And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, Matt. 14:23
This little verse is wedged between the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand and then Jesus catching up to the disciples in the boat by walking on water. William Wordsworth wrote a famous poem that begins, “The world is too much with us…” and it would seem he and Jesus agree on that. Everybody, even Jesus, needs a getaway, a timeout, a time and place to let your mind breathe and your soul pray.
Today we live in a paradoxical situation; loneliness is epidemic, but there is also no place to go to get away from the world. People are stuck in their homes, especially if they live in retirement communities. But the internet brings the world everywhere. The world is too much with us. We panic when we’re unplugged, unconnected, out of touch, yet our constant connection to the world takes the place of genuine connection to other people and private connection to God. We’ve never been more immediately connected to the world and more isolated from genuine relationships.
Where do you go to get away? If your phone is there, or the tv is on, are you really getting away? When do you take time for devotions and prayer? Realizing that the sun will rise without you requires spiritual discipline. We like to keep ourselves busy because then we feel important and that we aren’t wasting time. But Jesus didn’t view it like that.
On the other, vegging is not getting away, either. Jesus didn’t plop himself down with a dumb magazine and a drink and call it “me time.” There is a discipline to it—a heightened awareness, a stilling of the spirit before God, a separation from the hustle and bustle of the world. It isn’t the same thing as selfish giving into sloth and bodily appetite. If it is “me time” it is only so by being “God time” first, since God is the only one who really knows you. He builds up, repairs, gives rest in ways that give genuine peace and rest. He is for you in far better ways than anything you can do if you try to be for yourself.
I hope this vacation season provides you with the sense of perspective that comes from getting out of your routine and your usual setting. I hope it gives you pause and rest and renewed spirit and sense of purpose. I hope it doesn’t feature endless selfies on social media, a 24/7 news cycle, or mere vegging out, but a genuine retreat from the world that is too much with us that is also an approach to a deeper relationship with God and with the loved ones He has placed in your life.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
Lately Heidi has been reading a chapter of Charlotte’s Web aloud every morning after devotions. It is a familiar, beloved story. My favorite detail is the description of the crickets’ song before the big county fair. “Summer is over and gone, over and gone… Summer is over and gone, over and gone.” Even the first time I heard the story as a kid, that way of interpreting the sound of cricket seemed so sad and yet so beautiful at the same time that I never forgot it. I even opened a sermon with those words one time at the beginning of the school year.
Today, of course, summer has just begun. The days have only this week started getting imperceptibly shorter, and most of the big summer traditions, like fireworks, pool parties, and vacations, are still ahead of us. But so many of them won’t be the same this year. This year it seems like it isn’t just a season, it is an era that is over and gone, over and gone. When will things go back to normal? Maybe it is a new normal.
Will church ever be what it was? Will parades and county fairs be what they were? Storefront sidewalk sales? Park league baseball?
Such unknowns and major changes often fill people with anxiety. Sometimes that anxiety comes out in anger, despair, or complete disengagement. Sometimes we simply indulge in nostalgia. But I think it a more hopeful and constructive approach to remember that there is a time for everything under heaven. There was a time in God’s plan for the season, stage of life, or era that is passing. And the next season, stage of life, or era is also something God has allotted a time for. It is sad, but it can also be beautiful to witness the changes and transitions.
The important thing for Christians to remember is that God Himself came into world “under heaven” not only to redeem it but to give us citizenship in an eternal kingdom, about which crickets will never sing that it is over and gone or that it is dying.
Even when “change and decay in all around I see” we know that the God “who changest not” will abide with us. All times and seasons are His, and His love for us is eternal.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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
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.
“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.
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. Prov. 10:12
Sometime around the beginning of Advent late in 2017, when I was still on Facebook and learned the hard way that social media didn’t always bring out the best and wisest in people, I embarked on an ambitious plan to post a short reflection each day on a single verse of Proverbs, from chapters 10:1—22:16. Some of you may remember reading them (or least having to scroll past them). Each verse in that section of the book contains a single, self-contained proverb by King Solomon. I figured Wisdom Literature would be just the thing to counteract so much of the nastiness and nonsense that swirls around in cyberspace.
I thought of that project recently when I was trying to address some of the frustrations that can boil to the surface in stressful times. People can endure a lot, but time wears us down and uncertainty unsettles us. Nerves fray and tempers flare when frustration gets the best of us. Those are the very times when the Word of God can lead us to examine ourselves and drive us to the foot of the cross and the joyous new life of unconquerable love in Christ. One of the very shortest posts in that project happens to be about Prov. 10:12, so I’ve included it in italics below.
If you string together the synonyms used in the various translations, you get something like “Hatred stirs up strife/quarrels/dissension/contention/judgment/conflict, but love covers all offenses/transgressions/sins/wrongs/evil things.”
In both cases, something on the inside, an attitude of the heart and mind, transforms the outside in its own image. Hatred is simply enmity existing on the inside, which is made manifest in conflict on the outside. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes this point about hatred, anger, and lust—it isn’t just the outward action that the Law condemns, but the inner, sinful heart-source of that action.
Luther called original sin “self curved in on itself.” We’re supposed to be outwardly focused in love, like the God who made us in His image. But the essential self-centeredness of our sin makes the inner conflict between the self and others unavoidable. Lust, envy, hatred, revenge—they are simply the self-centered objectification of other people for the purposes of the self, which expresses itself in strife and conflict.
Love does the same thing in reverse, in a healing way. This is the lesson of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree or Beauty and the Beast—when an ugly, bad thing is loved anyway, which happens via forgiveness and charity—in time it can become beautiful and good. Love is inherently selfless and forgiving, which also makes it transformative. As the Psalm 32 says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
As this shut down continues, if at any time frustration, impatience, irritation, or hopelessness seem to overwhelm you, remember that such things comes from inside people and are part of the human condition always. More importantly, remember that you are blessed because you are forgiven. And in light of the Proverb, realize that such forgiveness from Christ calls and empowers you to be a force for Love in your home, community, and world. Your mission is not to get your way, vent, or put people in their place, but to bring peace where there is strife, joy where there is gloom, and comfort where there is hurt. Your old sinful nature won’t be inclined to do that, but Christ in you certainly will! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. Eccl. 1:8
Sigh. A gray, snowy morning, which would be such a welcome, exciting thing on, say, the day after Thanksgiving or the Friday before Christmas, can be just wearisome in the second half of April. It seems like this winter has been all length and no depth. We had snow for Halloween and All Saints’ Day, and now again almost six months later, but not very much in between, when people might have enjoyed it with Christmas lights or gone sledding. I’ve always been impatient with uncooperative, irksome weather. It seems like everything would go such so much better if I were in charge of such things. Sigh.
Sometimes the little things get us down more than the big things. Have you ever noticed that the moment when people finally get angry or start crying or give up is usually when some minor setback happens? In a movie, the heroin will endure unimaginable suffering and loss with stoic resolve, but start crying when her grocery bag breaks and everything falls out and makes a mess. Or the guy will get fired and find out his wife is leaving him and just grit his teeth, but then go nuts on the fast food employee that got his order wrong. It isn’t that the little setbacks add so much to the big burdens we carry. It is that such minor irritations added to all the big things make it seem like the universe is just taunting you.
So it is for everyone who is going through this pandemic. Some people are afraid for their lives. Others aren’t afraid at all, and wondering why they had to lose their jobs. Some are losing hope. Others are losing patience. People are enduring major, major problems and disruptions, compared to which crazy weather, or a broken dishwasher, or the internet going out in the middle of an online assignment, seem petty and paltry. But when added to all the big burdens, it is those little thing that might drive us anger or tears.
Today the Confirmation class is finding out that their big day is being rescheduled and remains tentative. Today someone is trying to celebrate a birthday without any friends able to come over. Today someone is cancelling the family reunion they’ve been planning for years. It seems a tad crass to compare such things to the major suffering people are enduring out there. But such things are still crosses to bear, even if they aren’t so dramatic. Yours is the only life you can live. Your happiness and sadness matter as much as anyone’s.
Nothing is too little or too big to pray about. Pray for an end to the Coronavirus. Pray also for a good spelling test or for a good meal together with the family. If it matters to you, it matters to God. He is your loving Father. Never be ashamed to take your little burdens as well as you big burdens to the foot of the cross and lay them down, or lift them up to the throne of grace in prayer. God won’t necessarily give you your way, but He will remind you that what you are enduring, be it little or big, is not the universe taunting you, nor you being forgotten about. He knows your hopes and disappointments, and He loves you more than you know.
All things are wearisome? On their own, maybe. But not in the context of redemption and the victory of Christ. Today is a gift. It is an opportunity. Your Lord is with you even as this frustration grows and the shutdown drags on. Take everything, no matter the size of it, to the Lord in prayer. He would give anything—He did give everything—to have that relationship with you! Secure in that knowledge, you can handle anything with His help, even another day like this.
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.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana