Archives For Leadership

learning-in-progressAs the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking about the past twelve months of blogging. I’m fortunate to have had many new interactions with some great thinkers, and some edge dwelling doers, in the active academic field of theology and ministry.

This year, however, I’ve also met with a different, darker side of that field.

I’ve studied theology and have a double degree to show for it. I’ve Read the books. Ticked all the boxes, met the requirements; even made some lecturers smile. Yet, the more I read and learn; the more I seek to participate in the world of academia, the more I see that I don’t fit easily into some of its neatly stacked bubbles.

For starters, my current occupation involves me being a homeschool teacher to my five kids. I don’t say all the “right things” or do what others do to get noticed. I don’t pad agreement on top of agreement. I haven’t written a book yet, and I don’t write blog posts that give an overly appreciative applause to something I’ve read or someone I know.

I write to benefit the reader; share a discovery and hope to learn something in the process. I don’t write for the approval of any who might read my post. I don’t write for others to see how brilliant my academic ability is, and as a result offer me a position on their team. Neither do I seek to invite insult, just to paint myself as a victim.

My focus is on how the theology I read and study, critiques what we are being sold in by society through the media, Hollywood, the Universities and in politics.

I’m interested in working out how that theology translates into ministry; how the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the world today in its obsession with escalating the hostility between Left and Right.

How that theology brings a critique against the conclusions of academics who, all too often, appear ready to shoot down conservatives, or those on the right with tired rhetoric, slogans and labels.

For sure, some of that criticism in the past has been justified, but when does that criticism, itself become a whip or chain used to oppress new victims?

For instance, I’ve come to learn that any post that seeks to draw theologians like Barth or Bonhoeffer ‘’outside of the box’’ won’t be met with encouragement, let alone a smile. I don’t read the works of Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the agreed upon traditional political filters; speak about them through a modern liberal theological lens.

For that I’ve been drawn into some heavy discussions with overly picky critics. I’ve even had someone go out of their way to politely warn me that if I want to move forward in my academic studies, I shouldn’t upset those in power on the Left, by rocking their boat [i].

But I’m not the kind of person who goes around stroking egos, my own or those of the people around me. I aim to proclaim the truth and do that in a loving way. Will it be a flawed communication sometimes? Yes. Do I do my best to take into consideration the blind sides and their inevitable limitations? Absolutely. With every fiber of my ability to do so.

The more I venture into this post-grad world, the more I see; the more I begin to understand that if you’re not politically aligned with what is considered to be the collectives authorised narrative, you’re more likely to just end up speaking to yourself.

The warning signs are clear, if you’re not ‘’on board enough,’’ you won’t succeed beyond what you may have already accomplished. For some, it doesn’t matter how well you write, draw, paint, sing, create or communicate. If you say something different that opposes the consensus of those in box, you’re viewed as a threat to the thrones of those in power within the box.

Even though I’ve worked hard all my life, am a certified four year college graduate; parchment-on-the-wall qualified theologian. The past twelve months have shown me that in the field of theology, I’m an insider forced to live on the outside.

And that’s okay. Here I stand. Introspectively speaking, I’m freed from having to perform to the same oppressive modern liberal tune I suspect many others feel they have to dance to.

I have questions about the appearances, sums and conclusions, so widely assumed watertight, honest and reliable. I’m not looking to rise to the top of the echo chamber. Not looking to outdo, or compete for a position in it. I’m seeking to make an honest contribution. Share what I’ve found and work on refining that as God’s Grace allows.

The past twelve months have opened my eyes to the fact that if I’m relegated to the sidelines because of this, than perhaps the problem has less to do with me, and more to do with those who pushing me, and others like me, there.


Notes:

[i] Yes this did happen. No I’m not prepared to reveal who.

Bonhoeffer_1944_LPP_Quote_action and responsibilitySeventy-two years on, Bonhoeffer’s words speak with a sharp relevance:

I hear men in angry mood. Innumerable voices in wild confusion, a dumb choir assaults the ear of God.
“Hunted by men and maligned, defenceless and guilty to their mind, by intolerable burdens abused, yet we declare them the accused.
We accuse those who drove us to the evil deed, who allowed us to share their guilty seed, who made us witnesses of the just abused, only to despise those they had used.
Our eyes must see violence, entangling us in their guilty offence; then as they silence our voice, like dumb dogs we have no choice.
We learned to call lies just, uniting ourselves with the unjust. When violence was done to the weak, our cold eyes did not speak.
And what in sorrow our hearts had broken, remained hidden and unspoken. We quenched our burning ire and stamped out the inner fire.
Sacred bonds by which we once were bound are now torn and fallen to the ground, friendship and truth betrayed, tears and remorse in ridicule displayed.
We sons from upright men descended, who once rights and truth defended, have now become despisers of God and man, amidst the mocking laughter of hell’s plan
(From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Nächtliche Stimmen; Voices In The Night)

Bonhoeffer’s poem is a lament. It’s complex and partly sporadic, even though it holds to a basic theme and structure.

Edwin Robertson suggests that Dietrich, who was in prison at the time, was anxious. He had found out that the ‘Valkyrie Plot’ {20th July, 1944} had failed. Consequently he was concerned that the contents of the poem might ‘end up in the wrong hands,’[i] endangering his friends and family.

What is clear from Bonhoeffer’s words in ‘Nächtliche Stimmen’ is that he lamented the conforming silence of the German majority and lamented the necessity of his role in the July plot. There is also a sense of anger at being forced into violence because of an unrelenting assault from those who insist on being violent. Being a early and loud opponent of mass hysteria, Nazism and a leader of dissent in the Church over the Aryan clause in particular, he was more than aware that the window of opportunity for Christians and Non-Christians to act without force had long since passed.The question that sits over this is, how did we as a people let it get so bad?

Apart from there being very strong political parallels that describe how conservatives are pushed into a corner, where no matter what their response it, it’s tainted by the violence and abuse that cornered them. There are lessons here for the 21st Century Christian community. For instance: authentic Christian activism ought to be able to neutralise the necessity for extreme action. We can approach the world with a ‘readiness for responsibility’ in spite of its sometimes hostile, virulent and internal opposition.

We see examples of this ‘readiness for responsibility’ in the ‘Acts’ of the Apostles where Peter met with the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (10:1-33), and when Paul spoke to the intellectual elite in the Areopagus Council[ii] (17:22-34).

Learning from the mistakes of the past, being able to employ a ‘readiness for responsibility’[iii], as Bonhoeffer terms it, is about participants being encouraged to avoid rage-based responses. Helping our Christian communities aim for balance without detrimental compromises, empowering others to better discern and persuasively respond when attacks are maliciously calculated in order to elicit a negative reaction.

The Christian response needs to include a deliberate challenge to the over-the-top reactionary position. It seeks to prevent any damage to the ability of Christians entering into a missional relationship with a hurting and bruised world. Anything short of this restricts healthy dialogue, unnecessarily turning opponents into enemies. Ultimately only succeeding to feed the “mocking laughter of hell’s plan”.

Here we see the significance of Phillip Yancey’s chilling caveat in ‘What’s so amazing about Grace?‘:

‘Will grace, ”the last best word”, the only unsullied theological word remaining in our language, go the way of so many others? In the political arena, has it come to mean its opposite? In another context, Nietzsche gave this warning, which applies to modern Christians: “Be careful, lest in fighting the dragon you become the dragon.” (1997:292)

 


Sources:

[i] Robertson, E. 1999 Prison Poems Zondervan Grand Rapids p.66

[ii] ‘The Areopagus included only those of highest status in this university community’,Keener, C. S, 1993. The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. (Ac 17:33–34).

[iii] Bonhoeffer, D. 1944 On the Baptism of D.R. Bethge, in Letters and Poems from Prison, Kindle Ed.

facade of compassion 2Positive advances in communications technology drive the functionality of information delivery like a viaduct.

Information is carried along at a fast pace. Which means that we’ve found ourselves living in an era of information deluge. Words, thoughts and opinions rain down on us from everywhere.

In this downpour, writers can be too easily tempted to reach for the fastest way to keep people reading their work.However, putting something together that’s worth a reader’s time, takes time.

In this environment, writing can be hard. Gimmicks and stunts; shock and awe, are all potential roads writers can go down.Simply because time poor people need fast facts, fast entertainment and fast news.

Selling drama buys sympathy, or in this day and age, at least a like, share or a twenty-four hour hashtag trend, triggered by a bubbly questionable logic that says, “like, wow! hashtag riots really do make a difference.”

It’s safe to say that we now live in a tabloid age. Words are thrown like darts at constructed targets of opportunity. For instance, people comment in ways they never would if the conversation they were part of was held face to face in a physical public forum. We would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have that one “friend” on social media, who always seems to take their own level of intelligence more seriously than others.

Think of the beauty and vibrancy of the democratic process presently underway in America. To an Australian, it’s portrayed as a circus. Partly because, no doubt, some of it is. What’s not portrayed is the fact that most of this circus is concocted. It’s not real.

As a result, the vibrancy of the American democratic process is overlooked. The beauty of it is pushed to the sidelines. For sure, the system is in need of reform. But guess what? Review and reforms are part of adult life. They’re also a chief reason for why democracies still exist.

For the most part, the gratitude that should stem from an awareness of what we still have, is subsumed by a deep anxiety about what we’re told the other side wants to take from us.  As a consequence, thankfulness for having such responsible freedoms and a responsibility to uphold those responsible freedoms becomes pretty much non-existent. Apathy and abdication from the democratic process soon follows. If the people aren’t interested in Governments, Governments will govern outside the interests of the people.

Like writing, good democracy takes time and effort. Participation in a physical public forum requires planning. It involves preparing beforehand what you are going to ask, say or discuss. Unlike the psuedoisms of the virtual realm, decorum and respect would trump temptation to make off the cuff comments, concocted to perform a duty, not to the community involved in that forum, but to the ego of the person commenting.

Their words can penetrate with no real benefit, but to that of the owner of the ego. Who is, sadly, sometimes even celebrated by followers or friends who also enjoyed seeing a target hit by a cheap shot. As a result, words are reduced to noise. This noise is amplified by the commerce of Social Media and the superficial, transactional relationships upheld by it. Which is why the mechanic [for the sake of the bottom line] is programmed to sell an idea of community as if it’s the real thing.

This is something foreseen in the lamentations of Jean Bethke Elshtain[i], who, not without her critics, acknowledged in 1995 and later, 2012, that the trajectory of technology, empowers mobs via technology, to hinder participation in the democratic process.  For Elshtain, the inevitable outcome is the decline of democratic debate, authentic participation and therefore democracy. Of which there now exists numerous examples.

Elshtain was right to call this out. Wading through the density of information and navigating the sometimes manipulative statements, images, etc. Sometimes feels like wading through stagnating bloated rivers. The raft people climb onto in order to escape these rising waters, however, is dangerously overloaded on one-side.

As Elshtain noted,

‘we often hear more about the folly of the right, than we do of the left.’[ii]

Cynicism abounds. Responsible commentary is paralyzed by the attraction of sensationalism. Under the dark smile of Machiavellian logic, certain elements, through a facade of compassion seek dominance, if not total rule. Fear of offense and that fear (come commodity), is utilized by the few to control the many.

We can begin to fix this by seeing that our reliance on technology cannot replace the need for careful comment and face to face interaction. Being physically present and visible in the democratic forum upholds the democratic forum.  It is the rock of genuine relationship. All of which requires communication – the respect for representation, convention, conversation, and planning; elements that not only contribute to the idea of democracy, but are part of the very fabric of real democracy.

Democracy takes time. It means wading through the hard stuff. Asking the difficult questions and then allowing room for those questions to be answered.  If the way forward for democracy is to be taken seriously, it begins with deep gratitude, not an unruly anxiety.

As an American friend said to me a few weeks ago:

 “Well, at least we still get to vote on something.”

Source:

[i] Elshtain, J.B, 1995 Democracy on trial, (Amazon)

[ii] State of Democracy: Maxwell School of Syracuse University Lecture 2012 (Source)

See also, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s, 1978, Harvard Speech {Transcript available here: American Rhetoric}

IMG_2219As a ship before a reef is directed by a lighthouse, so must we find ourselves directed. Who we allow to do the directing is a matter of choice and faith.

