Seeing Leadership Anew

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)

As we enter these 40 days of Lent, it is no accident that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose the above story from Jesus’ ministry as yesterday’s gospel reading. The parallels between that story of wandering through the wilderness and our own wandering in a wilderness of sin are clear. The notion of Jesus’ fasting and our doing without during Lent are similar. The theme of introspective discovery governs both Jesus’ story and our Lenten one. With all this in mind, today, I want to consider another aspect of this temptation story.

John Calvin, one of the early Protestant Reformers, described Jesus’ vocation as threefold. He said that Jesus was called to be a prophet, a priest, and a king. Taking up this vocational description, Stanley Hauerwas has used that vocational description to interpret this temptation story. When Jesus is challenged to eat, Hauerwas notes how Jesus cites the prophets’ call to live by the words that come from God. When challenged with the allure of all the kingdoms, Hauerwas notes that Jesus rejects Satan’s kingdoms for another, heavenly kingdom. When taken to the temple, the center of faith for the Jewish people, Hauerwas notes Jesus’ resistance to replacing God’s holy agenda with another, more self-serving one. In this story, Hauerwas believes the threefold nature of Jesus’ vocation is encapsulate.

Moreover, as it turns out, that call is not limited to Jesus but imbedded into the very character of his kingdom. In other words, here, we see the call of the kingdom transferred to us. We are to be a people who lead like a king, who seek the eternal truth like a priest, and who lead the people in telling that truth to power like a prophet. Without faith, that calling is much more easily identified than fulfilled. Within our lives of faith, rarely do we manage to combine all three characters of the kingdom simultaneously. More frequently than not, we are lucky to develop just one of the three. Yet, on those rare occasions when the true leadership of a king, the truth seeing of a priest, and the truth telling a prophet coalesce, we gain a glimpse at the kingdom Christ inaugurating in his coming.

It is our aspiration in this season of Lent to identify those rare occasions of coalescing and labor to emulate them. That is why we read this story of Jesus’ temptation during this season of the year. We read this story to remind us not only that in Jesus a threefold vocation manifests but that our Lenten challenge is not just to admire such a manifestation but to seek it out in our everyday wildernesses, too. As the journey of Lent reminds us, we are (being transformed into) God’s kingdom. Therefore, we must regularly seek the kingdom and claim it for our own.

Most recently, Bishop Peter story of the Methodist Church in South Africa offered just such a rare, transformative manifestation of this threefold character of Jesus’ kingdom. Below, I include his remarks as he boldly seeks to name truth, tell truth, and lead Christ’s church truthfully. By identifying the kingdom through his witness, we may become better practitioners of it ourselves.

‘THERE COMES A TIME’
Address at a Service of Solidarity to mark the Trial of Rev. Ecclesia de Lange
by
Rev Prof Peter Storey DD.LLD.DHL
Rosebank Methodist Church, Cape Town, 8 February, 2010

There comes a time. It’s as simple as that.
1.
There comes a time when a new mind settles over the human family, when almost imperceptibly, people begin to think a new and different thought, making the old thought no longer thinkable and the world a kinder place to live in. One of our hymns – used often in the apartheid days – reminds us that to every person and nation- to all of us -there comes a ‘moment to decide.’ One of its lines is particularly apposite today:

‘New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.’[1]

Jesus brought a new mind to our world. It included a radical hospitality of the heart that threatened a host of ancient shibboleths. Broken and needy people heard him gladly but his wide open love was resented by the religious of his day; for them it was more important to be right than to be good. They didn’t understand that being good becomes the ultimate right. His love was too big for them – too big for any of us. Even the way he was killed nailed his arms forever in wide embrace. After his Resurrection, his first Jewish followers struggled with the breadth of his welcome; his Holy Spirit had a relentless hospitality that left them punch-drunk. He seemed to want to include everyone. The Acts of the Apostles became the story of one barrier after another tumbling before this relentless hospitality.

The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to haunt us, to confront every prejudice of the devout, no matter how respectable or how carefully wrapped in dogma. Time and again since, the Spirit has taken the Church, sometimes gently, more often by the scruff of the neck, and shown us that what was once revered as an ancient good has become uncouth and untenable. The Spirit still has lessons to teach and we have lessons to learn. When we have listened, the Spirit has used the Church to be the conscience of the world – as some churches were used in the dark apartheid years – but when we have been obdurate and blind, then God has used the world to be the conscience of the Church. Right now is one of those times because, when it comes to how we treat people of different sexual orientations, the Constitution of South Africa seems to be more in tune with the mind of Christ than the attitudes of the Methodist Church.

So, let me say now that there will come a time when the Methodist Church of Southern Africa will declare its ministry open to persons in faithful same-sex relationship. It will honour and bless their love with the same blessing given to all marriages everywhere. That is as certain as day follows night. When this will happen, we do not know, but when it does, it will not be primarily because of Constitutions or grand declarations; it will be because of the courage and faithfulness of people like Rev.Ecclesia de Lange and her spouse Amanda. Alan Walker says, ‘Always advance comes by a man here, a woman there, being faithful in a particular situation to a great truth.’ Ecclesia, your simple words of witness have moved us deeply. You have said:

‘I desire to serve Jesus. I desire to be true to myself. I desire to minister within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa with integrity and to be faithful to God’s call on my life …’

What could be more simple, or more honourable? But we know strong forces resist this simple answer to God’s call. You have also said:

‘I have reached the point where I can no longer be silent. I have come to see that it is better to be rejected for who I am than to be accepted for who I am not …’

I wonder if you know how close those words are to the words of Anne Hutchinson, put on trial by the 17th Century Puritans of New England for being a Quaker. As she exited the church where the trial was held, she said: ‘Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ’

Which is why … there comes a time …

The Holy Spirit has waited long enough. It is time for the Church to recognize, repudiate and reject what William Sloane Coffin calls its ‘last respectable prejudice’[2] – homophobia. If that is too much to digest all at once, then the time has come for at least a full place at the table for people with a new and different mind. As a well-wisher wrote to Ecclesia, ‘Gay ministers are not going to go away and more of us will want to be married[3].’ So today we are here to say to those who differ from us, ‘Hold your views if you must, but we are not prepared to see one more person – this person – sacrificed on the altar of wrongful exclusion.’

2.
Before going further, because this gathering is not just about opinions, but about real people who have been – are being – sacrificed, we must make confession:

Some years back I was speaking at a conference on inclusiveness in a church in Lancing, Michigan. The day was enriched by a magnificent choir – the Lancing Gay Men’s Choir. As he introduced their first item, the Choir Director said that he had had to work very hard to persuade most of his singers to agree to perform in a church. Too many of them had been hurt by the churches they had grown up in. He then apologized for being late. At the last minute, he said, when it came to actually passing through the church doors, two or three of his choir had simply frozen. They couldn’t take that step. The trauma of what they had suffered at the hands of the church was just too much. ‘So, we’re short of a few voices today,’ he said. ‘We apologise.’

But it is we, the church, who must apologise. This apology must be a wide one, embracing every person who has been hurt, rejected, excluded and wounded by the Christian Church because of his or her sexual orientation. It must be deep, reaching down into centuries of wrong. The church’s long compromise with slavery, our blind acceptance of racism, our stubborn exclusion of women from leadership and ordination – these are sins from which we have had to be delivered, but John Cobb would remind us that in this particular, we may have done worse: whereas in most forms of suppression the church has given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexual persons, the church has been the leader in the oppression[4]. I confess this sin on behalf of my church – the Methodist Church of Southern Africa today. We stand in need of forgiveness – from our God and from those we have hurt.
Ecclesia and Amanda, I see your action, which has brought us together today, as a gift: it is an opportunity for the Church I love and serve to right a great wrong.

3.
Sadly … though I pray it will do so, I fear it may not. There are many reasons for this, but I want to lift up just one. It takes clear vision and great courage to recognize and reverse a centuries-old, deeply rooted prejudice. It takes an even greater leap of bravery and conviction to repudiate what has been given to us as sacred teaching and to declare that, ‘time has made that teaching uncouth. We need to move on from it.’

I recall the electric moment at the Rustenburg Conference of 1990 when Prof. Jonker of Stellenbosch Kweekskool, made his historic apology on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Churches for their collaboration with the wrongs of apartheid. We knew that his courageous turn-around would bring difficulties for his church, but we had no idea how great. The backlash was ferocious, and one of the most common protests was from devout Dutch Reformed members who accused their leaders of betrayal : ‘You are the ones who taught us that apartheid was Biblical, moral and Christian. How dare you suddenly change your minds, making sinners of us all?’ You will recall that Prof. Johann Heyns, who shared with us in the writing of the Rustenburg Declaration, was assassinated soon after. If some of us are tempted to denigrate those who cannot agree with us, we need to pause and remember how hard it is to abandon a life-long prejudice, especially when you’ve been told that God shares that prejudice too. And lest any of us ‘straight’ supporters here be tempted to self-rightousness in our critique of more conservative Christians, perhaps we ought to recall that most of us held similar views once, and our journey to greater openness doesn’t makes theirs any easier.

I hope that we will stay in conversation with those who differ from us. Past experience tells us that a way forward may be found – together. Remember those words from another time and another struggle, written by black and white Methodists after Obedience ’81?

‘We have experienced how hard it is to abandon long-held prejudice and long-felt bitterness. But we have seen God work this miracle in us. It happened because we continued to search for each other even at our time of deepest division and despair.’[5]

4.
So, there is hope, but hope is not enough: there is also urgency, because … there comes a time.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has acknowledged that we are divided between two opinions. That is true. The difference can’t be papered over:
• Those who defend the closed door cannot open it without believing they betray Scripture.
• Those who have opened the door cannot close it without believing we betray Jesus, the Lord of Scripture.
Our minds are unlikely to meet soon and the Methodist Conference has therefore invited us to ‘journey together’ in a way that ‘both respects and holds in tension differing views among our ministers and people.’[6] Well and good, but if this journey is to have integrity there is one important condition: the same rules must apply to both travellers on the road. Our Church cannot claim to respect our views, and then punish those who, like Ecclesia, live out those views in practice. Holding the conversation open must not be another way to keep the doors of Christian marriage and Ordination for married gay people slammed shut.

Because there comes a time …

Let me say this very directly to our friends who differ from us: we will be patient in debate but no longer in suffering. You must understand that your opinion has real-life consequences for colleagues who we have come to love and honour. The pain and rejection they suffer is inflicted by the opinion you defend. Hold onto it if you will, but we cannot let you hurt people anymore. ‘‘There comes a time,’ said Martin Luther King Jr., when the cup of endurance runs over.’[7]

To our bishops and spiritual leaders, let me say this: Your task is not easy: in this matter you preside over a divided church. In the days of apartheid our leaders faced similar divisions, but while they wrestled with difficult debates, they were crystal clear about what was right and what was wrong – that the most damnable thing about apartheid was that it hurt people for something they could never change – the color of their skins – and for that alone it stood condemned in the councils of God. That was the bottom line. The rest was detail.
Today, we long for you to lead. You do not have to wait for any Conference to say what is right and what is wrong. We long to hear you declare lovingly and firmly that our beloved church cannot and will not any longer reject gay people for something they have no power to change. Please lead us. Let no more Ecclesia’s suffer. It would be a glorious day if at this time, because of your lead, God’s Ecclesia, God’s called people, were able to spread wide our arms and our hearts – before the Holy Spirit had to prize them open.
There comes a time … and the time is now.

Simon’s Town, February 2010.
[1] ‘Once to every man and nation,’ James Russell Lowell, MHB 1933, No 898.
[2] William Sloane Coffin, Homophobia, the Last Respectable Prejudice, the 1997 Schooler Institute Lecture, Methodist Theological School in Ohio (unpublished).
[3] E-mail from Rev.Suzanna Bates, British Methodist Church, 14 December, 2009
[4] Ibid. Quoted by Coffin
[5] The Charter of Obedience ’81, adopted by the most representative gathering of Methodists ever held in SA – Auckland Park, 1981
[6] MCSA Yearbook 2008, p81, para 2.5.1
[7] Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can’t Wait, Signet Books, 1963/4, p.82

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Ash Wednesday

I love the fact that the word humus—the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants—comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology.
—Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Walking through the woods this weekend as the snow fell, I heard the brittle branches of last summer’s undergrowth crackle underfoot. Each step’s snap sank twigs and leaves deeper into the earth that they were becoming. I found myself amongst those trees looking for suitable wooden arms, selecting the right shaped stick, stripping off the excess to prepare my find for its place on our snowman. To make a well-shaped body, preparations are necessary. Changes are needed.

Similar to how a blanket of snow temporarily transforms our tired winter landscape into a quiet, fresh stillness; this Wednesday we enter another temporary yet transformative time. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day period of preparation and change, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. These 40 days of preparation and change is called Lent. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by stripping away those unnecessary parts of their lives, reshaping themselves into the broken down, refined form that will be their essential addition to the ever-changing body of Christ.

Fallen leaves, dried undergrowth, snapped twigs become something new.  Leaves, undergrowth, and twigs mix with damp dirt. They breakdown. The greens of summer become the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn that become beiges, browns, and blacks of winter. This decaying layer forms the top of the soil called humus.

Humus is an essential layer, replenishing the dirt’s nutrients lost during the previous spring and summer. It is the layer that makes possible the promised explosion of new life that comes with spring. It is the gift from the forest back to the earth, offering thanks for another year of shared existence.

Humus, as Parker Palmer reminds us above, is also the source of our English word humility.

Humility is that posture of willfully lowering ourselves to be broken down, making us available to be used for some greater purpose. Like leaves broken down to be used for the next spring’s rebirth, so too, we must willingly prepare to be broken down so that we might be used to make something greater than ourselves when our shared spring arrives. For the church, that shared spring begins with Lent.

Our word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word lecten, meaning spring. Over the years, this Lenten time of stripping away and introspective change has expanded to include not just those catechumens but all those within the church. Lent is a time for us all to step back from who we are and consider what must change within us to enable us to be who we must become. That change of the larger body begins first (and uniquely) within each of us.

As I enter my first Lenten season with you, I am reminded that for me to help foster what might be possible among us, first, I must be willing to be broken down. I must regularly remind myself that I cannot assume that I bring with me all that is necessary to make ministry happen. I cannot assume that I have all the answers to every unanswered question. I cannot assume that I know what is best or better. If God’s vital and vibrant kingdom is to be cultivated and propagated, first, preparatory, humbling work must take place. Like those leaves, I must change and risk dying to myself and my expectations and my assumptions if a new spring of possibilities is to come.

In Luke’s discourse on discipleship, Jesus challenges his disciples to engage in such an act of self-humility. There, Jesus declares, “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:23-24, NRSV). His challenge is for his disciples to break away from past expectations about themselves, their world, and their God. This is no easy task, but it is an essential task commended to all who struggle to be followers of Christ.

It is my prayer that during this Lenten season of preparation and transformation that as individuals and as a community we are willing to risk letting go and being broken down, being made ready for what is to come. It is my hope that out of the humus of our lives God’s kingdom may come; God’s will may be done in this place as in heaven. As all Lents end at a tomb’s door promising new life , may our journey together this Lenten season arrive at the door of our new life, a new life of new possibilities for this college, its work, it mission, and its people.

Amen.

A Full-bodied Experience

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)

Several years ago, I went on a mission trip to Bosnia. I traveled with a group connected to UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief), rebuilding barns and giving farm animals to families who had lost nearly everything during the civil war that ravaged Bosnia in the 1990s. Before the trip, I had never been to that part of Europe. I was excited about what I would see, where we would travel, and what we were going to do. Although, I was not excited about one particular aspect of the trip: coffee!

I do not drink coffee. The idea of sitting down to drink a hot cup of black bitterness is not my idea of a good time. If I am going to sit down to drink anything hot, I prefer something chocolate.

To my alarm, we were told to expect lots of coffee. It is part of Bosnian culture. OK, saying coffee is part of Bosnian culture is a significant understatement. It is a central and frequent part of Bosnian culture. Regardless of the weather—hot, cold, sunny, or rainy, Bosnians stop many times during a day to share a pot of coffee.

Now, the coffee Bosnians drink is not your standard, American coffee. The coffee Bosnians drink is Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is served in small, espresso-sized cups filled with a substance having a consistency closer to syrup than water. Turkish coffee is strong, dark, and full-bodied. When you drink it, the coffee seemingly slides down the back of your throat the way milkshakes do. What makes it so viscous? Sugar and foam.

Turkish coffee is not only strong, dark, and full-bodied; it is sweet! And, the coffee is foamy because brewing Turkish coffee involves several steps, including re-boiling the liquid two or three times.

Therefore, the first time we sat down to share coffee with our hosts and beneficiaries, I was a little uneasy. Yet, as Alisa passed out her cups and we settled ourselves under a large shade tree, even though I do not like coffee and do not fully comprehend the attraction of drinking hot liquids in the middle of a blistering late-summer’s afternoon, I recognize generosity when I see it. I understand the importance of hospitality and of receiving hospitality. I appreciate the significance of sharing life together. Under that tree, drinking unseasonably hot, tooth-dissolvingly sweet coffee, I remembered that the first (and possibly most important, transformative) part of any endeavor is being willing to participate.

When Jesus arrived on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and asked Simon to put his boat in the water, little did Simon know how true this notion about participation was to prove for his life. Simon’s first encounter with Jesus did not involve intellectual assent to doctrinal postulates. It did not involve confession of belief in who Jesus was or what kind of life he was committed to pursuing. No, that first encounter with Jesus for Simon involved, principally, the simple willingness to participate. Moreover, this new participant was not the most respected, influential, or effectual of men. Rather, Jesus asked Simon—a confessed, incredulous, impetuous, under-qualified sinner—to respond when asked.

Despite Simon’s feeble resistance—“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”—Jesus persistent request confirmed that the most important part of faith is not first about a perfect fit but about willing participation. The whole of scripture affirms this conclusion.

Think of Abram and Sari—the old couple who laughed at God. Think of Jacob the trickster, Joseph the arrogant, Moses the murderer, Rahab the prostitute, David the adulterer, Mary the pregnant teenager, and Paul the persecutor. Repeatedly, the scriptures witness to a faith populated and promoted by a less than ideal bunch. When it comes to the work of the kingdom, this witness from scripture reminds us that God does not wait for someone better to come along. God does not wait for a better opportunity. God does not need the perfect candidate to start the in-breaking of the kingdom.

God requires participants.

We see this in the encounter between Jesus and Simon. When Simon protests, Jesus prompts. And, as we know from the stories about Simon to follow, this is not the first or last time Simon proves less than the perfect ambassador of faith. Think of Simon’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Caesarea-Philippi or attempt to walk on water or denials at the crucifixion. Time and again, Simon falls short of perfection, yet, regardless of these shortcomings, Simon remains a participant. Faith, it turns out, is far less about adhering to right doctrine or possessing perfect credentials or holding the right office than about willing participation.

In addition to the importance of participation in the journey of faith, we glean from Simon’s encounter with God that faith is not a onetime commitment but a repeated proposition. In this story by the lake, Jesus asks Simon three times to respond to different requests. Each time, Simon affirmatively responds, despite lingering hesitancy and some incredulity. With the final request to “leave everything,” we witness a microcosmic summation of our macrocosmic journeys of faith. Faith demands all of us, not just a partial commitment or a general adherence or just-this-once confession.

Rather, a full-bodied faith is a faith that demands an engagement by and transformation of all that we are. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this “costly grace.” Costly grace is grace that costs us our whole lives. This wholeness is what makes faith full-bodied! A successful journey of faith is one to which we regularly and intentionally attend. John Wesley called these regular, intentional commitments disciplines. Like an athlete in training, disciplined living reworks who we are into who we must become.

Returning to my experience with Turkish coffee, the coffee’s strength of flavor and complexity of texture only come from the repeated boiling of the brew. A onetime action is not sufficient. Simon’s life is an illustration of this need regularly to rehearse his place and function in the story of salvation. If we do not regularly rehearse our own commitments to the journey of faith, then our faith commitments become artifacts of who we were at one time and not a present expression of who we are. Like any artifact, a faith that is an artifact is interesting to examine but not presently efficacious or useful to who we are, what we do, and who we are to become.

Finally, the story of Jesus and Simon’s encounter at the lake reiterates the importance of God’s meeting us where we are but not leaving us there. Frequently, in the gospel stories, Jesus meets people in midst of their lives. He meets a woman by a well, a tax collector in a tree, a woman caught in adultery, John in the wilderness, the faithful in the synagogues, the paralytic by the city gate, and Simon by the sea. Imbedding this very point in the story, many commentators see the process of fishing described in the story as illustrative of how God does not first call us to some other life but initially meets us in the life we are living. The method of fishing described in the text is a type of fishing that does not use lures to entice fish but, rather, is a style of fishing that reaches fish in their home habitats. In other words, God initially seeks us. Yet, once caught, everything changes, as must we.

As I sat there sipping my coffee, listening to us chat about the mundane and the immediate, I began to consider the profound and transcendent character of our conversation. We were an interesting bunch: Christians and Muslims, Americans and Bosnians, Bosniaks and Serbs. Like Simon who said “yes” to a request by an unexpected stranger for a seat in his boat, in sharing this coffee our lives would never be the same. Our beneficiaries would have a new barn, providing a means for a new livelihood and life. We would have new perspectives on life and faith and war and grace.

Yet, also, to be transformative, I know that those memories cannot be left alone but needed regular remembering and sharing. As the liturgy of the church reminds us, this rehearsal can be transformative, changing everything about who we are and making our lives of faith full-bodied experiences. Such transformation begins simply by our willingness to meet each other were we are: in my case, around a pot of coffee under a shade tree.

Being transformed under a tree seems like as good a place as any. If I remember correctly, scripture begins and ends with life changing under a tree. It might be asking too much for our shade tree coffee break to be so comprehensively transformative, but odder things have happened. Simon was just finishing a day of fishing and look how his world changed. If we are willing to lift up our eyes from our daily work long enough to greet the unexpected, we too might have the chance to met God in the unexpected, i.e., a friend, an opportunity, an idea, an event–changing our world too!

Have a wonderful week!

We Are Immigrants

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. . . . our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
—Philippians 3:12-17, 20-21

For three years of my life, I lived as an immigrant, twice moving from North Carolina to the United Kingdom. When living as an immigrant, many aspects of life taken for granted are lost. For instance, the security of employment; the guarantee of tax, educational, or retirement benefits; and assumption of continued residency do not exist. At least, they did not exist for me while I was in the UK.

Each time I lived in the UK, I had short-term visas. The visas allowed me to work, study, and live for a restricted time, in a certain place, for a certain purpose. The tenuousness of such an existence constantly reminded me that I did not fully belong to that place. No matter how much I enjoyed being there, delighted in my work, and appreciated my friends and neighbors, I did not belong to that kingdom. My citizenship was elsewhere.

Yet, holding citizenship in one place while living in another has advantages, too. I saw my adoptive county through different eyes. My eyes were opened to see what the culture around me assumed as “natural” to be simple convention. For instance, while my British companions opened each conversation with a comment on the weather, such a gambit seemed superfluous given the descriptions were always the same virtually every day of the year, i.e., cool with a high chance for rain, intermittent sunshine possible. However, soon, I discovered having a conversation about the weather was not actually a conversation about the weather but a means to evaluate the character and temperament of one’s fellow conversationalist. If I entered the weather conversation willingly and earnestly, deeper, more substantive discussions followed. (Such a discovery proved highly beneficial for a minister when deeper conversations are the very point!) Over time, I came to appreciate their subtle evaluative tool.

Conversely, living away from one’s home country opens our eyes to see that country anew. By moving to the United Kingdom, I gained an interesting perspective on my own country. From experiencing nationalized healthcare to issues of class and race, living in the United Kingdom reshaped my perceptions of the United States, particularly the southern United States. One insight quickly catalogued was the significantly different way meetings concluded.

Here, in the US, particularly in the southern United States where public transportation is essentially absent and travel by car is relatively easy, rarely have I attended a meeting where the meeting’s chair concludes the session by asking if everyone has arranged “ride-sharing,” i.e., carpooling, to the next meeting, asking everyone to either volunteer seats in their car or find a car that has available seats. This pairing of drivers and riders happened repeatedly at our circuit-wide church meetings in the UK. Since I was 16 and obtained my license, seldom have I paused long enough to ask if I NEEDED to drive or if anyone else NEEDED a ride. I just drove . . . by myself. Of course, occasionally I would share a ride, but that was far more the exception than the rule. All this is to say that being citizens of one place while living in another can offer a beneficial vantage, enabling us to reevaluate both our new home and native land.

Paul was asking the members of the church in Philippi to take advantage of a similar position they held as citizens of one place living in another. To make this point, Paul drew on a cultural phenomenon well understood by the Philippians.

Philippi was a Roman colony in a Greek part of the world. Formally established by Philip of Macedonia in the 4th century BCE, Philippi was re-colonized by the Romans in the later part of the 1st century BCE. This means that when Paul arrived sometime in the middle part of the 1st century CE—some one hundred years later—the Romans were established as the ruling elite of a city still heavily influenced and populated by Greeks and Greek culture. These Romans over the course of a century, by marriage and osmosis, had taken on much of the Greek culture. Yet, the Roman colonists, while living in the Greek Philippi, did not have citizenship in Philippi but in Rome. They lived a double-existence. They were Romans who were not entirely Greek while being Greeks who were not entirely Roman. Yet, ultimately, while living in Greece, their citizenship and loyalty was with Rome.

The entire community knew it. So, when Paul began articulating this notion of living one place while being a citizen of another, his chosen metaphor is not accidental. He crafted his message for just this audience. That audience would resonate immediately with his words. In the end, Paul knew the power of his metaphor because he knew the city’s cultural climate.

As Roman citizens, the Romans of Philippi were granted immunity from certain taxes and civic obligations and gained other rights and privileges denied their fellow Greek residents of Philippi. This culture of advantage and disadvantage created a disparity in actions. Those who were Roman would often behave in one manner because these citizens understood the immunity and cultural benefits afforded them by their Roman citizenship. They understood that having citizenship, even if that citizenship was to a place far from where they were, allowed them . . . expected them . . . to act differently from those around them. In other words, there was a direct correspondence between citizenship and actions.

The population of Philippi understood this correspondence; the Philippian Christians understood this correspondence; Paul understood this correspondence. Paul wanted to capitalize on this understood correspondence, so he drew upon this correspondence to shape how the Philippian Christians were to act.

Utilizing this culture of correspondence, Paul asks his readers to recognize that their citizenship is in another land, in another kingdom. Rather than citizens of Roman or Philippi, Paul wants his readers to understand that they are citizens of heaven. Earlier in the letter, Paul reminded them that Christ willingly gave up his original citizenship to take on another. Likewise, they are to give up their original citizenship on earth to become citizens of heaven. By virtue of baptism into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, these Philippian Christians transferred their citizenship and became immigrants from another kingdom without moving an inch. Moreover, just as a correspondence exists between citizenship in Rome and certain behaviors regardless of one’s residency or non-residency in Rome, there is a correspondence between our citizenship and our actions regardless of our current distance from or proximity to heaven. Citizenship had its privileges.

Poignantly, most of the members of the church in Philippi were not Roman citizens but slaves. They were not members of the polis with power and privilege but noncitizens who had only been denied power and privilege, watching others advance and benefit from it. So, Paul is not solely tapping into a culture of correspondence but Paul is exploiting a mood of longing permeating an underclass. For the first time, these slaves are offered privilege. For the first time, the disadvantaged are offered advantages. For the first time, the powerless are offered the power of citizenship, but this power comes as citizens not of Rome but of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom ruled by a king who has power over life and death itself.

Possibly most importantly, Paul emphasizes that this citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is not some distant hope assuming some delayed response and eventual change. Rather, Paul reminds his readers that this kingdom of heaven is coming to us and soon. As such, the kingdom’s imminence must change how we act, live, and respond, today—right here, right now. This is not some delayed hope in a “sweet by and by” but in a transformed “now” filled with transformed people currently running the race, pursuing the prize. Citizenship, it turns out, has it privileges AND its responsibilities.

As newly classified immigrants of heaven, Paul challenges the church in Philippi to take advantage of the improved perspective gained as a citizen of another kingdom. He wants them to see their world, their city, and their lives differently. And, in seeing everything differently, he assumes corresponding different actions must logically follow.

Two thousand years later, we read Paul’s letter, sitting in our own kingdoms of privilege and power. Having read it, we are reminded that we, too, must learn to live as immigrants. While not necessarily moving to a new country or community, we, like the Philippians are immigrants by virtue of baptism. Such a position affords us a new perspective and assumes new responsibilities. We must take advantage of seeing the world around us with the “eyes of heaven,” embracing the corresponding responsibilities to live and act according to our new sight and citizenship. Living as immigrants will not be easy.

How will this new citizenship empower our living, our desires for change, our hopes, our promises to transform this body, i.e., Young Harris College, into a present embodiment of the God’s kingdom here in north Georgia? Might living as citizens of another kingdom—a kingdom for the dispossessed and the dismissed—require us to relinquish some of the powers and privileges our current citizenship affords us? Like Christ through Paul, how will we empower the disempowered? How will we offer freedom to the captive? How will we set at liberty those who are oppressed? How will proclaim recovery of sight to the socially, economically, and politically blind? How will we speak truth to power? How will we declare the year of the Lord’s favor in this place?

Most importantly, as Paul reminds us, this new living is not some delayed event but a present necessity because we are already citizens of the kingdom. In other words, by delaying God’s liberating actions any more we remove the modifier “good” from the gospel. The good news that is God’s coming kingdom becomes simply collected with all the other news about a better tomorrow. When we forget our citizenship and embrace our comfortable power, we cease being prophets concerned about transformation of the present age and become transformed into being concerned primarily about profits.

Paul’s letter forces us to ask ourselves, are we residents of this place, comfortable in our positions, or are we immigrants from another kingdom, willing to become embodiments of God’s discomforting good news?

May we all be immigrants and live as immigrants from God’s in-breaking kingdom in this place!

Amen.