Meant for More
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
What We Have Learned
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.
The Next Generation
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.
Jun 26: Seasonal Plans
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
June 8: Trinity Sunday
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
Even though it moves around on the calendar from year to year, I join many other pastors in thinking of the day of Trinity Sunday as the official start of summer. Other people go by Memorial Day or the end of the school year, but this is when all the big festivals marking Christ’s life and ministry are done and we move from the Christ half to the Church half of the year. The paraments in church turn green and stay that way for the most part all the way until Advent.
It is also a good time to focus on what we do here and why St. Paul’s exists. We baptize and teach. Always have, always will. Some of the external may change. The pastors and teachers come and go. The building undergoes modifications and changes. The format of how we do what we do adapts to suit the circumstances. But it is still always going to be the church gathered around Christ, who is with us always in Word and Sacrament. And by always, He specifies that this is the way He will be with us “to the end of the age.” Eventually He will come again and inaugurate the new, eternal age to come visibly, which we participate in now only by faith.
Sometimes it seems like we’ve got to be betting close to the end of the age. And who knows? Maybe we are. But Christians have always felt that way. The key is to view the time we have as a gift. We get the chance to keep baptizing, preaching and teaching Christ in the presence of Christ. It is up to God when to finally call it.
Sometimes the long, green half of the church year seems less inspiring than the festival-filled half. The temptation is to lose our zeal because things seem the same week after week and the themes seem less dramatic. But this is the Christian life. Every day won’t be your baptism, confirmation, or some holiday. The point of all those things is living your baptized life on regular, ordinary days like this one.
Some things can really deepen our faith in the this “ordinary time.” One of them is a ministry we support called Issues, Etc. which offers podcasts on a whole variety of topics. Yesterday we did the Athanasian Creed in church, which we do once a year on Trinity Sunday. It has some challenging truths in it. You can deepen your learning by going to this podcast.
Work while it is day. The flip side to baptizing and teaching is living baptized lives and learning. In that way Christ is with you to the end of the age.
June 3: Unsettling
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Ps. 4:8
Unsettling. If you have been following these daily updates from the beginning you might remember the first Sunday without church here, when I began the update with one word-- disorienting. Everything seemed off, wrong, somehow messed up being a pastor on Sunday morning and not having anything to do. Well, that was back when the pandemic was the only problem we faced. Today we have civil unrest, and again I want to start the update with one word—unsettling.
The massive stone wall across Calumet Avenue is an unsettling sight. Yes, it is there for understandable reasons, just like I was home on a Sunday for understandable reasons. But that wall is still unsettling. As a symbol, it seems like the sort of thing you see in war-torn countries that have been racked by chaos. We saw things like that on our trip to Egypt, for example. But we never expected to see things like that in Munster. It feels wrong, off, out of place, messed up, even if it makes perfect sense on a practical level.
Unsettling. In some ways, that is the point of civil unrest—to unsettle things that had settled in an unsatisfactory way. The settled state of ongoing tension and conflict between law enforcement and many minority communities needed to be unsettled. It was unsustainable. Its historical foundation was bad, leading in some cases to gross injustice and murder of people in custody and in other cases to people suffering in lawless neighborhoods where criminals worked with impunity. It couldn’t last. This can be time of re-examining assumptions, acknowledging problems, and rebuilding on a firmer foundation, so that what settles can benefit all citizens with just and fair law and order.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares the goal of just and fair law and order. People who oppose law and order generally tend to co-opt any unsettling situation and turn it into a frenzied time of lawlessness and destruction. Anarchists, common criminals, opportunists, and nihilists cling like leeches to peaceful protests. Hence the need for massive stone walls, police on every corner, and the constant threat of escalated confrontation. Sad. Necessary. Unsettling to look at.
Our St. Paul’s family includes people of all races and people of all political persuasions. We aren’t held together by anything worldly, we’re held together by something much stronger that cannot be unsettled. No matter what any of us is feeling or thinking about current events, we know our ultimate security, and our ultimate unity with each other, is in our Lord. We must resist dividing ourselves and our church family along the familiar lines the world is always categorizing us by. We have a deeper unity.
In that deeper unity, we give thanks for the ways God provides for us, including the many law enforcement officers and first responders in our congregation who volunteer to risk their lives protecting people of all races and who serve honorably. In that unity, we pray for victims of injustice, including injustice at the hands of dishonorable or racist first responders, and for a more just society to emerge from this time of unrest. In that unity we pray for peace across worldly dividing lines of any kind. And in that unity we thank God for the law and order in which are privileged to live, asking him to allow everyone in our midst to enjoy the comfort and security of that blessing.
But in the end it is not the stone wall that allows us to sleep soundly at night. It is the promise of the Gospel, that this fallen world is redeemed in Christ, that we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are children of the heavenly Father. In that knowledge, and only in that knowledge, we can rest secure in any unsettling situation, for God alone makes us dwell in safety.
May 29: Anchor for the Soul
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.
May 25: Greater Love
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
This Memorial Day as we wrap up the Easter season we remember not only THE spiritual, eternal, once and for all death of Jesus on behalf of those He calls His friends, but we also honor all those who in strictly temporal terms made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the armed services. The pandemic and the unprecedented measures to contain it have also brought up all kinds of constitutional issues concerning who has the authority to do what and how we can responsibly exercise the freedoms so many people died fighting for.
In 2012 the LCMS launched a Free to be Faithful initiative, for which I wrote an essay. I invite you to take time this Memorial Day to read it and reflect on the issues it raises. Even if we cannot observe this solemn day at some public gathering, we can consider our calling as Christians in civil society and as inheritors of a great nation. I hope you’ll take the time to read it today, and that your day is blessed.
May 19: What Did We Expect?
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:10-11
“What did you expect?” That’s usually a semi-accusatory response you might get from someone when you express disappointment. The gist of the accusation is that things didn’t turn out wrong. Rather, your prior expectation that they would turn out differently was unrealistic. Disappointment is always a function of expectations. If you never expect much, you’re never disappointed. If you always expect a great deal, you’re very often disappointed.
For Christians, the better question is what do we expect? Our expectations define our whole lives. We expect everything to work out for the good of those who live in God. We expect the dead to be raised. We expect everlasting life. We expect to made perfect.
When we go by sight, we’re constantly disappointed. Things don’t always seem to be working out for the good of God’s people. In fact, in some times and places it seems like the exact opposite is true. Death seems to have the final word, and the grief of separation is what seems eternal. We look upon the paltriness of our own lives, our lack of true holiness, and inability to overcome sin, and if anything we just get more and more disappointed with ourselves. It would be a sign of dubious spiritual health if we started to more and more satisfied with ourselves rather than more and more discontent with our sinfulness. If we aren’t disappointed when going by sight, we have reason to double-check that our expectations align with God’s Word and our vision of what is happening is really clear.
The history of the Christian Church as we know it begins with Acts, Chapter 1. The promise given by the two mysterious white-robed men invites us to go by faith, not by sight. Faith is the only way to live by a promise. Jesus was taken from their sight precisely so that they must proceed by faith. So has the Church lived ever since. We expect perfection and have the only balm for everything that falls short of it, which is forgiveness. Christ Ascends to the throne of God, sends the Holy Spirit into this world, and the whole history begins of God’s people living by faith in His fulfilled death and resurrection.
This Thursday is Ascension. Pastor Gumz of Trinity, Hammond has spent a great deal of effort putting together a video service involving all the circuit churches and pastors. We will give you information on how to access that service this week, so that our tradition of having a circuit-wide celebration of Christ’s Ascension can continue uninterrupted.
The important thing is neither the tradition nor the technology that makes it possible to continue. The important thing is the Ascension itself, which teaches us that our expectations of God can never be too great, our disappointment with our own sin can never be too great, and our faith in Christ to bridge the gap can never be too great. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia!
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3:5-8
Sometimes our practical, worldly problems overwhelm us. It is hard to see the value in reading the Bible, praying, and focusing on spiritual things when bodily things and the necessities of life demand our constant attention. Proverbs provides a good intersection between the spiritual and the physical, the theological and the practical, eternal life and regular life in this world. Proverbs 3:1-12 seems to make some very this-worldly assurances. The odd verses tell you what to do, and the even verses tell you what the reward of that will be. So, for example, in the quotation above, verse 5 tells you to trust God, and verse 6 say that if you do that, He will make your path straight. So far, so good. But what about the more tangible matters? Verse 4 promises success not only in God’s eyes but in the eyes of the world as well. Verse 8 seems to refer to physical health. Verse 10 refers to personal finances. Do we really turn to the Scriptures on those matters?
In the last two months, physical health has been on everyone’s mind first and foremost, either directly because of the virus or indirectly because of the added roadblocks to eating right and exercising. (I know I’ve gained over ten pounds!) Personal finances has been a close second as whole sectors of the economy have collapsed and people wonder about jobs and bills with no answers in sight. Social distancing has tested the strength of our relationships; we suddenly have to endure the long absence of the constant, unavoidable presence of the people in our lives. We have not offered church in the normal way. This pandemic has had the potential to take a serious toll on every kind of health—physical, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual.
Sometimes hardships in all these areas can seem like God punishing us. But Prov. 3:12 wraps up all the practical advice with the assurance that even the hardships in our lives show God’s love to those whose eyes are open to it. The preceding verses do not provide as much of a recipe for achieving your ambitions but a way of looking at every aspect of worldly health in light of God’s love. When we begin with trust in the Lord, we do indeed find success in the eyes of the only people whose opinions matter. We really do find that we have more than enough. We do not fear living a life that is too long or too short.
I wish I could tell you that everything is okay in a worldly sense in your life. But I don’t have access to any particular information that you don’t have about viruses, unemployment, the stock market, or any other practical matter. But I can draw your attention to the promises of Scripture. If this shut-down has taken its toll on your physical health, your financial future, or your personal relationships, it can also be God’s loving reproof to being the healing of your whole person with first things first—your faith. We who know of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell have every reason for confidence as we trust in the Lord with all our heart. And if this pandemic jolts us into getting our spiritual lives in better order by seeking first the kingdom of God, the rest will follow in God’s loving ways and time. God’s got this. All of it. He’s got you. All of you, every aspect of your life. Trust the one who loves you more than you can possibly know, and lean not on any worldly way of looking at things.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana