Big Boy Music: The Avett Brothers and Being an Adult

images-2I recently attended an Avett Brothers concert that included Old Crow Medicine Show as the opening act. Both bands were full of frenetic energy and incredible musicianship. Old Crow is one of those bands that for me is much better in live performance where they can move beyond the constraints of a four minute song. They are a great jam band. And its clear they have fun making music. It’s infectious.

Same thing, clearly, could be said of the Avett Brothers. But here’s a big difference. Old Crow’s lyrics were dominated by drugs, drinking, and loose women. In Old Crow songs, the world ultimately exists for their pleasure. Now, I get it that this may be a band persona, or that they might be representing a category of music that has hard living as its theme. But after awhile, their songs made me feel old and responsible.

In contrast, the Avett Brothers sing songs of taking responsibility for their actions. While their more youthful days might be checkered with wilder living, their songs are about being men in a different way than Old Crow’s. In fact, big roars went up from the audience whenever a getting stoned reference was clear. In the same way, the crowd went nuts with the Avett Brothers only reference to getting high. But here the joke was on the audience. As the song told the story, when the drugs came out, that was the time to move on, to say I’m about something else.

It’s a persistent theme in the last three Avett Brothers albums. They sing of the “dream” and of fame as an empty illusion. They sing of their former way of life as uninhabitable for people they love, and, therefore, of a way of life not worth living. They sing about handling fame the way Paul Newman did or having pride the way their momma did, not the kind in the Bible that makes you bad. They even sing about their meaningful songs as “vanity.”

The Avett Brothers have seen the options and have at this point in their life chosen being adults. And they make it look fun.

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Musing on Corinthians, Galatians and the American church

I preached today at a local congregation. I was given the topic, “This is my story, This is my song.” I liked the topic and immediately went to the autobiographical statement of Paul in which he claims the cross as his own story. His opponents, at least 2 Corinthians, are so-called “Super Apostles.” Paul is concerned that their influence is leading the Corinthians astray into different preaching about Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel. Their influence is corrosive of Paul’s authority. So, Paul calls them back to the gospel he proclaimed to them. If you are committed to that gospel, you’ll recognize Paul as a legitimate apostle.

Paul is also jealous for the gospel he proclaimed among the Galatians. Here, the enemies of his gospel are apparently Judaizers. The issues relate to Gentile Christians and their relationship to matters of the Mosaic law, namely diet and circumcision. Very different than Corinth where Paul’s opponents are not Judiazers, but more likely triumphalists. Their gospel dismisses Paul as not being impressive (read spiritual) enough. It can’t account for weakness as a sign of God’s presence.

Now, I don’t think today was the best sermon I ever preached. But it dawned on me that Galatians is red-meat for most of us. For most of us, the enemies to the gospel are legalists. That’s a different gospel, we will readily admit. But for a variety of reasons, we’re less sensitized to triumphalism as a different gospel. And its a little offensive to our American sensibilities, which are very triumphalistic. Paul’s gospel is both a little too fleshy and oriented to suffering, not spiritual or glory-oriented enough. We like Jesus glorified, not necessarily crucified (except as a penalty for our pesky sins).

Anyway, just an observation.

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“Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron, part 5

Recently, I visited with a group of church elders who felt the need to do something related to the issue of gender inclusion in their worship. Their instinct was to begin with a Bible study. This is because, in my opinion, not only do we think of the Bible (rightly) as an authoritative source, but we think of leadership in terms of marshall-ing information. We tend to move from information to application. Or, from theory to practice. We study the problem, come up with the best possible response to the problem, and simply implement the solution. So, we set a few measurables out there as goals and come up with a strategic plan. Nothing says “leading” like a five-year plan.

Problem is, there’s a congregation in there somewhere. And they tend to be obstinate because 1) they feel the fix is in, 2) they are treated like a problem to be solved, 3) they are, well, human. In my experience, the information–>application rhythm of leadership can be rather violent or conflict producing, especially if the stakes are high. Let me be clear, there is no such thing as change without a little conflict. But here, often the process itself inherently invites it or amplifies it.

But what if you don’t think of leadership, or the congregation, as a series of problems to solve? What if instead, leadership was thought of as releasing a divine, shared imagination? What I am suggesting is working in such a way that it becomes rather clear that this is ultimately God’s leading. The pay-off for this type of work is a statement like we have in Acts 15, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

This takes a different kind of rhythm. Notice that the story in Acts 15 does not move from information->application. The apostles and elders do not consider the question of the Gentiles in the abstract as a problem to be solved. They don’t have a Bible study about it. Rather, they first listen to the stories of the Spirit’s work in their midst. Peter and Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas, the group from Antioch, even the opposition group (Christian pharisees). They spoke of their experiences with the living God.

One fascinating thing to me in this story is to notice how the implications of his experience grow for Peter over time. The more he recounts his story, the more he learns from it. The reflection on the event with Cornelius’ meaning takes place through the very act of reporting.

It is only after the stories have been told that the Scriptural warrants for the Gentile mission come into view. Luke Johnson makes this point vividly in the comments he makes on these stories. If the decision had been made on the basis of Scripture alone, the Gentiles likely would not have been welcomed as a part of the covenant people of God as Gentiles. The point here runs two ways. First, you can’t get there easily, without breaking a few eggs, from a simple reading of the Old Testament. Second, even if you could, familiar information tends to get absorbed by the way we’ve already come to understand things. In the Acts 15 narrative, a new reading of texts comes by way of reflecting on experiences of the living God. To be sure, the movement forward with the Gentile mission could only come if it corresponded with a sense of what God had revealed in Scripture. James takes pains in Acts 15 to quote Scriptural precedent. But it comes as recognition of what God is doing after new experiences and reflection.

As an aside, let me say that one of the tasks of leadership is to keep the word of God going at all times. Instead of seeing preaching and teaching as a tool toward achieving the leadership’s agenda, the task is to have a healthy diet related to the word so that its deep structures are always running in the shared imagination of the congregation. Scripture is not yours to put in service of the church’s agenda. Now, back to our main point.

Leading within the realities of the life of God means acting as if God is living and as if Jesus is raised from the dead and as if the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. While Scripture points to this reality and helps us to recognize this reality, the realities of a living God are greater than Scripture. So, in the church the rhythm of leadership moves less from theory to practice, and more from experience to reflection to action/articulation.

I know this makes you nervous as a leader. The only comfort I can give you is that you will be learning to place your life in the hands of the living God.

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“Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron, part 4

Sorry for the delay between posts. It’s been a busy few weeks, including the loss of my laptop for a few days. But here we go.

Anything that passes for missional leadership must find its focus in the life of God. Because God’s life is expressed as mission, both in its sent nature and in its openness to the other (including sinful creation), mission is a participation in the life of God. Mission, then, is essentially theological, not merely strategic. In mission we learn to act like God in the world. In the same way, missional leadership proceeds from the very life of God. It has particular rhythms and activities that might not apply to leadership in other realms, like coaching a basketball team or running a small business.

So what? Well to begin with, the movement of leadership is different. As I said in my last post, Christian leaders are constantly in pursuit of the living God, which keeps the church in a responsive posture. The first movement, then is not goal setting or deciding what good things could be done. Rather, leaders help all in the church to be attentive to their various environments for signs of what God might be calling the entire church to. This work is ongoing, even after decisions have been made and directions charted.

Because the church can never fully claim to know God or respond purely to God’s calling, it is always testing its judgements, refining its understandings of God’s leading, altering its plans as new data comes in. It holds, in other words, its notions of God’s specific calling on its life provisionally, testing as it goes, what Luke Johnson calls being “modest before the mystery.”

One more word here from Luke Johnson: while everyone has the task of making sense of their lives in the presence of God, some have the ability to take these various stories and make them a common story. Johnson marks two critical movements in leadership: 1) encouraging and attending to the stories of the members of the congregation, and 2) putting these various stories into a meaningful congregational narrative. Without the second, I don’t know what you’re calling leadership. Without the first, you’ve likely mistaken your own (or your small groups) preferences for God’s.

Of course, all of this assumes that the congregation is being encouraged to attend to their lives in relation to a living God. My mentor, Pat Keifert, suggests that most church members are functional atheists. By this, he doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that God exists. Rather he means that that belief does very little to influence their practical activity from day-to-day. So, missional leadership begins with calling members to headlong pursuit of the living God in relation to their own and modeling the skills and habits central to that work.

When I talk to congregational leaders about this kind of leading, they develop an anxious countenance. Two reasons: first, they do little to attend to their own life in this way. How can they teach others? Second, they’re anxious about what loose canon is about to be given permission to “testify” all over everyone. I get the second one. It will happen. But if we never do this work, we’ll never get better at it, leaving the “God talk” to a few in the congregation, including a few kooks. (Yes, every church has them).

So, we’ve already put leadership on a different footing. My experience is that most church leaders are much more concerned with doing things than with being a certain way.

Once the field of endeavor has been defined, however, than many of the typical traits of successful leaders across endeavors become important. Notably, the ability to articulate clearly and as succinctly as possible the implications of directions being charted, including what opportunities and dangers lie in this path. Organizing and structuring the work also becomes important.  Giving people access to what they need to participate in this work, I think, is an act of hospitality, and, therefore, of grace.

Next post, I’ll talk about the rhythm of leadership that begins with pursuit of the living God.

 

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Top 15 Best Concerts

I went to a great concert Wednesday night. Gary Clark, Jr. is simply an amazing artist. But his virtuosity is not the only thing that made it a great concert. So did the venue (St. Andrews Hall), the proximity we had to the stage, and the person who attended with me (in this case, Donna). So, that made me curious. Where would I rank Gary Clark, Jr. in relation to all the concerts I’ve attended? And what made different concerts memorable? So, after a little reflection, here’s my list.

15. Wilco. Great band. Sounded just like they do on their cd’s. Jeff Tweedy is a great front man.

14. The Black Crowes. Saw them about two weeks after I saw Wilco. The opposite of Wilco. Great jam band, so very different from their cds. Rolled from one song into another. Chris Robinson is a great front man.

13. Jakob Dylan. He was with Neko Case’s band at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. Went with great friends. He was very interactive with the audience and I love his solo stuff.

12. Dan Fogelberg. I was a big Fogelberg fan in college. Saw him my sophomore year at the Paramount theater in Portland. Just him, no band. It was a spellbinding evening and a great date.

11. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Saw them with good friends in Dallas. He was a great performer, but this makes the list because Stevie Nicks came out and sang with him.

10. Spoon. I’m a huge Spoon fan. I convinced John Barton to go with me to the Royal Oak Theater. Great performers. A few months later, I met front man Britt Daniel in first class on a flight from Dallas to Portland. We were both carrying guitars. Had my picture taken with him in baggage claim.

9. Over the Rhine. Road trip early in my relationship with Donna. We drove to Grand Rapids to see them at Calvin College. Gave us a lot of time to talk. And they were great.

8. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Just a great band with great songs. St. Andrews Hall in Detroit. Great energy. Great company (Donna).

7. Keb Mo. A friend treated me to this show at The Ark in Ann Arbor. Intimate venue. Just him. Very funny. Great interaction with the audience. Great guitar player and singer.

6. The Blues Brothers. Yes, the actual Blues Brothers. Belushi and Akroyd. Paul Schaefer the band leader. Hollywood Bowl in LA. Went with my brother and two longtime friends. Great show.

5. Eddie Vedder. The Ukulele Tour. Amazing show. Amazing performer. He was there with Glen Hansard who sang on the cd and did a few songs with Vedder, including a great rendition of Hard Sun during the encore. Went with the Pleasant boys (which includes Scott Samuels, but not Garth), who know how to party.

4. Dave Matthews Band/Brandi Carlile. This one is great for the combo. Had seen Brandi before at the Minnesota State Fair, which probably belongs in this list. She opened for DMB at the DTE just north of Rochester. The whole thing was great, especially DMB, but the highlight for me was Dave and Brandi singing, Angel from Montgomery. Another great concert with Donna.

3. U2. Saw them at Soldier Field in Chicago. Largest worship gathering I’ve ever been to. Amazing, amazing performers.

2. Gary Clark, Jr. I know, I know. How does he make the top 2? Well, he’s the best guitar player I’ve ever seen live. Period. And live, he can cut lose. Great performer. Great band. Great blues. Great company. Intimate venue. St. Andrews Hall. We were very close. Again with Donna.

1. Bob Dylan. I was prepared to be disappointed, but he was in rare form. Energetic and engaged. Awesome band. Great venue, Dallas House of Blues. We were close, which also makes for a memorable concert. Great company with other huge Dylan fans.

 

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“Christian Leadership” is not an oxymoron, part 3

Leading a missional community is different than leading other things. It’s different than leading Google or Apple or a car dealership or a local coffee shop or a farmer’s market. It’s even different than leading a church, at least church the way most of us have conceived of and experienced it. This is because the focus of a missional community is the active presence of the living God. Everything else becomes secondary to the community’s participation in the life of God.

Most other organizations measure success in their ability to control outcomes. Whether that’s measured in technical performance, wins and losses, earnings, or increased membership, leaders succeed when they can produce certain outcomes. To do this, they have to objectify their environment. Debits and credits, profit and loss, sacks and field goal percentage, butts in the seats. Fair enough. It’s not good enough for the Dallas Cowboys to go 8-8 three years in a row. Jerry Jones should be fired as GM.

But the bible has a word for tying God to certain outcomes–idolatry. And that’s a pretty big no-no in Scripture. And the bible also takes a pretty dim view of those who objectify their environment.

And here’s the deal–pursuit of the living God takes everything we have. There’s no room for any other pursuits. Seek ye first, the kingdom of God. There is no “seek ye second.”

This is in part, because the living God is elusive, precisely so we can’t objectify God. God comes in the still, small voice. God hides his victory in a cross. Although God is knowable, God is not exhaustible. And this has implications for leadership.

We’re used to thinking of leaders as bold, decisive, visionary, proactive. We like to think of our leaders as take-control types, as objectifiers. And truth be told, leaders like to think of themselves that way as well. But none of these are fruits of the Spirit. These can actually get in the way of the pursuit of the living God. Missional leaders, in contrast, cultivate environments where God’s active presence can become known. And this requires patience, submission, responsiveness, attentiveness, obedience.

At the beginning of this post, I suggested that leading a missional community is different than the way most churches are led. This is because the state of the church becomes the focus of leadership rather than pursuit of the living God. Our eye is on the worship experience, and not on God. Our eye is on small groups function, and not on God. Our eye is on the decreasing number of youth in our congregation, and not on God. Now, I know that we would say that our ultimate interest is in serving and pleasing God in these things. And we do things that please God and God has a way of finding us even if we’re not focused on finding him. But from a leadership perspective, focusing on the state of the church and pursuing the living God are two very different ways of working.

So, what does leadership look like under the banner of pursuing the life of God? I’ve got a few ideas.

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“Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron, part 2

Some people are leaders. Period. Some people have the capacity to interpret situations through attentiveness and close listening, anticipate outcomes, clearly articulate what’s at stake in situations or decisions, line out processes, effectively engage differences, collaborate and build consensus, motivate and empower others for action, communicate clearly and regularly, and create reliable systems of accountability. Some people do these things kinds of things well. Some people don’t. It’s unwise to pretend otherwise.

Now, let me be quick to add that few leaders possess all of these attributes or abilities. It’s also wise not to locate the leadership of any community exclusively in one person or even in a select few.

Let me also add that Christian leadership is not simply the sum of abilities or actions. Part of being a Christian leader has to do with embodying the values of the Christian story.

But with these caveats in mind, I still think there is such a thing as a leader that moves phrases like “servant leader” beyond abstract platitudes.

I served on a very gifted ministry staff at the East County Church of Christ, Gresham, Oregon. For about five years we had a team of four that effectively ministered together and collaboratively. I was the most tenured of the staff, both in terms of overall ministry experience and staff service to this congregation. And I was the preaching minister, which gave me a more public position of influence. Still, I was determined not to be the senior pastor. The others did not report to me. Nor were we silo-ed in our discrete ministry areas. We were determined to collaborate across all of our ministry tasks. We wanted a very egalitarian ministry structure.

But for the first several months, we struggled. The way forward for us came when we collectively recognized that I had leadership skills that others didn’t have. While we still worked collaboratively and across job descriptions, and while I was still not their supervisor, the fact is we began to work better when I stepped forward and took more responsibility for structuring our work together. Part of this was due to my experience and position on staff, but some of it was due to abilities I had which made me an effective leader.

My son is in a new job where he is collaborating with others to create a new business. Josh is important to what they’re doing at the conceptual level and is a key stakeholder in the company’s future. He is a leader. But often the past few months he has commented on what an effective leader his boss is, how certain ways he has of shaping their common work has created an energized environment.

I’ve been re-reading Michael Welker’s important work, God the Spirit, this week. Welker, through a careful reading of all biblical testimonies to the Spirit’s work, moves understanding of the work of the Spirit away from the individualistic or incomprehensible and toward the work of creating new, trustworthy, just, public human communities. He talks of the Spirit’s work as making God’s power knowable. “The Spirit makes it possible to know the creative power of God, which brings the diversity of all that is creaturely into rich, fruitful, life-sustaining, fortifying, and protective relations.” Josh’s boss is doing this kind of work. Good leadership fits very well into this description of the Spirit’s work.

If I were writing a book on Christian leadership, I would not begin with this post. I would begin with the life of God, and I will turn my attention just this way in future posts. But I think it’s important somewhere in there to recognize that good leadership has content and shape and that some are better at it than others. And that we should embrace this fact and think theologically about how we might lead others into the mission of God.

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A Satisfying New Music Find

ImageJust a note for those always on the lookout for a new band, unlike my former colleague Jeff Childers, whose iTunes collection consisted of Boston, Foreigner and ABBA (hey, when you know what you like). My recent bout with illness gave me a chance to absorb a cd by Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. While I like a lot of new music and sounds, I crave guitar led, melodic rock and roll. And there are precious few bands who are doing that. I’m sick of Maroon 5 and Coldplay and can only take so much Mumford and Sons and Avett Brothers (though I have a post in me on the Avett Bros). Give me more bands like The Hold Steady and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club–and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.

This is Southern rock at its best. Blues and gospel infused rock and roll. And its smart. The lyrics are great and carry theological themes deftly and prophetically. While the genre is Southern rock, these guys are not Lynard Skynard playing variations on Dixie. They stand within the tradition to critique it, to take the gospel feel of Southern rock as hope for a different kind of South. This is best exemplified in the title track of their recent cd, “There is a Bomb in Gilead.”

Children of Abraham, don’t say you ain’t been warned,
For there will come a burning day.
Strait are the checkpoints to your enemy’s house,
And narrow is the way.

But broad are the wings of the silver birds overhead,
And wide open are their bellies’ gates.
And many there be among y’all, children,
Who will lie begging in their wakes.

There is a bomb
In Gilead.
It sitteth on the throne of peace,
And it’s fixing to get blown to pieces.
There is a bomb.

Children of Paul, forget y’all not
To Whom you belong.
For a sword long hath been wrought
That cleaves the weak from the strong.

Boy from his father.
Mama from her daughter.
If you ain’t loving,
You ain’t living.

There is a bomb
In Gilead.
It sitteth on the throne of peace,
And it’s fixing to get blown to pieces.
There is a bomb.

Well worth the listen. You’re welcome.

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“Christian leadership” is not an oxymoron

ImageSorry for the long delay between posts. Since my last post, I got married, honeymooned in San Francisco, and took three weeks to recover from a nasty bout of bronchitis. Hopefully, I’m up and back at it now. My friend, Fred Liggin, asked me to write a few posts about the ambivalence about the word leadership among missional types. So, for what its worth, I think I’ve got two or three posts in me on this topic. Here goes.

I once sat in a faculty/student session at Luther Seminary where very lively discussion was had concerning Luther’s departmental designation of “Congregational Mission and Leadership.” At that point, Luther had revised their curriculum and had moved away from the designation practical theology in favor of nomenclature that indicated a more missional bent to the curriculum. Not surprisingly, this change met with resistance from many quarters. At one point in our discussion, a professor of worship and liturgy cleared his throat and with great passion argued that leadership was not a Christian concept. “Jesus talked about servanthood,” he offered. “The Third Reich talked about leadership.” Wow. An appeal to the Nazis is the rhetorical equivalent to the triple-dog dare when no double-dog dare has yet been offered.

Most who are nervous about using the language of leadership in terms of ministry or mission are more nuanced in their objections. Contained in their critiques, however, is some sort of anxiety that leadership runs afoul of some aspect of Christian piety. To put it succinctly, piety and power are set over against each other.

Now anyone who has read this blog regularly knows that this is a category error for me. Christians are not opposed to power, just certain forms of power. Nothing happens, nothing, apart from the exercise of power, even matters related to the Kingdom of God. As Paul says, the kingdom is not about talk, but power. Our refusal to talk about power, I think, favors those who wield the most irresponsible and unaccountable form of power–passive-aggresiveness. Because we have weak views of leadership and pretend not to exercise power, we sanction as the only socially acceptable form of power, passive-aggresiveness.

More, because we refuse to take responsibility for how power is exercised among us, we usually fail to realize how our tacit structures favor some in our groups and disestablish others, notably women, minorities, and the poor.

We would do well, given these realities to have frank discussions about the exercise of power, and by extension, leadership, in our missional communities. And I believe that leadership is a necessary feature of what it means to be missional.

Having said that, I also think that certain forms of leadership as exercises in certain kinds of power also present the greatest dangers to anything that might pass as missional. In fact, in my experience, the biggest burden of missional innovation within missional communities rests on the ability of leadership to learn new habits and practices related to power.

I am bothered by the number of ministers who grouse about the lack of power or authority they have, by which they usually mean control over processes and outcomes. In my opinion, this is akin to a golfer who spends all his effective power at the top of his swing, thereby losing club head speed at impact. (This is exactly the kind of golfer I am). They are asking, in my opinion, for the weakest forms of power that in the end render them less effective and totally burned out.

So, what’s the way forward given the ditches we have on either side? To me, the issues of power and leadership are intrinsically spiritual issues, and the fixes here always begin with theology as a participation in the life of God.

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What has to be true

I know the measure of the gospel is not my ability to believe it. It doesn’t stop being good news because I don’t believe it. But it does have to sound like good news to me for me to believe it, or to put my faith in it. More, I’m convinced that the gospel should make some sense of my experience–not just things in the abstract–but the way the world actually is. And the gospel, to be news, must make sense of the world in surprising ways, in ways that CNN or Fox News or the US government can’t or don’t.

This considerably narrows the field for me. There are many versions of the gospel out there that I simply can’t believe. Chief among these are the varieties that grow up around the exaltation of the individual prominent in Western societies. The interior of the individual becomes the place where all the action takes place. The problems here run in many directions–a faulty view of reality rooted in the autonomy of the individual, a distorted picture of God’s identity, a narrow understanding of the meaning of the cross–but the clincher for me is found in critiques like Michael Emerson’s who argues that when personal salvation becomes the big enchilada, then it becomes excusable, even permissible, to divide along the lines of race, class, etc. As long as I’m alright with God, it doesn’t matter if I worship with only white, middle-class people. While none of us would say this out loud, the fact that the worship hour is one of the most segregated in American life suggests that there is some relationship between the two.

In fact, this is increasingly the test question for me: what kind of social reality is created by your version of the gospel? If you don’t think that question is important, then I would suggest you’ve been co-opted by Western individualism. The gospels proclaim a Kingdom, a new social reality, a re-arranging of the life given to us by the principalities and powers of this age. And the sign of this Kingdom is a table, a concrete place where new social realities become visible.

Another version of this gospel that fails the “fit-with-the-world-as-it-is” is the God as controlling power gospel. This version of good news sounds comforting. God arranges every detail of life for your salvation. He’s sovereign, which means he controls everything. Everything that happens, therefore, is known by God and serves the ultimate purpose of shaking out the saved from the damned. It’s comforting to think that in a world decidedly out of control, there is someone behind the scenes who is in control and working things for your benefit. Sovereignty here is power expressed as control.

But I have a hard time looking at the conditions of the world and seeing God’s sovereignty, if by that we mean God’s control. My only option, if I stay in this version of the gospel, is to believe that God is running the world into the ground as a cautionary tale for the saved. The holocaust, slave trade, sex trafficking, the New York Yankees, all object lessons.

So, what am I left with? God is sovereign through self-giving love. The gospel is not that God is only concerned with the status of the individual, but that he would bring all things back together under his good order, that he would reconcile all things to himself and to each other through his love. This is God’s power. Not control. Not by lording it over or exerting control, but through self-giving love.

God’s reign has come near in Jesus. It’s here, but not fully. It’s present wherever the self-giving love of Jesus is present. It makes a difference. It is an effective power producing visible results. Sometimes, on this side of the eschaton, this power looks more like a mustard seed than an empire, more like leaven than the results of an election or of a coup. In fact, the power of the Kingdom unmasks as fraudulent all other powers that pose as ultimate or as exercising some kind of control over things or of being the instruments of righteousness. And those that long for a different world, a world that will endure in God’s eternal future, live in the power of the Son of God and resist all other notions of power.

This already-not yet gospel fits the world that I experience. At the interpersonal level, I’d much rather be in a room with a generous, open-handed, self-giving person who can forgive and doesn’t keep score, than with a person who is attempting to pull the entire room into his orbit, who is always working the angle, always settling scores. Here the power of God is obviously superior and does more in the way of creating authentic community, of sustaining trustworthy patterns of hope.

On a larger scale, I’m less likely to read of Kingdom style power in the newspaper or see the reports on CNN or Fox news, but this has to do more with the kind of power we find newsworthy than with the presence of Kingdom power in the world. Frankly, we don’t look in the right places. We don’t consider what happens at the margins newsworthy and don’t have the attention span requisite to see the good news there. But it is happening. There are stories. And occasionally a Mother Theresa will grab the attention of the world. But these stories are happening all the time if we have eyes to see. In the name of Christ, disputes are being resolved. Housing is being provided. Panhandling laws are being challenged. Prisoners are being freed. People are being fed. Wells are being dug. Hospitality is being provided. Broken lives are being made whole. Racial divides are being overcome.

Is it enough? No, not by a long shot. But where stories like this are occurring, results come through the effective power of self-offering love. Here, the Kingdom of God is near in power. I can believe this account of things.

So, the one thing that has to be true for me is that God is truly and clearly seen in the cross of Jesus. The one thing that has to be the case is that God has fixed himself to the world, outside the city walls, outside the gates of worldly power, on a scandalous cross. The one thing that has to be true is that God has not absconded from creation into some distant heaven, but is passionately involved in the healing of the world by the love of God displayed in the cross of Christ Jesus. 

This is a stumbling block to some, foolishness to others, but for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. It is good news.

 

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