…He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…
Today is Ascension Day, which used to be one of the big festivals of the church calendar. Ascension commemorates what amounts to a celestial coronation. Some scenes in Revelation depict this triumph from the perspective of heaven, while the picture of it from an earthly perspective is what ties together the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (also by Luke).
It always falls on a Thursday, though, since the Ascension happened forty days after Easter, so as church participation has waned in recent years, fewer and fewer and people ever participate in Ascension services. Our tradition here at St. Paul’s has been to celebrate Ascension with our whole circuit of sister congregations. For those who don’t know, our national church body is divided into districts (mostly named after the states, so we’re in the Indiana District) and subdivided into circuits. We’re in Circuit 1, which is the Western half of Lake County. Anyway, we take turns each hosting the service, all the pastors are invited to participate, there is one big, joint choir, and everyone is invited. The service normally ends up outside, weather permitting, then there is some kind of social event afterwards involving desert.
Our Ascension tradition was always a good way for those who participated to get a sense of the wider church. Trinity and Concordia in Hammond, Redeemer in Highland, Grace in Dyer, and Peace in Schererville, have often participated. This year, Pastor Gumz of Trinity in Hammond (whose kids come to St. Paul’s school) volunteered to continue the circuit tradition by putting together an Ascension service and filming it in various circuit churches, then splicing it into one service.
Please be sure to watch (and by watch I don’t mean like a tv show, but in a participatory way) the Ascension service. And don’t let the technology of it be the focus. Yes, it is a neat service, but the point of it is not to be a gimmick. The point of it is to attend (such as we’re able) a heavenly celebration of the victory and eternal reign of Jesus Christ.
Blessed Ascension Day to all!
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Ps. 122:1
Yesterday’s worship service brought with it a flood of unfamiliar feelings. For some, it might have been finally feeling the gladness the Psalm talks about after years of taking it for granted or not really appreciating it in church. For others, it might have been the sinking feeling of walking into the sanctuary and seeing roped off pews and all the social distancing measures in place. For others watching online, it might have been a keen yearning for the day when they, too, can attend church in the sanctuary safely, or in some cases resentment that for some people that day has arrived sooner than for most. Whatever the emotions, though, the promise remains the same. The service of the Word as livestreamed and the Word and Sacrament in person point us to our Risen Lord and, in different ways, give Him to us by faith.
The total attendance yesterday was 46. As expected and encouraged, the vast majority of the congregation remained unable to worship in person due to health concerns. That will likely remain the case for quite some time. Attendance will return slowly. Nobody should rush back or feel pressured to attend until it is safe for them. Nor should those who do return be condemned for doing something unsafe; we strictly followed every health guideline.
As we gradually move back into a regular worship schedule we will continue to livestream the services. Our congregation has done a commendable job of keeping in contact with one another and remaining united as a church family in this crisis. While such unity and harmony could be threatened if we focus on the distinction between those who are able to start returning to worship sooner and those who cannot yet even consider coming back, I don’t expect St. Paul’s to have much of a problem. I’ve been impressed at how people have rallied, and the gradual transition out of crisis mode in the coming months need not affect that. Rather, what we should look at is how both groups of people—those who can attend in person and those who cannot-- are able to illustrate a truth about worship in this world, which is that it is always only a foretaste of the feast to come.
Yesterday in the children’s message Jaymes Hayes talked about how Jesus went to prepare a place for us in God’s house. When we come to church, we’re coming to God’s house only in a prefigured way. We gather in God’s house here in this world to receive the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in God’s house in the world to come. People who yearn to be in church, in God’s house, every Sunday and who feel the separation most keenly are experiencing something that is true of the whole Christian life, which is that we yearn for the feast in God’s house that we have been promised. And people who can be in church on Sunday experience the foretaste of the feast to come, but they, too, sense the separation from their church family and the absence of so many of the brothers and sisters in Christ, and yearn for when we can all be together.
We all look forward to the day when we can be back in church together. But being back in church together is itself an exercise in looking forward to the Last Day, when we all, without hesitation or concern, without sin or regret, can be glad as we are ushered into the eternal house of the Lord. That day is coming for all of us. The promises in the Word and Sacraments are for all of us. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. I Cor. 9:13-14
When all this craziness began, I had secretly hoped that I would write up exactly 40 daily email updates before things went back to normal. That would have been a neat, meaningful, Biblical season. But alas, this is update number 41. It has all lasted longer than anticipated. I sometimes feel like the temporary changes we’ve made are just my new way of making a living for the foreseeable future.
Making a living. That’s a topic that has been on many people’s minds these past couple of months. With unemployment skyrocketing from record lows to extreme highs in a matter of a few weeks, even those who have kept their jobs have reasons to wonder how long it will last. The government has stepped in with various emergency measures to help people through, but uncertainty about the future certainly dominates any discussion of jobs and employment.
It can be difficult for church members to ask for help, but St. Paul’s does indeed offer confidential help to those in need. We have generous members who have been materially blessed who are more than willing to help others with groceries, for example. We just need to know where the needs are in order to be good stewards. Good stewardship and Scriptural practice informs all our dealings with those in need and with our employers and employees.
Did you know that St. Paul’s has 43 employees, about half of them full time? When you operate a substantial church and full preschool and K-8 school as well as after care, in a nearly 70,000 square foot facility on nearly 16 acres of land, well, that’s a pretty major undertaking. All of those people have a central or assisting role in what St. Paul compares to those “employed at the temple” in the Old Testament and those who “proclaim the Gospel” in the New Testament Church. They all, in whole or in part, make their living serving the Lord by serving His Church directly.
Everything St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School does revolves around preaching and teaching the Gospel. That is true for the one doing the actual preaching in the service, the one making sure the building is up to code, the one teaching a particular grade, the one answering the phones and running the office. Everyone doing anything here, be it full time, part time, or (for those in a position to do so) on a volunteer basis participates in the overall functioning our Gospel mission on behalf of all the members.
As your pastor I have felt very blessed not to be in fear of losing my livelihood during this strange time of not having normal church services. I think I speak for all of employees here in thanking the people of St. Paul’s for their dedication to the mission and to us. We have continued to function as a church and school, albeit in modified format, and have managed to pay our employees. The St. Paul’s membership has shown remarkable stewardship via online giving and dropping off or mailing in offerings. Overall, the offerings coming in have been down slightly, but not nearly as much as might have been the case given the lack of in person services and the sudden downturn in the economy. Again, thank you.
As responsible stewards, we did apply for and receive approval for the government loans designed to keep people employed in a time of potentially interrupted cash flow. We will know later whether/how much we’ll be repaying on those loans, but amid all the uncertainty, it made sense to cover all our bases and make sure that St. Paul’s did all we could to keep those who serve the mission here employed.
Our future, of course, is in the hands of our gracious God, and He does not generally share His plans in advance. Rather, He calls upon us to trust Him in any and every circumstance. We show that trust with our stewardship of all He has given us, including our bodies and health, our church family, our government and community, and the whole Gospel mission of St. Paul’s and everyone working in it. Thank you again for your faithful stewardship and for valuing everyone who works or volunteers here as part of God’s work in your life. May that mission continue to build you up in faith and service to our Lord wherever and however He has called you to serve.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” Acts. 2:1
Wouldn’t that be nice? They were all together in one place. Of course, it couldn’t last. The church grew very rapidly beginning that very day of Pentecost, such that it soon became impossible for the Christians to gather together one place. The Christian Church’s ability to gather together in one place lasted less than one day. Not even an individual congregation like St. Paul’s can ever get everyone all together in one place at one time; we have different service times.
But there are different kinds of togetherness. Doing the same thing as other people is a form of togetherness with them even if we do them at different times and places. In more typical circumstances, we have multiple service times but not different services; whether people come to early or late service, they are “together” in what they did. When we use our hymnal liturgies in worship, we express a kind of togetherness with other congregations and with Christians in the Church Triumphant.
Any time everyone experiences the same thing, it brings a sense of togetherness, as in, “We’re all in this together,” even though we’re not all together in the same place. This pandemic has scattered us into our own homes, but in every respect except physical proximity it has brought the congregation together. People have been patient, helpful, appreciative of one another, caring, and in some ways really experienced the meaning of “church family” when they couldn’t be together with their church family.
Now things are beginning to open back up. The stay-at-home order we’ve endured and about which we have been “all in this together” begins a gradual process of loosening up for us this week. But before sharing the details that the pastors and Board of Deacons have planned out, I want to share a potential concern and ask for your help in nipping it in the bud. My concern is this: there is a chance that as we begin to gather together again, we’ll lose that sense of “we’re all in this together” that has been so beneficial. As we open the church back up (gradually), those who can come back to church sooner must remain “all in this together” with those vulnerable people who may not be able to safely come to church for many, many months. And those who continue to watch the services from afar must remain together with those who are attending worship in person and not resent the fact that some, but not all, will be able to partake of things that we’d all love to partake of.
When we’re all together in one place, togetherness is easy to feel. When we’re all enduring the same thing at the same time from separate places, togetherness is also easy to feel. As we make it possible for some but not all to come together, the truth of what brings us together—Christ—will remain the same for all of us, but the feeling of it might dissipate. We all need to go out of our way to focus on the unity we have in Christ and as members of the St. Paul’s family as move into the next phase of reopening.
This Sunday, May 10th, we will continue to do one, live-streamed service at 8:00 a.m. as we have the past several weeks. The difference will be that the church will be open for those who wish to attend in person. All social distancing guidelines will remain in place. We especially encourage anyone who has a particular vulnerability, or who lives with vulnerable people, to continue participating via livestream from home. Indiana’s guidelines strongly recommend that those 65 and over and anyone with any underlying health issues should participate in church remotely via livestream rather than in person during this phase. Everyone is free to make up their own minds about whether to attend, but we certainly encourage everyone to have patience and follow the published guidelines. We are not expecting a large crowd. Depending on how things go this week, we hope to go back to offering three services on May 17th with a very gradual increase in in-person attendance.
Please do not come until you are perfectly comfortable doing so and are willing to cheerfully follow all of the stringent protocols we will have in place for everyone’s safety. That means you’ll have to sit in a designated place, possibly not of your own choosing, wait for the ushers to release you afterward, and go straight back outside without any of the normal greeting and chatting with friends.
The service this Sunday will include communion (again, following all distancing guidelines, which will be explained at the service) for those attending in person, but the livestream will conclude with the Service of the Word as usual. We continue to offer communion by appointment to those who feel a desperate need. We will never deny communion to anyone who requests it. But we hope most people can wait until the gradual reopening makes it possible for them to attend worship or to receive one of the pastors into their home for in-home communion.
We remain all in this together. We remain united by Christ and united as congregational church family. The gradual transition means some people will be further down the road to the new normal than others. It is important that such people not forget about the unity they have with one another and, most importantly, with our mutual Lord Jesus Christ.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
“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.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. Phil. 1:7
Sometimes we merely skim or even skip over the little introductory parts of Paul’s letters, which can feel a bit like chit-chat, in order to get to the real spiritual meat of what he has to say. But those opening sections contain excellent examples of practical Christian living and encouragement for Christians, too. In this case, we see how a congregation can hold each other in each other’s hearts even when for a time they cannot come together as they would like.
Despite being apart, they remain “mutual partaker of grace.” They share with each other the faith and life God has granted to each one of them. St. Paul identifies a worldly side and a spiritual side to this grace they share. The worldly side of it is St. Paul’s imprisonment, which brings real hardship, deprivation, and, if people let it, shame. The spiritual side is the defense and confirmation of the Gospel, the mission of the Church that goes on no matter what happens.
When this lockdown is long past and people get together maybe year from now, or ten years from now, everyone will have a different remembrance. It might not be an imprisonment strictly speaking, but it is certainly a time of separation and isolation. For some among us, this lockdown has not changed things that much; it has perhaps shifted shopping patterns or affected meals, but for the most part it has been merely an annoyance. For others, it has been absolutely life-changing—jobs lost, major events cancelled, careers redirected, etc. For others it has been terrifying, and will primarily be remembered in terms of hospital rooms and machines and masks. For some, it has been pure grief. For others, perhaps, though they might feel a bit guilty admitting it, this time has been a pleasant respite from the rat-race, a time of togetherness and adventure. We all have a different CoVid-19 story to tell. But when we hold each other in our heart, the personal stories of everyone at St. Paul’s became part of our story. We pray for one another, call one another, help one another, and laugh and cry with one another. We remain family despite being apart.
On the spiritual side, we all share a mission at St. Paul’s, and that mission hasn’t changed. We do the same things in different circumstances, but we don’t do any of them alone. We’re all still committed to shining the light of the Gospel wherever we go, with the oil in our lamps that God gives us through His Word and Sacraments at St. Paul’s. And when this all ends and things open up, we’ll still be committed to that same mission when the circumstances change again, whether things back to the way things were before in your story or whether they move on to something very different as a result of all this.
St. Paul’s imprisonment became part of the whole story of the Christian Church. None of us can expect our own time of “imprisonment” to change the world. But it can change someone’s world. When you hold God’s people in your heart even as you live your own unique story, God works through you in ways you don’t even know. This time is not wasted. God is at work. Hold us in your heart as you shine the light of God’s love in whatever “prison” (hopefully your house is nicer than a prison!) you are living today.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In Him, Pastor Speckhard
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.
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
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana