Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is the sluggard to those who send him. Prov. 10:26
The colorful analogies employed by King Solomon in this Proverb make the point that sometimes the seemingly minor irritations manage to drive us to distraction. Everyone at some point has sat around a campfire trying to talk or sing or have a good time and had to give it up in frustration because the smoke wouldn’t stop blowing in their eyes. Most people have had to deal with sensitive teeth at some time or another; it takes all the joy out eating delicious food or a cool, refreshing drink. Solomon applies that irritation that can become downright maddening to the experience of waiting helplessly on someone who shows no sense of urgency or hustle but makes clear he’ll get around to it when he feels like it.
Whether we’re talking about itchy eyes, hurting teeth, or slow service, another point is that sometimes tangential issues and difficulties manage to suck the joy out of everything. That’s why so many of the other Proverbs of Solomon are about the importance of patience, of being slow to anger, and having control not only of your actions and words but of what you set the thoughts of your heart upon. Lots of things outside your control can annoy you to no end. Only you can decide whether or not to let them get the best of you.
If we had let them, several little things could have robbed us of joy this week as school began here at St. Paul’s with all kinds of new procedures. Things that we could have done on autopilot in years past we now have to carefully consider, often coming up with completely new ways of doing them that then have to be communicated to everyone. Sometimes we finally get everyone on the same page only to find that something has changed. Then we have to re-rethink (or re-re-rethink) some procedure, then communicate it again to people who think they already know it because they just went through it, even though what they just went through was the old new way of doing it, not the new new way of doing it. Just going about ours daily tasks sometimes feels like sitting on the smoky side of the campfire.
Thankfully, out staff has not allowed the mountain irritations get the best of them. Our first Wednesday chapel this morning featured many things that went smoothly that could have gone terribly, and some hiccups that will go more smoothly in the future. Still, sitting apart, singing in masks—it isn’t the same. But no matter. Nothing can rob us of the joy of God’s presence and Word, and the mission of teaching it and proclaiming regardless of the circumstances. It was a great experience to finally have chapel again and be reminded of how important that aspect St. Paul’s ministry really is.
Everyone shared the generally good, cooperative attitude. But it is a long year. I’m sure there will come times when the stack of little irritations get the best of us. Nobody is as patient and wise as Solomon reminds us we ought to be, not even our school staff, exemplary as it is. Today was a good day. What was good about it was the reminder that our gracious God will not abandon us even on our bad days, which are sure to come. Whatever the day, St. Paul’s can give thanks to God for the school staff He has provided for us.
Whether the issue is Sunday worship, the school procedures, or any aspect of the mission and ministry of St. Paul’s, don’t let the little irritations get the best of you. Focus on what is eternal, what is constant, what is certain and sure, and you’ll find yourself focusing not on irritations but on the overwhelming grace of God.
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
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Neh. 8:10
When you’re told to “be strong,” you know something scary, painful, or disappointing has happened or is about to happen. Usually, “Be strong!” does not refer to your muscles. It refers to the mental focus or emotional toughness needed to face some hardship, be it something little and momentary like getting a shot at the doctor’s office or something big and traumatic like attending the funeral of a loved one.
We’re so used to thinking of this strength in terms of toughness, discipline, will power, and endurance that is seems almost a tad silly to think of the joy of the Lord being our strength. But in this Easter season you’d be amazed how much hardship, suffering, disappointment, or grief can melt away when you put it into the context of our risen Lord.
“Safely, joyfully, and differently.” That’s the answer to the “how?” question I sent out today telling the confirmation class how we’re going to do the rescheduled confirmation service. That is also the answer to how we’re going to do all the services here in the near future.
The need for safety affects people differently. People grieving the loss of loved one to preventable illness or accident place a higher premium on safety. The joy of the risen Lord is their strength to endure, and the promised resurrection remains the context in which they grieve. As a church family we not only mourn with those who mourn but honor the need to do things safely despite the fact that doing so can make everything more difficult or less enjoyable in some ways.
The need to do things differently is a far littler hardship. But is still requires a different kind of strength. We have to overcome force of habit, personal preferences, and attachment to some beautiful and meaningful things, things like kneeling together at the rail for communion or gathering to share our lives over coffee after the service. But you will be amazed at how easily the joy of the Lord gives you the strength to do things differently, in ways that would prove to be major obstacles to you if you attempted them with some other source of strength besides the joy of the Lord.
How long will some of these things last? Who knows? Will we eventually go back to doing things the old familiar way, or will we incorporate some of the different things into the usual routine going forward? Again, who knows? What I can guarantee with certainty is that worship at St. Paul’s will always bring you Christ in Word and Sacrament, and the joy of that can be your strength. Yes, we strive for accompanying joys, like beautiful choirs, appropriate art and decorations, and comfortable, upbeat fellowship time. But none of those joys can ever be your strength. Only the joy of the risen, reigning Lord can provide that.
When we practice finding out joy only in what truly matters, we appreciate the tangential joys even more and put up with the tangential irritations with a good attitude. More importantly, we train ourselves to face big hardships in life without gloom or despondency.
In these unique times willed with strange hardships, live your life safely, joyfully, and differently with the joy of the Lord giving you strength for whatever comes.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana