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.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. Ps. 46:6
Injustice. Anger. Unrest. Collateral damage. What a terrible series of events just as we were beginning to reopen from the lock-down.
I suppose if you had a time machine you could go back six months and it would seem like taking a vacation in a strange wonderland where there just weren’t a lot of pressing problems. Record employment levels and wage growth, no wars going on (foreign or domestic), no pandemic or rules about distancing. People came to church and stood around chatting over coffee and donuts afterwards. The news talked endlessly about who had lied to whom about whose dealing with Russia, because, hey, you have to talk about something to keep a 24 hour news cycle going.
On one hand, fantasizing about such a trip in a time machine should make us realize how blind we typically are to the good things in life. We didn’t think of it as a wonderland six months ago, and probably weren’t as grateful then as we would be now to experience it. But on the other hand, having such a time machine would make us realize that today isn’t all that unusual.
Suppose you went back to 1919. Mangled WWI veterans were everywhere, and demanding benefits the government had promised them but not delivered on. The Spanish Flu, a pandemic far worse than Covid was ravaging the country and the world. Race riots that dwarf anything we’ve seen this year rocked New York City and many other urban centers. Organized crime was gearing up to make hay of the impending Prohibition, which was being finalized to go into effect the next year.
Or fast forward to, say, 1933. Persistent, inexplicable, record high temperatures were rendering much of the country into the Dust Bowl. Fascists and Communists were fighting for control of Europe. Domestically, migrations of people looking for work caused constant social strife. The economy was in tatters and unemployment was at record high levels. Groups of people all over the country were reduced to living in tent cities outside of towns.
1942? 1968? We sometimes forget how frightening such times may have been to live through because we see how they worked out. The point is not to downplay the problems we face today, but to look to the one constant—the raging of the nations, and the fact that God is with us still.
If we took our time machine forward instead of back, we might find ourselves in a strange wonderland in terms of technology but in a dystopian wasteland in some other ways, and it might make us think of today as an unappreciated gem of a day. Who knows? But it is a safe bet that the nations will be raging and the God of Jacob will be our fortress. Thankfully, we don’t have a time machine. Thus, we get to take one day at a time, experiencing the passing good things with gratitude and the particular challenges without fear.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana