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.

Who Has Authority in Community

In my last post I questioned the profiteer from the past who attempts to hold authority by claiming it from some external place.  So who do we give authentic authority to in community?  This may be one of the  make-or-break questions of church leadership.

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Some people take the room the moment they enter it.  This couple in my first solo parish had that power, or rather the wife did.  She was a presence in every room she entered, and everyone responded to it.  She could build up and destroy.  And usually she destroyed.

My parishioner was a natural born leader with charisma.  She drew attention and people to herself.  She was truly magnetic.  But she used it constantly to complain and control through negative talk.  Every story was negative unless was about her.  Every opinion was negative unless it was about her.  It was real power, and it was totally unconscious.  She destroyed community, and it was only through the balancing presence of other more positive leaders in the church community that her effects were not more devastating to the long term health of the church.

She had power, but she was given authority by those who responded to her.  In the past, I and other leaders had given her additional authority by putting her into responsible positions, thinking that this would somehow cause her to be more self-reflective and responsible.  But her power was unconscious and her ability to therefore wield it responsibly was simply missing.  I loved her, but I began to cut her off intentionally and to build insulating walls around her with people who did not give her authority until over time sickness took her out of the community.  It was passive aggressive to be sure, but I followed up with direct confrontation one on one of specific behaviors when they arose.

One person with a great deal of power can truly stop a community’s development and growth in the Spirit cold, at least for a time.  She was powerful, and we made it worse by giving her authority.

In communities, it becomes important to think seriously about authority, especially as leaders.  A natural leader has real power whether acknowledged or not.  Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but some people are just born magnets.  It is important to be self-reflective and humble enough to be honest about your gifts.  If you are born magnetic, you then have a real responsibility to be careful in community in regards to the influence you have.

Authority though is something no one is born with.  Authority is given.  It is part of the social realm that is negotiated consciously or unconsciously.  We give authority either formally with titles or roles or informally by habits and deferences.

Formally authority is given by title or role.  Because I am a priest, I have certain authority within my church community.  It is given.  I also have some remnant of authority within my larger social community, though it is not as certain as it was in the rumors of the past.  I also have some powers because of my position within the hierarchy and institutional structures, but our focus today is authority.

It is my thesis that in healthy communities we give authority to each members as they take on responsibilities.  This begins from the time a member begins to take responsibility for regular attendance and participation in the story-making of the community.  Once you begin to ask questions and show up weekly, you have begun to accrue a certain store of authority among the members.

We are in an awkward place in the institutional church today because we have regular attenders who are helping to write our communal story but are not members.  This is dangerous because without the responsibility of formal recognition we are allowing people to determine our future with us.  Dangerous does not always mean wrong or even bad, but we have to be self-reflective and intentional about how much we allow those without a stake to play key roles in our communities.

In the Episcopal church, we have traditions that are supposed to mediate this danger by insisting that people be members, baptized and confirmed and in good standing, in order to hold key offices and even perform key tasks.  In these later days, many of our churches though, hurting for active members, have allowed active non-members to step in without asking for the formal declarations and rituals of belonging.  This is understandable, but in my recent work around the church and Benedictine ethos, I have begun to question the risks of these dangers.

First off, we are not talking about hospitality.  Everyone is welcome.  The doors are open.  Come on in.  We love you.  We have to love you if we are to be Christian, much more so if we are to be Benedictine.

Secondly, we are not talking about rights.  Certain things should be true about how we treat everyone without regard to their behavior or gender or class or other distinctions.  The church has fallen down on this to be sure, but let me give a couple of simple examples so we can move on.  Anyone who comes into church should be able to expect to be welcomed, loved, and given a seat.  They should be safe and free from ridicule much less violence or mockery or hate.  This is not based on them, but rather on the ethical code of followers of Jesus.

These things are true and should be reliable in church because of what Jesus told his disciples to do and be.  It is shameful that some populations of people feel hated by the church because of our words and actions of hate or ridicule.  It is natural that some people will disagree with us and even hate us for what we say and teach, that is not the same things as actively singling out people because of who they are or what they have done.

What we are talking about is authority.  As we begin to participate actively in a community we begin to accrue authority given by the members because we are taking an active role in writing the story of the group.  This is natural and reliable in healthy communities.  That deposit of authority grows when we add formal participation and belonging.  It grows as we develop and deepen relationships and responsibilities.

In the Rule, Benedict recognizes that God may speak and often does through the youngest members or in our vocabulary the newest members.  We should be listening for God’s voice then and setting up systems and habits as formal leaders to communicate with and listen to those voices.

The question that has haunted me on my travels and reflections on the architecture of Benedictine communities is, Are there people who should not be in our chapter rooms?  I believe there are.

I have never been into the chapter room at Saint Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, though I have been on retreat there.  I am a priest in good standing in the church they belong to.  I am love them.  They love me.  I think they do anyway.  I have eaten with the brothers.   I have prayed with them.  I have sat in long silences and read their books.  But I have not been in their chapter room.

The chapter room is interior space.  It isn’t for everyone.  It is not exclusive.  It is intimate.  It is a place for the community to do its business.  In the current state of the church, we have let people who don’t have formal belonging act and live as though they do because we have no boundaries.  And so we have mistaken access and authority for love.

I am loved by the brothers of Saint Gregory’s, but they don’t give me authority.  They don’t cut me off, they just don’t let me in.  It would be a mistake for them to do so.  It would be a violation of their community norms and would bring in dangers that are too great over time to excuse.

This all seems pedantic, I guess, except that it is very relevant to our situation in the Episcopal church today.  We have left the doors open to our chapter rooms, and we have let in those who though we may love them, may agree with them, we should not be letting them write our future.

That statement seems at odds with a Western world that demands openness to all comers, and at a time when government and institutions are taking active steps to force open all doors even in church groups.  Recently colleges have begun to deny access to campus to groups that insist on a dogmatic statement to lead.  The spirit of the age is inclusivity, but when have we gone too far?

It is vital to think and act carefully as stewards of God’s world and Christ’s community.  Here we must carefully discern whom we allow to hold authority.  Can we draw lines carefully? Or must all lines be erased?  More and more who the church is and what our future will be is being written by those who have not committed to Christ or the local community.  I am the first to say that as a pastor I have members who are central to our community who are not members.  But I am more and more deeply troubled, not because I need to control who becomes members, but rather that those who have not committed to the future are helping determine it.

In the larger Episcopal church we have let advocates and supporters write legislation and underwrite controversies with little reflection as to where the money comes from or who is holding the pen for our tomorrows.

If we are to live into a Benedictine vision of leadership we must lead by being willing to commit to people, to loving wildly, and to creating places to hear the voices of our communities, and communicating how to become members, giving authority liberally to those who commit, and to closing the doors that need to shelter those who are trying to hear the voice of God.

 

 

Walking around Whitby Abbey with Hilda and a Camera

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It was a perfect photo day in Whitby.  We drove over to see the monastery that held both Hilda and Bede, not to mention the great poet Caedmon.  It was founded originally in 657 by the Northumbrian king who appointed Hilda as abbess of the dual monastery, serving both men and women.  This was not uncommon in Celtic monasteries.

IMG_2243The monasteries founded in Scotland and Ireland between the late fifth and seventh centuries primarily came from Ireland, most by way of Columba’s monastery in Iona.  Aiden had already founded the community on Lindisfarne, which produced holy Cuthbert.  These holy islands belong to a massive missionary movement from Ireland.  From the islands the monks converted the locals to Christianity in a wave that would startle and possibly scandalize the church today.

 

 

By the time Hilda became abbess of the dual monastery at Whitby, she was expected to serve as more than a small religious community leader, she was expected and did become a force for local governance.  This expectation was surely helped by her heritage as grandniece of Edwin, king of Northumbria.  Her family certainly showed her noble heritage, but she was more than an heir of good breeding.  Bede describes her as an able administrator and teacher who seldom rested.  Her administrative skill was matched by an ability to spot and encourage others gifts, notably the aforementioned shepherd poet Caedmon.

Her baptism though in 627 had been by a Roman bishop-monk Paulinus who had come to England with Augustine and had baptized Edwin and the rest of his household.  Did that connection then effect the outcome of the Council of Whitby where the Roman system of calculating Easter and establishing Roman norms in Northumbria and later England?  There was already a strong influence through earlier Christian influences going back to Roman occupation, from which Patrick was converted and returned to Ireland two centuries before.

 

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The ruins around us on Whitby’s hill are not from Hilda’s time.  There are very few artifacts from the later monastery, easy to understand when one considers the nature of early monastic settlements, more like rustic wooden towns than the later massive stone structures of later building periods that we more often associate with monasticism.  The Benedictine monastery of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that left the beautiful ruins was not of the same character as Hilda’s abbey.

IMG_2284The later settlement by Reinfried was Benedictine and based on the gift of the site by William de Percy and included the town and port.  The port and town remained small though the influence of the newly re-founded monastery reached across Christendom because of its relics.  In the eleventh century as the church began to rely on pilgrimage and the power and pull of relics to improve both religious and economic life, the abbey was susceptible to the same temptations as the church at large.  They charged heavy fees and build magnificent buildings, driving the monastic community into debt to feed the ego of a couple of more greedy abbots, according to the English Heritage headphones we were wearing.

 

 

We come then to the growing lesson of my first few weeks in England.  The holy sites of English tradition often show this double-founding, the first founding being based on a legitimate desire to create a holy community based in a life of discipline and right-living often based in a monastic ideal, but not always strictly based on Benedict’s Rule.  St. David’s, Caldey, Lindisfarne, Iona all began in slightly different ways, but with the same marks of discipline and holiness, based in character of life.  The examples extend outward through countless other communities, early Roman, Norman, Benedictine, Augustinian, Cistercian.  They are born out of mother communities in Rome, Ireland, Scandinavia, France.  The initial foundlings are based in a genuine motivation for evangelism, holiness, and missionary motivation.

IMG_2176The success of these communities varies widely in terms of influence, wealth, and even survivability.  The rule or character varied quite a bit as well depending on who founded them and what tradition they inherited.  But they did have incredible reach in terms of the Gospel.  It is an amazing time, especially when you look back through history.

On the other hand the eleventh and twelfth centuries are marked by new monastic settlements, too.  It is remarkable the reach that those monasteries and priories had.   But what becomes clear in a few places is the greed and power-lust that accompanied certain sites, especially those re-founded on sites previously considered holy.

 

 

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The Western world could be said to relate to either time.  That is one of the tricks of writing about history.  Christianity is in decline, according to some numbers.  The world created by Christianity in the west is rapidly changing, either becoming decentralized away from its Christian center or decentralized globally becoming less central to how we view the world.  In both of those scenarios Christianity is diminished in terms of the West, either because it moving away from being a Western religion or because the West is just less religious.  In global terms, it is also true to say that just as Christendom moved from a Mediterranean center to a more northern one, so we could say that Christianity is moving east and south again and not diminishing much at all.  In that case, it just seems like it because we are no longer in the center where our faith is located.

Christianity was moving in both the fourth to sixth centuries and in the tenth to twelfth.  The question that ruins of Whitby asks of us is “What will we do here and now?”  We can claim this time as a time for holiness and evangelism to our own people and culture, or we can look back at the past and mine it for current profits.  It is remarkable to see how England and Wales have preserved the past and make a decent profit off our secular pilgrimage.

The ruins of Whitby mark a thousand years of profiting from pilgrimage.  There was a time when the monastic community could rely on the faith of the people to impel them to give almost any amount to be close to holy things.  That holy past also guaranteed a certain amount of political power that was drawn on for profit as well as to do good.  We certainly see both in our day.  In the United States we tend not to charge admission to our churches, but then we don’t have the relics to draw in the faithful.

IMG_2177But it isn’t that simple either.  We have movements within Christianity that look to the past for current holiness.  That is a similar impulse I think to the pilgrimage impulse.  Only it may be a three hundred dollar leather Bible that relies on its stilted language to convey a sense of holiness. (I am susceptible, though I can’t afford the best that Allan Bibles has to offer!)  It may be a claim back to the Westminster Covenant or the XXXIX Articles that gives us our authority, or it may be the bones of Hilda.  The pilgrimage impulse is the impulse to look to a holy past for current hope.

I am not opposed to the pilgrim, but rather to the profiteer of religion.  He uses God’s name in vain, and sublimating blasphemy through the saints is no better.  The religious profiteer turns God’s house into a den of thieves and needs exorcism in our day as well.  That is what Jesus was doing in the temple, a good old fashioned Galileean exorcism.

As a pastor I am leery of the lurking tendency to claim authority based in the past.  I have been told dozens of times in the last decade that we had to preserve history.  Now clearly, I love history.  But preserving history it not my job.  Neither is it my church musicians’ or my worship team’s or the Episcopal church’s.  It is tempting to preserve the past and sell it in decorative heritage jars.

But that temptation is satanic.  It takes us away from the true call of our day.  We are called to serve God in our day.  To be holy in our times of unholiness and rot.  To evangelize our culture.  To heal our sick.  To welcome our stranger.  And all for free.

IMG_2220Jesus was asked by the woman at the well whether it was right to worship God on this mountain (the holy site of her ancestors) or in Jerusalem (the holy site of Jesus’ ancestors).  Jesus replied, But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. (John 4, NRSV)

How do we worship God in spirit and truth?  The hour is coming and now is.  It is present time, our worship, and always must be.  We have to be really careful to tend to the holiness and love of neighbor of our day.  There is a shepherd composing poems right now in your church yard, and probably in Spanish.  Attend to his gifts, encourage his success, and celebrate his use of God’s grace in this time.

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I don’t have Hilda’s heritage of nobility.  I don’t have the support of the Northumbrian king, but I have this day.  And my job is to lead my community to worship God in it, to be holy in this hour, to love and reach out to our neighbors, secular and heathen alike.

In Whitby I was struck that the church that sold its birthright to pilgrims, fleecing those who came rather than going out to those who were in need, was the one that left such beautiful ruins and so few saints.

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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.

The Chapter Room – Travel Notes

During our travels over the summer, I dragged my family through dozens of former monasteries, abbeys, and friaries.  I can recognize all the various types of stones from one end of the British isles to the other in the backgrounds of movies.  The features started to run together for my family, not being obsessive over the same issues.  There was one feature that stood out from place to place as they began to grow familiar.  It was the Chapter Room.

In Benedictine life, and other orders as well, the Rule requires that after mass or at another time of the day, the community gather to read and discuss a chapter from the Rule.  It is also the place where the abbot or prioress might call the community together for business that required everyone’s insight.  They were often round and quite beautiful.  There was usually a bench around the outside wall, though active communities also had chairs, they were quite rare when the communities were founded.

The Chapter Room was replaced in Anglican life by the Vestry.  This was a sad development in a way.  Not that I think Vestries are a bad innovation.  Business in a lay community requires a different ongoing oversight that would it would be superfluous to involve the whole community.  But we rarely see a place outside the sanctuary where the whole community is gathered.  Our fellowship hall at Grace is not even large enough for our whole congregation.

I am not advocate of multi-use facilities because I have come to see over time that our architecture expresses our anthropology of community in particular ways.  As Louis Weil used to say, “When it comes to liturgy, the building always wins.”

What if we saw our entire community as essential to the mission of our church?  What if we didn’t accept members unless they committed to the ministry of the congregation?  What if we built our community into our space?  Shared leadership or mutual ministry models often miss that there is a particular charism to leading that is necessary to healthy community.  As I have written elsewhere, leadership is service.  My towel work may be telling a group that it is time for them to stop meeting at our church.  I believe in leaders as necessary, as necessary as toilets.  But on the other hand, I also advocate for shared stewardship, the ownership of the mission by the whole community.

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The Chapter Room at Westminster Abbey

If we are to embody a whole community as part of the wisdom and necessary to the function of our congregations, do we need a Chapter Room?

Spending enough time below deck

Ships.  The church is often compared to a ship at sea in some helpful and some terrible analogies.  A good friend used this analogy to talk about how the church can be a place of faith in a world without faith.  I have used it to talk about our job of saving people from the flood.  Another common one is to see the world as the ark in the flood from the Noah story.  I am deeply uncomfortable with that one because we are called to be about the redemption of the world, not to shut the doors and let everyone else drown.  But on the other hand in one of the better books on constructive theology, Peter Hodgson in Winds of the Spirit compares the theological task to repairing a ship at sea.  There are lots of ship analogies.

My favorite analogy is leadership-oriented.  As a captain, I have a certain job to do on the ship.  It is not possible to captain a certain size of ship without a crew.  You just can’t.  And though there may be times when you are needed to step in and help with rigging, if you are spending all your time on ropes, you are not the captain.  The captain has a role that requires a sense of direction, purpose and mission, and time spent planning.

This latter piece is the one I want to focus on today.  You have to spend enough time below deck with the charts and maps as a captain.  You have to know where the ship is going.  You don’t always have to be the one at the wheel, of course, but the crew and passengers, investors and customers are all waiting on the ship to go somewhere.

As a pastor, this is an important part of our role that is undervalued and underdone in communities that begin to grow.  My congregation is not a Sunday-only institution.  We work all week long.  Our worship is, and should be, the praise of a community that is living the faith and doing the work of redemption during the rest of the week.  Sunday is dessert.  The meal is served Monday through Saturday. (I would love to take credit for the life of Grace Church, but I inherited a busy church.)  Our ship’s problem isn’t speed.

The analogy is not going to hold for long, so let’s look at our primary idea.  As a captain, you have to know the ship.  You have to know the ropes, so to speak.  You have to know the crew, and your first officers especially well.  You have to know what is in the hold and what the scheduled stops are.  You have to know these things and know them first-hand as much as humanly possible.  There is no substitute for time with the crew and pulling on the pieces.  But you can do all of that and get everywhere late, nowhere important, and make everyone involved feel lost and frustrated.

You have to know where you are going, that you have the resources you need, and can plot a course, even if you have to modify it a million times.

Knowing where you are going is one of those mystical sounding phrases that can mean not very much in the real world or it can save your community.  If you don’t know what it means at all, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage highly simply because it offers some examples and then practical ways to discover direction within a corporation.  It is especially good when the captain shares the chair with a room full of people, as most of us do.  Another good book is Rainer and Rainer’s Simple Church.  This one benefits from church-specific advice, from a free church congregational model, but it is great on principles as well.  You need to be able to state your purpose over a set period of time in a sentence.  One sentence.

This seems like it would be an easy thing to do, but as already shown the large areas of moving pieces and people involved in a healthy community make it a challenge to get far enough perspective to see it all, name it, and then be able to get people involved with the whole picture from where they currently are.  You cannot “wing” the work of perspective.  It takes time to look down the route, chart the currents, and choose the language carefully.  You have to spend enough time below deck.

In old pictures of captain’s desks there are always piles of charts and maps, old books, and arcane tools.  I feel like a pastor’s office should be the same way.  It takes some basic tools to do our job.  They don’t really change century to century.  You will always need a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer, for example.  But then there are the current events and relevant histories.  Too many pastors and priests get used to our favorite maps and do not update.  We are luddites by attrition and busyness.  But we cannot effectively guide in today’s waters without some relevant maps.  We should be comparing notes with other captains and other sailors.  We should be staying current on the currents.

Time to think and work and compare should not keep us off the deck either, but we do need significant time below to do our job.  The church has gotten used to pastors and priests who are hospital visitors and funeral planners and deacons first.  We are called to a particular role, and if those roles are yours, great; you may not be the person to lead a community.  Leaders lead first.  It is a service that the church needs like the ship needs a captain who knows where they are going.

It is telling in Acts that the community complained about the inequities of help and service and the response of the apostles was to assign some people to do the work, after prayer and clear delineation of duties.  Too many pastors do the work of the laity.  Too many captains spend their days pulling on ropes and holding the hands of those who should be working.  We are called to proclaim the Good News and teach and preach.  We do have to make sure that the work of the community gets done.  A ship with no sails has a captain who isn’t doing their job too.  But we do that work, our serving, in relation to the whole ship.  Our job on the ship is to know where the ship is going and to get everyone working toward that destination.

Our service is leading.  We are no more or less necessary than the kid who swabs the deck so that our crew doesn’t slip into the sea.  But that kid can’t do my job, and I can’t do his, at least not all the time.

As a pastor I have cleaned a lot of toilets and wiped down a lot of counters and set a lot of tables.  It happens.  But if I am always doing those things and not praying, studying, and preaching and teaching, then I have failed as a leader in the church.  And my ship is adrift at sea.

How do we discern what is the leader’s duty and what belongs to the crew?  How do we clarify roles?  Lencioni can help with this process.  How do we set aside time with the charts and maps of your community?  What tools are necessary?  What new maps do you need but don’t have?  Who are your first mates, your crew, your investors, your customers? If you are not the captain, how do you make sure your captain has time to do their job well?

 

 

Don’t Call Me Father – Part II

So how do you teach this as a new way of leadership?  It has been one of my contentions since seminary that we were given Biblical studies, theology, even prayers that demanded a new way of leading communities to follow Jesus, but we were not offered any particular way of making that real in the systems and ethics that we bring to the Church in our congregations and parishes.  We may have good ideas in our head, but until we create systems that embody those ideas, we keep falling back on the old Roman model of Caesar.  Maybe we have a somewhat functional committee or Senate to support us.  Maybe we even have a retainer class of “people who really get what we are doing here” and a military police to keep us safe.  I call that last one the altar guild.  No one protects the old ways like the altar guild.

We fall back on rule by law and order embodying, or so we claim, the will of God.  We, the priests and pastors, become the persona of Christ, usually not understood as the sacrifice or the servant, but rather the one who should rule.  

The temple and throne have the same structure.  High priest, Sanhedrin or Bishop and Council.  We keep rebuilding the old system of rule and control because it works.  I know it works.  I wear a collar to some meetings because I know people will behave differently and defer on things I need them to defer on.  I don’t usually wear a wreath of laurel crown, but I have thought about it when people were really chaotic.

The claim of this model, which you can read in the Latin of Marcus Aurelius or the speeches of our Presidents, is to provide safety and order against the dangers and chaos of the world out there, by which we mean both outside our community, but also outside the inner circle within our own community.  The problem is that this model is that is based on the enemy’s view of the world, and not on God’s.

If we take the Bible seriously, God intended humanity to be caretakers of the world and each other in relationship to God.  We were made to be God’s children, and we become the royal priesthood of God when through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we are taught to live and love, forgive, heal, and feed as God does.  We restore the world, not control it.  We heal, not destroy.  Where the enemy sees chaos and danger, we see children of God in need of healing, love, belonging.  

We lead within communities by learning to be within communities as Jesus is in community.  We serve.  Among the Gentiles, Jesus said, the leaders among them lord it over them, but it is not be so with you.  The greatest among you is to be the least.  And the leader is to be servant to all.  We cannot even pretend to be following Jesus by lording leadership over others, reminding them to call us “father” and greet us with honor in the marketplace.  

“Father” puts us at the head of the Table, in the place of honor, and it doesn’t take long for God to come as host and move us down a little.  

So, how do we lead without titles and honor, power and control, threat and enforced order? This is a real question that I have been struggling with for a long time.  I cannot read and study Jesus and think that my leadership instincts need some real reform.  

Peter Block has been a huge help to me though.  In college I was supposed to write a paper on fundraising for a class on non-profit management intended for pastors-to-be.  Instead I found a book entitled Stewardship that radically changed my ideas about leadership, organizations, and power.  I read it cover to cover sitting in the upstairs of the Phoenix Public library.  I still own it and apply the lessons of that book today.  A few years ago during my post-Christmas travels to see my family I walked past a new book of Block’s called Community.  It promised to offer what I was looking for in forming and leading communities where the belief is that the real Wisdom and Spirit reside in the people, and the leader is one of them who serves that Wisdom and Spirit.  

To take one small lesson which Block gives, when you want to get the wisdom of the group and form a community on mission together, you focus not on leading the conversation but on setting up the room and asking the right questions.  That sounds like servant leadership, or butler priesthood.  When you focus on the setting up the room so that people relate to each other intimately and as equal partners, you help form community and allow the group to function as children of God discovering God’s call and wisdom together.  As a leader, the job becomes centered in set up and asking good questions, something Jesus excelled at.  The focus is on getting people to think and act as the children of God that we believe they are, rather than as either an army out to control the chaos of life or chaotic enemies that need to be conquered by either or reason or power. 

This is one step toward the Rule of God embodied in our systems of leadership.  It takes, as Weisbord and Janoff point out in Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, a lot of self-control and maturity to not take control of the conversation and overpower the quiet voice of the Spirit.  That maturity comes from living into a theology, ethos, and expectations over time, but that self-control and tactics of calling forth our brothers and sisters into community can be taught, as can the room layouts and methods of facilitation that can set up the family to be family.  

But we have to think differently.  It is as if Jesus has sent us ahead to set up for the Passover, let us not set up the dinner as if it were something other than the supper of the Lord.  Let us not forget who the true host is and who the guests are.  Let us take up our towels and serve if we are the leaders in the way of Jesus.

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.