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) .

O come, Wisdom

This is what wisdom looks like. It is not as we have come to know wisdom which so often comes dressed in cap and gown. Wisdom so often looks serious, powerful and distant. But here, wisdom looks personal, merciful, charitable and child-like. This icon of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom is by Slovenian artist and theologian Marko Rupnek, and was commissioned by Pope Paul II. This is what wisdom looks like for those who feel betrayed by those who have impersonated Wisdom and for those whose only hope is in a Wisdom, the likes of which we have never seen before.

The prayer for Wisdom is the first of the Advent Antiphons. They are for those who live in lamentable times. There are seven of them, and they are part of Common Worship Daily Prayer for the seven days starting today.

The prayer goes:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Malcolm Guite has composed an appeal for Wisdom as part of his reflections on the Advent Antiphons. This is part of his collection of Sonnets, Sounding the Seasons.

O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
or break the bread except as I  am broken.
O mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being always grounding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

When we pray for Wisdom we recognise that we are still seeking her. We know Folly sure enough, but Wisdom is yet to be found. In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth we are reminded just how elusive Wisdom is. There, the so-called Wise Men got their directions so wrong that they travelled to Jerusalem before realising their mistake. Worldly wise they expected the special birth to be at the seat of power, and not in a stable. As Brueggemann says, they were nine miles wide of the mark.

But we act as if we are “spot on”.

I am heartened by the attention being given to how we can share concerns about how we are failing (the Harvard Business Review has published its Failure Issue). We tend to protect ourselves by saying what a good job we are doing, and how we are meeting our targets, like Little Jack Horner sat in his corner. Too often we just list our successes to promote ourselves and our organisation. This is hiding the truth. This is foolish. Further questions need asking such as “in what ways are we (am I) failing to do what we feel we should be doing?” That question is far more likely to uncover the truth. Realising the lamentable truth of our lives is the start of our quest for Wisdom. Wisdom’s absence makes our hearts grow fonder for her.

Here is a link to a general post I wrote about the Advent Antiphons which you may like to read.

Ash Wednesday

According to our Eucharistic (thanksgiving prayer) today is the day when we are led “into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your (God’s) people once again.” The Imposition of Ashes reminds us “that we are dust, and to dust we shall return”. On the face of it Ash Wednesday sounds pretty miserable – but wait a minute, for words by Herbert McCabe quoted by Timothy Radcliffe in “Why go to Church“:

If we go to confession, it is not to plead for forgiveness from God. It is to thank him for it … When God forgives our sins, he is not changiing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love.” (from God, Christ and Us)

I came across this brilliant poem thanks to Jenee Woodard’s wonderful work with the Textweek website.

Marked by Ashes

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)

Ash Wednesday

According to our Eucharistic (thanksgiving prayer) today is the day when we are led “into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your (God’s) people once again.” The Imposition of Ashes reminds us “that we are dust, and to dust we shall return”. On the face of it Ash Wednesday sounds pretty miserable – but wait a minute, for words by Herbert McCabe quoted by Timothy Radcliffe in “Why go to Church“:

If we go to confession, it is not to plead for forgiveness from God. It is to thank him for it … When God forgives our sins, he is not changiing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love.” (from God, Christ and Us)

I came across this brilliant poem thanks to Jenee Woodard’s wonderful work with the Textweek website.

Marked by Ashes

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)

Twelfth Night

Today is Epiphany – January 6th. Twelfth Night – down with that tree and away with that tinsel. Highlight of the season has been reading The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. This has given spiritual direction for this wonderful season. Borg and Crossan describe the birth stories of Matthew and Luke’s gospels as “parabolic overtures” for their whole gospel of joy and conflict – personal and political.

Today, Epiphany, focus is on the story of the visit of the Magi who travel one road and then return by another road. The road they travel is to the palace of Jerusalem. Of course, they would go that way. The way of the worldy wise is to the palace and the court. They discover how wrong they are. In Breugemann’s phrase, they finish “9 miles wide”, and discover their journey’s end (and their beginning – TS Eliot) to be not at the court of Herod but in the outbuildings of an inn in Bethlehem. Their return “by another road” signifies repentance – a change of mind – demanded by the Jesus of the Gospel. “They no longer walked the same path, but followed another way.”

Messrs Borg and Crossan wonder whether I am “like the Magi who follow the light and refuse to comply with the ruler’s plot to destroy it.” Or whether I am like Herod “filled with fear and willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain power, even violence and slaughter.” Am I among those “who yearn for the coming of the kingdom of justice and peace, who seek peace through justice”, or am I among those “advocates of imperial theology who seek peace through victory?”

Borg and Crossan refer to the three tenses of Christmas. Past, present and future – as retold by Charles Dickens in the Christmas Carol. Of the future tense they refer to three different understandings:
One is called “interventionist eschatology” – in which only God can bring about the new world.
The second is called “participatory eschatology” in which we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas.
The third involves letting go of eschatology altogether in which Christian hope is not about the transformation of this world.
Only the second is affirmed by Borg and Crossan – thankfully. “We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories.” They quote Augustine’s aphorism: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”