Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is the sluggard to those who send him. Prov. 10:26
The colorful analogies employed by King Solomon in this Proverb make the point that sometimes the seemingly minor irritations manage to drive us to distraction. Everyone at some point has sat around a campfire trying to talk or sing or have a good time and had to give it up in frustration because the smoke wouldn’t stop blowing in their eyes. Most people have had to deal with sensitive teeth at some time or another; it takes all the joy out eating delicious food or a cool, refreshing drink. Solomon applies that irritation that can become downright maddening to the experience of waiting helplessly on someone who shows no sense of urgency or hustle but makes clear he’ll get around to it when he feels like it.
Whether we’re talking about itchy eyes, hurting teeth, or slow service, another point is that sometimes tangential issues and difficulties manage to suck the joy out of everything. That’s why so many of the other Proverbs of Solomon are about the importance of patience, of being slow to anger, and having control not only of your actions and words but of what you set the thoughts of your heart upon. Lots of things outside your control can annoy you to no end. Only you can decide whether or not to let them get the best of you.
If we had let them, several little things could have robbed us of joy this week as school began here at St. Paul’s with all kinds of new procedures. Things that we could have done on autopilot in years past we now have to carefully consider, often coming up with completely new ways of doing them that then have to be communicated to everyone. Sometimes we finally get everyone on the same page only to find that something has changed. Then we have to re-rethink (or re-re-rethink) some procedure, then communicate it again to people who think they already know it because they just went through it, even though what they just went through was the old new way of doing it, not the new new way of doing it. Just going about ours daily tasks sometimes feels like sitting on the smoky side of the campfire.
Thankfully, out staff has not allowed the mountain irritations get the best of them. Our first Wednesday chapel this morning featured many things that went smoothly that could have gone terribly, and some hiccups that will go more smoothly in the future. Still, sitting apart, singing in masks—it isn’t the same. But no matter. Nothing can rob us of the joy of God’s presence and Word, and the mission of teaching it and proclaiming regardless of the circumstances. It was a great experience to finally have chapel again and be reminded of how important that aspect St. Paul’s ministry really is.
Everyone shared the generally good, cooperative attitude. But it is a long year. I’m sure there will come times when the stack of little irritations get the best of us. Nobody is as patient and wise as Solomon reminds us we ought to be, not even our school staff, exemplary as it is. Today was a good day. What was good about it was the reminder that our gracious God will not abandon us even on our bad days, which are sure to come. Whatever the day, St. Paul’s can give thanks to God for the school staff He has provided for us.
Whether the issue is Sunday worship, the school procedures, or any aspect of the mission and ministry of St. Paul’s, don’t let the little irritations get the best of you. Focus on what is eternal, what is constant, what is certain and sure, and you’ll find yourself focusing not on irritations but on the overwhelming grace of God.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. I Tim. 3:14-15
St. Paul said Timothy had known the Scriptures from a very young age. How? Well, we know from the Bible that Timothy learned the faith from his mother and grandmother. And we also know that more advanced Scripture learning would have taken place in synagogues and congregations. That was one of the main reasons the Christians gathered—to hear the public reading of Scripture and preaching based on it.
The how of the matter can be different in different circumstances. Parents must teach their children the faith. That is a big part of their God-given duties. But whether they home-school, use a parochial school, or attempt to augment a public school education depends on their particular opportunities and gifts. The main thing is that it get done. St. Paul’s has always considered parochial schooling to be an excellent option; that’s why we’re dedicated to offering it.
This year, not just the parents but the schools themselves have had to grapple with a new “how” question. Remote or in-person learning? Various schools in our area have chosen differently on that question. One option some of them had, one that St. Paul’s did not have, was to offer both and let the parents choose. Schools with multiple teachers at each grade level could retool to have some teach in person and others teach online. We only have one teacher per grade, and the requirements of online vs. in-person learning prevent one person from doing both simultaneously, at least with the prep time, training and equipment available to us. So we had to pick one or the other, knowing that whatever option we chose, there would likely be parents who would opt to remove their children from St. Paul’s in order to pursue the other option.
We chose to offer in-person learning with strict protocols in place in keeping with all health guidelines and mandates. A huge amount of work has gone into making that decision possible, and we think it is the right decision for St. Paul’s and for the vast majority of our students. But neither choice was going to be able to serve everyone. Exercising their responsibilities as parents, several families have chosen to withdraw from St. Paul’s to pursue a manner of learning they hope will work better in their circumstances. We certainly hope they find what they are looking for and the children receive a high quality, Christian education. And we certainly will leave the door open for a potential return in case another option doesn’t work out.
The upshot of this crazy year’s forced choices is that our school enrollment looks likely to be significantly down from what we had predicted (and budgeted on) before we knew about all the disruption. The numbers and trend line merely as statistics might look pretty alarming, but in context we know and understand the situation. We also know that school enrollments often decline suddenly but generally increase gradually. So this pandemic could be reverberating in our school environment long after the virus is contained. We have a lot of work ahead of us. But it is as worth doing as always, and nobody said it would be easy. Certainly St. Paul never told Timothy it would easy.
This is a chance to remind ourselves of the importance of what we teach. We have to practice what we preach. We have to live our lessons. The sacred writings, the Scriptures, assure us that the mission of preaching and teaching Christ to the next generation will be with us as long as there is a next generation. So we need not fret, worry, second-guess, or wallow in self-pity. We simply dedicate ourselves to making Christ known however He enables us.
Love…does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; I Cor. 13:5
As the summer ripens and the pandemic wears on, what people once did with a can-do spirit of all being in this together can degenerate into irritability. The novelty has worn off. The health information keeps changing. The news is a vexation to the spirit, and the election years are always annoying. All the normal escapes, like sports, theaters, and restaurants are either closed or difficult to take advantage of. The stage is perfectly set for God’s family to start squabbling. What’s the matter with those people who don’t see things the way we do?
So far we haven’t had problems. St. Paul’s has really proven itself resilient and full of people of good will looking out for one another. I want to be proactive about first, thanking everyone for your prayers, willingness to adapt and help, and just generally putting up with a lot in these times. Secondly, because I’m grateful things haven’t turned sour at St. Paul’s but I know the conditions are ripening for that to happen, I want to head off that potential future setback by focusing everyone’s attention today on the Bible verse above.
Verses like I Cor. 13:5 don’t really come into play much when things are really good and there is nothing to be irritable about. Nobody (except chronic complainers) has a problem with a nice picnic in the perfect spot with beautiful weather. Nor do such verses usually come into play when things are really, really bad; nobody complains about the minor annoyances of a picnic during a tornado, either. When things are really good or really bad, it is easy (well, still hard for us sinners, but easier than normal) to be flexible, to go along with the normal give and take of life together, and not to be irritable or resentful.
But sticky humidity and a cloud of mosquitoes can do worse things to our attitude than any tornado. It is for those kids of days we need to be reminded that Love does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful. Sometimes irritations can do more harm to us spiritually than catastrophes.
One of the things that has gone quite well but not by any means perfectly is the way we come forward for communion. We’re working on simplifying and clarifying the process. This week the plan is to have ushers (if available) and markings on the floor so that everyone is perfectly clear about what to do.
Also, we’re setting aside the far south section (far left when you’re facing the altar) for those who agree to wear masks throughout the service, so that those who feel they cannot risk being near unmasked people can still attend if they choose. That section will be ushered out first, and will have the side door directly to the outside available so that they do not need to go through the narthex.
Thanks again for being the family of God in this place!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Heb. 3:13
Most photo albums feature standard pictures of important events familiar to everyone. Birthday parties, vacations, proms and graduations, Christmas and Easter family photos, weddings and baby showers, and so forth. Same stuff, different faces, fashions, and years.
A photo album of the first half of 2020, by contrast, would feature a bunch of unique things unlike any other year. Just in my own experience locally here I’ve seen some crazy, memorable things this year. Grocery aisles completely emptied of bread and paper products. The camera in an empty church on Easter Sunday. Downtown Chicago completely deserted and quiet. The parking lot at Beverly Shores collapsed into Lake Michigan. Closing chapel with just the teachers holding screen shots of their students. Kids playing thigh deep in floodwater on Briar Lane. Lines of masked people weaving through a shopping cart maze waiting to get into Jewel-Osco. A massive concrete barrier built across Calumet Avenue. You get the idea.
Still, as a Christian community we exhort one another regardless of whether it is a routine day or a special celebration, a predictable event or a completely bizarre event. The main thing about every day is the common or particular temptations it brings and the common or particular opportunities it brings I terms of living the Christian life.
Daily contrition and repentance, daily taking hold of Christ by faith, daily thanksgiving for daily bread, daily prayers for daily concerns—these are not things that can wait “until things get back to normal” or that we do “when things settle down.” Whether today is your triple bypass surgery or just another day of sitting on your front porch, your first day in a new job or your retirement party, your wedding day with photos your grandchildren will look at or just some day with no photos of anything in particular—it is still called “today.” You are still tempted away from the baptismal life of a Christian today. And you are still exhorted by your Christian community to remember who you are, Who your Lord is, and what really matters today. You also have a chance to exhort others in your Christian community to do the same.
Don’t get distracted by swirling events in your own life or in the news. Every day is God’s. Live today as an eternal son or daughter of an eternal King.
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.
For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
When? People have been asking that question about so many things lately. When will school open? When will we be able to go back to church? When will the stores open? When will sports return?
Naturally, people disagree about the specifics of when this or that should happen. Indiana and Illinois seem to disagree. People in stores seem to disagree as to what measure remain necessary. We all have our own preferred “experts” whom we trust, and those experts disagree. When the Bible says that there is a time for everything, it doesn’t say with specificity when those times begin and end. Some disagreement and give and take is just a normal part of life in the world.
What Ecclesiastes is really getting at, though, is not a timetable for everything but that everything comes to an end. There is nothing permanent under heaven. Normal is not permanent. Abnormal is not permanent. Neither health nor illness endure indefinitely. That’s why Ecclesiastes lists pairs of opposites—a time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to weep, a time to laugh, etc. No particular time just goes on and on.
A time of disruption, therefore, invites to consider what is permanent and eternal. Nothing “under heaven,” that is, in this life and world, really is permanent. Nothing, that is, except the Gospel. Christ, who is eternally God and Man and who lives forever, became incarnate in this world “under heaven” for us. Christ is the only thing about which we can say “always,” to any “when” question.
The day-to-day details of the shut down can frustrate people. We do not know how to plan anything. But the shut down can also make us look at the larger scheme of things, our phases and stages of life, and big picture aspects of how we have organized our lives. But the little picture and the big picture get their meaning from Christ, who is all in all.
If you find yourself getting frustrated by the little inconveniences or overwhelmed by larger changes going on, put it into context. The only eternal context. This day and your life are redeemed and therefore have eternal significance beyond the “under heaven” futility of Ecclesiastes. Christ who has conquered all and gone through the heavens remains with you in this life in the Word and Sacraments.
“…and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Heb. 12:1b
Yesterday I had a Zoom meeting with a group of pastors from other denominations, one of whom I hadn’t seen in many years. He told the group that this verse has been rolling around in his mind for many weeks because of the all the disruption to church life (along with every other kind of life) brought by the pandemic. I think many pastors have come to a new appreciation of this verse because we have been unable to plan things the way we normally do. The whole group shared that sentiment. We all pastor different kinds of congregations in very different contexts, but this verse rang true to all of those situations.
Sometimes the key aspects of this verse get lost amid the famous words that come before and after. Heb. 12:1 begins with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” We often refer to those famous words when we consider salvation history from the Old Testament all the way through the history of the Church. Heb. 12:2 begins, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…” and we often refer to those famous words for obvious reasons. But wedged in between there are the words above, which contain two ideas that pertain to today.
The first is endurance. It is an easy thing to think about and a hard thing to have. At a marathon, anyone can cheer the runners on. Not everyone can keep running. We can all hear and know the truth of encouraging words, but that doesn’t mean we can act on them easily. When all this began we needed courage and wisdom (and we still do, of course), but now that it has been going on a lot longer than we first anticipated (remember when we thought we’d be back in school by mid-April?) we need endurance. We need to keep drawing strength from the Word after the novelty of the whole thing has worn off and the frustrations of it persist.
The second key aspect of the excerpt is that the race we run is the one that set before us, not the one we choose. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what we would have done or could have done in some other circumstance. We take up the challenge God gives us, not the challenge we give ourselves or the challenge God gave to Christians in other times and places. The times you live in, with all its wonders and conveniences like instant Zoom meetings, all its quirks and absurdities like masking tape exes on every floor, and all its particular terrors and sufferings, from ICU units to careers destroyed, these times, and no other times, mark the race that is set before us. This context, and no other context, is where God gives us an opportunity to bring Christ.
One of the most famous scenes in The Lord of the Rings features Frodo saying that he wishes he lived in different times. The wise old Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” It is the same sentiment—don’t focus on the imaginary challenges (or lack thereof) you wished you faced. Focus on the real challenge you face. The race that is set before you is the only race you can run with endurance. It, and nothing else, is your true calling.
So many of our good intentions begin with “If only…” The Hebrews verse begins with “Therefore…” It grounds your day in reality, not unreality. But the reality it grounds your day in stems from the truth of salvation history and the presence of God in our context as well. Live the life God gave you. Run the race set before you. We at St. Paul’s and you in your personal context are part of the grand and glorious story of those redeemed by Christ.
“Keep your life free from the love from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” Heb. 13:5a
This morning our economic stimulus check arrived from the IRS via direct deposit to my bank account. I don’t know what to think about that in terms of economics or politics. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about it.
I could feel happy. Why not? Free money! Who wouldn’t be happy about that? I could feel guilty. After all, it is money I did not earn and I’m not among the people who have lost their jobs and businesses. I could feel outraged about the strange set of government decisions leading up to such an odd circumstance, which seems to violate much of what I normally consider to be responsible fiscal and regulatory policy. Confused? Cynical? Thrilled? I could feel a lot of things. So might you.
But of all the things I might have felt, you know how I did feel? Embarrassing as it is to admit, the first, fleeting feeling (thankfully it only lasted half a moment until I was able to laugh at myself over it) was disappointment. You know why? Because it was Because it was less than I thought it would be. I thought four of our children would be eligible, but it turns out only three them were. I quickly chided myself for reacting so selfishly, but if I’m honest I can’t claim I never had that fleeting reaction.
That’s how quickly inflated expectations and a sense of being owed something can rob us of contentment. Gratitude, by contrast, brings with is instant contentment. The Hebrews verse quoted above is not just some law that is there is show us how greedy we are (though it can do that!); it is practical advice to those who know their God and want the good gifts He gives. Contentment with little is a greater gift than possession of much.
Even more so than a check from the IRS, everything in all of creation is a gift. Your body, your time, your story—you didn’t earn it. It was just given to you. Receive it with gratitude, and contentment will follow no matter your circumstance. Think of it all as something you have coming to you by rights and disappointment and bitterness will follow, again no matter your circumstance.
The truth of God’s Word apply to normal and abnormal circumstances. The Commandments and Creed cannot be temporarily suspended by order of the governor or replaced by the largesse of the federal treasury. What we learn in “normal” times applies to difficult, extreme, uniquely challenging times. Conversely, the lessons we learn by enduring those challenging times apply even to normal times. No matter what the circumstance, knowing that God is for you leads to a sense of security and contentment, even where such feelings might seem most out of place.
Greed and complaining are always out of place, no matter how naturally they come to us. I’ve heard lots of good ideas from people about what they plan to do with the stimulus checks. Some focus on the secular purpose—stimulating the economy in the short term. Some focus on just making it through by paying their own bills. Some focus on spiritual things and charity. My goal is not to tell you what to do with it. My goal is to continue to teach by word and by example the truth of God’s Word during this shutdown. And I know that contentment is a gift God wants for you, and that you have an innate tendency to rob yourself of it with ingratitude.
Here’s an assignment. Look up the rest of verse 5 quoted above from Hebrews and keep reading the next few verses. I guarantee they apply to you whether you are sick, unemployed, overworked, irritated, lonely, or anything in between. A reminder that God is on your side does wonders for your day.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt. 6:34
April showers bring May flowers. On the other hand, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” After yesterday was such a surprise nice day to be outside, I have to admit it was a bit depressing to wake up to gray skies and rain that looks to be settling in to stay all day. It is amazing how much the weather can affect moods, especially when there is really no place to go. If we had a choice about the weather, we’d have to weigh the benefits of May flowers tomorrow against having a nice day today.
Balancing the need to live for today while planning for tomorrow has always been a mysterious task. Just because we aren’t supposed to anxious about tomorrow doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to take tomorrow into account at all. Planning for tomorrow is part of today’s to-do list. The difference is that St. James tells us all our plans should contain the tacit caveat “God willing,” since we don’t know for sure what will happen. And Jesus says not to let tomorrow gnaw at you with worries and fears, but to plan for it, wait for it, and takes whatever it brings in full confidence that somehow it will be full of God’s grace. We who sow seeds do so in view of the harvest down the road. Today we focus on today’s work of plowing and planting.
Those of us in charge of planning the near future at St. Paul’s have been frustrated by our inability to know what the laws and health recommendations will be tomorrow. Indiana’s stay at home order expires tomorrow, but there has been no indication yet as to whether it will be extended, modified, eased, or cancelled. Obviously, such a situation makes it hard to answer any questions. Our Board of Deacons has been meeting weekly to consider the situation. We’re looking at how and when to being the process of opening things back up at St. Paul’s. When we do that, we will do it with all the proper safeguards in place to ensure that we’re being good neighbors to our members and our community while putting first things first in our earthly lives.
We’re all getting antsy to ease back into normal life. For now, though, answers to specific questions will have to wait for the May flowers. I do not know, for example, whether Confirmation will be able to happen on May 31, but I do know families need more than a moment’s notice to prepare for it the way they’d like. I’m not sure yet when we will be able to have a communion service in the sanctuary. Today we will continue receive God’ gifts with thanksgiving. Those gifts include the rain that waters the earth and makes it fruitful, the time we have to work, read, and pray, the church family we have at St. Paul’s, with whom we remain one in heart even as we inhabits different homes, and especially the Word, which bids us not to worry. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Rom. 12:18
One of the silver linings to any unexpected disaster is the way it brings people together. A power outage becomes a time of laughter and deep conversation. A blizzard is when bonding happens. Even a funeral tends to heal the scars in our family relationships. And this pandemic and the national shut-down can have some of the same effect. Knowing that we’re all in it together gives it a sense of adventure. It is easier to have an encouraging word for a stranger.
On the other hand, being cooped up with the same people day after day, no outlets, no respite leads to cabin fever, especially with the unseasonably cold weather this week. When people go stir crazy, this verse from Romans becomes more important than ever. You can’t always get along with everyone, but it is important that you make self-sacrificial effort. Whatever the argument, don’t be the cause of it if you can help it.
A few days ago I was (Of all things! Who could have guess that it would come to this?) standing on an x in a maze of taped off shopping carts out in the parking lot waiting my turn to enter the grocery store. An older man came out, which meant another person in line could go in, so I stepped up to the next x six feet closer to getting inside. The man who had come out stopped to chat. So I chatted a bit. He seemed lonely. Maybe this trip to the store was the only human interaction he would be getting that day. We talked about the crazy situation, the weather, the lack of sports seasons, and other people in line seemed to be nodding along and joining in the camaraderie and togetherness. Then the man blurted out, “I blame Trump for all this,” and right away the spell was broken. People in line began to make eye contact to see who would nod along and who would argue. Some may have thought the man was crank. Others may have thought him a sage. But it was certain that the sense of togetherness dissipated.
Politics will do that, especially in an election year. I can think of almost nothing more important to fulfilling this verse in your life than that you avoid politicizing this pandemic. People are frayed and frazzled. Everyone has had it up to here with someone, but no one can agree on where to place the blame. As your pastor, I ask you not to worry about that right now. Vote in November however you please, but let the pandemic, for all the terrible things it is and does, also be something that unites. This verse is especially important when people are already looking for reasons to be cross, but also unusually open to experiencing togetherness.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Democrats and Republicans. Well-off or struggling economically. Stranger or family member. Young or old. People who are scared and people who think the whole thing is overblown. Simply being a source of peace in a time of trouble can be a huge Christian witness. Avoid the temptation to score points, put people in their place, vent frustrations on someone, or anything like that.
Your Lord has defeated death. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You have nothing to fear from anyone. You have all kinds of opportunities to live peaceably with everyone, because Christ is your peace, and He lives forever! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana