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) .

Achers of space – sermon notes for Easter 2

Into the wound
Easter 2B – Bromborough
Text – John 20:19-31

Jesus said: “In my house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). That is a mark of his hospitality. It’s the sort of thing that any good host will say to his/her guest. “We’ve got loads of room. We can easily make up a bed.” Good hosts say these things because they want their guests to feel at home – they want their guests to stay with them – they look forward to their company.

As Christians we love what Jesus said. We draw strength from the generous hospitality which says “In my house there are many rooms” – we want to dwell in that house where there is so much room and where there are so many openings.

Today’s Easter gospel is set in one room in which there are an abundance of openings – too many for us to get our heads round.

There’s

  • The opening of the door
  • The opening of Jesus’ mouth
  • The opening of Jesus’ hands and side

Each of them begs for an opening up of ourselves.

In Jesus there is so much opportunity for openings and the resurrection begs of us a reformed hospitality within ourselves. An RSVP is called for from each of us.

A little about each of the openings – the openings could well be a whole sermon series – but today a little on each.

Opening the door

The opening of the door –  the disciples had locked themselves in because they were afraid. And Jesus stands amongst them. How did that happen? The open door is a powerful Christian image because of this resurrection appearance.

I have fought a couple of battles in parish ministry. One was about church keys (and who should hold them) and the other was about trying to keep the church open. Like the disciples in today’s gospel the two churches were afraid – they wanted to lock themselves in because they were afraid of their communities.

I don’t know whether you keep this church open. I hope you do. And if you don’t, I hope that you give it some thought allowing Jesus’ words to those first disciples to ring in your ears. “Do not be afraid.” Just imagine the signage – “this church is open” (and all the ambiguity of such a sign!)

There are many metaphorical rooms that we retreat to – in fear, in shame. This gospel story is told time and again to encourage us to open up, to not be so afraid, to not be so ashamed – to let the spaces we move in reverberate to the sound of Jesus’ words.

RSVP

And that takes us to another opening.

Opening his mouth

Jesus’s opening words were “Peace be with you” . Three times in this short passage Jesus greets the disciples with “Peace be with you”. To his anxious and frightened friends he says “peace be with you”. We repeat those words in our greetings in the Peace. “The peace of the Lord be always with you”. (Always try to exchange the peace with at least three people to remember this Easter exchange that we celebrate this morning).

John doesn’t just say that Jesus spoke to his friends. He also tells us that he breathed on them. When he breathed on them they received the Holy Spirit. “The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.”

Some ancient liturgies included a mouth to mouth kiss as part of the Peace to pass the breath of the Spirit, the breath of the post-resurrection meeting room  – a recall of the intimacy of that meeting with the risen Jesus. (See here.)

And what does that make of our hospitality?

RSVP

The third opening is that demanded by Thomas, doubting Thomas, Thomas the scientist who wouldn’t believe without seeing the evidence. Thomas said “I won’t believe until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side.” And Jesus showed Thomas the nail wounds in his hands, and the spear wound in his side.

I have copied a picture of the wounded side (pictured above) by Jan Richardson from her Painted Prayerbook. It is called “Into the Wound” and I offer it as an invitation for your prayer and wonder. I see it as a tear, as an opening, as a doorway.

Medieval artists gave great attention to Jesus’ wounds. They were often the subject of their art. Such attention for us seems gruesome – but we might be missing an opening.

Eamon Duffy, writing in 15th/16th century England: “the wounds of Christ are the sufferings of the poor, the outcast, and the unfortunate” – according to which acts of charity (foodbanks, nursing, hospitality) become a tending of the living, wounded, corporate body of Christ.

The wound is on his side. Maybe those of us who are on his side can see our own wounds in the wound of Jesus (the ones we’ve inflicted and the ones inflicted on us). Is there an invitation on this door? Is Jesus inviting Thomas, the disciples and all those on his side into the wound, to feel around the space, to know the love, to know the other side?

And is there a reciprocal arrangement, whereby we don’t hide our wounds but invite others into our hurting world so that we might find wholeness and healing? Jesus stands at the door and knocks. If his wound is our way into him, are our wounds his doorway to us?

This is what Jan Richardson writes:

“In wearing his wounds—even in his resurrection—he confronts us with our own and calls us to move through them into new life.

The crucified Christ challenges us to discern how our wounds will serve as doorways that lead us through our own pain and into a deeper relationship with the wounded world and with the Christ who is about the business of resurrection, for whom the wounds did not have the final word.

As Thomas reaches toward Christ, as he places his hand within the wound that Christ still bears, he is not merely grasping for concrete proof of the resurrection. He is entering into the very mystery of Christ, crossing into a new world that even now he can hardly see yet dares to move toward with the courage he has previously displayed.”

Thomas’s RSVP was “My Lord and my God” – his mind blown open, he believed.

Belief in resurrection is often thought of as a rational process. That is how Thomas approached it. But belief isn’t only about our heads. Belief isn’t a rational response but an emotional one. Belief comes from the German word which gives us beloved. “Belief” is “belove” – a believing disciple is a beloving and beloved disciple. When Thomas believes he doesn’t just open his mind, he  opens his mouth (as RSVP), his heart and his very gut where all our anxiety and fear find their home.

Jesus opens the room, he opens his mouth, he opens his wounds. We are invited through these open doorways, into a new life that without this gospel would be unimaginable.

Please RSVP.

The image Into the Wound is copyrighted to Jan Richardson and is used with permission – www.janrichardson.com

Leaving childhood: Holy Innocents Day

Massacre of the Innocents by Fra Angelico

Today is Holy Innocents Day, when we are called to remember childhood how children have been slaughtered. The focus is on the baby boys Herod slaughtered in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, but also embraces the children slaughtered throughout history.

Jesus teaches that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18) This prompts the question about what childhood is. Is it something about vulnerability, dependence, naively and learning. Jesus added the word “humility”. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And then we grow out of childhood, spending a lot of our time bigging ourselves up, taking ourselves out of reach of that kingdom Jesus spoke about.

I am reading organisations don’t tweet, people do by Euan Semple? He seems to suggest that the qualities that make for childhood are the qualities that are needed for leaders and organisations to be successful as he talks about vulnerability and humility in these terms:

“Being open about your failings isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and wouldn’t be acceptable in every workplace, but just a little more openness about your failings in front of your staff might be just be the best way to improve your working relationships. Being seen not to know, and being willing to ask for help, can be the best way to make other people feel valued. It also signals to them that it is OK not to know everything all the time. This creates the sort of culture where people are willing to open up and share what they know to everyone’s mutual benefit.”