“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.” Ps. 139:1
Yesterday morning we were talking in the office about how the sudden surge in online services for schools, churches, businesses, meetings, and taxes (and stimulus checks) has also caused an explosion of online identity theft. Unscrupulous opportunists prey on people who need to have their personal information online. Sure enough, yesterday afternoon I heard that many people got an email seemingly from me asking for an urgent favor. It wasn’t from me, though. It was spam from an identity thief. I hope it did no harm, but my apologies (along with my thanks for your concern) to those who opened it.
The idea of someone else stealing our identity can infuriate us. It declares the real you to be nobody, while a thief, a fake you, calmly and in broad daylight takes away whatever goods and good will you might have earned. Trying to prove who you are to someone who doesn’t know you can be almost impossible.
In one of the most under-appreciated episodes in the Bible, a woman whose baby has died tries to steal the identity, in a way, of another young mother by claiming the other woman’s child as her own. Thus, two women come before King Solomon claiming to be the mother of the baby. Without any DNA tests or fingerprinting or anything, what would you do if someone simply claimed to be you? How was Solomon supposed to know who was who or what to do about the baby? Surprisingly, he ordered the baby cut in half so each woman could have a share. One woman said fine. The other offered to give up her share to save the baby’s life. Then Solomon ordered the live baby given to the second woman. Her self-sacrificial love proved her identity as the real mother. What wonderful wisdom! But imagine if instead of some secret list of usernames and passwords, your only way to prove who you were was to show self-sacrificial love.
The amazing thing about all of salvation history is how much of it, in story after story, is based on mistaken identity, fake identity, hidden identity, and even stolen identity. How did Israel inherit the covenant in the first place? Israel (at the time called Jacob) fooled his father Isaac into thinking he was his brother Esau. With his wily mother’s help, he used hairy goat skin and tasty meat from the kitchen like a stolen password.
In the New Covenant, we trust utterly that God never forgets who we are. We have not earned our place in His family at His table. For Christ’s sake God has issued us an identity as His children. We might forget who we are, but He never will. Never. We don’t have to prove who we are to God anymore. He is the only one who knows.
One of my biggest concerns during this lockdown, apart from the obvious health threat to those who have contracted or been exposed to CoVid-19, has been the intense isolation for people who already may be living in a borderland of confusion due to memory loss. In even on a good day you have a hard time remembering who you are, who loves you, and how you relate to the world around you, and then suddenly (and inexplicably if you can’t remember it) you find yourself alone all day every day, it would be hard not to feel like nobody at all. We might lose our sense of identity, but God never will.
When we place our trust in the promises God makes to us, we put the burden on Him to remember who we are. We can’t guarantee we’ll remember. Even as Christians we can’t reliably produce credentials of our own self-sacrificial love. But we have the credentials of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us. The identity the world gives you, comprised of taxpayer ID #’s, SSN#’s, DL #’s, Passport #’s, etc., is part of your treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal. The identity God gives you in Christ is treasure in heaven and can never be ruined, lost, or stolen. God has searched you and known you. You never have to prove it to Him. He will always know you as His beloved child.
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