This is, however, counter to the logic of advocates who aggressively serve an ideology of absolute freedom; who, in turn deny absolutes and inadvertently also deny freedom.

The outcome is the theft of freedom under the guise of promising freedom.

The few assert themselves as lords over the many because some form of direction is ultimately necessary for survival.[i] Necessary for freedom to remain freedom.

Accordingly, the act of being confronted by a lighthouse is repressive, and unfairly restrictive.

Following this logic, it’s an anachronistic social construct of a by-gone era.

Something to be denied its right to speak.

Something to be denied its right to confront us.

Something to be silenced by put-downs and ridiculed into submission.

Something that no longer has a right to exist or the freedom to shine?

That is until the unmovable brunt of a reef rips apart the hull and this charade of freedom-without-limitation is shattered upon its concealed jagged surface.

Unveiled, this hidden danger now leaves a trail of debris, terror, chaos and destruction in the wake of what is an observable and reasoned, natural intolerance.

The reef could have been avoided, but it wasn’t.

Consequently, the pride and cheering stop. The celebrity promotions, hype, progressive optimism, associated propaganda, ad hominem, and ticket tape parades are instead replaced by mourning, blame, loss and emptiness.

An unhealthy fear of offending or demands of compensation for being offended by the offensive posturing of the lighthouse no longer matter. All that was has been sacrificed to the abyss. Behind the veil of universal niceness, true freedom is regrettably lost.

Like most ships, who on seeing the warm and graceful signal fires of a steadfast lighthouse, do not stay ignorant; or choose to remain on its own wilful course. So it is, that although an ‘educator may teach a child, the student must take pains to get an education. There is a difference between merit and means. There is moreover a difference between cause and effect…Wisdom’s dole is dispensed at wisdom’s gate’ [ii]

Or, in the brilliant words of the late Dallas Willard,

‘grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.’ [iii]

Karl Barth might meet this with a resounding, “yes! this is our response to God because He loves in freedom; chooses to be responsibly involved.” He grants us permission to know what He expects of us. We are not abandoned to fallible perilous assumptions. We are not left alone, having to choose between what is the equivalent of Scylla and Charybdis.

God is free. In His freedom he acts. In His love we hear His “yes and no” spoken for our benefit. Not because we deserved it, but because it is God’s will-to-rescue us from a corrupted will-to-power; He directs us towards Himself.

Our response, (our effort?) then, is to be one of ‘prayer and gratitude’; or as Barth simply puts it, ‘grateful obedience.'[iv]

For him this is because ‘the truth of humanity, [in our being confronted by grace; Jesus Christ] is that we are directed towards God.’ [v]

Spurgeon, himself, appears to have grasped this, stating:

‘There is no merit in seeking the Lord; but we may not hope to find him without it. The cup must be held under the flowing fountain or it will not be filled, yet the cup does not create the water or purchase it’ [vi]

A summary of this might be as simple as saying that grace affords our gratitude.

In the end perhaps, Abigail Adams says it best:

‘I wish our gratitude may be in manner and way, proportionate to our benefit.’ [vii]

Which in turn means:

‘blessed is the one who hears instruction and responds wisely to it’ – (Proverbs 8:33-34)

 

 


Sources:

[i] My tentative conclusions here rest on those of Albert Camus. To paraphrase, ‘therefore, absolute freedom is ultimately a lie.’ (The Rebel)

[ii] Spurgeon, C.H. 1883 Flowers from a Puritan’s Garden,  Electronic Ed. p.78

[iii] Willard, D. 2006 The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Monarch Books, United Kingdom

[iv] Barth, K. 1940, The Limits of The Knowledge of God CD. II/1 p.218-229 Hendrickson Publishers, T& T Clark Ltd, 1957

[v] ibid, p.121

[vi] Spurgeon, C.H. 1883 Flowers from a Puritan’s Garden,  Electronic Ed. p.78

[vii] Adams, J & A. The Letters of John & Abigail Adams, #81, 10th December 1775

Five Two

March 20, 2015 — 5 Comments

Fish photo_RLampard2015Two weeks ago my father passed away. He was not an easy man to connect with. So, we weren’t close.

Anything I write about it will inevitably fail to convey the reality of what would be justifiably labelled as a “failed” relationship.

No words I choose to use can adequately describe what kind of person he was. Nor can they fairly present the two-sides of the damaged legacy that informed and followed a lot of the choices he made.

I’ve looked for ways to write about it and have nothing. Hence the simple reflective posts over the past month.

My words seem to stubbornly sit in a void. It’s not like I have nothing to say, it’s just that there isn’t a lot that could be said.

Then there’s the added complication of a what should be said, but needs to be said carefully, at the right time and to the right people.

What I can say is that although grace redefined our relationship as father and son, one-sided relationships are hard to maintain. As a result it never was what it should, or could have been. I lament that. What I see, however, and am thankful for is how grace moved through forgiveness to empower me to work with what I could do instead of what he or others expected and demanded that I should do.

Subsequently, we were able to connect in a healthy way, establishing and asserting boundaries; speaking on the phone almost every month for the past ten years, interacting with him online, sending him care packages, driving to speak and pray with him the week that he died.

As much as I would like to take the credit for this. With the dysfunction that existed there, such contact was and remains an act of God.

It’s what recently attracted me to an event that Luke mentions.

The people who had come out to hear Jesus preach needed to eat and the disciples were getting antsy. Jesus steps up and works with what he has. No magic. No fairy dust. Just an incomprehensible act of grace that apprehends us.

Challenging us to see and understand that He can make possible that which otherwise seems to be impossible.

‘Jesus directed the disciples saying, ”Sit them down in groups of about fifty.” They did what he said, and soon had everyone seated. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread and fish to the disciples to hand out to the crowd.’
– (Luke 9:14-17, The Message)

Photo credit: Mine. It is cropped from a larger photo that features a sculpture tucked away into a wall near the Manning River in Taree, NSW.

FDRWith the start of the new school year we’ve been engineering the tone of homeschool for the rest of the year. So, my focus has been elsewhere. Which means, as far as blog content goes, posts are short and sweet.

Recently, I came across Franklin Roosevelt’s address to the nation on D-Day. One of THE defining military campaigns of the Second World War. (link to full text)

D-Day did more than symbolise a united stand against totalitarianism, it was a just act against blatant evil.

Hence the value of this document: it is both a humble prayer and political speech. Speculation is a cardinal sin for theologians, (or so I was taught), therefore I find myself holding back (with some difficulty) from thinking about how things would have gone if this act of contrition by the then American President had not happened. Looking at the paradigm of today’s political world, it is hard to imagine a prayer like this being deemed permissible.

For this reason: here is one the most powerful leaders in the free world submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. There is no sentimentalism in it that I can see.This is not cultural Christianity parading the veneer of vaguely remembered Sunday School lessons in order to appeal to popular applause.

Underpinning this prayer is the understanding that the human judgement which rightly involved taking action against Nazi aggression and ideology, is itself under divine judgement.

Excluding the word ‘crusade’, Roosevelt is inadvertently preempting the same considerations made by American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1945:

‘Out of the humility of prayer grows the charity for comrade and foe. The recognition that we all stand under a more ultimate bar of judgement mitigates the fury of our self-righteousness and partly dissolves the wickedness of our dishonest pretensions…
We will therefore not be swollen by pride because others think well of us. We will remember that they do not know the secret of our hearts. Neither will we take their disapproval too seriously. The sense of a more ultimate judgement arms us with the courage to defy the false judgements of the community’ [i]

Both are impressive. Each make a unique contribution to how Jesus Christ, just judgement, Christian love and responsibility are valuable to an evangelical ethic that supports life and reaches out in truth. With the understanding that sometimes “no” is given in order to say “yes”; an ethical framework that every responsible parent knows well and practices daily.

Official & original:

With music and a video montage:


‘Even the ”devils believe and tremble,” and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords’
 
(Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)

[i] Niebuhr, R. 1945 Discerning The Signs of The Times, Niebuhr Press Kindle. Ed.

Image: Mine. I cropped it using the first and last page of the transcript in order to draw attention to it.