Going after the Omni’s – Seeking a God who is more than All That

Why go after the omni’s?

In a great deal of the pop theology of the church, we live with this trinitarian phrase description of God as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present.  This phrase as a phrase is a frustrating one for me as a pastor and coffeeshop theologian.  It is TBV: true but vapid.

It is frustrating as a pastor because it is unbiblical and completely devoid of creativity and relationship.  It says true things in a way that brings in a constellation of meaning that is untrue, or at least unrelated to the God of the Bible and Jesus.  It brings us a whole lot closer to the question, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?” than to Jesus’ statement to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

As a coffeeshop theologian it is frustrating because it is sort of true.  God is powerful and knowing and present in a complete way, but that statement of absolute power, knowledge, and presence is presented out of a distant god as force way of thinking. I have often been tempted and even subscribed to this way of thinking.  It is not necessarily pantheism or panentheism as a classically defined.  I could draw some lines around it, but it was very much a god as Force, as in May the Force be with You.  Over time, I have been converted by the Bible to a more personal view of God, not as in my-god kind of personal, but in a view of God as person who is involved in the narrative of creation and life, a God on the hillside and mountainside bargaining with Abraham and arguing with Moses and on the cross.  A God of love rather than a force of love.

It has become a justice issue for me.  I am using that term on purpose because everything is a justice issue these days.  Justice for women and gays and blacks has us scrambling to figure out language and relationships both real and imagined.  It has us waving banners and posting online, but I don’t think much is at stake for most of us right now if we are honest.  The civil rights movement in the 1960’s was violent because the stakes were life and death, poverty and wealth.  Right now the stakes where I live are comfort and conscience, wealth and its distribution.  These things are important, but they are not causing the pillars to shake, are they?

No, I think this language about God puts our meaning of justice at stake, and this issue then risks some more nuanced and possibly dangerous earthquakes.  If God is a force of love, then everything is equal and should be equally applied, which gives you and me an awful lot of freedom to decide what is important right now.  We look at the field and choose.  Our vision is not pure, however, because we are really shaped by the local culture and media.  This is not evil, but it is not necessarily Christian either, even when the culture claims to be Christian.

If our starting point for understanding God is personal, our Lord God*, who created the world, loves the creation, and made us to be emissaries and caretakers, image-bearers or name-bearers, then our sense of justice is very much at stake because we have to take into account what that personal God cares about and names.  We have to look at what we can know about God, what has been revealed, and how we submit to the cares and loves of God.  I think that puts us in a pretty terrible position culturally.  Love as a force is pretty great.  Love as submission to a loving God is pretty demanding.

So let’s set some stakes that are biblical.  God created the world and loves it, placed humanity in the world to bear God’s image, and even when humanity went awry came to us time and time again to reveal God’s ways and intentions.  Ultimately, God came to form a covenant with the Israelites that they would bear his image and name in a particular way in how they lived with God, each other, and the land, especially the land of Canaan.  They failed often, but God continued to be faithful to them and to the promise that one day there would arise one who would restore the place of the Israelites as the savior people, the image bearing people set free and a place of knowing God for all the nations.

This promise was kept in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe as Christians, who bore the image of God without sin and chose to face the powers of death that constantly bound both the people through sin but also through the institutional sins of rule and religion.  In Jesus, God was revealed, we believe, as incarnate and loving, forgiving and merciful, just and holy.  The order is important.

God loves the creation and human beings.  God is protective of the least, as is often repeated in the Scriptures, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  I would add barren women and wanderers, the dispossessed and the oppressed.  This is not a surprise in Jesus, somehow over-against his Hebrew faith.  It is the natural shape of the landscape of the Torah described by the prophets.  Jesus “gives meat” to the God revealed in the Law and prophets, writings and histories of the Hebrew people.  The God who created human beings cares for them, especially when they are vulnerable, oppressed, and crushed. The God whose love often turns from wrath to mercy.  The God who relents from destruction time and time again.  Not always, but often.

God’s wrath has to be understood in the context of God’s love.  It is not, as the Reformed tradition has sometimes claimed, that God is holy and therefore offended.  That frankly doesn’t hold very well with the Bible.  God is holy, but that holiness is loving.  God loves and is therefore just.  God’s love is a creator’s love and therefore whole and holy.  We are incapable of directly apprehending God because we are limited.  We are called to be God’s stewards in the house of creation, despite our limitations and lack of apprehension.  We are to care for people and things, order people and things, and to do so in God’s name as an act of worship and love of God.

Okay, so let us return to our original formula through justice.  Justice in God’s house has to be based on who God is, what God is like, what God cares about, and who God wants us to be.

God as creator of the world gives us some pretty immediate theology.  God is outside the creation, as must be true to create it. God is not a part of the creation and so is not bound by it or its limitations.

Is God therefore all-powerful?  We have to say “yes,” and Jesus says, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  But God works in and through the creation and humanity.  Does God ever “break the rules”?  There are certainly miracles, but they always involve humanity and creation.  I would point rather to God as Creator than God as All-Powerful because the claims of the Bible are typically creative claims.  I would say with Paul in Romans 4:17 “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” ESV  God is Almighty because God is creator and holds all life and being itself in love.

Is God all-knowing?  There are lots of Scriptures that indicate that God knows the future, though usually “plans”, and that God knows human beings and even in some places “all things.”  I would not argue that God does not know all things, but rather that there are many indications in the Scriptures that God interacts with creation in a way that indicates real dialogue and open-ended possibility.  He asks Adam and Eve where they are and what happened.  He calls Moses and bargains with him.  Does God’s plan change for Aaron when Moses says he cannot speak?  I would say, yes, out of deference for the way of God in the Bible.  Jesus even asks God to let the cup of crucifixion pass from him.  If he, God-incarnate, did not believe that it could be otherwise, why pray it?  So while I would say God is all-knowing, it is pulled back in relationship with humanity.  This points to that great rabbinic idea of zim-zum where God pulls back to make creation, allowing creation the space to exist and humanity the room to have freedom within his will.  So maybe I would say God knows all the possibilities and is able to see where all outcomes lead, even be able to weave all outcomes to one, the bringing to completion the will of God in the day of completion, resurrection, judgement, and justice and peace.

Is God all-present?  Maybe.  There are many examples in the scriptures where God’s presence, especially mediated by the angels, is less or more.  I might argue that within the Biblical world God’s presence is always somewhat mediated, first by angels, then Jesus, and ultimately the Holy Spirit.  The place that Holy Wisdom has in that or the shekinah, we could debate, but the presence of God if it is always there directly is certainly mediated to humanity and through creation and humanity.

So while you can say God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is a pretty thin statement in a Biblical faith.  It isn’t that it isn’t true, so much as that it is vapid.  It does not offer the creativity and relationality of God-in-Jesus revealed in the Bible.

So let me turn finally to justice.

The Rule of God: we are to be a people who live in the world as God’s emissaries and stewards.  But if we are to do that our very desires and the shape of our thinking have to be subject to God.  If we are to be just, it must be God’s justice.  As we return to women and gays and blacks, to put it bluntly even grossly, or more broadly to humanity and issues of our day, we cannot be for injustice, and we cannot not love any human being.  We have to love even our enemies and bless those who curse us.  Sounds self-sacrificial, doesn’t it?  But this is God’s will, that we should love people and care for the creation.

But we also have to subject ourselves as followers of Jesus to allow God’s will be my will, God’s justice be my justice, God’s love be my love.  It is a lot easier to say God is love, so when I love I am being like God.  The truth is there, but the order is wrong.  I must seek God’s love to be my love, so that I don’t distort it.

I must care for the creation and love human beings, all of them.  I cannot make them subject to God; I can only love them and proclaim what I know.  I can order my life to reflect God’s will, justice, and love.  This means trying to live the grace that God has for me.  I don’t deserve God’s love, and other people don’t have to deserve mine.  I will be merciful and just no matter what.

This may be the heart of the new reformation we are in.  As in the former reformations we argued over the definitions of grace as a commodity given, an object, in our current age we are coming to understand that grace is not a commodity but the nature of God, and the arguments are over the demands that “giving meat” to that grace places on us.  I am to be grace, but that gets complicated quickly.

If grace is love then I have to love humanity, but what do I do when humanity is unloving?  What do I do with someone who refuses to be transformed by God’s grace?  Do I stop loving them? Do I try to destroy them?  Do I continue to do my work and ignore their sins?  I think the answers are in the sermon on the mount and the parables and teachings of Jesus, but I don’t like them very much, because my fleshly self wants this to be about me and me being right and safe.

I would like it if God were just a force like gravity so that I could tip my wings and fly, bending and using God like the forces of nature, but God is beyond all that, alive and personal.  I am not called to fly but to walk with God, to know God and be transformed by God, to be like God towards other people and God’s creation.

As an aside, I fail at this all the time, every day, right now.  My failure doesn’t start in my actions, but rather in my heart and mind.  I want to order and shape things for myself, like some Ayn Rand disciple rather than Jesus’ disciple.  That ignores my true nature; it even destroys it over time.  I have to be converted in the heart while I am learning to do as God would have me do.  I fail at this in my marriage and my family, in my church and in my world.  I am getting better, but thank God I am following Jesus and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in my very being, working to change me and redeem me, to set me free from the accumulation of all those other decisions and selfish habits.  I  am being redeemed.  I have been forgiven.  I will probably need more of both tomorrow.

So, as a pastor and a coffeeshop theologian, as a human being, I want more God than the all-that one.

*The objections for Lord are well known and acknowledged.  While I do not claim that God is gendered and acknowledge that the word Lord is, I don’t have a gender-neutral word in English for one whom we submit to that is understood in the same way.  I am trying in my limited way to get to a more open language of God that is still faithful to the revelation of the Word and the Scriptures.

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The Adolescent Church – or It’s Time to Mow the Yard

By now you have heard it said that the “church” refers to the community or members, not the building.  This is not news to most people, and it seems silly to reiterate it.  But I want to extend it a little before we move on.  The “church” also does not refer to the institution, good or bad, or the structures and hierarchies of the institution that we create around the community.  The church is holy.  The other stuff is just there to support it, strengthen it, equip it, and keep it generation to generation.

The problem as I see it is that mostly our issues with the things we call church are surface.  The deeper issue that belies most of our complaints about church, which are making their weekly appearance in more or less relevant lists online, is that we are immature.  The church at large is really, really immature.  Making another immature list doesn’t seem helpful, does it?  I would argue that we are getting better.

Not every member of the church is immature.  Not every local community within the church is immature.  But the American branch of the church universal, in almost all of its iterations, is adolescent at best.  I think we are moving past early adolescence, though, in my lifetime.  Thankfully.

Adolescence is that magical age between childhood and adulthood when we are in transition.  In childhood the world is defined for us by our parents.  As we grow, if the parents do their jobs, we are forced to look beyond our selves and our wants to think of others, all the while having our needs considered and cared for by the mostly unseen benevolence of our parents.  We don’t usually know as grade schoolers that electricity is costly and paid for monthly or that it is truly deadly and comes to our house through a whole network of devices and wires that must be tended and cared for.  We don’t know.  We couldn’t handle it.  So our parents do and rarely tell us.  As we transition to adulthood, we come to understand the thing, its cost, and our responsibilities about it.

As we go through adolescence, we are let in on the mysteries of tending to life, which we called “doing chores” at my house.  We don’t understand much, but usually when we are healthy, we become aware of others in increasingly subtle and immediate ways.  We become aware of how large the world is, how many people are around us, and sometimes we get overwhelmed by that.  And if we are normal we begin to realize that those people have expectations of us.  This all takes a lot of time.

The American church has had its billed paid for a long time.  We have been given tax breaks and deference by the government, culture, and media. We have been protected, provided for, and generally regressed to that state in life before full adulthood.  For a host of different reasons, those protections and provisions are being taken away, and it is time for us to progress back towards maturity.

The world has expectations of us based on what we proclaim, and like adolescents we are becoming aware of the social pressures on us as people stop giving us those protections and deferences in the culture.  That pressure can come across as meanness or frustration or disdain as we fail at our own jobs.

I got fired from mowing grass when I was about fourteen by a guy who thought I should be able to check his rental units, and when the grass needed mowing or looked rough, show up on my own and mow it.  I was used to having an adult tell me when the job should be done, so I did not check or mow, and he was livid.  It was not a great moment for either of us, as I remember it.  I failed to understand and respond as an adult.

The church has failed to love well and maintain her integrity.  The world notices, and our culture is frustrated with the church.  They don’t notice all the things we do right, but they notice the things we have ruined.  [That pretty well sums up how I felt for a couple of years between twelve and fourteen.  You?]

This adolescence is not merely cultural.  The church is getting on through adolescence as we notice our issues and work on them, reaching out in love and responsibility in ways we really did not after the forties and fifties.  The church is back on the front lines of issues and involved in activism on several fronts.

I am convinced that this is not maturity, though.  It is merely late adolescence.  We are in an age of shouting and flag waving.  I hope it is almost over, but Facebook activism (slactivism) and issues-based outreach programs are about as sustainable and meaningful as teenage tilting from issue to issue.  In my teens, I worked on homeless gifts for Christmas and hurricane relief for clubs and had a burning fervor for issues that lasted for nearly a month at a time.  They were motivated by passion, but they did not involve my integrity or identity, just the tug of the heart ready to burst with hormones.  I am not sure I had either the integrity or the identity to sustain real work at seventeen.

I fell into passions like a teenager falls into love and right back out again.  It wasn’t thoughtful or deep, but it felt good.  I did reach a few families with gifts for Christmas and helped gather tons of something for, was it Florida or Texas?  I was gone again soon, even though those families were still poor and the coast of wherever was still desiccated.

The church lurches from issue to issue the same way.  We get played by politicians and special-interests like musical instruments.  We raise money, post some things online, maybe even change our profile picture to an equal sign or a something vaguely Arabic.  But little more.

Here is the rub.  Real issues are complex, difficult, and take years to really address, sometimes decades.  They take personal involvement that requires and even risks our integrity and identity.  I didn’t have the self to get involved in dealing with the economic issues that robbed working-class Tennesseans of just enough to keep them in the cycles of financial hardship.  I didn’t have the identity that would push me when the banners were put away and the shouts had died down.

Adulthood is boring.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told by Christians in the church that they were not mature enough to take their place in the world and would not grow up.  “I don’t want to be mature.”  “I don’t want to be old.” “I don’t ever want to grow up.” But the truth is the church is overflowing with immature Christians.  We don’t have enough self left after the petitions to fill in the pews.

If we are to grow up, we can turn to the three vows of the Rule of Benedict: obedience, stability, and transformation.  The humility of self that is demanded for obedience ironically sets us free to discover our true selves and to really learn about the world and our place in it, our responsibilities and expectations.  Stability gives us the time to mature into full human beings under God.  By staying put we can learn how God works over time and how to invest deeply into God’s work over that time that real change demands.  Transformation comes when we submit to God in Creation, Jesus in the his teachings and salvation, and the Spirit’s instruction.  We become more, not less, as we engage deeply  in one place and one faith community.

Read the Bible.  Pray daily.  Go to church.  Join a small group.  Develop a close circle of accountable Christians who will walk with you.  Pick one place in the world to do the work of the Rule of God.  Don’t fall for the “they” trap; love your enemies.  Heal the sick.  Forgive everything.  Yes, everything.  You are a Christian after all, and that means something.  Work for the long goal.

I don’t think that most of the issues of today are meaningless.  I believe we need the young to be the young, and to be in our faces as adults always risk becoming complacent about the issues of right now as we learn to look to the past and future for what really matters.  We need the fringes.  We need the young.

But the church needs to grow up.  We need to put in the time under the authority of God in Jesus, under Scripture, and under a community.  We need to grow up and begin to see the complexity of the issues of our day and get past jingoism and short-term Huffington Post morality.  We need to know who we are and who we are called to be, so that we can take stands that matter and that will last past the shouting.

In the news of the day are real issues that demand deep responses that go past the stay of the cameras and the attention of the mob.  It will be the church that lasts.  We have been mature before and can be again.  Look past the simplistic narrative of modernity to the history of humanity and humanitarianism in the West.  We will return to our full status as adult heirs of God’s hopes and dreams for the world, the kingdom or Rule of God, but not until we give up the refusal and rebellion that turns aside from the complexities and responsibilities of maturity.

Now, I have to go and buy a lawn mower.

 

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Giving Authority Away – Technique

Too little leadership material actually gives important tips for actually doing subtle things.  So here are a few vital tips:

Leaders are not on their phones.  We all know it happens.  But stop it.  Bad human.  Pay attention.  I am guilty and so are you if you have a smartphone.  None of the subtle work of leadership is ever going to get done inside you when you are on the phone.  Grow up.  The lack of discipline in public and private settings around computers and phones and tablets is horrendous.  People who would never pull out a novel in a meeting are playing games, checking social media, and emailing in the middle of meetings.   I have heard stories of pastors posting to Facebook while with dying parishioners and have watched people play games during a family member’s funeral.

Now that you are not on your phone, pay attention to who is watching whom in a meeting.  One of the biggest techniques to using (and building) credibility, trust, and authority in your work place or home is presence.  Mental and emotional presence is shown in the eyes.  Are you watching the person talking? Are you watching the person in power to see how they react when others are talking?  We give authority with our eyes.

Attention and presence are active.  They are done things.  We say you “are present” or “not present,” but what we really mean is you are “actively present” or not.  Actively indicates that we are talking about the expenditure of energy or being, one of the most precious things on earth.  To actually be present to a meeting is work that requires discipline, focus, and defense against distractions inside and out.

Everyone knows this at a gut level, so when we see someone that we give authority by placing their attention on someone else and being attentive to them, we move up the ladder with them, giving authority to the person they are attentive too.  But the sum authority is not additive, it multiplies.  Attention ups the amount of authority in the room.  Capable leaders know that and work to raise, maintain, and give attention to others carefully.

The eyes give authority or take it away.  Yes, people are watching.  I lecture my teenage daughters that everyone is not looking at them.  They can relax.  The lecture for adults is the opposite.  People are watching, but they don’t care about your jeggings as much as your eyes.  Set aside enough self-care and down time to not need to take it when you are with people who matter.  And if they don’t matter, don’t show up and pretend.  You have only added offense to offense.

Public statements of support are a vital technique to loan someone authority, but they have to be followed up on.  Otherwise they become destructive.  Go to meetings, grant permissions, find the money, follow through.  Everyone in a hierarchy has had a boss who would verbally support in the office and then kill projects in practice, all while smiling.  The euphoria of the smile passes, and what is left is poisonous.

Finally giving authority to someone else sometimes demands and almost always needs closure.  In a meeting it may be looking around after an important statement you agree with and nodding to show support or acknowledge a valid point.  In a larger communal setting it may demand that you stand up in front of the community and recount the deeds done and celebrate the person who actually did them.  Do NOT point out your support.  You are doing that by giving them the credit.  Pointing it out should only be done when public acknowledgement of failure is necessary.  This is almost never the case, but it does come up.  In that case, take the blame, take the authority back, and take responsibility for doing whatever is necessary to correct and move forward.  You are the leader.

In yesterday’s post we placed these considerations of authority under the considerations of values that lead us to use our authority for goals and objectives.  We return here to say that our values are what actually give us meaning and purpose.  For Christians understanding our values is one of the primary steps in translating love of God and others into goals and objectives that actually change things and give flesh (incarnate) to our theology.  Love is meaningless until the hungry person is fed.

So look up, speak up, and give away freely.

Giving Authority Away

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In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away.  To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.

Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility.  This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three.  In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests.  This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.

What do you value more than your own self?  What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team?  This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly.  We know your answer because we know our own.  Or at least we think we do.

It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes.  It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.”  When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.

I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little.  My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back.  We were driving past Bell Road and  32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help.  The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry.  I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry.  They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything.  But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going.  I am still haunted by that sin.  I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.

The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation.  We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.

There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community.  We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand.  We have to give away our authority intentionally.

We often give away authority unintentionally.  This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values.  In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent.  In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority.  They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage.  They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.

There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II.  But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed.  We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.

So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves.  We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does.  This is when we practice giving authority away.

It may be upward.  If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them.  My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church.  He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships.  So I give him my authority.  He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals.  It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.

We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work.  I have employees under me that are doing things that I value.  I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work.  This is more tricky than the vertical move upward.  Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.

If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals.  This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments.  They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure.  This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed.  Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs.  One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant.  We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.

Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work?  They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent.  Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?

We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally.  We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways.  It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

Holding Authority in Community

So the secret is that you have authority and that you give authority to others.  This true whether you think it should be or not.  It is true whether you like it or not.  It is a social principle that is reliable.

The moral principle that is corollary to the secret is that you are responsible for that authority.  We are made, in our Christian understanding, to be stewards for God on earth, caretakers of creation and one another.  This is central to what it is to be a God worshipping, Bible believing, human being.  We are made for this task.  No other creature of God is given our role, calling, vocation, or gifts.  The dolphins are smart, but they cannot manage ecosystems.

Human beings are made to be God’s stewards.  A steward is a house manager who manages the affairs of the master of the house.  They are to act in the master’s stead.  They are expected to act as the master would act if the master was present.  They are to care for the people and things of the master’s household and property and to be ready to serve the master by overseeing all that belongs to the master.  This is stewardship.

Human beings are gifted to do this work.  We can understand, study, imagine, create, and manipulate whole systems and subsystems within the world.  This is both wonderful and  terrible as we see almost every time we turn on the news.  We use our gifts in amazing and terrifying ways.  We are blessed to be a blessing, and we are fallen from grace, going on our own way, serving ourselves alone, which is one definition of evil.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with holding authority?  If we don’t know who we are and what we have, how can we be responsible stewards?  We have been given tremendous authority by those around us.  When we ignore this and act powerless, we betray them, our vocation as human beings, and God.  When we manipulate that authority to our own gain above others, we betray them, our createdness, and God.

We hold authority humbly when we are honest that we have it, when we tend to it, and when we use our authority to further the work of God to create, redeem (set free), and make new.  If you are sitting in a meeting as a Christian, whether anyone else knows you are or not, you have a duty to be honest about the authority and trust that others have placed in you, to speak honestly and call the gathered community toward that which is good and creative, redemptive, and that gives life to others.

There are those who deny that they have any authority.  This is either cowardice or avoidance or the truth in an unhealthy system of relationships.  I have rarely found it to be true.  What I have found in systems is that when I have no authority at all, I have either given it away and sometimes rightfully so or it has been taken.  The other reality is that we may face and often face times when our own authority is not enough to accomplish the creative or redemptive work.  We must then either make allies and pool authority or we must persuade others through appealing to higher authority within group norms.

I may not have the personal authority in my parish to make deep changes to our common life even after five years of pastoral work.  This may be due to squandering my pool of authority and trust on other projects or goals.  I have lost authority due to poor planning or results, poor communication, or past infidelities to our common master.  In that case  I must appeal to the higher authority of either God, in the case of the church, or to the Bible or our commonly held values and goals.  This must be done carefully, and I would add prior to the need being desperate.

Authority is really a form of trust. Thought of this way, it is easy to see how it relies on integrity, honesty, and honor.  We have to prove trustworthy.  The past matters.  It is not all that matters.  Honesty and integrity are always present tense, but built on the past.  On the other hand, a vision of where you are leading the group is vital.  The future needs to be as clear as possible, at least in the form of intentions and plans.  This is part of what makes authority.

Appealing to other people’s shared authority requires really clear communication about what is presented and how far the commonality of the common purpose really goes.  My associate pastor and I are lock step on certain communal values.  Either of us can state with integrity and honesty that we agree and support certain positions, and everyone can see the truth of that in our history and current practice.  They know our vision and plans and can judge how far to trust us.  And if we are talking about the areas we hold commonly, that trust and authority can be given freely and held honestly and used to further our community values.

But there are areas where we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We are different people after all.  For the most part, these things are not central to our common mission and vision.  They do not deeply affect our community.  If we were to pretend to hold a common set of values there, we would have to either agree to support one another despite differences and work out whose values were to be presented, or we would have to be honest about a disagreement on values and work out what values would serve as the communal norm.  These negotiations are vital and vitally done privately and hopefully before a breech in the image portrayed to the community.  It can be handled well and honestly, and relationships can be saved with integrity and communication, but it must be honest.

To appeal to higher authority seems tricky and can easily slip into manipulation.  We are made to manage systems after all, and it is all too easy to manage the system to get what we want in the short term rather than attending to the health and vocation of the whole system.  This quickly leads to institutional sickness and even death.

We have to return to our original vision.  We are stewards of God’s house, and God’s hope as I understand it is that his children would all be in direct relationship with God, not dependent on other “fathers.”  So we have to use our authority in such a way that assumes other’s direct access to God, provides avenues for access, encourages use of those avenues, and then doesn’t short all of that out in order to get what we want in the short term that is of lesser value.

So, in the Benedictine model we assume everyone has access to God’s Spirit, so we call the whole community together.  We provide avenues for accessing both the situation and its reality and God’s Spirit.  We may do that by clearly explaining the relevant parts of the situation and giving people time to understand and to pray.  We then encourage prayer and give time for people to pray.  In our parish that has meant months before some major decisions, but sometimes it may mean a few minutes right then.  It depends on a number of factors, but I would advise going long rather than short, but short enough that you can be accountable to actually making a decision.  Time is a vital component in any significant time of discernment.  It should not be too little, but then it rarely is these days.

Practically the appeal to higher authority should be a part of every meeting and it should be democratic in that the appeal is to an authority to which everyone is obedient equally, including the leader, and it should be normalized so that everyone remembers what the overseeing authority is.  That is why it is vital to have a mission, a vision, a purpose to exist that is short, memorable, and should be direct enough to make you grow up to hold on to it.

If you are going to appeal to a higher authority, everyone should have access to it and be held accountable to it.  That means that the priest is not the only one who can read Scripture, and the priest may be called up short to by Scripture.  It is important then that people be hold what higher authorities hold sway in a meeting and that these higher authorities be agreed upon in order to belong to the group.  Every cop and congressperson has to swear allegiance to the Constitution.  If they did not there would be no check on power.

If you want to grow your own sense of responsibly holding authority, acknowledge your given authority, explore your vocation as a human being, tell the truth with love, be honest about what your vision and mission of the group and yourself is and communicate that to the group, and use your authority to do creative and redeeming work.

We all hold authority.  Hopefully these reflections will help you hold it with a little more self-reflection, honesty, integrity, and responsibility.

Freedom is not a Christian Virtue

My one concern here is for mature Christians, disciples of Jesus.  I have to state that up front because what I am about to say is open heresy in the other major ethos and theology of our day.

Freedom is not a Christian virtue.  It is not a virtue at all.  It is not something that you can earn, practice, or become.  Freedom is a gift.  We are given freedom by others and ultimately by God.  We have freedom as rational creative creatures, but it is immature to claim it for our selves.

When have you ever seen someone claim their freedom, insist on their freedom, and create a better relationship, a better family, a better community?  I have seen lots of people take responsibility for themselves, their children, their neighbors, their world and change lives for the better.  I have seen us plaster the language of freedom on thousands of selfish acts.

Freedom has become a virtue in our ethos today.  We want freedom, we celebrate freedom, we claim freedom, we defend our own freedom.  Freedom has become an end unto itself.  It has become a good.  All of this is weird and a little sick for followers of Jesus.

In America we celebrate the virtue of Larry Flynt publishing Hustler because he is practicing his freedom.  Because he is “owning his freedom,” we see that as a liberative story.  I am disturbed less by Mr. Flynt than by the narrative that celebrates freedom as an end unto itself.  He is virtuous because he set himself free from the constraints of society in publishing pornography.  We celebrate unquestioningly people breaking free from social, religious, moral restraints.  Then we grieve when we see the victims but cannot understand how that happened.

The western narrative in its American form is the lone male, usually white, usually fit, setting himself free from social constraint to face an uncertain but glorious future unconstrained by community, ethics, or values others than those he chooses.  We celebrate people acting free in their sexuality, of course, but also in many other ways.  This is incredibly adolescent.  It leads to death.  Next time you watch a movie, count the “collateral damage” wracked up in the pursuit of freedom.

I used to teach an eighth grade religion class, and I began by asking them what it meant to be an adult.  We often don’t aim our lives at anything because we never take the time to figure out what we are trying to become.  I wanted to build a picture of what a mature Christian looked like with them; so I would ask, How do we define adulthood in America today?  The answers always came down to what you could do once you become an “adult”: cigarettes, beer, pornography, and voting.  But what does adulthood really mean?

Adulthood is the voluntary taking of responsibility for yourself as a child of God, for your neighbor as a part of God’s family, for our communities of faith and geography, and for the world around us.  It means growing in your ability to love God, your neighbor, and your self.  I add care of creation from our original humanity.  It is not the choice or choices we can make that make us adults; it is what we choose to do.  It is choosing to live and love in particular ways that we should celebrate, claim, and defend.

In the process of choosing virtuous lives we give freedom to others to live, love, and pursue happiness.  But we cannot succeed to be a free people if our ideal is just claiming freedom for ourselves.  As a father, I choose to provide for my family, to be home with them when I can, and to live virtuously so that they don’t have to fear my behaviors or the repercussions of them.  They cannot have safety, security, and health without those choices.  If I live as lech my wife and children, my community, and the world will suffer in obvious and not so obvious ways for longer than just my life.   My good is in their good.  I practice virtues both at home and at work because I have made covenants to do so, and so that I can provide my family a secure home, provision for their needs, and care for their bodies, minds, and spirits.  I am free to do this because my father and mother did the same for me.  I am free to do otherwise I suppose, but not if I am to keep my integrity.

We now must face that freedom as a virtue is destroying other virtues in our lives.  In fact many of the traditional virtues are acts of  restraint in the face of freedom.  When we choose to follow Jesus we choose not to be free in all our choices.  It is ironic that this gives us true life and freedom.

The practices of our faith are intended to make us the kind of people who will choose to act in virtuous ways no matter what others do, no matter what our situation is, no matter what even our desires may be in this particular moment.  We are born and formed as a people of God, just as my children are my offspring by birth but formed as my children by living and loving and learning from me.*  They will choose to act as my children, or far more importantly as God’s children, in every decision of their lives.  Or not.

As we face headlines of renewed violence in our world, we have to stand at the edge of this new valley of the shadow of death and say, How do I follow Jesus here?  How do I live as a child of God here?  How do I see God’s rule of love and peace here?  This is the crux of discipleship.

On Sunday, Peter will try to pull Jesus back and say you can’t go there.  Jesus’ rebuke isn’t “I am free to do as I please.”  He doesn’t remind Peter of his freedom as God’s son or a son of humanity.  He rebukes him and tells him that his mind is in the wrong place.  He didn’t rise from prayer on the Mount of Olives and practice the virtue of walking away.  He took responsibility for us and all humanity in fulfilling the will of God knowing the cost of that decision.  In doing so he gave us freedom from sin.  What we do with that freedom matters for ourselves and our world.

Will we take responsibility, grow up, and care for our selves, our neighbors, our world?  Or will we just be free?

 

 

 

*I use “I” and “my” in relation to my family, but it is really “we” my wife and me.  Truth is she is far more virtuous and responsible than I am.

There are No Inalienable Rights

We don’t have inalienable rights endowed by our birth.  We don’t.  I love Thomas Jefferson more than you do, and I think he was right about a lot of things, including this one.  We have rights “endowed by our Creator“.  They are not inalienable rights, either.  We make them alien when we fail to live as God’s people.

Jefferson was smart enough to see that we have rights because there is a social covenant*, a covenant that binds you and me in a common life.  Any rights we have are given by our living into our covenant.

Test it out: take a baby of any race out into the woods and let him (or her) vote.  They have no right to vote given by the Creator.  Instead they will die slowly and probably horribly unless us or one of God’s other creatures steps forward to care for them, love them, and raise them up.

I am not arguing for social Darwinism.  Too often Christians have completely given up moral philosophy to biological impulse, or as Paul called it “the flesh.”  We are endowed with Spirit, and the Spirit teaches us, and what it teaches is law and life.

We have rights because we have a covenant.  That covenant is spelled out in the Bible as the Torah and then the New Covenant “Law of Love,” that Jesus teaches.  Both of those laws are versions of covenant, and they command us not to hold on to our own “rights” but rather to a set of social responsibilities that teach us what the Creator made us to be.  Our “rights” derive from all of us living rightly, or in Biblical language “righteously” that is to God’s approval.

We have to work at knowing who God is in order to get our social responsibilities straightened out.  We don’t serve a god of violence and retribution that we often create in our own worst image.  We don’t serve the god of our tribe, though that god is still very popular even in our day, even in our churches.  We serve a God who made the world for pleasure and called it good, who set us to keep it as stewards with dominion.  We serve a God who is about our redemption when we fall, but who lets consequences pay out unless we repent, and sometimes by grace, even when we don’t.

As Christians, we serve God who is known as Father, who sets our boundaries and defines our relationships, rules and provides, and we serve God as Abba, who has given us new birth and holds us, calls us by name and sets us free, who loves us and forgives us.  And we are supposed to become God’s children who do those same things, as Jesus our Lord did.  And the Spirit teaches us how, moving and dancing, reminding and teaching and making us new.

When we live into our covenants and the laws of God our Creator, we create rights for everyone around us that extend beyond the abuse-boundaries of the laws of our land.  A lawyer friend always reminds me that “the law is not made for the righteous man.”  The thing is that the righteous human being lives the law into irrelevance.

As we grow up from people who need to learn the rules, to people who can keep the law, we become people who don’t have rights so much as give others rights by our righteousness.  We supersede law in love, moving from protecting rights to providing life, and from defending against injustice to defining what justice means, the human being in right relation to God, creation, and other human beings.

When we find a baby in the woods, the law tells us many things, but love tells us to take it up, love that baby, give her a name, feed her, care for her, teach her, raise her up, so that she can take her place in the stewardship of the world and live up to the covenants of the children of God.

And that is why the people of Ferguson or wherever else violence defined by race or gender or nation raise their heads feel more than grief.   Their anger is righteous due to the expectation at the very level of  being that the covenants that make us human are being violated by the ones who are supposed to protect them.

We understand that sometimes protecting the people who live according to the covenant means a violent justice, but it should not and only as the last of last resorts.  But if our understanding of our basic human responsibilities under the covenant are out of line with our cultural norms, we are in real trouble.  Our cultural norms collapse from a call to mutual covenant to self protection, Darwinism at its 18th century worst.

When we are just protecting our own “rights” we miss the point. We have to protect each other. There is no other way to have a covenant based life of togetherness.

The alternative is violent coercion.  The alternative is violent freedom that belies our best intentions, which are called “best” because we are usually at some lesser place.

I am not arguing for theism.  I am arguing from theism.  I am a Christian.  I follow Jesus and have promised to live by his teachings embodied in the New Covenant and based, rooted, and understood from the Original Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I cannot leave a baby in the woods, and I cannot watch idly by while my neighbor gets destroyed by those who are supposed to protect them.

We have police to keep us safe, to defend the version of the covenant that we have enshrined in our country’s Constitution.  We should be a people of law and law evenly and fairly applied.  We should support the police while living in a way that makes their job as unnecessary as possible.  We should grieve when their job demands violence, but we should also ask our selves how much violence they actually should expect, and not be prepared for more without reason.  We should fire and prosecute them when they violate their oaths, but they should be able to expect us to keep ours as well.

Christians, we must live as we were created to live.  We have stewardship of the creation and should protect it.  We are called to love each other and protect and help each other, and we should, we must.  My favorite verse in Leviticus is “If your neighbor’s ox falls down in the road, you should lift it up; you shall not refuse your help.”

The news, this month from Ferguson, reminds us that we have work in front of us if we are to steward the world with the compassion of God.  We cannot ignore the stranger in the marketplace because of his skin color, language, or clothes; nor can we ignore our responsibilities toward him.  Not if we claim to love God.

 

 

 

*Covenant is preferable to contract or construct or other similar words because a contract’s obligations are dependent on parties keeping the contract.  A covenant is a binding statement that changes the realities and identities of the parties involved.

Don’t Call Me Father – Finding a New Way to Lead or at Least a New Way to teach Leadership

Over lunch this week a good friend and parishioner reminded me of the call to teach others what we are learning about leadership and this vision of Christianity, which is both old and new.  Frankly it doesn’t feel new right now, but there is a vision of pastoral and priestly ministry in the Anglican tradition that is emerging.  I like to think of it as a reclaiming of that is really old, rather than something truly new, but it shocks some people to hear the implications. 

No priest should be called father.  I think it usually points to an unformed pastor or worse a system of anti-kingdom work.  This sounds harsh, and I have good friends and people I respect who will argue for the pastoral merit of letting people respect your role and relationship to them.  Fair enough.  But there is no theological warrant in the New Testament for the title of “father” outside of Paul’s calling the people in several places a “little children” and stating that he was like a father to them.  I think this should be held with Jesus’ direct command to “call no man father.”  Why? 

It is systemic thinking.  The question to ask is “What kind of system are we setting up in order to embody and systematize the Rule of God in our local church or diocese?”  Are we setting up systems that recreate the temple or empower the royal priesthood of the called/gathered?  Ultimately we are trying to create and recreate systems that reflect the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and he had some particular things to say that speak directly to those systems.

The Gospel of Mark has a deep theme of suspicion towards “fathers” because “you have but one father, your Father in heaven.”  It is important to ask why this suspicion was so prevalent. The analogy of “fathers” and “sons” was a social meta-narrative that presented social, political, economic, moral, and even religious norms to all participants.  Roughly in every social interaction there was a “father” and a “son” or “sons.” A patron (root word pater) would be addressed as father by someone he supported and cared for, his “son.” This support and care while primarily financial would imply a great deal more about the ethics of the relationship, expectations, and norms of behavior.  In actual father-son relations, these were true, but they extended far beyond.  A father provided the ethos of the behaviors and expectations for the son in all interactions.  Who you worked for determined how you were expected to act, behave, and even think.  As with all social norms, this was probably true and also an incomplete picture.  But we do see in Latin the remnants of the system in the words that remain in use even today.  Everyone was a father or son in every relationship, but the supreme “father” was known and embodied in the emperor and his rule.

In several recent works of scholarship the relationship between Jesus and the imperial state of Rome has been lifted up as one of protest and threat.  The emperor was proclaimed on coins and statuary as the Son of God.  The God of Rome was immutable, unchangeable, and just.  The emperor embodied that God’s rule on earth and was seen as either God’s emissary or God himself, often supported by claims of virginal birth.  I would point to works by Herzog, Malina, Crossan, and Borg, but there are countless others who have explored the social and political world of Jesus in great depth.  I owe a special debt to the works of N. T. Wright who works along the edges of these claims from the side of studying the claims of Jesus and Paul.

So if we believe as orthodox Christians in the claims of Jesus as the embodied Son of God who came to a particular place and time in history, and if we are going to take the claims of Jesus, the Bible, and the Creeds seriously, we have to look at them in the complex of their time and place in history with some care, at least as much as we are able to.  This is commonly accepted in scholarship, but it can seem overly difficult for many lay people or less-learned pastors.  I won’t claim to be more than a medium-learned pastor, but I am an avid reader who has been stuck on this issue of the meaning of the Rule, or kingdom, of God for a couple of decades.  

So if there is a father-son system of ethics, rules, and expectations or norms in the first century, what does Jesus say to it?  In some way Jesus co-opts the system in his teaching about God as Father, or Abba, and both his claim of sonship and what he makes possible for his followers.  I would go farther to say that Jesus uses this social language to explain and embody his ethics, rules, and expectations.  It should not be surprising that Jesus’ way of understanding should upset the accepted patterns of interaction, but how complete this system and its implications for our life as his disciples may surprise you.

First off, Jesus calls God “father.” This is well known and accepted.  You should have heard sermons about this and you should be teaching it.  It is simple and orthodox.  Jesus also says that as God’s son, you can know who God is, what the ethics, rules, and expectations or norms of his kingdom-family are through Jesus himself.  God is the one who provides the ethos, but we learn it from Jesus and later from his apostles and the Holy Spirit.  We are not to call anyone else “rabbi” because we have one “rabbi” or teacher of the way of God, the Holy Spirit.  

But there is a twist here that is again well-known, but still surprises many people: Jesus calls God Abba and not just Pater.  Pater is directly translated from both Greek and later Latin as “father.” It represents a particular relationship-dynamic.  It is a formal word, just as “father” is for most English speakers today.  Abba is a little more subtle.  It is an Aramaic word that gets brought into the New Testament a number of times directly.  Aramaic is a local language that represents the mix of Arabic (geographically local) and Hebrew (religiously local).  It is what Jesus and his first followers probably spoke at home.  They probably used Greek in trading or when talking to non-locals, of which there were quite a few in even the rural places of Palestine and Israel of the time, due to Greek and Roman imperialism and trade and geographic centrality.  That is a lot to explain that while the Gospels that we have were likely written in Greek, although I would argue that Mark was probably written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek.  There are very few Aramaic words that come through untranslated.  Abba does.  Why? It represents a different way of relating that “father.”  It is a primary language word, the language of infants and intimacy.  Abba is more like “Daddy” in English.  

The father-son relationship dynamic is one of formalism, obligations, and strict hierarchy.  “Daddy” is intimacy, safety, provision, and care.  Father is cool; daddy is warm.  When Jesus refers to God as his father, he is pointing to rule, ethic, and expectation. When Jesus refers to God as daddy, he is pointing to love, relationship, and reciprocity.   It is important to note that Jesus uses both terms.  We should try to understand and live into the implications of both.

Father gives us a system of being and relationship.  If God is to be a father to me, and I am to be God’s son, I have to know what God expects, what God’s rules are, and how I am supposed to act.  

Jesus tells us all three of these.  God is compassionate, knows you intimately and cares for human beings, especially the lost.  God is concerned with mercy and forgiveness, embodied in healing and return. God provides for needs and is good.  It is important to note that these are not the only attributes of God known or taught in Jesus’ day or in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus teaches these.  He does not refer to the God of Armies or Hosts, a common phrase in both the Psalms and Isaiah which he quotes extensively.  He does talk about God as just, but then locates that justice in the city gates with concern for the poor and widows.  When he proclaims the Lord’s day from Isaiah 61 in his hometown, he edits the quote from Isaiah to leave out the wrath of the Lord and replace it with the “year of the Lord’s favor.”  He then points out God’s concern for the foreigner is several stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. (See Luke 4).

Jesus gives specific rules that he connects directly to God’s attributes.  The most obvious and often repeated example is forgiveness.  As followers of Jesus we are to forgive as God forgives.  We are to forgive seven times seventy-seven times, meaning an infinite amount.  We are to be perfect in compassion.  This verse has confounded and confused many people because of the word perfect, but it is connected to the teaching that God is compassionate and gives good gifts to his children. 

7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

So Jesus has used the father-son relationship as a lens to show us how to relate to God and to each other.  He also used it to directly counteract the systemic ethics and abuses of his day.  He did this by showing that we are to relate to each other as God’s children.  This implies treating each other (and others) with compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.  We are to heal and feed others.  

Jesus asks the crowd in Capernaum when his mother and brothers came seeking him,  “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 4

Jesus warns against calling others “father.”  He does this because of the role that fathers play in the systems of his day.  Who your father is determines your way of being and relating.  You are the son or daughter of the one whose will you do.  I think the mistake of the church to adopt this model of relating again is that the model teaches dependency on who the father is.  The called community ekklesia becomes the priest’s community as they become the one who sets the ethics and expectations and norms of the community around them.

This is precisely what Jesus was fighting against.  God is Abba to his children.  That is not dependent on the person who leads some part of the system.  In fact, the leadership of Jesus’ disciples was to be one of servanthood, not privilege, to be one that embodied God’s rule basileo not the clergy.  The leadership was to embody something even more than others because of the danger that we would become “father.”

The reality is that most communities are made up of humans, who we know are incomplete, non-divine, unholy creatures who have become so desperate over the centuries that if found the Tree of Life we would chew the bark off after selling the fruit for profit.  We who are trying to lead know that we must take control of the systems of our communities if we are to change them.  And control is exactly what “father” gives us.  It is honor and privilege.  It gives us our “due place” at the table.  It is the damnation of the follower of Jesus.

I want to play nice, but I can’t.  I know why we like the title.  In Benedict’s rule the head of the monastery community is the “abbot.”  Abbot is derivative to Abba.  It encapsulates something that Benedict was trying to say about what was needed in his day.  An order based on family obligations and even love.  Abba, remember, implies love, care, and intimacy.  It also implies one who gives identity and provision and place.  I could find a place for “abbot,” I suppose.  But Father is so dangerous, so counter to everything Jesus taught that I find it anathema.  I join the Protest of Protestants and say no. 

Don’t call me father.

Rather, I am learning to lead by serving the community with love, care, and yes even intimacy.  I think the only way to find our “due place” at God’s table is to stand at the side with a towel and tray, ready to forgive, offer mercy, and heal and feed.  I would rather be a butler in heaven than face the smoky future of false fathers.  

Oddly, in my slightly obsessive compulsive exegesis “mother” stands up as safe.  Funny.

Benedictine Vision and Pastoral Leadership – part II

Accountability in leadership is primary in Benedict’s Rule, but it is only possible with humility. Reading Chapter 7 in the Rule of Benedict is always both profoundly challenging and oddly liberating.

It is challenging simply because as a leader we are challenged to be in charge, to hold a community, and to make decisions and live with them. Anyone in active leadership should be experiencing some form of push back as part of the natural inertia of communities, and anyone in Christian leadership should be doing enough to challenge the world that they experience the additional opposition of the world. (I want to note that this should not be sought out in either case, that is the beginning of becoming a jerk-for-Jesus which Jesus did not ask us to become.)

These two forms of push-back come most profoundly from within. Whenever I go to do something that changes me, I resist. Habitual work taken in slow doses can build to overcome that resistance naturally most of the time, but I still don’t want to grow. This is true in simple external things like running for exercise. I run weekly in order to stay in shape. Often I just don’t want to run. Some days I have used up my energy in other things. Some days I have been sick. Some days I just don’t want to make the effort. But I have been running for so long and so slowly that I love it enough and what it does for me that I keep going most of the time. But even then, when I add a new workout or change my routine, I resist and I feel sore afterwards.

Humility is no different. We are not naturally humble. There may be someone out there who is just naturally humble, but most of us are either proud or beaten down. We are either blindly positive about our bestiness, living blindly unaware or unable to admit to our limitations and weaknesses, or we are perpetually negative, living blinded by our limitations and weaknesses to our God-given goodness and strengths.

True humility is honest about both where we fall short and where God is lifting us up. Benedict seems harsh about destroying the self will and pleasures. I have had parishioners reading Benedict for the first time really focus on the negative aspects, like self-negation and physical punishment. Honestly seen in context, Benedict is kind compared to the post-Roman times he lived in and brutal compared to The Baby Whisperer. But Benedict can be favorable compared to the Baby Whisperer.

The Baby Whisperer recommends that parents give their babies a schedule for both the parent’s sake and for the baby’s. In Benedict, humility is for our sake and sanity and for God’s sake. We can see how submission to God in fear and to other’s in humility would be for God and the community, but it is also for us. When we see ourselves as we really are, blessed and broken, we can put ourselves in the right places and expect what we are capable of.

It is just as vital to acknowledge that some people are not suffering from pride. They have been beaten down or just struggle with a view of themselves that is distorted to the negative rather than the positive. When I have met people in ministry who is broken in this way, I pray for them and try not to worry. The resistance mentioned above often includes personal attacks and attacks that feel personal, warranted or not. It is just as vital to deal with the destroyed self as it is to deal with pride. They are similar.

Following Benedict, the beginning of both treatments it to keep “fear of God always before the eyes.” To awe God for the prideful brings her down to a right place but lifts up the broken to honor God’s creation, image, and blessing within the depressed or negative person. To adapt God’s will in the second step is to give up more than just “what I want to do” to do what God wants me to do, but rather the will involves how we see and what we value that gives content to our desire and therefore actions. We must give up our overly positive or overly negative view of our self for God’s vision of us and the world. This is primary and necessary for the follower of Jesus.

How often have we been taught that as a Christian? You have to value yourself to follow Jesus. You have to take care of yourself. You have to love yourself. This is an important correction to our cultural worship of self. We have to love and care for our selves, but as creatures created by God who were made to live into God’s purposes and rule.

So here is where we circle around to leadership. A Christian leader following Benedict knows that accountability and humility means seeking God’s will and rule before self. We should be moving slow enough to seek God’s word and care for others. We should be moving enough that we are following God’s word and care of others.

Leadership speed is a vital concept that doesn’t come through in the Rule, but I think it is vital to healthy leadership. It is speed at which we are making direction-changing decisions. This is not the rate of movement or change. Movement and change are presumed to be decided by upstream factors like a river.

The rate of rainfall and width of the banks are not controllable by the canoeist. At Christmas and Holy Week my church is wildly busy with movement, so I avoid making direction-changing decisions during those seasons. It is unwise for me or anyone else. I hold off others until the waters are smoother. Change may be on-going due to decisions made earlier, but you don’t change decisions, including going back, during busy times.

I want to make changes as a norm. I like change. I am a leader. People look to me to make changes. They think of me as leading when I make change. But here is the thing, if my goal is to be a great leader then what I want and what people want of me are not really important at all. What is important is what God wants, and that is something that the Rule reminds me I can only know in part through prayer and calling the whole community together to seek everyone’s advice.

<strong>We</strong> make changes based on God’s reality and will as best as <strong>we</strong> can determine in community and in prayer, humbly admitting that we are only humans seeking after God. But we do make changes because when we hold ourselves up to God’s will for us and our church, we seek clearly that change is necessary.

Humility is hard work, in large part because we all have distorted views of our selves. Jesus was right, that splinter in my eye is either hard to see or it looks like a plank. I need someone else to help me pull it. I have a committee that I am accountable too. I have people that I can ask, Hey! what is in my eye? I have to trust them because I cannot see what they can see.

Are you humble? Do you fall on the too positive or too negative side of your vision of yourself, others, the world? How do you maintain healthy balance? What should you be doing now to find God’s will?

I strongly recommend <em>Humble Leadership</em> by Graham Standish for further reading.