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.
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.
At a special service on November 23rd, 1980 our building was dedicated to God “As a place where the lambs of the flock of Christ may be fed, where little children may increase in wisdom and favor with God and man, where the young may be taught to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, where a generation may grow up fit for citizenship on earth and in heaven with Thee.”
Biblically speaking a symbolic generation is 40 years. Israel wandered 40 years so that the generation that left Egypt would not be the same generation that entered the Promised Land. So if we apply that symbolism to St. Paul’s we have to say that this building has almost served the purpose for which it was dedicated, to be a place “where a generation may grow up…”
If you were born the day this building was dedicated, then you are almost 36 years old right now, and hopefully through our ministry you have grown in favor with God and man and been made fit for citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God. And hopefully that means that you desire to pass on the Gospel to future generations just like the 36-year-olds around here back in 1980 did. We are the people to whom this building was dedicated. We are the inheritors, the receivers, the fulfillment of all the prayers and the hard work, the vision those people had in mind.
Time marches on.
Today, with those 40 years almost up, we have several options. I suppose we could shut down the
ministry of St. Paul’s altogether and say our work is done. But no Christian would seriously consider not feeding the next generation with the Gospel. We could relocate St. Paul’s somewhere else and build a new building like the people a generation ago did. That hardly seems like a desirable idea, but it is possible, I guess. We can keep milking the generosity and hard work of our forebears for as many more years as the building they built for us holds out without our doing anything and then shut everything down, but that would not only be ungrateful of us but extremely bad stewardship.
Or we can step up to the plate like they did and make a decision with a view toward 40 years from now in mind. The heating units that were brand spanking new on Nov. 23, 1980 are also almost 36 years old. Buildings, wiring, plumbing, furnaces—they all age. You have to constantly maintain them just to keep them the same as they were. The blessings of a nearly 70,000 square foot facility come with responsibilities. We need to replace the HVAC system in the school with newer, more efficient, and A/C capable units if anyone is going to be nurtured on the Gospel here 40 years from now.
And not only do buildings age, but standards change. Back in 1980 the houses around our church were all the very latest architecture. Today we are far more conscious of the needs of the elderly and most people think tri-level homes have too many stairs for some people to live in comfortably. If our subdivision were being built today the houses would look very different.
What is true of home architecture is true of institutions. Not only have we tried to reduce steps, we’ve tried to facilitate easily getting dropped off and picked up. Newer buildings, especially those that serve the elderly, tend to have a covered drop off/pick up area where people who move slowly can get from the car to the building without being out in the rain and snow.
In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we hope to begin the process of rededicating St.
Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. The Parish Planning Council has already begun looking into ways to bring this about. It will require a lot of planning, a lot of dedication of time, talents and treasure, and a vision of how we will hand off this ministry to the next generation. This rededication will hopefully address the aging of the building and the changing of the standards in our society around us, and will also take up ideas and suggestions that come from anyone in the congregation, so be sure to attend the meetings, read the newsletters, and give feedback to your deacon or to the staff as things progress.
What we want to be able to do here at St. Paul’s is join in the prayers of those who gave us this place
and at the dedication of it said, “O Lord, the God of our fathers, by whose works of love in past generations You have richly blessed us, grant that our works may prove a blessing to our children in generations still to come.”
Church attendance nationally is down, and not just by a little bit. It is as though in the last fifteen years our culture has just collectively decided that going to church on Sunday is not a "thing" anymore. And what is true for our nation is certainly true for us here at St. Paul’s. In 2001 our average weekly attendance was 822. In 2015 the average was 463. But trends are not fate.
While our societal trends are not really in our control except to the degree we participate in them, we can still focus on what we can influence, which starts with ourselves. Most of the drop in attendance here at St. Paul’s is not because people have quit church altogether but because they have stopped attending regularly. Many people who used to be here every week now come once or twice a month. People who used to come every other week now come a few times a year. We have stopped taking it for granted that our week ought to begin with first things first by attending church and starting thinking of it more like a commodity, something to do when we really feel a need for it or when it is convenient. What was formerly a "given" has turned into an option.
The New Testament tells Christians not to stop meeting together. Apparently some of the earliest
Christians had already begun skipping regular worship under the mistaken impression that “going to
church” didn’t matter for them as long as they had faith. But that misses most of the point about
attendance. The key word is “together,” which means that you not only benefit from the presence of other people as you sing, pray, and hear the Word, but your presence also benefits them.
When you decide to skip church, you aren’t only deciding for yourself that you can do without Word
and Sacrament ministry and the mutual consolation of the brethren for a week. You’re also unilaterally declaring that everyone else can do just fine without you there. And you are wrong. The indelible impression on young minds of seeing widows and newlyweds, trouble-makers and respectable folk, black and white, rich and poor, young and old all singing and praying together can never happen if most of those people don’t show up.
When you stay home because your toddler is such a hassle, you aren’t only making your morning
more manageable. You’re also declaring that the 90 year old who sometimes sits behind you shall not have your toddler to smile at and thereby have his faith in the future of God’s promises reinforced.
When you as a twenty-something stay home from church because Sunday is the day you sleep in and
you don’t feel like you get much out of church anyway because you already learned it all in Sunday
school, you’re not only getting extra sleep for yourself. You’re also depriving some other twentysomething visitor, who never did learn it all in Sunday school, and who is nervous and uncomfortable in church, of the assurance your presence might have given that this strange place is a place for them, too.
When you as a middle-aged man skip church, you’re not only (mistakenly) reasoning that you have
more important places to be, but you are robbing some fatherless teenage boy whose mom made him go to church that morning of the example your presence in worship might have given.
When you stay home because you’re too embarrassed to use the wheelchair, you are robbing your
church family of the comfort of seeing that growing old gracefully is possible, and that should the day ever come from them to be a wheelchair, their church would welcome them as it welcomes you.
No matter who you are or what your situation is, when it says in Hebrews not to stop meeting together, God isn’t just telling you that you will be blessed if you go to church. He is also telling you are a blessing to the others there whether you know it or not. Don’t selfishly rob everyone else of the blessing God wants to give them through your voice, your problems, your prayers, and your presence with them in worship.
God never runs out of fresh starts. A blanket of new-fallen snow can make a whole bleak and dirty
world look beautiful. A new calendar all clear and unsullied (back in the days before everything was online and people actually went calendar shopping in December) gives us a feeling of clean slates and new possibilities.
A simple Christmas carol reminds us that no matter bleak the midwinter, no matter how weary the world, God comes into it fresh as a newborn to bring righteousness and holiness to a fallen, sinful people.
When I talk to people at St. Paul’s I’m always struck by how much importance they attach to God’s
Word. Even people who rarely if ever come to Bible study nevertheless tend to say that Bible study is very important. And of course that makes sense. God’s Word is what draws us all together here.
Because Bible study is such an important part of the life of St. Paul’s, and because for so many people getting to Bible study is like getting in shape or saving for retirement, that is, easy to say it is important but hard to act as though it is important, we want to make it as easy as possible for all of our members to be involved, and we want to encourage all of our members to use the fresh start of the new year to take the plunge and actually do the thing they’ve been meaning to do for a long time—get involved in Bible study.
A Bible study isn’t always simply an examination of the text of the Bible, important as that is. Our
Wednesday and Thursday morning Bible studies typically just choose a book of the Bible and study it closely with lots of discussion and questions, and our Sunday lectionary study during the adult education hour does the same thing with the readings for that Sunday. But sometimes a Bible study can be topical, perhaps a series on Evangelism or Stewardship, or based on some practical, everyday concern for Christians.
Starting in January everyone at St. Paul’s will have several options for Bible study on Sunday
mornings. We will continue the lectionary study in the adult education room each week, usually led by one of the pastors but sometimes led by one of our gifted Lutheran teachers, Rick Arndt. We will also offer a six week series on Christian Parenting taught by our principal, Barb Mertens, who has certainly worked with every kind of child and parent over the years. We will also offer a video-based discussion led by our DCE Jaymes Hayes and Rick Arndt on Life Issues. The videos are published by Lutherans for Life and cover many practical topics from end of life issues to beginning of life issues to the value of all human life in between.
Later in the Spring when those series end we will have a series on Big Questions/Biblical answers on a variety of topics, and after that we will offer a series on the book of Ephesians. The whole time, of course, there will be confirmation class (open to anyone who might want a refresher) going on in the sanctuary and New Member classes going on as well. Check the bulletin for room assignments.
There will always be an excuse not to be in God’s Word. Let this be the year of no more excuses. Use
the fresh start of A.D. 2016 to deepen your understanding and faith in the everlasting newness of life Godgrants us in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana