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

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.

September Newsletter

Many of you asked for the Bonheoffer quote I used in my last sermon and I thought the best way to get that out would be in the church newsletter. The following is from the Cost of Discipleship and I think it is clear presentation of the difference between what we might call “cultural Christianity” and the call to discipleship. As we have gone through the gospel of Luke this year we have preached on several of the harder passages of Jesus and I think Bonheoffer nails how Christ is calling us to a much deeper faith through those passages. If you are interested I would encourage you to read The Cost of Discipleship, but also released this year was a massive, but readable, biography on Bonheoffer by Eric Metaxas. Through reading about him we can come to understand how this distinction between Cheap and Costly Grace was manifest in his life.

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Hipster Christianity

Today Kelli and I had fun figuring out which of the portraits of Hipster Christianity we are and we couldn’t decide between the two posted below. Brett McCracken has been working for what seems like a couple of years on his book Hipster Christianity and this month it has gotten a giant ramp-up with the release of the book. The characterizations are funny, but I often wonder what purpose they serve. I know he thinks he is breaking down what is “cool” versus “real” (according to his Wall Street Journal article)  but I have a hard time seeing this kind of project as productive towards that because it bleeds cool. Read his blog, the webpage for the book, and even the marketing format they have chosen and you can see this book is meant to be another tack-on for the person who can now say “yeah that church is cool, but it isn’t real.” I haven’t read the book and to be honest, I am not sure I will (I’ll stick with the original hipster Karl Barth) but I would be more interested in hearing him talk about how  someone might hear the Word of God proclaimed and respond in our churches today than see caricatures, nice webpage’s, and the call for something “real”. It’s all fun and games to come with these portraits, but I think if he really wants to tackle where the church is today he will find, like many of us have, that it won’t involve a book contract, a highly trafficked webpage, and manufactured images, but will rather involve the long silent unnoticed laboring of seeking to proclaim and live the gospel in the world. When he gets around to that I’ll buy that book.

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Advice from Hauerwas

Never lie. Never Lie.

And you’ll discover that is hard work. And part of what it means not to lie is to preach truthfully and what it means to preach truthfully is to preach in manner that you expect God to show up because the Word has been proclaimed.  As soon as you hear a minster say, “As my six year old was saying” you know its going to BS.  Because its going to insight on the human condition that anyone could have at the  Kiwanis club. What it means to preach truthfully and not to lie is to be willing to say when you don’t know what needs to be said…”But that we do see Jesus. We are not sure we know what needs to be said. If I said more than that I would be lying to you. But we do see Jesus.”

I also of course think it is very important to see Jesus in the body and blood of Christ… That won’t make us more faithful but at least God promised to kill us if we do it unworthily or at least make us sick. And I figure that that’s better than dying of boredom. If we return to Eucharistic celebration in a serious manner who knows what God would do with that. What it means to be a Christian is very simple. It means you worship Jesus. But it forces a extraordinary intellectual and moral challenge and we need to be people confident that God will help us speak and live appropriate to the speech we have been given. What I hope we do in the divinity school is give you confidence that you can use the language of the faith, Jesus is Lord without apology. Because if you do that God will show up and scare the hell out of you.

I know that I said I wouldn’t post aimless quotes here but at the tumblr instead but I broke that rule with this one. I think it’s because this quote seems anything but aimless.