“Christian” Leadership or Christian “Leadership” /wink

A few of our students taking in the governor's address.

On Thursday, May 12, I hosted, as the director of the Wellspring School of Leadership, a Seminar on Christian Leadership.  It was a phenomenal event, if I may say so.  It was everything I could have hoped for.  Those involved did a tremendous job putting it all together.

The idea was essentially twofold.  First, our goal was to raise the profile of the Wellspring School of Leadership (WSL), which launched this past autumn.  Not many people know we exist, so it’s important to tell them, “We exist.”  Second, we wanted to get people together to begin the conversation on Christian leadership.  Or leadership by Christians.  Really, it’s about representing Christ wherever you find yourself vocationally.

Governor John G. Rowland address the crowd.

So we had a tremendous reception to kick off the evening.  Live jazz wafted over the crowd, which was already awash with small talk and quickly filling with splendid hors d’oeuvres.  I and many of my colleagues and students met so many from all over Connecticut who were involved in key leadership positions and excited about what we were doing at WSL.  In time, we moved into Wellspring Church‘s sanctuary for an introduction to the school’s mission (see below), a brief presentation from one of our students, and an address from John G. Rowland, former governor of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, I cannot make available the governor’s remarks, though they were pertinent, encouraging, and inspiring.  I d0, however, have here what our student representative, Jody Davis, shared about her life and work.  She was terrific.  And I have below my own remarks on WSL’s purpose in our world.  I enjoyed writing and sharing them.  I hope you enjoy them too.

Ladies and gentlemen, students of the Wellspring School of Leadership, Governor Rowland,

On behalf of the Wellspring School of Leadership, allow me to welcome you to this Seminar on Christian Leadership.

My name is Mike McKinniss.  I am the Director of the Wellspring School of Leadership and I am delighted that each of you has decided to join us in this conversation about what it means to lead.  And specifically, what it means to lead by faith.

Indeed, it is this very question – how to lead by faith – on which the Wellspring School of Leadership was founded.

Eighteen months ago, the elders of Wellspring Church commissioned a committee to explore possibilities for training men and women for leadership.  Expressed in this commission was an urgent need, which I’m sure many of you have felt keenly as well.  That is, an urgent need throughout this world (not just in our churches) for leaders who embody the Kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed and promised.

Introducing WSL and its purpose.

Whether it is aware, the whole world craves business leaders, for example, who have a deep desire to do right by their employees (even unionized employees), customers, and the created world – business men and women for whom the bottom line includes far more than just dollars and cents.

Or how many of us have turned to the arts for inspiration – that we can be better than we are – only to find reflections of our worst qualities, the very things we had hoped to transcend through art?  I don’t know about you, but I rarely get through a day without coming to the precipice of one or another chasm in my character.

Likewise, the shelves of our society are well stocked with “public servants” who with their lips speak platitudes to their constituents, while signing off on self-serving policies with their pens.

Even in our churches do we find the loudest and most prevalent voices laden with bickering and infighting.  We become more concerned with who’s in and who’s out than exhibiting the love of the Creator that makes everyone feel like they belong in God’s family.

In these and every other sphere of society are there desperate needs for leaders who walk and talk like they are a part of a Kingdom of faith, hope, reconciliation, vision, and love.

It is towards this end that the Wellspring School of Leadership is seeking to train men and women in all spheres of society.  Whatever a student’s individual calling, our goal is to equip her with truth, integrity, and authority to lead.

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The Lord’s Prayer, pt 5: Where the Proverbial Dinner Table Begins to Metaphorically Turn

Moving right along through the Lord’s Prayer and its background.  We started with a background about first century Jewish expectations, proceeded to a look at the Father in heaven, wondered at the word “hallowed,” and talked about competing kingdoms.  Today, it’s a close-up on bread.

Matthew 6:11 goes like this: “Give us today our bread for today.”  Maybe.

Before we go anywhere with this verse, there’s a little exegetical matter to deal with.  The Greek word for what the NIV translates “daily” is epiousios.  There word appears nowhere else in Greek literature, as far as anyone knows.  And it only shows up in the New Testament in two places: here and in Luke 11:3, which is, you guessed it, also the Lord’s Prayer.  So basically, what this means is that no one knows for sure how to translate it.  Some have said it means “daily,” so that Jesus is praying for the sustenance he needs for today.  Others say it means “tomorrow,” so that Jesus is praying for the sustenance he needs for tomorrow.  Still others have said it means “of the age,” as in “give us the stuff of heaven or the stuff of when things are finally made right on the earth.”

Whatever.  I’m not going to worry about this right now.  I’ve got other things on my mind.

I wonder if this bread Jesus is talking about is referencing another kind of bread from way back in Israel’s history.  There was another time in Israel’s past when Yahweh literally gave bread to the Israelites on a daily basis.  This, of course, was the manna of the exodus (see Exodus 16).  The people were completely reliant on God for their sustenance at that time (as if they weren’t at any other time, really).

But think on this a little further.  What’s Israel doing at the time they were receiving manna?  They’re wandering about the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years.  They’re waiting to enter the Promised Land.

How does that match the previous portions of Jesus’ prayer?  With Psalm 2 and Ezekiel 36?  With kingdom talk?  We had mentioned before in this series that the bulk of the Jews in Jesus’ day were essentially still waiting for the fulfillment and the final restoration of Israel.  The Jews were still waiting for the Lord to come through on His promises.  Existentially, if we can use the anachronism, the Jews remain in the wilderness despite residing in their homeland.

So the prayer becomes, “Lord, give us the bread we need to get through this period while we wait.”  Like the other portions of the prayer, this is a long awaited hope for ultimate fulfillment.

The undercurrent for such a request, which we’ll find more fully in the final two verses of the prayer, is an unspoken directive aimed at the one praying.  That is, as much as this is a request of the Lord, it is also a reminder to the one requesting the bread.  This is a reminder that it is God who will bring about the fulfillment Israel is hoping for.  It is God, and not the Jews themselves.  “Give us what we need while we wait.  Give us what we need while we’re made ready for the fulfillment of Your promises.  And, by the way, help me not to try to make it happen on my own.”

Suddenly, though the Jews may have been getting riled up and rowdy over the first several clauses of the prayer, Jesus has now called to mind a period of wandering in the wilderness, a time of waiting, a time of trudging around.  This prayer is going somewhere, and it’s not where they thought it was going when Jesus started.

More on that in the next post.

The Lord’s Prayer, pt 4: Competing Kingdoms

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been chatting about the background and implications of the Lord’s Prayer, as documented in Matthew 6:9-13.  (Play catch up: Intro, Pt 2, Pt 3)  Today, we investigate all of verse 10, which is straightforward enough: “Let your kingdom come; let your will be established; as in heaven also on earth.”

In our first three parts, we’ve made reference to the political situation of Israel at the turn of the eras.  It is true, the Jews were living in their homeland (though not all of them were), but they were politically dominated by the Romans.  Reminders of this were everywhere.  And although a good Jew could live peacefully within Jerusalem or its environs under Roman rule, the pagan governors would not spare their political authority should too many Jews get too uppity.

We have already mentioned, in the introduction to this series, how the revolutionary mindset was common, and, frequently enough, boiled over among the Jews in Jesus’ day.  That ought to say enough about how many Jews felt about their political situation.

So when Jesus says to the Lord (the one who sits in heaven scoffing at the pagan rulers of the world), “Let your kingdom come,” there is a relatively simple question we can ask to put us in the right frame of mind for interpreting this.  In whose kingdom were the Jews living?  The answer, on the surface, was simple.  The Jews were in the midst of the vast kingdom of Rome, hoping that the Lord would someday soon bring a coup and institute the kingdom of God.

A similar thought is solicited in the next phrase, “let your will be established.”  All we need ask ourselves is Whose will, or rule, is dominant in Jesus’ time?  While a good first century Jew of Calvinist persuasion might say, “Well, ultimately, it is actually God’s will that is being done even when we think it’s not,” it is more likely that the majority of first century Jews would look at their own landscape and conclude that it was the Romans’ will that being done, day in and day out.

The longing, as in the previous sections of the prayer, is for God’s kingdom to come and for His will to be done precisely because it would not seem so to those on the ground at the time.  There would have been no need to pray for God’s kingdom if it had already been established.  There would be no need to pray for Yahweh’s will to hold sway if it were already the guiding force in the affairs the nation of Israel.

The Lord has always governed heaven.  The longing is that He overthrow the pagans and govern earth as well.

As I read this prayer, I like to picture what it might have looked like for Jesus to have taught this to the crowds of Jews who followed him everywhere.  How might have first century Jews responded to this prayer?  I imagine them hearing “Our father, the one in the heavens,” and, one by one beginning to connect the dots between that introduction and Psalm 2, which contained so many national hopes.  I picture the crowd beginning to raise their brows in recognition as whispered “Aha’s!” circulate.  “This is about Yahweh finally becoming king,” they realize.

“Let your name be sanctified,” reverberates through the crowd.  As the phrase hangs in the air, you see heads beginning to nod as they recall Ezekiel 36.  Now they know for sure that this prayer has to do with the ultimate restoration of Israel.

“Let your kingdom come!”  Yeah, we want God’s kingdom instead of this foul Roman kingdom!

“Let your will be established!”  Yeah, I hate Rome too!

“As in heaven, also on earth.”  I picture fists being raised.  This crowd might be getting rowdy.

But then, the prayer shifts its focus…

The Lord’s Prayer, pt 3: Where “Hallowed” Means “Do What You Say”

Last week, I began investigating the background to the Lord’s Prayer.  My introduction to the topic is here; an overview of the first phrase, “Our father, the one in the heavens,” here.

The King Jamers

Today we look at the next phrase from Jesus’ lips.  Having just addressed the Father who resides on His throne in the heavens, Jesus utters his first wish: “Let your name be sanctified” (Mt 6:9c).  This is my translation.  We’re more used to “Hallowed be thy name,” for the King Jamers.  It could also be translated, “Let your name be made holy.”

While the address, “Our father, the one in the heavens,” likely recalled for Jews Psalm 2, this call for the sanctification of God’s own name likely has its roots in another Old Testament passage, though one with which few Evangelicals are familiar.  We’re talking Ezekiel 36:16-36.  When was the last time you read Ezekiel 36?

It’s a fairly large chunk of Scripture, so I won’t quote the whole thing.  But here’s the basic flow.  The passage begins with the Lord bemoaning Israel’s behavior.  Israel had revoked her calling to represent Yahweh to the world and so, in Ezekiel’s day, was suffering the consequences, namely, exile in Babylon.  The part of this worth noting, as it relates to the Lord’s Prayer, is that the term God uses categorize what Israel has done is that she has “profaned God’s holy name” (vv. 20, 21, 22, 23).

Gratefully, this covenant God of Israel, and so Jesus, doesn’t end with the consequences of Israel’s neglect of their God’s reputation.  The Lord moves on to restoration.  Beginning in verse 23, God lays out His plan for restoring that reputation.  The Lord will remove Israel from exile and return her to the Promised Land (v. 24); He will cleanse Israel of her idolatry (v. 25); a new heart and a new spirit will be her gift (v. 26); Israel will see no more famine (v. 29).

Israel had sullied their God’s good name by failing to represent Him well on the earth.  As a result, they found themselves a conquered people, exiled in Babylon.  But the Lord would restore His own holy name by rescuing Israel from captivity and returning her to her true home.

Now, back to Jesus’ prayer.  When Jesus prays, “Hallowed be Thy name,” he is praying for the covenant God of Israel to restore her fortunes.  He is asking the Lord to finally make good on His promises to Ezekiel.  For though Israel was living again in Palestine, she was not an autonomous nation as she had been under David.  She was still, for all intents and purposes, still in exile.  (See, for example, Ezra 9:8-9 and Nehemiah 9:36, two texts written after Israel’s return from Babylon.)

Couple this with the opening address of the prayer and we begin to see a rather powerful Kingdom statement.  Jesus is addressing the Father, who sits in heaven deriding the pagan nations and their vain plots against the Lord’s anointed king, and Jesus is beseeching the Lord, rather directly, to follow through in restoring the fortunes – among them political and economic fortunes – of Israel.

Right from the start, we’re seeing a prayer that goes right to the root of Israel’s national hopes – hopes that had been simmering, by Jesus’ day, for hundreds of years.

An Ambiguous and, Yet, Authoritative God

Earlier today, Jonathan Fitzgerald of Patrol Magazine posted on the delightful ambiguity of Scripture.  He reflects, as he often does, on his time growing up in Christian environment that was on the fundamentalist/charismatic end of the spectrum and how, as a boy, went searching for the hard and fast rules he was certain lay in the Bible’s depths.  He found, to his then frustration and now delight, that a very small portion of Scripture was made up of rules and regulations.  Rather, it’s mostly stories.

In light of the abundance of story in God’s Word, Fitzgerald concludes that ambiguity is a hallmark of our faith.  He writes,

Those of us who are Christians believe God inspired both its creation and compilation, but this does not change the fact that because it is an ancient written text, it is full of ambiguities; it is open to interpretation. Further, and rather importantly, its very existence, beyond even what it contains, tells us something about the nature of God. That is, God values the written word; he works through interpretation; he is comfortable with ambiguity. And, so should we be.

Fitzgerald essentially touches on two topics, one to do with the nature of God, the other with the nature of the Bible.  Surprisingly, I have thoughts on both.

As he concludes, Fitzgerald remarks that God is comfortable with ambiguity, since all of Scripture, as a written document, is by nature open to interpretation, and all the more so as time passes.  While I believe Fitzgerald’s thrust to be accurate, I would tweak it slightly.  More likely than not, I believe each document in the Bible was clear enough to the people for whom it was originally written.  So baffling to so many of us in 21st century America, Deuteronomy likely made pretty good sense to the Hebrews preparing to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land 3500 years ago.  Originally, these texts, even the stories, made sense to their original audience (if a writer can’t make sense to her intended audience, she doesn’t write long).

Moreover, we must be careful that we’re not saying that God is ambiguous about things in God’s own mind.  (This isn’t exactly what Fitzgerald is saying, but it’s not far, I don’t think.)  Can we apply ambiguity to an omniscient being?  I think God’s probably fairly certain about most things.

What I believe God is perfectly comfortable with is process.  I don’t believe the Lord is confused or frustrated one bit by the notion that anyone isn’t a finished product just yet.  That, I believe, is what we ought to learn comfort in.  It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers right now.  The Lord has shown again and again throughout history that He’s willing to walk through the ambiguities (from our perspective) with us.

Secondly, though Fitzgerald nowhere brings it fully to surface, submerged throughout the article is the question of Scripture’s authority.  Many Evangelical churches have a statement on the authority of Scripture, finding the topic worthy of a central statement of faith.  At my church, though it’s similar to most other churches, it’s actually shorter than most: “We believe the Bible is God’s authoritative word and direction for our lives.”

But what does that mean?  Ask twenty Evangelicals what “The Authority of Scripture” means, and you’re likely to get 19 unique replies.

The thoughtful Christian will affirm, as Fitzgerald has, that the Bible isn’t actually made up of a set of rules to live by.  Perhaps that’s a portion of the text, but a very small portion.  This collection of documents that we call our authority for life is, as Fitzgerald has rightly identified, primarily a collection of stories.  Throw in a hefty body of poetry, a healthy load of prophetic material, and a handful of personal letters, and you’ve got yourself a Bible.  How does that amount to a trustworthy rule for life and practice?

What if he took one last tragedy to the grave? A double tragedy?

Unquestionably, the best treatment on the subject that I’ve seen has come from NT Wright (who else?).  (It’s available in The New Testament and the People of God, pp.139-143, or from his Laing and Griffith Thomas Lectures, available here.)  A crude summary: Imagine the discovery of a lost Shakespearean play – a masterpiece if ever there was one.  But in the midst of the jubilation at such a find, there is sorrow.  The final act has not survived the years.  Still, everyone generally believes it ought to be performed.  And yet, no one dares presume to write the fifth act.  Instead, a different course is taken.  The first four acts are given to the premier Shakespeare company in the world.  These men and women have devoted their lives to studying and acting the bard.  They will perform the lost drama and, on the basis of their own extensive knowledge – nay, experience – of Shakespeare and the first four acts of this masterpiece, complete the performance with a fifth act they believe to be in line with the extant text and Shakespeare’s own tendencies.

This is the authority of Scripture.  The first four acts, along with Shakespeare’s body of work (all of it story), is the authority for how this fifth act of a lost play ought to be produced.  We have four acts of God’s work on the earth in the Bible.  We are acting out the fifth and final act, but we must do so in the spirit and authority of what has come before.  What outcome fits the outset of the drama?  That’s our job.  That’s the ambiguity and certainty in which we live.

Just One More Thing That’s Passed Me By

I guess I'll just have to wait till October.

So, yesterday was the Rapture, apparently.  And I missed it.

I was even at church last night.  Not one of us was snatched up towards the heavens.  All were left behind.  Damned, I suppose.

Among the many things the church in America (I don’t know that the idea has spread much beyond our borders) has got to get over is the idea of “rapture” and “the apocalyptic end of the world.”

Supposed biblical support for a rapture comes, primarily, from 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul is trying to comfort Christians in Thessalonika grieving over loved ones who had died.  The relevant passage goes thusly, in the ESV:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 The 4:13-17).

First and foremost, we ought to keep in mind the main point.  Evidently, some believers in the community had died, and the survivors were concerned about their status.  How could God vindicate those who had already died?  Paul assures them, just as God had raised Jesus from the dead, so will these believers be vindicated.  Death is no obstacle for the Creator.  That’s the main point.  In the final resurrection, both the living and the dead who have placed their trust in Jesus will be justified.

Secondly, the imagery in this passage does not at all imply some kind of literal rapturing of people into the sky.  The picture is taken from the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century (Paul’s own day).  When a figure of political authority came to a city, his approach would be heralded with much fanfare (loud cries and trumpeting and so on) and the people of the city would rush out to meet him on the road.  They would not then hang out in the countryside, but the people would escort the dignitary in past the city gates.

Put simply, Paul is just saying that there is coming a day when what Jesus inaugurated – God’s setting the world to rights in and through the Spirit-filled people of God – will be completed.  And when it is, even the dead will benefit.

Plus, there is no “end of the world” here.  The idea is that when the people of God greet the Christ, they will return with him to govern the world justly.  No one will be hanging out in the clouds watching the created order burn like one large marshmallow.  They will remain on the earth to right all that’s gone wrong, which, by the way, we ought to be doing in the meantime as well.

The Lord’s Prayer, pt 2: Which Father Are You Talking About, Exactly?

Yesterday, we set out a brief first century Jewish background to the Lord’s Prayer.  Today, we begin with the prayer itself.  Of course, it begins with an address to Yahweh, who hears the prayer.  (The translation below is my own.)

“Our father, the one in the heavens…” (Mt 6:9b)

This is far more than a simple address.  It is that.  But it’s also more.  It is also far more than just distinguishing which father Jesus is addressing, as if Jesus had to make clear that it was the father in heaven to whom he was praying rather than the father in the sea or the father in the moon or some such.  To suggest that the Lord resided in heaven would have been pre-school material to a first century Jew.

Rather, with this brief phrase, Jesus is summoning a massive cultural expectation.

If an American politician makes a speech, say, on the virtues of a certain set of “self-evident truths,” every American who hears the phrase knows exactly what those truths are and will then interpret the remainder of the speech in light of the concepts that “all men are created equal,” that all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  “Self-evident truth” is a key phrase that triggers a much larger cultural background.

Jesus does the same sort of thing with “Our father, the one in the heavens.”  He is calling to mind for those around him Psalm 2.

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?  2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”  4 He who sits in heaven laughs; the Lord has them in derision.  5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.  8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.”  10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  11 Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling 12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Happy are all who take refuge in him. (NRSV, italics added)

Broadly, the entire psalm pits pagan rulers, across the earth, against Yahweh, the Creator, and His anointed representative king.  Psalm 2 is at the heart of all Jewish messianic expectation, that at some stage, one person, elected and anointed by God, would rise up and govern Israel (and the rest of the world) with righteousness and justice and so forth.  So that ought, first, to trigger some thoughts in terms of the first century Jewish mindset as it related to their Roman overlords (see yesterday’s post).

More specifically, there are two parallels between Psalm 2 and Matthew 6:9, which the italicized parts above rather helpfully highlight.

First, though the pagan kings scorn the Lord’s efforts to govern through his anointed, God sits in heaven laughing right back at them.  When Jesus said “the one in the heavens,” I believe most of those around him would have thought of this psalm and the thought would have triggered: I get it; this is a prayer about the coming Messiah and the overthrow of our enemies.  They would have thought about the Roman centurions that roamed the streets and all the other symbols that reminded them on a daily basis just who was in charge.  And they would have thought about Rome’s days perhaps being numbered.

Second, in verse 7, is where the “our father” bit comes from, though its a little obscure in the NRSV.  There the Lord says, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  For the Israelites, the king was the adopted son of God himself (see 2 Sam 7:14).  This is fatherly language.

“Our father, the one in the heavens…”

The point of the matter is this.  By opening his prayer in this way, Jesus elicits a powerful emotion among his hearers.  Immediately, the Jews gathered around Jesus would understand that what they’re about to pray is for the fulfillment of Psalm 2.  What they’re about to pray has something to do, finally, with the ultimate vindication of Israel, overthrowing the pagan nations, and instituting the glorious reign of God on the earth through His representative people Israel.

When I read it, I picture a crowd of Jews surrounding Jesus beginning to nod their heads in agreement at this point.  They’re saying to themselves and perhaps to one another, “Yeah, this is what we want.  We want the Lord to finally come through on these promises and begin laughing at these pagan oppressors.  And, by the way, we’ve been hoping for this for hundreds of years.”

On to the next phrase…