Lenten greetings to the St. Paul’s family,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We should thank God for the technology that allows us to stay connected somewhat during a time a separation. As we temporarily try to worship together without being together “in the flesh”, so to speak, we rejoice at the gift of electronic communication. But I want to highlight the importance of the physical and some of the pitfalls of online worship, so that we all get the most out of the opportunity to worship remotely without falling into any spiritual snare.
Most obviously, watching worship is not the same thing as worshiping. Please don’t tune in to our services the same way you would to a tv show. This will be harder than it seems. Speak the words of the creed, don’t just listen to them. Pray, don’t just listen to the prayers. Sing the hymns and liturgical parts aloud, don’t just have them in the background like a radio. (Again, make sure you have a hymnal in your home—you can check one out from church.) It will seem strange doing this out loud in your house, especially with other people sitting on the couch or across the room. But so be it. Unlike watching a movie, in worship, you are a participant, not an observer. In fact, making a point of this will help us all even when we can be back in church, because we all have a tendency to lapse back into the role of observer even when we’re sitting in the pews.
More importantly, doing things remotely can give us the mistaken impression that the Church is an abstraction, a mere idea, rather than a concrete reality. If we mistakenly believe that worshiping remotely is the same thing, basically, as worshiping in person, then we’re missing out on one of the great mysteries and gifts of Christianity. In the Church, you, that is, your flesh and blood, are being incorporated (note the root of that word!) into the Body of Christ and therefore God.
Consider God for a moment. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess, “I believe that God has made me…” How? Did he just imagine an idea of you? No. He made you a flesh and blood thing, and used physical means. Spoiler alert for any young children who may be reading this, but there was icky, physical contact and biology involved in God’s work. Babies are not abstractions, nor are they begotten in the abstract. Yet we confess that the making of every human being is/was a holy act of the Creator with eternal, spiritual ramifications.
And consider Jesus. He came in the flesh. That is of crucial (literally) importance for the faith. There is no Jesus apart from flesh and blood. God became a Man. We don’t put our trust in the abstract idea of God being nice and loving and merciful. We put our faith in the concrete, fleshly manifestation of the Truth. Countless ancient heretics have tried to get around the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, but to no avail. There is no Christianity or Church without it.
So far so good. But now consider the Holy Spirit. How does He work to create faith and give us new life? In purely spiritual ways unconnected to the flesh? No! He works through means. One of those means, the spoken or written Word, can be communicated remotely via electronic media to flesh and blood eyes and ears. But that is not the extent of the Spirit’s activity. C.S. Lewis, in his famous book Mere Christianity expressed the gist of the idea this way:
“And let me be clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean something simply mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps this explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like Baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution* [*meaning gradual transformation, not the theory of origins]—a biological or super-biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not. He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
This is why we treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul says any individual Christian’s sexual immorality is a sin against the whole Body of believers. This is why we put so much emphasis in funerals on the resurrection of the body, not just souls going to heaven. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Life Together book we went through last fall, said Christians in isolation quite rightly long for the physical presence of other Christians, who bring with them in their person the presence of Christ.
This is one reason the writer to the Hebrews instructed Christians not to stop meeting together. This is a big part of the problem with Christians trying to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is the main reason we bring communion to the homebound even though they can worship regularly via some electronic format. Christians have long struggled to understand how Christ can offer us His body and blood in the Sacrament, but it has always been obvious that the real presence of our own body and blood is a prerequisite for receiving that spiritual gift.
So, again, we give thanks for the opportunity to be fed with a Service of the Word via electronic media. It is a huge blessing, especially on a temporary basis in a time of necessity. But it can never be the ideal, or even an adequate solution in the long term. Our efforts will remain a work in progress. Every way of doing this – Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, etc.—has its pros and cons. There are copyright issues, sound quality issues, access issues (e.g. not everyone uses Facebook), etc. So please be patient as we find our way, and please help one another participate. And really participate, don’t just watch.
We look forward to the day when we can gather as God’s family in this place and receive all the gifts He has for us. Until then, let us receive the Word gratefully and resolve to be Christ to our neighbor however God enables us.
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
“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.
Next month the Board of Deacons is going to post a long list of St. Paul’s members on a bulletin board with a request to the congregation to help us to know their situation and/or contact information. I’d like to explain why we’re doing that so as to avoid misunderstanding, confusion, or embarrassment.
Pastor simply means “shepherd” and refers to the one who shepherds souls with the Word of God and being the Holy Spirit’s instrument in calling people to repentance and faith. But in this era we pastors have a harder and harder time even knowing where anyone is, much less the state of their faith.
The number one reason people are getting harder to shepherd these days is that the typical church member comes to church less often. Pew Research says that one generation ago people who considered themselves regular church-goers attended their church 3-4 times per month on average. Today that number is down to 1.6 times per month. This trend, of course, is contrary to the 3rd Commandment, terrible for people’s spiritual lives, and probably also bad for society generally. But it is an unmistakable trend nonetheless.
Another reason the pastoring task is growing harder is that people are far busier, far more mobile, and far more protective of their time and privacy. My grandfather pastors could walk around the neighborhood during the week “making calls” on church members who had missed church. Today there is an issue with even having up to date and reliable contact information for those people, even assuming we could coordinate our schedules for a visit. It’s a different world.
At St. Paul’s we do our very best to pastor/shepherd all the members of the flock/family. Members of the Board of Deacons assist the pastors by each taking a portion of the alphabet and attempt to contact anyone who has not been in church for a full month to find out if there is some problem the church can be helping with, a conflict that needs to be resolved, or perhaps simply the need for a little encouragement to get back into good habits. At every monthly meeting each deacon reports on his efforts from the previous month and gets a new list of people to contact. And each deacon makes contacts in his own way. Some write cards, some use email and Facebook, some call on the phone (often simply leaving messages) and some try to make personal visits.
The individual deacons do have some successes in tracking people down and encouraging them to come back to church or (in cases where people have moved) helping them transfer their membership to a congregation close to them. And we try to account for snow birds, college students, shut-ins, deployed military, or people who we know come to church but just never sign the book for whatever reason. But after accounting for those cases we still usually have a lot of people left, and our monthly reports include fewer and fewer successes in contacting them and more and more “I couldn’t get in touch,” or “Not sure this phone number is still good,” or “I heard this person took a new job out of state but there is no forwarding address.”
Despite the ongoing efforts of the Board of Deacons we have a long list of people who have not been in church here in two years as far as we know and whom we’ve had no success in contacting about it. In short, it’s a list of people in our flock/family whom we are failing to shepherd or be a family to.
This problem affects the whole family here, and the whole family can be part of the solution. The Board of Deacons and the pastors might not know the situation of each person on the list, but surely somebody in the congregation does. We need the whole family acting as a family and being their brother’s keeper in the case of absent members.
There are lots of perfectly innocent reasons your name might appear on this list. In some cases it might simply be a typo in an email address. But in other cases it might be something more serious like an illness. The goal is not to embarrass anyone. The goal is make sure St. Paul’s is able to minister to and shepherd everyone in the flock to the very best of our ability.
I’m writing this in advance of posting the list just to prepare people and explain it. Given the divine mandate to shepherd God’s flock and our ongoing struggles to fulfill that mandate for every member, I think posting the list is a positive step as long as people understand the intent. I also know it is an easy thing for people to take the wrong way. So when the list gets posted in April, please check it for your own name or anyone you know. Then talk to one of the pastors or to your deacon (the appropriate deacon’s name and contact info will accompany each name on the list) to make sure we have good contact information and any other knowledge that will help us serve the whole family better.
See you Sunday (or Saturday).
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana