(Appeared first in February 2010, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
I am writing at the end of my first week in my new role withMennonite Church USA, a time of personal retreat to prepare me for the job. The search committee had told me, “The Executive Director will lead Mennonite Church USA toward a Christ-centered spirituality and missional calling.”
Given this mandate, I felt a need to begin my role by listening for God’s priorities and guidance. I determined to make a quiet space of several days to listen for God’s voice.
Early on my first day of retreat, I sensed the Spirit saying that I should study what the Scripture has to say about priorities, as seen in the use of the word “first.” I looked up the New Testament references with the word “first”—there are dozens of them—and then selected the ones that spoke most clearly to me about primacy or priority. I chose to meditate on 20-some references, drawing out spiritual principles to guide my work with the church.
I found this study to be profoundly satisfying. I commend it to anyone hoping to align their own priorities with God’s main concerns. I will mention a few of the biblical references below, all cited from Today’s New International Version.
As I meditated on each reference, I sensed that some stood taller than the rest. I will mention two such sayings of Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).
These two passages provide the stars for navigation. They help orient me to “true north” as I negotiate my way through the complexities of church life.
I also encountered Jesus’ sober counsel: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” (Matthew 20:16). “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26b-28). It seems that God delights in reversing many of our top-heavy human arrangements. I take this to heart as I prepare to assume the “top” staff position in our denomination.
And then there is Jesus’ sharp admonition regarding relationships with fellow believers: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Addressing the all-too-common tendency to project our own faults and motives on others, Jesus offered the scathing words: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).
Other biblical writers joined Jesus in speaking of priorities. The Apostle Paul often used the term “first” in his sage advice to fledgling churches. For example: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, and intercessions be made for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:1) and, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents” (1 Timothy 5:4). Paul’s advice is very useful in conducting the affairs of church life today.
I jotted many insights into my journal, which will guide me as I take up my work with Mennonite Church USA.
After this week of spiritual orientation, I pray that God’s priorities will guide all of us together as we seek to “follow Jesus in the world.”