Filling the Water Jars: On Being a Deacon

Upper Room‘s leadership team is beginning the process of appointing deacons. It’s an exciting benchmark for us. It means we’re growing – both numerically and spiritually. It also means we’ll likely see open doors for new ministries in the church. However, it also raises a question for us: What is a deacon, anyway?

I think for many of us, our memories of deacons ministries in our churches could be summed up as: “It must be better than this.” I was ordained as a deacon back when I was a teenager. In my church at that time (though perhaps only in my perception), deacons did five things: 1.) assist the elders and pastor in serving communion, 2.) serve the donuts, punch and coffee during fellowship hour, 3.) take the flowers from the sanctuary on Sunday and deliver them to  shut-ins, 4.) serve on a church committee, and 5.) collect and deliver baskets of food for low-income families around Christmas time.

In retrospect, all of these were actually quite important tasks. Aiding in the performance of sacraments, creating hospitality,  visiting those on the margins of our community, doing the ecclesial work of the church, and  feeding the hungry all really matter. At the time, though, most of it felt mundane. And frankly, it was probably my own fault. Assisting in serving communion seemed like something anyone could do. Serving donuts and coffee felt like a thankless job. As a teenager, I knew nothing about sitting on a committee. I did see the value in delivering flowers to shut-ins and food to the poor. But those tasks seemed less frequent than the other three. How can being a deacon be more about caring for people in real ways? How can we have the eyes to see the  mundane tasks of being a deacon with importance?

At our business meeting last week, I introduced Upper Room’s leadership team to the office of deacon by first introducing them to three Greek words in the New Testament: diakonos, diakonia, diakoneo. These words could mean, respectively “deacon, the diaconate (or ministry of deacons), and to serve as a deacon.” Altogether, these words appear more than 90 times in the New Testament. But rarely are they translated “deacon.” This, of course, is for good reason, on the one hand. The words have a wide range of meaning, and don’t always refer specifically to the office of deacon as we know it. Sometimes the words refer to the work of servants, attendants, administrators, etc.  However, when the office of deacon was established, the title almost certainly connoted a more full-breadth of the words’ meanings. To understand what a Deacon is supposed to be, we need to have a fuller understanding of these words.

So, being the Greek language geek that I am, I handed my leadership team a list of all of the verses in the New Testament where diakonos, diakonia, and diakoneo appear. I told them to read as many of the verses in context as they could, and then we would share what we learned. We all, myself included, were stretched, even surprised, by what these words meant and what the implications are for being a deacon. We were all amazed at where these words appear and how they’re used. Perhaps I’ll do some followup posts on other verses we talked about. But for now, my absolute favorite appearance of these words comes in John 2, the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Normally diakonos is translated “servants” in this story. Read it below, though with the word “deacons” substituted:

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

5 His mother said to the deacons, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

7 Jesus said to the deacons, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the deacons who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Through the lens of this story, being a Deacon is about faithful obedience to Jesus. It’s about witnessing Jesus’ miracles in ways others don’t get to see. It’s about a special place of intimacy with Jesus.

Mary’s instructions to the servants/deacons in the story could make a good charge to newly ordained deacons: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Be a faithful servant, attending to every word you hear from Jesus. And expect to see miracles. I’ve said before about this chapter of Scripture that the reason the wine tasted so good was that it came from the fruit of obedience. When we do the work that Jesus calls us to do, we can expect Jesus to reveal his power in ways we wouldn’t otherwise witness.

I wish I had this perspective back when I served as a deacon. I may or may not have done anything differently, but I would have approached what I did do with a different attitude. I would have seen myself as one of the servants filling the water jars. I would have served communion knowing that I was doing the physical work that sets up a miracle that Jesus would do in our midst. I would have visited shut-ins with the understanding that Jesus was going to be there too. I would have approached church committee work as an opportunity to listen and discern the voice of Jesus together, wondering what miracle he was going to do next. I would have served donuts, coffee and punch looking for Jesus to show up in the fellowship that was experienced. And, who knows, maybe I would have expected him to spike the punch!

As Upper Room continues to press into this, my prayer is that our whole church, and especially whomever God calls to be our first deacons, will see the ministry with all of the humility, potential, and power that this story calls us to. Who knows what Jesus will do next when we obey?

Eucharist and the Missional Church

I’ve  been thinking about the Eucharist a lot lately. Part of the vision of the Upper Room is that we’ll be a sacramental community, and so we celebrate the Eucharist weekly. This is the first time I’ve ever been in a community that does this every Sunday. It’s taken awhile, but after several months of breaking bread and sharing the cup each week, God’s given me the eyes of faith to see Christ’s presence in the supper more clearly. I’ve found that celebrating the Lord’s Supper every week has become integral to my spiritual formation. I remember a few weeks back, it was a Wednesday or Thursday night and I found myself thinking, “I really want to be at the Lord’s table right now.” I wanted to be breaking bread and sharing the cup with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I was desiring Christ’s presence. Yet, it was still only Wednesday or Thursday, so (I thought) I had to wait.What brought me some sense of closure in this was a week or two later in the Lesslie Newbigin class I’m taking at PTS. In one article (or possibly a speech), Newbigin lists seven paradoxes about Christ and his relationship with the Church and world. The seventh paradox is that Christ is the final judge of the world who will come again, and yet also Christ remains hidden in the world, to the point that even the Church often doesn’t see him. And so, Newbigin explains, we need to seek Christ out in the world. Jesus said in the gospels that whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do also to me.

I heard this, and I immediately thought to myself, “And that is why the Lord’s Supper is so important.” Celebrating the Eucharist trains us in knowing what it feels like to be in the presence of Christ. So, when we leave the church building after we’ve been in Christ’s presence at the Lord’s table, we can go out seeking Christ’s presence elsewhere. The same Christ who is present in the Eucharist is the same Christ who is present in the hungry beggar asking for food, or the thirsty person asking for a drink, or the lonely prisoner waiting for a visitor, or the lonely elderly person “imprisoned” in a nursing home, or in the homeless person looking for shelter. When I found myself desiring to be at the Lord’s Table midweek, God was calling me to seek Christ’s presence in those places.

As “missional” continues to become more and more of a buzzword in the church, and as (hopefully) more and more churches begin to think about what it means to be a community that exists for the redemption of the whole world, I’m convinced that the Eucharist needs to be a central theme of the missional church’s worship. Being missional isn’t merely about doing charitable acts or making converts. It’s about recognizing that Christ is out in the world, hidden among the lost, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the outcast. It ought to be the church’s desire, and joy, to seek out Christ’s presence in those places, and the Eucharist prepares us for just that.

Easy Evangelism

Last Saturday, I had an unexpected witness opportunity. I had planned on walking that morning to the Tango Cafe to get some work done, and then on to Chris and Eileen’s to interview some intern applicants. Those plans were altered, though, when I saw the fire at the Burton Hirsch Funeral home. The fire kept me from going into the Cafe, and instead I spent some time with other bystanders watching the largest fire I’ve ever seen.

Then came the witnessing opportunity. I stood on the corner of the street, and shouted at the crowd, “Listen up people! You see those flames?! Well, that’s what in store for you lest you repent….”  Just kidding. Besides the fact that I’m way too bashful ever to attempt something like that, it also probably (I hope) goes without saying that methods like that are inappropriate in any context. What did happen though was an unexpected conversation with a young woman.

She and I along with a couple others were talking about the fire, when I said, “Well, I’m walking to my friend’s place, and he lives up there, so I need to find an alternate route.”

She replied, “Oh, me too. How can we get there.”

So we walked together and made small talk for a while, talking about jobs and living in Squirrel Hill. Eventually it came out that I’m a pastor starting a new church in Squirrel Hill. She responded, “Oh, so you’re a pastor? Can I ask you some questions?”

From there, she shared her hesitations about faith and religion and why she considers herself an agnostic. Her concerns were honest and well thought out. In fact, she’s probably thought more about faith than most people who claim to be Christians have. I shared with her some of my own, similar struggles, and how I’ve worked through them. She said she found the conversation helpful, and even expressed interest in visiting “my church.”

As I reflected on this conversation, one of the first things I thought was, “That was easy!” The opportunity for witness came naturally and seemed to be leading to results. I think there were a few reasons for this:

1.) The conversation was on her terms. I never had to ask loaded questions or force the conversation into matters of faith. She brought it up and was never uncomfortable in the conversation.

2.) I was myself. As she was sharing her struggles, it was tempting to search my “apologetic memory bank” for a clever answer that would try to simply God and faith into logical reasoning. Thankfully, I resisted this temptation. She wasn’t speaking from her mind as much as she was speaking from her heart, and so I responded my sharing mine. We don’t speak to people’s hearts by logical reasoning, we do it by sharing our heart.

3.) The “evangelism” was more about listening than sharing. I never thought to myself, “Okay, Mike, squeeze in a good word for Jesus.” I eventually shared some of my own story, but most of the time I just listened to her. I think effective evangelism is just as much about being silent and listening as it is about proclaiming Jesus.

Pray that these conversations can continue!

How Mission Has Affected My Ministry

This past Monday, I spoke at the World Mission Initiative dinner at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was asked to give a short talk on how my experience with mission through WMI while in seminary has affected my approach to ministry now that I’ve graduated. It was good to reflect on this; I don’t think I realized just how much mission has changed my sense of call and understanding of ministry. At any rate, this is what I said:

I am working half time as the organizing co-pastor of the Upper Room New Church Development in Squirrel Hill, and also as a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry at Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh.

 

I have to confess, before coming to seminary, I wanted to be a pastor who was comfortable. I wanted to be the pastor of a nice church in the suburbs that was just like the church I grew up in. Now, as a seminary graduate, I find myself not in such a comfortable position. I don’t live in the suburbs; I’m in the city. I’m pastoring a new church development that meets in a living room and looks nothing like the church I grew up in. And that call is only a half-time call, so it’s supplemented by doing ministry through InterVarsity, where I have to raise my own support.

 

Something changed in me from the time I started at PTS to the time I graduated from this place. The change is that I was exposed to the mission of God, largely made possible by WMI.

 

First, I learned that the mission of God was not about me, but about seeing all nations know and worship Jesus Christ. Through WMI, I was able to go on a short term mission trip to Southeast Asia where we worked with an unreached minority ethnic group. This has instilled in me a passion to see all ethnicities worship Christ, and so I’m now working on a new church development that we hope to be multiethnic. On the same trip, we worked with pastors from a housechurch movement, and so being a pastor there usually means giving up your living room or the top floor of your house so that it can be used as a sanctuary. We see no reason why a model like this couldn’t be used in the U.S. and so the church we’re planting is currently meeting in Chris’s living room.

 

Second, exposure to the mission of God has made prayer a more integral piece of my ministry. Once I returned from Southeast Asia, the sole extent of my involvement with mission there has been prayer, and it’s been a blessing to see how God has answered those prayers. So, I now see how prayer is deeply important for my ministry as a church planter. Our sense of call to plant a church in Squirrel Hill came out of prayer walking that neighborhood. Once we were committed to that neighborhood, the first thing we did was assemble a prayer team of people who have committed to interceding for us and for Squirrel Hill. I’ve also made it my personal goal as a pastor in Squirrel Hill to prayer walk the entire neighborhood, so that I pray over every house and business there. Exposure to the mission of God made me a more passionate pray-er.

 

Lastly, exposure to mission made me more aware of who God is, and made me to fall in love more deeply with my God. WMI allowed me to attend the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors conference. What I remember most about this conference is the worship. It was the most vibrant and heartfelt worship that I had ever been a part of. I realized that I was worshipping with people who were on the front lines of the Kingdom of God. Their involvement in mission meant that they had seen God at work. They weren’t just worshipping an abstract concept, but they were worshipping the real, living God who is at work in the world today. If I had gone through PTS  without having been exposed to the mission of God, I would have been very prepared to be a pastor who could talk a lot about a God whom I knew about but whom I had never seen myself. Through WMI, I saw with my own eyes the God I read about in Scriptures and learned about in the classroom. Because I’ve now seen for myself the hand of this God at work, I’m now prepared to be his witness.

The Unavoidable Crucifixion, or: Reflections On The Beginnings of My Vocation

In Seminary, Andrew Purves taught us in his pastoral care/theology courses that the ministry of the pastor needs to be crucified, so that Christ’s ministry might flourish in him/her. In other words, the role of the pastor is not to trust in their own skills, but rather to bear witness to the work of the living Christ in the life of a congregation, community and world. As I learned this, it made sense to me. In fact, I considered it gospel. What great news that “my ministry” is not really mine at all, but Christ in me.

What I’m quickly learning is that the “crucifixion of ministry” is a painful, unavoidable experience. As I learned from Dr. Purves, I think I was assuming that learning about the need for my ministry to be crucified with Christ meant that it would somehow be less painful, or not painful at all. Or maybe I thought that I could somehow avoid the crucifixion piece of things and get straight to the risen Christ in me. This was just foolishness. Crucifixion hurts, and knowing that it’s coming doesn’t change that. Just ask Jesus.

As Chris and I, along with the rest of the seed group, have begun the work of church-planting, I’ve been finding ministry to be an incredibly emotionally-probing experience. Every day, I keep encountering my weaknesses, limitations and sin-problems, and as I do, the Spirit has also been bringing back to mind experiences in my past that have contributed to, and perhaps even caused, these particular limitations in my life. This increased self-awareness has not, however, been coupled with knowledge of solutions to my problems. In fact, at times I get so overwhelmed by my pride, selfish need for affirmation, and ‘introvertedness’ (among other limitations) that I begin to question why God would even call someone like me to church-planting in Squirrel Hill. To put it another way, I’m finding myself being crucified, and longing for resurrection to come.

This morning, I think I found the first glimmer of resurrection in my personal devotional time. I was reading Psalm 37, and verse 3 stood out to me: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” I think I’ll be reciting this verse for a while. Even if I don’t understand why I’m here, I’ll continue to “dwell in the land,” trusting in the LORD, doing good, and befriending faithfulness, with the hope and prayer that I’ll be a vessel through which Christ works.

Ready for a Change…

I’ve been spending most of the summer doing pulpit supply preaching in various churches. At the beginning of the summer, I was really excited about the opportunity to spend a good chunk of time writing sermons and preaching, but I’m beginning to realize that I may have had too much of a good thing.

If you’re not familiar with the term “pulpit supply,” it’s pretty much the pastor’s equivolent to substitute teaching. Just about every Sunday, I’ve gone to a different church that either doesn’t have a pastor, or where the regular pastor is on vacation. Most of these churches are in relatively remote parts of Pennsylvania where I’ve never been before. At the start of the summer, I really enjoyed this work. I loved spending the time studying Scripture and writing sermons, and I really enjoyed traveling around and seeing parts of Pennsylvania that I’ve never seen before. The experience has also been pretty affirming of my call to ministry. After any sermon, you almost always get the typical comments (i.e. “I enjoyed your message” or “Nice sermon”), but I also received some feedback from people that I will cherish for a long time. (My favorite: “When you preached, I heard Jesus speaking.”)

Despite these good things… the gig is getting old. I never realized how difficult and draining it is to write sermons for congregations you barely know. Part of sermon preparation is a process of discerning what God wants to say to your particular congregation, and it’s really hard to discern that when you know nothing about that congregation. It’s also draining worshipping with strangers on a weekly basis. Usually, I enjoy meeting new people in new churches, and seeing new parts of the body of Christ, but lately I’ve been finding myself longing to be a part of a community and not just the guest of a different community each week.

That’s why I’m REALLY excited for what’s coming this week. This Thursday, the seed group for the New Church Development in Squirrel Hill will meet for the first time. It’s just going to be an evening of fellowship where we can all get to know one another before we all dive into Bible Study, worship and life-in-Christ together, but it’s also the beginning of this new chapter in my life and the lives of several others.

I’m ready for this change. The pseudo-itinerant ministry of pulpit supply preaching was fun for a season, but I fear that season may have ended a week or two before I intended it to. It’s time to devote energy to one community and see how the Holy Spirit forms and shapes it into a temple for the living Christ.

Catching Up On Blogging

It’s been a while since I last updated on here. I’ve been meaning to post for a while, now. The problem has been that the past two weeks have been a combination of being busy with not having immediate access to the internet, which has resulted in no new postings since mid-July. There are a number of things I’ve been wanting to write, and that list keeps growing. So, I’m going to catch up right now by covering everything in one fell swoop. Buckle your seatbelts, here we go….

 

New Wilmington Mission Conference

 

This is the third year I’ve worked on the conference staff, and in terms of speakers, this has to be the best of the three. If you have a chance, I strongly encourage you to check out the sermons from the conference by Jim Martin (of International Justice Mission) and Ken Bailey. The impact of Jim’s sermon was incredible. It felt as if he took the whole congregation through crucifixion and resurrection. Ken Bailey is always brilliant, but in this particular sermon, his intellect as a New Testament Scholar is combined with his passion as a missionary of Jesus Christ.

 

Thinking About Patience

 

I’ve been spending time lately reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (a Victorian-era poet and Jesuit Priest). I’m planning on writing a full post about him once I finish the volume I picked up. But for now, I just want to share a portion of a poem that stuck out to me:

 

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,

But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks

Wants wars, wants wounds; weary his times, his task;

To do without, take tosses, and obey.

 

Reading this showed me that when I ask for patience, what I’m usually asking for isn’t patience at all, but simply relief of my hardship or discomfort. But asking for patience is a dangerous thing. Asking for patience means asking for wars and wounds. It means asking for contentment within hardship, not relief of hardship. Maybe we need to recover some of the earlier translations of scripture that, instead of using the word “patience,” use the term “long-suffering.”

 

From Fantasy to Imagination

 

I can’t remember now whether I read this recently or heard it in a sermon. (My best guess is that I read it either in Dangerous Act of  Worship or Shaping of Things to Come). Somewhere, though, someone talked about serving God with imagination. Something that stuck out to me is that a defining characteristic of imagination is practice. Having creative ideas about ministry (or serving God more generally) is useless if we don’t put those ideas to use. Imagination that stays in our heads isn’t imagination at all; it’s fantasy.

 

I’m noticing that I’m much better at fantasy than at imagination. Maybe it’s because fantasy is safer. If ideas stay in my head, they won’t be criticized by others, and more importantly, they won’t fail. Fantasy, though, is also useless.

 

As Chris and I continue with the church planting work, we’re beginning to grow restless. We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about plans and ideas with others, writing about them in a grant proposal, and praying about them. I think our restlessness, at least in part, comes from a strong desire for this new church not to be a fantasy, but a reality brought about by God’s Spirit gifting us with imaginative vision.

 

Church Basement Roadshow

 

The Church Basement Roadshow, a book tour featuring Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt and Mark Scandrette, came through Pittsburgh last Saturday night. I appreciated what all three had to say. One thing that disappointed me, though was who attended, or perhaps it’s better to say who didn’t attend.

 

The event was hosted by Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community (with help from the Open Door and Emergent Pittsburgh). As much as I like Hot Metal, I’m not sure that was the best location for the event. This isn’t because I have anything against HMB. I think they’re one of the best examples in Pittsburgh of how to do church faithfully in a particular neighborhood. And that’s just it. Most of the people at Hot Metal Bridge (and the Open Door and other Emergent churches) already get it. The people who most needed to hear and learn from Jones, Pagitt and Scandrette are those in mainline churches who are struggling to do ministry faithfully and effectively in a 21st century context. It’s a shame most leaders from those churches didn’t come.