Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?
This summer we’ve been looking at the stars with a scope from our driveway. Amazingly, with a bird scope on a tripod one can see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. It is a strange experience, actually. Isn’t it interesting that the constellations as we know them are mentioned in the Old Testament? These words, spoken by God to Job, speak to the constancy of the stars. If you can get far enough away from the city’s ambient light, you can look up to the heavens just like Abraham did, and it looks the same. Poets and painters use the stars to represent eternity because they just aren’t subject to the winds of change that govern this world.
But it is also a rhetorical question. God is contrasting his own infinite power and knowledge as the Creator with Job’s powerlessness and ignorance. The implication is that Job can’t do anything to affect the stars, but God can whenever He wants. The stars are not eternal. Like everything else, they exist and keep their assigned places at the pleasure of their maker.
We, like the stars, are God’s creatures. But it wasn’t for the stars that God Himself became incarnate and submitted to death. It was for us. From our perspective in this life, the stars seem eternal and our own lives seem so transient. But the real truth is that the stars aren’t eternal, and your life is guaranteed forever. You will outlive the moon and the stars.
With that in mind- that your real home and citizenship is in an eternal city—the chances and changes of life in this world seem less threatening. Yes, change and decay in all around we see. That isn’t a function of our times, it is a function of time itself in a fallen world. But it is not our ultimate doom. The stars might well look at us and wonder at the fact that we will live forever, long after they are gone.
The little frustrations, the complications, the changes that keep changing, sometimes overwhelm us. But the Gospel gives us peace. Fear not! The God Who can loose the cords of Orion has promised to bring you to Himself. Nothing can change that.
Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is the sluggard to those who send him. Prov. 10:26
The colorful analogies employed by King Solomon in this Proverb make the point that sometimes the seemingly minor irritations manage to drive us to distraction. Everyone at some point has sat around a campfire trying to talk or sing or have a good time and had to give it up in frustration because the smoke wouldn’t stop blowing in their eyes. Most people have had to deal with sensitive teeth at some time or another; it takes all the joy out eating delicious food or a cool, refreshing drink. Solomon applies that irritation that can become downright maddening to the experience of waiting helplessly on someone who shows no sense of urgency or hustle but makes clear he’ll get around to it when he feels like it.
Whether we’re talking about itchy eyes, hurting teeth, or slow service, another point is that sometimes tangential issues and difficulties manage to suck the joy out of everything. That’s why so many of the other Proverbs of Solomon are about the importance of patience, of being slow to anger, and having control not only of your actions and words but of what you set the thoughts of your heart upon. Lots of things outside your control can annoy you to no end. Only you can decide whether or not to let them get the best of you.
If we had let them, several little things could have robbed us of joy this week as school began here at St. Paul’s with all kinds of new procedures. Things that we could have done on autopilot in years past we now have to carefully consider, often coming up with completely new ways of doing them that then have to be communicated to everyone. Sometimes we finally get everyone on the same page only to find that something has changed. Then we have to re-rethink (or re-re-rethink) some procedure, then communicate it again to people who think they already know it because they just went through it, even though what they just went through was the old new way of doing it, not the new new way of doing it. Just going about ours daily tasks sometimes feels like sitting on the smoky side of the campfire.
Thankfully, out staff has not allowed the mountain irritations get the best of them. Our first Wednesday chapel this morning featured many things that went smoothly that could have gone terribly, and some hiccups that will go more smoothly in the future. Still, sitting apart, singing in masks—it isn’t the same. But no matter. Nothing can rob us of the joy of God’s presence and Word, and the mission of teaching it and proclaiming regardless of the circumstances. It was a great experience to finally have chapel again and be reminded of how important that aspect St. Paul’s ministry really is.
Everyone shared the generally good, cooperative attitude. But it is a long year. I’m sure there will come times when the stack of little irritations get the best of us. Nobody is as patient and wise as Solomon reminds us we ought to be, not even our school staff, exemplary as it is. Today was a good day. What was good about it was the reminder that our gracious God will not abandon us even on our bad days, which are sure to come. Whatever the day, St. Paul’s can give thanks to God for the school staff He has provided for us.
Whether the issue is Sunday worship, the school procedures, or any aspect of the mission and ministry of St. Paul’s, don’t let the little irritations get the best of you. Focus on what is eternal, what is constant, what is certain and sure, and you’ll find yourself focusing not on irritations but on the overwhelming grace of God.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Ps. 126:1
Psalm 126 is about the return of the exiles to their home. For years and years, God’s people in captivity told themselves that some day they were going home. And what a great day that would be. They daydreamed about it, envisioned it, and built their homecoming up in their imaginations into something too glorious to describe. And when it really happened, they felt like they were dreaming. It felt as great as they’d thought it would. They felt like they must still be dreaming.
Have you ever watched people experiencing something they thought would never happen? May it is something they always thought would be too good to be true, something they talked idly about all the time only to be told, “Yeah, keep dreaming.” Then one day the dream becomes a reality. “Can you believe we’re actually doing this? This is really happening!” There is a surreal flavor to impossible goodness that somehow manages to materialize in our lives.
The really amazing thing about the Israelites returning home is that their home was in much worse shape than they’d left if generations prior. Yet it seemed too good to be true to them. Why didn’t it seem like that before they went into exile, when it was in much better shape? They didn’t walk around as though in a stupor about how great everything was before they left. But they do when they return.
Sometimes the things that are so good they seem surreal aren’t the amazing things that seem so impossible because they only happen to a few people, like being MVP of the Super Bowl and holding up the trophy, or getting elected president and sitting in the oval office for the first time. Rather, sometimes the very greatest things, the things so good we can’t even believe they are real, are the normal things that we’d thought we’d never do again. Someone recovers from an illness or some terrible accident, maybe someone who thought they might never again get out of bed or be able to walk. Then they recover against all odds, and they think, “Look at me! I’m outside! I’m going for an evening walk like it is no big deal. What a glorious thing!” They never felt that away about evening walks before, but now they seem so great as to be surreal.
Sometimes when you see the full effect of a gradual change it seems amazing. The kids return to school looking very different. If you see them every day you don’t notice. When several months of gradual growth and change confront you all at once, it startles you. “Look at how tall you got!” “Can you believe that is the same kid?”
This first day of school has always included such startling changes. And when you consider that we’re welcoming the students back after a five month absence, we’re confronted suddenly by an even greater amount of gradual change than usual. Added to it this year are all kinds of surreal images, like kids showing up in masks and getting their temperature taken before entering the building. What an odd sight. St. Paul’s students of prior generations would certainly see it as foreign to their experience.
On the other hand, the first day of school is finally here! It is a great feeling to be up and running again, and it makes us realize how much we took for granted in the past. The day will come, we pray, when everything is back to normal. But who knows? Things change. There is no permanent normal. As for today, as I listen to kids singing across the hall (though masks, standing apart, which takes a lot of effort to sound as excited as they do) I’m reminded that God is constantly restoring the fortunes of His people. His mercy never fails. No time of exile lasts forever. We can run as school as people who dream, not because everything looks so odd and different this year, but because we see in real time what we too often see only in retrospect, which is what a privilege it is to see God’s faithfulness and inexhaustible goodness in action in the lives of children through His church.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. I Tim. 3:14-15
St. Paul said Timothy had known the Scriptures from a very young age. How? Well, we know from the Bible that Timothy learned the faith from his mother and grandmother. And we also know that more advanced Scripture learning would have taken place in synagogues and congregations. That was one of the main reasons the Christians gathered—to hear the public reading of Scripture and preaching based on it.
The how of the matter can be different in different circumstances. Parents must teach their children the faith. That is a big part of their God-given duties. But whether they home-school, use a parochial school, or attempt to augment a public school education depends on their particular opportunities and gifts. The main thing is that it get done. St. Paul’s has always considered parochial schooling to be an excellent option; that’s why we’re dedicated to offering it.
This year, not just the parents but the schools themselves have had to grapple with a new “how” question. Remote or in-person learning? Various schools in our area have chosen differently on that question. One option some of them had, one that St. Paul’s did not have, was to offer both and let the parents choose. Schools with multiple teachers at each grade level could retool to have some teach in person and others teach online. We only have one teacher per grade, and the requirements of online vs. in-person learning prevent one person from doing both simultaneously, at least with the prep time, training and equipment available to us. So we had to pick one or the other, knowing that whatever option we chose, there would likely be parents who would opt to remove their children from St. Paul’s in order to pursue the other option.
We chose to offer in-person learning with strict protocols in place in keeping with all health guidelines and mandates. A huge amount of work has gone into making that decision possible, and we think it is the right decision for St. Paul’s and for the vast majority of our students. But neither choice was going to be able to serve everyone. Exercising their responsibilities as parents, several families have chosen to withdraw from St. Paul’s to pursue a manner of learning they hope will work better in their circumstances. We certainly hope they find what they are looking for and the children receive a high quality, Christian education. And we certainly will leave the door open for a potential return in case another option doesn’t work out.
The upshot of this crazy year’s forced choices is that our school enrollment looks likely to be significantly down from what we had predicted (and budgeted on) before we knew about all the disruption. The numbers and trend line merely as statistics might look pretty alarming, but in context we know and understand the situation. We also know that school enrollments often decline suddenly but generally increase gradually. So this pandemic could be reverberating in our school environment long after the virus is contained. We have a lot of work ahead of us. But it is as worth doing as always, and nobody said it would be easy. Certainly St. Paul never told Timothy it would easy.
This is a chance to remind ourselves of the importance of what we teach. We have to practice what we preach. We have to live our lessons. The sacred writings, the Scriptures, assure us that the mission of preaching and teaching Christ to the next generation will be with us as long as there is a next generation. So we need not fret, worry, second-guess, or wallow in self-pity. We simply dedicate ourselves to making Christ known however He enables us.
[Jesus said] “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” Luke 14:28-30
Planning. How on earth does one plan anything these days? Not only did nobody anticipate what this year would be like, but we’re more aware than ever that we don’t know what next year will be like. All planning is tentative. Christians have always known that. We walk into the future with faith in the One walking with us, not knowledge of what will happen.
Still, there is a common sense element to it. You have to plan. Sometimes you have to plan far in advance, trying to remain flexible to accommodate the unexpected, but not just waiting and waiting to see what happens. You have to plant if you want to reap. When Jesus warns against worrying about tomorrow, he is warning against worrying and fretting, not planning and preparing. And when He rebukes the man in the parable who built bigger barns to secure his future, He rebukes faith in the worldly and visible at the expense of spiritual, eternal things; He is not rebuking the common sense logistics involved with farming.
Sometimes we plan things at church waaayyyyy in advance. For example, people planning on getting married here need to plan it. A lot of variables might prevent it from happening as planned, but it certainly won’t happen as planned if it was never planned. Or take another example. In March of 2022 I’m hoping to take another group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Will it happen? Hopefully. But certainly not if it isn’t planned. Will the choir sing at Easter? Who knows? But not if they didn’t rehearse any songs in advance. Operating a school here at St. Paul’s requires this constant balance of planning and flexibility, too.
That’s why I like Jesus’ word “estimate.” You don’t know in advance how much the tower will end up costing. But that doesn’t mean you just start building and go until you run out of money. You estimate. You acknowledge uncertainty, but plan based on estimates. Every year we head into the first semester with a lot of estimates about how much of this or that we will need, what things will cost, how many snow days to factor in, etc. Same with planning church services.
When you estimate, you factor in two things. Jesus says you estimate the cost and compare that to how much money you have. In the case of congregations, how much money you have is also a matter of estimating. People move away. New people join. People lose their jobs or get promotions and give more. All you can do is a make an educated guess about how much money people will put in the offering plate (or donate online) to make the ministry here possible.
Of course, Covid-19 threw a massive monkey wrench into everyone’s estimates of everything. The income and expense sides of our estimates changed dramatically. But we still have to plan. We have staff, supplies, maintenance, and improvements to consider. We are laying the foundation for the school year and in a larger sense for ministry to the next generation. We have to be able to estimate what we will able to do with what we will have, always allowing that there is no certainty except in Christ’s presence with us and for us.
Right now, in-person church attendance hovers at ballpark 50% of where it normally would be. Hopefully the other half are live-streaming the services remotely. We’re working on ways to have more people attending while keeping the livestream option available. And of course we’re hoping the pandemic subsides or a vaccine comes along. But who knows?
Weekly offerings are at about 85% of where they normally would be, which is pretty good. That means people are still supporting the ministry even as they have to stay away and worship remotely. Planning for the future, though, looks very different if the estimate on the income side takes a 15% hit for any length of time. Will the offerings come back? Who knows? If it stays at 85% as the pandemic subsides, though, we’ll really have to reevaluate our plans. We have to make honest, good faith estimates based on the best information available.
Everyone understands that when unemployment skyrockets, offerings go down. And when uncertainty takes over, offerings require more faith, which really tests us. No surprises there. But everyone also wants to see St. Paul’s (admittedly tentative) plans for the year and the next generation succeed. We’d rather not plan on having 15% less going forward as a congregation; it would adversely affect our mission; we don’t much fat in the budget. But with many people struggling, it falls on those who aren’t struggling financially to go above and beyond when it comes to giving to make up the difference. Please consider doing what you can to start inching that 85% back toward 100% by the end of the year, so that our planning and estimating here at St. Paul’s can build on the ministry we all have here.
God will continue to work in us and through us, come what may. We don’t have to guess or estimate about God’s grace. It is boundless. The practical, common sense logistics of farming in the fields of the Lord is what this is all about, and we’d all love to build on the tremendous blessing that St. Paul’s has been for countless people throughout the years.
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”--
my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.
The beginning of every school year brings with is the standard warnings about the power of peer pressure. Sometimes we get swept up in something or carried away by the encouragement of others. When you do something you wouldn’t normally do because seeing enough other people doing it helps you overcome your inhibitions and fears, you are likely falling prey to what Solomon calls “the enticement of sinners.”
One grownup manifestation of the power of peer pressure (not the only one, but an obvious one) is the mob. People in mobs do things that they would never do all alone. And they rarely do anything wise. We all know this, yet we still find the encouragement of peer pressure to be almost overwhelmingly enticing. That’s because we crave approval and fear rejection. Standing up to peer pressure on the playground or to a mob on the street is a socially, emotionally, psychologically, and in some cases physically dangerous thing to do. Yet the ability to resist such enticements is right there in the first chapter of Proverbs as a prerequisite for growing in wisdom.
Last night a mob looted stores on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere in downtown Chicago, and exchanged gunfire with police. What a tragedy! The whole idea of that happening seems like something from a novel or movie. But it illustrates Solomon’s words in action. “Come…we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse.”
Wisdom always looks to God rather than leaning on its own understanding. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. One of the great benefits of being part of a congregation is that there, and only there, the power of the group works with wisdom rather than like a mob against wisdom. We are all somewhat weak in isolation. But the temptation to find safety in numbers often brings out the worst in us. However, at church we seek to bring out the best in each other by mutually focusing on Christ and His gifts.
In this time of ongoing difficulty getting together and sadly being socially distanced even while worshipping together, with no end in sight yet, we need to be reminded again and again that Christianity is not an individualistic religion and that our corporate membership in the Body of Christ and in a local congregation sustains us even when we are apart. We need the power of togetherness to combat the enticement of false group mentalities that appeal to the worst in us. We will continue to gather around the gifts of Word and Sacrament, remotely or in person, and trust in His providence to make sure we make it through anything that comes our way.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Rom. 10:14-15
These famous words from St. Paul describe the chain by which grace from God gets to the individual Christian. That chain includes faith, the Word, preaching, and the congregation and wider Christian community. How will someone in the future be a faithful Christian? Because God will reach them through congregations that gather around preaching and teaching of the Word and send people around the world and across the generations to perpetuate it.
For a couple of years here at St. Paul’s we have been focused on the next generation. Will today’s little children grow up to learn the faith and pass it along? Forty years from now, will today’s six year olds be bringing their own children to church, teaching them the faith at home, and also educating them in the Word in a Christian school? Who can say?
But we can apply the same kind of chain reasoning to that question. Today’s six year olds will not mature in the Word if they cannot read. And they won’t learn to read without teachers and books. And there won’t be any Christian teachers or classrooms if the Christian community doesn’t raise them up and equip them. We can’t guarantee that anyone will believe the Word they are taught, but we can guarantee that they won’t believe it if they aren’t taught it.
Today we’re getting ready for another school year that starts on August 18. Covid, of course, has forced our faculty and staff to make major changes to our schedule and procedures, but through the faithful work of many people, most notably our principal Barb Mertens, who has followed all the guidelines and mandates closely and found ways to allow for safe, in-person school. We’re also dealing with some other changes. Our resource teacher, Mary Beth Hutcheson, and our 1stgrade teacher, Cathi Hansen, have retired. We’ll be recognizing and giving thanks for their many years of faithful service in church on August 16 when we rededicate the teachers for another school year.
Due to all the craziness this summer, at school and in people’s personal lives, we had less time than we normally have to plan the transition to new teachers. Thankfully, we have trained, experienced people in the St. Paul’s community who were ready, willing, and able to step in. Lisa Smith will be our resource teacher, and Zina Bachert will be our 1st grade teacher, and everyone is pulling together to make it a great year.
One of the last pieces of the puzzle is equipping the 1st grade classroom. We need the books and décor to make it a great learning environment. Yes, we have desks and chairs and text books. But we need the whole panoply of young reader books that learners need in order to excel. How can they read if they have not learned? How can they learn if they have no books? God has given us the teachers, the classroom, and the students. Let’s do all we can to make that gift likely to blossom forty years from now into yet another generation of faithful Christians.
If you are in a position to donate first grade level books in good condition or donate toward the purchase of books, posters, and classroom materials, please do so. Just mark the checks as for that purpose or give Amazon gift cards (even electronically), or bring the physical books to office. We can sort through and take it from there. I know I can count on the St. Paul’s community to be a strong link in the chain from God’s grace to individuals in the next generation of the Christian Church.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana