The Gospels and Ministry

I took Theology of Ministry from my father while working on my MDiv at Pepperdine University. He taught the course completely from the gospels. While Paul and other NT writers undoubtedly have some very important things to say about ministry, dad felt like the gospels were sorely neglected in this regard and that an entire semester would be well spent reading deeply in each with a theology of ministry in mind.

I not only benefitted greatly from his approach then, but it has launched my own deep interests in how ministry is being presented alongside the ministry of Jesus.

It’s easy to see why the epistles and even Acts would be considered before the gospels in defining ministry, especially for those from my tribe, Churches of Christ. Some in our movement actually taught that the gospels belonged to a prior dispensation and, therefore, didn’t apply directly to the church. Only things subsequent to Pentecost should serve as a guide for the pattern of the church today. And there are things discussed in the epistles that seem to make this a straighter line to how we view the church today. We have more advice being made directly to first century churches about matters ranging from church organization to discipline to worship. We have direct descriptions, for instance, of what it might require to be an evangelist or elder or deacon. We have enough concrete description to make the business of duplicating “New Testament Christianity” seem tangible.

There are, of course, major problems with this way of thinking. First, it assumes a uniformity of practice among NT churches and, therefore, downplays the evident diversity. Second, it assumes that this is the right use of documents written thousand of years ago. We wrongly read these writings as instruction manuals for our time, which would make those provided by IKEA clear by contrast. Third, and more importantly, it fails to see the purpose of the writing of the gospels. They weren’t written primarily to set the record straight. Taken together, they refuse harmonization in terms of details, ordering of events, and even portrayals of the significance of Jesus. Instead, they were written to set churches straight. They are attempts to let the risen and living Christ speak again to churches as they encounter the challenges of the living out their faith. All of the gospels were written after Pentecost, some much, much later, and so all assumed real life churches as their audience. Put another way, they were written to shape how we think about ministry, and with direct reference to the life of Jesus. Put that in your pipe, Paul.

My odometer hit sixty this year. That changes how you think about your life. I’m on the back nine of life and have less than a decade left before I retire, hopefully (though I will greet you warmly at Walmart after that). My life’s interests are just different now. My top three interests are granddaughters, Autumn, Mya, and Clara. I find myself caring less and less about sports. I have no ambitions to have a higher position or take on more responsibility. Rather, I want to devote as much time as I can reflecting and writing on the things that have been at the heart of my life for the past forty years.

I’ve got one manuscript complete and two more in the works. And this is a third one I have in mind. Ministry from the gospels. Other have written already in this area. I think specifically of David Bartlett’s fine book, Ministry in the New Testament, which devotes a chapter to each gospel. But I think there’s still room for a deeper dive, specifically as we think about ministry in a new missional era.

So, I’m going to be devoting a lot of my blog space in the next few weeks framing out some perspectives on ministry from the gospels. I know I have ideas. I don’t know if I have a book. But at the very least, thinking about these things will occasion rich conversations with my dad.

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Waiting and the Shape of the Kingdom of God

The gospel texts for the last two Sundays have been parables from Matthew that have to do with waiting. The first is the parable of the ten virgins who are waiting with their lamps for the arrival of the bridegroom. The second is the parable of the harsh landowner who leaves three of his servants with money to invest in anticipation of his return. The setting for both is the coming day of the Lord, with the destruction of Jerusalem foretold as a sign of the end of the age which precedes these parables, and the dividing of the sheep from the goats in the judgement immediately following them. Taken together, this section of Matthew seems to be saying things are not as they will be. Wait as a wise person would wait. Live in keeping with these outcomes in mind. Be ready (cf. Matthew 24-25).

Those who have enough oil to keep their lamps trimmed will be wise in light of the realities of the coming age. The one who buries money in the ground out of fear rather than investing it in anticipation of the return of the master is foolish. These seem to be parables that correspond to Jesus’ saying at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about wise and foolish persons. While you wait, be wise and not foolish. Choose rock, not sand. You know the nature of what is coming. You know it will get worse before it gets better. You know that care for the prisoner, the hungry, and the naked will make you either a sheep and not a goat. Be wise as you wait. (For a great sermon on the ten virigns, check out my colleague, Natalie Magnusson’s, sermon https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=811041639472244&ref=watch_permalink).

None of this mitigates the fact that we live our Christian existence in a time of waiting. We’ve tasted what’s coming. We know who Jesus is and are confident that his being lord in relation to the kingdom of God by virtue of the resurrection will bring all death-dealing powers to an end. We have the first fruits of the Holy Spirit, God’s pledge to us that all things will one day be transformed according to the purposes of God. We live in these tangible signs of hope now, but we are still waiting. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for our bodies to be redeemed. We are waiting for the meek to inherit the earth. We are waiting for the powerful to be brought down from their thrones. We are waiting for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and for the lion to lie down with the lamb. We are waiting on God.

And this is the crucial thing. We are waiting on God. If we trust God’s coming future, and if we have tasted that the Lord is good, then our prayer is for God to work in the world for the sake of his reputation. Hallow your name. Bring your kingdom. Make it on earth as it is in heaven.

Too often we are waiting on something else, and not God. We are waiting on election results. We are waiting for power. We wait putting our trust in princes and rulers. We are waiting on a cure. We are waiting on others to live up to our expectations. We wait for the job that will make us feel whole. We wait while building on the sand. We spend our oil waiting on the wrong things. We bury hope, like so many talents, in the ground. We wait foolishly.

I have to say, that I’m uneasy with where this line of argumentation could lead. This sounds like resignation. But elections do matter. The details and circumstances of our lives matter. Black lives matter. Isn’t Matthew just giving us permission to say “God has this, I’ll just sing praise songs about how great my God is and do what’s best for me and mine.”

Here’s our problem. We think of waiting as doing nothing, as resignation. But this is not the view from Matthew. There is nothing to be done about whether or not we will wait. It’s baked in to what it means to be human in time and space. We are all waiting for one thing or another. And we are all doing things while we wait. The question from Matthew’s gospel is, are we wise or are we foolish as we wait?

Foolish waiting would be striving after things not related to God’s promised future. Here, we fill up our waiting with anxiety about our place in the world, and so act to preserve our power or ability to control our own destinies. “You fool, who can add a single day to his life by feeding this anxiety” (Rough translation). It is a world built on fear and self-dealing, not a world built on trust and self-giving. This is neurotic waiting and it creates a world of winners and losers, of privileged and not privileged, of have’s and have-not’s.

The followers of Jesus, in contrast, seek first the kingdom of God, trusting that all else will take care of itself. Waiting in this case, is not filled with protecting your treasure out of fear and burying it in the ground. But waiting here is investing in what will endure in the age to come. It includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, activity which makes little sense in terms of return on investment unless you believe that this in keeping with God’s promised future related to the kingdom of God. This, in the words of my friend Natalie, is the oil in our lamps that let’s us see the return of the bridegroom. This waiting is not anxious or neurotic, because we have learned not to be worried about what we will eat or wear. We have learned to be like the birds of the air and the flowers in the field. This is wise waiting because it is filled with activity related to God’s interests in the world. It is waiting in trust. It is waiting that prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and then it is the waiting that is busy with anticipation of the realization of that kingdom. It is the waiting that lives as if God’s promised future is real.

In my estimation, much of American Christianity, particularly among the culturally privileged, is characterized by foolish waiting. We have spent our oil in pursuits not in keeping with the outcomes of the kingdom of God, namely those related to preserving our own power and wellbeing. We have waited in fear, anxious and neurotic, airing our grievances and attacking those we perceive as threats to our way of life. And to the extent that this is true, we have missed the opportunity to find Jesus in the hungry, in the naked, in the prisoner. We might very well find that we have buried our treasure in the ground.

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Discovering Luke’s Story of the Ascension

Yesterday, one of the lectionary readings was from Acts 1:6-11. My worshipping community typically practices Dwelling in the Word instead of having a sermon, and so Acts 1 was the text we all shared around. It’s Luke’s longer account (he has a brief account at the end of the gospel) of the ascension of Jesus.

The text stopped all of us at two points, both questions. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” I think this demonstrates both Luke’s narrative artistry and the good reading instincts of my worshipping community. Both questions focus your attention, and for us created puzzles we wanted solved.

The question about the kingdom tended to throw people around the inclusion of the word “Israel.” This seemed to some to be a nationalistic question by the disciples, a political rather than a spiritual reading. However, if you read Luke-Acts closely, this is just the right question. Lots of evidence to cite here. I’ll just give two examples, one from this very verse.

When Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms in the temple, Luke tells us he has been looking for the “consolation of Israel,” a reference to Isaiah 40 (and other texts in Is), in which the prophet imagines the end of exile and the direct rule of the Lord over a restored Israel. The coming of the Lord, Simeon proclaims, will be a “a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 1:32). A few verses later we meet Anna, a devout prophet who “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (1:38). Restoring the kingdom to Israel under the reign of the Lord is what this story has been about from the very beginning.

Acts 1:8 provides the second clue: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Luke gives us more than a travelogue here. This is a geography of the kingdom restored to Israel. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, give us a picture of a restored kingdom, north and south brought together again. To “the ends of the earth” restores to Israel the divine calling of being a blessing to all nations. The apostles have asked the right question. Jesus resists the question of time, but is responsive to the question of restoring the kingdom to Israel by showing the apostles how their being witnesses serves that very end.

This part of 1:6-11 I had already discovered. The text surprised me in putting together the puzzle of verses 10-11. Two men in white suddenly appear as Jesus is taken up into heaven and ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stare up looking into heaven?” The detail of the two men in white grabbed my curiosity. There are plenty of angels in Luke’s gospel and they are named as such. They typically frighten those who see them, which doesn’t happen here. Instead, we have two men dressed in white, yet who seem to have heavenly insight into the story. Is there anywhere else in Luke featuring two men dressed in white?

Why yes, it turns out there is another place: the story of the transfiguration in Luke 9. As you remember, Jesus’ appearance is changed and “his clothes became dazzling white.” Two men appear, Moses and Elijah, and they too “appeared in glory.” Here’s the kicker though. While Matthew and Mark also have an account of the transfiguration, only Luke tells us that they were speaking to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This story clearly foreshadows the ascension story in Acts, where we have Jesus’ departure and two men dressed in white. While the two men in white remain anonymous in Acts 1, the reader is clearly meant to recall the appearance of Moses and Elijah in Luke 9. I’m still thinking through the implications of this game changer.

Ok, let me just make a few observations here. First, each gospel is its own literary world. There are literary clues that tie episodes together in ways that don’t transfer between gospels. Don’t use Matthew and Mark to interpret Luke. Second, when we read with the historical question, “what happened?”, we often miss the literary world being created by the author. Third, a puzzling detail to us is 1) an invitation to get out our concordances and look for connections between texts, and 2) an invitation to suspend our assumptions for the sake of something new appearing.

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Weeping and Rejoicing Together as the Body of Christ

I had a conversation with a pastor friend the other day about intercessory prayer. Don’t get excited, I don’t know what it’s all about or how it “works” either. To quote another friend of mine, my batting average is pretty low in terms of success to request ratio. I do have friends whose success rate does appear higher than mine. In uncanny and specific ways, their prayers seem to have an affect on their world. I can say that I pray more than I used to, and I think prayer does more than make me a more attentive person. It’s more than just thinking good thoughts. But, honestly, it’s a mystery to me.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the pandemic and the assurance of God’s presence in our suffering given Jesus’ own suffering on the cross. And this problem of prayer came back around. There is no guarantee that Christ’s presence on the cross will make a material difference on the circumstances of a person’s suffering. And when it’s suffering we’re talking about, “spiritual” victories don’t count for that much. I’d rather skip the upgrade in character and have the suffering come to an end.

I always lead in conversations like this with Jesus’ own words, “it rains on the just and unjust alike.” God’s not sitting back picking winners in life, collecting prayer tokens and awarding prizes. Christians aren’t exempt from the Coronavirus or the “invisible hand” of the market (sounds like a principality and power to me) that determines whether or not you get to keep your job or your health insurance. I’m also convinced that while some suffering is wasteful and useless, other suffering is noble and gives meaning to life. So why would Christians think they are immune?

I also consider that too often our views of God’s sovereignty are just wrong. God is not sovereign over creation in the sense of control or micromanagement. There is not a proximate divine cause for everything in life. God would order the world, not through control (like the Gentiles do), but through self-giving love which refuses to lord it over anything. So, the question of God’s presence in any given circumstance is as complex and mysterious as love.

Still, why do some people experience suffering as God’s forsakenness and others as God’s abiding presence? I’m convinced it’s not because of their theology or the strength of their faith. And I should add at this point that I’ve seen remarkable things, remarkable answers to prayer and instantaneous healing. And I’ve seen prayerful, godly people wither on the vine of suffering.

Yesterday, however, a new angle of perspective hit me as I pondered all of this. It may be old ground for others, but for me it was a fresh perspective. I think I’m right, but I might not be. I don’t even know if it’s mature enough reflection to say it well. But I think it has promise, so here goes.

Christ is the location of God’s response to the trouble of the world. God may be any number of places in the world, but with regard to the world’s trouble, God is where Christ is. And we know Christ in relation to the world, primarily in the paradigmatic event of the death and resurrection. There, in Christ, suffering and joy are held together. None of us, individually, are Christ’s presence in the world. Our individual lives are insufficient to encompass the whole experience of Christ in the world. I am not the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. And collectively, we bear the sorrow and joy of the world as Christ does.

We can’t validate the presence or absence of God in relation to a single human life, neither in the experience of abject sorrow or unbridled joy. We can’t say to the one who rejoices, “here is the evidence of God’s presence in your life,” just as we can’t say to the sufferer, “you have been abandoned by God.” Instead, we bear all things together as a community, as the body of Christ in the world. The blessing is not in the joy or the sorrow, but in being “in Christ.” And I don’t mean this in a “I get to go to heaven in the end” kind of way. The blessing is the way of life we learn in Christ that holds the entire world together in the love of God, which is ours in Christ Jesus. We do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves, but we live and die for him who died and was raised for us (2 Cor 5). The only blessing is learning to live this way in the wide presence of God in Christ, where we learn to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

One last thought for now. This is not simply a way of brave resignation to whatever comes our way in life. Resurrection says that life always overcomes death. We want suffering alleviated. We should pray for it without ceasing, every single time. And we should live to alleviate where we can. We want to celebrate life and give ourselves to the things that are life-giving. But God does not woo us through reward, but through love. And his love is demonstrated to us and to the world by being present to us in the most abject of circumstances. So, we long for the day when God will be all in all, and we give ourselves now to the well being of others as a testimony to the resurrection. But together, we also live as a sign of God’s suffering presence in the world, in Christ, in the body of Christ broken for the world, in sorrow and in joy. To him be glory in the church.

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Pandemics, Death and Resurrection, and Wailing Walls

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tasks of congregational leadership in a pandemic. My impression is that my friends who are in full-time ministry are busier now with fewer tasks. I think there’s something to learn from all of that. Making our lists smaller is always a good thing. The pandemic may be teaching us what is truly essential to being a church.

But I’ve been thinking more about a leadership skill that might get swallowed up in the urgent business of keeping the trains running on time. I am convinced that effective leaders have the capacity to narrate the congregation’s life in such a way that God is a credible actor in the activity of the congregation. This is different than casting vision, which can come from the private imagination of the leader or a group of leaders and might have little to do with God as an actor in the congregation’s life. I think naming God as a credible actor comes primarily through the experience of the congregation, not the imagination of the leader(s). Leaders is cultivate the environment in which the experiences of members can be articulated, curated, reflected upon, and given back to the congregation as a confession of what God has been up to.

So, how do you do this in the midst of a pandemic? In a time of social distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve been struck by how strong the desire is for people to make meaningful contact with one another. People are “zoom”-ing to connect and share their lives with one another. Many of them have time they’ve never had before (unfortunately), and all seem to crave connection. This has to be a time for collecting stories from the pandemic. One way my worshipping community is doing this is through the practice of examen. We simply share the places where we are finding life and where life is being taken from us. It is alternately joyful and painful to hear stories of unexpected blessing and real, heartbreaking loss.

The stories of loss, I fear, are still largely out in front of us. While hopefully the infection rate and numbers of deaths will decline in the next few months, life will never be normal again. The economic and social dislocations will be real, painful, and full of grief.

I cringe every time I hear leaders try to answer the question of why God would cause something like this. This is simply the wrong question. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, and paradigmatically in his death and resurrection, is known in a love that goes to the very depths of human experience. The reality of God on a cross says that there is no circumstance in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God which is our in Christ Jesus: not nakedness or famine or peril or pandemic or sword. The cross has no answer for the “why” of the pandemic. But the cross does point to the question of “where.” God, in Christ, is with the most vulnerable.

So, if we’re to recognize God in our own lives, the death of Jesus suggests that God will be present to us in our loss. And perhaps in ways that are more dramatic and recognizable. This does not mean that the things we lose will be recovered or regained somehow. How can they be? It doesn’t mean things will necessarily get better. They might not. But God will be present to us in the suffering body of Christ, and this includes his body, the church. I’ve come to realize that no single life bears fully the life of Christ, especially this side of the eschaton. What we experience of Christ, we experience collectively in his body, in the variety of our experiences. Which is why to know the fullness of Christ requires that we weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who rejoice.

Of course, the cross is not the last word for those in Christ. There is also resurrection. There will be life beyond our loss, and even in the midst of it. There will be opportunities to rejoice together, not just in new jobs or recovery from illness, but in the inexhaustible stores of life we will discover through our shared life in Christ. There will be surprising things, things that surpass what we can imagine, and they should be celebrated.

We can celebrate without too much difficulty, but our death denying culture has robbed us of the capacity to grieve without shame. We can’t lament.

So, if you can’t tell, I think leaders should be collecting and curating stories of death and resurrection, of loss and unexpected life. I was talking about this last week with one of my students who leads a church in Atlanta, and we talked about the need for a wailing wall in the church. A physical location that bears our wounds, that names them and recognizes them. I got this text today: “In my sermon Sunday I talked about having a “Wailing Wall” in the lobby. The response has been overwhelming. One member, who struggles with faith because of suffering in the world, said he felt himself thinking about turning to joy. So, we are going to build a “Wall of Lament” for our lobby! Thought you’d like to know”

Amen.

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Ending one Project, Beginning Another: A Spirituality of Preaching

Many of you know, I’ve been working for awhile on a manuscript on the book of Acts, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us. That is now in the hands of readers. It’s been a rewarding process thus far and hopefully I’ll have it published soon. I’ve got other writing projects simmering which I work on here and there. I’m at a place in my career where I kind of know if my ideas are ripe.

This week, I spent an hour or so seeing if I could express the main idea behind my next writing project. Let me know what you think.

I know the pressures of preaching every week. While I have preached somewhat regularly since I was eighteen, for the eleven years I preached each week Sundays came at me like fence posts on the interstate. It was hard to catch my breath. I would preach a sermon Sunday morning, suffer post-sermon depression Sunday night, and be faced with a blank page Monday morning. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Add to the relentlessness of sermon preparation the pressures of weekly congregational ministry—a mixture of the sacred and numbingly mundane, all of which take on the mask of urgency—and the amount of time for sermon preparation is squeezed even more. I know people who have never done ministry have little appreciation for what it involves from day-to-day. I’ve had people ask me if I spent forty hours a week writing my sermons. What else could I possibly be doing? Truth be told, some weeks five hours on sermon writing seems like a luxury.

Also, preaching is just a high wire act. It takes nerve to say something on behalf of the gospel to a people who are dying to hear good news. The pressures for the sermon to deliver health and life come from all sides. The preaching moment brings together simultaneously the demands related to representing God, Scripture, and congregation. The pressures related to these kinds of responsibilities are daunting to anyone with a lick of self-awareness.

But I also know the thrill of the sermon–the way the preaching moment fills me with something life giving in ways that nothing else does. I’ve spent the past twenty years in the academy, which offers fewer opportunities to preach. I don’t miss preaching much until I do it. Then I remember. I remember what a fulfilling thing it is to connect people’s lives to God through the medium of speech. I remember how my body feels as every fiber of my being reaches for both a word and a real connection with listeners. I know the satisfying feeling of being spent and poured out, and yet of being filled and sustained. I feel alive when I preach.

I remember the way that preparing sermons invites me into creative, imaginative work. I need this kind of creative outlet, which can be elusive in the increasingly bureaucratic world of academia, filled as it is with reports and budgets and assessments of student learning. I need a creative encounter with an “other,” a reality greater than myself, that calls to me and longs for an expression through me. When I write a sermon, I remember my love for how texts move and do their work, and the corresponding task of figuring out how the sermon could similarly move and take up the work of a living text. I remember what it is to be surprised by a sermon as it takes a direction I didn’t anticipate. I love ink on a page.

This book is an attempt to express these two realities related to preaching in the form of a spirituality. Preachers are often torn between the limits of their capacities, and the unequaled sense of fulfillment that preaching provides. As I will point out, both sides of this tension possess temptations powerful enough to undo a preacher. But I also believe that this tension is built in to preaching and, if attended to, both requires and produces a spirituality. 

This book is not a spirituality for preaching, though that would be a worthwhile book as well. I am suggesting instead that the practices related to preaching comprise a spirituality. It is possible that the ways we conceive of and practice sermon preparation and delivery can hold our lives before God. The sermon can be a real participation in the life of God.

I know from my own life that I’m in a better place when I’m preaching regularly. My life has focus and shape when I’m preaching week in and week out–focus and shape that are more elusive apart from the regular practices of sermon preparation and delivery. I have found that preaching can be a way of loving God and neighbor that centers one’s life in the mystery of knowing God. It’s not just that preaching involves Scripture or is necessarily speech about God, though these aspects of preaching are spiritually significant. Beyond these realities, I believe the sustainability of a preaching life requires perspectives on the self in relation to God, God’s people, and God’s world that constitute a stance, or a posture, that is healthy and God-centered. And that this perspective on the self has methodological implications. It matters, spiritually speaking, how you prepare a sermon.

It is, of course, possible to be a good speaker and deliver effective messages and be a spiritual wreck. One of my preaching heroes is the British theologian, P.T. Forsyth. In his 1907 work, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, he writes about preachers whose sermons are felt to be “productions,” as opposed to “real doings with the living God.” It’s possible to read texts strip mining for sermon gold and not be seized by them or drawn up into the mysterious worlds they describe. It’s possible to care more about how the sermon reflects on you and your reputation, than to care about the people who are listening for a word of hope.

I’d like to think that this kind of preaching isn’t sustainable over the long haul. I know enough former preachers to think this notion has some credence. But even if it proves not to be the case, who wouldn’t want the practice of preaching to be spiritually enlivening? If the way we approached preaching from beginning to end was a way to attend to God, not just to a sermon, wouldn’t that be a desirable thing?

I’m not offering here “prayers for effective sermon preparation,” or “songs to inspire great sermons,” or anything along those lines. I offer instead a way of moving from text to sermon around the word “form.” The text wants to per-form. The preacher seeks to con-form to the movement of the text, so that the sermon might be an embodied per-form-ance of a living word. This might sound too simple, even contrived, to deliver what I’ve proposed. Maybe so. But I hope I’ve created enough curiosity to bring you into a conversation about preaching as a form of spirituality.

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The new thing in an old story

In the previous post I talked about the “narrative” nature of adaptive, or cultural, change in organizations. New cultural identities form around a new organizational narrative that is tethered to the actual conditions on the ground. I also suggested that there are two ways to invite a new congregational narrative: 1. re-narrating significant past narratives and 2. inviting people into new experiences from which narratives might arise through reflection and articulation.

So, let’s look at option one in this post. One of my favorite parts of the bible is Isaiah 40-66. The setting is the end of exile and the bold suggestion that the return of God’s struggling, dispirited people to Zion is nothing less than a new Exodus. The story of the exile hangs heavy over Israel’s identity. Exile is punishment for covenant infidelity. Exile is a story of shame and loss. Exile is a faith-shaking narrative that calls every premise of Israel’s identity as God’s people into doubt.

The prophet has a word of consolation. “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” are the opening words of this section of Isaiah. But comfort cannot ignore the realities of the exile. This experience will have to be a part of the story going forward. The prophet is persistent, “God is doing a new thing.” A new story will emerge. How will you know it? The details will look a lot like the old story. The new thing will emerge as a re-narration of older stories.

In particular, the experience of exile will have to be reinterpreted. The prophet does not ignore the “exile as punishment” narrative, but uses the length of the exile to suggest God was doing something more than punishing Israel. The exile was also formation for vocation in God’s mission for all of creation. This daring theological move makes Israel’s worst story a hopeful one for the sake of a new future.

I’ve seen this happen with organizations as well. In the consulting work I do with Church Innovations, we have an exercise we call the “Timeline Event.” Participants are given different colored sticky notes (yellow, red, blue, and green) and place them on a timeline placed on the wall. The blue sticky is for “blue days,” times that were disappointing or painful for the congregation/organization.

One group I did this for had a very painful experience in their recent past. Nearly every blue sticky was placed on the timeline in that time period. It was a shameful and accusing memory. But there were younger people present who had been a part of the organization as students, but had no idea any of this had happened. Hearing the stories of pain struck them, not as shameful, but as heroic as the organization had served them well through these darkest of days. Though painful events were happening, people still showed up and performed their roles, did their jobs, and served others with passion. They gave their best in the worst of circumstances.

You could feel the room change as the most shameful narrative became reinterpreted as their best moment as an organization. While this is a very dramatic example, I have seen this happen with other organizations as well. And I have experienced this personally. I had a therapist who helped me see that a narrative that filled me with shame and a sense of personal weakness was actually a story of resourcefulness and strength. I could hardly believe it could be a true story about me, but they were the same exact details, only re-narrated. I had a new possibility emerge precisely out of the accusing details of the past.

This kind of work requires artful care. It can’t be imposed, but has to emerge. This kind of re-narration is also in keeping with the gospel that calls strength “weakness” and weakness “strength.” The “word of the cross” is precisely an invitation to perceive our world differently and to tell a new kind of story about ourselves.

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Leading cultural change

If we could program our way out of this mess, we would have already done so. If changing our organizational culture came through writing a new mission statement, doing a SWOT analysis, developing goals, and determining measurable outcomes, we would have changed our organizational culture multiple times already. If we could change our culture by managing people better or differently, a few power of positive thinking sessions and we’d be done. If it were just a matter of posting new organizational values accompanied by an attitude adjustment, we’d already have accomplished it. Changing an organizational culture happens at a fundamentally different level than the approaches listed above.

An organizational culture represents the meaning proposition of a shared life. Culture is ultimately about the ways that humans organize their lives around meaning. And meaning, at it’s core, is a narrative enterprise. In other words, we live and behave in relation to the authorizing narratives that define our common life. Sometimes these narratives are explicit and public, but often they are implicit and unspoken. This is why, for instance, that a congregation might sharpen its mission statement and align all of its strategic values and still not get any push. There might be a more powerful narrative under the surface that is authorizing non-compliance or apathy or a competing set of behaviors.

So, changing an organizational culture requires new authorizing narratives. And these narratives must be related to the organization’s actual life. Let me give you an example.

I went to high school in West Texas during the time Odessa Permian (Friday Night Lights) was winning state title after state title. When the came to play us, this Oregon boy was stunned by the religious fervor that attended everything they did. The caravan of cars for 180 miles, with shoe polished windows displaying the word “MOJO,” the 240 piece marching band who entered the stadium chanting “mojo, mojo, mojo,” the sea of black and white clad fans who rivaled the numbers of the hometown crowd.

“Mojo” was the chant for the Permian Panthers because it related to some Native American tradition. So our genius of a head coach decided we needed the same. At the Friday pep rally, always a rowdy affair, he told us the legend of Akela, a native word for “Eagle,” our school’s mascot. After telling the story, he tried to get us to chant “Akela, Akela, Akela,” which went over like a lead balloon. No one except the coach and a few embarrassed assistant coaches participated. Why? Because we knew this story was not connected to the reality of the situation. Mojo didn’t “work” because of some mysterious native magic, but because Permian had a history of mastery in blocking and tackling. “Mojo” was expressive of a true story. Akela was being imported as a story to replace the reality of our mediocre football performance. We knew it wasn’t true.

So, how do you change an organizational narrative in a way that is still true to the organization? You don’t do it by importing someone else’s organizational narrative or mimicking their practice. (This is where the discussion around best practices becomes problematic. Best for who?) Rather, it comes by finding and developing the life giving resources within your organization’s experience. This happens two ways. 1. Stories of the past can be re-narrated. The events are the events. But the re-narration of those events can yield new meanings. 2. New experiences can produce new stories that can over time authorize new practices and attitudes. Increasingly, I’m learning that it requires both of these things in tandem, not simply one or the other.

This cultural/narrative aspect is why a primary task of leadership in the midst of adaptive change is “narrating the change.” How is the future we are seeking in keeping with the best aspects of our past? What vision of a hope-filled future is in keeping with the best aspects of our identity? How can we keep telling that future story in such a way that people are willing to tackle tough problems now for the possible benefits that will come? How is what we are doing presently connected to both the best aspects of our past and the future we hope for?

I want to fill out aspects of this narrative aspect of changing an organizational culture in subsequent posts. And add to these temporal aspects some spatial ones.

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Jesus, the prodigal

A few weeks ago, the lectionary was in Luke 15, the chapter where we find the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Yet, the lectionary selection included only the first two parables, leaving the prodigal in a “distant country,” rhetorically speaking.

I was in Napierville with grad students the following weekend, and my friend Shon Smith asked if I would preach at the church there. The omission of the prodigal son had been rolling around in my head and so I wanted to take a crack at it. Shon gave me the opportunity.

Here’s the thing about preaching a familiar parable. It stops functioning like a parable, which is supposed to surprise the reader into a new way of seeing things. All of the images of this parable are so familiar: the ring, the robe, the fatted calf, the distant country, the pig stye, the father’s field, the party. Even non-Christians no want it means to be a prodigal son. And we know the meaning of the story. The Father is always joyful to welcome the repentant home. Oh, and, don’t be like the older brother who can’t rejoice over the repentance of the younger son.

With all this familiarity, is this still a parable? Has it become something else? A morality tale? A fable? A Disney movie? My goal was to see if I could preach it as a parable again.

I had one piece of disrupting information already at my disposal. I read Amy Jill-Levine’s interpretation that the phrase “he came to himself” is not indicating an existential awakening, but is simply internal dialogue. In other parables, the rich fool, the dishonest manager, and the judge who does not fear God, internal dialogue is the way the parable reveals the less-than-scrupulous motivations of its character. Has the prodigal son had a change of heart, or is he conniving? Is he repentant, or is he hungry? I am convinced that he’s conniving, which makes our common interpretation of the parable problematic.

But what grabbed my attention in a new way was the father’s reaction to the return of the son. Twice the father says, “my son who was dead is now alive?” Again, I had interpreted this as a figure of speech. The father had given up on seeing his son again, yet here he was! And maybe that is right. But in the story, the son doesn’t die and the son is not brought back to life. Not in this story, but there is a son of a Father in the gospel of Luke who dies and comes back to life. Is this a way of referring to Jesus? Is this foreshadowing? That would be a surprising twist.

Ok, here me out. In favor of my interpretation I have two pieces of corroborating evidence. First, in a parable later in Luke, the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who sends servants to collect the profits from the vineyard only to have them beaten and sent back empty-handed. Finally, the owner sends his own son, thinking the tenants will certainly respect him. But they kill him thinking that somehow this will allow them to inherit the vineyard. This is the story of Jesus’ death in Luke. Like the God’s servants, the prophets, sent to Jerusalem from “Abel to Zachariah,” Jesus will suffer their fate and be killed. Could this kind of self-identification be going on here in the figure of the prodigal son?

Second, the parables in 15 go together, the prodigal being the climactic story. They should never be told separately. They are doing something as a collection. Specifically, they are Jesus’ response to the way Luke introduces the parables in 15:1. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” The characterization of the “sinners” as “coming near to listen to him” is contrasted with the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling. The grumbling Pharisees are clearly the intended audience. So, how does this work?

The parable of the lost sheep ends with “‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.'” A few things to point out here. We have a shepherd and sheep, not a father and son. And in the next parable we have a woman and a lost coin, not a father and son. The figure of a father and son in the last parable is being saved for the big finale. And while we have rejoicing in both of the first two parables over the repentance of a sinner, we do not have grumbling–the occasion for the parables in the first place. Jesus is drawing them in for a big reversal. After all, who would’t rejoice over something lost, a sheep or a coin, being found? We’re not yet in surprising territory.

But notice that in the conclusion of the lost sheep story Jesus contrasts the one sinner in need of repentance to the ninety nine righteous who need no repentance. Clearly, Jesus is inviting the grumblers to identify with the righteous who have no need to repent. The trap is set for the telling of the third parable. The reader knows that Jesus is the hero of the story, the prophet of the kingdom of God. So, who are the ones far from the kingdom of God, not the tax collectors and sinners who have drawn near, but the grumblers who critique from a distance. Who is need of repentance?

There is a grumbler in the third parable–the older brother. And we know his take on the events of the story. “This son of yours” has left the father’s field, gone into the far country, squandered the father’s wealth with prostitutes, and come home to take advantage of the father once again, and yet has received the royal treatment–the robe, the ring, the fatted calf, the party. While the older son has never left the father’s field, served him like “a slave,” been “obedient” to every “command” and hasn’t even had a small goat given for a party for him and his friends. This is clearly the pay-off, where the parables have been heading, to unmask the grumblers. And it gives us the proper vantage point for understanding Jesus as the prodigal.

Let me be clear, I don’t think the parable is presenting Jesus as dissolute. This is a parable, not a morality tale. But this is how the Pharisees in this story view Jesus. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee for a meal when a woman identified as a known “sinner” breaks into the room and anoints Jesus’ feet with both ill-gotten perfume and her tears, and wipes his feet with her hair. And the Pharisees grumble, “if this man were a prophet he would know who this woman is.” The grumblers don’t recognize the kingdom of God and so don’t recognize Jesus as God’s prophet.

This final parable is being told from the grumblers’ point of view–from the perspective of the righteous who have no need to repent. To them, Jesus has left the father’s field, where they have dutifully and obediently stayed, and is consorting with the unclean–sinners. He is no better than they are. He is taking advantage of the Father, claiming to be a prophet, yet tying God’s reputation to prostitutes. He has dishonored the Father. To them, Jesus is the prodigal, underserving of the robe and the ring.

The shocking conclusion of the story is that the prodigal gets the fatted calf. The conniving one, the one who squandered his inheritance in dissolute living, gets the robe and the ring and the sandals. The prodigal becomes the occasion for a great party, because “my son who was dead is now alive.” And the older brother will refuse to go in, grumbling at a distance while others come near and celebrate. The parable works if the Pharisees recognize God in the figures of the shepherd and the woman who rejoice in finding what was lost. That same God now honors the one they think is squandering the Father’s reputation, the one they see as a sinner.

There are so many Lukan echoes here, I don’t have space to run them all down. But I think there’s a lot of internal support for this reading. Such a reading would definitely make this a parable again, rescuing it from the status of fable or disney movie.

It’s told for the older brother in all of us who refuses to see Jesus in the disguise of the prodigal, the prisoner, the hungry and naked, “the sinner.” Too bad. There are going to be some great parties.

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What to do when trust is low

So, can your church change? Is there enough trust between the congregation and its leaders to take up this work? Is there a tolerance for conflict? Can members identify things they’d be willing to trade for? Again, not every church can, which nonetheless does not disqualify them from being loved the way God would love them. But let’s say you are in a congregation that does have the capacity to change. Many congregations that have the capacity to take up the work of adaptive change fail to do so nevertheless. Here’s where a certain kind of leadership can make a big difference.

But before I get into that, let’s get back to the churches that can’t change. This is not necessarily a terminal condition. I think if they can’t find anything worth trading for (the third thing on my list), then you’re in a world of hurt. But the first two problems stated above may be amenable to repair.

In fact, these two things (trust and conflict) are connected. Handling conflict well engenders trust. Trust makes it easier to engage conflict. You get the idea.

I think the place to begin, however, is restoring trust. It’s probably not the best strategy to incite conflict in order to establish trust. Let’s do it the other way around. I am again indebted to Heifetz and Linski for language and concepts that help me think through these things. I like their suggestions, in particular, for “raising and lowering” the temperature and “creating a holding space.”

Before I unpack these ideas, however, let me begin with something I learned from the Appreciative Inquiry folks. People are willing to take risks when they feel most stable. The problem with lack of trust between congregations and their leaders is that people don’t feel secure. While ultimately you can’t get transformation apart from conflict and the energy that comes with it, in times when trust is low you have to “lower the temperature.”

There are several ways H&L suggest to lower the temperature, but the big one in terms of restoring trust is to slow the rate of innovation. I know the frustration of being a leader who senses that certain things have to change before progress can be made. But if the congregational temperature is already too high due to lack of trust, it is still the better part of wisdom is to slow the rate of innovation. Lower the temperature and live to fight another day!

All other trust building measures have to do with what I would call the “communicative environment.” When trust is low, people build alliances as a way of preserving for them what seems to be at stake. A holding environment, according to H&L, allows people to talk to each other again, hopefully without flying apart. So, what constitutes a holding environment?

Several things. Here are a few. 1. Clarifying shared language, values, and perspectives. What would everyone salute if you ran it up the congregational flagpole? Live in these for awhile. 2. Establishing ground rules for discourse. For example, “We won’t assign motives to other people, even if we’re sure we know what they are. We won’t gossip. We will seek to understand before we respond. We will avoid “you” language.” You get the idea. 4. Drawing on positive stories of working together. 5. Identifying lateral bonds of affection, trust, and camaraderie. Even in a divided congregation, there are still likely persons on either side of an issue who still trust each other or like each other.

Of course, you may attempt to do all these things and still not be able to have a civil conversation. If the issues are highly personalized (in other words, “so-in-so is the problem and clearly not to be trusted”) around leaders, then it is likely you will need mediation–someone from the outside that both sides feel will be impartial.

It is tempting to think of a holding environment as something you construct when you’re in the midst of conflict. In other words, you might think of it as episodic rather than as a regular part of your congregation’s life. But I think this is just good ministry all the time. I think of leadership in ministry not as “getting things done,” but as tending to an environment that allows the Spirit to move freely between people, and the living Word of God to continue to be spoken and heard person-to-person in community. Call me old fashioned, but I truly believe it is God who gets things done.

Well, here I’ve started to talk about leading through adaptive change. But we’ll have to wait for subsequent posts for those.

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