes a time of laughter and deep conversation. A blizzard is when bonding happens. Even a funeral tends to heal the scars in our family relationships. And this pandemic and the national shut-down can have some of the same effect. Knowing that we’re all in it together gives it a sense of adventure. It is easier to have an encouraging word for a stranger.
On the other hand, being cooped up with the same people day after day, no outlets, no respite leads to cabin fever, especially with the unseasonably cold weather this week. When people go stir crazy, this verse from Romans becomes more important than ever. You can’t always get along with everyone, but it is important that you make self-sacrificial effort. Whatever the argument, don’t be the cause of it if you can help it.
A few days ago I was (Of all things! Who could have guess that it would come to this?) standing on an x in a maze of taped off shopping carts out in the parking lot waiting my turn to enter the grocery store. An older man came out, which meant another person in line could go in, so I stepped up to the next x six feet closer to getting inside. The man who had come out stopped to chat. So I chatted a bit. He seemed lonely. Maybe this trip to the store was the only human interaction he would be getting that day. We talked about the crazy situation, the weather, the lack of sports seasons, and other people in line seemed to be nodding along and joining in the camaraderie and togetherness. Then the man blurted out, “I blame Trump for all this,” and right away the spell was broken. People in line began to make eye contact to see who would nod along and who would argue. Some may have thought the man was crank. Others may have thought him a sage. But it was certain that the sense of togetherness dissipated.
Politics will do that, especially in an election year. I can think of almost nothing more important to fulfilling this verse in your life than that you avoid politicizing this pandemic. People are frayed and frazzled. Everyone has had it up to here with someone, but no one can agree on where to place the blame. As your pastor, I ask you not to worry about that right now. Vote in November however you please, but let the pandemic, for all the terrible things it is and does, also be something that unites. This verse is especially important when people are already looking for reasons to be cross, but also unusually open to experiencing togetherness.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Democrats and Republicans. Well-off or struggling economically. Stranger or family member. Young or old. People who are scared and people who think the whole thing is overblown. Simply being a source of peace in a time of trouble can be a huge Christian witness. Avoid the temptation to score points, put people in their place, vent frustrations on someone, or anything like that.
Your Lord has defeated death. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You have nothing to fear from anyone. You have all kinds of opportunities to live peaceably with everyone, because Christ is your peace, and He lives forever! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus Christ, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. I Cor. 11:23-24
St. Paul was not in the upper room where the Last Supper took place. He wasn’t a Christian at all until much later. Yet he still received the gift and promise of Christ Himself, from Christ Himself, with a commission to pass it on. That gift and promise is Holy Communion.
As a church named after St. Paul, it makes sense that we have been focusing lately on passing on what we received. The whole Rededicated Campaign to the next generation has been our effort to say to people forty years from now, “What we received from the Lord through St. Paul and across all these generations, we also delivered to you.” It also makes perfect sense that regular Communion is at the heart of what we’re all about. But it also makes sense that we might not always receive that gift in the normal way at the normal time. After all, St. Paul didn’t.
The times we live in—call them odd, terrible, confusing, unique, frustrating, interesting, whatever they might be in your mind—have interrupted the normal flow of things here for all of us. The Board of Deacons met last night (via Zoom) to discuss how best to proceed as a congregation in terms of offering communion during Holy Week and Easter. Pastor Stock and I have looked at what other congregations and church bodies have done, and indeed, there is a wide array of approaches out there, with many pros and cons. We looked at all of them and at the specifics of our own context.
Our goal is to keep everyone safe, keep Christ at the center of our personal and congregational life, keep our confidence in the efficacy of the Sacrament absolute, and keep everyone in the congregation connected to Christ. In order to balance all of those competing goals, we have decided to offer Services of the Word online until such time as we can come together again as a congregation for Word and Sacrament. (We will not deny the Sacrament to anyone who asks out of desperation due to a crisis or emergency situation, but that would be on a case by case basis.)
Maundy Thursday without Communion? It seems like if there was ever a time to focus on the Sacrament, it would be then. And Communion will still be the focus, but as a matter of preparation. We have been doing a Lenten series about eyes and seeing, and Maundy Thursday’s theme is More Than Meets the Eye. The eyes of the world simply see a ritual with some bread and wine. Only the eyes of faith see the truth of the matter, that in, with, and under that little ritual with bread and wine is Christ giving Himself for the life of the world and His Church being nurtured in faith.
Tomorrow’s service, therefore, will focus on the importance of those eyes of faith. We will not waste this unexpected pause in the normal flow of services. We will embrace it, using the “down time” to focus on preparation. Normally I do that on the Wednesday of Holy Week with all the confirmands and their families in preparation for their first Communion. We use Christian Questions and their Answers from Luther’s Catechism.
Tomorrow’s sermon will take the confirmands and the whole congregation through that preparation as we focus on Communion while receiving the gift of Christ another way, building up the eyes of faith. Unless you call with an emergency, the next time you take Communion will be some weeks from now; hopefully not many, but we cannot know quite yet. If we use this time wisely, then the day we do come together again for worship will combine the best aspects of two things that otherwise are nearly impossible to combine-- first and familiar. It will be much anticipated and well prepared for, like a confirmand’s first Communion.
But for most of us it will also comfort us with the familiarity that only years of faithful repetition brings. But most importantly of all, whatever it feels like, it will be Christ for you, the same Christ who is with you even now, and who invites you to pick up a cross and follow Him. That cross-bearing includes, for the time being, the cross of not receiving every blessing He has for you (at least not yet). But in spiritual yearning and with the gifts He does give us, we view the events of Holy Week, the Sacrament, St. Paul’s, your life, this day, and even the disruption of this pandemic through the eyes of faith.
Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very helpful to me in my ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpas at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. II Tim. 4:11-13
These words of St. Paul don’t seem like the sort of thing a daily devotion normally focuses on. But they’re important because they establish that the ministry of the Word has always had a very practical, business side to it as well as a very personal side, even in the writing of Scripture itself. It isn’t all just divine, spiritual truths being received by the Holy Spirit and written down for all the ages to come. It is that, of course, but it is more. There were mundane, practical problems attending to the ministry of the Word even for St. Paul himself. St. Paul’s, Munster should expect no less.
St. Paul writes these words from prison. He is dealing with isolation, trying to keep in contact with churches from a distance, and safeguarding the future of the church for after he dies, which he suspects will be soon. Poignantly, he wants Mark; earlier in his ministry (Acts 15:37-39) St. Paul didn’t want anything to do with Mark. But things change. People change. For logistical reasons, St. Paul doesn’t do all the teaching himself, but organizes the teaching at Ephesus by sending Tychicus. He is a great apostle, but has regular personal, material needs, like a cloak. He is a mouthpiece of God, but has to attend to eternal spiritual truths via perishable parchments that need looking after. The sense of scrambling to deal with his circumstances can comfort us here as we scramble to adjust everything we do. We keep the ministry of the Word foremost, but understand that such ministry has always required practical solutions to worldly problems.
Today, too, everyone at St. Paul’s is dealing with major practical disruption, but the ministry of the Word goes on. We’re addressing practical issues as best we can. Here are the very practical things you can do today that will help the ministry of the Word go forth:
May God continue to bless His Church through every worldly circumstance, opening paths for the ministry of the Word to go forth despite every obstacle.
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.
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!
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana