Monday

This is the first in what will hopefully be a 7 part series for the church newsletter on the rhythms of my week. I am not writing about a specific day but how I would sum up my Monday over the course of a month. If I talk about people I will change the names and circumstances. The goal of these reflections is not to put everything I do, or remind you how busy your pastors are, but to call attention to rhythms we all live in and how I see God at work in my world, so that hopefully you can see God at work in yours.

My week begins in stillness. Some Mondays I am the only person in the church building. Other Mondays I see multiple visitors, or hang out with fellowship commission while they cook the birthday dinner. But there is always some stillness when I show up at the church and it is completely empty, everybody gone from Sunday worship living the gospel out in the world.

On Monday I typically try to frame my week. What day I am going to get this done, what meetings do I have, how I am going to be in three places at once? But, the most important part of Monday is the time I spend in prayer, study, and work.

For many people prayer comes naturally, but for me it requires intentional time and words. I would say that during my day I am constantly aware of God, and speaking to God, but the real time I spend in prayer is a time of listening and of opening myself up to what God is saying or doing in my world. Sometimes I come away refreshed, other times with nothing, but through the ritual of opening myself I feel I become more aware of God’s work. This Monday I prayed the Psalms, and go through one of the prayer books in my office. As I pray and reflect I consider this quote from C.S. Lewis:

· Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctu­ary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.

Monday is also the one day I try to set some intentional time aside to study. This first begins with study of the Scriptures. Typically I try and follow some sort of Bible reading plan. Right now the youth and I are reading a chapter a day in the New Testament, 5 days a week (we will finish the whole NT at the end of year). On top of studying the Scriptures I study some theology, biblical studies, or read a commentary. If I am preaching the following Sunday this is the day I begin to add other sources in considering what I will say about a particular text.

Work is the final thing I do Monday. Here work doesn’t mean “work” like yours or my jobs. What it means is intentionally getting into the work God is doing in the world. This means I wrap up my Monday office hours at 4:15 and ride my bike to soup kitchen. Normally I have to talk myself into going and sometimes I don’t want to go, but at the soup kitchen is where I put flesh on my prayers for the world. While serving I recall the words of the Psalmist:

You make grass grow for cattle;
you make plants for human farming
in order to get food from the ground,
and wine,
which cheers people’s hearts,
along with oil,
which makes the face shine,
and bread,
which sustains the human heart.

(Psalm 104:14-15)

January Newsletter

“Will you pray for us tonight Mark?” She asked the room.

Silence.

“Are you asking me to pray for us tonight?” I responded.

“Yes.”

“Ok. But before I start I want to say my name is Matt.”

This was the scene this past Monday as I prayed before the meal at the Lebanon Soup Kitchen. It hadn’t been long since I started serving every Monday and it is understandable that my name was lost in the shuffle that is Monday night. Normally I arrive at 4:15pm to the wonderful smell of food that has been cooking all day and begin to help by pouring the milk for the diners to grab after they get their food. After doing this we all stand around in clumsy circle and wait for Janet to pray for our meal, our service in community, and for those who will partake in the food the volunteers have prepared. Janet, the soup kitchen coordinator, wasn’t there this week so the praying instantly fell to the pastor in room. Except only one person knew I am a pastor and she was the one who asked. Normally I like to put thought into my prayers, but I was caught off guard so I led us out in a feeble short prayer, nothing like the one Janet offers.

Afterwards, we broke into our jobs, worked swiftly but efficiently for the next hour as people poured in from the cold rainy conditions, grabbed something to eat, and enjoyed the warmth within the church hall. This week a young man from church played Christmas hymns on the piano as people ate and I couldn’t help but sing along looking at the people whom we were serving, people who might know more intimately what a “Silent Night” feels like when there is no room in the inn. I couldn’t help but imagine what side of the table we might find Jesus on in this situation. Of course Jesus fed the poor so he would be helping right? But he also was without a home, an itinerant preacher, who seemed to wander with people like the ones I was serving. Would he be outside waiting to be invited in while I offered up a feeble prayer within the empty hall? And I remember the words of Matthew 25 in which the those gathered ask “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” only to have the response be, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Lost in the wondering of what it all means, I can forget that answer. Christ is here amongst the poor and that even in feeble prayers before a short time of volunteering I have a chance to do something for the least of His brothers, and in that sense, I am doing it for him.

Forgiveness defined

One of the primary tasks I have taken up in pastoral ministry is helping people think through and understand a larger picture of the gospel. I think when I left seminary I felt as Karl Barth did in his first pastorate, albeit in a different way. When Barth came to his first pastorate he felt he lacked the tools to preach to the people because he was entrenched in the historical critical method and liberal theology. When I left seminary I don’t think I was entrenched in either of those things as much as I had become wise to know that the the church had very little idea of what the gospel actually is, and the one many people have been familiar with has been very harmful to some and too small for others.

However, the congregants wouldn’t let me off so easy. They were willing to accept that maybe there were other ways to talk about the gospel, but they actually wanted to know what they were. Feeling myself at a lack of words I have set on a path to discover how as an orthodox,  postliberal, white middle-class (and aware of that), Anabaptist, (postmodern-ish) seminary-educated, post-evangelical male I might actually talk about the gospel instead of just critiquing others versions of it.

So, I began to reflect upon the words of Anabaptist missiologist Wilbert Shenk. Wilbert told us our last day of class, “What is the Gospel? That is the question you should always be asking.” And then before finishing with this point he stated, “Never write an article about it.” I think I have done my best to keep in mind those thoughts as I attempt to keep asking that question which is in front of me.

But this blog post began as a way to point towards an excellent article in this month’s Christianity Today (link forthcoming, it’s only in print right now) How Far Should Forgiveness Go? by Christine A. Scheller. As I rethink through the gospel one of the words that has been on my mind is forgiveness and how we conceive of it in a better way. This article is stirring, personal, and theological that has written exactly what I hope the church would come to say and struggle with as we talk about forgiveness. Here is the ending for you while I wait for the online edition to link too:

“Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simple or even be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to “unlearn” sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sin, specific instances of brokenness.” (From Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones.)

Each of us lives in the midst of particular sins and specific instances of brokenness. And each of us must choose how we will respond. Living a life of holiness and learning the ways of God sometimes means letting go of our need for justice and instead embracing a world that groans in anticipation of the day when it, and we, will be redeemed. It means accepting with humility that God alone is good.

Why Mark? Why Now?

Placher summarizes why Mark is particularly relevant to our time:

(1) Historical: Of all the sources available to us, Mark get us closest to Jesus own lifetime. (2) Political: The great theologian Karl Barth used to say that theology should be done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The newspapers these days are full of stories of war and torture in the Middle East and the church debates about whom to ordain and whom to exclude. Indirectly, Mark turns out to have a lot to say about such topics. (3) Literary: Mark is an odd text-abrupt, sometimes clumsy, written in Greek totally without literary polish, yet astonishing in its complexity, its allusiveness, its anticipation of the techniques of “postmodern” literature. Written by an ill-educated author long ago, it has amazing similarities to the work of some of the most sophisticated storytellers of our time. (4) Theological: One of the most important themes in recent theology has been a rebellion against pictures of God as unchanging, unaffected by the vicissitudes of the world in favor of an idea of God as, in Alfred North Whitehead’s beautiful phrase, “the great companion-the fellow-sufferer who understands.” We encounter such a God not only in twentieth and twenty-first-century theologians, but also-more than anywhere else in the New Testament- in the gospel of Mark.

Of the 4 of these I am most interested in his exploration of the theological. But with the abrupt ending to Mark it is worth noting that Placher’s untimely ending interrupted him from providing his final reflections to a book that appears also lacking in final reflections.

Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible

imageLike most new pastors I have yet to invest in a commentary set. I have been tempted to get the New Interpreter’s set, mainly because it is reliable and affordable, but the more I use it the less it gives me that “thought” for the sermon. It’s a safe choice, but one lacking punch. After that I was tempted to just piece together commentaries by people and sources I like until I have the full Bible, but that is expensive and will take a long time (plus I could never see myself purchasing a commentary on Jude). The two other sets I considered purchasing were the old Interpretation set because I enjoy so many of the commentators and the Brazos Theological Commentary. But I found the old Interpretation set to be dated in its references and occasionally lacking any significant thought. The Brazos set is intriguing, but you never really know what you are going to get. Hauerwas’s got reviews that asked us to pick him or Matthew, Pelican’s was only kindly received, Telford Work’s actually reads like a commentary, whereas Carey’s Jonah is more like a novel (and it is really good). Radner’s Leviticus commentary is awesome, but I hard time imagining preaching on it and Jenson’s Ezekiel commentary was good, but not as good as I expected from him. Needless to say, I will keep close tabs on this series but I am not sure it is a solid main series for a preacher.

However, stepping into the ring out of nowhere is Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Westminster John Knox. In a previous life I was the one most often keeping people up to date on recent books, but this one I found out about from a former professor who normally is 3 years behind the curve. Needless to say, I was shocked I hadn’t heard about it sooner especially with first volume coming from famed postliberal, William Placher on the book of Mark. On the webpage they have what looks like a full list of commentators and the Luke volume by Justo L. González is coming out this month.

According to a friend of mine in the publishing business WJK doesn’t view  this volume as a rival to the Brazos Series but more of an update to the Interpretation Series. The introduction to this series begins:

Belief…is a series from Westminster John Knox Press featuring biblical commentaries written by theologians. The writers of this series share Karl Barth’s concern that, insofar as their usefulness to pastors goes, most modern commentaries are “no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary.” Historical-critical approaches to Scripture rule out some readings and commend others, but such methods only begin to help theological reflection and the preaching of the Word. By themselves, they do not convey the powerful sense of God’s merciful presence that calls Christians to repentance and praise; they do not bring the church fully forward in the life of discipleship. It is to such tasks that theologians are called.

WJK was nice enough to send me a review copy of Placher’s book that I plan on blogging about as I read through it. I am excited for what this series is bringing to the commentary game and am hopeful that I will finally have a series to call my own.

If you are interested you can subscribe to Belief by 12/31/10 and receive 40% off on each volume. Call 1.800.554.4694 for details

Ordination Update

Being a new minister, and having a blog, means I should be writing about the ordination process, right? Unfortunately, or fortunately, attempting to be ordained in MCUSA will give you very little to write about. For those kind of juicy posts you are going to need to follow the blog of a Presbyterian, Methodist, or Episcopalian. Theologically, Mennonites have a good reason for having a much different process than those folks, but I am not sure our process necessarily reflects those commitments as much as we just need to do something. 

For most people becoming a minister with MCUSA will begin with receiving a call from a congregation (or as it is known amongst the low church, “finding a job”).  Soon after you start at the church they will formally begin the process of being licensed. In the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference (PNMC) this means writing on the Confession of Faith, giving a biographical description of yourself, and updating your MLI (the general resume that helped you receive said job/call). After this paper is completed you will meet with a Ministry Committee for a 2-3 hour interview in which they discern if you are called and fit for the ministry. After the interview they make you wait painfully for 10 minutes and call you back into the room to give you the results of the discernment. When you come back to the room they will also let you know what you will need to do to be ordained. For most people it will involve a 1 year to 2 year discernment process with your congregation, meeting with a mentor, and fulfilling the requirements for the classes your conference requires (as far as I know no conference requires an MDiv). This will vary from conference to conference but the PNMC is pretty standard in requiring Mennonite Polity, History, and Theology. Because our conference is so far from Mennonite seminaries they offer the classes every 1-2 years in Portland. If you did not go to a Mennonite seminary (AMBS or EMS) it will be extremely difficult to not have to take all three. Both myself and a fellow minister in the process who went to Duke Divinity had classes that would fit some, if not most of the requirements, in the history and theology class in Seminary and are still being required to take the classes. If you are considering taking a class to fulfill the requirement check with the conference you most likely want to get ordained in to see if it will count. That won’t help much if you end up in a different conference, but should give you an idea if it would fill the requirement.

This is the current step I am in the process. My mentor has been a great resource for me, my congregation has been very supportive, and the classes are not difficult. In less than a year I hope to ask the congregation to raise me up for ordination (which includes a vote) and another meeting with the ministerial board of our conference. At that point if I have fulfilled all the requirements, seem fit for ministry, and the discernment seems right, I will be ordained in a service at my church.

The loophole in all this (as far as I can tell) is that you don’t need to be ordained to serve long term as a Mennonite pastor. You can renew your license every two years and minister without ordination for as long as you like. I am not sure of the reason for this but it is worth noting that you are not required to be ordained, only credentialed. And that said if your congregating decided it wanted to, you could go without credentials but I don’t think you could officiate recognized marriages, as well as visit prisons and hospitals after hours.

Any questions or additions if you have been through the process?

Why

Cabe has written a post on the Barth blog that shows exactly why we would commit to reading 5000 pages over a great period of time. The highlights are some of the Barth quotes but head over there to read the whole thing with Cabe’s excellent thoughts:

In their human identification these special events are obviously subjected to an interplay of light and darkness which can only damage and forbid both the absolute affirmation of the optimist and the absolute negation of the pessimist. The really outstanding events of our life, upon which our faith lives and in which our whole life is revealed to us in faith as life in God, are not those which we can affirm with this human certitude and then have to doubt again. They are not subject to this fluctuation; they can and must be discussed apart from this false dialectic. These really outstanding events of our life are simply identical with our share in the great acts of God in His revelation…However high may rise or however deep may fall the waves of life’s events, as they are perceptible to us from within and below, the real movement of my life, the real events in which it is clear to me that in the whole dimension of my existence I belong to God, both at the flood and ebb, are secured from the other side, by the Word of God Himself.