Hope in the Face of Evil

There is no end to the evil which is in the news on any given day. I find myself sometimes immobilized with feelings of helplessness.

At a recent neighborhood street party in Toronto innocent people were shot, some were wounded and thus far two people have died. This isn’t supposed to happen in Canada. It was a story shocking enough to hit the American news cycle for a day.  It is stories like this and the one which continues to unfold in Colorado, that brings a shadow of darkness to my mind and soul.

The morning after the Toronto shooting I had coffee with an urban leader who lives just down the block from where the mayhem occurred. You won’t read about him on Google news or see him in a YouTube clip anytime soon. He’s not famous.

He told me he was sorry for being late for our appointment but he had a hard time getting out of his neighborhood due to the number of police cars and news crews on his route. He only found out about the prior nights tragedy as he listened to the radio on his drive to meet me. After our meeting he was heading back to see if he could connect with any of the churches in that neighborhood.  “The churches and the pastors in that neighborhood are in the best position to help people respond to the crisis. I want to see if I can assist them in anyway.

He is a leader and it is people like him who give me hope.  I pray that Aurora has many quiet, faithful leaders like him.

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The Importance of Emptiness

The Baby-boomer anthem by that laid-back California troubadour Jackson Browne has always said it best:

“Running on-running on empty
Running on-running blind
Running on-running into the sun
But I’m running behind”

(Running on Empty, 1977)

Leadership often seems to have that sense of no matter how hard one works, one is always behind.  Leadership in the church is frequently about managing process without closure.  There is always one more call to make, one more meeting to take, one more thing to do.  We run and run and run…and run out of gas…and we become exhausted from all the running.  We find ourselves as leaders empty.

But is that such a bad thing?  Recently two writers, Gordon Cosby and Sister Joan Chittister, have given me new insight into the importance of emptiness.  Cosby, in a 2001 interview said, “Our culture promotes a constant filling up, but our disciplines will draw us toward a greater emptiness, so that we can be better prepared for obedience and, ultimately, for finding our place in God’s plan finding true relevance.”  Sister Joan, in her book, “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” (Eerdman’s, 2005), encourages Jesus followers to cultivate the spiritual discipline of detachment – of letting go – of emptying in order to gain that which is greater.

If we “run on empty” because we are obsessively trying to control our world, we will fail.  But if we run on empty as a means to unburden our souls from all that crowds us , to unclench from our tendency to hoard, then as leaders we discover true freedom, and the ability to be the non-anxious presence required of good leadership in our post-everything world.  – JPW

Jesus liked A.P.E.s

Recently I noticed first hand a leadership reality which Alan Hirsch, an Australian Missiologist, teaches. “At the beginning of a religious organizations life the Apostles, Prophets and Evangelists are large and in charge and by the time the organization matures and plateaus the Pastors and Teachers have taken over the management positions. The ‘APE’s’ have either moved on or have been ostracized.”

I had the privilege of meeting with the National Executive of a 15 year old Christian non-denominational organization in Burma two weeks ago. It was a room full of passionate, fervent, God fearing, fearless, tireless, and generous to a fault men and women. The majority were self-proclaimed Evangelists with a couple of Pastors thrown in for some balance.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this room of large yet healthy egos would not be tolerated in the North American church circles where I typically move as a leader. At best these Evangelists would be gently ignored and at worst be treated with disdain and derision.

They taught me a valuable lesson. If I as a leader want to see new things begin or old ways truly renewed then I have to be able to identify the “APE’s” in the crowd, disciple them and then let them loose on the world.

This is what Jesus managed to do. Peter, ‘the Rock’; James and John, ‘Sons of Thunder’; Judas; were not gentle shrinking violets. I realize anew that Jesus chose leaders with large personalities who after three years of being discipled were going to be instrumental in starting a new thing; a large sustainable, life giving God thing.

It is an example worth following today. – BB

Women, Love and God

Today, 8 March, 2012, is International Women’s Day and so it is fitting for us to make a special note of the strides made and not made to bring about gender equality in our communities.  Though most of us can list extraordinary women who have had and continue to have a global impact, I want to focus on one particularly special women – my mother.

My father passed away when I was twelve and so I credit my mom for teaching me how to be the best man I could be.  Though I wasn’t always the best son (especially during those teenage years), my Mom’s enduring love for me never ceased.  She never gave me a reason to question her love for me.  Her ability to always find the good in my life and her never dying belief that I always had the imagination to pull through any situation gave me the assurance to step out and take risks.  All this while society kept telling her she was of the lessor gender and weaker without a husband to take care of her.  Even today Mom’s gentle encouragement to me, even while she is struggling daily with her own health woes, never ceases to amaze me.

As I reflect on Mom and her life and the life lessons she passed my way, her most important lesson to me is the reminder that God’s call to each of us to live a life of Love.  1 Corinthians 13 is a reminder of this love.  Thank you Mom for reflecting God’s love to me in ways only a mother can to her son.  And may I as a man find the strength and courage to pass on this love to my daughter, son & wife. – JM

I Don’t Want To

My boss said, “Yes, I think you should go to preach in Burma.” Sounds cool, right? There’s just one little hitch. I don’t really want to go and I don’t have to go.  

I’m not much of a globe trotter, never have been. Even as a young adult when given the opportunity to head across international borders in the development work of the church the farthest I chose to go was the east coast of my home land, St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. My brothers went to Brazil and France.

Leaders get to do things that they don’t always want to do. Yes we’re aware of those things in our work that aren’t any fun to do but there are also times when we don’t want to do what others see as the fun stuff. We have our reasons and people around us may not understand, “You’d rather officiate at a funeral than a wedding? Really?” “Seriously, you aren’t looking forward to seeing a fascinating part of God’s creation?” Yes, seriously. 

I’m going to a strange exotic land not because I want to or have to go but because I need to go. One of my disciples needs me to be in his homeland. It is what he needs from me so that his credibility and ministry can grow. It is for this relationship that I’ll sit on a plane for 15 hours straight, eat questionable ‘delicacies’, suffer jet lag for too many days and dance with Montezuma’s revenge. Leaders know when they need to say “Yes” to an invitation to lead even when they don’t want to. – BB

Leaders Define Reality

“…although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result…”

~ Genesis 50.20

Leadership does not always have a happy ending.  Sometimes, the price of leadership is that our brothers leave us for dead or sell us out, just as Joseph’s brothers did.  No matter how hard we try to make sense of it, the stink of betrayal hovers around our soul, and sticks around for a long time.  Simply put, there are times and occasions when being a leader will result in taking a hit.  Our instinct is hold back in those moments – to soften the blows and do whatever is expedient to lessen the impact of our leadership.  In those moments, self-doubt can reign and our leadership wavers.

Joseph’s story has often been read to us as the story of an arrogant young man who got his come-uppance, then when he hit bottom learned to “turn it over to God” and receive his just rewards.  However, maybe another way to read the story is of a young leader who told the truth and let that truth take him on a journey.  Not always an easy journey and certainly not a pain-free journey, but Joseph’s life is testimony to a leader who tells the truth. 

Max Dupree once defined leadership as “the ability to define reality”.  Defining reality is telling the truth.  It isn’t easy, nor is it for the faint of heart.  At some point in your life and ministry, defining reality will cost you – guaranteed.  Nevertheless, it is in defining reality, in telling the truth, that God does good and ushers in a new result.  Don’t hold back.  Go ahead and define reality.  Tell the truth.  God will do good. – JW

Rip Those Pages Out

Last week, over a simple meal, some friends and I were discussing the merits of the Old Testament.  Can we as followers of Christ in the 21st century do without the Old Testament?  What is the real value of this text to the person in the pew?  As a Mennonite, I often struggle with the “God as Warrior” image of the Old Testament.  Or even the “vengeful God” imagery.  It would be so easy to rip those pages out of the Canon.  And yet, there they are glaring at us. 

Johnny is a close friend of mine who lives in South East Asia.  He frequently shares stories of his displaced friends living on the Thai-Burma border.  Johnny is an ardent promoter of just peace making.  This deeply rooted belief has put him on various government target lists.  He has been prohibited from visiting dear friends and places and even spent time in prison for this belief.  As he watches his displaced friends on the border continuing to suffer, he asks me (his institutional administrator friend), “as a leader, how often do you consider how your decision impacts the poor?” 

This question came roaring back to me last week.  Here we were in Lancaster County, USA discussing the merits of the Old Testament wanting to rip pages out of the Bible to suit our perspective on just peace making.  Meanwhile, the displaced in SE Asia find comfort in the arms of a God who is on their side and would be willing to fight and take revenge on those who were continually maiming, raping and killing their families.  So, if we are to truly seek the welfare of the poor, should we be ripping pages out of the Bible or releasing our dogmas to God? – JM

ReThink Everything

What we plant determines what we grow.  Farmers understand this but for an urban guy like me, it has taken a while to figure out.

For 25 years, I’ve been involved in what evangelical-Anabaptists refer to as, “church planting.”  The Christian world can be divided into those who think church planting is a good idea and those who are actually doing it.  I’ve lived in both camps, and I think that some of my fellow-travelers (myself included!) have been involved in a great adventure in missing the point.

 Leaders have engaged in church planting as institutional formation.  We focus on executing strategies that attract a collection of people who we hope find spiritual meaning in the church plant’s wonderful programs.  Growing a church requires the planter to commit to sustaining program excellence, manage costs, and form relational bonds through customer intimacy.  Mission agencies sustain this model by offering venture capital to the church plant with the expectation that a sustainable and self-funding church will emerge that supports the mission agency in return.  In short, the system demands we plant churches as institutions.

What if we did gospel planting instead?  What might it look like if we see every follower of Jesus as a church planter and believe every church can plant another church?  What if we incarnated the victory news that Jesus is Lord of everything?  

Gospel planting requires leaders to re-think everything:  our definitions of mission and church; our leadership cultivation and discipleship formation; and the way we use money in the formation of church plants.

Our current church planting models grow from the same Christendom assumptions that have informed much of the way we have done church over the past 1700 years.  Instead, let’s start planting the gospel, and experience the church fruit that grows from that seed.

 Scary, huh? – JW

Burning to Call Out Leaders

“God loves you…and Jeff has a wonderful plan for your life!”   

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that leaders must assist others into leadership roles and into God’s missional purpose.  Of course, the struggle is in trying to make sure that the invitation I’m extending to others is just that – an invitation, not an expectation. 

This is not an exact science.  There have been plenty of “oops!” moments over the years.  As I’ve invited others to lead I’ve been burned on occasion and I’ve accidently burned others. We all know being burned is painful. Nevertheless, I won’t quit. I can’t stop seeing the possibilities that emerge when someone yields their leadership potential to the transforming power of God.

I’m reminded of Moses, once a powerful member of Pharaoh’s household, now reduced to tending sheep for his father-in-law.  Moses is getting on in years and while he has married well and raised a family, his dreams have been unfulfilled.  Then, out of nowhere, God in the burning bush asks Moses to throw his staff on the ground.  It is the act of letting go of those last vestiges of Moses’ self identity which allows Moses to become what God called him to be; a leader in Israel’s redemption.

God still has a mission – the redemption of everyone and everything.  God is still calling people to lead the effort for the redemption of everyone and everything.  Perhaps the voice doesn’t come from the burning bush but the voice is still very much there. Or maybe God needs us to be the burning bush calling a modern day Moses to lead. – Jeff