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.

On a good day

I hope occasionally when asked for a report of your day in the ministry you will be able to say, “I think I wrote one good sentence in the sermon for Sunday.” The sermon is at the heart of our ability to speak as well as sustain speaking Christian. The sermon is not your reflections on how to negotiate life. The sermon rather is our fundamental speech act as Christians through which we learn the grammar of the faith. As my colleague Richard Lischer puts it in his book, The End of Words, “the preacher’s job . . . is to do nothing less than shape the language of the sermon to a living reality among the people of God—to make it conform to Jesus. The sermon, in fact, is Jesus trying to speak once again in his own community.”

If you haven’t had time yet to read through Hauerwas’ great commencement address he gave at Eastern Mennonite I encourage you do so now. The reason this line stuck out to me is that when I read the address for a second time I had just spend about 4 hours fiddling with a sermon looking for something to crack into proclamation. I had done all my research, had practically written the whole thing, but couldn’t really find anything that I really wanted to say in the sermon. Sermon writing for me often functions like a puzzle with one really odd piece. It’s not hard to find all the pieces, look up sources, even really write it, but I will spend hours thinking about the one sentence that I really want to bring to the congregation on Sunday and for some reason it took longer than usual to find it this past week. So reading this reading right after I finished I felt like I could say to Kelli when she asked what I did all that time at the kitchen table was that, “I think I wrote one good sentence in the sermon for Sunday.”