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Monthly Archives: March 2009

Every job has its less pleasant tasks.  At the cafe where I work, these tasks include dishes, sweeping and mopping at the end of the night, cleaning the bathrooms.  Not long after I started, our manager gave me a task that was entirely my responsibility: tighten the bolts on the underside of the toilet boll that stop the seat from wiggling.  Each night, I tighten those bolts, just as I fulfill my other duties. 

Rarely do I complain about the menial tasks which my job at the cafe entails.  Why?  Because I know the real reason I work at the cafe:  the people.  I love working there because of the people I meet and talk with every night:  my coworkers, the regulars, the first-timers who don’t yet know we only take cash.  The good that comes out of these conversations makes it more than worth tightening the toilet seat bolts. 

Remembering the reason I’m there also allows me to do the menial tasks prayerfully.  For example, when I take the chairs off the tables at the end of the night after mopping, I sometimes pray short blessings: “God, may whoever sits here tomorrow experience your love and grace.”  Sometimes it’s even more specific, thinking of a regular customer who usually sits at the same table every day.  This practice has become a simple way for me to do the simple tasks of my job, all the while remembering why I’m there in the first place.  And yes, sometimes I’ve even prayed this way while fixing the bolts on the toilet.

Why then, do I – like so many other church-workers – have trouble finding motivation to prayerfully do the less pleasant administrative tasks of ministry?   I think it’s because we forget the real reason we do them:  to serve Jesus.  Just as dishes and mopping floors at the cafe are not ends in themselves, neither are emails, budgets, meetings, or check-request forms the end of ministry.  The purpose of ministry is to glorify Jesus and build his kingdom.   It’s sometimes hard to see through all the emails or paperwork or event-planning, but even these small but necessary tasks are ultimately about serving Jesus.

Speaking about the administrative tasks of ministry, Craig Barnes once said in our Pastoral Care class in seminary, “Everyone has to do the dishes, but Brother Lawrence taught us we can do the dishes spiritually.”  Brother Lawrence was a monk who wrote about finding intimacy with God throughout all of his daily tasks, including dish-washing, in the book Practicing the Presence of God.  Doing dishes for Brother Lawrence was not about dishes – it was about conversation with God.

I’m sitting at my desk right now, looking over things that will come up on tonight’s agenda for our steering team meeting.  And now, lest I again forget the real reason why we do this work, I’m going to pray over each item on our agenda.  If I can “do the dishes spiritually” at the cafe, then surely we can conduct our administrative work tonight not as a “business meeting”, but as a time of fellowship and worship.

We just added a page on The Upper Room’s website with information about Converge – the festival we’re planning for April 25th in partnership with Urban Impact’s “Global Impact” day.  It should be a great day of food, fun, service, and music.  Check it out here!

patrick-iconAs St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated this weekend with green rivers and green beer and other Irish and pseudo-Irish activities, I felt it was appropriate to read the original St. Patrick’s autobiography tonight, his Confession.  It was written near the end of his life, perhaps in response to accusations against his character.  The character he shows in writing the Confession though, has much to teach us about pastoral/missionary/church-planting vocations today.  After all, Patrick was a missionary and church-planter.  He claims to have baptized “thousands” of people in Ireland and is traditionally given credit for being the father of Irish Christianity. 

Here are the characteristics I saw in Patrick from which today’s pastors and missionaries could learn much:

1) Patrick was humble.  He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  The next several paragraphs are spent talking about how he’s uneducated and a poor writer.  He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how the failures and trials were used for good: “thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”  When he does mention his successes, he is quick attribute them to God working through him, never his own strength.

2) Patrick knew scripture inside and out.  The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here (printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. Coakley and Sterk [Orbis: 2004] pgs 221-228, taken from The Works of Patrick, ed. and trans. Ludwig Beilder [Newman: 1953])  italicizes everything that is allusion to scripture and cites with parentheses every direct quote.  He can’t go more than a few sentences without quoting the Bible!  He interprets every major event of his life in terms of scripture.  It becomes clear as you read that Patrick was not just a person who knew scripture academically, but that he was one who had been formed and profoundly changed as a person by his knowledge of scripture. 

3) Patrick was a man of prayer. As a teenage shepherd, long before he was a minister, he recounts praying hundreds of separate prayers each day.  He shares about fasting, visions, and spiritual warfare.  At one point, he even talks about seeing Jesus praying inside him, within his own body.  Prayer shaped Patrick and his ministry.

4) Patrick loved his flock.  Though from Britain and originally a slave in Ireland, Patrick loved the Irish and was committed to stand by them.  Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, he could not abandon his call to stay in Ireland for the rest of his life.  Patrick was committed to and loved the people entrusted to his care.  He writes, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.”

5) Patrick did not seek his own gain.  Several times near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed.  He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures.  For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.”   Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

Having outgrown my house in the past month, we’re happy to announce that The Upper Room’s Holy Week and Easter services will be happening elsewhere.  Specifically, our Palm Sunday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday services will all be in the Botany Hall of Phipps Conservatory!  Click here for directions.  The schedule for these and other services is below:

April 5th – Palm Sunday – 7:00pm at Phipps.

April 9th – Maundy Thursday – 6:00pm at Waverly Presbyterian Church (on the corner of Forbes and Braddock in Regent Square)

April 10th – Good Friday – 7:00pm at Eastminster Presbyterian Church (on the corner of Highland and Penn Circle North in East Liberty)

April 11th – Easter Vigil – 7:00pm at Phipps

April 12th – Easter – 11:00am at Phipps

Once in a while, I ring up a customer at the cafe where I work and wince at the cost.  I almost feel apologetic when I tell them their large mocha will cost $3.65.  Interestingly, the cashier at the cafe I’m hanging out at today (another cafe in the same neighborhood which shall remain nameless) just had the same reaction when I bought a snack that cost $1.98.  She even said, “I’m sorry.  I thought it would be like eighty-five cents.”

Similarly, in church this past Sunday, I found myself worrying about how people perceived the service.  Were the songs too unfamiliar and difficult?  The sermon too intellectual?  The call for tithes and offerings too direct?  Just as I apologetically ring up the register for a large mocha, I wince when I tell people how much it will cost them to follow Jesus.  But, put simply, the church in a post-Christendom culture can’t afford to apologize for the costs of following Jesus.

I think the fact we do apologize, though, is symptomatic of two things:  First, we don’t really believe that what we have is worth that much.  At the cafe, I’m happy to sell our coffee beans at full price, despite the sticker-shock it may give some customers.  The reason is that I believe it’s worth it to pay that much for high-quality organic fair-trade coffee.  But when it comes to products whose value I doubt, I feel insecure.  How often do we in the church shy away from sharing the cost of discipleship because we ourselves don’t trust that’s worth it?  

Second, I think our apologies do indicate a genuine concern for others, though it expresses itself in a way that backfires.  Example:  I want people to know how good the smoothies are at our cafe.  They’re expensive, but they’re worth it.  I want people to know how good they are, so when people wince at $3.95 for a smoothie made with freshly-squeezed juice, I instinctively wish I could lower the price to make it accessible.  But, that’s not within my power to do, and to lower the price fairly would require poorer ingredients or smaller quantities.  In the same way, many Christians want to make following Jesus accessible, so they minimize the cost.  Accessibility is good.  Clear communication is good.  But dishonesty about the costs of following Jesus results in anemic churches and weak disciples.