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
An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels. Prov. 31:10
This verse came up this morning in our family devotions from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It reminded me of an elderly woman I once knew who never missed a Sunday of church, with one exception; she never showed up on Mothers’ Day. The congregation’s tradition was to read Proverbs 31:10-31 for the Old Testament reading every year on Mother’s Day, all about the amazing “woman of noble character” who does everything really well and makes everyone’s problems go away. This woman, who was an exemplary and talented Christian wife and mother and active in leadership in virtually every activity of the congregation, thought these verses of Proverbs were too hard to live up to. They made her feel bad about herself, and the last thing she wanted to do on Mothers’ Day was listen to what she took to be a laundry list of all her shortcomings.
We can all say these words didn’t mean to be putting her down and she shouldn’t have taken them that way, but she did take them that way. It is a basic Law/Gospel problem that confronts all of us. Yesterday’s verse from 1 Cor. 13 is almost not fair—it is talking about the New Man, the life of Christ, but we all fail to live up to it. The question then becomes, what do we make of the fact that we cannot live up to the Bible’s descriptions of what God calls us to be? Do we despair and stop trying? Do we try harder and check our progress later? Do we adjust the standard to be more attainable? Those would be Law-based responses. Those are the strategies of the Old Adam, the sinful nature, to be declared righteous by earning it. The Gospel response to reading such descriptions of righteous behavior and realizing that we don’t live up to them is to see how great is the love God has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.
Our efforts aren’t acceptable because they’re so good. They’re acceptable like the crayon drawings of children that the parents lovingly put on the refrigerator. Hardly Rembrandt, but the merits aren’t the point. And the kids who know they are loved respond by trying to make an even better drawing next time. They don’t earn their parents’ love. They try to live up to their parents’ hopes for them because they already have their parents’ love.
Everyone who is honest suffers from the feelings of inadequacy like the women who felt she couldn’t live up to Proverbs 31. I could be a better pastor. You could be a better parishioner. St. Paul’s could be a better church. But we shine with the glory of the children of God because of the unearned, unmerited righteousness of Christ we have by faith. So I urge us never to be discouraged. Not by the pandemic and all the changes going on. Not by the political turmoil in the news. Not by aging and the changing times. Our goals remain what they always have been—to be more and more conformed to Christ according to Hid will. That’s what we’ll be about here no matter else is going on.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
and the Lord tests hearts. Prov. 17:3
This proverb of Solomon was part of the devotion today for those who use the Treasury of Daily Prayer. It is an amazing thing, and a fearful thing, to ponder.
A crucible is a sort of pot in which you heat up metal or some other chemical compound. You may have used on a chemistry lab. You can use on to purify silver, but gold is a heavier metal. We think of a furnace as something that heats the house, but in this case it refines gold. To purify gold, you have to heat it up to such high temperatures that the impurities, the dross, everything that clings to it that isn’t gold, burns away in the smoke. What remains is purer gold.
The prophets talk about the Lord coming as a refiner’s fire. You put a little chunk of silver over a Bunsen burner, you put a gold ring in a blacksmith’s or a forger’s furnace. The presence of God does to your heart what that furnace does to the gold.
The thing to remember is that God tests hearts because they are precious to Him. He doesn’t do it to cause pain, though the process is painful. Precisely because your heart is precious to Him, He hates the sin that clings to closely. He wants it gone.
When we come into the presence of the Lord, we repent of our sins and submit to the painful process of turning away from them. The sins we love are the hardest to let burn away. Confession of sin that is painless probably isn’t very honest.
Christ redeems us sinners not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood. When the Lord tests hearts, He looks for the blood of Christ, more precious than silver, and finds it in the faithful. Therefore we stand in the judgment.
The Judge still hates the dross. The great blessing of ongoing confession/absolution, ongoing Holy Communion, daily remembrance of Baptism, is that is lets you participate, not in your salvation, but in your purifying. It will never happen completely in this life; it will remain a work in progress. But entering into the presence of God and staying there when the knowledge of sin starts to bubble up and the defense mechanisms kick in is a painful but glorious opportunity we all have as members of the Body of Christ.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. James 1:22
We’re used to quoting St. John when we do Divine Service 1, when we begin by saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” Here St. James makes the flip-side point. If we say we have no good works to do or that we do not need to amend our sinful lives, we deceive ourselves. Your spiritual life was given to you as a gift, just like your physical life. But it needs to be nurtured, exercised, and fed.
When we think about the Gospel and salvation, we naturally think in terms of what God has done for us. Salvation isn’t something we do, nor is forgiveness something we earn. It is given to us for free. We are adopted into God’s family and declared to be His children by His Word of promise, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s faith-creating call.
But St. Paul and St. James both knew there was in innate tendency in all of us to hear the good news and think, “Oh. That’s nice. I’m going to heaven when I die,” and leave it at that. In other words, we think of the Gospel as something that doesn’t change anything in this life. St. James called that a “dead faith” that isn’t really faith. It deceives us because it claims eternal life while leaving the Old Adam, the sinful nature undisturbed. There is no new life without a killing of the old in contrition and repentance and the arising of the New Man to a life of righteousness. That is the daily struggle of the Christian life. Absent that struggle, there is no faith.
The Holy Spirit gives us faith in the call of God’s Word. He also “gathers, enlightens, sanctifies…” He makes us a part of a living body, He opens our eyes day by day through preaching and teaching to the realities of the kingdom of God, and He helps us always to be turning away from sin and temptation and to confess our sins when we fail.
At our voters’ meeting last night we all understood that nothing was happening as usual. We don’t really know what the future will bring. It is a time of testing in many ways. Times of testing call on us not to be mere hearers of God’s Word, but doers of it. While we are purely passive in the matter of salvation, we must not remain purely passive in the matter of Christian living. To do so would be to deceive ourselves.
One thing you can do in this time of separation is continue to make sure everyone you personally know at St. Paul’s stays connected. You might be that connection. When physical proximity doesn’t bring us together, nevertheless the mutual consolation of the brethren can continue. Praying for one another, giving a ride, chasing away loneliness for someone, delivering hard copies of the bulletins or updates to those who don’t have internet, and maybe watching the services together with someone who can’t figure out how to watch on their own. That’s the sort of thing that a congregation with living and active faith can be doing. And we could list a million other things. Nobody has nothing to do.
Thanks be to God, I’ve seen St. Paul’s rise to the occasion. How long it will last or what it will look like in the future nobody can say. But God’s Word continues to work and spread in our midst no matter how strange the times we live in might try to stop it.
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.
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; Acts 20:29
Seems like a strange verse for a daily update or devotion. It comes as St. Paul is getting ready to leave after spending a long time teaching the faith to a group of people. The parting of ways is an emotional one for Paul because he knows he won’t see them again and desperately wants them to remain strong in the Gospel after he is no longer there to help them. And he knows it won’t be easy for them. The thought of what false teaching will try to do to them makes him want to go over everything again one last time. But eventually you have to let go.
I think in some ways on a smaller scale we experience that emotional parting every year at graduation. Young men and women to whom we’ve taught the Gospel for years depart into the next stage of life. Granted, we aren’t physically parted from them and we hope to continue in ministry together, so that isn’t the same as in Acts. But we have to acknowledge losing hold of them in a way and letting go the way St. Paul had to let go. We know what we’ve taught them and how important it is. But we also know from our own personal experience and from many years of watching our graduates head through high school and beyond that the fierce wolves of life and the falseness of the Zeitgeist are not likely to spare them.
I once adapted the lyrics of the table blessing song from Fiddler on the Roof for Christian use, and I always think of that song at confirmations and graduations. “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame…” At our graduation service the fierce wolves were on my mind, and how desperately I wanted these kids to stand firm in the Gospel. Our principal Barb Mertens even started crying (or at least got something in her eye and needed to clear her throat) in speaking about the class, and I suspect that emotion only increases year by year through any person’s ministry.
But at the end of the day, you have to let go. They aren’t babies or kids anymore, and yes, it is a spiritually dangerous world. We can’t put our confidence in how well we’ve taught them or how well they’ve learned it. We have to model the faith for them by letting go with confidence that God never forgets His promises and that His plans for us are always good. The wolves and this world’s prince may still scowl fierce as they will; they can harm them none…one little word can fell them.
We pray that our graduates and their parents do not suddenly become strangers to St. Paul’s but continue to be nurtured and fed as part of our Christ-centered community. And we wait upon the Lord who answers prayer.
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.
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.” Ps. 139:1
Yesterday morning we were talking in the office about how the sudden surge in online services for schools, churches, businesses, meetings, and taxes (and stimulus checks) has also caused an explosion of online identity theft. Unscrupulous opportunists prey on people who need to have their personal information online. Sure enough, yesterday afternoon I heard that many people got an email seemingly from me asking for an urgent favor. It wasn’t from me, though. It was spam from an identity thief. I hope it did no harm, but my apologies (along with my thanks for your concern) to those who opened it.
The idea of someone else stealing our identity can infuriate us. It declares the real you to be nobody, while a thief, a fake you, calmly and in broad daylight takes away whatever goods and good will you might have earned. Trying to prove who you are to someone who doesn’t know you can be almost impossible.
In one of the most under-appreciated episodes in the Bible, a woman whose baby has died tries to steal the identity, in a way, of another young mother by claiming the other woman’s child as her own. Thus, two women come before King Solomon claiming to be the mother of the baby. Without any DNA tests or fingerprinting or anything, what would you do if someone simply claimed to be you? How was Solomon supposed to know who was who or what to do about the baby? Surprisingly, he ordered the baby cut in half so each woman could have a share. One woman said fine. The other offered to give up her share to save the baby’s life. Then Solomon ordered the live baby given to the second woman. Her self-sacrificial love proved her identity as the real mother. What wonderful wisdom! But imagine if instead of some secret list of usernames and passwords, your only way to prove who you were was to show self-sacrificial love.
The amazing thing about all of salvation history is how much of it, in story after story, is based on mistaken identity, fake identity, hidden identity, and even stolen identity. How did Israel inherit the covenant in the first place? Israel (at the time called Jacob) fooled his father Isaac into thinking he was his brother Esau. With his wily mother’s help, he used hairy goat skin and tasty meat from the kitchen like a stolen password.
In the New Covenant, we trust utterly that God never forgets who we are. We have not earned our place in His family at His table. For Christ’s sake God has issued us an identity as His children. We might forget who we are, but He never will. Never. We don’t have to prove who we are to God anymore. He is the only one who knows.
One of my biggest concerns during this lockdown, apart from the obvious health threat to those who have contracted or been exposed to CoVid-19, has been the intense isolation for people who already may be living in a borderland of confusion due to memory loss. In even on a good day you have a hard time remembering who you are, who loves you, and how you relate to the world around you, and then suddenly (and inexplicably if you can’t remember it) you find yourself alone all day every day, it would be hard not to feel like nobody at all. We might lose our sense of identity, but God never will.
When we place our trust in the promises God makes to us, we put the burden on Him to remember who we are. We can’t guarantee we’ll remember. Even as Christians we can’t reliably produce credentials of our own self-sacrificial love. But we have the credentials of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us. The identity the world gives you, comprised of taxpayer ID #’s, SSN#’s, DL #’s, Passport #’s, etc., is part of your treasure on earth, where thieves break in and steal. The identity God gives you in Christ is treasure in heaven and can never be ruined, lost, or stolen. God has searched you and known you. You never have to prove it to Him. He will always know you as His beloved child.
March 31, 2020
The ongoing pandemic brings three things together that might not have much in common as topics-- new technology, prayer, and every Christian’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land. I want to share with you some of the good things going on here at church today that show how those three things interrelate.
First, new technology. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on our recorded church services, along with many good suggestions on how to improve them. Today we recorded a school chapel service for tomorrow morning. We used a new camera and recording system that looks extremely promising. Tomorrow morning we’ll be recording the Lenten service, and we will know how to do it with better sound and more versatile and interesting viewing.
For me, this was encouraging. I found it amazing how much potential this new system offers in terms of remote services and teaching. As I’ve aged, I’ve become less and less inclined to keep up with all the new technological innovations; we all tend to get comfortable in a groove with what is familiar. But this time of separation forced us to look at new ways of doing things, and some of those improvements will outlast the virus and the time of separation. Being forced to learn what I wouldn’t be otherwise inclined to learn has been humbling, to be sure, but also exciting. It takes away some of the helpless feeling we might get when it seems like the world is passing us by.
Which brings me to the topic of prayer. Technology certainly does amaze, but it has its limits. While it is a tempting mistake to just let the world of technological innovation pass you by, it is an even bigger temptation, and even more disastrous mistake, to look to technology and science for answers to the human condition in the long term. This is where prayer comes in. It became fashionable in recent years for people in the media to mock prayer as a do-nothing approach to our problems. That mockery, I’ve noticed, is gone. When a disaster strikes, people realize our essential helplessness. Yes, we look to scientists and technology for vaccines and cures for this virus. But dealing with the problem forces everyone to realize that there is no vaccine or cure for death itself.
Too often even Christians fall into the habit of thinking of prayer as a last resort, something to do when all else fails. It is really the first course of action given to us. I suspect and hope that this time of isolation has cause many members of St. Paul’s to refocus on prayer even as we focus more on technology. Whether we had to be forced into it or not, the fact remains that a Christian congregation filled with people active in prayer is a tremendously good and powerful thing. And I think we are one such congregation now even more than we were before this all hit. If nothing else, just that improvement can illustrate how God brings good out of evil.
The feeling of helplessness that inspires even the disinclined to learn new technology, and drives even those who don’t normally pray much to a healthier, more active prayer life, also strengthens every Christian’s yearning for home. No one will keep up with rapid changes of the world indefinitely. Everyone will at some point be able to sing “change and decay in all around I see.” And with an active prayer life, they can then sing the next line with confidence—“O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”
You are a pilgrim in this world. The pageantry of history—pandemics, terror attacks, recessions, wars, elections, dangers and victories—continues to unfold in all of lives, no matter when we’re born and die. But we know this world and the whole story of it as centered in Christ and as something we pass through on our way to an eternal city. So we serve the Lord today, we take up our cross, but we always do so secure in the knowledge nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
March 30, 2020
“April is the cruelest month…”
That’s the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem called The Waste Land. It seems appropriate for today as we approach the end of March with the news that things are going to be shut down through the month of April while this virus tries to lay us to waste and we seek to resist the spread of it. That means we will have to do everything differently for the very biggest church celebrations of the year; nothing will be normal. Cruel indeed.
But one thing that will seem very odd, but which is actually just things going back to normal, is the idea of Christian teaching taking place in the home. The first line of Luther’s catechism, which we have used for five centuries to teach the faith to the next generation, is “As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household…” In Luther’s eyes, ongoing, daily learning in the home was normal. By contrast, the ways we in the modern world have compartmentalized our lives in separate, unrelated spheres—church, home, school, work, sports, social life, etc. would be abnormal to him. My guess is that he would see what we consider to be normal as somewhat spiritually debilitating.
One advantage, among the many disadvantages, of teaching the catechism remotely online, is that it lets us take at least one step toward better reintegrating church, school, and family. To be clear, such integration is always one of our goals at St. Paul’s, even in “normal” times. But increasingly, modern life militates against that goal. Integration of faith into all the spheres of life is easy to have as a goal, but seemingly harder and harder for many people to have as a reality.
The Reformation itself disrupted the world’s routine in the name of getting things back to normal, to the way they should have been. The reformers saw that the way everyone was leading their Christian lives had taken a bad turn. One of those bad turns might be familiar to us—compartmentalization. Monasteries were communities of worship (meaning Scripture teaching and learning, prayer, and praise) and service of the community and the wider world. The Church had begun to teach that people who lived in such communities were earning righteousness, were on a higher spiritual plane than regular people. The reformers would know—many of them, including Luther, lived in such communities.
Luther demolished the idea of earning forgiveness with good works, no matter how good those works might be. But when he left the monastery, his point was not that the things they did were bad. The point was that those things ought to happen in the Christian home. We don’t need to flee “worldly” callings to pursue spiritual calling. We need to integrate them. We need to make the Christian home the hub of all the facets of Christian life.
Basically, your house is a monastery. I know it probably feels like that more than ever these days. But seriously, your house is nothing other than a community of worship and service (and this is true even if you live alone). Everyone in the house wakes up with a calling from God not only to be strengthened in faith via the Word, and pray, but also to serve the household and the wider world according to each person’s role within it. The idea of strict compartmentalization—church for churchy stuff, school for facts, work for earning money, home for rest and amusement—insults the dignity of the home.
Today we begin a walk through the basic teachings of Christianity via video link. I’m no tv star, but I will be posting a 5-15 minute video each day, or most days, that go through the catechism bit by bit through the month of April. The confirmands are assigned to watch them, but I hope the whole congregation will join in. But here is the key. Watch them together with anyone else who lives in your house. Don’t take turns, or watch with headphones, or sit in separate rooms. Make it something you do for a few minutes together. Doing so will bring together, that is, integrate, church, home, and school at least partially in your Christian life. You should be able to link to today’s video below, or from the website soon.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana