Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reflections on Leadership, Conflict and Conversation

During my first call I had some significant disagreements with the members of the congregation about the direction of the congregation. At one point the president of the council resigned so that he could have a voice and vote since the chair of a meeting has no vote. When I asked him why he told me “I have such a strong disagreement with you about the direction of the church that I feel it is my duty to ‘buck’ you and vote against all changes”. Looking back some six years later I realize that I may have been right about “mission” and “vision” but I know I was wrong about the way I dealt with the council and congregation.
I first gained support for my “side” and we would talk about why we were “right” and the other side was “wrong”. At the same time the other “side” would gather and do the same thing. When it came time to go to council and “fight” for our position we wouldn’t listen to each other. We weren’t open to the other person, they became an “enemy” and I must say that neither side obeyed Christ in “loving our enemy”. We didn’t see the other as created in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. They became someone in our way and in my most self-righteous moments someone in God’s way since they were against the “mission and vision” of the church. When someone is “against God’s ways” it is easy to attack them as “Pharisees” and feel good about it during the process. What I forgot is that Christ died for each person in the congregation and in that they are His and I was to treat them as such.
What I have come to realize is that God does care about the mission and vision of each and every congregation. God cares about what we do and don’t do. I have also come to realize that God cares deeply about who we are as people and as a congregation. He cares more about who we are (that is the kind of people were are) than what we do because what we do flows from our character and inner life. If we are people who are greedy then we will act accordingly, if on the other hand we are generous then our actions will be generous. One of the primary works of the Holy Spirit in the Christ follower is to transform our inner life so that we are as St. Paul would say, “lead by the Spirit and not the flesh”. So while I may have been battling for the “mission” of the church I was revealing my lack of Christ-like character and we as a council weren’t behaving in ways that gave glory to or testified to the greatness of God. The following are a few of the insights I gained from those meetings and my time there.

1. Psalm 103:8 “ The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.
God’s nature is mercy, grace and slowness to anger. Often in our meetings we are not merciful with each other. We assume they are wrong and attack the idea with all our energy. This is the way we were taught in a competitive educational system but it is not the way we are to be with each other. We need to give each other mercy and grace since God in Christ has shown us mercy and grace. When someone brings and idea, no matter how off the wall or offensive it may seem we are called to listen openly and honestly and give the community a chance to discuss the idea without attacking the person. We need to learn to keep our anger in check. Too often we are quick to anger when God is slow to anger.
Steadfast love is a love that is not easily dismissed or discouraged. It is a love that can be count on and that weathers storms and the test of time. In God’s case it is a love that never fails. This is the ideal that we strive for and what the Spirit is working within our hearts for the brothers and sisters in our community and within the world. The greatest commandment is to “love God and love your neighbor”. After too many of my council meetings I left feeling not loved and I am sure that the people I fought with didn’t feel loved either. What a great failing. We should strive to love each other.

2. Luke 6:37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”
Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts and we also have forgiven our debtors”
We are forgiven people in Christ. God has secured our forgiveness on the cross and has bound himself to that promise. We are called to experience that forgiveness and to live out of the abundant mercy, grace and tenderness that forgiveness brings. In my conversations with the council I was not forgiving, merciful or tender. I was hard, sharp, pointed and accusatory. While I proclaimed the forgiveness of sins each week and presided at communion it was clear that I was not living forgiveness. I was not tender with each person in the congregation or the council. I judged others because I thought they were slow and just “didn’t get it”. I would “debrief” my meetings and what I was really doing was gossiping and judging people, saying things like “they don’t care about the congregation or Christ’s mission in the world.”
Our meetings should be seasoned with tenderness and bathed in forgiveness. When we over speak, lose our temper of become accusatory we should be quick to recognize this and seek to restore our relationship. Jesus says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) It seems to me that God cares more about our relationships than our ritual worship because restoring relationship is worship.

3. 1 Peter 5:5-6 “All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ’God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed’. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
One of my seminary professors made the comment once that he thought all ELCA social statements should begin with “we might be wrong but,…”. What this does is recognize that we do not see perfectly and yet still need to move forward discerning what we believe is best. Some believe this would be wishy-washy but it is true, we might be wrong about a number of issues. What this statement really does is put an aspect of humility into the process. I was convinced that I was right on all of the mission and vision issues in my first congregation and I may have been. However, I was prideful in my approach and dealings with the members of the council. I was not willing to listen to them, ask follow up questions for clarity or even rethink my own approach. I simply countered each point (with the scriptures when needed) and then went away wondering how they could be so dense as to vote against me. What I failed to do was to help cultivate was an atmosphere of discernment, discovery and discussion. We did not work together to listen to Christ’s voice; instead we fought to have our own voice heard. All of us were prideful in our approach.
One of the results of our battles was that we became an angry group of people divided into “camps” or “factions”. Instead of being a place where “Christians are known by love” we became simply another dysfunctional institution. Visitors to worship could sense the tension and they were unlikely to get come back. Due to our fighting and lack of love we developed a highly anxious and unkind atmosphere in the congregation. As a result our regular members lessened their support of both finances and time leaving us with less people and less money. We blamed each other for the decline in worship attendance, money and parishioner involvement. Things from that point only went from bad to worse. The conflict showed that our spirituality was immature and that we really didn’t love each other. Both sides lost.
Looking back I would like to have had a better emphasis on who were Christians and I would have liked to strive harder to deepen our relationships with Christ and one another. I would have liked to been a person who stove to live differently in the midst of conflict and not succumb to the temptations of anger, gossip and over reaction. I hope in future conflicts I will remember those lessons and I hope I am growing into a different person.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Deep in the human soul is the need to be loved. I think that one of the greatest pains in human life today is the lack of love. We have more toys and more technology than before. We can communicate with each other faster and in more ways than even imagined a few decades ago. Yet I wonder, has our love grown as fast as our technology? Are we rich in compassion and mercy? Does joy pour forth from our being? Can we really delight in the now?

Perhaps in all our advances we have missed the real and replaced it with the quick and fast. Perhaps we have been chasing the wrong things and don't know where to go any more. We have lost our way and now are lost. We are surrounded by people and things and yet are poor and lonely.

Thankfully there is still a way to grow deeper in love and become people of compassion and mercy. It is an old way, a slow way that is often at odds with the current culture. It is founded by Jesus and trodden by his followers for centuries. Consistently when a person comes under his apprenticeship they encounter this way. Notice I didn't say "get religion" or "go to church". I didn't say become "spiritual" or "get the right doctrine". A person may need many of those things.

This way is about Jesus and spending time getting to know him and learning from him. It is to take seriously his call to "follow him" and to learn how that happens. It is not a glamorous path or one that leads to fame or fortune. Quite the opposite, it is a humble path of service. It entails unpopular words like: service, humility, patience, discipline, self reflection and sacrifice. It gets at our use of time and reshapes what we value. In short it changes us. We learn to be "lead by the Spirit" and not the "flesh".

The fruit of this journey is nothing less than living in and from the resources of the kingdom of God. It is a life that starts now and goes on into eternity. Jesus is the way and through him life in all its fullness opens itself. This fullness is marked by a deep and profound joy. It is knowing in the depth of one's being that you are loved. It is peace in the storms of life and wisdom that comes as a grace. It is knowing who you are and more importantly whose you are. It is hope in this life and a surer hope in the life to come.

The door to this kingdom way of life is open and no past mistake, failure or character flaw is a barrier to entrance. All that is needed is to accept Jesus' invitation to follow him and to learn from him as your ever present teacher and Lord.


"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 19:9

The process described above is called gleaning. God wants us to leave some of the fruit of the land (His land) to be available for those who are poor and those who do not have any of their own land (alien). The realization is twofold. First the land is not ours and second God gives enough for everybody if we can share.

Gleaning is the process by which we distribute some of the extra from the land to those who are in need. The county which I live in is starting a gleaning project. I am thankful that the secular world would obey God's command.

See their website here


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Some thoughts on the kingdom of heaven

The Basics of the Gospel

Today there are many who use the word gospel and as we use the word we assume that each other is speaking about the same thing, when in fact we might not be speaking about the same thing at all. Therefore, it makes sense to examine what the gospel is. The word gospel simply means “good news”. So what is the good news that Jesus preached?

The good news Jesus preached is the present availability of the kingdom of God. Carful examination of Jesus words will show that the good news he came to preach is the kingdom of heaven. “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Jesus self identifies his purpose on Earth as the proclamation of the kingdom of God. “The time has come, he said. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). “From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Notice the implied continuance of the language “from that time on”. Jesus continued throughout his ministry to preach, teach, live and usher in the kingdom of heaven. The present availability of the kingdom of God or heaven (the mean the same thing) is the good news that Jesus preached.

We need to get it clear in our understanding the central importance of the kingdom of God because very little in the scriptures will make any clear sense or be born out through lived experience outside of the present availability of the kingdom of God. Without a living interaction with the kingdom Jesus proclaims we will either: moralize, legalize, tame, distort or dismiss Jesus and his teaching.

In the setting in which I work (the Lutheran church) we tend to reduce the gospel to either social justice or forgiveness of sins alone. The former lacks any real spiritual power and Jesus is only necessary as an example of goodness. One of the prayer services used by Lutherans says that Jesus came to proclaim his gospel of “justice and peace”. Not so, Jesus proclaimed the availability of the kingdom of heaven.

Justice and peace are deeply important and have a solid grounding in the Bible throughout the prophetic books but they are not the gospel Jesus came to preach. Many of the people in the Old Testament did not hear God messages through the prophets as good news. Many of the messages contain what scholars call “curses” or “woes”. Living in the kingdom is good news because it alone can produce people whose hearts are shaped by agape love and therefore live from and make choices consistent with agape love as taught by Jesus. It is these people who can truly do the good God desires, which will resemble closely the social justice desired.

The gospel of forgiveness only is dangerous because it turns Jesus’ teaching into a ticket punching for a trip that happens at death. We hear sermons that are the fact that we are sinners and God forgives sinners so don’t worry about. It is true that we are sinners and it is also true that God forgives sinners through Jesus but forgiveness is not the ultimate purpose of Christ. Making available life in the kingdom is what Jesus came to preach and give his life for.

Forgiveness of sins in an integral and essential part of the kingdom, one might say that it is the entry point into the kingdom; it is part of repenting, or rethinking our lives in light of the present availability of the kingdom of God. God’s forgiveness in Christ shows to what extent God would go to make this kingdom available. Even our sin is no longer a barrier to our entry into the kingdom. There are no states of life that are a barrier to entry into the kingdom, perhaps only our lack of desire to turn to Christ. The wide availability of the kingdom angered the opponents of Christ and is one of the reasons he was crucified. To reduce the gospel to something manageable is to miss the point of Jesus teaching entirely.

A disciple is a person who is learning from Christ about life in the kingdom. S/He is a person who is learning in the very place that is their life what it means to live from the resourcing and power of the kingdom. It is a person whose life has come under the gentle rule and reign of God.

Some thoughts on love

The power of love

Love is more than a feeling. It is choosing and willing the good of the one loved. Sadly we have defined love as feelings, strong attraction or confused it with lust. We say that we “love” coffee and that we “love” our children. Really? Do we really have the same will and intent for coffee and our children? The “love” we have for coffee is simply desire to meet our needs and a strong feeling of satisfaction when we consume the coffee. This isn’t love; it is simply desire and self-centered satisfaction. So often what we pass for love is simply desire.

Love seeks the good of the one loved. God loved the world so he acted, he sent his son into the world (John 3:16). Christ knew that life is full of suffering so he suffered on our behalf and to connect our suffering to the paschal mystery. Every person who has ever suffered deeply is thankful for the suffering of Christ; in it we see and experience his love. We were dead in our trespasses; the wages of sin is death so Christ died for our salvation. We don’t know how to pray so the Spirit intercedes continually for the saints according to God’s will. God’s love is humble action for our good.

On the night in which Jesus was betrayed he washed the feet of his disciples showing them love. In this literal and symbolic act he was teaching them what the lifestyle of a disciple is. It is a life of humble loving service. It is not a life lived by self -centered desire; it seeks the good of the neighbor. This lifestyle among the disciples is to be obvious to the world; in fact it will be the primary witness to the world. They will say “look at how they love one another, they must be followers of Jesus”. Christ followers are to be known by their love, not doctrine, dogma, or denomination.

Being a passionate follower of Christ means being a person who is being transformed in their inner nature and character so that they can have the ability to love; that is to act for the good of their neighbor. In doing this they will be fulfilling all the laws and commandments. They will “love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength” and therefore, “love their neighbor as themselves”.

We have strayed from this definition and understanding of following Christ. Too few Christians are known generally by their love. People say that Christians are self-righteous and mean spirited. Fights in the church are plentiful and they are nasty with each side going for blood with “God on their side”. Far too often we seek ourselves and not Christ. Small groups and their agendas dominate the politics of churches all over the country.

We must learn again the habits and practices that God uses to shape our hearts so we can learn to love again. We learn to love in degrees. It is a gradual process that begins with those for whom we already have affection for such as our friends, spouses and roommates. We begin to become aware of their needs and then act accordingly, not with them as our audience but with our Lord as our audience. We live to please Him alone. As we learn to will and act for those we like then as we grow in Christ like character then we can begin to act for the good of those we like less. The culmination of this process is the ability to obey Jesus and “love our enemies”.