Friday, March 21, 2014

book review: 58 to 0

Book Review: 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through the One Anothers. Jon Zens and Graham Wood, editors. Ekklesia Press, 2013. 202 pages. (ebook version used for review)

John Zens and Graham Wood have collected an eclectic mix of 27 articles on leadership within the church, 12 of them bearing Zens' name. The basic premise is that the emphasis in the New Testament is on body life (one another's) and not on hierarchical leadership. So how has the church wandered so far from this? Zens (and others) takes issue with the solo pastor model, suggesting that there is no analog for this in scripture. What has happened, Zens suggests, is that for much of its history, the church has merely reflected the leadership models of society (business and government) instead of the ministry of service as exemplified by Jesus and confirmed in the early church. Many of the authors also suggest that this tendency towards authoritarian leadership has diverted attention away from the Church's one true leader, Jesus.

This book has a lot going for it. The editors have compiled a good sample of writings on the topic of church leadership from a variety of perspectives including church history, literature, language usage, tradition, common church practice, and Greek word studies. There is also an impressive list of over 200 sources on the final pages if one is interested in further study. In general the articles provoke one to question how we have come to our present practices of church leadership, especially the reliance on the single office of pastor/priest/bishop. The articles that I found especially thought-provoking were ones by Zens and Frank Viola which dig deeper into the use of words such as "head," "authority," and "office" in the New Testament and one by Judy Schindler which traces the origin of hierarchy (one bishop rule) in church history. I also smiled a lot while reading Darryl M. Erkel's piece on honorific titles. Here is a quote which I found particularly amusing: "...it is just as foolish and unnecessary to speak of 'Pastor Bob' as it is to speak of one who possesses the gift or function of hospitality as 'Hospitality Harry'; or one who has the gift of mercy as 'Mercy Mary'; or one who has the gift of giving as 'Giving George.'" (p. 86) Didn't that make you smile?

There are also a few things I had issues with. At times Zens overstates his point, one example being when he suggests that the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon had nothing to do with Christ and everything to do with human power and control (p. 35, 41). I see what he is saying, however, this sweeping generalization fails to acknowledge that there have been people of devotion and genuine faith throughout all of church history; at the very least Zens could have acknowledged that we are not privy to the underlying motivations of historical figures. Not everything is as cut and dried as Zens and the other authors sometimes make it out to be.

In addition, I found a few minor style problems (I am referring to Zens here): a mixed metaphor ("Whenever the aroma of the foot-washing Christ is snuffed out, power-hungry church leaders will fill the religious vacuum." p. 46), an awkward sentence which could have benefited from some clarification (" History reveals that many rushed after the easy way of fleshly control and power in the post-apostolic church...." p. 19), and the occasional unsubstantiated, bold statement ("Roman Catholicism has instilled fear and suspicion into its adherents." p. 179), but perhaps I am just being picky. More importantly, aside from a brief mention in the foreword by Milt Rodriguez, virtually no reference is made to the significance of the title (there are 58 mentions of "one another" in the New Testament). I was hoping for some unpacking of these "one another's" and some exposition of their implications for body life and church leadership. No such luck.

An assumption which seems prevalent in this collection is that the early church experience was pretty much perfect and we should model ourselves after it. Judging by the letters which Paul wrote to these faith communities, it would seem that they had their problems just like the rest of us, so I would have appreciated a bit more rigorous engagement with the early church reality instead of simply pointing back to it as if to say: "See! That's how Jesus meant it to be!"

One of my favourite quotes incorporated by Zens is from Henri Nouwen. It seems to get at the heart of what the authors in this collection are trying to say: "Power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, 'Do you love me?' We ask, 'Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?'" (Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 77) (quoted by Zens, p. 38).

58 to 0 is a handy, thought-provoking little book for those questioning or rethinking the status quo of church structure and leadership.While the depth of study and scholarship does not constitute a hearty, full meal on the subject (the chapters are on average 5-6 pages long), the articles certainly offer up a variety of savoury appetizers one can nibble on. Please excuse the food analogy, I am obviously hungry.

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This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

bad bosses

Ever worked for a bad boss? There are some horror stories out there about the crazy things people in positions of power do to those who are working for them. Here is one example: "My boss had his 80+ mother-in-law working for him as his accounts payable employee so that he wouldn't have to just give her money to live on...she had no income! His mother-in-law was in his office upstairs from mine, he calls my name very loudly and I ran up stairs. He was talking to his wife on his cell phone. Without hanging up from his wife he says to me, 'Would you mind giving her the Heimlich maneuver, she can't breathe.'" [1]

Daniel, one of the young Hebrew nobles carried off to Babylonian captivity around 600 BCE, knew all about working for a bad boss. The subtitle for Daniel chapter 2 could well be: "When the Boss Wants Your Head."  In the book of Daniel we find that king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Israel and dragged their best people to Babylon so that they can work for him. One night the king has a disturbing dream and asks a bunch of his wise men not only to interpret it but to tell him the dream. The magicians and sorcerers protest, insisting that this is an unreasonable and impossible demand. Suspicious and angry, the king becomes adamant, calling them liars and conspirators; he lets them know that if they can't tell him the dream and interpret it, they will all be killed. And since no one can do what the king has demanded, they are all sentenced to death.

The chief of the royal guard comes to find Daniel and his friends to round them up for the execution (the four Hebrew men were counted among the wise men) and Daniel asks him what's going on. When Daniel hears about the king's outrageous demand, he goes to the king and asks to be given a bit of time to discern the elusive dream and its meaning. After he is granted this temporary reprieve, he goes to his three friends and asks them to pray and plead with God for mercy. They know that if God does not reveal the dream, they are all dead.

At night the dream is revealed to Daniel in a vision. In the biblical account, this divine revelation is followed by Daniel uttering a poetic prayer of praise to God. Daniel then goes to the chief of the royal guard and tells him to stop making plans for the executions because he has received the meaning of the dream. The chief of the royal guard wastes no time in bringing Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, and there Daniel tells the king his dream and the meaning behind it. The king is astounded and as promised, gives Daniel many gifts. Nebuchadnezzar declares that the god who revealed this to Daniel is the God of all gods. After Daniel is promoted to be head of all the wise men, he asks the king to grant his three friends positions of authority in the kingdom.

King Nebuchadnezzar was a bad boss if there ever was one. He made unreasonable demands, threatened those under him with death if they did not deliver, made sweeping pronouncements without impunity, lumping good in with bad, and let anger cloud his judgment. Daniel, however, had some wisdom when it came to dealing with a bad boss. He acted with discretion, prudence, and wisdom, we are told (v. 14). Here are a few observations.

1. When Daniel was faced with an unreasonable demand, he did not protest or complain as the other wise men did (which only made matters worse), but asked for time to find a solution.
2. When he was faced with injustice (all were being punished for the failure of a few), he did not demand an exemption, but inquired into the details of the situation so that he could address the cause of the king's anger. Once he was informed of the facts, he asked for the chance to provide a solution.
3. When he was overlooked and not consulted (though he was known for his wisdom), he never took offence nor compared himself to the other wise men, but sought a way to help everyone: the angry king, the incompetent wise men, as well as himself and his Hebrew friends.
4. When he got a chance to prove himself, he sought out his trusted friends and asked for their help. They all appealed to the mercy of God and then they waited.
5. When he received a solution to the problem at hand, he did not rush out to the king or to tell his friends, but first gave thanks to God.
6. When he was rewarded for a job well done, he did not forget his friends, but asked for rewards for them as well.

Though essentially a slave, Daniel, through his actions, shows us a man who is free. In an extreme pressure situation, he does not respond with anxiety, fear, or despair. Instead of being reactive, he is proactive, calm enough to ask good questions and plot a wise course of action. It soon becomes clear that the reason for this peaceful demeanour is that Daniel believes it is ultimately God who holds authority and not the king. Though he is a foreigner in Babylon, an outsider in many ways, especially when it comes to religion and culture, he does not hesitate to put himself in the position of a mediator, an intercessor, and in this instance, a saviour for the people he works with. They, no doubt, would not have returned the favour, because Babylon, after all, operates from a conquering mindset, not a serving one. Daniel not only saves the lives of many that day, but by procuring positions of authority for his friends, he also provides excellent managers for the kingdom, situating it for prosperous and wise management in years to come. That's the kind of humble, serving leadership that we all could us a little more of these days.

[1] Bad boss story from http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2009/08/13/worst-boss-stories-ever/

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Let it go

We are now in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) when followers of Jesus focus on themes of prayer, repentance, and preparation, and many engage in practices of fasting, abstinence, and devotion. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week which commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After he rose from the dead, in fact another forty days later, Jesus ascended into heaven, an event we commemorate on Ascension Sunday (six weeks after Easter).

Image from jefftyner.theworldrace.org
Last week, I came across a story in Ronald Rolheiser's book, The Holy Longing, that shifted my focus from the highly visible first 40 days (Lent) to the second 40 days which fall between Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Rolheiser tells about a man who dreamed of being a professional hockey player and got pretty close (tier-one junior hockey) but was never quite good enough to make it to the National Hockey League. When he realised he was never going to make it professionally, he moved back home, got a job at Safeway, got married, and had four kids. Twenty-five years later he finds himself still working at the same store, still partially living in that hockey dream, collecting hockey autographs, and wondering "what if?" Despite having a basically good life, he is unhappy. He says, "It's a shame for my wife and kids - who are really good and in the end the only thing that's important - that I haven't been there for them like I should have been. I [have] to be who I am and get inside of my own life instead of trying to live somebody else's life or trying to live a dream that was over a long time ago." (Rolheiser, 155).

Rolheiser comments: "This man is ready for ascension. He has had his 'forty days,' twenty-five years of grieving and adjustment. Now he is ready to let the old ascend so that he can receive the spirit for someone who is forty-seven years old, overweight, and living and working in a small town in northern Canada. Some of the happiest people in the world fit that description, as do too some of the most restless people in the world. Happiness and restlessness are not determined by who makes it big time and who ends up in the small towns. They depend upon the ascension and pentecost and whether these have happened or not." (Rolheiser, 155).

In Christian circles, it is common to talk about identifying with the life and teachings of Jesus. We think of love, kindness, compassion, healing, mercy, and focusing on the inner condition of the heart instead of outer actions. In identifying with the death of Jesus, we acknowledge that we must learn to embrace suffering, death, and learn to let things go. Through this process, we are able to receive new life from God, resurrection. However, the new life of resurrection, a life characterised by healing and wholeness, is not the end of the story.

The resurrected Jesus encounters Mary, one of his disciples, near the tomb. When she recognises him and attempts to embrace him, he stops her. Why? Because the resurrected Jesus is not the final act. Jesus does not stick around as the death-defying Messiah who becomes the charismatic leader of the early church. Once more, the disciples had to let Jesus go, this time the resurrected Jesus who seemed to fulfill all their dreams for a visionary, powerful Messiah. Because if they did not let him go, they would not move on, not be able to receive his Spirit in a dynamic and powerful way on Pentecost.

This seems to be a recurring theme in the biblical texts, especially in the life and teachings of Jesus. People are constantly being challenged to let go of their expectations, their dreams, their plans, their belief systems, their ways of knowing, their prejudices, and their desire to hold onto the good things in life. If Jesus had remained with the disciples as a risen Messiah, a death-conquering Messiah, they would have avoided a second, painful letting go. But they also would have missed learning to trust God in uncertain and scary circumstances and they would have missed learning to trust others as they formed communities of faith. There would have been no Pentecost, that mysterious combination of divine empowerment and presence that God made available to all who would believe. Instead of Jesus being physically present in one place at one time (wonderful as that was), the Spirit of Christ became present in Christians wherever they went. And that kind of multiplication, that kind of added dimension only happened when the disciples let go of the comforting, physical presence which they so craved, which they wanted to cling to, to hold on to, to own.

Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. This refers to a freedom not only from sin and death, but from being clingy people, holding on to our comforts and our dreams and hopes of how things should be. "There is something better," Jesus seems to say to his disciples, "Better than resurrection. Can you trust me enough to let me go again? Can you trust me enough to open yourself up to whatever God will do next?"

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

where is God?

There are some books that I take a long time to read. One of those is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin S.J. It is filled with stories, advice, quotes, and wisdom on a wide range of spiritual topics, all offered within an Ignatian framework. Though it is a very accessible read, I find myself not rushing through it; I want to stop and think, stop and pray, stop and work out the things I read about.

This morning I read something in Martin's book which hit very close to home. The author has a condition which has been diagnosed as repetitive strain injury. Since his theological study days, he has suffered shooting pains in his hands and wrists which affect how much he can type and write. While working at a magazine, he became increasingly frustrated at the situation. He asked: "Why would God do this? What was the sense of a writer who couldn't write? What was the point? ... Why would God prevent the work that I was missioned to do?" He tried everything from holistic healers and acupuncturists to faith healers. Nothing much changed. Over time he learned to manage the condition through massage, exercises, and stretching, but he was still limited in how much time he could spend writing. One day when Martin was confessing his frustration about the situation to his spiritual director, the man asked him, "Is God anywhere in this?" It was a question Martin had grown to hate and he responded emphatically, "No!" His spiritual director insisted: "Really? Nowhere?"

Martin, almost despite himself, began to recount all the ways this condition had changed him. Let me quote his words:

Since I could only type for a short period of time each day ... I was more grateful for what I was able to write, because I knew that it was only thanks to God's grace and gift of health, even if temporary. I was more careful about what I wrote too. Perhaps I was becoming more patient, too, since I couldn't do everything at once. And I was less likely to get a swelled head, since I couldn't talk about the grandiose plans I had for future writing. And I was more aware of others with physical limitations and with far graver illnesses. Maybe I was becoming more compassionate. ... I'm more conscious of how much I rely on God ... since I can't do anything on my own.  (Martin, 288-89)

I often privately bemoan the weaknesses that I have as a student, teacher, and writer: I also experience occasional pain in my left arm and hand from strain, I feel uninspired and unmotivated too much of the time, I can't remember things I read a few days or even hours ago, I write agonizingly slowly, taking hours to eek out a paragraph or two, and compared to others in my field, my writings appear ineloquent and often lack the necessary breadth of knowledge. In pressured situations, I sometimes draw a blank when asked a question about something that I should know. Preparation for any kind of teaching situation usually takes a tremendous amount of energy, time, and labour.

And yet, with Martin, I admit to seeing signs of God in my situation. I am grateful every time I finish a writing project of any length or complete a teaching assignment, knowing how impossible it seemed before and during the task. I have grown in patience with myself and others and learned diligence. I am more gracious with those who have learning difficulties or must overcome limitations. I am learning that being careful with each word and thought is to be valued above the ability to finish things quickly. I study and write in a state of peace most days, calm and focused. Like Martin, my weaknesses make me more aware of the presence of God and how much I rely on divine guidance to help me through daily tasks.

Talking about suffering with any integrity, Martin suggests, demands a personal narrative. It demands that we live with acceptance, grace, humility, and obedience in our present situation. And we learn how to find God in it. Thanks, Jim.