Banquets: The Medium is the Message

January 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm (Introspection, Leadership) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It is amazing how much of our lives revolve around food.  We meet people for lunch, have church potlucks, and rarely have guests in our home without feeding them.  Given this centrality of food, it shouldn’t be any surprise that many of the stories involving Jesus, also involve food.  It started at His first miracle – the wedding feast where He turned water to wine – and then progressed to feeding thousands of people, harvesting wheat on a Sabbath afternoon, or using banquets as the foundation for a relevant parable.

In one parable Jesus openly condemns those who were the rightful invitees to the Kingdom, but were too busy to come.  That is when the opportunity is taken to invite and welcome those who wouldn’t expect to be in the Kingdom.  In another parable, Jesus explains that people need to be careful about taking the honored seat at the table, lest they be displaced by someone more honorable than they.  But my favorite story, is more than a parable.  It is about a woman of ill-repute, who attended a banquet uninvited, and then honored Jesus the way everyone should honor Him – despite the scorn and hatred with which she was being targeted.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were orphaned children who were taken in by their uncle Simon.  We are told that because of Simon’s abuse of Mary, she, like many young women who were sexually abused, entered a life of prostitution.  Whether Martha or Lazarus were ever abused, physically, emotionally. or sexually, we don’t know.  What we do know through modern research is that living in a home of dysfunction and abuse is taxing.  Everyone pays a price – even the innocent and ignorant ones.

Interestingly, Jesus did not seek out the religious leaders of the day to start His revolution.  Leaders like Simon were overlooked and people like Peter, John, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were more likely to find themselves in the company of Jesus.  Why is it that Jesus ignored the priests, the Levites, and the other religious leaders?  And more importantly, why did these leaders continue to seek Jesus?

Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, Simon threw a party for Jesus.  He invited the who’s who of Jerusalem.  Most likely Martha and Mary were invited to serve – for they were mere women.  Lazarus was probably the conversation piece, for his resurrection from the dead was an amazing story.  Ostensibly, this banquet was for Jesus, but like many parties of this irk, the party is really egocentric.  It is an opportunity for the host to show off his connections.

Jesus, true to His form, was not seeking to draw attention to himself.  From what I understand about Jesus, it’s possible he didn’t want to be at this party.  Except, Jesus was never surprised and I believe He knew what was going to occur at this party.  So, He went, but Jesus didn’t take the seat of honor, he was sitting with those who were considered less special – the less visible people.

It is then that Mary comes in with a vial of perfume, worth more than a year’s wages.  Unashamedly, she lavishes Jesus’ feet with oil, tears, and love.  This is one of the most amazing acts of worship recorded in the Bible – which is why this story is so striking for me.  Mary has been saved by Jesus – but it isn’t an eternal salvation that she is so passionate about, it is the salvation from the shame, pain, and oppression that were killing her.  She is a new person!  She is alive!

Simon and his crew are sitting at the other end of the table however, and they are ticked.  From their perspective, this harlot has come in and stolen the show.  The focus is no longer on Lazarus, and especially not on the host – but now Mary has one-upped Simon.  How dare she!!!

Jesus reads this contempt.  It was hard.  Anyone with basic intuitive skills could have seen it.  Just look at their faces, look at their focus, look at their furrowed brows.  They don’t care that Mary has been saved.  They don’t care that Jesus is being paid the honor He deserves.  But this entourage is angry that Mary has disrupted their egocentric hedonism.  In fact, Simon says something very cutting:

Luke 7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Jesus looks up.  His words strike right to the core:

Luke 7:47 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”

Upon arrival at our last assignment, I was struck by the lack of true love in the church.  As I prayerfully analyzed it over the next several months, it began to get clearer and clearer what was happening.  It is a problem that exists in churches across the west – and it remains entrenched.

I saw it at the first potluck.  Certain groups sitting together, but not intermingling.  It was a painful reminder of my junior and senior high school years.  The cool, popular kids sit together, but they do it in such a way that there really isn’t room for the uncool kids to join them – nor do the cool kids go out of their way to include the uncool kids.  I hadn’t seen this kind of blatant behavior in years – it was atrocious!

I saw it in the pre and post church mingling.  Certain groups clumped up, made plans with each other, but fairly regularly ignored the invisible people of the church.

I saw it in the decision making of the church.  The cool-kids seemed to “know” what was best for everyone, so they didn’t take the time to ask others – especially the invisible ones.

I saw it when we were invited home to someone’s house for dinner.  It often felt like we weren’t there because of who we were – but because of the title “Pastor.”  Sometimes I wonder if we’d been invited if we hadn’t been the pastors of the church.  It didn’t take long to get an answer, as soon enough I saw other newcomers not get invites.  Others told me stories how they’d been attending the church for years but had never been in the homes of certain key leaders.

Jesus, when He arrived on the hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, wept.  His pain for the broken people was deep.

It’s no secret that organized religion is dying.  The Christian Church, as many understand it, has ceased to be a mission and is mostly focused on the preservation of the institution.  Unfortunately, one will hear few top leaders mention this.  From their lips you will hear how well the church is doing and what great things are happening.  This could be ignorance, or self-preservation – I’m not certain which.  Once an elected leader begins to tell his constituents how bad things really are, that leader is certain to have their career cut short.

So, I’m not sure.  When my boss told me there was no evidence that the church was dying – I don’t know if he really believes this, or if he has blinders on, or, if like the bankers testifying to congress, he is just trying to protect his position and income.

As I preached, I saw three groups of people emerge.  The first was immediate.  Several people came to me and encouraged me to keep preaching how and what I was preaching.  This was basically to go deeper in our relationship with Christ.  This first group was made up of semi-regular attenders, and their attendance rates improved.  Many in this group encouraged me to keep preaching what has needed to be preached for a long time.

The second group to emerge was made up of disempowered, broken, and desperate people.  Former (and current) addicts, former prostitutes and dancers, the unemployed, the broken, and the forgotten.  Typically these people were fed just enough table scraps to keep them coming back, but they weren’t being led out of their current state of emotional and spiritual poverty.  While many were kind to the members of this group, most failed to pay much more than lip-service to these people.

The third group that I saw emerging were those with certain expectations of entitlement.  They saw themselves as the foundation of the church.  It was their money, their brains, and their hard work that was keeping the church afloat.

Many in the first group, despite their best intentions to support the direction, I knew they didn’t have it in them to actually step out as a volunteer against Satan’s attacks.  The people in the second group would often be weeping after a sermon.  The people in the third group would iften have their arms folded, their brows furrowed, and their frowns displayed by the end of the sermon.

It was this third group that hired me – which is why I was clear about my ministry and calling from the very first time we met.  Unfortunately, they either didn’t hear me, or figured they could change me.  It was the third group that showered us with kindness.  And it is this third group that we tried to convince that there is a real need for deeper spirituality within the church.  I talked to this group about expectations being premeditated resentments.  I talked to them about making room in their lives for people they wouldn’t normally choose to be around.  I talked to them about admitting how naked and desperate we all are.

All of this seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Didn’t Jesus often repeat, “He who has ears, let them hear…”?

Most of my time was spent with the second group – in and outside of the church.  Some people who were used to being enabled by “kind” pastors of the past, stopped coming.  I wasn’t too concerned about that.  They needed to address some of their issues without being enabled by those who think giving in is love.  At the same time, people in the other two groups began to increase their attendance, sought baptism, or began a regular process of spiritual disciplines.

A good politician knows how to play to their base, serve all constituents well, and expand their service to those outside of their realm.  Unfortunately, I’m a terrible politician.

  • I was right to focus on the oppressed, the broken, and the invisible.
  • I was right to not allow myself to be used by the “official” leaders of the church.
  • I was right to reach outside of the church walls to seek seekers.
  • I was wrong to take the attacks personally and to lose my cool.
  • I was wrong to seek modification of my ministry (when things got ugly), because I feared the loss of an income.
  • I was wrong to not pray more.
  • I was wrong to get stressed, discouraged, and frustrated.

I made other mistakes, I have character flaws, I am an imperfect man.  But to this day, I know that God knew the mistakes I would make and He still called me to be the spiritual leader I am.  This isn’t to give me permission to make mistakes, but knowing that God knew first – that is reassuring.

I believe the leaders of my last church, and the denominational leaders, continue to harbor a superior attitude, much like Simon in the story above.  And also like Simon, it was their actions that caused the problem in the first place.  So, instead of dismissing me, they could have instead taken the opportunity to correct the issues.

As I begin to heal from the injustice we’ve experienced, my biggest pain remains for the people who are invisible and don’t see other options in their lives.  Like a beaten dog, or an abused wife, they just keep returning for more.  The abusers, just keep giving them enough scraps of kindness to keep them coming back.

Jesus, through out the Bible, asked us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.  We have much to learn about this.

Sure, the religious leaders killed Jesus – but did they win?

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You Can’t Lead Your Employer, Can You?

January 13, 2010 at 2:55 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I was called to lead.  Every cell of my being has been honed from the same DNA.  The experiences of my past have taught me to ignore the bastards, damn the torpedoes, and to charge forward with fresh memories of the Nazis bombing Pearl Harbor!  It’s what I I’ve been called to do.

In the past several years I’ve been a part of a movement within Adventism to restructure the administrative, bureaucratic, and leadership systems of the church.  It has been fun, and challenging.  In a nutshell, this involved moving from a democratic system, to a leadership-driven system.  To move from an elected board that sees itself as the boss, to a board that provides accountability and boundaries to the leader.

Where this has been done, outside of Adventism, it has worked well – sometimes.  However it requires senior leadership to be well differentiated and to not have a failure of nerve.  Both of these are a lot to ask.  In fact, this is quite a battle, and those with whom I was working with have all suffered a lot of setbacks.  Our general was removed from his position and is now in exile in SE Asia.  His assistant is learning to keep her head down and not make eye-contact, while she continues to tweak the system from the sidelines.  Several of us field officers have either been removed, or voluntarily left our positions.  It doesn’t look like the battle is being won right now.

I was talking to a friend the other day and as we talked about and around these issues, he mentioned that the reason he left his previous church is because he didn’t see this “mixed system” working.  I paused a long time as I tried to absorb the import of what he just said.  “What did that mean?” I thought.

This morning, I awoke with a thought.  I think I figured it out.

You can’t lead the people who employ you.  You may have the illusion that you lead them, but as soon as you try to hold them accountable, they will turn on you and you’ll find yourself unemployed.

The New Testament model of church leadership is apostolic.  Christ, as the head of the church, which is His body.  Jesus left the 12 apostles in charge, and through their leadership, teaching, and spiritual discipling, they led the church forward.  Neither Old Testament, or New, the church has never operated on a democratic model.

If Christ gives the leader, or pastor, a vision of where He wants the church to go, it is up to the pastor to carry that out.  In most cases, as long as these ideas and the pastor’s leadership are not too radical, everything will be fine.  In fact, many church congregations will give the illusion that they are following.  Yet as soon as the pastor begins to lead differently, outside the normal channels, or even in a radical way – the members and lay board will have some tough choices to make.

Will they continue to follow, or will they stand up and exercise their power?

My experience this past year was just this.  Upon hiring me, they told me they wanted a leader and they agreed to my terms of leadership.  But when things got outside of their comfort zone, they wrested leadership away from me and scoffed and the very idea that a pastor would be their leader.  They asserted that it was their church and they are the leaders.

As this debated continued on over the next several months, some of these core lay leaders grew impatient with my unwillingness to surrender to their demands.  Not only was I not called to be a puppet, but I was called to correct the issues prevalent in this congregation.  It would be immoral for me to abandon the people I was fighting for – and leave them in the hands of this proud lot who were ignoring these invisible and discarded people.

I don’t mind a bit of conflict, in fact I know that healthy conflict can lead to better, more intimate relationships.  I was content working through the issues, but as I mentioned in a recent post, at some point the men I was in conflict with chose the nuclear option.  Instead of staying in the discussion, they went to my employer – and the employer, instead of working through healthy conflict mediation, chose to eliminate what they saw as the problem – me.

That’s really too bad, because no matter how badly Imy family and I were hurt by this, ultimately, the church we were leading suffers the most.  The people we were standing up for were hurt, but once we get our feet back under us, we can still serve and empower them.  It is those who missed the opportunity to grow, missed an opportunity to serve others, and missed an opportunity to see things differently – they are hurt the worst.  In their ignorance, they will continue to muddle along – but ultimately, and spiritually, they are the biggest losers.

It’s quite sad – and it helps me to understand why Jesus wept as He looked down on Jerusalem the week before He was crucified.

The wise person will listen to those they aren’t required to listen to – no matter how painful the message.

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Information, Gossip, or Just Voyeurism – (what about grace?)

January 4, 2010 at 11:47 am (change, First Impressions, Musings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Upon being ejected from our previous church, my wife stepped over my bleeding body and quickly transfered our membership to another church.  This was exactly the right thing to do.  It falls in line with the “women and children first” model of survival.  I would not only expect, but hope that she would do the same thing if our house caught on fire, or our car plunged into an icy river.  I had enough energy to take care of myself, but my mangled and bloodied pysche was too weak to look out for the family.

She was looking to maintain a platform of stability that would allow our children to feel safe, despite the storm raging around us.  In fact, to this day, one of my kids continues to cry about missing her former friends and prays regularly that we be allowed to return to that church.

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