The leadership and ministry of fools (and other outsiders)

The Fool (1944) by Cecil Collins
The Fool features in much of Collins’s art. The Fool represents saint, artist and poet – the saviours of life, according to Collins. He always portrays the fool as an innocent figure who, although finding no place in the modern world, has the vision to find fulfilment and eventual reward. Here the Fool is carrying a heart (for love) and an owl (for wisdom and freedom)

When it comes to power and leadership in the church are we confused by worldly perceptions of power and success?

Recently I have heard about arguments amongst leaders about who sits in the “best seats” in the chancel, and there’s real power politics at play in ecclesiastical processions!

If we are entitled (Rev, Reader etc) what are we entitled to? Cases of abuse show how wrong some of us so entitled have been.

What are the qualifications for leadership? And what is our unconscious bias about those qualifications – and how much potential is wasted by those biases?

Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the case that our understandings of leadership are qualified and conditioned by Hollywood and the leadership of those on the “wild frontier” as portrayed by decades of “westerns”. (Donald Trump fits that well.) Lewis-Anthony talks about “the myth of leadership” and describes the way the myth is told.

Someone comes from the outside, into our failing community. He is a man of mystery, with a barely suppressed air of danger about him. At first he refuses to use his skills to save our community, until there is no alternative, and then righteous violence rains down. The community is rescued from peril, but in doing so the stranger is mortally wounded. He leaves, his sacrifice unnoticed by all.

This is the plot of Shane, Triumph of the Will, Saving Private Ryan and practically every western every made. It is the founding myth of our politics and our society. It tells us that violence works, and that leadership only comes from the imposition of a superman’s will upon the masses, and preferably those masses “out there”, not us.

The new archbishop of Canterbury should be a disciple rather than a leader in The Guardian, 4 February 2013

The Bible is very critical of worldly systems of power and leadership. Walter Brueggemann (in Truth Speaks to Power) makes the point that the pharoah is never named in Exodus, but that he is a metaphor representing “raw, absolute, worldly power”. He is never named “because he could have been any one of a number of candidates, or all of them. Because if you have seen one pharoah, you’ve seen them all. They all act in the same way in their greed, uncaring violent self-sufficiency.” Samuel is scathing about the Israelites’ insistence that they be led like the other nations. He knew (1 Samuel 8:11-17) that those sort of leaders are always on the take (sons, daughters, chariots, horses, fields and livestock – everything).

The ways of God are very different to the ways of preferment and career advancement. Paul is amazed when he surveys his fellow disciples. He wrote to the church of Corinth: “Consider your calling. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Similarly Jesus praised God that she had hidden the things of heaven from the seemingly well qualified. “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21).

What difference would it make to our CVs if we focused on our foolishness and our weakness? Would it prompt us to realise that power and leadership is found in some very strange places and surprising people? What difference does it make when we recognise that leadership qualifications are the gift of God and that the leadership qualities are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) by which measures pharoahs look hopelessly unqualified.

I have recently had the privilege of reading The Bible and Disability edited by Sarah Melcher, Michael C Parsons and Amos Yong. I quickly realised how pervasive disability is and how important a lens it is to view Christian leadership. Under their prompt it is easy to see how “disabled” the people featured in scripture are. Moses was chosen in spite of his speech impediment. Jacob bore his limp with pride that he wrestled with God (and Israel takes its identity and name from that fight). Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate disability.

I asked the question on Twitter, “would it make a difference in leadership if we focused on disabilities and vulnerabilities rather than just abilities?” Friend Mark Bennett replied: “In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses parables so that people hear, “see”, understand anew, overcoming disabilities of preconception, prejudice and fear.” Friend Jenny Bridgman replied: “”What are my blind spots?” is a tough but necessary #leadership question. Some more are: What can someone else do better that I can? How can I free them to do that well? Or even – how do my/our disabilities and vulnerabilities make my/our leadership more effective?”

