God’s Rule Brings Conflict

This passage from Mark as Story wonderfully captures how and why Jesus inevitably conflicts with those in power:

“ . . . God’s rule engenders conflict because God is acting outside the traditional channels of power. From the point of view of the authorities in Mark’s story, God works from the established center in Jerusalem. By contrast, for Mark, God’s rule begins from the periphery, from the edges. The pardon of sins that took place in the temple now appears in Galilee. The interpretation of the law that emanated from Jerusalem now occurs in the village of Capernaum. The authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin council is now assumed by a woodworker from Nazareth. The rule of God begins among people of little social consequence—not among the rulers but among the people, not with the so-called righteous but with the sinners. So, Jesus comes in conflict with authorities.

In all of this, the rule of God generates conflict because it ruptures the conventional conception of God and creates a new understanding of God. Instead of guarding boundaries, God now crosses boundaries. Instead of remaining in the temple, God breaks out to become available everywhere (signified by the tearing of the curtain). Instead of withdrawing from defilement, God spreads holiness. Instead of working from the center, God works from the margins. God sends an anointed one who does not dominate but who undergoes persecution and death in the service of others. In all of these matters, the authorities are trapped inside the old wineskins of their conventional views, unable to see the new wine in their midst. By judging the new wine by the categories of old wineskins, they destroy the wine—and they also end up destroying the wineskins as well.”

Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie, Mark as Story, p. 79.


Interpretive Patience

As I’ve been finalizing syllabuses for the fall semester and putting together lecture notes on interpretation, these lines from Ernst Käsemann’s Romans commentary have been rolling around in my head:

The impatient, who are concerned only about results or practical application, should leave their hands off exegesis. They are of no value for it, nor, when rightly done, is exegesis of any value for them (p. viii).

E Kasemann

 


Hiking Israel

I’ve just returned from a ten day trip to Israel with some folks from GRTS. We traveled with a larger group from Crossroads Bible Church and their pastor, Rod Van Solkema, led the trip.

Dead Sea at Sunrise

Dead Sea at Sunrise

He wanted us to learn the land with our feet, which meant loads of hiking. It was an absolute blast and a thorough soul-refreshment in every way.

We hiked for several days in the desert, including climbing Mt. Timna, the snake path up to Masada, and the mountains above Qumran.

About to Climb the Snake Path at Masada

About to Climb the Snake Path at Masada

After the Climb up Masada

After the Climb up Masada

Climbing Mt. Timna (or, Making Our Way to Mordor)

Climbing Mt. Timna (or, Making Our Way to Mordor)

On Mt. Timna. That's a heart-stopping sheer drop just behind me...

On Mt. Timna. That’s a heart-stopping sheer drop just behind me…

Cave 8 at Qumran

Cave 8 at Qumran

High Above Qumran -- that's the visitor's center in the middle and some of the caves just beneath it

High Above Qumran — that’s the visitor’s center in the middle and some of the caves just beneath it

In the North, we scaled Mt. Arbel and Mt. Carmel, along with a number of other places.

Climbing Mt. Arbel, Overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Climbing Mt. Arbel, Overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Doing so much walking and hiking gave us an excellent grasp of the geography of the land — where everything sits in relation to other places. It also allowed me to eat as much hummus and warm pita as I wanted (and falafel and shwarma and shnitzel, among other things) and still lose a few pounds!

Discussing Mark 3:1-6 at the Synagogue in Capernaum

Discussing Mark 3:1-6 at the Synagogue in Capernaum

John Hilber and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 5:30 in the morning and had the place to ourselves fo

John Hilber and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 5:30 in the morning and had the place to ourselves for nearly an hour

My colleague, John Hilber, and I seriously enjoyed the time with our students, along with the Crossroads group with whom we traveled. And we’re thrilled about the outrageously wonderful opportunity for GRTS students to travel to Israel made possible by our partnership with GTI Tours.

The GRTS Crew

The GRTS Crew


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 7

Cross-shaped leaders differ from worldly leaders in that they do not manipulate others.  This involves both means and ends.

Cruciform leaders have ultimate aims to bless others, to give them life, to see to it that God’s goodness, love, and grace are always arriving into others’ lives.

Worldly leaders, on the other hand, have selfish ends and will use others to achieve those ends.  Other people, therefore, are means to my own ends, and others are valuable to me only insofar as they serve my purposes.

Christian leaders must avoid treating people as means to other ends.  In addition to this, however, leaders can fall into the trap of having good ultimate intentions for others, but using manipulative means to get there.

This happens in a variety of ways, but I’ve seen it happen in attempts at conflict-resolution.

Seeking to resolve a broken relationship is a well-motivated desire, but it’s possible to approach such situations manipulatively.  We might find ourselves plotting and planning how we’ll graciously expose the other’s fault; we anticipate responses and prepare counter-arguments.

It’s as if we’re trying to cut off all routes of escape.  We want to prove our point, to enclose the other person in a well-argued and airtight case that proves they’re wrong and we’re right.  We’re doing this, of course, in love.

Why do we think such an approach is going to end well?  This usually provokes an angry response from someone who feels trapped and manipulated.  Their response might frustrate us and invite an angry counter-response.  Before you know it, things are going down a destructive road.

Such strategies reveal that our aims are not to bless and give life but to triumph—to resolve the conflict on our terms.  This is very manipulative.

This is very different from preparing carefully to approach another person in humility, to invite from that person an explanation of how they see things.  And we must be completely willing to listen and have our own understanding corrected.

Cruciform leaders approach others with cruciform, non-threatening postures of welcome, and work hard to develop skills associated with peace-making (James 3:13-18).  We’d do well to state up-front just how we see things but note that we very well may be wrong.

Manipulation in ministry relationships comes in so many different forms–I’ve only spoken of one.  We must be concerned to relate to others with humility, always pursuing the goal of communal flourishing.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 6

Cruciform leadership is marked by a determination to live authentically and relate honestly.  Jesus-shaped, cruciform leaders don’t hide their weaknesses, inadequacies, and failures.  They aren’t self-promoting, they don’t seek power, and they don’t trumpet their strengths.

Their ultimate goal is the blessing of others, the arrival of God’s transforming grace and overpowering love into their lives.  Their goal is not to appear ultra-competent and amazing, but to serve others.

Worldly leadership, on the other hand, is consumed with image-consciousness.  Worldly leaders manipulate situations in order to put the best face on things.  They try to control how people see them and what others think of them.

This pursuit leads to denial of one’s failures and even to deceiving others in order to keep from being seen as a failure.  This is serious inauthenticity.

While such leadership postures are tempting, they are ultimately destructive in so very many ways.  Such an approach breeds anxiety.  If I portray myself as better and more successful than others, I’ll always be worried that people might encounter the “real me”—the one who struggles with sin the way everyone else does; the one filled with self-doubt; the one who needs the help of others; the one who isn’t always up to the task.

This can also be crushing when failure actually occurs.  If a person weaves a public image and takes great pains to hide behind it, there’s almost no way to recover when the “real me” is revealed.

Further, such an approach discourages others from participating in ministry.  People who are honest with themselves will be too afraid to fail if only the super-competent or “experts” are qualified to serve.

Cruciform leadership resists such strategies.

Paul portrays the anti-image character of cruciform leadership in a powerfully counter-cultural passage.

…but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.  For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me (2 Cor. 12:5-6).

If he talked about his strengths and his mind-blowing experiences, he wouldn’t at all be exaggerating.  He’d be speaking the truth.  But he resists this because he doesn’t want the Corinthians to think of him as a bigger deal than he is.  He refuses to construct an image.

His ultimate goal is their blessing, their communal flourishing, their enjoyment of the goodness of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Cruciform leaders refuse to try to control what people think of them.  They don’t cultivate an image.  They don’t try to make others imagine that more is true of them than matches reality.

Such leadership frees others to participate in ministry without fear of failure.  I’ll never forget the first time this hit me.  I have heard preaching my whole life and have hardly ever heard preachers relay anecdotes in which they don’t come off as spiritual superstars.

When I was in seminary, I had a pastor named Rick.  Rick was a great speaker and decisive leader.  He was impressive in so many ways, but was also unconcerned with his image.

After returning from a ministry trip to South Africa, he began his first Sunday back with an anecdote about his airplane ride.  He said that he was so jacked up to be going on this trip that he initiated an evangelistic conversation with the two people sitting in his row.  After an initial back-and-forth, Rick said that out of nowhere his brain locked up and he couldn’t think of a response to one of their questions.  He sat there tongue-tied and gape-mouthed as they stared at him, awaiting a response.

Mortified, he slunk back in his chair for the torturously long plane ride to South Africa.

I’ll never forget how that made everyone feel.  We all looked up to Rick and thought he could hardly put a foot wrong in ministry.  But his anecdote reminded everyone that he was just like us and that it’s okay to fail.

He would tell his ministry interns later to seldom be the hero of your preaching anecdotes.  I’ve never forgotten that.  That’s one way of embodying honesty and authenticity.  It resonates with people who are honest with themselves and are tired of a superficial culture dominated by inauthenticity.

Cruciform leaders aren’t paralyzed with fear that others will see their shortcomings, weaknesses, and inadequacies.

Authentic ministry is built on the truth.  Cruciform leadership cultivates authenticity and invites others to develop similar habits of truth-speaking and truthful modes of life.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 5

I’ve been contrasting Jesus-shaped, cruciform leadership with worldly leadership.  Key texts that shape my reflections are Phil. 2:5-11 and Mark 10:37-45.

Worldly leaders are captivated by a craving for more and more influence.  Cruciform leaders, on the other hand, are content with current responsibilities given by God and seek to grow in faithfulness.

I had defined cruciform, Jesus-shaped leadership as an unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

Cruciform leaders sense a compelling call to the delivery of God’s transforming grace and redeeming love to others.  The scope of ministry may involve one’s own family.  It may extend beyond that to a one-to-one discipleship relationship.  Or, it may involve leadership in larger groups.  Size doesn’t matter.

In any and every case, cruciform leaders are focused on faithfulness to the task.  This involves self-sacrificially serving others, getting to know those to whom we minister.  Cruciform leaders take the initiative to cultivate relationships of mutuality and authenticity shaped and oriented by the love and grace of God.

I described worldly leadership as a desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve personal advancement.

Worldly leadership manifests itself in the church by a lack of contentment with current ministry circumstances.  Worldly leaders desire more and more influence.  They are always looking beyond their current scope of ministry to bigger and better and more.  Such pursuits are incompatible with faithfulness in ministry.

This form of leadership has a corrosive effect on one’s soul, one’s ministry partnerships, and one’s family.

Worldly leaders are captive to destructively competitive impulses.  They envision the ministry “successes” of others as losses for themselves.  They cannot delight in the giftedness of others because they are threatened by them.  Good things happening in other churches or ministries are provocations to anger and resentment.

Worldly leaders grow anxious when they are not recognized and praised.  They are jealous when the gifts of others are noted or praised.

A worldly leadership orientation also has a destructive effect on one’s family.  Ministers who seek greater influence cannot afford to spend time cultivating rich and joyful relationships at home.  Those take time and effort.  They are messy, complicated.  Our families see our faults and failures.  Fruitful family life demands relationships of mutuality in order to flourish.  That means we must give ourselves fully to our families, blessing them and being blessed by them.  That means we work hard to cultivate the skills of forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Worldly leadership draws us away from our families, seducing us to see it as far easier to be out there “ministering” where people don’t see our faults and failures.  We can get by on charm and surface encounters.  Such behaviors are exposed as obviously hypocritical at home.  Families can’t run on such relational shallowness.  They demand serious love and regular reconciliation.

Worldly leaders see their families, therefore, as obstacles to greater influence.  Spouses and children who demand my time are taking away from my efforts to grow the reach of my ministry!  They’re in the way!

Too many pastors have given in to such worldly and destructive temptations and have sacrificed their spouses and children on the altar of growing a ministry or extending the reach of their influence.

Whatever influence they might have may prove either ephemeral or destructive.  In speaking about leaders among God’s people, Paul asks, “if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church?”

Cruciform leaders discern the worldly lures of bigger and better and more as the destructive and soul-destroying corruptive ideologies that they are.  They resist such temptations and their associated practices.  They take joy in their relationships, serving faithfully, loving others and receiving their love in the name of the One who gave his life for the church.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 4

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

This may be obvious, but there is a vocabulary set used among ministry leaders that very subtly perverts and corrupts our vision for cruciform ministry.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get somewhere else.

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them.

When we do this, we are no longer delivery agents of God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace.  We begin embodying in our churches the reality of a very harsh, exacting God who demands performance and greater effectiveness.

Pastors may find themselves berating and scolding their churches.  They may lament that there are so many things the church could be doing if only the people would just “get on board.”

These are signs of worldly leadership.

There is no greater end in ministry than cultivating a flourishing community for the renewal of the people to whom and with whom we minister.

Cruciform ministry leaders are patient with people, ministering to them in love.  Cruciform leaders are careful to avoid being seduced by worldly values that fly under the banners of “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “results.”

Cruciform pastors must constantly check their motives, aims, and ambitions for their churches.  They must constantly put off the temptation to manipulate people so that goals may be met.

Christian ministers must resist putting pressure on people and subtly turning churches into institutions that oppress.  It takes strong leadership to cultivate flourishing communities that provide rest, relief, hope, joy, and life for people worn out and broken by the world.

Cross-shaped leaders remember that people are the point.  They are the end.  They are never the means.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 3

Cross-shaped leadership constantly adjusts to God’s agenda.  This is significantly different from worldly forms of leadership, which are oriented by the leader’s agenda.

Worldly leadership is leader-determined.  It’s all about “my dream,” or “my vision for this church.”  Churches with charismatic leaders are often compelling communities for a time, but they seldom manifest cruciformity.

I remember talking with a pastor about his church.  He was looking for people who would “buy into” his vision.

We spoke some time later about his struggle with one person who didn’t fit the profile of his ministry target audience.  He was struggling to figure out how to gently move this person on to “where she belonged.”  He was caught between genuinely caring for people and his training in a corrupted style of ministry.

Churches oriented by a singular leader’s vision that require “buy in” on the part of those participating don’t manifest cruciform leadership.  They can’t afford to.  The leader’s vision is the ultimate end and people become the means to that end.

In a tragic irony, the leader is going around putting people on crosses in the name of the ministry vision.

What happens when people who don’t fit the profile find a home in that community?  They may be seen as obstacles rather than gifts.

Cruciform leadership, on the other hand, is God-oriented.  Ministry goals and ministry means are shaped by God’s program and God’s agenda. God’s aim is to break into peoples’ lives with love and grace and blessing so that God might redeem, reclaim, restore, and save.

God’s agenda must become our agenda.

We serve on behalf of God, who sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to seek and to save what was lost.

We minister in the name of God, who sent Israel into exile because they were neglecting the orphan and the widow, oppressing the poor and the needy, exploiting the weak and defenseless.

God, who heard the prayer of Hannah—the marginalized wife of Elkanah.

God, who is exalted above the heavens, but who bends low to look into the face of the lowly and the neglected.

God, who puts himself on the cross for the redemption of the world.

Cruciform leaders regard people out of a healthy fear of the Lord who gave his life for those who “don’t fit the ministry profile.”  They are careful to treat people the way that God treats people.

If we sacrifice the awkward and marginalized on the altar of our cherished “vision” for what we think our churches should become, we invite the fearsome judgment of the God who passionately loves and pursues those who don’t fit the mold, those on the margins.

Cruciform leaders go the way of the cross.  This means that their pride, ambition, and ministry goals are on crosses, too.  This is the only way to unleash resurrection power into the lives of those to whom they minister.

Cruciform leaders stay on the cross, knowing that this is the only contact they have with the life of Jesus.  And they constantly evaluate the extent to which their visions become idols that put others on crosses.


Luther on Paul’s Appearance

I came across this bit of speculation as to what Paul would’ve looked like by Martin Luther. It’s just priceless.

“I think that Paul was a pathetic, ugly, and scruffy little man — like Philipp,” referring, of course, to his friend, to that point, anyway, Philipp Melanchthon.

Brilliant!

Icon of Paul

I’ve written before on what Paul might have looked like and I’d have to agree with Luther!

 


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 2

The Bible has much to say about leadership generally, but two specific texts contrast God’s aims for leaders of his people with corrupted forms of leadership—Mark 10:42-45 and Deut. 17:14-20.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

Mark 10:42-45

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Taking a cue from these texts, over the next bunch of posts I will sketch cross-shaped leadership in broad strokes by contrasting it with worldly leadership practices.  This may help us discern how perverted ambitions, hidden idolatries, and destructive practices subtly affect how leadership works in Christian communities.

To begin, I’ve come up with these alternative descriptions:

Worldly leadership: A desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve these things, even if it means neglecting or hurting people who do not appear to be means of one’s own personal advancement.

Jesus-shaped leadership: An unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

I’ve drawn these up from reflection on biblical texts and my own experiences in ministry.  I’ll elaborate on these two forms of leadership as our discussion progresses.


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