[Jesus] answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. Matt. 16:2-3
The signs of the times are nothing new, really. The specifics are unpredictable, of course. I don’t know anybody who saw 2020 coming, for example, in terms of the shut-down, the protests, or anything else in this weirdest year of my life. But interpret doesn’t mean predict, necessarily. When we interpret things in terms of the fall into sin and redemption in Christ, the raging of the nations and the worldly reign of death, the signs changes year to year, but we can still interpret them with the same Word of God. What exactly to do about them is a different matter; we have to use whatever limited lights and resources we have to plan a way forward into the future, always with truth in the ultimate Lordship of Christ.
Worldly matters are far easier to predict. We don’t know the specifics of the weather, but the changes of season are fairly predictable. So some things we do here at St. Paul’s simply account for logistical issues we can all see coming because it is summer time. People travel. Vacations happen. Volunteers are harder to schedule. Calendars are harder to mesh.
A couple of changes we’re making this week have nothing to do with interpreting the signs of the times (which is what the services are about—applying God’s Word to today) and everything to do with interpreting the worldly seasons and rhythms of life. We’re going to start live-streaming the 9:30 service this week instead of the 8:00 service. I know this will inconvenience some people, but it will really help coordinate the schedules of the people needed to make the services happen. Also, the Wednesday evening Bible study is going to take a hiatus until August. So the next time we will meet is August 5. The Thursday morning Bible study will continue through the summer as scheduled.
We don’t yet know how exactly we’re going to start everything back up again once we start the transition back to in-person meetings and Bible studies. It will probably involve a combination of in-person and live-streamed or Zoom interaction. Details will be unveiled as our plans for fall begin to solidify over the summer. As always, stay tuned.
We know how to interpret the signs of times—it is a fallen world and a time of testing, but also Anno Domini, the year of our Lord—and as for the logistics, well, we’ll do our best with all the gifts and tools God gives us.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. II Tim. 3:16-17
School has continued to meet remotely during this time, so much of the effort has focused on the means of teaching, doing assignments, giving feedback, etc. It is not for the faint at heart. The whole St. Paul’s community can be grateful for the work our teachers are doing. Far from being less, it has been above and beyond what anyone bargained for. Learning new electronic tools, recording presentations, emailing back and forth with constant questions—the whole experience has been different.
Regardless of the means, however, the point of continuing school has been that the content remains the same as much as possible. Math isn’t going anywhere. History is history whether you know it or not and whether you learned it in person or remotely or not. We have to adjust everything we do in order to keep focusing on the purpose, which is teaching people what they need to know and nurturing in them a way of life and a worldview that benefits them body, mind, and spirit.
The centerpiece of all Christian education, of course, is Christ as revealed in Scripture. It teaches, corrects, reproves, and trains the Christian. But only when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. Just owning a Bible or having one around doesn’t accomplish much. That’s why we must not let this change in how we do things prevent us from having Bible studies. The Word and Sacraments are the food of the soul. Just as you had to keep eating even though the restaurants all closed and the grocery stores set up a bunch of strange new rules and procedures, so you can’t just put off spiritual things until everything settles down again.
This Sunday we will continue our look at Colossians, but at a new time. Since we’re going back to having regular worship services this week on the summer schedule (5:30 p.m. Saturday, 8:00 and 9:30 a.m. on Sunday) with all social distancing in place, we’re going to do the Bible study at 10:45 a.m. The Zoom info is included in this update, but please make a note of the new time.
Please also ask for help if you don’t know how to use Zoom or don’t have access to a device that accommodates it. We want everyone connected as much as possible. Every member of St. Paul’s deserves to be--is called to be—complete, equipped for every good work.
[Jesus said to His disciples], “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Ever since the first Pentecost fulfilled this promise to the disciples, the Gospel has spread. C.S. Lewis called it something like a good virus. It spread via contact from person to person as people told the good news and exemplified Christian living for each other. Jesus’ words picture Jerusalem as the epicenter and beginning of this good virus, which quickly spreads to the surrounding region of Judea (Judah), then Samaria (the old northern kingdom when Israel was dividing into two kingdoms, Judah and Israel) and gradually beyond that to the Gentiles all over the globe. And His words have been largely fulfilled in our day, though missionaries constantly seek out people who have had no exposure to the Good News.
Modern technology has accelerated the process by bypassing some of the person-to-person that made evangelism depend upon location and geography and spread like a good virus. Beginning especially with radio and then television but now going pedal to the metal with live-streaming, people proclaiming the Gospel can be talking to people in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth all at the same time without even knowing it. I know some people have participated in our services here at St. Paul’s from many states and even foreign countries. What a strange and wonderful tool for the Word! Not since the invention of the printing press has there been such an explosion of new opportunities for people to receive the Gospel.
One effect of St. Paul’s begin able to share our services with the entire globe is that any particular member of St. Paul’s has literally tens of thousands of services and sermons available to them at the push of a button every Sunday. Without leaving their homes, people can listen to the preaching of pastors, ministers, and priests of every denomination. Handy, convenient, amazing, and wonderful as that situation is for the propagation of the faith, it is also perplexing and in some cases dangerous. There can be too many voices contradicting each other, and some can be wolves in sheep’s clothing with spiritually poisonous teachings. After all, anyone can say anything in cyberspace. If we can make good use of live-streaming, we can bet Satan is also fully in tune with the possibilities of the internet.
While we praise and thank God that we can preach and teach online during this pandemic, we also have to be aware of the downside to every home having instant access to a veritable Babel of preaching and teaching. So next week we’re going to start a new Wednesday evening Bible study looking at the various teachings of different denominations and how they are similar or different from what we preach and teach here. Everyone is welcome to participate, and the Zoom info will come out on Monday.
We hope to continue the Wednesday evening Bible study even after things return to some semblance of normal, as we had been doing last fall and earlier in the winter. But for now we’ll do it online. Look for info in Monday’s update. Also, bear in mind that everyone is welcome to “attend” via zoom the Thursday morning Bible study, which is beginning the book of Hebrews this week, and the Sunday morning Bible study, which is doing Colossians. Please join us as you’re able, and offer to help those you may know who aren’t able to join us on their own.
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Lk. 10:41-42
Trying to halt the spread of contagion while still living our lives has forced governments to distinguish between essential and non-essential activities, jobs, and events. It has led to some almost comical misclassifications, at least in most people’s opinions. For example, we read reports that in Michigan you can buy lottery tickets but not garden seeds. In some places, apparently, you can be outside getting fresh air and exercising, but not if you’re doing it by landscaping your yard at the same time. In North Carolina, the government has declared that protesting the government’s classifications of what constitutes essential and non-essential activities is itself a non-essential activity, so you’re not allowed to be outside doing that. Which sort of begs the question, doesn’t it?
It is easy to find seemingly ludicrous examples, but that is because reducing everything to simple categories of essential and non-essential depends on a set of criteria that has never been agreed upon. I’ll bet if any of us tried to classify everything and enforce it, in no time there would be social media memes everywhere mocking the ridiculous consequences of the choices we made. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.
There is a famous scene in Schindler’s List in which Nazi officers have to classify all the Jewish workers in Warsaw as essential or non-essential. But at least they have a single criterion: is the job essential to the war effort or not. That makes things a tad easier. In one instance, an elderly man is declared nonessential and condemned because he is a teacher of history and literature. He is saved at the last minute when his friend convinces the officers that he is actually a metal polisher, required for the manufacture of armaments. What is essential? What isn’t? Who makes that call? Of what is a civilization made?
Nobody likes to be declared non-essential. Today, people who might have looked down on others who worked certain jobs are receiving their comeuppance. People who stock shelves, make deliveries, mop floors—these people are being lauded as the backbone of society. Nobody is saying, “We need a ballerina and three modern dance majors over here! Stat!” It turns out the people who might have once turned up their noses at basic trades and menial jobs are now finding themselves the ones declared non-essential, at least by some definitions.
In The Breakfast Club, a brainy A-student talks about taking shop class and failing to make a lamp properly, and how stupid the assignment was. Another student in shop class mocks him for being such a useless egghead in all the useless smart kid classes. The smart kid responds, “Well, did you know that without trigonometry there would be no engineering?” To which the critic replies, “Without lamps there would be no light.”
What is essential? What is non-essential? Students, and sometimes even their parents, fall prey to this overly-simplistic way of thinking sometimes. In the height of frustration trying to do school and work at home, the question, “Why do I have know this stuff?” never seems more apt. The foolish approach is to say that if isn’t going to help you get a better job, you should only do it if it is fun. The purpose of education goes beyond maximizing employment potential or mental entertainment. Language, history, art—these are all non-essential in terms of sustaining life, but essential in terms of making civilization worth sustaining. What is essential?
I hope one casualty of this shut-down is the tendency to look down on the jobs that require less formal education, but that prove essential in times of crisis. I also hope we don’t fall into the trap of looking down on jobs that do require a lot of education but don’t serve much immediate purpose in a crisis. Maybe one thing God is giving us is a renewed appreciation for all the various ways we depend on each other. For example, if you’ve been watching Netflix while stuck at home, thousands of people with “nonessential” areas of expertise, like creative writing, acting, history, modern dance, etc. have made that possible. So have countless people with “essential” expertise in the technology that makes streaming possible. So has the guy who delivered your tv to the store or your house, and the electrician that wired up the outlet. Everyone fits into the picture somehow. Be grateful for the many Marthas who did a million things for you that you couldn’t have done for yourself. We are interconnected.
The familiar story of Mary and Martha takes the world’s views of what is essential and non-essential and turns it upside down. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things—online classes, internet connections, delivery status updates, cleaning up breakfast—but one thing is necessary. There is it is. THE distinction. Christ is the one thing needful.
Jesus makes the distinction for us. Whatever else is essential to survive a crisis, to build up a civilization, to make a living, there is only one thing that that is essential in any eternal sense. If nothing else, God might be using this crisis to make us examine what is important and what isn’t. It is easy to lose track of it. Every other distinction between essential and non-essential fails. Not this one. You have Christ. He will not be taken away from you. You have the one thing needful. That is essential forever.
Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very helpful to me in my ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpas at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. II Tim. 4:11-13
These words of St. Paul don’t seem like the sort of thing a daily devotion normally focuses on. But they’re important because they establish that the ministry of the Word has always had a very practical, business side to it as well as a very personal side, even in the writing of Scripture itself. It isn’t all just divine, spiritual truths being received by the Holy Spirit and written down for all the ages to come. It is that, of course, but it is more. There were mundane, practical problems attending to the ministry of the Word even for St. Paul himself. St. Paul’s, Munster should expect no less.
St. Paul writes these words from prison. He is dealing with isolation, trying to keep in contact with churches from a distance, and safeguarding the future of the church for after he dies, which he suspects will be soon. Poignantly, he wants Mark; earlier in his ministry (Acts 15:37-39) St. Paul didn’t want anything to do with Mark. But things change. People change. For logistical reasons, St. Paul doesn’t do all the teaching himself, but organizes the teaching at Ephesus by sending Tychicus. He is a great apostle, but has regular personal, material needs, like a cloak. He is a mouthpiece of God, but has to attend to eternal spiritual truths via perishable parchments that need looking after. The sense of scrambling to deal with his circumstances can comfort us here as we scramble to adjust everything we do. We keep the ministry of the Word foremost, but understand that such ministry has always required practical solutions to worldly problems.
Today, too, everyone at St. Paul’s is dealing with major practical disruption, but the ministry of the Word goes on. We’re addressing practical issues as best we can. Here are the very practical things you can do today that will help the ministry of the Word go forth:
May God continue to bless His Church through every worldly circumstance, opening paths for the ministry of the Word to go forth despite every obstacle.
Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Col. 3:16
Colossians is only 4 chapters long, so the whole book is very readable in one sitting. And really, the meat of it is chapters 2-3. I encourage you all to read at least those two chapters today. In them, St. Paul writes the words quoted above, about letting the Word of Christ dwell in our hearts in teaching and in song. But he urges them to do that having acknowledged in the previous chapter that he cannot be with them in the body, at least for the time being.
More importantly, this section of the Bible includes these words: Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Col. 2:16-17 We have the Christian freedom to figure how best to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in different ways suitable for different contexts.
Since we cannot be with each other in the body, and since we cannot celebrate the festivals by which we normally commemorate Holy Week (at least not in the usual way), we rejoice that we have the God-given opportunity nevertheless to ponder Christ and His Passion with the God-given freedom to do so in unusual ways given the circumstances. The main thing is that our hearts be fixed on Christ. Reading Colossians today will help that be the case for you.
Speaking of reading, have you read any good books lately? Sometimes good books (and yes, there is a difference between reading a good book and reading a book designed merely to distract and amuse) can help us ponder Christ and His Passion by explaining and illustrating the way a sermon would. Here are a few recommendations.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis is a fantasy story and Christian allegory that portrays the Christ figure as a fearsome Lion. You will note the obvious parallels in it to the Passion story of the Gospels. It is good for all ages, and a genuinely good book that also entertains.
Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Fr. R.J. Neuhaus (full disclosure, my uncle) is essentially a Tre Ore service in book form, with each chapter providing an extended theological reflection on one of the seven last words from the cross.
Grace Upon Grace, by John Kleinig is an excellent general introduction to practicing a deeper Christian spiritual life in a world obsessed with cheap, imitation spirituality.
But no book can replace Scripture. Read Colossians 2-3 today, and keep following the services online. Let other books like these help you think through and process the Word. St. Paul’s (the saint and the congregation) goal for you is that the Word of Christ continue to dwell in your richly in this time of being away from each other in the body and out of our normal rhythm of festivals. God is still with you!
March 30, 2020
“April is the cruelest month…”
That’s the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem called The Waste Land. It seems appropriate for today as we approach the end of March with the news that things are going to be shut down through the month of April while this virus tries to lay us to waste and we seek to resist the spread of it. That means we will have to do everything differently for the very biggest church celebrations of the year; nothing will be normal. Cruel indeed.
But one thing that will seem very odd, but which is actually just things going back to normal, is the idea of Christian teaching taking place in the home. The first line of Luther’s catechism, which we have used for five centuries to teach the faith to the next generation, is “As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household…” In Luther’s eyes, ongoing, daily learning in the home was normal. By contrast, the ways we in the modern world have compartmentalized our lives in separate, unrelated spheres—church, home, school, work, sports, social life, etc. would be abnormal to him. My guess is that he would see what we consider to be normal as somewhat spiritually debilitating.
One advantage, among the many disadvantages, of teaching the catechism remotely online, is that it lets us take at least one step toward better reintegrating church, school, and family. To be clear, such integration is always one of our goals at St. Paul’s, even in “normal” times. But increasingly, modern life militates against that goal. Integration of faith into all the spheres of life is easy to have as a goal, but seemingly harder and harder for many people to have as a reality.
The Reformation itself disrupted the world’s routine in the name of getting things back to normal, to the way they should have been. The reformers saw that the way everyone was leading their Christian lives had taken a bad turn. One of those bad turns might be familiar to us—compartmentalization. Monasteries were communities of worship (meaning Scripture teaching and learning, prayer, and praise) and service of the community and the wider world. The Church had begun to teach that people who lived in such communities were earning righteousness, were on a higher spiritual plane than regular people. The reformers would know—many of them, including Luther, lived in such communities.
Luther demolished the idea of earning forgiveness with good works, no matter how good those works might be. But when he left the monastery, his point was not that the things they did were bad. The point was that those things ought to happen in the Christian home. We don’t need to flee “worldly” callings to pursue spiritual calling. We need to integrate them. We need to make the Christian home the hub of all the facets of Christian life.
Basically, your house is a monastery. I know it probably feels like that more than ever these days. But seriously, your house is nothing other than a community of worship and service (and this is true even if you live alone). Everyone in the house wakes up with a calling from God not only to be strengthened in faith via the Word, and pray, but also to serve the household and the wider world according to each person’s role within it. The idea of strict compartmentalization—church for churchy stuff, school for facts, work for earning money, home for rest and amusement—insults the dignity of the home.
Today we begin a walk through the basic teachings of Christianity via video link. I’m no tv star, but I will be posting a 5-15 minute video each day, or most days, that go through the catechism bit by bit through the month of April. The confirmands are assigned to watch them, but I hope the whole congregation will join in. But here is the key. Watch them together with anyone else who lives in your house. Don’t take turns, or watch with headphones, or sit in separate rooms. Make it something you do for a few minutes together. Doing so will bring together, that is, integrate, church, home, and school at least partially in your Christian life. You should be able to link to today’s video below, or from the website soon.
March 27, 2020
This is the day the Lord has made!
First thing most mornings I use a little prayer book by John Baillie called A Diary of Private Prayer, which has a prayer for every morning and every evening the month. I’d like to share a portion of the prayer for the 27th day of the month (slightly edited, since Baillie uses archaic, King James language). After giving thanks for the work of Christ, the prayer continues as follows by giving thanks for what we have received from all those who have gone before us and asking God to incorporate us into that ongoing, glorious history:
For the power of His cross in the history of the world since He came; For all who have taken up their own crosses and followed Him; For the noble army of martyrs and for all who are willing to die that others may live; For all the suffering freely chosen for noble ends, for pain bravely endured, for temporal sorrows that have been used for the building up of eternal joys; I praise and bless You holy Name.
O Lord my God, You dwell in pure and blessed serenity beyond the reach of mortal pain, yet look down in unspeakable love and tenderness upon the sorrows of the earth. Give me grace, I beg you, to understand the meaning of such afflictions and disappointments as I myself am called upon to endure. Deliver me from fretfulness. Let me be wise to draw from every dispensation of Your providence the lesson You would have me learn. Give me a stout heart to bear my own burdens. Give me a willing heart to bear the burdens of others. Give me a believing heart to cast all my burdens on You.
During this very strangest of spring breaks, one of the blessings I’ve experienced is God forcing me to adapt, which I’m not naturally inclined to do. But I think St. Paul’s will be a better congregation next year and year after because of some of the ways we’re adapting now. We’ll be more focused on what is important, and more able to communicate and serve people in different circumstances.
Spring break ends this weekend and school starts again Monday via remote learning. Our teachers have been hustling and scrambling to learn new technology, prepare different lessons, and make it possible to keep teaching despite the circumstances. I’m going to do the same thing (lest those energetic darn teachers make me look bad!) with various Bible studies starting next week. You’ll need either Zoom or Facebook Live to participate in real time. Not ideal, but better than nothing. And I think even after this craziness ends, we’re still benefit from some of the changes we’re being forced to make today.
Keep an eye on your email Monday for instructions on how to participate in Bible study next week.
This weekend’s church service will be matins from LSB, and should be available for viewing by Saturday evening. We hope to begin live-streaming services next week.
Peace be with you!
God never runs out of fresh starts. A blanket of new-fallen snow can make a whole bleak and dirty
world look beautiful. A new calendar all clear and unsullied (back in the days before everything was online and people actually went calendar shopping in December) gives us a feeling of clean slates and new possibilities.
A simple Christmas carol reminds us that no matter bleak the midwinter, no matter how weary the world, God comes into it fresh as a newborn to bring righteousness and holiness to a fallen, sinful people.
When I talk to people at St. Paul’s I’m always struck by how much importance they attach to God’s
Word. Even people who rarely if ever come to Bible study nevertheless tend to say that Bible study is very important. And of course that makes sense. God’s Word is what draws us all together here.
Because Bible study is such an important part of the life of St. Paul’s, and because for so many people getting to Bible study is like getting in shape or saving for retirement, that is, easy to say it is important but hard to act as though it is important, we want to make it as easy as possible for all of our members to be involved, and we want to encourage all of our members to use the fresh start of the new year to take the plunge and actually do the thing they’ve been meaning to do for a long time—get involved in Bible study.
A Bible study isn’t always simply an examination of the text of the Bible, important as that is. Our
Wednesday and Thursday morning Bible studies typically just choose a book of the Bible and study it closely with lots of discussion and questions, and our Sunday lectionary study during the adult education hour does the same thing with the readings for that Sunday. But sometimes a Bible study can be topical, perhaps a series on Evangelism or Stewardship, or based on some practical, everyday concern for Christians.
Starting in January everyone at St. Paul’s will have several options for Bible study on Sunday
mornings. We will continue the lectionary study in the adult education room each week, usually led by one of the pastors but sometimes led by one of our gifted Lutheran teachers, Rick Arndt. We will also offer a six week series on Christian Parenting taught by our principal, Barb Mertens, who has certainly worked with every kind of child and parent over the years. We will also offer a video-based discussion led by our DCE Jaymes Hayes and Rick Arndt on Life Issues. The videos are published by Lutherans for Life and cover many practical topics from end of life issues to beginning of life issues to the value of all human life in between.
Later in the Spring when those series end we will have a series on Big Questions/Biblical answers on a variety of topics, and after that we will offer a series on the book of Ephesians. The whole time, of course, there will be confirmation class (open to anyone who might want a refresher) going on in the sanctuary and New Member classes going on as well. Check the bulletin for room assignments.
There will always be an excuse not to be in God’s Word. Let this be the year of no more excuses. Use
the fresh start of A.D. 2016 to deepen your understanding and faith in the everlasting newness of life Godgrants us in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana