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Posts Tagged ‘power’

What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the communal life of congregations as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

2) Koinonia (Community)

Christianity is a way of living out one’s spirituality that is inherently communal. It is a corporate way of living that is countercultural in a culture where spirituality is mostly privatized and individualized.

Churches are communities where people care for one another. Baptism incorporates each person into the Body of Christ, in which there is a sense of mutual responsibility of all Christians for one another. That means that pastoral care is the work of the whole people of God, not just ordered ministry personnel. Its focus is not just on the health and happiness of people but also on their souls. We care by pointing people toward the God who cares for them, in whose life is our light(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 4). Pastoral care for people includes paying attention to the intrusions of God in their lives; inviting them to let God move them more deeply into the new world of God’s grace; shaping their vision and their hopes by the presence of the resurrected Christ. Leaders will need skills and training and wisdom in navigating relationships where the Holy Spirit is at work, taking people in new and unexpected directions.

The organizational structures with which most congregations operate were created to serve congregations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. These congregations had enough people with the time and energy and motivation to sit on numerous committees. Those structures are under pressure as the number of people available and willing to fill positions and work on the committees decreases. In many situations, conventional committees are no longer considered the best way to get work done. These realities can be both a challenge and a blessing. They can push communities of faith to figure out how to be structured for relationships rather than around organizational needs. There is renewed attention to ‘spiritual gifts’ as a way of encouraging, equipping, and releasing people into ministries for which they feel called and excited.

Among other things, this means that participatory, collaborative styles of leadership need to be cultivated. Top-down leadership deprives the baptized of their true authority. However, leading in collaborative and non-hierarchical ways is not easy. Training for leadership will require attention to the ways in which relationships are best nurtured.

It will also require attention to the ways people use power in Christian communities. Power is “one of the gifts God gives for the formation of good communities and good people” (Stanley Hauerwas, “What only the whole church can do).

Churches tend to avoid addressing issues of power. Individuals are often reluctant to take on positions of power. More and more frequently it seems, they can be persuaded to do so only if the positions of power are shared. Part of this may stem from a reluctance to take on another commitment of time and energy in very busy lives; however, it may be that some of this is rooted in people being uneasy about exercising power in a community that is ambivalent about it. Leaders will need training in exercising creative authority, in persuasion and in encouraging new initiatives from the bottom up. (Andy Crouch‘s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power provides helpful insights into the faithful use of power.)

One of the great gifts of our culture is the diversity of cultures that are now part of our landscape. Indeed, there are many examples of mainline churches who were declining until a group of immigrants became part of the community and brought new life and joyfulness in the faith with them. As churches become less dominated by people who are white and middle-class, congregations are giving fresh attention to the radical hospitality that Jesus offers and what that means in their life together. Leaders are discovering new ways of helping the community of faith reach across cultural barriers.

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A number of years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in his laboratory in Yale. He brought in a randomly selected group of people and told them that they were participating in research on human behaviour. Each participant was put into a room that had a one-way mirror. S/he could see another person in another room sitting on a chair; that person could not see him or her. The participant (teacher) was given a list of word pairs which s/he was to teach to the person in the other room (learner). After reading through the list of word pairs, the teacher would read the first word of each pair to the learner, along with four possible answers. The learner was to push a button indicating which answer was the ‘pair’ to the word. The teacher was told to work a dial which would supposedly administer an electric shock to the learner whenever that person gave an incorrect answer. In actuality, the person in the other room was an actor and the dial was phony. When the dial was turned, the actor would grimace as if being shocked. To Milgram’s surprise, 100% of the people administered what they thought to be an intense shock when told to do so by the white-coated researcher.

In another experiment, the person in charge was not wearing an official-looking white coat. The experiment was conducted in an old basement. Milgram offered the participants every opportunity to refuse to administer the shock. Even so, many did as they were told. They submitted to the person whom they perceived to have authority and power.

When you decide to follow Jesus, God sets you on a path of confronting who and what exercises authority and power in your life. Following Jesus means developing the capacity to resist pressure from people with power and authority when what they want you to do will betray your humanity or trespass the dignity of others. Your primary allegiance is to God: to shape your relationships according to the way of Jesus. You will find your loyalties and your actions being shaped in peculiar ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the influential atheists of the nineteenth century. He once accused the Christian Church of having taken the side of everything weak, base and ill-constituted. He believed that the world ran by the law of evolution and that its rules favoured power and competition. He was frustrated the Christians were, again and again, choosing the must un-Darwinian objects for their love.

Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity lavish their care on people whom others consider to be homeless wretches who have days, if not hours, to live. Mother Teresa considered acts of compassion for the poorest of the poor a great privilege: Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them. (http://www.verybestquotes.com/150-mother-teresa-quotes/)

Jean Vanier has spent his life cultivating communities where able-bodied assistants live with men and women with mental and physical handicaps, many of whom are unable to speak or co-ordinate their movements. While he could have done many things with his considerable gifts and talents, he says that it is this work among people whom others dismiss as unimportant that has given his life meaning.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement freely admits the folly of her soup kitchens: “What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate — to ignore the price of coffee and to go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us good coffee and the finest bread.”

There are those who would call these people insane or crazy because of their peculiar sense of what is important. The world needs more of that kind of madness. It is the same kind of madness that led Jesus to touch people whom others had labelled ‘untouchable’. It is the same madness that led Jesus to dine with people whom others would cross the street to avoid, and to challenge the people who wanted him to keep quiet because they didn’t want trouble.

It is the same kind of madness that led God to leave the glory of heaven and to dwell among us. In Jesus, God suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might experience Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death.

When we offer ourselves to Jesus, we offer to live lives which mirror, at least to some degree, his love and mercy and grace — even if those lives look peculiar to people who judge us by this world’s standards of success and conformity.

In a sense, people like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and Dorothy Day reached a point where it was easier for them than for people like you and me to live into such peculiarity. They achieved a level of renown. People no longer think them mad. They have become saints, heroes, models to be admired. It is a different story to labour quietly in your ordinary life, trying to live with integrity and compassion and courage amidst pressures to abandon Jesus’ peculiar standards. It is a different story for you and I to speak the truth, to say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’, to give extravagantly or forgive graciously, to choose to stand with people whom others are attacking.

Where do you find the courage to follow Jesus when he leads you against the flow? Mother Teresa wrote that you find it in humility: Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal ( In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers).

Brennan Manning once pointed out that Jesus’ closest friend on earth, a disciple named John, is identified in the gospels as, “the one Jesus loved.” Wrote Manning, “If John were to be asked, “What is your primary identity in life, he would not reply, ‘I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four gospels’, but rather, ‘I am the one Jesus loves.’”

That is who you are: You are the one Jesus loves. That is your primary identity. No matter what anyone else tries to have you be or do, you are the one Jesus loves. Live deeply into that identity; act courageously out of that identity. You may seem peculiar to people who know only this world’s pressure to conform. Never mind that. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that is healing this broken world. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that will give you peace. You are the one Jesus loves. Let that give you courage to act in truth and love.

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Scripture: Daniel 1: 1-21

Millard Fuller was a millionaire entrepreneur from Alabama. Rich but miserable, with his marriage on the rocks, he headed to Americus, Georgia where he became involved in an intentional Christian community, Koinonia Farm, under the leadership of Clarence Jordan. Jordan believed that Christians ought to take what Jesus said seriously. He believed that Christians ought to live out their commitment to Christ in very real and practical ways. That encounter with Jordan led Fuller to give away his personal fortune and found Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity is based on the simple premise that every persons on the planet deserves a decent place to live. Today, thousands of volunteers join in partnership with the working poor to build houses that the poor can afford to live in. Says Fuller, “You don’t have to be a Christian to live in one of our houses or to help us build one. But the fact is, the reason I do what I do, and so many of our volunteers do what they do, is that that we are being obedient to Jesus” (What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey, p. 243).

Being obedient to Jesus may not lead you to give away your personal fortune. However, it will probably lead to to live in ways that seem peculiar to others. Following Jesus will lead you to live ‘against the flow’.

Willimon and Hauerwas tell of a young man who was a bureaucrat in a state agency. On Laity Sunday in his church, he stood up and said that “he has to come to church because he has to be reminded that Christians do not lie. He has to be reminded of that because he said every day at his job, he is surrounded with lies and it is so hard to resist not becoming part of the system of lies. So, he comes each Sunday, in hopes of renewing his speech so he will not lie on the job. That may not contribute to my advancement, but I would rather be a Christian” (Where Resident Aliens Live, p. 108-109).

Imagine how difficult if must be for his co-workers to have someone among them who has made the peculiar decision that he will not lie.

The people of Israel were often considered peculiar because they refused to ‘go along to get along’ with others. They would not conform to the culture around them even when it would have been easier to do so. After the Babylonian armies had conquered Israel, they dragged the leadership of the country into exile. Then, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, selected a group of Jewish boys and offered them the opportunity to be part of a three-year executive training programme. At the end of it, each of them would be guaranteed a position in the royal service.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the boys chosen for this special privilege. They were given new Babylonian names and began their training. However, when they went for their lunch break, they refused to break Jewish dietary laws. They were being offered Lobster Newburg and Pork Medallions and baked Alaska along with some martinis to help all that food go down. “No thanks,” they said. “We’ll stick with salad and water.” Everybody else said, “What are you doing? Don’t risk the opportunity of a lifetime! Eat a bit of shellfish. Enjoy the pork. Don’t make such a fuss about such a little thing. You don’t want trouble. Remember, we’re in exile in Babylon. The Babylonians are in charge. While in Babylon, eat as the Babylonians do.”

Daniel knew that what he ate was not just a ‘little thing’, even though it seemed to be. Jewish dietary laws were part of what it meant to be Jewish: you are what you eat. The Babylonians changing their diet was a way of forming their appetites. It was a way of shaping them in the Babylonian value system.

He also knew that the Babylonians were not really in charge, although they seemed to be. Daniel knew that “the Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [King Nebuchadnezzar’s] power” (Daniel 1:2). Nebuchadnezzar thought that the had defeated Israel through his own superior military power. He thought that the victory was proof that he was a brilliant strategist. Not so says our text. The Lord let him win. The Lord let him take the temple treasures. The Lord let him take prisoners back home with him.  The Lord was God, even in exile. Daniel knew that, ultimately, his destiny lay with the Lord and not with Nebuchadnezzar.

The Book of Daniel begins by saying that the Lord let Babylon capture Israel. By the end of the book, within Daniel’s lifetime, Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, had captured Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was not that powerful, after all. Daniel had outlasted Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel was able to resist being seduced into conformity by those who promised success and power because he was clear about the authority to which he had to answer. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was. God’s power was not as visible as Nebuchadnezzar’s but it was more decisive. The Lord would have the final say. It was this faith, trust that this was the truth, that gave Daniel the courage to say, ‘No’, even under great pressure.

It is the most natural thing in the world to want to fit in, to ‘go with the flow’, to submit to people who seem to hold power and authority. We often do it with the best of intentions. We want to do well. We want our projects to succeed. But what is at stake is our very selves.

You find the courage to be different in the same way that Daniel did: you pay attention to the stories that remind you that God is present; the God’s authority is greater than any authority on earth. To God you are ultimately accountable. You gather with the people of God week by week to remember whose you are — who has claimed your life and your loyalty and your love. You gather week by week because the world would like you to forget the One who has claimed your life. You are easier to manipulate if you forget. From time to time, you renew your promise to Jesus to follow him, and you let God renew God’s promise in you to guide you in paths of holiness and truth.

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A prayer for Reign of Christ Sunday based on Luke 23: 33-43.

Creative, life-giving God,

you speak,

you say, ‘Let there be . . .’

and the forces of life

move with transforming power.

You love,

you love with a costly love,

surrendering self for others,

and evil and death

lose their power.

You forgive

you forgive our ignorance

our blindness

our willfulness

our selfishness,

opening space for your Spirit’s creative work.

Jesus,

remember us.

By your mercy,

heal the wounds we inflict on each other.

Bring us into your presence

and teach us to love with a love like unto your own.

We weep and cry to you –

you whose power for life moves through suffering,

stronger than the power of death:

we pray for the people of the Philippines,

for those who are without homes, clean water, food.

We pray for our own country,

scandalized by the misuse of power

by those who were entrusted with leading us.

We pray for this congregation,

for those who weep within it,

for those who seek to lead it,

for those who look for your Holy Spirit’s hope.

Let your love and power and forgiveness

shape our love, our power, our life together.

Lord Jesus,

Lord of compassion and mercy and grace,

remember those for whom we have special concern this day.

Come among us,

crucified and risen Lord:

let your will be done,

your Spirit move among us;

let your costly, life-giving love reign

and bring us into your glory with you.

Amen.

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Malcolm Muggeridge once said “One of the great attractions of Christianity . . . is its sheer absurdity. I love all those crazy sayings in the New Testament — which, incidentally, turn out to be literally true — about how fools and illiterates and children understand what Jesus was talking about better than the wise, the learned and the venerable; about how the poor, not the rich are blessed, the meek, not the arrogant, inherit the earth, and the pure in heart, not the strong in mind, see God.” (Christ and the Media, p. 71)
Charles Colson discovered this in prison. Colson was special counsel to President Nixon. He had spent his life cultivating power and influence. He was a lawyer who moved into politics. He sacrificed time with his family, vacations, his social life in his quest for power. The ironic thing, he says now, is that, at the moment when it was all within his grasp, on the evening when Richard Nixon was re-elected as President of the United States and Colson was one of two other people in the room with Nixon, he was overcome by a strange sense of emptiness and futility. Power had not given him the freedom, security or satisfaction that he had expected. He did not find those things until he ended up in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. Then, all his power was taken away from him. There, surrounded by despair and suffering; eating, working and talking with the powerless people prosecuted under laws he had written, he began to see what power had done to him. He began to see what power had done, through him, to others.
He learned that power is not the same as justice. The power he had wielded had not accomplished justice in the courts and jails. People were there not because they were guilty of a crime but because the did not have the money, intelligence, or education to manipulate the system and stay out of jail.
As all the trapping of power were taken away from him, he learned that the Christian who breaks radically with the power of this world is far from powerless. When we surrender to God our illusions about power in the world, we find God’s true power working in our lives.
After Colson was released from prison, he formed Prison Fellowship. This organization works in prisons and with prisoners and the administration. They present the gospel; they advocate for decent conditions in prisons; they speak up against abuses. Ironically, he says, his powerlessness has been used by God to influence the criminal justice system far more than he did from his office of worldly power. (Loving God, Charles Colson)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their is the kingdom of God.” It seems absurd. Yet, it is more true than all the strategies for success that fill the shelves in book stores.

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