Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matt. 7:24
You probably noticed that Pastor Stock was doing the church service by himself this past weekend. I was up in Northern Wisconsin for our annual “work weekend” at my uncle’s island, now inherited by my cousins. It is an old fisherman’s retreat (really old—the one log cabin dates to the late 19th Century) with a lodge and cabins on it. We take a family vacation there every year in July, but it takes a tremendous amount of upkeep to make those vacations possible. Maintaining buildings in the harsh weather of the North Woods, and doing so without any road access makes for a constant challenge. Therefore, many years ago we added the mid-June, pre-vacation season work weekend to keep the island available for all the people whose memories and traditions depend on being able to visit each year.
The buildings are beautiful, and two of them in particular, the rec house (dock house) and the boat house have become iconic landmarks of the scenery for people out on the big lake. The problem is that they are in a literal sense partially built on sand. The islands and shorelines up there are mostly made out of Great Lakes fieldstones, some clay, and sand with a stringy web of stubborn tree roots holding it all together. The lake level goes up and down, the piling posts rot, the ice pushes against the shore and into every crevice, the tree roots force their way in every direction, rocks shift, and the old buildings settle in ever more catawampus positions, with window and doorframes groaning futilely to keep their corners square. Our strategies for keeping walls up up involve an endless array of jacks, cinderblocks, fieldstones, lumber shims, and hope.
The yearly effort is a great object lesson about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount because we actually get to observe the futility of building on sand. But we love those buildings. We try to keep them up, but we know we are working against time and the elements, which are both relentless adversaries. In a deeper sense we also see how so often some of the major building blocks of our own lives lack solid foundations. What we think we know—about ourselves, our past, our relationships, our future—can turn out to be tentative at best when our hopes are in this world. It is okay to love the things of this world as long as we’re willing to let go of them. Your body, your loved ones, your house—they can all be a labor of love as long as you remember that love is about letting go, too. None of them can bear up under being the foundation of your life.
The only Rock that never shifts is Christ. God’s love for us in Him, the forgiveness we have, the place in His family, the assurance of His presence, are all things no health situation, job situation, or relationship situation can take away. At St. Paul’s we build everything we are and do as the family of God in this place on that solid rock. For that reason, we never fear the vagaries of time and the changeable cultural moods that beat against our faith in Christ. We know nothing can do anything to Him, and He is faithful.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; Acts 20:29
Seems like a strange verse for a daily update or devotion. It comes as St. Paul is getting ready to leave after spending a long time teaching the faith to a group of people. The parting of ways is an emotional one for Paul because he knows he won’t see them again and desperately wants them to remain strong in the Gospel after he is no longer there to help them. And he knows it won’t be easy for them. The thought of what false teaching will try to do to them makes him want to go over everything again one last time. But eventually you have to let go.
I think in some ways on a smaller scale we experience that emotional parting every year at graduation. Young men and women to whom we’ve taught the Gospel for years depart into the next stage of life. Granted, we aren’t physically parted from them and we hope to continue in ministry together, so that isn’t the same as in Acts. But we have to acknowledge losing hold of them in a way and letting go the way St. Paul had to let go. We know what we’ve taught them and how important it is. But we also know from our own personal experience and from many years of watching our graduates head through high school and beyond that the fierce wolves of life and the falseness of the Zeitgeist are not likely to spare them.
I once adapted the lyrics of the table blessing song from Fiddler on the Roof for Christian use, and I always think of that song at confirmations and graduations. “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame…” At our graduation service the fierce wolves were on my mind, and how desperately I wanted these kids to stand firm in the Gospel. Our principal Barb Mertens even started crying (or at least got something in her eye and needed to clear her throat) in speaking about the class, and I suspect that emotion only increases year by year through any person’s ministry.
But at the end of the day, you have to let go. They aren’t babies or kids anymore, and yes, it is a spiritually dangerous world. We can’t put our confidence in how well we’ve taught them or how well they’ve learned it. We have to model the faith for them by letting go with confidence that God never forgets His promises and that His plans for us are always good. The wolves and this world’s prince may still scowl fierce as they will; they can harm them none…one little word can fell them.
We pray that our graduates and their parents do not suddenly become strangers to St. Paul’s but continue to be nurtured and fed as part of our Christ-centered community. And we wait upon the Lord who answers prayer.
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain… Heb. 6:19
Today is the last day of the school year. We used Heb. 6:19 as a theme verse talking about how our souls are anchored in the Lord. Certainly we have all needed this anchor for our souls in turbulent times. Life teaches us this lesson again and again; there are no fixed certainties, there is no place of refuge, nothing can hold fast in the storms of life except the grace of God won for us by Jesus Christ.
Nobody in the first semester of school could have foreseen how the second semester would go. The whole school year was suddenly disrupted. But in terms of Christ being an anchor for our souls, nothing changed. Sports seasons were cancelled, restaurants closed. But our relationship to God in Christ and His eternal mercy and grace toward us held fast. The terrible events of the last week in Minnesota, in which police inexcusably killed a man in custody and local residents inexplicably burned down an auto parts store in protest seem merely to add to the general idea of things going wrong and nothing being safe. But even that whole terrible situation is something Christ knew about when He agreed to take it all to the cross.
If you anchor your soul and try to find lasting peace in anyone or anything apart from Christ, including yourself, it disappoints you. You end up adrift. But when you are safely anchored in the storm, you need not fear. 2020 has thrown everyone for a loop, and many things may never be the same. The world is changing quickly and in some cases furiously. Anyone whose peace depends on politics, business, money, entertainment, comfort, health, safety, familiarity, or any worldly thing has reason to fear. But Christians do not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
So it will be interesting to see the St. Paul’s students move on to another grade or off to high school. This will always be a memorable year for them and for all of us. Long after I’m gone, they’ll probably be telling their grandchildren about the pandemic year when they were in grade school at St. Paul’s. (And who know how laughably old-fashioned our technology will seem to those grandchildren!) And in the near term, they’ll hopefully come back to school in the fall not too far behind where they need to be to keep learning. But no matter what happens, I hope for all our students, as I’m sure do you, that the truly eternal things, the central reason for St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School, will be the thing that stays with them no matter where life takes them or what future years may bring.
We can give no guarantees to these young people about their future in terms of health, jobs, college, marriage, or anything. But we can give them the sure and solid anchor for their souls, the Lord who promises to weather every storm with them and see them safely home.
…He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…
Today is Ascension Day, which used to be one of the big festivals of the church calendar. Ascension commemorates what amounts to a celestial coronation. Some scenes in Revelation depict this triumph from the perspective of heaven, while the picture of it from an earthly perspective is what ties together the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (also by Luke).
It always falls on a Thursday, though, since the Ascension happened forty days after Easter, so as church participation has waned in recent years, fewer and fewer and people ever participate in Ascension services. Our tradition here at St. Paul’s has been to celebrate Ascension with our whole circuit of sister congregations. For those who don’t know, our national church body is divided into districts (mostly named after the states, so we’re in the Indiana District) and subdivided into circuits. We’re in Circuit 1, which is the Western half of Lake County. Anyway, we take turns each hosting the service, all the pastors are invited to participate, there is one big, joint choir, and everyone is invited. The service normally ends up outside, weather permitting, then there is some kind of social event afterwards involving desert.
Our Ascension tradition was always a good way for those who participated to get a sense of the wider church. Trinity and Concordia in Hammond, Redeemer in Highland, Grace in Dyer, and Peace in Schererville, have often participated. This year, Pastor Gumz of Trinity in Hammond (whose kids come to St. Paul’s school) volunteered to continue the circuit tradition by putting together an Ascension service and filming it in various circuit churches, then splicing it into one service.
Please be sure to watch (and by watch I don’t mean like a tv show, but in a participatory way) the Ascension service. And don’t let the technology of it be the focus. Yes, it is a neat service, but the point of it is not to be a gimmick. The point of it is to attend (such as we’re able) a heavenly celebration of the victory and eternal reign of Jesus Christ.
Blessed Ascension Day to all!
“This is most certainly true.” Luther’s Small Catechism
What is most certainly true? Death and taxes? True love? That you can’t go home again? That you can do whatever you set your mind to? That you’re another day older and deeper in debt? What you think is most certainly true indicates pretty well who or what your real God is, because your real God is what you rely on when you don’t know what to rely on and everything seems unreliable.
A.D. 2020 has thrown a lot of things into turmoil. Things we took for granted as though it went without saying that they were most certainly true have proven unreliable. For many people, the bedrock of life, the most certain of certain truths, has suddenly started to wobble. For others, life has gone on pretty much as normal. But even those whose lives haven’t changed much have had to reassess what things can be taken for granted. Jobs, school, hobbies, plans, weekly routines—none of them are guarantees. None of them will be there no matter what.
“True” means faithful and constant. A true statement is faithful to reality. A true love is faithful to the lover. A true friend is constant-- a friend not just in good times but in bad times, too. Even fiction can “ring true” or not in terms of the deeper realities it tries to express. The catechism reserves the famous phrase “This is most certainly true” for the triune God. Each of the explanations of the three articles, which correspond to the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—concludes with “This is most certainly true.”
The confirmands have to memorize the longer paragraphs, and they always struggle to recite them together, but when it comes to that last line, they always say, loud and in unison, THIS IS MOST CERTAINLY TRUE!” As their instructor, I always find it a bit frustrating, were it not so humorous, that they express such confidence in the truth of the statement that they were so uncertain and hesitant about mumbling their way through. But even that function of memory illustrates something true. It isn’t just that the content of the memorized paragraph that is true. It is true, of course, and it matters, which why we want the confirmands to know it. But in another way, the God being talked about is true. The triune God is true to His promises, true to His people. We cannot say of ourselves that we are certainly true to Him all the time. We mumble our way through, rely on things that prove unreliable, taking for granted things that disappear suddenly, and just generally not being worthy of the God we have. But He remains certainly true. The confirmation class struggling to recite the memory work but then closing with a resounding “This is most certainly true,” illustrates something profound about the grace of a God who remains eternally true to a people who can never deserve it.
God is true to you. We had just over 100 people in church in the three services combined, and a few hundred more participated via live-stream. His Word went out to all kinds of settings—old and young, rich and poor, healthy and sick, content and desperate—yet none of them deserved the promise they received. But it was true for all them. Anyone who hears and believes the Gospel can join with our 8th graders as they prepare for confirmation at the end of the month by reviewing the catechism memory work, and if nothing else, proclaiming that our God is most certainly true.
“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—“ Col. 4:3
Our Thursday Bible study meeting via Zoom has been going through the book of Hebrews. This morning the topic included the natural inclination we all have to drift away from the Church and from faith, and how we all need the mutual consolation and exhortation of the family of God. We concluded by talking about opportunities for evangelism to a society that has been drifting away for some time. St. Paul’s words from Colossians strike an interesting note. Our namesake prays for an open door for the Word, for the proclamation of the mystery of Christ.
Now, if I were prison, I think I would pray for an open door for me. The whole point of a prison is that the doors are closed to the prisoner inside. But St. Paul in prison urges everyone to pray for open doors for the Word of God to get into people’s hearts. His own imprisonment isn’t the issue. It is his inability to preach and teach in prison that concerns him, though he hopes that even in prison he will find opportunity. We learn elsewhere in his letters that his imprisonment provided an opportunity to share Christ with the guards, just like his shipwreck in Acts provided an opportunity to introduce sailors and merchants to his God and Savior.
We aren’t in prison, but it can feel like it during this pandemic. We certainly are not able to preach and teach the way we had been before. We need everyone praying for God to open doors for the Word.
One answer to such a prayer came in the mail this morning. I think you’ll find it encouraging, and evidence that what we think of as setback and problems, like Paul’s imprisonment, do not obstruct God’s plan. We got a very nice letter and contribution from someone who is not a member of St. Paul’s and whose church has not been able to offer services. This person has been participating with us via our livestream every week and wrote to express appreciation for all our church has been doing to proclaim the Word and make it available to families like theirs during the pandemic. Of course, before the pandemic we weren’t livestreaming the services at all. That was something we did because we couldn’t meet in person. But God had other ideas. The pandemic rendered us a church building with closed doors, but through it, God opened other doors. You get the impression that God isn’t bothered by worldly limitations.
Today’s was not the only such note we’ve received. Member and non-members have written to express great appreciation for what St. Paul’s is doing. But the timeliness of the letter that came morning was striking, coming as it did right after we had been discussing the drifting away of the society and the limitations and opportunities for building people up in faith.
Keep praying for God to open doors at St. Paul’s-- the literal, physical doors to the sanctuary and the opportunities to get the Word into people’s hearts in other ways. Keep your own doors open to such things as well, as we all exhort one another to remain steadfast in faith no matter what trials and temptations or inclinations to drift away may beset.
Your God and His love for you will not be thwarted!
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Neh. 8:10
When you’re told to “be strong,” you know something scary, painful, or disappointing has happened or is about to happen. Usually, “Be strong!” does not refer to your muscles. It refers to the mental focus or emotional toughness needed to face some hardship, be it something little and momentary like getting a shot at the doctor’s office or something big and traumatic like attending the funeral of a loved one.
We’re so used to thinking of this strength in terms of toughness, discipline, will power, and endurance that is seems almost a tad silly to think of the joy of the Lord being our strength. But in this Easter season you’d be amazed how much hardship, suffering, disappointment, or grief can melt away when you put it into the context of our risen Lord.
“Safely, joyfully, and differently.” That’s the answer to the “how?” question I sent out today telling the confirmation class how we’re going to do the rescheduled confirmation service. That is also the answer to how we’re going to do all the services here in the near future.
The need for safety affects people differently. People grieving the loss of loved one to preventable illness or accident place a higher premium on safety. The joy of the risen Lord is their strength to endure, and the promised resurrection remains the context in which they grieve. As a church family we not only mourn with those who mourn but honor the need to do things safely despite the fact that doing so can make everything more difficult or less enjoyable in some ways.
The need to do things differently is a far littler hardship. But is still requires a different kind of strength. We have to overcome force of habit, personal preferences, and attachment to some beautiful and meaningful things, things like kneeling together at the rail for communion or gathering to share our lives over coffee after the service. But you will be amazed at how easily the joy of the Lord gives you the strength to do things differently, in ways that would prove to be major obstacles to you if you attempted them with some other source of strength besides the joy of the Lord.
How long will some of these things last? Who knows? Will we eventually go back to doing things the old familiar way, or will we incorporate some of the different things into the usual routine going forward? Again, who knows? What I can guarantee with certainty is that worship at St. Paul’s will always bring you Christ in Word and Sacrament, and the joy of that can be your strength. Yes, we strive for accompanying joys, like beautiful choirs, appropriate art and decorations, and comfortable, upbeat fellowship time. But none of those joys can ever be your strength. Only the joy of the risen, reigning Lord can provide that.
When we practice finding out joy only in what truly matters, we appreciate the tangential joys even more and put up with the tangential irritations with a good attitude. More importantly, we train ourselves to face big hardships in life without gloom or despondency.
In these unique times willed with strange hardships, live your life safely, joyfully, and differently with the joy of the Lord giving you strength for whatever comes.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“…and on this rock I will my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Matt. 16:18b
Many aspects of this stay-at-home order seem imprisoning. That is sort of the point of it; trying to lock down the virus by locking down ourselves, the virus’s hosts. But one thing I find somewhat paradoxically refreshing about a total, unexpected disruption like this is that it liberates us from having to have any confidence that we know what the future will bring.
Nobody on New Year’s Day had any idea whatsoever how strange 2020 would prove. Wall Street investors didn’t know it. Politicians didn’t know it. Scientists didn’t know it. Yet everybody’s life has been profoundly affected. Projections from any quarter, by anyone, have proven unreliable.
Why do I find that comforting in a way? Because it means I don’t have to have a projection, either, or even pretend to have one. You and I don’t need to express any confidence that we know what the next few months or years are going to be like, how things are going to change in the church, country, or world as a result of this, and anything like that. We have to do our daily work, and plan and prepare as best we can, and take what comes. All pretense of knowing the future is shaken, as a house built on sand.
In some ways this failure of projections has been going on for several years. Polls failed miserably to predict the Brexit vote or the presidential election, and people began to lose faith in polling data. Global temperatures stopped matching climate models, and people began to argue about how reliable the models were. Today’s models of the pandemic have been all over the map. The fact of the matter is, we find comfort in polling, projections, confident predictions, because it is unsettling to walk into a dark future. We put our confidence in very uncertain things because if we didn’t, we have no confidence at all.
But wait a minute! Is that really true? Of course not, at least not for us. We who put our confidence in our risen Lord and the promises of God have every reason for confidence. Will the stock market rebound this year? Who knows? Will school start on time in the fall? Who knows? Will church attendance go up or down as a result of this? Who knows? But we know, and I mean we KNOW, with absolute certainty, that the Church will never fail. This declaration about the future is not built on the sand of human institutions or predictions, it is built on the rock.
When you feel perplexed or fearful, remember that promise. I can’t promise anyone’s health, livelihood or 401k will recover. I can’t promise the football players drafted this week will actually play games in the fall. I can’t promise anything, but I can promise everything, at least everything of lasting importance. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. I’d say take it to the bank, but banks fail. This promise is more certain than a bank. You are a citizen of the City of God, a pilgrim here in this world of swirling change. When it gets overwhelming, remember the promise that cannot fail.
When Latin was in the process of evolving into modern Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, the word “quarantine” was born in Venice. The root of the word means “forty.” (You can probably see many other possible derivatives that have to do with the number four or forty, like quad or quarter, or maybe I’m just sheltering in place with a Latin teacher). In seafaring Venice, a quarantine referred to a forty day period of separation for sailors who had ventured to plague-ridden ports. The choice of forty days for such things, though, has a much longer pedigree.
Forty days, forty years—Biblically these are times of testing and cleansing, be it the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or Jesus fasting in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It’s one of the reasons Lent is forty days (technically the Sundays don’t count) and there are forty days from Easter to Ascension, just like in the New Testament.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been using the idea of forty years as a Biblical generation in our Rededicated campaign that started last year. We’ve been at our current site forty years (forty-one years now) and want to do whatever it takes to help people in Munster in A.D. 2059 inherit from us all the gifts we inherited from the previous generation. In the midst of that campaign, we’ve come upon a genuine time of testing. I don’t know if it will be literally forty days or not, but the purpose can remain the same.
When we think of a time of testing, of some message or opportunity from God that actually shows up on our calendars, questions naturally arise. How do you know God intends this time for this or that purpose? What is the meaning of this pandemic? Is it God’s wrath? A call to repentance? If so, to whom? How do we know what global events really mean?
Over the weekend, I read an article by a well-known intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, which made the following claim: "The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science." Is that true? How can science prove or disprove meaning? It can’t, not even theoretically. Meaning is outside the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science can describe viruses and explain how they spread and what they do to us. Science can, with limited success, attempt to predict how a pandemic will develop. But science cannot tell us what such a pandemic means or doesn’t mean, and anyone who thinks science can do that doesn’t understand the parameters within which scientific investigation works. You may as well ask a chemist to examine the molecular structure of the water in the font and tell us what Baptism means.
By the same token, apart from a clear Word of Scripture (or some direct revelation from God, which no Christian should expect, since we’ve been promised that Scripture is sufficient for us) pastors cannot declare with any degree of certainty what exactly this pandemic means, either. We cannot go beyond what God has revealed. We can only go by what we know, and we don’t know why exactly God allows this pandemic to happen. Preachers (usually on tv) who proclaim that they know why this is happening are similarly going way beyond the parameters of their office, which is to preach and teach the Word of God, not put God’s signature on their own opinions.
But just because we don’t know for sure where exactly God is going with this pandemic doesn’t mean we cannot take away edifying lessons from it. We could understand it as a forty day call to repentance, and we would not be wrong. We couldn’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” about that interpretation. We couldn’t use it to call someone else to repentance. But we can be called to repentance ourselves. As long as we don’t bind anyone else to our own interpretations of events, we are free to interpret them for ourselves in any way that is in keeping with what we know of our God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, how has this whole, surreal experience of the nation shutting down changed you? How will you let it change you? What will be your new focus, your new priorities when we come out of this? What will you seek to cease doing, and to what will you rededicate yourself? If you have edifying answers to those questions, then it is true to say for you that this time is a time of testing and cleansing. It certainly can be. Hopefully it will be. If so, it has meaning. No experiment or cocksure declaration about the powers of science can take that away from you.
Many people are trying to predict what this pandemic will mean for the future of the Church. It is all guesswork, because it is God’s future and God’s Church, and He hasn’t told us. Anything He allows to happen invites somehow closer to Christ and His bride the Church. So whatever else may happen out in the world, in your life I pray that this “quarantine” of a sort may clarify your resolve, strengthen your faith, and render you a more committed Christian than you were at the beginning of the year. After all, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Act 7:58
Acts was written by Luke, who says (Lk. 1:1-4) that he carefully set out to write a history of Jesus and the early Church. And Luke was there with St. Paul at the very end of St. Paul’s life (II Tim. 4:11). Much of the information we have about St. Paul comes from Luke. So why does Luke seemingly go out of his way to condemn Paul (Saul) with this little aside about who was watching the coats at the stoning of Stephen? You’d think Luke would want to downplay, or at least not want to highlight such an embarrassing detail. But keep reading.
What Luke could have been teaching us it not to judge God’s ways, or lose heart prematurely. St. Stephen was beloved by the Church. His being unjustly stoned to death would have made many people wonder why God would allow such a thing. It made no sense. It was a huge loss to the Church. But we know that most of Acts ends up being about that very same Saul. He becomes a great Apostle. His story prior to his conversion laid the groundwork for his conversion and subsequent history. You just have to keep reading when it seems like everything has gone wrong.
When we encounter things that make no sense to us, such as when innocent people suffer, when death seemingly picks people at random, when government are unjust, when the Church suffers setbacks, we can begin to question God. We should know from our own Scriptures and from the name of our congregation that the story isn’t over. God is always going somewhere with this, no matter what “this” is or how terrible it may be. History isn’t over; we need to keep reading.
Since we know that time after time God had brought good out of evil, we should simply keep our eyes open for what the benefits of this strange, ongoing situation might be. Maybe it was necessary to shake you out of a spiritual lethargy. Maybe this will help our society re-prioritize. Maybe people are getting the training they need to fight some other virus in the future. Maybe all of those things and countless other good things are going on.
What is certain is that this Easter season we need never fear any kind of endings. Whether that ending is death, or of a career, or stage of family life, or anything dear to us, we look forward. We keep reading. The Christ who came out of the tomb is with us. The disease, injustice, or ravages of time that bring the things we love to an end do not have the final word, and are likely just the seeds of amore glorious, unforeseeable future. St. Paul has been on both side of a martyrdom—first helping to kill St. Stephen, then being unjustly executed himself for his faith. But the story of Christ and His Church goes on. St. Paul’s, Munster is a part of it. You are a part of it. It is full of endings that erupt into new chapters. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be surprised when it turns out God has been going somewhere with this. Keep reading.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana