When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Ps. 126:1
Psalm 126 is about the return of the exiles to their home. For years and years, God’s people in captivity told themselves that some day they were going home. And what a great day that would be. They daydreamed about it, envisioned it, and built their homecoming up in their imaginations into something too glorious to describe. And when it really happened, they felt like they were dreaming. It felt as great as they’d thought it would. They felt like they must still be dreaming.
Have you ever watched people experiencing something they thought would never happen? May it is something they always thought would be too good to be true, something they talked idly about all the time only to be told, “Yeah, keep dreaming.” Then one day the dream becomes a reality. “Can you believe we’re actually doing this? This is really happening!” There is a surreal flavor to impossible goodness that somehow manages to materialize in our lives.
The really amazing thing about the Israelites returning home is that their home was in much worse shape than they’d left if generations prior. Yet it seemed too good to be true to them. Why didn’t it seem like that before they went into exile, when it was in much better shape? They didn’t walk around as though in a stupor about how great everything was before they left. But they do when they return.
Sometimes the things that are so good they seem surreal aren’t the amazing things that seem so impossible because they only happen to a few people, like being MVP of the Super Bowl and holding up the trophy, or getting elected president and sitting in the oval office for the first time. Rather, sometimes the very greatest things, the things so good we can’t even believe they are real, are the normal things that we’d thought we’d never do again. Someone recovers from an illness or some terrible accident, maybe someone who thought they might never again get out of bed or be able to walk. Then they recover against all odds, and they think, “Look at me! I’m outside! I’m going for an evening walk like it is no big deal. What a glorious thing!” They never felt that away about evening walks before, but now they seem so great as to be surreal.
Sometimes when you see the full effect of a gradual change it seems amazing. The kids return to school looking very different. If you see them every day you don’t notice. When several months of gradual growth and change confront you all at once, it startles you. “Look at how tall you got!” “Can you believe that is the same kid?”
This first day of school has always included such startling changes. And when you consider that we’re welcoming the students back after a five month absence, we’re confronted suddenly by an even greater amount of gradual change than usual. Added to it this year are all kinds of surreal images, like kids showing up in masks and getting their temperature taken before entering the building. What an odd sight. St. Paul’s students of prior generations would certainly see it as foreign to their experience.
On the other hand, the first day of school is finally here! It is a great feeling to be up and running again, and it makes us realize how much we took for granted in the past. The day will come, we pray, when everything is back to normal. But who knows? Things change. There is no permanent normal. As for today, as I listen to kids singing across the hall (though masks, standing apart, which takes a lot of effort to sound as excited as they do) I’m reminded that God is constantly restoring the fortunes of His people. His mercy never fails. No time of exile lasts forever. We can run as school as people who dream, not because everything looks so odd and different this year, but because we see in real time what we too often see only in retrospect, which is what a privilege it is to see God’s faithfulness and inexhaustible goodness in action in the lives of children through His church.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Rom. 10:14-15
These famous words from St. Paul describe the chain by which grace from God gets to the individual Christian. That chain includes faith, the Word, preaching, and the congregation and wider Christian community. How will someone in the future be a faithful Christian? Because God will reach them through congregations that gather around preaching and teaching of the Word and send people around the world and across the generations to perpetuate it.
For a couple of years here at St. Paul’s we have been focused on the next generation. Will today’s little children grow up to learn the faith and pass it along? Forty years from now, will today’s six year olds be bringing their own children to church, teaching them the faith at home, and also educating them in the Word in a Christian school? Who can say?
But we can apply the same kind of chain reasoning to that question. Today’s six year olds will not mature in the Word if they cannot read. And they won’t learn to read without teachers and books. And there won’t be any Christian teachers or classrooms if the Christian community doesn’t raise them up and equip them. We can’t guarantee that anyone will believe the Word they are taught, but we can guarantee that they won’t believe it if they aren’t taught it.
Today we’re getting ready for another school year that starts on August 18. Covid, of course, has forced our faculty and staff to make major changes to our schedule and procedures, but through the faithful work of many people, most notably our principal Barb Mertens, who has followed all the guidelines and mandates closely and found ways to allow for safe, in-person school. We’re also dealing with some other changes. Our resource teacher, Mary Beth Hutcheson, and our 1stgrade teacher, Cathi Hansen, have retired. We’ll be recognizing and giving thanks for their many years of faithful service in church on August 16 when we rededicate the teachers for another school year.
Due to all the craziness this summer, at school and in people’s personal lives, we had less time than we normally have to plan the transition to new teachers. Thankfully, we have trained, experienced people in the St. Paul’s community who were ready, willing, and able to step in. Lisa Smith will be our resource teacher, and Zina Bachert will be our 1st grade teacher, and everyone is pulling together to make it a great year.
One of the last pieces of the puzzle is equipping the 1st grade classroom. We need the books and décor to make it a great learning environment. Yes, we have desks and chairs and text books. But we need the whole panoply of young reader books that learners need in order to excel. How can they read if they have not learned? How can they learn if they have no books? God has given us the teachers, the classroom, and the students. Let’s do all we can to make that gift likely to blossom forty years from now into yet another generation of faithful Christians.
If you are in a position to donate first grade level books in good condition or donate toward the purchase of books, posters, and classroom materials, please do so. Just mark the checks as for that purpose or give Amazon gift cards (even electronically), or bring the physical books to office. We can sort through and take it from there. I know I can count on the St. Paul’s community to be a strong link in the chain from God’s grace to individuals in the next generation of the Christian Church.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana