The Secret is…

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The Secret is… there is no secret.   Many Christians throughout history have doubted this, however.

  • Starting in the first two centuries of the church, the Gnostic sects taught that they had special, secret, knowledge that people needed to have access to God. Irenaeus argued against the Gnostics that God’s revelation is found in Holy Scripture, the words of the initial apostles, and the words of those who were trained by the apostles. In other words, God is not into secrets… at least not secrets we need for abundant living. God’s revelation was given Holy Scripture and it was meant to be available to all… not to the few. Then if Christ did indeed have secrets, who would He have shared it with— His disciples who were to share them to all people, or to some individuals who kept secrets for a select few?  That tactic has popped up on occasion in recent centuries as well. Perhaps this was most famously done with “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing” (Shakers) with Ann Lee being considered the female counterpart to Christ, or of Mormonism’s teaching of a 2nd (and secret) revelation of Christ.
  • Over centuries groups claimed to have a certain special secret. Sometimes it was a new revelation, second blessing, modern innovation, or restoration of some ancient practice (like embracing superficial Jewish practices, or primitive church alleged practices). Of course, traditionalists sometimes react by saying that their traditions are “the secret.’

I have been to a few trainings in my time. The more aggressive ones tend to be built around some sort of “core secret.” In one, the “secret” is FASTING. You want to twist God’s arm to do what you want Him to do rather than what He wants to do? You just need to fast. <Considering how ambivalent the Bible is regarding fasting, it would certainly be a pretty big secret if this was true.> I also recall going to a training which was a pretty mundane form of discipleship training. The one innovation that was supposed to turn it from mundane to awesome was the secret of “generational bondage.” In that, If you are a Christian but have an ancestor who committed some sort of sin, then God either gives you a curse or allows a curse to be placed upon you (not sure which, really). He doesn’t tell you this, and doesn’t really forgive it unless you say a prayer worded in a specific way. This seems based on nothing more than a passage in the Torah that is open to a wide variety of interpretations, and completely ignores a chapter in Ezekiel that appears to completely undermine the logic.

This desire for secrets in our faith perhaps says something very real about our spirituality, something a wee bit negative about ourselves, and something quite negative about our view of God.

Very Real About our Spirituality. We often feel like our lives are not embracing that “Abundant Life” that Jesus spoke of. We feel unsatisfied and so we look for secrets or “spiritual life hacks.” I would argue, however, that we spend more time avoiding the guidance of Christ than we do actually obeying Him. It is like the quote from Chesterton, ” The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and left untried.” Our quest for secrets ultimately comes out of our own spiritual laziness.

A Wee Bit Negative About Ourselves. Let’s be honest, we like to know secrets… but a secret is not really a secret if it is freely available to everyone. We like to know secrets and know that others don’t know them. We want to go to seminars where the Secrets of __________ are revealed. We open Clickbait webpages with titles that utilize tactics that draw on this ugly part of ourselves.

Something Really Negative About Our View of God. Think about it for a moment. Consider the Generational Bondage example above. For it to be true, God would have to have a curse on us for something we did not do, and perhaps did not even know about. He would have to make sure that we have a miserable life without telling us why for something we did not do. He would also not remove that misery until we say a specific incantation that has no really support in God’s public revelation to us.

Is that a god we really want to worship? Taking it further, do we really want to worship a God whose revelation is only truly available to the cogniscenti… scholars? Do we want God’s revelation that can bridge languages and cultures, or do we want it to only be understood by scholars of 6th century BC Hebrew, 1st Century Koine Greek, 4th century AD Latin, 16th century English, or (perhaps) 7th century Arabic. Is that the God we really want? Do we want a God who tells one story publically to witnesses who feel compelled to share freely to all, but then tells certain critical “facts” to a few specially selected people who are good at keeping these facts from the majority?

In Clickbait articles, there is often the backstory that there is a secret that a select group has and is now being revealed to the consternation of those special ones. Some articles claim there is a great cancer cure that medical doctors don’t want us to know.  Or there is a secret way to wealth that millionares or billionares know, and that they desperately don’t want us to get because then we would join their elite group. I suppose it is okay that we have such hateful attitudes about doctors, or dentists, or stock traders, or the rich (or others). Sometimes it may even be true.

But why would we want to apply such thinking in our opinion of God… that God has special secrets that He doesn’t really want us to know… but would be hugely valuable for us to know. Sure, we don’t know exactly when Christ is returning (despite groups that claim to have such secret knowlege). But why would we think we would benefit from that knowledge? The faithful servant in Jesus’ parable was rewarded in being ready every day for his master’s return. The foolish servant apparently thought he could figure out the time of his master’s return and thus could be lazy and abusive. Presumably, if God doesn’t tell us something, we probably benefit from that ignorance. It seems to me that in Christ, we have God who shared freely with His disciples and told them to share freely with everyone, “even to the ends of hte world.”

The secret is that there is no secret. We should be thankful to God that there is no secret.

 

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No. Not All of the Time…

This was a short sermon I did for the International Student Worship Group at our seminary.

I like to look at common statements or stories and look at them in a different way. One I like to turn around sometimes is the saying,

God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.

For me, personally, I prefer to say, “God is good, but not all the time. Not all the time, but God is (still) good.

With the first saying, one is saying that God is eternally good of character. But we don’t live in the eternal state. We live from moment to moment. In often in moments of our lives we are not able to recognize God’s goodness.

In this we are not alone. The Psalmist in Psalm 73 had the same challenge.

A.  Verse 1.  God is Good.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

This is simple and easy. Simple and easy. God is good to Israel. God is good to those who are pure in heart.

B.  Verse 2-15.  … But Not All the Time

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”

This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.

Verse one says God is Good. But Verses 2-15 say that God is not good all of the time. The wicked prosper. They do evil things and amass wealth. They don’t seem to have any worries. They do whatever they want and God appears to reward them. If God is not rewarding them, he certainly isn’t punishing therm.

In verse 13 the Psalmist wonders if his faithfulness to God is worth it. He seeks to follow God’s commands, and yet he suffers while the evildoer profits. In fact things are so bad that in verses 2 and 3 he says that things are so bad that he sometimes even envies the wicked and is tempted to fall into sin himself.

We are not so different. We want things simple. We tend to want the evil to suffer and the righteous to prosper…. with the assumption that we are the righteous of course.

We want it to be that way… but it is not.

God Is Good. But NOT all of the time. Sometimes God steps back and allows the evil to prosper and go unpunished, and sometimes he allows the righteous to suffer and live without vindication.

We don’t want it to be that way.

C.  Verse 16-25.  Not All the Time

When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.

Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.

The Psalmist is struggling with the conflict between what he believes (God is good) and What he perceives (God doesn’t seem to be all all that good often).

However, then he enters the presence of God. Perhaps like Habakkuk, he brings his confusion directly to God. And he sees the bigger picture. Justice may be delayed… the goodness of God may be observable at all times. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but they are on slippery ground. And before you know it, God’s goodness will be demonstrated.

The Psalmist goes on to say… even though he feels abused and is suffering that God is with him and is still protecting him… in the present, and that some day he will be blessed of God.

And this leads to the final “But” in verse 28

D.  Verse 28.  But God is (still) Good.

But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

I read this as, But God is still Good. Despite the fact that things seem unfair. God seems unjust at times. God doesn’t always seem so God. God is good and good to be near. God is ultimately in control and is his protection.

So: God is good, but not all of the time. Not all of the time, but God is good.

You may be uncomfortable with that wording, but I believe much of the Bible becomes clearer this way.

If we identify God’s goodness in how we feel on a particular day, we will have trouble. Our lives are like a roller coaster… up one day and down another. God’s goodness is not tied to our feelings or whether we had a good day or not. God’s goodness is not liket that.

God’s goodness is seen in His character and in His ultimate intentions. If we want to see the goodness of God, we need to look to God Himself, and where He bringing things to. If we look for the goodness of God in the day to day things around us…. or in whether we are doing better than someone else or someone else is doing better than us… we will be disappointed often.

Loving Gridlock in Government and Ministry

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A political election is coming up in the US this November. They are a challenge for me because my friends come from a wide variety of perspectives. I sometimes find myself siding with one side and sometimes with the other, but never consistently with either side. The reason for this is that “I Love Gridlock.” I suppose it depends on how one defines it. One definition comes your friend and mine, Wikipedia. It says,

In politics, gridlock or deadlock or political stalemate refers to a situation when there is difficulty passing laws that satisfy the needs of the people. … Gridlock can occur when two legislative houses, or the executive branch and the legislature are controlled by different political parties, or otherwise cannot agree.
As an American myself, my friends almost universally hate gridlock. This is strange since it seems pretty evident that the US Constitution was designed to encourage gridlock, as opposed to the classic parliamentary system.
So why would I like gridlock? I like it in government and in ministry for several reasons.
1.  It slows things down. I have been part of groups… in fact I have led groups… where decisions were made fast or even “on the fly.” I often loved that. However, over time I realized that issues that were struggled over were often resolved better than ones that were thoughtlessly approved, or “railroaded” through.
2.  It encourages negotiation. When there is one or more people with all of the power, there is little discussion. Things just happen. I have been in church or religious organizations that were led by one visionary person who made all of the decisions. I have never seen that work out well. No one is right all of the time. Most are not right half of the time.   Proverbs 11:14 says, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.” However, when the advisers are more than simply “idea guys” but have a vote in the process, they are likely to have better thought-out decisions, and the leadership can’t simply ignore such advice and act on personal whims.
3.  It allows all parties to feel empowered, or at least jointly disempowered. Solomon may have been the “wisest man” (in terms of governance at least), and made some really awesome decisions for the short-term prosperity of Israel. However, he also made some decisions that were KEY to civil war and moral breakdown of his country. It is interesting that one of the things he did was to crush gridlock by establishing a structure for governance that undermined tribal leadership. It is hardly surprising that when Solomon’s untrained son took over, the tribal leadership that had their interests steamrolled in the past, flexed their political muscles and split the nation.
4.  It lessens groups from acting on their baser instincts. In some countries, when one political party or political leader gains ascendancy, they quickly seek to consolidate power by outlawing or at least hobbling all dissent. Even where this is not done legally, laws are commonly passed that give more power to the majority and stick it to the minority— or benefit their primary (financial) supporters.
5.  It shares power. People in government and in ministry commonly don’t handle power well.  Although it has almost become a cliche, John Dalberg-Acton’s words are still true: “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Diffusion of power is better than its localization.
So does that mean that I actually like the phenomenon where lawmaking slows to almost a standstill because of power struggle and rivalries? Somewhat. Laws and plans should be slow… and probably should be developed slower than anyone is particularly comfortable with. However, my main reason for supporting gridlock is that it shares power, and provides impetus for negotiation, compromise, and consensus-building. If those involved cannot “play nicely together in the same sandbox” and work together for the common good of the organization or nation, they simply need to be replaced. That seems like that should be obvious. We don’t vote for ideologues or demagogues but with people moral vision and the humility to understand that they must work together with others, even people they disagree with.
Hoping you will have the opportunity to experience gridlock in your own ministry or organization (whether you like it or not).
I will end this post with a wonderful quote on power and leadership from Monty Python. Enjoy.
We would like to apologise for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent, nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive. We are sorry if this impression has come across.

St. Paul as a “One Idea Man”?

Was St. Paul a healthy-minded missionary, or an obsessed madman. Let’s consider a few quotes from the 19th century and early 20th century to bring some consideration to this thought. This is not an idle consideration. Many see Paul as the ideal missionary. We should consider whether our ideals are, in fact, ideal.

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea”

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Joshua Glibert Holland (1819-1881)

written by J.G. Holland back in the mid-1800s. His thesis is that individuals who obsess on one topic only develop a certain mentality that could be described as insanity. He suggests that the human mind was designed to be healthy with a number of ideas; not just one, much as the body is healthier with a range of foods rather than a diet of one food item or category. One time I transcribed that essay but now I can’t find it. Oh well. I have a paper copy in Sanders Union 6th Reader. It originally came from “Lessons in Life: A Series of Familiar Essays.”

 

The essay starts with a quote that expresses the idea:

“Cultivate the physical exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster. It is only by training all three together that the complete man can be formed.”   -Samuel Smiles

The idea that the “one idea man” is bad is far from universal. A quick websearch shows many who feel that this type of person is healthy and perhaps even bound for greatness. Within Christian circles, I will take another old and rather obscure quote:

being a man of one idea “… was not so bad after all; for were not the best and greatest men, who had achieved most for mankind, men of one idea? Paul himself was a man of one idea; so was the philanthropist Howard. A man of one idea was not to be dreaded, unless he had got a wrong one; if his one idea was a right one, let him have free course. The one idea system has done a great deal of good in this world.

<The Christian Messenger and Family Magazine, Volume II, p. 469.  (1846).>

So here are two very different ideas from the same period of time regarding a person who appears to be obsessed with a single idea. One possible way of synthesizing them is to note that Holland felt that God was a bit of an exception in that God is big enough (speaking about ‘God’ as idea in this context more than being) for a person to be single-minded about. Now, I don’t know about Howard listed above (perhaps John Howard, British philanthropist) applies, but regarding Paul, he had a singlemindedness to obeying God. However, during much of his ministry that singlemindedness led him to a wide range of activities. It led him to evangelism, churchplanting, leader development, writing, and charitable work. The ultimate idea

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Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965)

may have been singular but it manifested itself in a wide range of activities. However, later in life, Paul gained a more focused singlemindedness on the need to stand before and speak to Caesar. This took several years and (possible) resulted in his death. Perhaps that more narrow single idea was self-destructive.

 

I would add an additional voice, that of Anton Boisen. He was a theologian who founded Clinical Pastoral Orientation. He also had several bouts of mental illness where he spent time in mental hospitals. I think his perspective could be said to have bearing on this. In his autobiography,

As I look around me here and then try to analyze my own case, I see two main classes of insanity. In the one case there is some organic trouble, a defect in the brain tissue, some disorder in the nervous system, some disease of the blood. In the other there is no organic difficulty. The body is strong and the brain in good working order. The difficulty is rather n the disorganization of the patient’s world. Something has happened which has upset the foundations upon which his ordinary reasoning is based. Death or disappointment or sense of failure may have compelled a reconstruction of the patient’s world view from the bottom up, and the mind becomes dominated by the one idea which he has been trying to put in its proper place. That, I think, has been my trouble and I think it is the trouble with many others also.

          -Anton T. Boisen, “The Exploration of the Inner World– A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience”, 1936 original publication, 1962 edition, p. 10-11.

Boisen suggests that a toxic fascination on one idea is generally driven by deep trauma that fractures a person’s worldview. That trauma then can lead to fixation on one thing that he or she cannot properly integrate into a new whole person.

Considering Paul again, his Damascus experience would certainly be a fracturing of world view. This fracturing would also bring about guilt and trauma. However, the focus on God is a big enough “idea” for fixation. As such, he was “healthy” with such a fixation. One could argue that his refusal to listen to church leaders and go to Jerusalem, and then avoided early release from jail so the he could see the Emperor, perhaps, shows a more narrow obsession with an idea that was not broad enough. Reading the book of Acts, it certainly seems clear that Luke was uncertain on whether Paul was right or wrong. This is particularly clear in Luke’s recounting of Paul’s arguments with the churches in Asian Minor about returning to Jerusalem.

Jesus speaks that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is also. Perhaps, one idea is too small because it becomes our cherished idol. Only God is worthy of worship so God alone can be our singleminded passion. Ultimately, one might make some tentative conclusions that apply to us:

  • Trauma can disrupt and lead to obsessive thinking.
  • Obsessing on a bad idea, is always bad.
  • Obsessing on an idea less than God is too narrow for humans, and may lead ultimately to unhealthy, even mad, thoughts and actions.
  • God is broad enough to encompass man’s passion/obsession. However, when such passion shows itself with total committement to one narrow activity, the same problem of unhealthiness results.

Satir and The Good Place

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My wife and I just started binge-watching “The Good Place” a few days ago. Before that, we had not heard about it— it was only at the suggestion of our daughters that we looked it up and began watching. Being a Newbie, I don’t know to what extent the show has been analyzed. It is a situation comedy show of people who died and are brought together to a heavenlike place that is known as “The Good Place,” as opposed to “The Bad Place” (and we find that there is even a Middle Place). It is not meant to be Christian. It isn’t. It is also not that deeply theological, at least in terms of theological doctrine.

It generally builds on the nearly universal human belief that the universe works on a sort of a weighted scale. Your actions, motivations and the influence you have on the world around you is weighed, and if found good, you go to the good place– a place of delight. If you are found wanting, you go to the bad place… a place where one exists in a place of banal tortures. This operation does not need a Savior, as it does in Christianity. On the other hand, it doesn’t involve a disconnected self-enlightenment, such as in Buddhism, either. We grow as people through interaction with others… and it is in these interactions that our life is measured.

<The story line of the series changes considerably from Season 1 to 2 to 3. I will generally seek to avoid spoilers Especially beyond the middle of season 2.>

While theologically the story is not hugely innovative. It is in psychology that it gets more interesting. My wife noticed that the storyline appears (perhaps intentionally) to work based on Virginia Satir’s Growth Model in Family Systems (a field of Psychology).

The most obvious example of the use of this model is survival stances or coping strategies. Under stress, she describes five coping strategies. Of these one is considered healthy (being congruent), while four are considered unhealthy.

  • Placating. Agrees with the other, seeks to calm the storm, giving up one’s own perspective if necessary.
  • Blaming.  Protects self by lashing out at others.
  • Being Super-reasonable. Ignores emotions and is relationally aloof. Focuses on logic and rationality.
  • Being Irrelevant. Rather than deal with the stressor, does not address it, but redirects through acting out or drawing away.

In the show, Elanor is a blamer. She is aggressive and avoids taking responsibility. Chidi is super-reasonable. He is bookish and analyzes and over-analyzes rather than addressing relational and emotional issues. Tahani is the placator, seeking to be liked by everyone, being a people pleaser. Jason is irrelevant… missing the issue entirely or acting in a way that is often quite random and not towards addressing the stressor. This is over-simplified, but is quite clearly established.

This is not alone. Stories often build around thee four types. Consider “The Simpsons” that tends towards Homer being the blamer, Marge the placator, Lisa the super-reasonable, and Bart the irrelevant.

But in The Good Place, it is taken further. The plot initially builds around an experiment where the four dysfunctional copers are brought together in a seemingly idyllic setting and seeing whether they can “create their own hell.” This is in line with Satir’s Transformational Systemic Theory. In that form of therapy, the goal is to bring relational transformative growth to a group (especially a family) as well as individual through interaction/communication. In the therapy, new elements are brought in that leads to a period of chaos. Out of the chaos is meant to come growth. In the first seaon of The Good Place, the elements that bring chaos are thought to bring misery and a spiralling out of control of the people involved. However, what is found is what Satir theorizes which is a much more positive view of people’s ability to grow and change through the interaction. They help each other.

As we move into season 3, this theme is taken further almost into a Satir-type therapy session where the experiment has changed to an even more important question– Are we able to change? A fifth character, Michael, actually takes on an almost therapist-like role of coming in at times to bring in new elements to push the group towards corporate and individual growth.

As I said before, I am not sure that the writers of the show are intentionally utilizing the work of Virginia Satir, but I suspect they are. I find it nice to find a comedy, a light-hearted romp, that actually takes seriously some very fundamental concerns. While some may complain about the “bad theology,” the show makes it clear that the setting is driven by the human relationships. The theology is just there to make the premise of the relational interactions plausible.

The show in this sense reminds me of the movie “Inside Out.” It tries to use and explain psychological understanding of human development and emotions. The setting of much of the movie is a control room in the head of the preteen girl with beings that serve as the emotional guides. One is not supposed to reify (consider them to really exist). It just serves as a device to set up the interactions in a way that make sense to us.

Brings things back to ministry and theology, I think of the ham-handed way that Christians commonly express their faith in artistic ways. Typically, it has an “in-your-face” and overly simplified manner to it. Frankie Schaeffer talked a bit about it years ago in his book “Addicted to Mediocrity.” Christians today (most definitely including myself) definitely struggle with:

  • How can we teach while still be entertaining? In line with Titus 2:10, how can we “adorn the gospel”?
  • How can we address major issues without cutting short the process of reflection to jump to a quick moral aphorism? Are we really that afraid of personal reflection?
  • How can we address issues intelligently and spiritually with the ambiguity that we commonly find in the “real world?” Watching the movie again, “Candle in the Dark,” on the life of missionary William Carey, the inspiration in the story comes, in part, from its ambiguities. It feels real. Failures and struggles add to a story and message, rather than detracts from it.

Curiously the “real world” is often easier to understand through a well-crafted unreal world. I feel that “Inside Out” has done this through an “unreal world” for psychology. “The Good Place” has done it with another “unreal world” for both psychology and moral philosophy.

 

Training Our Replacements

Suppose you worked at ABC Widgets, Inc..And athazagoraphobia, being replaced, forget, friends, ignore, replace, atazagorafobia, being forgottensuppose that your responsibility was the very delicate installation of the whosiwhatsit into the widget. You have done it for 20 years. The company has become very dependent on you. But one day, maybe your 62nd birthday, your supervisor comes up to you with some young person. The supervisor says to you, “Please meet Anna. I want you to train her to do your job. Some day she will be your replacement here.”

How would you feel about it. There is a possibility that you will feel relief. You were bothered that the success of the company was dependent on you, and you were already considering the possibility of retirement. But for many, this is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for many to train their replacement. Jesus trained his “replacements” in terms of apostolic (“being sent out”) ministry. Moses did as well, but it seemed to take wisdom from his father-in-law, and a rude awakening from God that he would NOT enter Canaan, to get him to train up Joshua. Joshua did not appear to follow the pattern set by Moses. Elijah trained up Elisha, but only after God assigned him the task of doing it. It is not clear whether the Apostles trained up successors. They certainly trained up church leaders. However, it is not so clear that any of them (except Barnabas in training up Paul and John Mark, and possibly Paul in training up Silas) really took the task of training up the next generation of apostles (missional churchplanters). The 2nd century saw the role of apostle/churchplanter fade and completely die away in the 3rd century.

Some think they are immortal perhaps, or at least do not take their eventual demise seriously. Leaders tend to like to develop followers. One of the more popular church growth methodologies in the Philippines likes to describe itself in terms of developing leaders. Yet the structure and training materials focuses on training followers. It appears to have been developed by someone who is afraid that people will be developed to lead and then leave and create their own similar ministries. And yet, that is exactly what they should do.

Some perhaps feel less important if others can do their job, or, Heaven forbid, their replacement seems to do better than themselves. I recall American football quarterback Doug Williams being seemingly happy that his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was doing so much worse after he left. (Of course, if I had to play for the Buccaneers back in the late 70s and 80s, I may have felt pretty sour about the experience as well.  I had a pastor once who firmly believed that a ministerial organization will shrivel up and die (I am using my own paraphrase here) after a great leader passes on. He claimed to get that from Jerry Fallwell. I struggle to grasp where a Christian leader would get such a thoroughly unChristian idea. Perhaps it came from looking around at organizations led by narcissistic leaders who refused to prepare the organization for the next generation. But there are plenty of examples that counter this belief. Strangely, one of those organizations is Jerry Fallwell’s own Liberty University, that seems to be doing quite well in his absence— despite the thoroughly amoral political philosophy of the present leadership.

In some cases, training replacements is uncomfortable because that sort of work is not necessarily what they are good at. The best baseball batting coaches are NOT the best batters. Great singers do not necessarily make great singing coaches. One has to develop new skills to train a replacement. I have dealt with youth ministers who are in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s. I suggest to them that it is time to transition from organizing youth ministries, to training up youth ministers. Many balk at that because that is not what they are good at. Frankly, youth ministry is often a bit of a power trip because, although we often decry “rebellious youth,” they actually are much better followers than either children or adults. It can be difficult for a leader who is used to working with followers, to begin teaching future leaders.

In some cases, people think that training replacements is someone else’s job. In the Baptist tradition, ministers do not choose their replacements. Because of that, there is a tendency to not even try to mentor are help prepare the next pastor. That’s too bad because the previous generation can be a great help. Many missionaries who came to the Philippines trained local leaders to be churchplanters, but not to be missionaries. I suppose they were used to the idea that missionaries come from “back home” not from places like the Philippines, which is the “mission field.” Things have changed so much in the last 40 to 50 years that I really struggle to grasp this blindspot in their ministry.

And yet I can fall into the same trap. I didn’t think I could. I teach missions in a seminary in Southeast Asia. As such, I am a missionary (or at least a “cross-cultural minister’) who trains people from the traditional mission field to be missionaries to new fields. I also, at the graduate level, am a missions professor who is training the next generation of missions professors. So I don’t feel like I am failing to train my replacement. And yet… eveyone I have trained have been to go somewhere else. I have not trained anyone to be my specific replacement. Admittedly, seminaries don’t generally work like that anyway. However, when I was in the Navy, I was leaving and passing on my role as A&E officer (A&E as in Auxilliaries and Electrical, not Arts and Entertainment) to my replacement. I promised myself that that I would do my best job, but it is true that to some extent I began to suffer from short-timer’s syndrome, becoming lackadaisical regarding my replacement. I suppose that leads to a fourth reason:

Sometimes we feel that what happens after we leave is not our problem. Leaving a position is, in part, leaving behind the stresses and problems of the job. Therefore, it is hard to motivate oneself to train a replacement to do a job that is about to become someone else’s problem.

And yet,  in ministry, it IS our concern. We are serving God and are always part of something timeless and bigger than ourselves. We really have no excuse not to take seriously preparing the next generation for our passing.

 

Mutuality and Dialogue

A section of my book “Dialogue in Diversity.” The first very rough draft is basically complete and will be reviewed by my students in “Interreligious Dialogue class.

According to Martin Buber:

The presupposition of genuine dialogue is not that the partners agree beforehand to relativize their own convictions, but that they accept each other as persons.”
Mutuality is not as commonly promoted as a Biblical virtue as some others. Yet, it is a strongly supported virtue, especially in the New Testament. Mutuality describes equal support. It implies two different aspects: Equal as position, and equal in interdependence.
Consider the figure below. The figure shows two people– A and B. In the top part of the figure is A and B in unequal positions. If they are communicating, A is “talking down” to B, The middle part of the figure shows the two in equal position, but not equal in interdependence. If they are in conversation, A is “talking at” B, with little communication back from B to A. The bottom one shows equalness in role and in interdependence. They have mutuality in conversation. A and B are “talking with” each other.
Mutuality applies to many things beyond talking.Figure x
The church has often struggled with battle between seemingly competing virtues of submission and mutuality. Typically, the church has tended to focus more on submission— submission to authorities, to parents, to husbands. Yet built into each of these is a mutuality. Jesus modeled and taught a form of leadership built on serving, not being served. Wives may be told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And that form of love involves self-sacrifice and serving. It is hardly surprising then, that the most well-known passage in the Bible, Ephesians 5:21ff, opens with an overarching call to mutuality, “Submit one to another, out of reverence to Christ,” and then returns to the theme of mutuality with the body metaphor of Christ and the church.
The book of Philemon can be read as a book of Christian mutuality. Paul appeals to Philemon no to punish Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Rather to accept him back, and even give him his freedom, and treat him as a full brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t actually order him to do that, for to do so would be to place himself as an authority. Rather Paul appeals to him as a fellow partner. The book sometimes is seen as a half-hearted rejection of slavery. However, it may better be seen as how Christian love and Jesus’ form of leadership is applied to a difficult situation, rather than law and hierarchy.
Many of the verses on mutuality are found as “one another passages.” There are dozens of these. A few of them include:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
  • …Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
  • …Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
  • …Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
  • Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
  • …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
  • …When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
  • …Have equal concern for each other. (I Cor. 12:25)
  • …Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
  • …Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
  • …Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)

These principles apply to Christians within the church. Some other statements of the same order were given by Jesus to His disciples– most famously, John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

On a strict, rather legalistic, level one could say that since these statement are given to the church for behavior within the church, it doesn’t apply to a Christian’s relationship with those outside of the church.

HOWEVER, mutuality could be understood as a logical application of the Great Commandment. If I love my Christian neighbor as myself, as Jesus so instructed and modeled, and my Christian neighbor does the same, then we relate to each other in a state of mutual love for each other. And if we do that then the other characteristics of mutuality must then also apply (we bear each other’s burdens, we encourage each other, we forgive each other, etc.).

But… the Great Commandment was not given to believers only to relate to other believers (‘love your friends, hate your enemies’). Rather it is for all followers of Christ to all peoples. We may love our families different than we love members of our church, and we may love members of our church differently than we love members of other church, and all of these different than we love strangers or enemies. Regardless, if our behavior to any group is unloving, then clearly we have failed to follow Christ. In like manner, we serve, forgive, encourage, and show hospitality, in a manner that is Christlike even for those outside the faith.

It is interesting to note that over the years mutuality has grown outside of the church, commonly influenced by the church. Sometimes they caught on and even went ahead of the church. Human rights grew out of Judeo-Christian principles where each person has basic rights that are not based on race, gender, nationality, status or achievement. The movement against slavery began largely in the church, and grew beyond the church as some churches sought to defend the practice. Servant-Leadership has now become popularized in business and governance, even while some churches defend unilateral submission.

Dialogue works best from a position of mutuality. We treat each others with respect and with equality. We are there to teach and there to learn. We are there to encourage and be encouraged. We are there to help the other grow, and grow oneself. There is no guarantee that the other will accept those terms. The other may draw away, or may seek to assume a position of authority. We have no control over the other, we only have control over ourselves.