Leaders and Loss

Most people, including religious leaders, follow a course most suitable to their natural interests and inclinations. That is the path of least resistance where the surroundings are familiar and comfortable. A skilled leader can even make the pursuit of comfort, familiarity, and security sound noble while the path of suffering and sacrifice seems unreasonable, irresponsible, or possibly evil.

During his lifetime, Jesus was never popular with religious leaders. He was too honest, too self-sacrificing. He didn’t play the angles for his own benefit. And he loved being with people who could not enhance his social standing.

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Instead of wringing our hands over the waning influence of religion in our culture, we should be looking for leaders like that. Show me a leader who cares more for the kingdom than for his or her personal interests and agenda, and I’ll show you fertile soil for religious renewal.

In the twilight of my life, I look for leaders whose principles have cost them something. I look for teachers and guides who have sacrificed comfort and security in the service of conscience and conviction. Not every leader suffers loss as a consequence of faithfulness. Only the great ones.

 

We All Need a Place to Be Real

A few years ago, my wife and I spent three weeks in Great Britain and Ireland, visiting locations where the presence and power of God had been felt in genuine spiritual revival in years past. We were part of a group of 50 people, all evangelical Christians from the United States. I returned from that trip with two convictions etched deeply into my soul. The first was this: our world is in desperate need of a renewal of biblical Christianity. The second: contemporary American evangelical Christianity is not it.

What I observed among my fellow travelers, many of whom were pastors of evangelical congregations, was a sterile, superficial imitation of biblical faith. I don’t question the genuineness of their conversion experience, but my heart aches when I consider how much the character of their religion reflected the spirit of American consumerism—how they described the scope of their ministries in terms of programs and property, budgets and buildings, nickels and noses. And it seemed clear to me that they marketed Jesus the way American businesses market their products… “Try our brand and your life will be better. Just ask our satisfied customers.” Continue reading

Lessons From A Fellow Ragamuffin

Brennan Manning died Friday, April 12, at age 78. One of my students first introduced him to me around ten years ago. Not the man personally, but his writing. Specifically, to his book called The Ragamuffin Gospel. As I would soon find out, reading Brennan Manning wasBrennan Manning (2) very much like meeting him in person, for he poured so much of his soul into his writing that, every time I finished one of his books, I felt I had spent a week with the man himself.

In a sense, that is true of most authors who write essays and articles based on personal experience and reflection. But Brennan’s writing was different—more personal, more real, more authentic. His books were more than elegant, moving, first-person prose. They embodied his God-hungry spirit. His awe-filled awareness of the grace and mercy and love of God was embedded in what he wrote.

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Being Real (Part Three)

A few years ago, my wife and I spent three weeks in Great Britain and Ireland, visiting locations where the presence and power of God had been felt in genuine spiritual revival in years past.  We were part of a group of 50 people, all evangelical Christians from the United States.  I returned from that trip with two convictions etched deeply into my soul.  The first was this: Our world is in desperate need of a renewal of biblical Christianity.  The second: Contemporary American evangelical Christianity is not it.

What I observed among my fellow travelers, many of whom were pastors of evangelical congregations, was a sterile, superficial imitation of biblical faith.  I don’t question the genuineness of their conversion experience, but my heart aches when I consider how much the character of their religion reflected the spirit of American consumerism—how they described the scope of their ministries in terms of programs and property, budgets and buildings, nickels and noses.  And it seemed clear to me that they marketed Jesus the way American businesses market their products… “Try our brand and your life will be better.  Just ask our satisfied customers.”

The truth is, however, the Christian life is not materially better than any other kind of life.  In fact, our effectiveness as witnesses for the gospel, in many cases, will require us to show evidence of struggle and pain as a way of relating to the experience of those to whom we minister.  As Brennan Manning writes in his book, Ruthless Trust

The bromides, platitudes, and exhortations to trust God from nominal believers who have never visited the valley of desolation are not only useless; they are textbook illustrations of unmitigated gall.  Only someone who has been there, who has drunk the dregs of our cup of pain, who has experienced the existential loneliness and alienation of the human condition, dares whisper the name of the Holy to our unspeakable distress.  Only that witness is credible; only that love is believable.

Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded… We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way.  In His eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention or publicity.  On the last day, Jesus will look us over, not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.

And, I might add, many of those scars will be from wounds self-inflicted or suffered as the result of foolish choices, bad decisions, intemperate behavior, and carelessness.  Out of those messy situations, however, will emerge a vessel tried by fire, purged and purified, and fit for the Master’s use.  But in the midst of the trials, when our patience is exhausted, our behavior inconsistent, and our eyes temporarily blinded to the vast store of spiritual resources which we have in Jesus, we will need someplace… a group of people among whom we can be real.

What is it that will turn the people of God from a legalistic, pretentious conclave of impostors to a safe haven for struggling pilgrims who fail as often as they succeed?  It will be a renewal of confidence, implanted in us by the Holy Spirit, of one simple, abiding truth.  And that truth is this.  We are loved by God.  We are loved by Jesus Christ… absolutely, unconditionally, and forever.

As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.      [Romans 8:35-39]

It is only by focusing on that truth and making it the foundation stone of our lives and our ministries that our churches will be transformed into places of refuge for struggling, lonely, fearful, hurting, discouraged, sinful people… people like us.

I close this series of blog posts with one more quote from Mike Yaconelli.

For years he wrote a column called “The Back Door” which closed each issue of The Wittenburg Door magazine.  On one occasion he told of the time when, dejected and demoralized, he trundled off with his wife, Karla, to Toronto, Canada, to spend a five-day retreat at a community for mentally and physically handicapped people called “The Ark.”

Henri Nouwen, the godly Roman Catholic priest who wrote such classics as The Wounded Healer, had joined the staff of the community, and Mike Yaconelli hoped to draw inspiration from Nouwen’s presence and preaching.  Instead, he found his true self and, in the process, learned how to “be real.”  Here are his words, from his excellent little book, Messy Spirituality.

It took only a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking.  It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover I wasn’t alone.  God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him.  But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here.  I have been calling you, but you haven’t been listening.  Can you hear me, Michael?  I love you.  I have always loved you.  And I have been waiting for you to hear me say that to you.  But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard me.”

I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son.  My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.  Finally, I accepted my brokenness…. I had never come to terms with that.  Oh, I knew I was broken.  I knew I was a sinner.  I knew I continually disappointed God, but I could never accept that part of me.  It was a part of me that embarrassed me.  I continually felt the need to apologize, to run from my weaknesses, to deny who I was and concentrate on what I should be. I was broken, yes, but I was continually trying never to be broken again—or at least to get to the place where I was very seldom broken.

At “The Ark,” it became very clear to me that I had totally misunderstood the Christian faith.  I came to see that it was in my brokenness, in my powerlessness, in my weakness that Jesus was made strong.  It was in the acceptance of my lack of faith that God could give me faith.  It was in embracing my brokenness that I could identify with others’ brokenness.  It was my role to identify with others’ pain, not relieve it.  Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing.

What does all this mean?

I don’t know… and to be quite blunt, that is the wrong question.  I only know that at certain times in our lives, we make an adjustment in the course of our lives.  This was one of those times for me.  If you were to look at a map of my life, you would not be aware of any noticeable difference other than a slight change of direction.  I can only tell you that it feels very different now.  There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before.  I can only tell you that, for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day.  “Michael, I love you.  You are beloved.”  And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.

Amen.

 

Being Real (Part One)

A young mother came to see Mahatma Gandhi one day with a single request.  “Would you tell my son that sugar is bad for his health and that he should stop eating it?”  The great leader replied, “This is a difficult thing that you ask me to do. Come back in a week.”

The woman returned a week later with her son. “I’m not ready to speak with him yet,” Gandhi told her. “Come back in a week.” A week later she came back. Gandhi addressed her young son. “Sugar is bad for you,” he said. “Stop eating it.”

“That didn’t seem so difficult,” the woman said. “Why couldn’t you have told him that two weeks ago?”  “Because,” Gandhi replied, “two weeks ago I had not stopped eating sugar.”

In this post and the next two, I want to take up the subject of “being real.” I begin with a statement that many will find inflammatory. The most difficult context in the world in which to be real is the evangelical Christian community, and that includes the traditions to which I have related over the past thirty years, Anabaptism and Anglicanism. To our shame, the church often encourages us to pretend to be something we are not instead of inviting us to be open and honest and real.

In this regard, the Christian community is being shaped by the contemporary culture, especially that element of the culture which measures success in terms of productivity, accomplishment, acquisition, and net worth. We don’t need all the things we go into debt to acquire. We accumulate them because, in our way of looking at life, distorted and perverted as it is by the influence of the culture, they are marks of success.

In contemporary American culture, success (or at least the appearance of it) determines our value in the society. It makes us popular. It boosts our self-esteem. And if we have to live our lives pretending to be something we are not, if we have to overlook or ignore or hide what we really are in order to fit in, to be accepted, to look and act like everybody else, well so be it.  It’s the price of success.

This is precisely the mindset which governs life in the evangelical Christian community.  Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are caught up in what Tony Campolo calls “the success fantasy.” Our self-worth is measured by our accomplishments, our productivity, and our jam-packed schedules. We are valued by our peers proportionate to the degree we contribute to the “success” of  the church.

Too often, in order to make that contribution, we need to pretend to be something we are not. If we said what we really think, if we revealed our true emotions, if we admitted that we are not what we appear to be, that our lives are not as orderly as they seem and our relationships are not as healthy as we would like people to think, we could lose the position or the admiration or the acceptance which we value so highly.

When we fall into this trap, we become what Brennan Manning calls “impostors.” Here’s what he says in his book Abba’s Child.

Impostors are preoccupied with acceptance and approval.  Because of their suffocating need to please others, they cannot say no with the same confidence with which they say yes. And so they overextend themselves in people, projects, and causes, motivated not by personal commitment but by fear of not living up to others’ expectations.  … Impostors draw their identity not only from achievements but from personal relationships. They want to stand well with people of prominence because that enhances their resume and their sense of self-worth. …The sad irony is that the impostor cannot experience intimacy in any relationship. His narcissism excludes others. Incapable of intimacy with self and out of touch with his feelings, intuitions, and insight, the impostor is insensitive to the moods, needs, and dreams of others. 

Why does the impostor settle for life in such a diminished form? (One reason) is plain old cowardice. As a little one I could justifiably cop a plea and claim that I was powerless and defenseless. But in the autumn of my life, strengthened by so much love and affection and seasoned by endless affirmation, I must painfully acknowledge that I still operate out of a fear-based center. I have been silent in situations of flagrant injustice, I have stifled creative thinking, denied my real feelings, allowed myself to be intimidated by others, and then rationalized my behavior by persuading myself that the Lord wants me to be an instrument of peace… But at what price?

This tendency to pretend to be something we are not while stifling and refusing to admit what we really are is not a new phenomenon. It is at least as old as Moses.

We know the story of Moses, the leader of Israel, God’s chosen instrument to lead His people out of 450 years of bondage in Egypt and back toward the land which God had promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We have read how God called Moses to come up to meet with Him on Mt. Sinai and how God gave him the law, inscribed on two tablets of stone, which Moses was privileged to deliver to the people of Israel.

Let’s pick up the story in Exodus 34:29.

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

As impressive as that narrative is, it’s not the whole story.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us something about this episode which we don’t get from the Exodus account. Here is what he says in chapter three.

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.

Exodus tells us that Moses put a veil over his face to prevent the people from being blinded by the shining glory of God reflected from his countenance.  Paul, however, informs us that he left it there longer than necessary.

Why?  We can only surmise that Moses succumbed to his humanity.  He had gotten used to the privileged status he enjoyed among the people which was enhanced by the presence of the veil.

Moses had been with God, and his face shone as a result of the encounter.  But eventually the glow faded.  Still, Moses wore the veil.  The mark of his special relationship to God was disappearing, but he didn’t want anybody to know it.  So Moses did what too many Christians do today.  He covered his true self with a veil, a mask, so that nobody could see what was really happening behind it.  In that instance, Moses himself became an impostor.

More anon.