Mike's Sunday Letter

--with personal notes
  • It's been a hard week...of saying goodbyes here in Urbana.  Even though I won't be moving until July, I have finished my leadership with the American congregation and am busy organizing papers and files.  I am also having last visits and conversations with the members here.  Saying goodbye is fatiguing.  It is painful to step out of a fellowship that is so deeply loving.
  • So it felt good today to drive down to Mattoon and drop in on their two worship services...and get a sense of what is ahead, and say hello...instead of goodbye.
  • We will be in Chicago this coming Friday to celebrate Scarlette's graduation from the University of Illinois Chicago with a bachelor's degree in industrial design.
  • Reading Scott Farris's book, Almost President:  The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation.  It is a well written book about such characters as Henry Clay, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Ross Perot, and William Jennings Bryant.
  • For the next two months, this Sunday letter is only available in the electronic version.  When I assume pastoral duties in Mattoon, I will resume providing hard copies to that congregation.

May 1, 2016
Taking Our Stories to the Next Chapter
I was 27 when my great-grandfather died.  Grandpa John.  In his younger days he looked like President Truman, which pained him greatly.  The only person he disliked more than Harry Truman was Franklin Roosevelt.  

He did, however, like Theodore Roosevelt. He'd chuckle every time he told me how he had lied about his age in order to get in and vote for the Teddy...in 1904.  He also boasted that he had voted for the socialist Eugene Debs in 1920, mainly because he didn't think the government ought to throw a man in prison for speaking out against World War I.  He didn't agree a lick for what Debs thought.  But he just couldn't pass up a chance to vote for a political prisoner. 
Grandpa John was fond of the ladies.  A widower for a quarter of a century, he played up that cute old man routine in order to collect compliments, kisses, and quivers...about as much as his frail body could handle.  If a female of any age would enter the room, Grandpa would pop out of his rocking chair and shower her with chivalrous attentions.  After he hit ninety years of age, he didn't pop up so smoothly, given his low blood pressure.  Sudden rising made him faint, and often as not his female guest had to catch him and set him back in his chair.  I suspect, however, that some of those tumbles into lovely feminine arms were due more to conniving rather than blood pressure.
As a young man John refused to join the KKK: He didn't want someone else telling him what to think...even though he tended to think just like the KKK.  He quit smoking because he didn't want to pay 25 cents for two packs of Camels:  too expensive. During the summer, he would spend night after night grousing at the radio as it broadcast St. Louis Cardinals baseball.  I could never tell if he hated the Cardinals or if the whole thing was just a lover's quarrel. 
He and I got to know each other quite a bit because he lived the last two decades of his life with my grandparents.  He regaled me with his memories of history and nine decades of anecdotes.  

He was not lazy.  I recall him being the first one up every day, about 5 a.m.  He would sit in his rocking chair in the living room (where I usually slept when I visited there) and read.  He insisted on carrying his weight when it came to paying bills and doing chores.  

At mealtime, my grandma did the cooking (she insisted) and my great grandfather (skinny) and my grandfather (not skinny) would sit at the table and wait for her to deliver the grub.  Grandma was futilely trying to fatten up Great-Grandpa John and slim down Grandpa Leonard.  She'd shovel hog jowl, fried eggs, corn mush, and triple-buttered toast on both their plates.  Then she'd head back to fix her own plate.  As soon as she turned her back, John would nudge his plate to Leonard, and they'd both use their forks to empty John's plate onto Leonards.  Then they'd both sit there and glare at me to keep me from giggling.
Grandpa John, even though deceased in 1981, is an inextricable part of my story...as are all my relatives.  It is my task, in my time, to learn...and mingle...and continue the stories bequeathed to me.  Sometimes I have advanced what I inherited.  Sometimes I live out the stories by tweaking them a little.  And then there are those times I must exorcise the demons that dart through my family's epic.  As the story becomes my story, I face significant choices in taking up authorship.  We never start our own life-story from scratch.  We only get a chance to pick up the pen partway through. 
I admired Grandpa John's chivalry.  And I've generally made it a part of my own persona. For example, I was the first 18 year old in my family to vote in 68 years.  (I voted legally, however, as the 26th amendment passed when I was 17.)  In other areas (such as racial prejudice) I have done my best to exorcise those demons in our family narrative and represent the kinfolk differently than did he.     
It is not only the stories of our ancestors that we must tend.  The same is true when one joins or is appointed pastor of a church. 
In 2001, I was appointed to be the 41st pastor of Urbana Grace Church.  The story was already 101 years old when I entered it.  One of my most important decisions, as pastor, was to determine which parts of Grace's story I would affirm and carry forth, which parts I would seek to modify, and which parts I would try to close, gracefully if possible.
When I read the congregation's history, I noticed that Grace was started as a ministry to the marginalized in Urbana (those who lived on the wrong side of the tracks.)  I also heard multiple testimonies of how the church had tenderly nurtured many broken people back to life.  Of course, there were also some wicked chapters:  about racism...and bullying...and pastor-worship. 
I decided to carry forth, best as I could, by advancing those stories that stood in solidarity with the marginalized.  We also stepped up our focus on those who needed healing:  by increasing pastoral care and counseling...and by starting a healing service.

I haven't been a perfect pastor...or person...far from it.  But as I end my 15-year tenure here, I believe that together we have gathered and energized a group of people who have joined me in trying to be faithful to the best parts of Grace's story. Our work with the marginalized have included exciting ministries with Chinese scholars, residents of retirement centers, and young adults.  

We faithfully carried the story forth, I think. I hope that in the merged church, future pastors and parishioners will themselves seek out the best parts of Grace's story and carry forth...exorcising our mistakes...and honoring the gospel elements of our legacy.
And now I sally forth...to Mattoon, to become the 70th pastor (counting associates) in that congregation's 159-year story.  These are days of trying to learn what that story is.  Over these next months I'll rapidly try to catch up on as many episodes and anecdotes as people will share.  

Mattoon First will likely be similar to the other ten congregations I have served:  its stories will be about a "treasure in earthen vessels." 
So pray for me, please.  And pray for all the churches...and pastors everywhere...that we might learn the histories well...and faithfully author the next chapters in the image of Jesus himself.  --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801