I suspect that as long as we ignore these questions there will always be “us” and “them” – a few privileged by the powers-that-be working “for” (or even “against” as some sort of pharoah) rather than working and living “with” and in love with others.

PS. I didn’t include the title of Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book because it is so flippin’ long – It is You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) .

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).

Some power lines as powerful as can be

electrical-power-lines (1)

Sometimes what comes out in conversation takes our breath away doesn’t it? Conversations are wonderful ways of learning and realising stuff deep within our experience.

At a recent workshop on power leaders in ministry were sharing empowering stories and exploring ways of empowering others. What emerged was a radical question, very simply expressed: don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?

There is, of course:

  1. a huge “as long as”,
  2. and a qualification who the “we” is who so want us all to be powerful as can be
  3. as well as a health warning.

The health warning is that power can be so dangerous and all of our perceptions of power are coloured by our experiences and the extent to which we have been overpowered or empowered.

The “we”, of course, is not everyone. There are those who want to protect their “superpower” status and they depend on belittling and demeaning behaviours to manipulate dependence and fear in others. They have a vested interest – and they often are vested, dressed up in uniform – in a status quo in which they are favoured. To be part of the band of “we” we need to ask the question about how we can be disarming – to unilaterally disarm as an initial step to deescalate unhealthy power dynamics.

The “as long as” of the question “don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?” is as long as it is the right sort of power. We know what the wrong sort of power looks and feels like. It either makes us feel big (aka arrogant) or small – either way it is dehumanising. Our workshop conversation had begun with a consideration of a typology of power developed by French and Raven back in 1959. They identified five (later expanded to six) bases of power. Those bases are of two sorts. The first sort is the power that is handed on with authority, hierarchically and is based on position. The second sort is the power that is given by “followers”. Followers turn to people who they believe are competent (“experts”) and to people they like or respect (“referent”). Those we turn to may have positional power, or they may not.

Power

What we wish for when we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be is:

  1. for them to be freed from oppressive power, and
  2. for us to help one another into habits (not vests!) and disciplines in which virtues grow to the extent that we inspire confidence in one another

This is a tall order. We are all broken power brokers and we all come to the conversation with temptations to, such as, protect our position, make ourselves look big/clever, win. We can only help one another. This is a community endeavour in which we can help one another uncover our abuses of power and re-member those excluded by our executive powers.

NB Spoken by a white middle class university educated priest with well reinforced positional power but convinced that the communities I care for should be as powerful as they can be and eternally grateful for those communities which have been empowering and made this life worth more that it otherwise would have been.

Notes heard above The Noise of Time

The Noise of TimeI don’t read that much but every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. Julian Barnes, through his book The Noise of Time, has me intrigued with the noise of time. This is a poetic book that is well crafted and beautifully composed. It tells us the time and the time is telling. It is a short book in which a lot of time is told in a short time. It is a time of terror.

I read this book for the first time at the end of Holy Week, through the three days known as the TriDuum, Maundy Thursday through till Holy Saturday – the short time it took to tell so much of time. I was attentive to the noises of that other time told through three days: the crushing noise of religious and political authority almost overpowering a more faithful and resilient strain.

There are three main characters in The Noise of Time. There’s the “author” who is the one who remembers. There’s Shostakovich, who is the one who hears. And there is the one less than human, Power deformed. Arguably there is a cast of three in the Triduum. There’s the one who remembers (the witnesses), the one who hears (on the cross) and the ones Power deformed (who know not what they do).

Running through my mind while I read this book were lines from a poem by Anna Lightart called The Second Music:

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

The Noise of Time is a book full of threes – if you like, there are three hands: an hour hand, minute hand and second hand. The three chapters measure three movements: On the LandingOn the Plane and In the Car. 

There are three brands of cigarettes (Kazbeks, Belamors, Herzegovinas). There are three vodka glasses for three vodka drinkers (the perfect number for vodka drinking). There are three wives (Nina, Margarita and Irina). There are three ways to destroy your soul: “by what others did to you, by what others made you do to yourself, and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself”. (p.181)

There are three Conversations with Power and there are three leap years twelve years apart from each other (1936, 1948 and 1960). This is the time frame of a crushing history. It is a history which crushes the human spirit and twists arts and artists to the ends of empire, turning them into cowards – which threatened to be a life’s work (being a coward, just to survive).

“It was not easy being a coward. Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment – when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well. To be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax. You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your fallen, abject character. Being a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change – which made it, in a way, a kind of courage. He smiled to himself and lit another cigarette. The pleasures of irony had not yet deserted him.” (p.171)

Dimitiri Shostakovich was one of the major composers of the twentieth century. I’m no musician but I do know that there are usually four movements to a symphony. That is music’s shape. In his threes, is Barnes describing the way in which totalitarianism deforms truth and beauty? There is the hint of a fourth movement in the opening and closing of the book in epigraph and coda. In these there are the three characters on stage (it’s a station platform). There’s one who remembers, there’s one who hears and there’s one who is a vulgar “half man” (reduced by the noise of time to being less than himself, a mere “technique of survival”. The one who remembered, remembers the vodka and remembers how the one who heard pricked up his ears as he heard the notes of the clinking vodka glasses.

This is what was remembered:

“They were in the middle of Russia, in the middle of a war, in the middle of all kinds of suffering within that war. There was a long station platform, on which the sun had just come up. There was a man, half a man really, wheeling himself along on a trolley, attached to it by a rope threaded through the top of his trousers. The two passengers had a bottle of vodka. They descended from the train. The beggar stopped singing his filthy song. Dimitri Dmitrievich held the bottle, he the glasses. Dimitri Dmitrievich poured vodka into each glass …

He was no barman, and the level of vodka in each glass was slightly different …

But Dimitri Dmitrievich was listening , and hearing as he always did. So when the three glasses with their different levels came together in a single chink, he had smiled, and put his head on one side so that the sunlight flashed briefly off his spectacles, and murmured, “A triad”.

And that was what the one who remembered had remembered. War, fear, poverty, typhus and filth, yet in the middle of it, above it and beneath it and through it all, Dimitri Dmitrievich had heard a perfect triad… a triad put together by three not very clean vodka glasses and their contents was a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything. And perhaps, finally, this was all that mattered.” (p.196)

So the tragedy is told in The Noise of Time. There is a lot of time told in a short time. In one moment there is a note of beauty, a sound of music ringing above the noise of time, testimony to the human spirit, crushed, humiliated for so much of the time. There is the sounding of hope.

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” (p.97)

How high can you go without falling down? – a sermon and temptation for Lent 3B

A sermon for Guilden Sutton. Lent 3B. March 8th 2015.

On top of the World Trade Centre: how high can you go without falling down?

Well. Top of the morning to you.

Ever hear that expression? An Irish greeting – “top of the morning to you”, meaning “the best of the morning to you” – for which the response is “and the rest of the day to you”.

It’s a bit like our responses, “Peace be with you”, “and also with you”.

So “top of the morning to you” …………………

It’s a greeting of energy isn’t it – someone who’s got up at 5.30 and stolen a march on everyone else. “The top of the morning to you”. It’s the greeting of someone who is full of beans, feeling “on top of the world”: “On top of the world” as opposed to being “under the weather”.

I have a theory that we usually only ever see people who are “on top of the world”. People who are “under the weather” keep themselves to themselves in a self-imposed hiding, unless the weather they’re under is “fine”.

“How are you today?” “I’m fine thanks.”

But we see very few people who are really under the weather – those with depression, those who are drowning are hidden.

We are in a time of discipline. This is Lent when our consciousness of temptation is heightened and we are more likely to respond to the call to resist.

There are a number of temptations for those who feel “on top of the world”. Those “on top of the world” can be so annoying. “Cocky” is the word we’ll often use – the cock, who really is “top of the morning to you”.

Jesus had this temptation when he felt “on top of the world”. Do you remember the story (Luke 4:9-12)?

The devil had Jesus stand on the highest point of the temple and said “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here”. He said “you’ll be all right because God will send his angels to make sure you don’t get hurt.”

Here is the temptation to be wonder-full, the temptation to be Mr High and Mighty, the temptation to be Mr Big. It’s a temptation that takes place on the pinnacle of the temple – on the height of religious experience and achievement. Many people stand at that same spot, on top of the world, on to the height of religious experience and achievement … and they think they’re wonderful, proud that they’ve got there, looking down on others, judging and despising.

I work at Church House. We have staff prayers on Mondays. The person leading those prayers asked us to have some moments of quietness to reflect on how we were doing in Lent, where we were up to in our Lenten discipline. This came as a bit of a shock to me because at that stage, 5 days into Lent, I hadn’t got round to thinking about my Lent.

I had read a reflection that morning on Jesus’ 3rd temptation. That made my decision for me for this Lent – to be disciplined to keep my feet on the ground, to count the blessings of being down to earth, to appreciate the lowly, and to remember who I am when, as sometimes happens, I am lured on to high ground. The question, the very real question for me (and for all of us) is how we behave when we are on high ground, when we are on the moral high ground, when we are on top of the world, how do we behave?

I was reminded of a story by G K Chesterton about a curate who had taken to praying, “not on the common floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires”. Father Brown goes up to rescue him. He says: “I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray. Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.”

He tells the curate: “I knew a man who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime. He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.”

You may ask what all this has to do with today’s readings. Paul (1 Cor 1:18-25) asked the Christians at Corinth to consider their own calling. He tells them “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong”.

The problems that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Corinthians are outlined in the same chapter. The Corinthian church is a divided community, torn apart by quarrels and people taking sides with Paul, Apollos or Cephas.

Paul’s response is that no one should boast about human leaders (3:21). He tells them that he came to them in weakness, in fear and trembling. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the  power of God.” (2:4)

So when we’re feeling “top of the world”, on top of our game, doing well, think again. That feeling is the doorway of temptation. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong. How will you stand when you’re on top of the world? How will you behave? Will you resist the temptation to look good?

A Baptist minister talks about the robe that he puts on every Sunday. He says that it stands for his professional expertise and training. But he also says that it signals that “we’re all fools for Christ”. He says “I think of myself as a kind of court jester and freelancer in life.” He says that he is always wondering, wondering about God. He is an expert who knows his foolishness and his limits. This makes him a good facilitator of community and friendship.

What are we like? Whether we spend a lot of our time on the high ground, in high places, along corridors of power; or whether we are occasional visitors, what are we like? What do we do? How do we behave?

Do we remember our calling, to be salt of the earth, a calling of the foolish to shame the wise, a calling of the weak to shame the strong?

Do we remain down to earth, with feet on the ground? Or do we pride ourselves on our position?

Do we remain full of wonder? Or do our ways shout to those beneath us, “look at me, how wonderful I am”?

Oh, the temptations of high places and of doing well.

References:
Malcolm Guite. 2015. Word in the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/temptation/
Celia Allison Hahn. 1994. Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control. The Alban Institute.

>Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride;
Though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same,
That power belongs to God.
Psalm 62:10f

So, don’t even try to be powerful – just be yourself.
That is power enough – for each day to turn on the light.

The prayer that concludes today’s psalm (according to the Daily Office):

O God, teach us to seek security,
not in money or theft,
not in human ambition or malice,
not in our own ability or power,
but in you, the only God,
our rock and our salvation.

>Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride;
Though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same,
That power belongs to God.
Psalm 62:10f

So, don’t even try to be powerful – just be yourself.
That is power enough – for each day to turn on the light.

The prayer that concludes today’s psalm (according to the Daily Office):

O God, teach us to seek security,
not in money or theft,
not in human ambition or malice,
not in our own ability or power,
but in you, the only God,
our rock and our salvation.