Grace in the Age of Pandemics
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble… Phil. 4:14
We all have different sets of troubles. Could be doubts, fears, or anxieties. Could be health issues or infirmities from surgery or aging. Could be any number of things. But kindness calls us to bear one another’s burdens and troubles.
As one who is for the fourth time teaching a teenager to drive, I have a certain kind of first-hand experience with this. For one thing, while I do not think the danger is great (or I wouldn’t let my kid behind the wheel or get in the car myself) I have to admit that the danger to other people is greater than it otherwise would be. We are in one respect at least, an imposition to other drivers and pedestrians, and to some degree a danger. That danger can’t be avoided if we are to teach people to drive, but it is nevertheless real. I can assure you that I’m following safety procedures in teaching my children to drive, but I cannot 100% guarantee that we aren’t going to break a traffic law or cause an accident. I can only promise to try.
A learning driver also drives slowly and takes longer to find a “window” when turning into traffic. Being behind a student driver can be a test of patience. Most people are kind about it, but every now and then in my many hours riding shotgun with a new driver we’ll come across someone who clips pretty close trying to pass on the highway or who rides up on the bumper trying to get us to speed up.
So on one hand there are people with legitimate fears who are so concerned for safety that being the road with a learning driver is tough to contemplate. On the other hand, there are people whose concern isn’t for safety at all but simply to get where they are going more quickly. You deal with both extremes. And it is tough to judge—some people’s experiences give them reason to be more cautious. Some people do not feel unsafe driving over the speed limit or passing on the highway, so they do things regularly and casually that many others consider unsafe.
In church, we have to hold extremes together, and in kindness we have to share each other’s troubles. The policies we have in place for safety during the pandemic make many people feel like they’re on the road with a bunch of student drivers. For some that means feeling unsafe. For others that just means feeling annoyed. With Christmas coming up, we have to figure out how best to serve as many people as possible.
We need to recommit to the policies and procedures we have in place. People who are venturing out to church need to have the assurance, for example, that everyone will wear a mask throughout the service in the mask section, and that everyone in the other sections will wear one when moving in the aisles or narthex. Some people have told me that hasn’t always been happening. We have to recommit. By the same token, we are not in a position to offer guarantees. Neither I nor anyone else can 100% guarantee that everyone who comes to church on Christmas will have washed their hands, keep their mask on, etc. We do our best to put good policies in place and make it easy as possible for people to adhere to them.
All of us can be kind in sharing each other’s troubles. For some, the trouble will be having to stay home and participate in Christmas Eve worship remotely for the sake of safety. For some that means accommodating policies they find irksome. We can’t please everyone, but we ought to try to serve everyone as we’re able and put aside our own preferences for the sake of allowing as many people as possible to celebrate and worship this Christmas.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
In Good Order
But all things should be done decently and in order. I Cor. 14:40
St. Paul was very familiar with the logistical issues of holding worship services. He addressed issues like how communion should happen and who should be preaching and teaching. So it comes as no surprise that a church named after him should encounter some of those issues and take his advice on how to address them—decently and in order.
This coming Sunday at 9:00 we will be holding an ushers’ meeting to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of how we come forward for communion, dismiss the sections, and even how we help people find a suitable place to sit. That’s because we’re encountering the joyous difficulty of dealing with bigger crowds. We want as many people as possible to come to church, but we also want everyone to be (and feel) safe while they are here.
Yesterday at the 9:30 service we had a large crowd. We had space available toward the front, but few people willing to sit there. We also had several families who were back in church for the first time in a long time and who were therefore unfamiliar with the communion process. We definitely want to continue having greater attendance, so we’re having the meeting to make sure we can do everything decently and in good order.
Some things you can do to help out if you are able and so inclined:
Also, listen for the following in the readings for this Sunday—“Do everything without grumbling or complaining.” An usher might ask you to move to a different seat in order to accommodate others. You might be asked to wear a mask. You might not agree with the procedures we have in place. But it is all doable by people of good will. But those who are contentious or obstinate will make everything uncomfortable for the larger group. It comes naturally to all of us sometimes, but especially in trying times we have to resist the urge to have a bad attitude.
We have holiday services on the horizon. We all want to be able to celebrate in church with Christ as the center. And do so decently and in good order, we’ll need to hone our procedures and policies. Everyone has a role to play in that that blessed, ongoing process.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
July 2: Minding your business
But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs… I Thes. 4:10-11
Sometimes it seems like the world conspires to make it impossible to mind your own business. That’s why St. Paul called living quietly an aspirational thing. In some translations of the verse it says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…” We can often be tempted to think that it is our job to save to the world and get swept up in causes that end up merely distracting us from the actual tasks of our vocation. We devote ourselves to grand things God hasn’t called us to do in order to avoid doing the ho-hum things He has called us to do.
On the other hand, we are all called to do our part. It’s just that we should know the extent of our part. We can’t just ignore the larger world or pretend that problems don’t exist. What we can do is understand that we don’t make the world better when we abandon our daily vocations to fix the world. We make the world better by seeking to make sure whatever tiny part of it God has given us stewardship of operates according to His will.
When we’re stuck at home and the normal goings-on of life are on hold, we can be tempted to live according to the news. This crazy thing took place there, these people did that, can you believe what happened over there… That isn’t real life; that is like watching a soap opera as a distraction from real life. Real life comes from the Table of Duties in the catechism. Your membership in the church, your job description at work, your relationships at home, your neighborhood and citizenship—those are what God has entrusted to you.
Yesterday I did my first in-home communion visit in months. Pastor Stock has been doing the few that have come up, but I don’t think I’d done an in-home visit since early in March. Normally that would be part of the regular job description of being a pastor. It felt good to do it. It felt normal. And it reminded me how important those normal things are. Maybe a year ago had I been going through the normal routine of a typical day, week, or month of my pastoral responsibilities I would not have been struck so much by how crucial and amazing the things on my regular to-do list really were. But it is the same for everyone following a Godly vocation. Feeding the baby, paying the bills, praying for loved ones, working as for the Lord—every day is filled with such opportunities.
Today as you go about doing whatever it is God has given you to do, be it what you were aspiring toward or making it your ambition to do or something less exciting, do it all to the glory of the Lord. His faithfulness endures through all generations.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Jun 24: Love... is not Irritable
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
May 20: Waiting
…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Patience is a virtue. Waiting is the hardest part. We do not lack clichés to express the difficulty of experiencing delay. Waiting saps our physical, psychological, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual strength.
As the school year here at St. Paul’s winds down to a conclusion next week and as the weather starts to turn toward summer, the burden of the COVID regulations starts to take its toll. Anyone can hunker down for a while, especially in a crisis. There is even a bit of fun and novelty to it. But it wears on you. Even the best things in life, like Christmas decorations or lazy summer days eventually start to feel old. Less glorious things wear out even faster.
The burden of time depends on what exactly we’re waiting for. When we’re anticipating something good and certain, like Christmas or the last day of school, the waiting is hard because of the exuberance of anticipation. When we await something bad certain, like the alarm going off too early or a bad report card being sent home, the wait burdens us with dread. We just want to avoid thinking about it.
But what about when we aren’t even sure what we’re waiting for? Many of us are waiting for a return to normal without a clear idea of what that looks like anymore. Good or bad, it isn’t certain. And sometimes uncertainty weighs us down even more than something certainly bad.
When we think about patience and waiting in this terms—good or bad, certain or uncertain—we understand a little more clearly what Isaiah means by those wait for Lord renew their strength. When we remember what we’re ultimately waiting for—that it is not just good but the best thing, and not just certain but the only truly certain thing—then that reminder gives us the strength to endure the waiting, the difficulty, the bad things, and the uncertainties of life in this world.
The Holy Spirit brings the Gospel into your heart and mind, and the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of a mind fixed on Jesus, includes patience. Take what comes, fast or slow as it comes, as the knowledge of the ultimate truth renews your strength.
April 23: In a Perfect World
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” I Cor. 13:4-5
This morning as I was making the daily catechism review video for the Confirmation class (you can access them from the website if you want to review the catechism, too, which you should) I emphasized the point from the close of the Commandments that God demands perfection. Keeping the Law pretty well doesn’t cut it in terms of justification. Salvation is an all or nothing deal, which is why salvation by works will never….work.
In my high school journalism class, we could not turn in any article that had even a single error in it. If anything was misspelled, if there were any grammatical errors, even punctuation in the wrong spot, the teacher would simply hand the paper back and say, “Turn it back in when it is fixed and I will grade it.” He didn’t even tell us what or where the error was. The goal of that persnickety approach, of course, was to make us good proofreaders. Remember, back in the days of print journalism you couldn’t fix an error once things literally went to press, at least not without incredible effort and expense.
Different world, different story today. Even major newspapers put out articles online that haven’t been proofread very thoroughly. If anyone points out an error, they fix it with a click. Typos matter less because they aren’t nearly so permanent, but speed of getting things out there matters more. You’ve probably noticed these daily updates have had plenty of typos in them day after day. I’ve become accustomed to the modern, online, speed-rather-than-precision way of writing. But I’ve always been glad I took that merciless journalism class. In one personal triumph of my high school years, I found an error in the teacher’s handout that even he didn’t know about. The article covered a tennis match, and the author had spelled it “tennis racket.” The preferred spelling is/was “tennis racquet.” If only salvation had been by works for just that one moment! Alas, for every triumph there were ten disasters.
Take it out of the realm of old school journalism and into life. God is Love. If you perfectly exemplified His Love in your life, you would NEVER be even a little bit impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, or insistent on getting things your way. Does that sound like you? Or do you need a Savior?
The shutdown can help us learn the importance of being patience and kind and not being irritable or rude. We find ourselves with strangers in annoying lines, or living for such an extended period at home with people whose habits we can’t escape. Suddenly we see the need. But we also see how far short of the glory of God we consistently fall.
As we look toward opening things back up and easing back into church attendance in the coming weeks and months, we’ll also have plenty of chances to exercise the need for patience. There will be irritations and disagreements, I’m sure, in terms of when and how we should be doing this or that. Rest assured we will be looking at it from every angle and trying our very best. Will it be perfect? No, it will probably not be perfect. It will be a new era, but with the same old story of Christ crucified and risen, proclaimed, taught, given and shed for those gathered in faith around the Word and Sacraments.
April 17: *Sigh*
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.
April 14: Living Peaceably
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Rom. 12:18
One of the silver linings to any unexpected disaster is the way it brings people together. A power outage becomes a time of laughter and deep conversation. A blizzard is when bonding happens. Even a funeral tends to heal the scars in our family relationships. And this pandemic and the national shut-down can have some of the same effect. Knowing that we’re all in it together gives it a sense of adventure. It is easier to have an encouraging word for a stranger.
On the other hand, being cooped up with the same people day after day, no outlets, no respite leads to cabin fever, especially with the unseasonably cold weather this week. When people go stir crazy, this verse from Romans becomes more important than ever. You can’t always get along with everyone, but it is important that you make self-sacrificial effort. Whatever the argument, don’t be the cause of it if you can help it.
A few days ago I was (Of all things! Who could have guess that it would come to this?) standing on an x in a maze of taped off shopping carts out in the parking lot waiting my turn to enter the grocery store. An older man came out, which meant another person in line could go in, so I stepped up to the next x six feet closer to getting inside. The man who had come out stopped to chat. So I chatted a bit. He seemed lonely. Maybe this trip to the store was the only human interaction he would be getting that day. We talked about the crazy situation, the weather, the lack of sports seasons, and other people in line seemed to be nodding along and joining in the camaraderie and togetherness. Then the man blurted out, “I blame Trump for all this,” and right away the spell was broken. People in line began to make eye contact to see who would nod along and who would argue. Some may have thought the man was crank. Others may have thought him a sage. But it was certain that the sense of togetherness dissipated.
Politics will do that, especially in an election year. I can think of almost nothing more important to fulfilling this verse in your life than that you avoid politicizing this pandemic. People are frayed and frazzled. Everyone has had it up to here with someone, but no one can agree on where to place the blame. As your pastor, I ask you not to worry about that right now. Vote in November however you please, but let the pandemic, for all the terrible things it is and does, also be something that unites. This verse is especially important when people are already looking for reasons to be cross, but also unusually open to experiencing togetherness.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Democrats and Republicans. Well-off or struggling economically. Stranger or family member. Young or old. People who are scared and people who think the whole thing is overblown. Simply being a source of peace in a time of trouble can be a huge Christian witness. Avoid the temptation to score points, put people in their place, vent frustrations on someone, or anything like that.
Your Lord has defeated death. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You have nothing to fear from anyone. You have all kinds of opportunities to live peaceably with everyone, because Christ is your peace, and He lives forever! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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!
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana