My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe. Ps. 45:1
This weekend nothing seemed to go right. The bulletins were messed up because of a word processing glitch. The livestreaming was messed up due, apparently, to a wifi hiccup (though the recorded service is available on the website with just a bit missing from the beginning). School preparation was all messed up because at the last minute we had to switch to remote learning out of an abundance of caution. It was, as they say, “just one of those days,” and as easy day on which to think the world was rigged against you.
The world, however, is not rigged against us. We learn what we can from setbacks and move on. We find a pleasing theme worthy of being addressed to our Lord and King. The exciting news today is that no matter how disappointing, plain or laborious any aspect of our life together might be, we can trust that God is working through us in ways we can’t even see. If the glory of it remains hidden to us, God’s Word can open our eyes to what He is already doing through us and inspire our hearts to ever greater ways of serving Him.
That exciting news is not just a bunch of talk. It is an actual, concrete plan for St. Paul’s. Over the weekend Rev. John Nunes (president of Concordia-Bronxville, the one who was featured in the podcast about the church and racism back in May or June that so many of our members loved) agreed to lead a four week Bible study for St. Paul’s. He is a powerful speaker. He is also a writer. So he will lead our study toward a positive, uplifting sense of the future with a “tongue like the pen of a ready scribe.”
The study will cover many Bible verses, but will follow the format of his new book, Meant for More: In, With, and Under the Ordinary. Everyone in the congregation who chooses can join our staff and lay leadership though this book. The book is available from CPH or Amazon, or you can get a copy in the church office. There is a $16 suggested donation to cover the cost, but a generous donor has made sure nobody will be excluded for financial reasons.
The four week study will take place over zoom (Pr. Nunes had agreed to come lead a one day seminar in person back in the fall, but Covid had other plans) on Wednesday evenings from 7-8:00 p.m. starting January 20. The book is really a series of thematically related devotions and reflections, but they all address the very practical questions that individual Christians and congregations have in difficult times.
As your pastor I’ve tried to have the pen of a ready scribe throughout this pandemic, and it because I see such value in this opportunity that I truly hope the people of St. Paul’s will readily participate. Yes, you might not enjoy zoom, yes, reading might not be your favorite pastime, yes, the last thing we need is another appointment on the calendar, and yes, some of the content will challenge as well as inspire you. But also, yes, this study will be worth your time and energy, and yes, you’ll be better off for having participated. St. Paul’s as a congregation will be better off, too.
More details to follow, but again, please make the effort. Btw, this also means the Wednesday evening zoom Bible study on Revelation will not resume until after Easter. To those of you who can’t handle the suspense, just know it ends well.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
But all things should be done decently and in order. I Cor. 14:40
St. Paul was very familiar with the logistical issues of holding worship services. He addressed issues like how communion should happen and who should be preaching and teaching. So it comes as no surprise that a church named after him should encounter some of those issues and take his advice on how to address them—decently and in order.
This coming Sunday at 9:00 we will be holding an ushers’ meeting to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of how we come forward for communion, dismiss the sections, and even how we help people find a suitable place to sit. That’s because we’re encountering the joyous difficulty of dealing with bigger crowds. We want as many people as possible to come to church, but we also want everyone to be (and feel) safe while they are here.
Yesterday at the 9:30 service we had a large crowd. We had space available toward the front, but few people willing to sit there. We also had several families who were back in church for the first time in a long time and who were therefore unfamiliar with the communion process. We definitely want to continue having greater attendance, so we’re having the meeting to make sure we can do everything decently and in good order.
Some things you can do to help out if you are able and so inclined:
Also, listen for the following in the readings for this Sunday—“Do everything without grumbling or complaining.” An usher might ask you to move to a different seat in order to accommodate others. You might be asked to wear a mask. You might not agree with the procedures we have in place. But it is all doable by people of good will. But those who are contentious or obstinate will make everything uncomfortable for the larger group. It comes naturally to all of us sometimes, but especially in trying times we have to resist the urge to have a bad attitude.
We have holiday services on the horizon. We all want to be able to celebrate in church with Christ as the center. And do so decently and in good order, we’ll need to hone our procedures and policies. Everyone has a role to play in that that blessed, ongoing process.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”--
my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.
The beginning of every school year brings with is the standard warnings about the power of peer pressure. Sometimes we get swept up in something or carried away by the encouragement of others. When you do something you wouldn’t normally do because seeing enough other people doing it helps you overcome your inhibitions and fears, you are likely falling prey to what Solomon calls “the enticement of sinners.”
One grownup manifestation of the power of peer pressure (not the only one, but an obvious one) is the mob. People in mobs do things that they would never do all alone. And they rarely do anything wise. We all know this, yet we still find the encouragement of peer pressure to be almost overwhelmingly enticing. That’s because we crave approval and fear rejection. Standing up to peer pressure on the playground or to a mob on the street is a socially, emotionally, psychologically, and in some cases physically dangerous thing to do. Yet the ability to resist such enticements is right there in the first chapter of Proverbs as a prerequisite for growing in wisdom.
Last night a mob looted stores on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere in downtown Chicago, and exchanged gunfire with police. What a tragedy! The whole idea of that happening seems like something from a novel or movie. But it illustrates Solomon’s words in action. “Come…we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse.”
Wisdom always looks to God rather than leaning on its own understanding. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. One of the great benefits of being part of a congregation is that there, and only there, the power of the group works with wisdom rather than like a mob against wisdom. We are all somewhat weak in isolation. But the temptation to find safety in numbers often brings out the worst in us. However, at church we seek to bring out the best in each other by mutually focusing on Christ and His gifts.
In this time of ongoing difficulty getting together and sadly being socially distanced even while worshipping together, with no end in sight yet, we need to be reminded again and again that Christianity is not an individualistic religion and that our corporate membership in the Body of Christ and in a local congregation sustains us even when we are apart. We need the power of togetherness to combat the enticement of false group mentalities that appeal to the worst in us. We will continue to gather around the gifts of Word and Sacrament, remotely or in person, and trust in His providence to make sure we make it through anything that comes our way.
[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
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. James 1:22
We’re used to quoting St. John when we do Divine Service 1, when we begin by saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” Here St. James makes the flip-side point. If we say we have no good works to do or that we do not need to amend our sinful lives, we deceive ourselves. Your spiritual life was given to you as a gift, just like your physical life. But it needs to be nurtured, exercised, and fed.
When we think about the Gospel and salvation, we naturally think in terms of what God has done for us. Salvation isn’t something we do, nor is forgiveness something we earn. It is given to us for free. We are adopted into God’s family and declared to be His children by His Word of promise, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s faith-creating call.
But St. Paul and St. James both knew there was in innate tendency in all of us to hear the good news and think, “Oh. That’s nice. I’m going to heaven when I die,” and leave it at that. In other words, we think of the Gospel as something that doesn’t change anything in this life. St. James called that a “dead faith” that isn’t really faith. It deceives us because it claims eternal life while leaving the Old Adam, the sinful nature undisturbed. There is no new life without a killing of the old in contrition and repentance and the arising of the New Man to a life of righteousness. That is the daily struggle of the Christian life. Absent that struggle, there is no faith.
The Holy Spirit gives us faith in the call of God’s Word. He also “gathers, enlightens, sanctifies…” He makes us a part of a living body, He opens our eyes day by day through preaching and teaching to the realities of the kingdom of God, and He helps us always to be turning away from sin and temptation and to confess our sins when we fail.
At our voters’ meeting last night we all understood that nothing was happening as usual. We don’t really know what the future will bring. It is a time of testing in many ways. Times of testing call on us not to be mere hearers of God’s Word, but doers of it. While we are purely passive in the matter of salvation, we must not remain purely passive in the matter of Christian living. To do so would be to deceive ourselves.
One thing you can do in this time of separation is continue to make sure everyone you personally know at St. Paul’s stays connected. You might be that connection. When physical proximity doesn’t bring us together, nevertheless the mutual consolation of the brethren can continue. Praying for one another, giving a ride, chasing away loneliness for someone, delivering hard copies of the bulletins or updates to those who don’t have internet, and maybe watching the services together with someone who can’t figure out how to watch on their own. That’s the sort of thing that a congregation with living and active faith can be doing. And we could list a million other things. Nobody has nothing to do.
Thanks be to God, I’ve seen St. Paul’s rise to the occasion. How long it will last or what it will look like in the future nobody can say. But God’s Word continues to work and spread in our midst no matter how strange the times we live in might try to stop it.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment… I Cor. 1:10
St. Paul knew that worldly divisions and false teachings can both creep into a Christian congregation and destroy the unity we have by faith in Christ. When that happens, the immediate impulse is to separate into camps. That kind of disunity then leads to physical separation. But such separation is not God’s or St. Paul’s goal for a healthy congregation.
One of the great blessings of gathering for worship is that it forces us to focus on the eternal good we have in common rather than anything earthly that divides us. We see young, middle-aged, and elderly; single, married, and widowed; black, brown, and white; Republican, Democrat, and apolitical/other; people who seem to have it all together and people who struggle to make it through the day (and sometimes we guess wrong which are which). But we all receive the same blessings in Christ and are made a family.
The pandemic has caused most of us to participate in worship remotely. The ability to do that has blessed people tremendously. The gift of technology meant being stuck at home did not have to mean being cut off from God’s Word as proclaimed by our church family at St. Paul’s. The big stumbling block, of course, was how to receive communion remotely. We’ve hopefully overcome that hurdle for the time being by assuring our membership that we will bring communion to those who do not feel safe coming to church. But there is another stumbling-block to worshipping remotely that we might not even be aware of; worshipping at home allows one to withdraw into a “camp,” without even meaning to, safely unconfronted by the array of people God calls into His family here.
Selfishly, we miss our friends, of course, when we don’t get to see them on a Sunday. And that is a real hardship. But worshipping at home also provides the very dangerous, worldly benefit of allowing you not to see or think about the people in your church family you’re just as glad not to encounter in worship. Worshipping at home, the person with a MAGA hat out in the car is not confronted by the fact that the person he or she is singing with and in communion with has a RESIST hat out in the car, and vice versa. The one who thinks young people are misguided isn’t confronted by the faithful young person, and the young person who thinks old people just don’t care isn’t confronted by the caring elderly person. Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter are forced to realize their deeper unity when they worship together as baptized children of God. When they worship in their living room, though, they’re allowed to worship from within their own little mental/emotional/political shell.
All this is to say that unity has never been more important and never been more endangered. The temporary necessity of worshipping at home takes away one of the strongest forces for unity, which is worshipping together physically, and is happening when worldly divisions have never been more influential. My concern is that people are looking for ways to change to a new normal of worshipping remotely, and I think that new normal would be unhealthy for all of us.
Many things are beyond our control, of course, and each of us deals with a separate set of health risk factors relating to the pandemic. Those who are or who feel unsafe in worship should continue worshipping from home and receiving the gifts of grace through the proclaimed Word, and receiving communion periodically, if possible, via a pastoral home visit.
To those who are beginning to get out and about more now that the guidelines are loosening up, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to worship in person rather than remotely. If you are not at risk in public places where solid health guidelines are followed, make sure the church service is one of the places you physically come to rather than take in remotely. As St. Paul appealed to the Corinthians, I appeal to you—be a force for unity in the church family by being here if you are able. You will be blessed to be a blessing.
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. John 9:4
Rhythms define our life in this world. Waking and sleeping, working and resting, sowing and reaping all take on a regular pattern. Every day has a rhythm, as does every week, every month, and every year. Nothing is so unsettling as having your rhythm thrown off. Sports announcers will describe a struggling team as unable to find their rhythm, and when our patterns get disrupted the same thing happens. You stay up all night and your sleep pattern gets messed up. You’re late for work and your whole day is out of rhythm. Or this week, you start the week on Tuesday instead of Monday and everything seems off.
In the rhythm of the liturgical year, this week coming up is a big high point—the feast of Pentecost. In the secular calendar, this week marks the traditional start of summer even though the school year calendar is a bit behind and the actual solstice marking the actual start of summer is a bit further behind. This past Sunday heading into next Sunday would normally be the start of summer lull in church attendance and participation as people vacation or travel on the weekends. But everything is different this year. We’re off our rhythm, and the summer lull in church attendance is one of the rhythms that we’re better off without anyway. Now is our chance to get back into a better rhythm than the one we might have been comfortable in before we got thrown off.
This Sunday we’re going to live-stream the whole service for the first time rather than cut out before the Service of the Sacrament. Viewers at home will not be observing the people receiving communion, but will have the hymns displayed and the sound of the distribution going on. The intent is not to focus on any kind of exclusion but to restore all of our hope in the constancy of God’s good gifts.
One reminder. When livestreaming, please participate in the whole service. The electronic format makes skipping over the parts you don’t like as easy as a click, I know. But remember, worship primarily is God working on you, not you observing or offering your prayers and praise. Let all the parts of the service, even the ones you don’t enjoy, have their way with your “hearts and minds and voices.” You are the one begin transformed through that process whether you see and feel it immediately or not.
With our rhythm thrown off here at St. Paul’s, we have a really exciting, busy week ahead of us, with closing school chapel, a wedding rehearsal and wedding, confirmation practice and confirmation, normal church services, and school graduation. In whatever rhythm God sends us, the whole St. Paul’s family can keep working while it is day.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
…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!
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Ps. 122:1
Yesterday’s worship service brought with it a flood of unfamiliar feelings. For some, it might have been finally feeling the gladness the Psalm talks about after years of taking it for granted or not really appreciating it in church. For others, it might have been the sinking feeling of walking into the sanctuary and seeing roped off pews and all the social distancing measures in place. For others watching online, it might have been a keen yearning for the day when they, too, can attend church in the sanctuary safely, or in some cases resentment that for some people that day has arrived sooner than for most. Whatever the emotions, though, the promise remains the same. The service of the Word as livestreamed and the Word and Sacrament in person point us to our Risen Lord and, in different ways, give Him to us by faith.
The total attendance yesterday was 46. As expected and encouraged, the vast majority of the congregation remained unable to worship in person due to health concerns. That will likely remain the case for quite some time. Attendance will return slowly. Nobody should rush back or feel pressured to attend until it is safe for them. Nor should those who do return be condemned for doing something unsafe; we strictly followed every health guideline.
As we gradually move back into a regular worship schedule we will continue to livestream the services. Our congregation has done a commendable job of keeping in contact with one another and remaining united as a church family in this crisis. While such unity and harmony could be threatened if we focus on the distinction between those who are able to start returning to worship sooner and those who cannot yet even consider coming back, I don’t expect St. Paul’s to have much of a problem. I’ve been impressed at how people have rallied, and the gradual transition out of crisis mode in the coming months need not affect that. Rather, what we should look at is how both groups of people—those who can attend in person and those who cannot-- are able to illustrate a truth about worship in this world, which is that it is always only a foretaste of the feast to come.
Yesterday in the children’s message Jaymes Hayes talked about how Jesus went to prepare a place for us in God’s house. When we come to church, we’re coming to God’s house only in a prefigured way. We gather in God’s house here in this world to receive the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in God’s house in the world to come. People who yearn to be in church, in God’s house, every Sunday and who feel the separation most keenly are experiencing something that is true of the whole Christian life, which is that we yearn for the feast in God’s house that we have been promised. And people who can be in church on Sunday experience the foretaste of the feast to come, but they, too, sense the separation from their church family and the absence of so many of the brothers and sisters in Christ, and yearn for when we can all be together.
We all look forward to the day when we can be back in church together. But being back in church together is itself an exercise in looking forward to the Last Day, when we all, without hesitation or concern, without sin or regret, can be glad as we are ushered into the eternal house of the Lord. That day is coming for all of us. The promises in the Word and Sacraments are for all of us. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. I Cor. 9:13-14
When all this craziness began, I had secretly hoped that I would write up exactly 40 daily email updates before things went back to normal. That would have been a neat, meaningful, Biblical season. But alas, this is update number 41. It has all lasted longer than anticipated. I sometimes feel like the temporary changes we’ve made are just my new way of making a living for the foreseeable future.
Making a living. That’s a topic that has been on many people’s minds these past couple of months. With unemployment skyrocketing from record lows to extreme highs in a matter of a few weeks, even those who have kept their jobs have reasons to wonder how long it will last. The government has stepped in with various emergency measures to help people through, but uncertainty about the future certainly dominates any discussion of jobs and employment.
It can be difficult for church members to ask for help, but St. Paul’s does indeed offer confidential help to those in need. We have generous members who have been materially blessed who are more than willing to help others with groceries, for example. We just need to know where the needs are in order to be good stewards. Good stewardship and Scriptural practice informs all our dealings with those in need and with our employers and employees.
Did you know that St. Paul’s has 43 employees, about half of them full time? When you operate a substantial church and full preschool and K-8 school as well as after care, in a nearly 70,000 square foot facility on nearly 16 acres of land, well, that’s a pretty major undertaking. All of those people have a central or assisting role in what St. Paul compares to those “employed at the temple” in the Old Testament and those who “proclaim the Gospel” in the New Testament Church. They all, in whole or in part, make their living serving the Lord by serving His Church directly.
Everything St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School does revolves around preaching and teaching the Gospel. That is true for the one doing the actual preaching in the service, the one making sure the building is up to code, the one teaching a particular grade, the one answering the phones and running the office. Everyone doing anything here, be it full time, part time, or (for those in a position to do so) on a volunteer basis participates in the overall functioning our Gospel mission on behalf of all the members.
As your pastor I have felt very blessed not to be in fear of losing my livelihood during this strange time of not having normal church services. I think I speak for all of employees here in thanking the people of St. Paul’s for their dedication to the mission and to us. We have continued to function as a church and school, albeit in modified format, and have managed to pay our employees. The St. Paul’s membership has shown remarkable stewardship via online giving and dropping off or mailing in offerings. Overall, the offerings coming in have been down slightly, but not nearly as much as might have been the case given the lack of in person services and the sudden downturn in the economy. Again, thank you.
As responsible stewards, we did apply for and receive approval for the government loans designed to keep people employed in a time of potentially interrupted cash flow. We will know later whether/how much we’ll be repaying on those loans, but amid all the uncertainty, it made sense to cover all our bases and make sure that St. Paul’s did all we could to keep those who serve the mission here employed.
Our future, of course, is in the hands of our gracious God, and He does not generally share His plans in advance. Rather, He calls upon us to trust Him in any and every circumstance. We show that trust with our stewardship of all He has given us, including our bodies and health, our church family, our government and community, and the whole Gospel mission of St. Paul’s and everyone working in it. Thank you again for your faithful stewardship and for valuing everyone who works or volunteers here as part of God’s work in your life. May that mission continue to build you up in faith and service to our Lord wherever and however He has called you to serve.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana