Leadership is a Call to be Prophetic and Reframe

“No future can be stuffed into this presence except by being dead.”1 Resurrection is impossible without prior death. Scriptural imagination is often difficult to perceive until one has the eyes to see and ears to hear and is simultaneously shaped by the cosmic scope of authority, power, and kingdom that Jesus claims is to be made on real on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10). Leadership, inspired by scriptural imagination is helping to provide an alternative view on reality, that is, creating the particular space for change and the in-breaking of God. Leadership is submitting to the radically subversive lordship of Jesus that challenges every presupposition, the tendency to see through the lens of binary options of how to participate in the world (choices between naive hope and despair), and ultimately to take on the task of becoming a reframer. This kind of leadership, that both attests to the in-breaking of the future into the present and is capable of providing an alternative view of reality, is only made possible through the path of suffering and cross; because, without the cross there is no resurrection.

Situating Matthew’s Gospel as a prophetic text, and Jesus as a prophet in Matthew’s narrative, reframed the scope and function of the text for me and helped me to have new eyes to see. It also helps to explore Walter Brueggemann’s description of prophetic imagination as:

The task of prophetic ministry is to bring the claims of the tradition and situation of enculturation into an effective interface. That is, the prophet is called to be a child of the tradition, one who has taken it seriously in the shaping of his or her own field of perception and system of language, who is so at home in that memory that the points of contact and incongruity with the situation of the church in culture can be discerned and articulated with proper urgency.2

The prophets are not loose canons looking to dismantle the tradition and break down boundary markers of identity unless those boundary markers and traditions have become inconsistent and divergent from the memory that birthed the contemporary incarnation of the community and shared story. In this sense, Jesus is not only a prophet, but also a reframer, whose memory of the tradition and story of God is reoriented to new possibilities, and is a fulfillment of the spirit of the memories of the past. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or prophets; no, Jesus came to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). Fulfillment is only possible with knowledge of what came before so that it may be actualized in the present. Peter Rollins describes this process of reframing in order to fulfill as learning how to ask “circumcision questions”, i.e. questions which ask us to “remove something previously thought of as vital in order to help unveil, in an apocalyptic way, the central scandal of Christianity.”3 Reframers must be willing to help find out what must die so that new life might be able to emerge.

However, reframing is not simply an ideological endeavor that is meant only to shape imagination. The telos of reframing through the development of scriptural imagination is for transformation of the community where “the glory of God in Jesus Christ that makes itself visible in fleshly communities conformed to Christ’s image.”4 Leadership then is the ability to attest to the in-breaking of God who writes on our hearts and bears witness to the covenanted community “whose lives, transformed by the Holy Spirit, bear undeniable witness to the truth of God’s work in their midst.”5 Reframing is all-encompassing and cosmic in scope as all of creation is groaning towards the making right of all things. Leaders reframe perspectives by attesting to an alternative reality and way of participating in the world that is a signpost of the manifestation of God in our midst.

Leadership and the art of reframing is truly a gift, but a gift that is not to be enjoyed by oneself, but is instead a gift leading us back out into the larger context, a gift given to us so that we might be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited to reframe the larger cultural story, with a new story rooted in the faithfulness of God. Dr. Hays writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “What we have to offer instead is the story of Jesus. To believe that story is to find one’s whole life reframed, one’s questions radically reformulated. Therefore, much of the work of Christian apologetics will be to say to people, ‘No, you are asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong thing.’”6 Leaders help us work together to ask the right questions and be open to how God might reframe us and reorient us to become the transformational communities God has called us to be. And let us pray for the courage to ask the right questions to help each one of us to reframe the story in the luminous darkness of the mystery of God, who is the author of the words on our heart, lest we mistake ourselves to be the Word ourselves.

Strangely enough, leadership and the invitation to become a reframer is a calling that I sought to avoid, because while the truth may set me free, it does so by turning my life completely upside down.7 It seems to me that one of the most pressing tasks for Christian leaders today is to “sketch a portrait of an alternative Christianity, one that is as ancient as it is new…a work of memory and imagination, of dangerous memories as well as daring ways to imagine the future.”8 But this task will inevitably lead to suffering, or if Wendell Berry is right as quoted above, the future cannot become the present without death. And while the good news of Jesus is that through the resurrection the kingdom has come, as leaders we must learn how to help cultivate and proclaim scriptural imagination so that our churches can bear witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit that is seeking to “create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.”9 And it seems to me that the battle over our imaginations whether through national identity, consumerism, war, corporations, rampant individualism, and ceaseless connection via technology is a perpetual struggle for leaders today in the church. For me, to accept the call to lead in the church today is in essence an acceptance of the call to weakness and seeming foolishness: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:25)”

If you are looking for a way to dream of an alternative reality that seeks to imagine how the power of Jesus can change systemic injustice you won’t want to miss the event hosted by The Leland Center this weekend:

Journey to Justice is a daylong spiritual formation event focusing on the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other great people of faith during the civil rights movement. This inaugural seminar will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, VA. Dr. Jim Melson, Leland’s Director of Spiritual Formation, will moderate Journey to Justice in 3 formative sessions. For more information about event registration click here.

 

Josh is the Pastor to Students and Director of Creative Technologies at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Warrenton, VA. He’s also the author of Sacred Hope a book designed to foster conversation around the role of hope in our lives. Josh is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry degree at Duke Divinity School while raising two boys and loving his entrpreneurial wife, Shey. Josh blogs at joshuarhayden.com.

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1 Wendell Berry, Given: New Poems (Emeryville: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 27. 

2 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 2.

3 Peter Rollins, Insurrection (New York: Howard Books, 2011), xii.

4 Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in The Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 146. 

5 Ibid., 150.

6 Richard Hays, First Corinthians; Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 38. 

7 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 30.

8 Ibid., 35. 

9 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996), 32.

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Sandy Hook Revisited

The Sandy Hook Massacre has raised its share of questions for our society: How did this happen? Who is responsible? What must we do to prevent such things from happening again?  Such questions are natural, expected, and deserve our attention and best efforts in answering them. Questions concerning the proper place and availability of guns in our communities, about who should have them and how many they should have, about where they come from and how they should be accounted for, and what kinds of weapons are and are not legitimate under the provisions of the second amendment of the Constitution.   It also raises serious and important questions about public safety and the merits of arming teachers and the placing of armed guards in schools.  Other kinds of questions emerge concerning our society’s relationship to issues of mental health, and who is deemed mentally ill and again the limits of our society’s right to know the details of another’s health under the Constitution and our ideas about privacy and individual liberties.

It is unclear as to whether our society is prepared to answer any of these concerns seriously but it is reassuring at least that,  all these questions have an answer, at least theoretically.  In other words it makes sense to ask and seek an answer to these kinds of questions and hope for the political will to fashion better answers than the ones we have now.

But there is another class of questions that arise at times like this that does not hold out the promise of an answer, at least not in the same way.  These questions are not questions of policy – nor are they questions any kind of investigation could resolve.  In other words, they do not resolve the questions at hand by offering policy solutions or information, hitherto unknown.  Quite the contrary, the questions I have in mind are precisely the kind of questions that are made less intelligible by efforts to fashion policies or seek new information.  In other words, there are questions we are inevitably led to ask that all the journalists, pundits, police investigators, or psychiatrists could never answer, at least not as a function of their customary responsibilities.   And those questions are questions of Why?  Why did my baby die?  Why did this thing happen to us?  Why has God let this terrible thing happen?

Questions of this sort are not questions the answer to which is some kind of explanation.  In fact it is a feature of the kind of question it is that any kind of explanation only serves to confuse or deepen the misunderstanding.  In fact it is precisely because such questions have no answer in fact or theory that makes them what they are.  A mother asks, “Why did my baby die?”  If one answers, that a deranged maniac shot and killed the child, then the person attempting an explanation has clearly missed the point of the question.  Questions of this sort do not have explanations, because they are more like exclamations of anguish than questions or inquiries.

But because such exclamations have the form of a question, there is no shortage of answers offered.  “God has a plan in this” is one such attempt at making sense of the senseless.  It is does not take long for the obvious difficulties with God’s planning such things to become deeply problematic.  “Really, then perhaps the Almighty ought to keep his plans to himself.”

Another way to think about this very difficult human terrain is to say that what the people of Sandy Hook experienced was essential evil.  I say essential because the evil suffered is necessarily evil, evil without qualification, evil without mitigation.  And essential evil is fundamentally mysterious, because all attempts at explanation are empty. No explanation will do.  Essential evil is simply suffered.  And its overcoming does not come by way of an explanation, but by the experience of essential love.  And essential love is essential in that it too is necessarily so, without conditions, or qualifications.  And like essential evil, essential love is mysterious.  It defies explanation! Who can explain love that does not recognize distinctions or differences or degrees.

The Bible says that God is essential love. The Bible says Jesus is God.  Jesus’ life says essential love looks like this, ie the life we see in the person of Jesus, a life that loved without qualification, condescension, or discrimination. And when essential love meets essential evil, it inevitably suffers.  But it also entails the very possibility of resurrection, new life, or life more abundant, as is sometimes said.  That is not to say that essential evil cannot ultimately destroy a person.  It most certainly can.  But when essential evil meets essential love, the death that is the senselessness of evil’s conquest need not prevail.  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If love can find its place in the midst of essential evil’s conquest, then true resurrection may come.  And when it does, “Alleluia”, is about all one could or should say!

One way of making the distinction might be to say that when innocence suffers, evil of an essential nature has taken place.  To call evil essential is an attempt to mark the character of the evil concerned.  There are all kinds of evils, but only certain kinds of evil present themselves to us a mystery.  The “why” of Sandy Hook is not about a nation’s gun policies or mental health practices, or about any kind of ignorance forensic or psychological information could overcome.  The why of Sandy Hook does not seek any explanations, because no explanation will do.

Dr. Jeffrey Willetts

“The Great Debate…A Question of Love”

Over the years I have been asked numerous times about where our church stood on a particular issue. Sometimes the issues were theological, sometimes social, ethical, or ideological in nature. My answers have not always been satisfactory for those who question. Baptists have traditionally refrained from being painted into that kind of corner for no one person can speak for a body of believers, and no one issue, save faith in Jesus Christ, is salvific in nature. The issues that divide often seem more interesting to us than that which truly unites.

Looking for a way to draw Jesus into contentious debate, a Pharisee asked him in Matthew 22:37, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”  His answer was simple and straightforward…”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he said that the second is like the first…“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Among the many theological “hot potatoes” he could have chosen, he called, instead, those who would listen, to remember the words of old that came from the Levitical code…Love God and love your neighbor.

Some might argue that these words are too simple.  Surely Jesus must have recognized the significance of the Law and its broad interpretation that infused the great debates among the faithful. Surely Jesus understood the need for order in the context of his unruly followers who sat down to eat with unclean hands and picked and ate grain from the fields on the Sabbath.  Surely Jesus must have understood that healing on the Sabbath was unacceptable. There were rules to be kept, meetings to attend, righteous leaders and their causes to endorse.  Surely there was more to being a righteous person than love!

“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law?”  Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and the greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Can it be that simple?  Now, I would never imply that love is a simple thing. Love is demanding, sometimes elusive, often calling one to sacrifice and humility.  In reality, love and its demands both draw and repel. Those touched by Jesus’ healing, forgiving words were drawn to the One who transformed their lives.  Those who thought his teachings were too radical, his words and actions too inclusive, walked away or sought his destruction.  Jesus reminded his followers that there was no greater expression of love than the sacrifice of themselves for others.  He didn’t speak of righteousness as a code to be interpreted within the neatly drawn lines of social and religious expectation.  He certainly didn’t speak of love as self-seeking prosperity or heaven-sent favor.  Love, he said, is emptying one’s self for God and others.  No wonder so many “religious” people despised him.  No wonder such love begat a cross.  Love motivated incarnation and crucifixion…loving God and loving others.

There is great debate about many things today in the context of how faith informs our thoughts and actions. Too many of us who call ourselves Christians refuse to follow the simple, yet demanding words and example of Jesus.  He calls his followers to do two things…love God and love others.  It’s hard to improve on that.

By: Dr. Jim Abernathy

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