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.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Ps. 4:8
Unsettling. If you have been following these daily updates from the beginning you might remember the first Sunday without church here, when I began the update with one word-- disorienting. Everything seemed off, wrong, somehow messed up being a pastor on Sunday morning and not having anything to do. Well, that was back when the pandemic was the only problem we faced. Today we have civil unrest, and again I want to start the update with one word—unsettling.
The massive stone wall across Calumet Avenue is an unsettling sight. Yes, it is there for understandable reasons, just like I was home on a Sunday for understandable reasons. But that wall is still unsettling. As a symbol, it seems like the sort of thing you see in war-torn countries that have been racked by chaos. We saw things like that on our trip to Egypt, for example. But we never expected to see things like that in Munster. It feels wrong, off, out of place, messed up, even if it makes perfect sense on a practical level.
Unsettling. In some ways, that is the point of civil unrest—to unsettle things that had settled in an unsatisfactory way. The settled state of ongoing tension and conflict between law enforcement and many minority communities needed to be unsettled. It was unsustainable. Its historical foundation was bad, leading in some cases to gross injustice and murder of people in custody and in other cases to people suffering in lawless neighborhoods where criminals worked with impunity. It couldn’t last. This can be time of re-examining assumptions, acknowledging problems, and rebuilding on a firmer foundation, so that what settles can benefit all citizens with just and fair law and order.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares the goal of just and fair law and order. People who oppose law and order generally tend to co-opt any unsettling situation and turn it into a frenzied time of lawlessness and destruction. Anarchists, common criminals, opportunists, and nihilists cling like leeches to peaceful protests. Hence the need for massive stone walls, police on every corner, and the constant threat of escalated confrontation. Sad. Necessary. Unsettling to look at.
Our St. Paul’s family includes people of all races and people of all political persuasions. We aren’t held together by anything worldly, we’re held together by something much stronger that cannot be unsettled. No matter what any of us is feeling or thinking about current events, we know our ultimate security, and our ultimate unity with each other, is in our Lord. We must resist dividing ourselves and our church family along the familiar lines the world is always categorizing us by. We have a deeper unity.
In that deeper unity, we give thanks for the ways God provides for us, including the many law enforcement officers and first responders in our congregation who volunteer to risk their lives protecting people of all races and who serve honorably. In that unity, we pray for victims of injustice, including injustice at the hands of dishonorable or racist first responders, and for a more just society to emerge from this time of unrest. In that unity we pray for peace across worldly dividing lines of any kind. And in that unity we thank God for the law and order in which are privileged to live, asking him to allow everyone in our midst to enjoy the comfort and security of that blessing.
But in the end it is not the stone wall that allows us to sleep soundly at night. It is the promise of the Gospel, that this fallen world is redeemed in Christ, that we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are children of the heavenly Father. In that knowledge, and only in that knowledge, we can rest secure in any unsettling situation, for God alone makes us dwell in safety.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Ps. 122:1
Yesterday’s worship service brought with it a flood of unfamiliar feelings. For some, it might have been finally feeling the gladness the Psalm talks about after years of taking it for granted or not really appreciating it in church. For others, it might have been the sinking feeling of walking into the sanctuary and seeing roped off pews and all the social distancing measures in place. For others watching online, it might have been a keen yearning for the day when they, too, can attend church in the sanctuary safely, or in some cases resentment that for some people that day has arrived sooner than for most. Whatever the emotions, though, the promise remains the same. The service of the Word as livestreamed and the Word and Sacrament in person point us to our Risen Lord and, in different ways, give Him to us by faith.
The total attendance yesterday was 46. As expected and encouraged, the vast majority of the congregation remained unable to worship in person due to health concerns. That will likely remain the case for quite some time. Attendance will return slowly. Nobody should rush back or feel pressured to attend until it is safe for them. Nor should those who do return be condemned for doing something unsafe; we strictly followed every health guideline.
As we gradually move back into a regular worship schedule we will continue to livestream the services. Our congregation has done a commendable job of keeping in contact with one another and remaining united as a church family in this crisis. While such unity and harmony could be threatened if we focus on the distinction between those who are able to start returning to worship sooner and those who cannot yet even consider coming back, I don’t expect St. Paul’s to have much of a problem. I’ve been impressed at how people have rallied, and the gradual transition out of crisis mode in the coming months need not affect that. Rather, what we should look at is how both groups of people—those who can attend in person and those who cannot-- are able to illustrate a truth about worship in this world, which is that it is always only a foretaste of the feast to come.
Yesterday in the children’s message Jaymes Hayes talked about how Jesus went to prepare a place for us in God’s house. When we come to church, we’re coming to God’s house only in a prefigured way. We gather in God’s house here in this world to receive the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in God’s house in the world to come. People who yearn to be in church, in God’s house, every Sunday and who feel the separation most keenly are experiencing something that is true of the whole Christian life, which is that we yearn for the feast in God’s house that we have been promised. And people who can be in church on Sunday experience the foretaste of the feast to come, but they, too, sense the separation from their church family and the absence of so many of the brothers and sisters in Christ, and yearn for when we can all be together.
We all look forward to the day when we can be back in church together. But being back in church together is itself an exercise in looking forward to the Last Day, when we all, without hesitation or concern, without sin or regret, can be glad as we are ushered into the eternal house of the Lord. That day is coming for all of us. The promises in the Word and Sacraments are for all of us. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
“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