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.

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.

Benedictine Vision and Pastoral Leadership

This blog was started as a place to explore a simple question: What does it mean to follow Christ in the way of Benedict?  Today, I just wanted to look at one area of my life where it means being accountable to others as a leader.

Pastoral Leadership sounds really specialized, but there are tens of thousands of pastors, leaders, and servants in the church, ordained and not ordained.  In applying Benedictine thought to our position, what comes into focus?

A few years ago now, the parish congregation I serve was given three-quarters of a million dollars in a bequest from a beloved local saint.  As the functional CEO of the group I had a list that needed that money.  I also knew the main other priorities that should arise from our saint’s legacy, other leaders, and the general thoughts of our community at large.  In our tradition, fiscal decisions are made by our elected church board of laity called the vestry.  The vestry meets monthly, and this bequest was the issue for several months, understandable as it equaled about a year’s worth of total budget.  We were on sound financial ground, but this could really open doors for us to take on some maintenance delayed for decades, extend our ministries, more than double our small foundation.  We felt the pressure to make quick and sound decisions, but we had also worked for a couple of years on being led by the Spirit rather than just our best intentions.

So, I have this habit of taking books with me into the meeting.  I put them in front of me, sometimes to read from, but sometimes just to be reminded of something that they represent.  Usually those books include the Rule of Benedict.  On this one particular night it was Joan Chittister’s commentary on the rule called A Spirituality for the 21st Century.   Benedict’s face was staring at me as a particular member began to report on the current plan for the bequest.  I was tired of waiting for a decision and getting fidgety, but I was trying at the same time to be coolly “pastoral.”  Another member began to say that he thought we ought to have an intentional method that encouraged every member to give their suggestions for how the money should be allocated.  Now, understand we had been taking written suggestions from the eager for two months already. I was frustrated bordering on angry, but that wasn’t on my face yet.  I was being cool, but I was about to get really directive when I looked down to see Benedict looking at me coolly, pastorally.

And I was reminded of the beginning of Benedict’s Chapter 3,

As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.

The Spirit spoke through Benedict, and I was corrected and just nodded, kept my mouth shut, and encouraged what turned out to be a wiser course.

The thing is that Rule expects that every member of the monastery is a monk who takes his vocation seriously.  In a community where are all are living their purpose, leadership becomes very different than in one where we expect that we, however we define “we”, are leading them, however we define “them”.   I cannot cede my responsibility, but I also cannot take away theirs, not if I want them to be healthy members of the community.

Leadership in the Benedictine community vision is servanthood from the front.   The abbot has a role to play.  He calls the community.  He explains the business. He hears the advice.  He makes the decision.   Taking the rest of the Rule into account, he also listens to God in the process and encourages the proper function of the community by being accountable to the Rule and holding others accountable as well.  The monks come together, offer their advice “humbly”, and let the abbot decide without second guessing once the decision is made, but trusting in God to work through each monk’s vocation, even the abbot.

Servants serve the household.  In the church that means we serve God in the community of the faithful.  We all have roles in God’s household.  And yes, of course, every role is important, but leaders serve by leading.  We call, explain, listen, and make decisions.  Surely you have been in a community or business where a leader didn’t listen; you have probably also been in a community or business where a leader didn’t make decisions.

It is often easy to recognize leadership in the decisive person, but being decisive does not make for a whole leader in Benedict’s view.  It is clear that abbots have near absolute authority in the monastery, but their decisiveness is not what counts, but rather their accountability.   As a leader, holding others accountable is tough, uncomfortable work in an age where every self is worshiped as a god.  It feels sacrilegious to say, You are not . . . have not  . . . did not . . . Whether or not such a statement is based in fact or well attested, it is often taken as a wrong statement because it goes against the religion of the day.  But the Rule of Benedict is clear that accountability is the defining virtue of the holy community, and that accountability is ultimately standing before God at the end of all hours.

Accountability is tough in today’s churches.  It is easier with a staff because they are hired and directed.  But churches are basically voluntary associations for most Christians.  When someone stops coming, there is really no consequence because there are so many options, including the option of no church, since salvation is unrelated to the community anyway, being individualized.  None of this makes any sense in Benedict’s Rule or most of history.  Because we can always leave, we rarely take the opportunity to become mature and wise.

I have become convinced that the ailments of our age are mostly due to immaturity.  Spiritual, religious, social, even moral immaturity is not only rampant, it is supported and encouraged by our idolization of the individual.  Maturity demands that we are accountable to others.  It is a simple fact that no one lives and survives alone.  The Bible never indicates that we can be saved alone or that our salvation is ultimately for our own self.  To be saved is to be set free to live in God’ house as a child, an heir, with all the benefits and responsibilities of keeping the house.  Freedom in the Scriptures is accountability to the right household rule, not to no rule.  Being accountable to God’s rule, of which the Rule of Benedict is simply a translation or restatement, is freedom and maturity, wisdom.  When we are mature, wise, able to understand and live by God’s rule, all rules fade into the background, and the focus shifts to relationships with God and others.  We cannot skip the rules or ignore them until we are so formed by them that they are our own rule.  Then we are wise and can sing Psalm 119 with joy and peace.

A major part of healthy leadership is becoming mature, wise; and if we are to become wise, we have to be accountable to something larger than ourselves.  Abbots need the Rule as much as the novice.  We, pastors and leaders, have to submit to God’s Rule in one form or another.  I have found that I am incapable of keeping myself accountable to much of anything, honestly.  I need a community that includes my wife, colleagues, bishop, vestry, prayer group, spiritual director, friends, even a centuries old saint from Italy.  But with God’s help and a whole community I am finding myself shaped to God’s Rule and tasting the freedom and joy of being a child of God.

Who are you accountable to for the various areas of your life? Is there an area where you are not accountable to anyone else? What would it mean to adopt a Rule outside yourself? Have you?