Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail... Job 38:22
After a big snowstorm, the jokester might be tempted to answer God’s rhetorical question by saying, “Well, I hadn’t before, but I have now.” I love the idea of God having a giant warehouse somewhere filled with snow or hail, and directing the weather like the manager of a distribution center, with clouds loading and unloading like semis.
More seriously, I love the sheer beauty of snow. I think even people who hate snow have to admit it is beautiful. What’s more, it is the perfect symbol of the righteousness from God, the white blanket of Baptism coming to us and covering over all our sin. Whatever dirt and scars in the ground might lurk beneath the snow, the contours of the snow hide them with perfect purity that sparkles in the light.
Beautiful and theologically suggestive as snow is, though, when a storm starts wreaking havoc with people’s lives we have to go back to God’s answer to Job. Job doesn’t understand what has been going on his life with so much tragedy. He has been demanding that God explain Himself, and God responds by saying that Job couldn’t possibly understand what is going on. Job ought not sit in judgment over God just because “acts of God” so often seem harmful. Job lacks what it takes to even have an informed opinion about what God is doing.
Today we experience some inconveniences due to a major snowfall. Not a record. Not some unprecedented storm. But a lot of snow, to be sure. For us it means appointments rescheduled, work clearing the driveway, school online and games cancelled. That kind of thing. Unusual, but we’re used to it. My daughter Ella is up at Camp Luther and yesterday morning is was -27 air temperature before the wind chill was even factored in. Brr. So you stay inside. That’s cold even for up there, but they’re used to cold up there.
But many places in the country are experiencing life-threatening weather that they aren’t prepared for because it is so rare for them. When we see destructive weather where people are helpless against it we begin to wonder whether God knows what He is doing with His massive warehouse of snow and hail. Why is He pounding helpless people with brutal, unrelenting snow and cold?
Let today be a pause. Let it interrupt your schedule. Acknowledge that you can’t make it to this or that. Let yourself off. In a deeper sense, let yourself off of the need to understand everything. Let God be God. Admire His snow without understanding the whys and wherefores. Help someone. Let someone help you. In doing that we’ll start to see God directing more than the distribution of weather.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Gumption to do More
Whoever is slothful will not roast his game,
but the diligent man will get precious wealth. Prov. 12:27
It is sometimes true of everyone. We have what we need, but we lack the basic gumption to do any of the work to make it useful for us. It takes a certain basic diligence to make use of the good things God gives us. One potentially precious gift God is giving us is the chance to come together as a congregation and study a good book together with the help of the author. Here is the schedule for the 4 week study of Pr. John Nunes’s new book Meant for More. Each session will take place on Wednesday evening from 7-8 p.m. via Zoom. I’ll send the Zoom link out early next week.
Jan. 20 - Preface through chapter 4 (pp. VII-51)
Jan. 27 - Chapters 5-9 (pp. 53-94)
Feb. 3 - Chapters 10-14 (pp. 97-141)
Feb. 10 - Chapters 15-20 (pp. 143-190)
It is all on the schedule and worked out. If need be you can even get the book for free as long as you promise to read it with us. This great gift is there for the taking.
But moderate interest and good intentions won’t get you started reading. You do have to “roast your game” so to speak. You actually have to order the book rather than decide you’ll do that later. Or you have to call the church office or drive by to pick up a copy. You have to make sure you have access to zoom, and look for the link in next week’s updates. Those things are not really that hard, but that is precisely why they’re so easy to put and so frequently on the list of things we had good intentions about but never got around to doing. Don’t let that be you in this case. Do the basic diligence to be a part of this opportunity.
I’ve asked the whole staff and the lay leadership of the congregation to make this a priority.
Of course you can still join the zoom meeting even if you haven’t read the book. Pr. Nunes is an excellent presenter. And you can still read the book even if you can’t join the zoom meetings. Do what you can to participate; I think you’ll be amply rewarded.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Say Your Name Outloud
Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” Gen. 10:8-9
If you are ever in the upper peninsula of Michigan you can go to the town of Watersmeet and get your picture taken in front of a high school gym with the words “Home of the Nimrods” painted on the side. I’ve done it with my kids. It makes for a funny picture. No, it isn’t graffiti; that actually is their nickname. Upper Michigan, of course, is an area where hunting is major part of the culture, so it makes sense.
Our picture is ironic and funny, of course, because we know the term nimrod to mean a silly dunce or oafish buffoon. The reason the word has come to mean that is because Bugs Bunny sarcastically referred to Elmer Fudd as a “nimrod” (a mighty hunter) after making a fool of him. So in modern parlance, which takes its cues from pop culture more than Genesis, the word nimrod refers almost exclusively to being a doofus, not a mighty hunter. The new meaning still makes sense Biblically, since Nimrod is usually credited with starting the Tower of Babel, which also ended badly. So should Watersmeet change their nickname? Tough question. History and tradition on one side, the inevitable ravages of time, change, and potential misunderstanding on the other.
What about our nickname here at St. Paul’s. When we have games in the gym with fans (those were the days!) the cheerleaders always say, “Stand up! Be proud! Say your name! Out loud!” and everyone in the stands responds “WE ARE THE SPARTANS!” Of course, the Spartans were pagans and were known as the anti-intellectual enemies of the more enlightened Athenians. What’s more, they lost to their main rival. So it is a tad ironic that a Christian school playing sports against rival schools would want to be the Spartans.
But to a great degree such criticism misses the point. Spartans are a part of the history of Western Civilization and their reputation was for fearsome athletic prowess. So it is a good name for a team. We shouldn’t change it just because there are objectionable things about it.
My alma mater, Valparaiso University is considering a name change. They are the Crusaders. But many of the students nowadays come from Muslim countries, and of course the whole point of the crusades was to take back the Holy Land from Muslim conquerors. So the crusades are still a sore spot almost a thousand years later.
I think Crusaders is a perfectly good nickname and mascot. We aren’t claiming the crusaders were morally pure and spotless as a wind-driven snow (they weren’t by any telling of the story). We aren’t even claiming that they won. Like the Spartans, they put up a good fight but eventually lost.
We might think we’re being humble by eliminating the people and events in our history that were very flawed and even in some cases just plain bad. But really it is an act of arrogance. We stand in judgment over those (admittedly bad) people through whom God bequeathed to us our place in His story. We ought not put ourselves in the place of judge over the people of the distant past.
This is especially true for Christians. God only works through flawed sinners. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob weren’t such moral pillars. But they are our patriarchs in the faith. Who are we to be ashamed of them? St. Paul called himself chief of sinners, Martin Luther said some really vicious things about Jews, and church history is full of great people who weren’t so great except for how God used them. We should be very careful about disregarding the accomplishments of such people because we think ourselves morally superior to them. Whoever you are, whatever your history, you can be grateful that God condescended to work through flawed people and institutions to spread the Word and bring it even to us. To be ashamed of the name God gave you is sinful pride at work. The right kind of pride is the pride that says we are who we are because of the working of God through sinners like us in history. Stand up! Be proud! Say your name! Out loud!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Meant for More
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. Ps. 45:1
This weekend nothing seemed to go right. The bulletins were messed up because of a word processing glitch. The livestreaming was messed up due, apparently, to a wifi hiccup (though the recorded service is available on the website with just a bit missing from the beginning). School preparation was all messed up because at the last minute we had to switch to remote learning out of an abundance of caution. It was, as they say, “just one of those days,” and as easy day on which to think the world was rigged against you.
The world, however, is not rigged against us. We learn what we can from setbacks and move on. We find a pleasing theme worthy of being addressed to our Lord and King. The exciting news today is that no matter how disappointing, plain or laborious any aspect of our life together might be, we can trust that God is working through us in ways we can’t even see. If the glory of it remains hidden to us, God’s Word can open our eyes to what He is already doing through us and inspire our hearts to ever greater ways of serving Him.
That exciting news is not just a bunch of talk. It is an actual, concrete plan for St. Paul’s. Over the weekend Rev. John Nunes (president of Concordia-Bronxville, the one who was featured in the podcast about the church and racism back in May or June that so many of our members loved) agreed to lead a four week Bible study for St. Paul’s. He is a powerful speaker. He is also a writer. So he will lead our study toward a positive, uplifting sense of the future with a “tongue like the pen of a ready scribe.”
The study will cover many Bible verses, but will follow the format of his new book, Meant for More: In, With, and Under the Ordinary. Everyone in the congregation who chooses can join our staff and lay leadership though this book. The book is available from CPH or Amazon, or you can get a copy in the church office. There is a $16 suggested donation to cover the cost, but a generous donor has made sure nobody will be excluded for financial reasons.
The four week study will take place over zoom (Pr. Nunes had agreed to come lead a one day seminar in person back in the fall, but Covid had other plans) on Wednesday evenings from 7-8:00 p.m. starting January 20. The book is really a series of thematically related devotions and reflections, but they all address the very practical questions that individual Christians and congregations have in difficult times.
As your pastor I’ve tried to have the pen of a ready scribe throughout this pandemic, and it because I see such value in this opportunity that I truly hope the people of St. Paul’s will readily participate. Yes, you might not enjoy zoom, yes, reading might not be your favorite pastime, yes, the last thing we need is another appointment on the calendar, and yes, some of the content will challenge as well as inspire you. But also, yes, this study will be worth your time and energy, and yes, you’ll be better off for having participated. St. Paul’s as a congregation will be better off, too.
More details to follow, but again, please make the effort. Btw, this also means the Wednesday evening zoom Bible study on Revelation will not resume until after Easter. To those of you who can’t handle the suspense, just know it ends well.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Enriching Your Understanding
“…behold, wise men from the east came from Jerusalem,” Matt. 1:1b
Epiphany is an underappreciated holiday. Like Christmas, it falls on the same day every year regardless of the day of the week, but nobody plans their week around it. Even churches normally celebrate it on whatever Sunday comes closest. Since it is a Wednesday this year we’re focusing on Epiphany in chapel and will make the service available to the congregation to participate in remotely. Please make time to “attend” the service today or this evening.
The season of Epiphany focuses on the gradual revealing of who Jesus is. The season begins today and reaches its climax at the Transfiguration, when the disciples see Jesus in blinding glory on the mountain standing with Moses and Elijah. It then officially ends on Ash Wednesday, when the Messiah turns his face toward Jerusalem and His true mission of dying on the cross to take away the sin of the world.
The actual day of Epiphany itself focuses on the wise men. By tradition there are three of them, but the only reason people think that is because three gifts are mentioned. By tradition they are named Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar. Traditions differ as to where exactly they came from, but it is generally three different regions. Balthasar usually has dark skin and is either from Ethiopia or India, while Melchior and Caspar are generally said to be from Arabia and Persia or Persia and Babylon.
The revelation to the whole world of who Jesus is begins with the three gifts. Gold would be the gift a foreign envoy brought in tribute to a king. Frankincense would be used in worship of a god. And myrrh was a precious ointment used to anoint the dead. The baby Jesus was God and Man, king of all nations, and born in order to die.
The history of the whole Biblical account is fascinating. In late March of 2022 (almost 15 months from now) Heidi and I are going to be leading another trip to the Holy Land, and I would encourage anyone to look into. This time we’re going to begin in the country of Jordan, east of Israel, see it the way Moses saw it from afar, and enter the Holy Land the way Joshua led them in near Jericho. But in Jordan we’ll also be seeing echoes of some of the eastern culture and lands represented by the “wise men from the east.”
