Plunder and Wisdom
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”--
my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.
The beginning of every school year brings with is the standard warnings about the power of peer pressure. Sometimes we get swept up in something or carried away by the encouragement of others. When you do something you wouldn’t normally do because seeing enough other people doing it helps you overcome your inhibitions and fears, you are likely falling prey to what Solomon calls “the enticement of sinners.”
One grownup manifestation of the power of peer pressure (not the only one, but an obvious one) is the mob. People in mobs do things that they would never do all alone. And they rarely do anything wise. We all know this, yet we still find the encouragement of peer pressure to be almost overwhelmingly enticing. That’s because we crave approval and fear rejection. Standing up to peer pressure on the playground or to a mob on the street is a socially, emotionally, psychologically, and in some cases physically dangerous thing to do. Yet the ability to resist such enticements is right there in the first chapter of Proverbs as a prerequisite for growing in wisdom.
Last night a mob looted stores on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere in downtown Chicago, and exchanged gunfire with police. What a tragedy! The whole idea of that happening seems like something from a novel or movie. But it illustrates Solomon’s words in action. “Come…we shall fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse.”
Wisdom always looks to God rather than leaning on its own understanding. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. One of the great benefits of being part of a congregation is that there, and only there, the power of the group works with wisdom rather than like a mob against wisdom. We are all somewhat weak in isolation. But the temptation to find safety in numbers often brings out the worst in us. However, at church we seek to bring out the best in each other by mutually focusing on Christ and His gifts.
In this time of ongoing difficulty getting together and sadly being socially distanced even while worshipping together, with no end in sight yet, we need to be reminded again and again that Christianity is not an individualistic religion and that our corporate membership in the Body of Christ and in a local congregation sustains us even when we are apart. We need the power of togetherness to combat the enticement of false group mentalities that appeal to the worst in us. We will continue to gather around the gifts of Word and Sacrament, remotely or in person, and trust in His providence to make sure we make it through anything that comes our way.
Jun 30: World Too Much With Us
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
May 4: Together
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” Acts. 2:1
Wouldn’t that be nice? They were all together in one place. Of course, it couldn’t last. The church grew very rapidly beginning that very day of Pentecost, such that it soon became impossible for the Christians to gather together one place. The Christian Church’s ability to gather together in one place lasted less than one day. Not even an individual congregation like St. Paul’s can ever get everyone all together in one place at one time; we have different service times.
But there are different kinds of togetherness. Doing the same thing as other people is a form of togetherness with them even if we do them at different times and places. In more typical circumstances, we have multiple service times but not different services; whether people come to early or late service, they are “together” in what they did. When we use our hymnal liturgies in worship, we express a kind of togetherness with other congregations and with Christians in the Church Triumphant.
Any time everyone experiences the same thing, it brings a sense of togetherness, as in, “We’re all in this together,” even though we’re not all together in the same place. This pandemic has scattered us into our own homes, but in every respect except physical proximity it has brought the congregation together. People have been patient, helpful, appreciative of one another, caring, and in some ways really experienced the meaning of “church family” when they couldn’t be together with their church family.
Now things are beginning to open back up. The stay-at-home order we’ve endured and about which we have been “all in this together” begins a gradual process of loosening up for us this week. But before sharing the details that the pastors and Board of Deacons have planned out, I want to share a potential concern and ask for your help in nipping it in the bud. My concern is this: there is a chance that as we begin to gather together again, we’ll lose that sense of “we’re all in this together” that has been so beneficial. As we open the church back up (gradually), those who can come back to church sooner must remain “all in this together” with those vulnerable people who may not be able to safely come to church for many, many months. And those who continue to watch the services from afar must remain together with those who are attending worship in person and not resent the fact that some, but not all, will be able to partake of things that we’d all love to partake of.
When we’re all together in one place, togetherness is easy to feel. When we’re all enduring the same thing at the same time from separate places, togetherness is also easy to feel. As we make it possible for some but not all to come together, the truth of what brings us together—Christ—will remain the same for all of us, but the feeling of it might dissipate. We all need to go out of our way to focus on the unity we have in Christ and as members of the St. Paul’s family as move into the next phase of reopening.
This Sunday, May 10th, we will continue to do one, live-streamed service at 8:00 a.m. as we have the past several weeks. The difference will be that the church will be open for those who wish to attend in person. All social distancing guidelines will remain in place. We especially encourage anyone who has a particular vulnerability, or who lives with vulnerable people, to continue participating via livestream from home. Indiana’s guidelines strongly recommend that those 65 and over and anyone with any underlying health issues should participate in church remotely via livestream rather than in person during this phase. Everyone is free to make up their own minds about whether to attend, but we certainly encourage everyone to have patience and follow the published guidelines. We are not expecting a large crowd. Depending on how things go this week, we hope to go back to offering three services on May 17th with a very gradual increase in in-person attendance.
Please do not come until you are perfectly comfortable doing so and are willing to cheerfully follow all of the stringent protocols we will have in place for everyone’s safety. That means you’ll have to sit in a designated place, possibly not of your own choosing, wait for the ushers to release you afterward, and go straight back outside without any of the normal greeting and chatting with friends.
The service this Sunday will include communion (again, following all distancing guidelines, which will be explained at the service) for those attending in person, but the livestream will conclude with the Service of the Word as usual. We continue to offer communion by appointment to those who feel a desperate need. We will never deny communion to anyone who requests it. But we hope most people can wait until the gradual reopening makes it possible for them to attend worship or to receive one of the pastors into their home for in-home communion.
We remain all in this together. We remain united by Christ and united as congregational church family. The gradual transition means some people will be further down the road to the new normal than others. It is important that such people not forget about the unity they have with one another and, most importantly, with our mutual Lord Jesus Christ.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
April 27: Hold You in My Heart
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. Phil. 1:7
Sometimes we merely skim or even skip over the little introductory parts of Paul’s letters, which can feel a bit like chit-chat, in order to get to the real spiritual meat of what he has to say. But those opening sections contain excellent examples of practical Christian living and encouragement for Christians, too. In this case, we see how a congregation can hold each other in each other’s hearts even when for a time they cannot come together as they would like.
Despite being apart, they remain “mutual partaker of grace.” They share with each other the faith and life God has granted to each one of them. St. Paul identifies a worldly side and a spiritual side to this grace they share. The worldly side of it is St. Paul’s imprisonment, which brings real hardship, deprivation, and, if people let it, shame. The spiritual side is the defense and confirmation of the Gospel, the mission of the Church that goes on no matter what happens.
When this lockdown is long past and people get together maybe year from now, or ten years from now, everyone will have a different remembrance. It might not be an imprisonment strictly speaking, but it is certainly a time of separation and isolation. For some among us, this lockdown has not changed things that much; it has perhaps shifted shopping patterns or affected meals, but for the most part it has been merely an annoyance. For others, it has been absolutely life-changing—jobs lost, major events cancelled, careers redirected, etc. For others it has been terrifying, and will primarily be remembered in terms of hospital rooms and machines and masks. For some, it has been pure grief. For others, perhaps, though they might feel a bit guilty admitting it, this time has been a pleasant respite from the rat-race, a time of togetherness and adventure. We all have a different CoVid-19 story to tell. But when we hold each other in our heart, the personal stories of everyone at St. Paul’s became part of our story. We pray for one another, call one another, help one another, and laugh and cry with one another. We remain family despite being apart.
On the spiritual side, we all share a mission at St. Paul’s, and that mission hasn’t changed. We do the same things in different circumstances, but we don’t do any of them alone. We’re all still committed to shining the light of the Gospel wherever we go, with the oil in our lamps that God gives us through His Word and Sacraments at St. Paul’s. And when this all ends and things open up, we’ll still be committed to that same mission when the circumstances change again, whether things back to the way things were before in your story or whether they move on to something very different as a result of all this.
St. Paul’s imprisonment became part of the whole story of the Christian Church. None of us can expect our own time of “imprisonment” to change the world. But it can change someone’s world. When you hold God’s people in your heart even as you live your own unique story, God works through you in ways you don’t even know. This time is not wasted. God is at work. Hold us in your heart as you shine the light of God’s love in whatever “prison” (hopefully your house is nicer than a prison!) you are living today.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
In Him, Pastor Speckhard
April 20: Quarantining
When Latin was in the process of evolving into modern Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, the word “quarantine” was born in Venice. The root of the word means “forty.” (You can probably see many other possible derivatives that have to do with the number four or forty, like quad or quarter, or maybe I’m just sheltering in place with a Latin teacher). In seafaring Venice, a quarantine referred to a forty day period of separation for sailors who had ventured to plague-ridden ports. The choice of forty days for such things, though, has a much longer pedigree.
Forty days, forty years—Biblically these are times of testing and cleansing, be it the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or Jesus fasting in the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It’s one of the reasons Lent is forty days (technically the Sundays don’t count) and there are forty days from Easter to Ascension, just like in the New Testament.
Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been using the idea of forty years as a Biblical generation in our Rededicated campaign that started last year. We’ve been at our current site forty years (forty-one years now) and want to do whatever it takes to help people in Munster in A.D. 2059 inherit from us all the gifts we inherited from the previous generation. In the midst of that campaign, we’ve come upon a genuine time of testing. I don’t know if it will be literally forty days or not, but the purpose can remain the same.
When we think of a time of testing, of some message or opportunity from God that actually shows up on our calendars, questions naturally arise. How do you know God intends this time for this or that purpose? What is the meaning of this pandemic? Is it God’s wrath? A call to repentance? If so, to whom? How do we know what global events really mean?
Over the weekend, I read an article by a well-known intellectual, Andrew Sullivan, which made the following claim: "The truth, of course, is that plagues have no meaning. All they are is a virus perpetuating itself inside and alongside us. Period. We know this now — unlike many of our ancestors — because of science." Is that true? How can science prove or disprove meaning? It can’t, not even theoretically. Meaning is outside the realm of science, in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science can describe viruses and explain how they spread and what they do to us. Science can, with limited success, attempt to predict how a pandemic will develop. But science cannot tell us what such a pandemic means or doesn’t mean, and anyone who thinks science can do that doesn’t understand the parameters within which scientific investigation works. You may as well ask a chemist to examine the molecular structure of the water in the font and tell us what Baptism means.
By the same token, apart from a clear Word of Scripture (or some direct revelation from God, which no Christian should expect, since we’ve been promised that Scripture is sufficient for us) pastors cannot declare with any degree of certainty what exactly this pandemic means, either. We cannot go beyond what God has revealed. We can only go by what we know, and we don’t know why exactly God allows this pandemic to happen. Preachers (usually on tv) who proclaim that they know why this is happening are similarly going way beyond the parameters of their office, which is to preach and teach the Word of God, not put God’s signature on their own opinions.
But just because we don’t know for sure where exactly God is going with this pandemic doesn’t mean we cannot take away edifying lessons from it. We could understand it as a forty day call to repentance, and we would not be wrong. We couldn’t say, “Thus saith the Lord” about that interpretation. We couldn’t use it to call someone else to repentance. But we can be called to repentance ourselves. As long as we don’t bind anyone else to our own interpretations of events, we are free to interpret them for ourselves in any way that is in keeping with what we know of our God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, how has this whole, surreal experience of the nation shutting down changed you? How will you let it change you? What will be your new focus, your new priorities when we come out of this? What will you seek to cease doing, and to what will you rededicate yourself? If you have edifying answers to those questions, then it is true to say for you that this time is a time of testing and cleansing. It certainly can be. Hopefully it will be. If so, it has meaning. No experiment or cocksure declaration about the powers of science can take that away from you.
Many people are trying to predict what this pandemic will mean for the future of the Church. It is all guesswork, because it is God’s future and God’s Church, and He hasn’t told us. Anything He allows to happen invites somehow closer to Christ and His bride the Church. So whatever else may happen out in the world, in your life I pray that this “quarantine” of a sort may clarify your resolve, strengthen your faith, and render you a more committed Christian than you were at the beginning of the year. After all, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
March 30: The Cruelest Month
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.
March 26: Patience
Dear St. Paul’s family,
I hope you were able to participate in the Service of Prayer and Preaching for our Lenten service last night. There were a few unexpected delays, and we understand that we need to change how we do the sound, but every first effort is a learning experience. We hope to be able to live-stream starting next week, and also make recordings of the services available on the website. Thanks for your patience as we all figure this out together. More on patience below!
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Gal. 5:22-23
Times like these put everything to the test, but also provide plenty of opportunity for the fruit of the Spirit to shine like a beacon in a storm. There can be laws about all kind of things. There can be good laws and bad laws, annoying laws and critically necessary laws. But it is impossible for anyone to mandate that you be hateful, joyless, angry, impatient, mean, immoral, faithless, harsh, or irresponsible. How we respond to tough times is up to us, and by pointing us to Christ and building us up in faith, the Holy Spirit enables and empowers to respond with the fruit of the Spirit.
Of course we fail. That’s why forgiveness is at the heart and soul of what makes us God’s family. But we never stop trying to be what God called us to be in Holy Baptism, children of God worthy of His Name. Today provides you with a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities to let your light shine. Don’t read it today as condemnation or let it remind you of your failures; that’s for another time. Today, remember Christ’s forgiveness, and use that list simply as encouragement—God is with you, and this is what He is helping you to be.
We could look at any of the things in St. Paul’s list from Galatians and see how this pandemic is making them harder but also more important. It hard to be filled with joy, for example, when everything seems to be going wrong. But precisely for that reason, joy is a more important thing than ever to experience and spread. Peace, too, can be hard to come by, when the news is filled with bitter political wrangling and there is so much uncertainty and fear. People at peace with God can be at peace in times of distress, and just by having that peace end up sharing it with their neighbor; joy and peace are more contagious than any virus. And we could go on to make the same point about all nine items in St. Paul’s list.
I want to focus today, however, mostly on patience, and I want to speak especially to and about those who are living alone. Patience is always one of the hardest things for people because it is so easy to recommend and so hard to accept the recommendation. Even authors of fiction admit that the weight of time on a character is an almost impossible thing to convey to the reader. Something we can endure easily for a day, or a week, easily becomes unendurable when it just goes on and on. And one such burden that time makes exponentially worse is isolation.
There is a reason extended solitary confinement is considered a human rights violation even for prisoners of war. In some cases it rises to the level of torture. Being bereft of human company is the very first thing that God said wasn’t good even in Eden. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” We aren’t designed to live apart. Therefore, we all need to be aware that the burden of having to be patience is not something spread evenly among our members. For some of us, quarantine is a very bearable disruption. For others of us, every day is a marathon.
Please be mindful of that fact. We might not be able physically be together. But we need everyone in our community to know that we are in this together. Personal phone calls, emails, text messages, even (perhaps especially) nice hand-written cards sent through the mail, need to keep us connected.
If you are feeling lonely and isolated, please know that you are not forgotten—not by God, not by His Church. We all acknowledge that not everyone can understand what you’re going through, but we all want you to know that you are not alone. It can sound hollow when people say to be patient, but let God give you that patience. Be sustained by the truth that you have a loving Father and His loving family.
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Gal. 5:25
I would like to offer the following challenge for today. The Bible talks about the fruit, not fruits, of the Spirit. Therefore, I think the best way of understanding the verse is to say that the fruit of the Spirit is Love. God is Love, that Love for us is in Christ, and we are connected to Christ by Spirit-inspired faith. So we walk in love. The next eight items in St. Paul’s list—joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control-- are all facets of what a loving person has and does.
So let’s practice walking by the Spirit. No, we aren’t earning the forgiveness we already have. We’re simply making a point of deliberately doing what we want to be doing even when we’re not thinking about it. Make yourself a physical list of those eight items, and find one thing you can do even in quarantine to experience and share the fruit of the Spirit. Make a point of doing something kind. Make a point of responding with gentleness to someone else’s anger, frustration or frayed nerves. Do the whole list merely as practice. Such practice is the burden of time turned to a positive.
Above all, stay in contact. Just as you might help someone who needs food, help someone who needs contact and togetherness, something for which a human being hungers just as much as food. People need to be reminded: You are not alone!
March 24, Communion and Isolation
March 24, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
In consultation with the Board of Deacons and Pastor Stock, I have decided to suspend our worship services, both Wednesday and Sunday, for at least the next two weeks. Instead, we will make services available via our website, with instructions for accessing them to follow in the coming days. We will then re-evaluate, and hopefully be able to have at least Holy Week and Easter services.
Please know we do not make this change lightly, but we do make it voluntarily. No secular law can prevent us from offering Word and Sacrament ministry. But in weighing the many pros and cons of any course of action and what ultimately has the best chance of keeping the flock fed and unified without distraction, I think this is our best option for the time being. I’m sorry to those who disagree, and reiterate that the pastors will bring communion to people in this time by request. We will be constantly re-assessing as events unfold.
We will continue to provide daily updates, links to other services and Bible study resources, and will work toward doing as much preaching and teaching as we can via the website. As usual, please help those who do not have access to the website or the daily emails. In some cases, helping them might mean printing off copies and delivering them to your friends’ mailboxes. We want our church family staying connected. One silver lining in all this disruption is that it will ensure that we have good contact information.
Considering the possibility of going even a short period without gathering for worship is a difficult prospect for Christians. I offer the following thoughts on communion and separation in the hope that it helps us all reflect on what is truly important.
C.S. Lewis wrote a science fiction story called The Great Divorce, which opens in a place where everyone lives in their dream house but everyone also lives alone, and further and further apart, so as not to have their dream bothered or interrupted by someone else’s. “I won’t be a bit player in someone else’s dream; they must be bit players in my dream.” So everyone is the center of their own little universe, all alone. That place turns out to be hell. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously expressed this approach to life when he said, “Hell is other people.” Other people impose on us. Our interactions with them must be voluntary, and cut off whenever they cease to be enjoyable.
Christians know better than that. We don’t live for ourselves, or at least we aren’t supposed to. But sometimes our lifestyles conform to the world’s ways without our even realizing it. Sometimes the patterns of our lives reflect the world’s assumptions and priorities more than is befitting followers of Christ. It is then that we need our loving Father’s correction.
Sometimes God’s toughest discipline involves letting people have what they want. He “gives us over” to our rebellious ways, forsaking the artificial punishments that might have corrected us, and instead lets us see what life is like when our choices go unchecked. Thus, in the Old Testament, God warned the people about wanting a king, but the people demanded one anyway. And God, knowing they would regret it, let the people have a king, and even let them choose make the foolish choice of King Saul. And they did regret it. But God didn’t give up on them. Ultimately, He incorporated even their foolishness and rebellion into His gracious plan by making Jesus, descended from King David, the final King of Kings.
We know the phrase “Have it your way” as a promise, which might be fine when applied strictly to hamburgers. The problem is that we don’t apply it strictly to hamburgers. We demand that the same concept be applied to everything. But in the mouth of God, “Have it your way,” means harsh discipline is coming. He knows that His way, not our fallen, sinful way, is the only way that gives us life and true freedom. The book of Proverbs constantly extols the benefits of a well- timed rebuke and wise correction, and constantly warns that folly ends up being its own punishment in the end.
Even prior to this outbreak, our society has long been walking very deliberately toward realizing Lewis’s vision of hell, mistaking it for heaven. It isn’t just the physical things, like smaller and smaller families in bigger and bigger houses, further and further apart, as though hell were other people. It’s also our private schedules and demand for more and more options. Not even 100 channels is enough. Isolation and loneliness have become among the chief problems facing people who get what they want. Not wanting to be bound by anything or imposed upon, we have for many generations been relaxing, chaffing at, and cutting all the ties that bind, seeing them as curses rather than blessings. And then we find ourselves adrift.
Take meals, for example. They are necessary for nourishment, of course, but also have always been about fellowship. To break bread together was a meaningful act, not just a matter of convenience. Two years ago when we did the 10 Commandments of Table Meals during Lent, we talked about the recent invention of drive-through meals to illustrate this general drive toward isolation and away from fellowship. It is not a good direction, but we follow the same path in some many areas of life.
We’ve farmed out to institutions the rearing of the young, care for the elderly, helping the poor, and anything else that might be considered a burden on our individualistic lifestyles. We’ve refused to be formed by the Church, but have insisted instead that the church conform to our schedules and tastes. We barely even know our neighbors anymore, living as we do in our cars and behind our garages, and if we love them at all, we do so purely in the abstract by supporting whatever faceless program is supposed to be taking care of them, not in any concrete action that makes demands on our time. Sad.
This quarantine just gives us more of what we’ve demanding. The restaurants are all drive-through, no sit down. All home-theater, no real theater. All virtual classroom, no real classroom. And now, for a time, even church must follow suit. We’ve struggled mightily never to be inconvenienced, to make sure we can do whatever we want without having to leave our own bedroom. And now we see it all realized and think, “Wait a minute; where is the community, the human contact, the sense the belonging? Have we simply been preparing a place for ourselves in our own, isolated hell where everything revolves around our own convenience and nobody else ever comes?”
Perhaps this time of forced separation can prove to be a cautionary tale. God might be using this to show us the folly of the road we’ve been walking, perhaps as individuals but certainly as a society for a long time by giving us a glimpse of where that path leads. Maybe being forced not to visit with our neighbors will make us question why we always avoided visiting with our neighbor in the first place. Maybe all the days we sat dreaming of the chance just to stay in bed and watch Netflix were not visions of heaven after all.
Jesus promised that He was going to prepare a place for us. He never promises to let us go and prepare a place for ourselves in the Father’s house. It will be perfect, but only because He prepared it for us rather than letting us do it the way we really want. And it will be in the Father’s house, a place of community, of love and togetherness, of singing together, of a common table and feasting. Pray that this unexpected and difficult time of dealing with separation will make us yearn ever more strongly for the gift of weekly worship together in communion with heaven and all the Saints.
Pray that it opens our eyes to any wrong roads our lives might have been taking and gives us the chance to change course. May we emerge from this temporary crisis with renewed faith and an even stronger congregation due to God’s gracious guidance and discipline. In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
March 23: Why, Lord?
“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