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
Love…does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; I Cor. 13:5
As the summer ripens and the pandemic wears on, what people once did with a can-do spirit of all being in this together can degenerate into irritability. The novelty has worn off. The health information keeps changing. The news is a vexation to the spirit, and the election years are always annoying. All the normal escapes, like sports, theaters, and restaurants are either closed or difficult to take advantage of. The stage is perfectly set for God’s family to start squabbling. What’s the matter with those people who don’t see things the way we do?
So far we haven’t had problems. St. Paul’s has really proven itself resilient and full of people of good will looking out for one another. I want to be proactive about first, thanking everyone for your prayers, willingness to adapt and help, and just generally putting up with a lot in these times. Secondly, because I’m grateful things haven’t turned sour at St. Paul’s but I know the conditions are ripening for that to happen, I want to head off that potential future setback by focusing everyone’s attention today on the Bible verse above.
Verses like I Cor. 13:5 don’t really come into play much when things are really good and there is nothing to be irritable about. Nobody (except chronic complainers) has a problem with a nice picnic in the perfect spot with beautiful weather. Nor do such verses usually come into play when things are really, really bad; nobody complains about the minor annoyances of a picnic during a tornado, either. When things are really good or really bad, it is easy (well, still hard for us sinners, but easier than normal) to be flexible, to go along with the normal give and take of life together, and not to be irritable or resentful.
But sticky humidity and a cloud of mosquitoes can do worse things to our attitude than any tornado. It is for those kids of days we need to be reminded that Love does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful. Sometimes irritations can do more harm to us spiritually than catastrophes.
One of the things that has gone quite well but not by any means perfectly is the way we come forward for communion. We’re working on simplifying and clarifying the process. This week the plan is to have ushers (if available) and markings on the floor so that everyone is perfectly clear about what to do.
Also, we’re setting aside the far south section (far left when you’re facing the altar) for those who agree to wear masks throughout the service, so that those who feel they cannot risk being near unmasked people can still attend if they choose. That section will be ushered out first, and will have the side door directly to the outside available so that they do not need to go through the narthex.
Thanks again for being the family of God in this place!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
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.
“Keep your life free from the love from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” Heb. 13:5a
This morning our economic stimulus check arrived from the IRS via direct deposit to my bank account. I don’t know what to think about that in terms of economics or politics. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about it.
I could feel happy. Why not? Free money! Who wouldn’t be happy about that? I could feel guilty. After all, it is money I did not earn and I’m not among the people who have lost their jobs and businesses. I could feel outraged about the strange set of government decisions leading up to such an odd circumstance, which seems to violate much of what I normally consider to be responsible fiscal and regulatory policy. Confused? Cynical? Thrilled? I could feel a lot of things. So might you.
But of all the things I might have felt, you know how I did feel? Embarrassing as it is to admit, the first, fleeting feeling (thankfully it only lasted half a moment until I was able to laugh at myself over it) was disappointment. You know why? Because it was Because it was less than I thought it would be. I thought four of our children would be eligible, but it turns out only three them were. I quickly chided myself for reacting so selfishly, but if I’m honest I can’t claim I never had that fleeting reaction.
That’s how quickly inflated expectations and a sense of being owed something can rob us of contentment. Gratitude, by contrast, brings with is instant contentment. The Hebrews verse quoted above is not just some law that is there is show us how greedy we are (though it can do that!); it is practical advice to those who know their God and want the good gifts He gives. Contentment with little is a greater gift than possession of much.
Even more so than a check from the IRS, everything in all of creation is a gift. Your body, your time, your story—you didn’t earn it. It was just given to you. Receive it with gratitude, and contentment will follow no matter your circumstance. Think of it all as something you have coming to you by rights and disappointment and bitterness will follow, again no matter your circumstance.
The truth of God’s Word apply to normal and abnormal circumstances. The Commandments and Creed cannot be temporarily suspended by order of the governor or replaced by the largesse of the federal treasury. What we learn in “normal” times applies to difficult, extreme, uniquely challenging times. Conversely, the lessons we learn by enduring those challenging times apply even to normal times. No matter what the circumstance, knowing that God is for you leads to a sense of security and contentment, even where such feelings might seem most out of place.
Greed and complaining are always out of place, no matter how naturally they come to us. I’ve heard lots of good ideas from people about what they plan to do with the stimulus checks. Some focus on the secular purpose—stimulating the economy in the short term. Some focus on just making it through by paying their own bills. Some focus on spiritual things and charity. My goal is not to tell you what to do with it. My goal is to continue to teach by word and by example the truth of God’s Word during this shutdown. And I know that contentment is a gift God wants for you, and that you have an innate tendency to rob yourself of it with ingratitude.
Here’s an assignment. Look up the rest of verse 5 quoted above from Hebrews and keep reading the next few verses. I guarantee they apply to you whether you are sick, unemployed, overworked, irritated, lonely, or anything in between. A reminder that God is on your side does wonders for your day.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
[Jesus said to His disciples], “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Ever since the first Pentecost fulfilled this promise to the disciples, the Gospel has spread. C.S. Lewis called it something like a good virus. It spread via contact from person to person as people told the good news and exemplified Christian living for each other. Jesus’ words picture Jerusalem as the epicenter and beginning of this good virus, which quickly spreads to the surrounding region of Judea (Judah), then Samaria (the old northern kingdom when Israel was dividing into two kingdoms, Judah and Israel) and gradually beyond that to the Gentiles all over the globe. And His words have been largely fulfilled in our day, though missionaries constantly seek out people who have had no exposure to the Good News.
Modern technology has accelerated the process by bypassing some of the person-to-person that made evangelism depend upon location and geography and spread like a good virus. Beginning especially with radio and then television but now going pedal to the metal with live-streaming, people proclaiming the Gospel can be talking to people in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth all at the same time without even knowing it. I know some people have participated in our services here at St. Paul’s from many states and even foreign countries. What a strange and wonderful tool for the Word! Not since the invention of the printing press has there been such an explosion of new opportunities for people to receive the Gospel.
One effect of St. Paul’s begin able to share our services with the entire globe is that any particular member of St. Paul’s has literally tens of thousands of services and sermons available to them at the push of a button every Sunday. Without leaving their homes, people can listen to the preaching of pastors, ministers, and priests of every denomination. Handy, convenient, amazing, and wonderful as that situation is for the propagation of the faith, it is also perplexing and in some cases dangerous. There can be too many voices contradicting each other, and some can be wolves in sheep’s clothing with spiritually poisonous teachings. After all, anyone can say anything in cyberspace. If we can make good use of live-streaming, we can bet Satan is also fully in tune with the possibilities of the internet.
While we praise and thank God that we can preach and teach online during this pandemic, we also have to be aware of the downside to every home having instant access to a veritable Babel of preaching and teaching. So next week we’re going to start a new Wednesday evening Bible study looking at the various teachings of different denominations and how they are similar or different from what we preach and teach here. Everyone is welcome to participate, and the Zoom info will come out on Monday.
We hope to continue the Wednesday evening Bible study even after things return to some semblance of normal, as we had been doing last fall and earlier in the winter. But for now we’ll do it online. Look for info in Monday’s update. Also, bear in mind that everyone is welcome to “attend” via zoom the Thursday morning Bible study, which is beginning the book of Hebrews this week, and the Sunday morning Bible study, which is doing Colossians. Please join us as you’re able, and offer to help those you may know who aren’t able to join us on their own.
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.
Lenten greetings to the St. Paul’s family,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We should thank God for the technology that allows us to stay connected somewhat during a time a separation. As we temporarily try to worship together without being together “in the flesh”, so to speak, we rejoice at the gift of electronic communication. But I want to highlight the importance of the physical and some of the pitfalls of online worship, so that we all get the most out of the opportunity to worship remotely without falling into any spiritual snare.
Most obviously, watching worship is not the same thing as worshiping. Please don’t tune in to our services the same way you would to a tv show. This will be harder than it seems. Speak the words of the creed, don’t just listen to them. Pray, don’t just listen to the prayers. Sing the hymns and liturgical parts aloud, don’t just have them in the background like a radio. (Again, make sure you have a hymnal in your home—you can check one out from church.) It will seem strange doing this out loud in your house, especially with other people sitting on the couch or across the room. But so be it. Unlike watching a movie, in worship, you are a participant, not an observer. In fact, making a point of this will help us all even when we can be back in church, because we all have a tendency to lapse back into the role of observer even when we’re sitting in the pews.
More importantly, doing things remotely can give us the mistaken impression that the Church is an abstraction, a mere idea, rather than a concrete reality. If we mistakenly believe that worshiping remotely is the same thing, basically, as worshiping in person, then we’re missing out on one of the great mysteries and gifts of Christianity. In the Church, you, that is, your flesh and blood, are being incorporated (note the root of that word!) into the Body of Christ and therefore God.
Consider God for a moment. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess, “I believe that God has made me…” How? Did he just imagine an idea of you? No. He made you a flesh and blood thing, and used physical means. Spoiler alert for any young children who may be reading this, but there was icky, physical contact and biology involved in God’s work. Babies are not abstractions, nor are they begotten in the abstract. Yet we confess that the making of every human being is/was a holy act of the Creator with eternal, spiritual ramifications.
And consider Jesus. He came in the flesh. That is of crucial (literally) importance for the faith. There is no Jesus apart from flesh and blood. God became a Man. We don’t put our trust in the abstract idea of God being nice and loving and merciful. We put our faith in the concrete, fleshly manifestation of the Truth. Countless ancient heretics have tried to get around the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, but to no avail. There is no Christianity or Church without it.
So far so good. But now consider the Holy Spirit. How does He work to create faith and give us new life? In purely spiritual ways unconnected to the flesh? No! He works through means. One of those means, the spoken or written Word, can be communicated remotely via electronic media to flesh and blood eyes and ears. But that is not the extent of the Spirit’s activity. C.S. Lewis, in his famous book Mere Christianity expressed the gist of the idea this way:
“And let me be clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean something simply mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps this explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like Baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution* [*meaning gradual transformation, not the theory of origins]—a biological or super-biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not. He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
This is why we treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul says any individual Christian’s sexual immorality is a sin against the whole Body of believers. This is why we put so much emphasis in funerals on the resurrection of the body, not just souls going to heaven. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Life Together book we went through last fall, said Christians in isolation quite rightly long for the physical presence of other Christians, who bring with them in their person the presence of Christ.
This is one reason the writer to the Hebrews instructed Christians not to stop meeting together. This is a big part of the problem with Christians trying to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is the main reason we bring communion to the homebound even though they can worship regularly via some electronic format. Christians have long struggled to understand how Christ can offer us His body and blood in the Sacrament, but it has always been obvious that the real presence of our own body and blood is a prerequisite for receiving that spiritual gift.
So, again, we give thanks for the opportunity to be fed with a Service of the Word via electronic media. It is a huge blessing, especially on a temporary basis in a time of necessity. But it can never be the ideal, or even an adequate solution in the long term. Our efforts will remain a work in progress. Every way of doing this – Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, etc.—has its pros and cons. There are copyright issues, sound quality issues, access issues (e.g. not everyone uses Facebook), etc. So please be patient as we find our way, and please help one another participate. And really participate, don’t just watch.
We look forward to the day when we can gather as God’s family in this place and receive all the gifts He has for us. Until then, let us receive the Word gratefully and resolve to be Christ to our neighbor however God enables us.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Questions about why God allows natural disasters to happen are as perennial as the disasters themselves, and those question invariably lead to the question of punishment. If Christ bore God’s wrath for the sin of the world on the cross, why is there any punishment left over in the form of plagues and disasters? If specific people or particular sins bring down God’s wrath, why do innocent people also suffer? And if God really is God, why doesn’t He do anything to stop all this?
The disciples in yesterday’s reading who asked Jesus why the man was born blind weren’t interested in blindness in general or its relationship to the Fall of mankind into sin. They were interested in what, specifically, this particular blind man did, or maybe his parents did, that resulted in God making him blind. Jesus, by contrast, simply points to what God was accomplishing by making the man born blind. As Pastor Stock pointed out in his sermon, when we see by the light of the cross, we see things truly.
By the light of the cross we see ourselves truly as children of God. Hebrews 12:7 tells us, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons [and daughters].” So how might we look at our current circumstance in light of the cross? How might God be making this work out for your good? In Christ we know God isn’t refusing to forgive us, or just mad at us, or wanting the worst for us. His love for us is secure. If you want to know whether God is disciplining you, assume that He is and that He is doing so because He is your loving Father. How it might these circumstances draw you closer to Him and make you more like Him?
Every deprivation calls us to repentance for ingratitude. Only spoiled kids (and adults) feel entitled to and ungrateful for all the good things they have. For one small example, having to search for toilet paper can potentially make you grateful, perhaps truly for the first time, to have toilet paper. Maybe for the first time you’re becoming grateful for the work of people whose jobs you always took for granted before. Children of God, who know that everything is an undeserved gift, should lead lives marked chiefly by constant, overwhelming gratitude. If nothing else, we can emerge from this time of quarantine with renewed gratitude for our routines, our freedoms, our health, and normal human contact.
Tomorrow I want to explore the importance of that last one—human contact, and what an important gift it really is, and how we so often throw it away because it makes demands on us. But for today, make a list of things you failed to be thankful for until this quarantine made you scramble to find them or do without them. Then you’ll see at least one way this time of upheaval can bring you closer to God.
In-home exercise for today: recite Luther’s explanation of the First article of the creed from memory, or read it aloud ten times. I won’t print it here, because the other part of the exercise is to make sure you have a copy of the catechism somewhere in your house. Please don’t google it or use an online version, because translations vary and we want the whole church family working on the same version. Tip: the whole catechism is on pp. 321-330 of the hymnal for those who checked on out of church for in-home use during the quarantine.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana