Michael L. Ruffin is the Connections curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing, an adjunct professor at Mercer University, a newspaper columnist, and a poet. He posts opinion pieces on the blog On the Jericho Road and poems on Instagram (@michaell.ruffin). A former pastor, he still preaches when and where he’s invited. He and his wife, Debra, have two children and two grandchildren.
What were you hoping to accomplish when you sat down to write Praying with Matthew?
Prayer is, among other things, conversation between God and people. Scripture is, among other things, a record of the conversation between God and people. So it seemed to me that it could be helpful to read the Bible in a way that takes both conversations seriously. By writing prayers based on my reading of the Bible, I join in the conversation reflected in Scripture. I hope that people reading my prayers will hear them as an invitation to join in the conversation too. I hope Praying with Matthew encourages to read the Bible more prayerfully.
Why the book of Matthew? What was it about Matthew that inspired you?
The formation and arrangement of the New Testament Gospels fascinates me. Most scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel to be produced, followed a few years later by Matthew and Luke, with John coming even later. But Matthew was placed first in the New Testament canon. That may be because it had assumed a central role in the early church’s teaching and preaching due to its organization into five parts, each containing a narrative section and a teaching section. When I chose Matthew, I may have had a thought in the back of my mind that I might like to write books of prayers based on each of the four Gospels. Matthew comes first in the canon, so I started there. But if I was going to work through and write prayers on only Gospel, it had to be the one that includes the Sermon on the Mount.
What was one of your struggles during the writing process?
Whenever I write about (or teach and preach about) the Bible, I’m always aware of how limited my insights are. I have lived my one life and had my own experiences, and I come to the Bible out of my background. On one hand, in this book I’m sharing my own reflections and writing my own prayers. Most readers will understand that and will accept the book for what it is. On the other hand, I have an obligation to honor the work of those who have taught me about Matthew through their spoken and written words. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while Praying with Matthew reflects my personal experience with Matthew as I encounter it through the lens of my life, it doesn’t mean whatever I think it means. I want to treat the Bible with integrity. I always want to accurately state the best understanding I have.
How does writing a 365-daily devotional differ from your previous works?
I didn’t start out planning to publish a book containing the devotions. I had been writing a daily prayer as a personal discipline for several years. I shared those prayers online with friends and acquaintances. I decided to spend a year writing prayers based on the Gospel of Matthew because I wanted to give my prayers more focus and because I believe that Scripture, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and experience work together in forming us as followers of Jesus. So I wrote one prayer each day, then later edited them into the form they have in the book. That’s similar to how I’ve written other books. They all require daily discipline.
I noticed that the beginning of Matthew, like many other parts of the Bible, delves into genealogy. As a people of faith, how can we engage with and find meaning in lesser known parts of the Bible?
I suspect that when many of us see a genealogy, we skip right over it because we expect to find nothing edifying in it. But if we’ll make ourselves stop and reflect, we’ll be rewarded. For example, the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel does something very unusual: it includes some of the women in his family tree. And each of those women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—has an interesting history that we can read about in the Old Testament. If we’ll do so and then ask ourselves why Matthew thought it important to include, we’ll make some interesting discoveries and realize some interesting possibilities that might inspire and challenge us.
The book’s subtitle is “365 Days of Gospel-Shaped Devotions.” What do you mean by “gospel-shaped”?
I mean a couple of things. First, since the book is the result of my praying through the Gospel of Matthew, the form and flow of that Gospel determines the form and flow of the devotions. Second, and more significantly, the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of the life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus shape the prayers and devotions that appear in the book. The word “gospel” names the literary genre of Matthew (as well as of Mark, Luke, and John), but it also names the content of those writings: they present the good news of Jesus Christ. That good news shapes the devotions contained in Praying with Matthew. I hope the contents of the book invite readers to a life that is even more shaped by the good news of Jesus.
Finally, as a scholar, what surprises you whenever you engage with scripture?
I am always amazed at the richness of the conversation between the words on the page, the God who stands behind them, the Savior to whom they lead, the possibilities to which they point, my life, the insights of other students of Scripture, and the Spirit who still speaks.