On the Need for Humble Leaders (1 Peter 5:1-11)

I appeal to your spiritual leaders. I make this appeal as a spiritual leader who also witnessed Christ’s sufferings and will share in the glory that will be revealed. Be shepherds over the flock God has entrusted to you. Watch over it as God does: Don’t do this because you have to, but because you want to. Don’t do it out of greed, but out of a desire to serve. Don’t be rulers over the people entrusted to you but be examples for the flock to follow. Then, when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Young people, in a similar way, place yourselves under the authority of spiritual leaders.

Furthermore, all of you must serve each other with humility because God opposes the arrogant but favors the humble. Be humbled by God’s power so that when the right time comes he will honor you.

Turn all your anxiety over to God because he cares for you. Keep your mind clear and be alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion as he looks for someone to devour. Be firm in the faith and resist him, knowing that other believers throughout the world are going through the same kind of suffering. God, who shows you his kindness  and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. Power belongs to him forever. Amen. (God’s Word Translation)

“The most powerful weapon to conquer evil is humility. For evil does not know at all how to employ it, nor does it know how to defend itself against it.”

St. Vincent DePaul

The real mettle of a person, especially a leader, is not seen in their very visible public service. Rather, solid spiritual leadership is forged in the invisible places, in the daily mundane tasks which no one ever sees.

It is in our most unguarded times that we really demonstrate who we are. This is the sacred space where humility is learned and developed. Therefore, to know a genuinely humble leader, one must follow that person in the common course of daily life.

Leaders without such a foundation of daily and consistent faithfulness will eventually crack. Ministry gradually becomes more duty than delight. Service to others is eventually measured by church attendance, monetary offerings, and public image. The soul shrinks over a long stretch of time, almost imperceptibly.

In a slow drift, faith fades, and anxiety fills the emptiness; glory grows dim, and greed grows destructively. Safety and security are ensconced as primary values to mitigate the nagging sense of worry. The original adventure of confident faith, conviction of purpose, and compassionate ministry becomes a bygone era.

Thus, it is most necessary to return to the queen of all virtues, the ideal Christian ethic for all followers of Christ: humility.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-7). With humility, our eyes are filled with spiritual sight, seeing and honoring the larger realities of the universe. Without humility, there is blindness, an inability to recognize the need for God’s grace.

The sinister approach of sinful pride is revealed in the wrongheaded thought, “I’m fine. I can do it on my own. I don’t need you, thank you very much.” 

So, how’s that been working for you lately? Are you frustrated, worried, despondent? 

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

St. Augustine

Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. It is neither weakness nor a cenobite self-abnegation into denying my personhood. Instead, a humble spirit:

  • Renews hope. Spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders make for spiritually and emotionally healthy congregations. Humility discerns that all Christian ministry rests with the sufficiency of Christ, not me, thus kindling a future hope in realities bigger than me.
  • Relieves anxiety. Humility knows and rests in the hands of a good and merciful God, rather than a perceived need to “look out for number one.”
  • Resists the devil. A robust faith always has a strong foundation of humility, helping us see that Satan has nothing we want. 
  • Remains steady. Humility is willing and privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ, and so, can persevere through both bad circumstances and boredom.

As individuals, we all need to gain and maintain a humble spirit. Humility really is the virtue to which everyone must aspire. It delivers what we need the most: To rest secure in the merciful arms of God. 

In this old fallen world, every family, neighborhood, organization, institution, corporation, and government is in desperate need of humility. We’ve already made quite enough mess of things with our human pride.

Within the church, and inside of every religious community, it is most necessary to reinforce all leadership appointments and staffing with humility. No amount of human intelligence, skill, and hard work can make up for a lack of humility. 

God is sovereign and in control. So, the sooner we sync our lives with this truth, the better off we will be.

Sovereign God, you cause people and nations to rise and to fall. I place my complete trust and devotion in you. With all the humility I can muster, I bow to you and submit to your gracious work in my life and in the life of the world. 

Shoo all sinful pride far from me, create in me a pure and humble heart, and let me share in your sufferings so that I might share in your glory, through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Necessity of Mentoring Relationships: Paul, Tom, and Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Orthodox icon of St. Paul
Orthodox icon of St. Timothy

You’ve been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Message)

Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Paul, the Apostle and mentor in the faith; and Timothy, the apprentice.

Together, they saw it all – and experienced it all. And through it all, the Christian tradition was passed on because of Paul’s purposeful mentoring of others, especially Timothy, by both verbal teaching and life example. In this, Paul helped set Christianity on a trajectory of modeling the words and ways of Jesus.

Faith is a gift given by God through Scripture and faithful people – and then received by us. Christianity is designed for community; it is not merely a solitary affair between the individual and God. Anyone trying to go it alone in the Christian life will soon discover they are overwhelmed and in over their heads with trouble.

Contemporary pastoral ministry still needs to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Just one of the many reasons why churches in the West are in such decline is that Christian leaders are not intentionally focused to passing-on a solid body of teaching, along with a consistent example of how to put it into practice, through close relationships.

Anyone who has been in the pastoral ministry gig for a long time, remaining consistent and faithful, has most certainly had a good spiritual teacher and guide shepherding them through their Christian experience. A good long ministerial life isn’t happenstance; it’s the result of a solid foundation through a Paul-and-Timothy sort of relationship.

Mosaic of Paul and Timothy, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, Italy

By God’s grace, I’ve had several persons influence my life in profound ways in such a relationship. One of the earliest and longest was with Tom – a campus minister on my university who built into my life as an undergraduate and a very young Christian. We remained connected and became good friends for nearly four decades until his untimely death.

Tom knew what he was doing with me. To this day, even with multiple academic degrees and many professional ministry experiences, I attribute most of what I know about Christian faith and practice as simply saying and doing what I saw Tom say and do. And, I might add, Tom consistently saw my true self, even when I didn’t see it myself.

A good model in the faith has the same qualities and insights as the Apostle Paul of old. For example, here are just a few of the important things I learned from Tom:

  • Christian ministry is interpersonal; time must be spent with others, getting to know them and building relationships. Doing pastoral ministry from afar is an oxymoron. From what we know of Paul, at times he had a team of up to seventy persons following him around on missionary endeavors.
  • There are always going to be charlatans and bad apples around. Don’t simply ignore them. Confront them in grace and truth. I still remember a time when I went along with Tom, not knowing where we were going or what he was up to. In retrospect, he probably knew I would bolt if I caught wind of what he was about to do. We went to the dorm room of a believer whom Tom flat-out confronted on his talking and living being inconsistent with his professed Christianity. My eyes got huge when Tom said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and I call you to repent.” This was said in a gracious and conversational tone, not in anger, which communicated concern and love for this individual student.
  • Develop relationships. And the best way of doing this is by having the Timothy tag along with the Paul. Tom continually brought me along to whatever he was doing, whether it was a weekend retreat he was leading, or going to the grocery store. We cannot learn from others if we aren’t around them, and Tom understood this better than most. As a result, I learned more than lessons; I learned a life.
  • It’s not about me. Tom never took himself too seriously. And because of that, I observed him never becoming overwhelmed or obsessing over the trouble he would sometimes get into. In fact, he typically welcomed the trouble whenever he saw it was not of his own making.
  • Openness and vulnerability are necessary. More than once, Tom strolled into a bible study with me and some other guys, flopped down and said, “Man, I really blew it today…” and then went on to explain some boneheaded thing he did. We unpacked the entire situation together. Not once do I ever recall Tom trying to look like the perfect Christian leader. He embraced who he was and was always willing to shine the light on the shadowy places of his heart.
  • Holy Scripture is central to Christian life and ministry. Inevitably, Tom’s question to us, after describing his bonehead move, was to ask, “What are you learning in God’s Word? Do you have any encouragement for me?” On a daily basis, without fail, Tom asked this question of me: “So, what is God teaching you in the Word?”

Through both Holy Scripture and the significant relationships I’ve had throughout my life, I can confidently state that there are two indispensable elements to effective Christian ministry:

  1. It must be firmly grounded in objective theory derived from God’s Word.
  2. It must be intentionally practiced with subjective experience derived from interpersonal relationships.

Objective theory without lived practice leads to being puffed-up with knowledge and no love – because love requires people. And subjective experience without a grounded theory is nothing but a form of spiritual A.D.D. in which whatever shiny thing we see grabs our attention.

I always considered Tom as my spiritual father (and his wife as a dear spiritual mother!). They have shown me not only how to live the faith, but also how to be a spiritual father myself. And as a result, my own dear wife and I have many spiritual children scattered throughout the country.

This is the consummate Christian: Coming to faith by God’s grace, mediated to us through actual flesh-and-blood people; being taught and mentored in that faith by proven Christians; and then, simply saying and doing what you have seen and heard from holy leaders and Holy Scripture.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not abstract art. It’s a life. It’s relationships. And it’s absolutely necessary in order for both the church and the world to be blessed.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously. (Micah 6:8, MSG)

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

Matthew 20:20-28 – Leadership as Service to Others

Statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, in Pittsburgh, Texas. Photo by Carol Highsmith

The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (New International Version)

Jesus and his disciples were not on the same page. That’s because they each had differing agendas.

Jesus was clear with the disciples about how things were going to shake out with him: torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead. It seems the disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads.

It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It’s more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like.

Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing, while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

Let’s be clear about what that true power really is: grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace.

Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way).

No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for self-serving authority.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any sort of leadership position is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world.

If Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into the Scriptures, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, that King David trafficked in grace.

David, at the pinnacle of power, looked over the kingdom to see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not:

  • Reliance on making and calling-in favors
  • Arrogant and overinflated egos
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Hatred and suspicion of others
  • Judgment and condemnation
  • An insistence on recognition
  • Compulsive manipulation and control over everything and everyone
  • Unilateral decision-making
  • Shaming of others
  • Hoarding resources
  • Coups and in-fighting
  • A demand of rights

We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ.

In contrast to this, grace exists. It is the deep magic which resides within. Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant:

Attending to the needs of all persons, especially the least, the last, and the lost

  • Freely consulting and collaborating with others
  • Focusing on responsibility
  • Loving discipline
  • Embracing accountability
  • Pursuing truth and integrity
  • Sharing power and resources
  • Encouraging feedback
  • Giving generously
  • Looking for ways to show mercy

This old world desperately needs leaders with a dutiful sense of public service which is compassionate and kind. Wielding authority is not about a show of strength; it is in the understanding that when I am weak, then I am strong.

Yes, this approach to leadership may bring some short-term suffering. Grace, however, results in longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God, and for the blessing of the world. Amen.

Luke 6:1-5 – Lord of the Sabbath

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (New International Version)

We Christians tend to be rather hard on the Pharisees. Yet, most of them, much like us, were just trying to uphold their understanding of God’s commands. They wanted to do God’s will. And so did Jesus.

The problem in the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus and some of the Pharisees (not all of them, e.g., Nicodemus) were at loggerheads about how to view and interpret the Law. Jesus wanted them to see the purpose of the law, the heart and spirit of the law, and who was the lord of the law. For Jesus, many of the Pharisees were spiritually blind. They either would not or could not discern who Jesus was and what he was all about.

So, when we refer to spiritual blindness, let’s have a bit of humility about it. Although for the Apostle Paul, a dramatic event happened in which the scales of blindness (both physically and spiritually) fell from his eyes, most folks have a gradual ability to see, an awakening which requires a process of time and growing awareness. This was true of Christ’s original disciples. They believed, yet their faith was an extended process over three years. It wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost that their faith became complete.

Christ and the Pharisees by Belgian artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Jesus didn’t like it that those who should know better, those persons for whom the light of God’s truth ought to be clear and present, were in darkness. When leaders are blind, then we have the blind leading the blind, and nobody finds the door of God’s kingdom.

Many of the Pharisees in the New Testament, most of the heretics in the early church, and some of the spiritual phonies of today are actually not charlatans, that is, they are not deliberately trying to deceive or lead others astray; they are not trying to keep people out of God’s kingdom – they think they are doing the right thing when they are actually leading others astray. 

One of the eye-opening realities I discovered, when I first began studying church history, is that the early heresies condemned at the church councils were doctrines promoted and put forth by men who were not evil bad people – they were just sincerely misguided. They thought they were helping the church better understand the nature of God and Christ, when in fact they were promoting unhealthy doctrine – unintentionally closing the door of God’s kingdom to some people. 

And later when I worked on my master’s thesis in nineteenth century American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from southern preachers before the American Civil War. I learned that they had a biblical defense for the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of them were pastors of large churches and led many people to Christ, that is, white people. They were slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of African-Americans, and teaching others to do the same.

We can unwittingly slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of people when we say God’s grace is for all and then turn around and avoid particular people; or whenever we have explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from serving or being served; or when we bind people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture. 

The seven deadly words of the Church, believing it is doing the Lord’s will, is, “We’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before… We cannot have somebody out in the field picking heads of grain and rubbing them in their hands. That’s reaping; it’s work; and you can’t do that on the Sabbath.”

Never mind that there are people trying to eat or attempting to enter the kingdom of God. So, we lose sight that the Law was meant to benefit people, to help them thrive and flourish, to lead them into the grace and knowledge of God. The Law gets turned on its head by becoming a heavy burden to carry instead of an easy yolk which brings freedom.

No matter the issue, the last word to everything is grace, God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  

Just as the priest in David’s day was gracious in giving him and his men the consecrated bread meant only for the priests, so Jesus was gracious in giving himself, the Bread of Life, for the benefit of the whole world.

For the Christian, the Law points to Christ, who is the Law’s fulfillment. Now, we carry one another’s burdens, and in doing so, we fulfill the Law of Christ.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful: Make us holy through your abiding divine presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the everlasting Gospel. Bring erring souls to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast in faith to the end.

Give patience to the sick and afflicted and renew them in body and soul. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works. This we ask, O blessed Spirit, whom with the Father and the Son we worship and glorify, one God, world without end. Amen.