Dylan on a Friday: The Musicares Speech and Preaching

As readers of my former blog know, I used to write a weekly piece entitled, “Dylan on a Sunday” where I would riff on some lyric or theme or related theological topic in the Dylan world. I’ve written a few since then, but have fallen out of the habit. But this week demands a piece.

First, we have the release of Dylan’s new cd of Sinatra-like covers, Shadows in the Night. It has received surprisingly good reviews, Rolling Stone giving it four stars. I saw where Elvis Costello even called it brilliant.

I was dubious, fearing it would be more like his Christmas album which I only listen to if I want to laugh. There’s nothing like the polka style Dylan rendition of “Must be Santa.” And for that we can be thankful.

My first listen through Shadows has been a relief.

I also found it fascinating that he granted both an interview to AARP’s magazine and gave away 50,000 copies of the new cd to its readers. I’m 40 days away from senior movie discounts, so its nice to look forward to other perks as I enter my new stage in life.

But the bigger recent Dylan event for me was the tribute given him by Musicares as their musician of the year. Last year, I watched the Musicares tribute to Bruce Springsteen. It was an incredible evening, and I can’t wait to find the Dylan tribute to view somewhere.

While I haven’t seen the tribute yet, I did read his speech from the event. It was amazing. It was touching, funny, and poignant. I laughed out loud at his response to critics who say he can’t carry a tune, lacks vocal range, mangles his lyrics, all met with the refrain “Lord, have mercy.” The funniest bit, though, of this part of the speech related to the way Dylan supposedly “confounds expectations.”

Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations. And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it.

The most fascinating part of his speech, though, had to do with his explanation of where his songs come from. They aren’t, according to Dylan, something entirely new or without precedent. In fact, just the opposite. They are steeped in tradition. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth… It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock and roll, and traditional big band swing music.” The hours he spent listening to traditional music funded an imagination which found new expression in his songs.

If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / Roll the cotton down/A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too. If you’d had listened to the Robert Johnston singing, “Better come in my kitchen, ’cause it’s gonna be raining out doors,” as many time as I listened to it, sometime later you just might write, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”

“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” And then there’s this one, “Gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”

If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”

This is just an amazing description of how traditional texts become new performances. There’s so many themes here for someone, who like me, thinks about hermeneutics–how meaning gets made. But because this is a blog and because I have bigger writing fish to fry, I will simply notice how Dylan’s very productive imagination was funded by a deep immersion in these older songs. Songwriting came from the deep practice of living in these songs. His new songs were not commentary on the old songs, nor were they lessons learned from the old songs. They were instead a new performance of the old songs, a continuation of them, an extension of them.

I think this is precisely how one ought to think about preaching and where sermons come from. They come from a deep and repeated engagement with the biblical texts so that the sermon is not commentary on the old texts, or moral lessons gleaned from the old texts, but a new performance of the text. Preachers don’t or shouldn’t strip mine texts for sermon ideas. Rather, sermons should spring from a deep and long engagement with texts. And here’s the deal. Though these sermons are a re-performance of these ancient texts, like Dylan songs, they seem fresh as today, inventive and alive, unique and new.

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A note for preachers from Paul Ricoeur

I’m up against writing deadlines for my dissertation. So, no time for blogging these days. But in searching for a quote from Paul Ricouer on language, I found this little gem again that has huge implications for preaching. Here, Ricouer is talking precisely about the task of interpreting biblical texts.

“The primary task of a hermeneutics is not to bring about a decision in the reader (listener) but first to allow the world of being that is the ‘thing’ of the biblical text to unfold. In this way, above feelings, dispositions, belief or unbelief, is placed the proposal of a world, which in the language of the Bible, is called a new world, a new covenant, the Kingdom of God, a new birth.”

This, to my thinking, is what constitutes “biblical preaching.” Let those with ears to hear…

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Appealing to the conscience of everyone

I’m not a philosopher or psychologist, so my functional anthropology lacks the precision and care that it deserves. But I’ve often been fascinated by what Paul means by the term “conscience.” It appears in the 2 Cor 4 text that I’ve been writing these meditations on. But the notion of the conscience also features prominently in the Pastorals (1,2 Tim, Titus). (I know this makes any claims about Paul dubious, since authorship of the Pastorals is highly disputed. While I’m open to someone else writing under Paul’s name, I’m more convinced that Paul wrote the Pastorals than Ephesians or Colossians).

In 1 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to distinguish himself from those who would be teachers of the law. While the law is good, it’s usefulness is primarily for the disobedient, “for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral,” etc. You get the picture. The problem by insisting on the law is that it “shipwrecks” faith and good conscience. It is contrary to “sound doctrine,” literally “healthy words,” which build a capacity in those of faith for faithful judgment.

Now in my faith tradition, we flipped Paul’s notions of sound doctrine to be the black and white things (like the law), which could not be veered from without straying from the faith. For Paul, those who insist on breaking life down into black and white are the ones who shipwreck their faith. The faithful are those whose imaginations are funded with “healthy words” from which faithful judgments can be made. The place where these judgments occur Paul calls the conscience.

I think for Paul, the conscience is like a muscle that can be developed or trained for God. Using the law as a substitute for moral judgement is like always riding a bike with training wheels. It can get you only so far with God and you’ll never really know what riding a bike is like.

Faith depends on the capacity of the conscience to make godly judgments in the innumerable situations we will find ourselves in. To foreclose on this capacity with appeals like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to put faith at risk. Though Paul doesn’t say it this way in 1 Tim, I think he would say that this is the place where the Spirit can influence us, change us, guide us. In fact, I wonder if this is what he means in Romans by a “renewing of the mind” which allows the believer to “discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So, when Paul says in 2 Cor 4 that he “appeals to the conscience of everyone,” I think he might have two things in mind. First, unlike the tradition of Sophistry valued by the Corinthians, Paul makes his appeal to something other than people’s affections. He is not trying to secure his audience by flattering or entertaining them. Second, he is trying to build a capacity within them for discernment, for making judgments, for exercising a Christian imagination which will be open to the Spirit in all circumstances. He does not spoon feed his listeners principles for godly living. Instead, he funds their imagination with the gospel so that they can live faithfully in the wildly improvisational art of life.

Posted in 2 Corinthians, Christian practice, conscience, hermeneutics, ministry, missional leadership, missional practice, Paul | 3 Comments

By God’s mercies: secured by the resurrection

I often tell church leaders that a typical response in leadership to anxiety is to enact greater measures of control. Whatever short term gains are made through these measures, they often result in negative long-term consequences. Instead, and perhaps counter-intuitively, anxiety should be met with greater measures of trust. Put another way, anxiety should be met with greater confidence in the mercies of God.

The mercies of God, for Paul, is not simply forgiveness for mistakes or even an overlooking of our weaknesses and shortcomings. The mercies of God are more than this. They are the fruit of the resurrection, the trust and confidence that God ultimately brings life out of death. So, the mercies of God are rooted in the power of God over death and the powers of death (like control). Trust in the resurrection allows leaders to act not out of their self-interest or self-preservation, but out of the mercies of God.

This theme runs throughout 2 Corinthians. In the opening chapter, Paul relates his experience in Asia where they were “utterly, unbearably crushed” and despaired of life itself. Paul and his companions were delivered so that “we would not rely on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” Paul’s experience of the resurrection here changed him. Trust in God’s power to deliver him resulted in a freedom related to those with whom he ministered. He no longer had to perform by the standards of “human wisdom,” which in Corinth meant rhetorical brilliance. Instead he behaves with “simplicity and godly sincerity.”

Because of the resurrection, Paul did not have to project a self larger than he was. Instead, he could receive a self as a gift of the mercies of God.

In 2 Cor 4, we find very similar language. Because Paul engaged in ministry by the mercies of God, he refused “disgraceful or underhanded ways, ” and refused to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word.” I read this to mean that Paul did not need rhetorical gimmicks by which he might manipulate his audience. Instead, “by the open statement of the truth, we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the presence of God.”

In a way similar to the opening chapter, Paul describes what it means to be a person of the resurrection. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Paul experiences an irrepressible source of life rooted in the resurrection. Though he is crushed, he is not driven to despair, etc.

This experience of the resurrection, allows Paul another realization related to the death of Jesus. Because he ultimately trusts God for his life, he can die to his own interests (carry in his body the death of Jesus) and live for others. “For while we live, we are being given up to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus” (a life for others) “might also be manifested in our mortal flesh. So, death is at work in us, but life in you. Yes, everything is for your sake…”

Because he trusts the resurrection, Paul discovers Jesus’ death as a source of life. In other places, he will refer to the cross of Jesus as a source of power. This way of living, not out of self-interest, but for the sake of others, is an expression of the power of God made available by the Spirit of the one raised from the dead. Behaviors not rooted in self-interest–humility, kindness, generosity, simplicity–are also an experience of the mercies of God as the very power of God. Empowered by God in these ways means that even as a clay jar, there is no cause for losing heart.

So, the question at the heart of doing ministry by the mercies of God is not, do you trust that God can forgive you, though he can and does. The question is, do you trust that God can raise you from the dead? If not, then you will respond to the anxieties of ministry, and there are plenty, with attempts to secure your life through greater measure of control. But if you can receive your life as a gift of God secured by the resurrection, then the response to hard pressed, knocked down, perplexed will instead be empowering measures of trust.

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Appealing to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God

You can make ministry about skills. But I doubt you’ll be in it for the long haul. Ministry is about knowing where to stand and what kind of person you need to be to stand there. Let me try to make what I mean a bit clearer. There are forces and pressures that come with the territory in ministry, and simply preaching a good sermon is not enough to prevent them from crushing you.

On one side you have the pressures of representing God, and on the other you have the needs and expectations, or wishes and desires, of people. If you’re a monk, you have only the former. If you’re a football coach, only the latter. But congregational ministry brings them together in a concentrated form. Not getting crushed is all about finding the right place to stand.

Add to this my sense that those who seek ministry possess a higher neediness quotient than the general population. They need approval, or to matter, or to be needed. So, they seek a place that will scratch what is an often insatiable itch. Ministry seems the perfect fit for this kind of neurosis. However, this makes finding an uncrushable spot to stand in ministry nigh impossible.

So, where is this place to stand? I think Paul describes it well in 2 Cor 4. “Because we are engaged in this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart…We commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God…”

Paul, in my opinion, gives us three ways to think about this place to stand. First, we stand only in or by the mercy of God. So, let’s take performance off the table as a factor in a sustainable place. God’s mercy makes us competent, not our abilities. Obvious enough, you say. But not so easy to do, I say. For a multitude of reasons, we find it easier to make this whole thing about performance.

But it’s the second phrase that I find more descriptive of space, of a place to stand, and it has two parts. First, “commending ourselves to the conscience of everyone.” This is an odd phrase. Other than Paul, I seldom here anyone else say this. What would this be, and what would be other than this? Well, I think the “other than this” might be what Paul’s opponents in 2 Cor might be appealing to. They are flatterers, entertainers. They seek to secure the congregation as an audience through a performance, appealing to that part of each of us that just wants to be happy. Don’t trouble me, please me. But Paul is aiming for a truer place, a deeper place. He does not appeal to the affections, but to the conscience. He wants to win there, because this is where transformation can occur, where our desires and behaviors can line up in a way that is true to the self, to God, and to the world.

I’ll admit, for many of us in ministry, appealing to the affections is a shorter path to security, or even to a certain definition of success. But if you want justice, mercy and righteousness, the conscience is more reliable than the affections.

“In the sight of God.” There is only one audience in ministry. There is only one to whom we offer our actions. God, the one who sees all and judges with righteousness. Not the elders. Not the congregation. Not your family. God. Duh, right? Again, not so easy to do. I think this requires, for instance, that you be less motivated by keeping your job or by pleasing your congregation. It’s a seek ye first kind of thing. There is no second. And really, if we did this, churches would be perpetually looking for new ministers, because they will insist on a second allegiance.

Here’s the thing. God is a more merciful audience than a congregation. So, we’re back to where we started. By the mercies of God, we do not lose heart.

I’m hoping to deepen my meditations on 2 Cor 4 over the next few weeks. I’d like to do this with my readers. So, make comments as they occur to you and let’s render this standing space thickly and distinctly.

Posted in 2 Corinthians, ministry, Paul | 9 Comments

The Hold Steady and Being Born Again

I found The Hold Steady much later than I should have. They’ve been making music since 2004 in the Bruce Springsteen mold. Rock and Roll and great stories. They even sound a little like the Boss. They’re from Minneapolis, which is where I discovered them while I was taking courses for my doctorate at Luther Seminary. Still, I didn’t buy any of their stuff until their 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. I loved it.

Recently, I’ve been buying some of their older work. This week, I’ve had their 2005 work, Separation Sunday, on a loop. It’s a fascinating album. Every song features the adventures of a young woman named Holly. Actually, as we find out toward the end of the album, “her parents named her Halleluiah, the kids all called her Holly.” Her name is fitting, as the album traces her experiences through both drugs, sex, and religion. And all of this simultaneously.

Here are some snippets to give you a feel for Holly’s world of mixed images and experiences..

She’s got a cross around her neck that she ripped off from a schoolgirl in the subway on a visit to the city. She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons. She likes the part where one brother kills the other. She has to wonder if the the world ever will recover. Because Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble.

He was breaking bread and giving thanks. with crosses made of pipes and planks. leaned up against the nitrous tanks… i’ll dunk your head. then when you wake up again. you’ll be high as hell and born again.

tiny little text etched into her neck it said “jesus lived and died for all your sins.” she’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back. it said: “damn right i’ll rise again.” yeah, damn right you’ll rise again.

the priest just kinda laughed. the deacon caught a draft. she crashed into the easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass. she was limping left on broken heels. when she said father can i tell yr congregation how a resurrection really feels?

she said: i was seeing double for 3 straight days after i got born again it felt strange but it was nice and peaceful. it really pleased me to be around so many people. of course half were just visions but half of them were friends from going thru the program with me. later on we did some sexy things.

halleluiah came to in a confession booth. infested with infections. smiling on an abcessed tooth. running hard on residue. crashing thru the vestibule. the crucifixion cruise. she climbed the cross and found she liked the view. sat reflecting on the resurrection. talking loud over lousy connections. she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said lord what do you recommend? to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends. lord what would you prescribe? to a real soft girl who’s having real hard times.

I won’t pretend to have the album solved, to know exactly what’s going on in the songs. It might be too obvious to say that there’s not a great distance between religious experience and getting high, or to say that people who like to get high or whose lives are a mess are also close to the Kingdom of God–that hitting bottom and finding God often go together.

But I’m more interested in the way that being “born again” can fit neatly beside other experiences in people’s lives. Like it might fit on someone’s bucket list: get my pilot’s license, party with the Stones, swim with sharks, see Paris, get born again. It’s one experience among others. Life is a buffet. Try it all. See what sticks.

I’ve sat by “hollys” on plane trips, and when they find out I’m a theologian, they say something like, “that’s so cool, I accepted Jesus into my heart at a church camp. I’m a very spiritual person. Lately, I’ve really gotten into Buddhism and Amway.” You get the idea. Spirituality is completely internal, impressionistic, idiosyncratic, without content, and so can be set easily alongside other experiences in life, even if they’re at odds with one another.

I find it interesting in Mark’s gospel that Jesus refuses an easy identification of his identity with the expectations of others. He demands silence from the demons and tells others to keep quiet about their experiences with him. Jesus’ life has a specific content that is not as easily co-opted as spiritual language or experiences. He is the one who will die at the hands of others and be raised on the third day, calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, and unless we’re clear about this, he doesn’t want us calling him Christ or Son of God or inviting him into our hearts.

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Hospitality and Christian Witness: competency #7

Most congregations I know feel stuck evangelistically. They know that the old ways of doing evangelism (door knocking, high pressure, guilt-inducing, proposition stringing) don’t fit anymore, but they’re not sure what else would count.

I think this issue is particularly acute for congregations that are taking a missional/hospitality posture seriously. Let me explain this. Stephen Pickard in his book, Liberating Evangelism, says that the gospel is good news only insofar as people are treated well. He uses the work of Jurgen Habermas to sharpen this distinction.

Habermas distinguishes between “instrumental” and “communicative” reason. Instrumental reason serves an end other than knowing the other. For instance, instrumental reason seeks your vote (and on the heels of this election season, we know what that kind of communication sounds like) or wants you to buy a certain product. Communicative reason, however, seeks only to understand the other. Instrumental reason depersonalizes by objectifying relationships. I’m valuable to you only insofar as I further your agenda. That overly friendly waitress wasn’t hitting on you, but hoping for a bigger tip (seriously, she’s not hitting on you). The car salesman offers rust protection, not because he cares deeply about your well-being, but because its a high margin earner for the dealer. These are crass examples, but you get the point.

For Pickard, genuine care comes not through instrumental reason, but through communicative reason. And too much evangelism, for Pickard, has the feeling of instrumental reason. We fashion messages

One of our highest competencies for missional innovation is hospitality, or cultivating new relationships, and not primarily on our own terms. This stance of hospitality moves us away from the instrumental and toward the communicative. To suddenly turn the other, the person of peace that we’ve found, into an evangelistic target seems to instrumentalize that relationship.

This is a very real dilemma. It’s hard, in my estimation, to have someone be simultaneously a friend and a prospect. So, once you’ve cultivated a friendship or a partnership, how do you switch things and turn it into an evangelistic encounter? Whichever way you go, it seems you’re either compromising friendship or your convictions.

I have three pieces of advice. First, being a friend means sharing your life. And your life is Christian. That should be plain, even natural. I don’t think you have to have a Bible study with someone or constantly be quoting Scripture to have an authentic, Christian witness. Be yourself. And pray for the best for your friend. You might be surprised.

Second, this is a place where our limited sense of what passes for good news limits us. If we think of the gospel, and in turn our evangelistic message, only as salvation from sin and personal guilt, then our only issue in evangelism is personal status. The individual is the issue, not the condition of the world. Personal guilt is the issue, not how sin distorts human life and the life of all of creation. The only roles in our evangelistic script, therefore, are for God to be a no-tolerance judge, our friend a guilty defendant. And we, unwittingly, get the role of prosecuting attorney. We have to convince our friend of their guilt for our message to work.

But if we understand the gospel the way Jesus did (and I would argue, also the way Paul did), as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then all the issues and roles change. Now the issue is God’s good rule over all of life. The issue is shalom and the world’s lack of it. And I doubt we’d have a hard time convincing others that our world lacks wholeness or well-being. And I doubt we’d get much resistance with most people that a different way of ordering our world is sorely needed.  The issue now is whether or not we believe the way of Jesus is the way of shalom.

What happens to personal guilt and the need for forgiveness? Forgiveness is a necessary part of the Kingdom of God. God’s shalom can’t get off the ground if we’re overcome by the powers of sin and death, if our own guilt and shame overwhelm us and make us neurotic, unstable, and untrustworthy. What happens to the importance of the death of Jesus? It’s significance becomes greater. It is not only a sign of our forgiveness, but also a model for a different way of life under a different set of powers, notably the power of trusting, self-giving love.

So, most of the old stuff is there, but its been reframed by the larger theme of the Kingdom of God. Now, the message is inviting others to belong to God’s in-breaking reign with all the benefits that brings. So now, not only is your friend more than a prospect, but your friendship might actually be a sign of the Kingdom of God. It can actually be a part of the good news you proclaim.

I have friends in Ontario who have developed relationships with Sikhs and Muslims in the neighborhood near their church. They drink chai together and play cards. They’ve built relationships of trust and care, and for my friends, this has been done in the name of Jesus. As their relationship has grown, they’ve eaten in each other’s homes and have talked about God and life. All of this started in a community center where my friends asked what, if anything, was needed there. My favorite story involves the director of the community center, who is an atheist, being encouraged to believe in God by both my Christian friend and her new Muslim friend. In a world where religious differences lie at the heart of much of the violence in our world, I think the story of Christians who drink Chai with others as an offer of the peace of Jesus qualifies as good news of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And while these Sikhs and Muslims might never become Christians, there are others watching and listening, hoping to find in God’s name a witness to peace in the name of Jesus.

Missional congregations learn how to link hospitality and witness in precisely these ways.

Posted in evangelism, Habermas, hospitaltiy, missional practice, missional theology, Stephen Pickard | 2 Comments

Hospitality as leadership: a different kind of grad program

I have the privilege of directing a unique graduate program in missional leadership. In addition to our great faculty, we have four features that make our program unique:

1. We insist that all of our students have ministry contexts in which they can do projects for each course. We encourage them to see as their primary classroom the contexts in which they minister. So, we bring content to them through a combination of intensive and online courses.

2. We create dynamic learning communities through cohorts. Students take the same 12 courses in the same sequence with the same students. It is hard to overstate the importance of cohorts to developing both an enriched learning environment. Our students not only become friends, often very close friends, but they press each other to deeper learning because of the quality of the ongoing ministry conversation they have together. They learn as much from each other as they do their profs.

3. We emphasize spiritual formation through a cohort rule of life. Randy Harris helps each of our cohorts develop a shared set of spiritual practices that then we coach throughout the program. Natalie Magnusson does a great job providing spiritual direction to each of our cohorts. As a result, our students experience grad school as an environment in which they grow in their “God-centered identity,” and avoid the cynicism that too often is the result of graduate theological education.

4. I already mentioned that our courses are either intensives or online. Our intensives are a special part of our program. We don’t just meet at Rochester College, but we go to places like Portland, Dallas, and Durham, NC where we can learn from other missional leaders by looking over their shoulders. These are great weeks and are essential to the success of our other courses held online.

In relation to #4, I want to post the comments made by one of our students, Graham McMahon (Chilliwack, BC), on his experience in the intensive we had in Durham this past September.

The intensive in Durham, North Carolina proved to be a formative and rich experience for me. Richard Beck’s teaching on purity psychology was excellent, especially in relationship to our understandings of hospitality. We learned all of the ways we can psychologically exclude those different than us so that we can then learn to include them. Richard taught us about “The Little Way” of Saint Therese of Lisieux which provided us with a set of practices to help us learn how to welcome the other, the person or stranger who is different than us. In this way, not only did we think critically about the psychology that often unconsciously keeps us from welcoming the other, but we also learned how to overcome this by adopting simple practices that help us welcome the other.

Our time with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was also a transformative experience. Jonathan
challenged us to see hospitality from a place of justice, reconciliation, and the overcoming of oppression and racism. He also taught us the importance of intentional community, a rule of life, a communal approach, and the significance of place when it comes to the practice of hospitality. Jonathan teaches from a place of abundant and varied experience; he is a true practitioner. He walked us through his neighbourhood, welcomed us to his African American church’s worship service, and invited us to join his monastic community in morning prayers, all of which were highlights of our time with him.

In our final two days together, Mark Love provided us with a deep theological foundation for the practice of hospitality. He challenged us to imagine our liturgical practices and worship gatherings as experiences of hospitality and to find new ways of making room for the other outside of our Sunday gatherings. As with all of our intensives with the MREML program, there was ample time to discuss as a cohort all that we were learning and to begin to envision together how what we were learning would translate into our immediate ministry back home.

As I stepped back into life with our church in Chilliwack, I was immediately able to begin
implementing what we had gleaned together through the Durham intensive, and we are already seeing the fruit of transformation as a result.

The intensive in Durham has proven to be one of the most practical and transformative
intensives to date and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn at the feet of wise experienced people together with my fellow ministry partners from my cohort. This is truly one of the most effective ways to learn and grow as leaders and has proven to be a catalyst for healthy growth and change in our local church community.

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The Faithfulness of Risk Taking: Competency Six

I have two initial diagnostics I use when gauging a congregation’s capacity to innovate missionally. First, is their trust in the system. Second, is their tolerance for risk. These two things, of course, are often linked, though you can have one without the other.

I do find congregations with high trust throughout the system because the system is stable, even risk-averse. After all, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And in a world that is rapidly changing in sometimes disturbing ways, its nice for the church to be a stable constant, even a voice against change.

But I am convinced that this is the opposite of being faithful. This is more like burying talents in the ground where they can remain exactly the same, rather than spending ourselves in ways that might bring new life.

So, a big task in congregations is convincing them that change and risk are built into the fabric of faithfulness. Along these lines, I’d point you to my friend, Dwight Zscheile’s, new book, The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. Dwight argues convincingly that innovation has always been a part of the church’s story, rooted in the Incarnation, that God took human form in a particular time and location, in a particular culture. So, you can read the incarnation as the establishment of a particular culture for all time (which not even the Amish can pull off), or that God becomes present in every time and place in ways that are culturally appropriate. The early Christians clearly chose the latter posture, evidenced, for example, by the fact that they recorded the words of Jesus in a language other than the one he spoke. As James Brownson and others point out, the success of early Christianity was due in great part to its aggressive strategy regarding the cultural, its willingness to adapt and express the news of Jesus in ways that made local sense.

To these observations, I would add the following: God is always bigger than our ideas about God. The church can never be satisfied that it has solved God. The church is not the same as God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is always coming, and the church is always praying in anticipation “your kingdom come, your will be done.” There’s always more, which means there is always the possibility, even necessity, of change. To refuse to change is to participate in idolatry.

I also love the insight made by William Placher in his book on the history of Christian theology. He describes the intent of the early church fathers as preserving the faith. Everything they did was an effort to keep things the same. The ironic result was that in their efforts to keep everything the same, they changed everything. One thing that Placher is pointing out is that the same form can have very different meanings given different contexts. To express the meaning of the gospel consistently across time and space will necessarily involve rick and change.

Finally, I would point out that the story the church lives is the story of the death and resurrection. The church does not live to preserve its life, but to give its life away in the hope of resurrection. Paul talks about his ministry this way. He is always carrying in his body “the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in his body…Death is at work in us,” he says, “so that life may be at work in you… Indeed, everything is for your sake so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase in thanksgiving to the glory of God.” Paul’s strategy for mission is a death and resurrection strategy. Carrying in your body the death of Jesus involves risk. Giving your life away is always a risky proposition. But it is always faithful to the story of Jesus. And we do it confident that God will raise us up.

So, risk can be a great act of faithfulness. Refusal to risk anything is faithlessness.

Risk, however, for its own sake is not a virtue. Change for change’s sake is not the way of wisdom. Zscheile, using the image of the householder in Mt. 13 who brings treasure both old and new, talks about “traditioned innovation.” Here, a living tradition helps the church make judgements about risk-taking. The church is always learning the way of “treasure old and treasure new,” always seeking to bring the best parts of the past forward in ways that give it continuing relevance and power.

Most congregations, however, need little encouragement toward continuity. They do need encouragement to take risks. And for my money, the risks taken should always be measured against our sense of God’s mission for others. Instead of taking risks in light of our personal preferences, we should risk for the sake of God’s mission for the sake of others.

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Moving beyond the 20/80% rule: competency five, finding and empowering new leaders for mission

I say this all the time to congregations: “the 20% who do 80% of the work.” I have yet to meet resistance to this characterization of church life. Not a single person has expressed skepticism about this or insisted their church is different. It’s true in congregations principally because its impossible for volunteer organizations to function without a core group like this. That’s not where the problem lies. Here’s the problem. New initiatives are often piled on the 20% because this is 1) easiest (laziest?) 2) because we value control and can maintain that within smaller networks.

As a result, finding and cultivating new leadership is inhibited.

Add to this another observation. Most of our current leadership tasks are defined around what I call chaplaincy functions: teaching, praying, serving the interests and needs of the flock, etc. Because these things are so crucial to sustaining identity, this kind of leadership tends to function conservatively. Even if an individual is fairly open to risk, make them an elder and they get cautious.

So, we need not only new leadership, but different kinds of leadership. We need apostolic leadership. Let me be clear what I mean here. We need leadership that takes the faith, not just preserves the faith. Or, as my friend Pat Keifert says it, we need not only guardians, but traders.

These leaders are good at taking faithful risks. And they often have primary relationships with non-church members. We trust the 20% because they’ve made church their top priority. We don’t trust the other 80% because they don’t seem as committed. And they might not be to the things that preserve the institution. But they may very well be more committed to the things that would produce new growth.

In the PMC process I coach, we create new leadership tasks through the process and make sure that congregations identify people outside of the 80% to do much of the work. We ask them to do short-term work, make it clear what the focus of their work is, and encourage them to take some risks. We don’t put the whole system at risk, but delimit both the scope and duration of their work. This puts the existing leadership and the “guardians” within the congregation at ease, while still allowing for fresh exploration. And, we give them spiritual practices to do as a group while they lead. Ideally, as the capacity of the congregation to experiment increases, so can the scope and duration of this type of leadership.

Some congregations have trouble letting go of control when we ask them to do this. I asked one congregation to create a team to manage aspects of process that should include no elders or ministers. When I met the new team, they had appointed as co-chairs an elder and a minister. But the most consistent positive feedback I get on the PMC process is that leaders emerge in ways the existing leadership never could have imagined.

It’s one thing to appoint new people to leadership tasks, it’s another to fully authorize them for their work. The work needs to be clearly defined. They need to have all the resources they need to do the work: time, money, training, authority, etc. And they need consistent encouragement/feedback and appreciation that is both concrete and genuine.

Finally, they need the room to fail. Innovation typically comes, not through a series of “successful” experiments, but from failures from which we learn new ways of looking at things. The evaluative question cannot be, “did this work?”, but “what did we learn?”

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