Whatever you can do this year—Bible studies, remote worship attendance, podcasts, travel, etc.-- to enrich your understanding of salvation history will be well worth your trouble. One blessing we have is the church year and the various seasons. But they only do their job, so to speak, when we follow the story week by week. With livestreaming available, there is no reason to miss a week of worship this year. Make it your ambition to attend every service this year.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rise and Shine!
Arise, shine, for your light has come… Is. 60:1a
Rise and shine! Have there ever been more hated words? You’re all snuggled in and comfy, ready to burrow in for another round of sleep, and then some cheery, peppy person not only wants to drag you out of your warm bed but expects you to have a sunny attitude about it. Nevertheless, we Christians, at the beginning of a new day, a new year, and semester, will arise and shine. We arise like plants in spring, not by our own power but in response to the warmth and light of the sun. We will shine like ornaments on a Christmas tree, not by our own light but by the power of the light that shines on us. It is what we are called and empowered to do by God’s Word.
This week our staff will be “planning” for the coming year. I put planning in scare quotes because in reality everything will remain very tentative. But there are some good aspects to our situation if we reflect on the light that has come. We have opportunities we did not have in the past.
This verse from Isaiah begins the OT reading on Epiphany. You might have already noticed we didn’t do Epiphany this year. It is technically January 6, but many churches celebrate it on the closest Sunday. This year, however, Epiphany is on a Wednesday, so not really very close to any Sunday. So we decided not to move it but to go with Christmas 2 yesterday and Jesus in the temple, and to the first Sunday of the Epiphany season this coming Sunday, which is the baptism of Jesus. Does that mean we are skipping Epiphany itself? By no means!
Wednesdays we have school chapel. And we can livestream and record those services. So we’re going to celebrate Epiphany on the actual day of Epiphany. We’ll use the Epiphany readings for chapel and invite the whole congregation to participate in the service on Wednesday evening. Wednesday evening zoom Bible study will not resume on Epiphany, but will resume the next week.
The power of God’s Word makes a profound difference even to sluggish, sleepy souls. The Christ whose mission was to save you isn’t content to ignore you or be ignored by you. Please utilize every opportunity that comes your way to be in the Word this week. The hated words, “Rise and shine,” become the best Good News when He opens our eyes to the glory of God in action.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Grace in the Age of Pandemics
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble… Phil. 4:14
We all have different sets of troubles. Could be doubts, fears, or anxieties. Could be health issues or infirmities from surgery or aging. Could be any number of things. But kindness calls us to bear one another’s burdens and troubles.
As one who is for the fourth time teaching a teenager to drive, I have a certain kind of first-hand experience with this. For one thing, while I do not think the danger is great (or I wouldn’t let my kid behind the wheel or get in the car myself) I have to admit that the danger to other people is greater than it otherwise would be. We are in one respect at least, an imposition to other drivers and pedestrians, and to some degree a danger. That danger can’t be avoided if we are to teach people to drive, but it is nevertheless real. I can assure you that I’m following safety procedures in teaching my children to drive, but I cannot 100% guarantee that we aren’t going to break a traffic law or cause an accident. I can only promise to try.
A learning driver also drives slowly and takes longer to find a “window” when turning into traffic. Being behind a student driver can be a test of patience. Most people are kind about it, but every now and then in my many hours riding shotgun with a new driver we’ll come across someone who clips pretty close trying to pass on the highway or who rides up on the bumper trying to get us to speed up.
So on one hand there are people with legitimate fears who are so concerned for safety that being the road with a learning driver is tough to contemplate. On the other hand, there are people whose concern isn’t for safety at all but simply to get where they are going more quickly. You deal with both extremes. And it is tough to judge—some people’s experiences give them reason to be more cautious. Some people do not feel unsafe driving over the speed limit or passing on the highway, so they do things regularly and casually that many others consider unsafe.
In church, we have to hold extremes together, and in kindness we have to share each other’s troubles. The policies we have in place for safety during the pandemic make many people feel like they’re on the road with a bunch of student drivers. For some that means feeling unsafe. For others that just means feeling annoyed. With Christmas coming up, we have to figure out how best to serve as many people as possible.
We need to recommit to the policies and procedures we have in place. People who are venturing out to church need to have the assurance, for example, that everyone will wear a mask throughout the service in the mask section, and that everyone in the other sections will wear one when moving in the aisles or narthex. Some people have told me that hasn’t always been happening. We have to recommit. By the same token, we are not in a position to offer guarantees. Neither I nor anyone else can 100% guarantee that everyone who comes to church on Christmas will have washed their hands, keep their mask on, etc. We do our best to put good policies in place and make it easy as possible for people to adhere to them.
All of us can be kind in sharing each other’s troubles. For some, the trouble will be having to stay home and participate in Christmas Eve worship remotely for the sake of safety. For some that means accommodating policies they find irksome. We can’t please everyone, but we ought to try to serve everyone as we’re able and put aside our own preferences for the sake of allowing as many people as possible to celebrate and worship this Christmas.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Maturity and Mistakes
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Phil. 3:15
Today I was confronted with several of my own mistakes. We were practicing the Advent/Christmas hymn program with the 5th-8th graders and I realized that I had never fixed the typos in the draft of the service I gave to the secretaries and that they then attached to the email yesterday (and it's in the announcement section below, with a link to watch). That means the bulletin you have for tomorrow’s online service won’t perfectly match what the kids are saying. No biggie. Please excuse the typos, but also, please print out a copy for yourself. The 8th graders will be reading a lot of explanations between the hymns. Those words are in your bulletin but we will not be putting them up on the screen in the recording so that the viewer can see the readers. That means if you do better reading than listening, you’ll be glad to have a printed copy you can read along with even if he words are a tad different in a few places due to corrections.
My second mistake was in assigning the readers. Since the service involves the band and bell choir in the balcony and the other choirs on the main floor, I was supposed to make sure I didn’t assign an 8th grader to read right before or after he or she needed to be upstairs. But of course we got our signals crossed about when they would be playing. Even though I had a bulletin in my hand and could have easily surmised when people needed to be where, I went from memory on it and got it exactly wrong. So we had to make a bunch of changes in the middle of the rehearsal. And nothing puts a nervous 8th grader more at ease than having their part changed at the last minute.
But they will be fine. We have good, confident readers and a lot of musical talent in our school. It would be great if we could pack the church to the gills doing an Advent/Christmas program. But I certainly expect that everyone who participates in the hymn-sing adaptation will be blessed by it. Just seeing young children learning and singing the ageless words gives a person hope and a sense of peace and joy about what could be a bleak future.
The decisions we make, and the mistakes we make in executing them, are not part of God’s revealed will. “Those of you who are mature,” as St. Paul calls them, know that the human side of church life is filled with people making the best decisions they can, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as the only right decision. The mature also know that church life is also filled with people acting on our plans with normal human limitations and mistakes. Not every hand bell player has great rhythm. Not every choir member has perfect pitch. Not every writer of program scripts has great typing skills (*cough*). But every Christian united by faith in Jesus Christ can receive the perfect blessings God gives through such services.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Zenas the Lawyer
Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. Titus 3:13-14
There is a Bible verse you don’t see every day. Even a pretty good Bible trivia contestant would probably not have Zenas the lawyer on the tip of his tongue in answer to a question in the bonus round. All lawyer jokes aside, the fact is that people like Zenas have always played a critical role in the functioning of the Church and its mission. Not only do congregations need lay leaders, they need the laity’s various secular skills in order to function in this world. And those skilled lay leaders need to exemplify a life of faith and service.
Who knows what important legal work Zenas the lawyer might have done for the fledging Christian Church? For all we know, the world would be a completely different place today if not for Zenas’s skill in winning some argument before the secular authorities on behalf of the persecuted Christians. Or maybe he was just a good organizer of mission trips because he understood all the practical, legal matters involved with going from place to place. Whatever it was, St. Paul urged St. Titus to make sure Zenas had everything he needed.
Here at St. Paul’s in Munster we have been blessed for many years to have someone with formidable skills in the secular arena serving the congregation. Karen Hott used to manage Carson’s department store, overseeing well over two hundred employees. To be effective at that level of management, one must have a pretty large and wide combination of skills. There are HR-considerations, finances and accounting, corporate and government legalese to be deciphered, the planning and organizing, and the interpersonal skills necessary to keep everyone on task. Like Zenas the lawyer, Karen has been using those rare secular skills and experiences in service to the people of God.
When I came here seven years ago I could tell right away as an outsider looking in that Karen was the nerve center of the organization. That’s a great blessing and in some ways a danger. In fact, in one of our first one-on-one meetings I told her that because she was so very capable, she was almost too important to the day-to-day functioning of the institution. The congregation relied on her because we knew we could. But we would be hard pressed to deal with her absence should she retire or move away. Consequently, years ago Karen and I agreed that she would work on cataloging her various roles and duties such that when the time came for her to hand off the job to someone else we would have a fighting chance to experience a smooth transition.
Well, that time has come. Much to the chagrin of the staff, Karen has decided to retire in 2021. Everyone who has benefitted from the mission and ministry of St. Paul’s owes her a debt of gratitude. Her skills and tireless efforts on behalf of this place and her interest in and dedication to the welfare of every member of this congregation has made such blessings possible.
Thankfully, we have been planning for this transition, and Karen, who knows the ins and outs of human resource transitions more than most, has generously offered to provide us with plenty of overlap. The new Business Manager will have many months of shadowing her and learning the ropes before taking over. That is a tremendous blessing to St. Paul’s and to the next Business Manager. We have every reason to believe that God will continue to equip and provide His Church with skilled servant-leaders to keep the mission and ministry of the Gospel running strong. If you or someone you know would be interested in filling the position of Business Manager of St. Paul’s, please look for the call for resumes in this week’s bulletin.
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. Prov. 10:12
Once again we find ourselves beset by ongoing, nagging issues. The election is over, but the wrangling about it lingers. The pandemic won’t go away but seems to be encroaching again. The things that separate people physically and emotionally take center stage. Ongoing, chronic issues like this put relationships to the test.
Hatred stirs up strife. Even without any reason, hateful people will look for a way to antagonize someone. They’ll pick at scabs, pour salt in wounds, delight in another’s misery, and bring up old arguments. They’d rather score points in a bitter argument than let well enough alone. You see someone with a bumper sticker for the other candidate, or not taking the same precautions you take, and it becomes an opportunity to vent.
Love works in the opposite direction. The loving person would rather forget an insult than dwell on it. As St. Paul put it in the beautiful chapter in live, I Cor. 13, love keeps no record of wrongs. There is no score to settle because nobody kept a running tally.
The real test, though, is duration. Anyone can do the right thing for a while. But everyone grows tired eventually. That’s why we constantly return to our God Who Is Love, and His grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. He covers all our offenses. He assures us we need not defend our own pride or get our own way because He has everything in hand. That frees us up not to dwell in arguments, irritations, frictions, frustrations, disappointments, and all things negative. Those things will drive you apart even from the people closest to you. On other hand, returning to Christ and leaving it in his hands will draw you closer even to those who are furthest from you, or at least remove some of the barriers between you.
So as you watch the Covid cases grow and things start to shut down all over again, and as you watch all the goings-on in Washington, don’t aim for strife. That is the Old Adam, the hater in you yearning to vent. Rather, focus on the One Whose problem it is. He will invite you to be part of the solution.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana