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A Will to Lead and the Grace to Follow brings together dozens of these messages, each of them a gem of pastoral advice. If you want to know about the ins and outs, the highs and lows, of being a leader of God’s people, you’ve come to the right place.
ADVENT AND CHRISTMAS
THE CHALLENGE OF ADVENT
After my first Advent/Christmas at the university chapel where I used to preach, I noted that sermons during this season frequently received negative responses from some in the congregation. What's the problem? Is not this a prelude to one of the Christian year's most joyous seasons?
One person emerged after I had preached at the Advent service at another university chapel and accused me of "promoting irresponsible passivity" in my sermon. "You should remind us," he said, "that we are educated, responsible people who have been given the gifts to make the world a better place."
Yet what was I to preach, stuck as I was with the repeated Advent gospel assertion that God really has come in Jesus Christ to do for us what we could not do for ourselves? How could I calibrate the Hebrew Scriptures' prophetic announcement that history had again become interesting not because we had at last gotten organized but because God was moving among us? In short, my critic had gotten more than a whiff of eschatology and found its odor distinctly offensive to his activist, educated, progressive sensibilities. He, like most of us, would rather get better than be born again. He, like most of us, wants a world improved rather than a world made new.
Advent is the season of "the last (Greek: eschatos) things," a time of winter death in nature, the ending of another year. Yet it is also the beginning of the church year, a time of birth at Bethlehem, a time when we know not whether to name what is happening among us as "ending" or "beginning," for it feels both as if something old is dying and as if something new is being born.
Christian eschatology, like Jewish eschatology before it, makes a claim about the future in which the Creator of the world at the beginning is fully revealed as the world's Redeemer at the end. Eschatology is more a matter of Who? than When? "The end" is not so much a matter of chronology (when?) but rather a debate over who, in the end, is in charge. The hope for the coming of Christ in fullness (Christ's parousia) has nothing to do with the hope engendered by wishful thinking, a positive mental attitude, or creative social programming.
Advent promises us that, when all has been said and done by God, in us as individuals, in our political/social/economic structures, in the whole cosmos, God will reign. What God is doing among us, for us, often despite us is large, cosmic, political— nothing less than "a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1).
Our individual hope is grounded in the promised cosmic dismantling and reconstructive transformation that God is doing in the whole world. John Howard Yoder was pointing to the eschatological nature of our hope when he suggested that the word "revolution" was a bit closer to the root meaning of euangelion than merely "good news." The good news of Advent is that we are being met, reconstructed by a God who intends to make all things new.
President Bush stood before Congress and, paraphrasing a beloved old hymn, said, "there is power, wonderworking power in ... the good American people." That's not a Christian belief.
More than likely, Advent eschatology offends us for more mundane reasons. I am at church seeking personal advice for how to have a happy marriage or how to get along with the boss next week, only to have Advent wrench my gaze away from my subjectivity with its insistence that whatever God is about in the Advent of Jesus, it is something quite large, quite cosmic, quite strange and humanly unmanageable, something more significant than me. I am not the master of history.
So let us begin with the honest admission that our real problem with these Advent/Christmas texts is largely political and economic. Tell me, "This world is ending. God has little vested interest in the present order," and I shall hear it as bad news. However, for a mother in a barrio in Mexico City who has lost four of her six children to starvation, to hear that, "This present world is not what God had in mind. God is not finished. Indeed, God is now moving to break down and to rebuild in Jesus"; I presume that would sound something like gospel. For her the Advent/Christmas message presages a revolutionary conflagration.
A great deal depends, in regard to our receptivity to these texts, on where we happen to be standing at the time when we get the news, "God is coming."
It's Advent. Let the revolution begin. (December 3, 2007)
IN THE DARKNESS, A VOICE, A LIGHT
John 1:6-9, 19-23
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. (John 1:6-7)
As a child, I was frightened of the dark. I grew up in a rural area and, when it was dark, it was really dark—no street lamps, no passing automobiles. Dark. How well I remember that long walk, which I would have to make, down our winding drive through the pine trees from the highway to our house. At the end of the drive, though, as I came in sight of the house lights, there was often my mother's reassuring, "Is that you?"
Nothing tames the terrors of the darkness like a light, a voice.
John's Gospel opens by saying, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." Israel was in darkness, the dark of political oppression. Judea was occupied by Rome. These are the people upon whom light has shined, says John. But before there was light, there was a voice, a voice in the darkness. That voice belonged to John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the voice who proclaims a light coming into the darkness.
All the Gospels tell about John. And yet we get most of our detailed information about John from Matthew and Luke. They tell that he ate insects, lived in the desert, and wore camel hair. Strange. John's Gospel tells us none of this. All John tells us is that John the Baptist was "a voice." We have to figure out who he is and what he is up to by what John says.
People ask, "Who are you?" John tells them that he is a mere forerunner. John also waits. He says that the one for whom he is preparing the way is one who is great. But John doesn't seem to know many details. He only knows that his coming will be light in the darkness, that great advent people are expecting.
We have sung advent hymns of waiting, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus." "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Waiting is not easy for us. Waiting is particularly difficult when we are waiting in the dark, when we can't see the way forward, when there is no reassuring light and we do not know whether we are going forward or backward.
One feels so vulnerable in the dark. We like to be in control. We like to know that we are taking sure steps forward, meeting our goals, getting somewhere. But in the dark, one is unsure. One stumbles. And I don't like to stumble.
Oddly, sometimes people speak of the Christian life as fulfillment. "Now I have found Jesus." "Now I have gotten my life together." "Now I have turned myself over to God and I am saved." It sounds like it's all finished, done, complete, fulfilled. But so much of the Christian life is spent waiting, yearning, leaning forward to that which we need but do not yet have.
What are you waiting for? We speak too negatively of waiting. Show me a person who is not waiting, not yearning, not leaning forward, not standing on tiptoes hoping for something better and I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better, someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements.
And that's part of the message of John the Baptist. His was a voice, a voice speaking into our darkness, telling us that there is dawn. He was a watchman, standing on the starlit hill, looking east, telling others that it was almost day.
Beyond, behind our deepest longing and yearning, that is really what we want. Our times of darkness are vivid reminders that we are, in truth, frail, vulnerable, and needy. We really are those who need deliverance. And our deliverance has got to be something beyond ourselves, someone greater than our own abilities to deliver.
John did not know the complete shape of that hope. John was a voice, a voice into the darkness, telling people not to give up hope, telling people that their yearning was not mere wishful thinking, that their longing was an act of faith, a deep and abiding belief that God cared, that God would come and deliver.
You may have read Viktor Frankl's classic account of his experiences in a Nazi death camp, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl had been a successful therapist. While in the camp, he spent his time observing himself and his fellow inmates. Frankl noted that some of the prisoners just wasted away and died quickly, even though they had no discernable physical ailments. He recalls one man who was doing reasonably well, considering the deplorable conditions of the camp. The man often talked of his dream to get out of the camp and to be united with his dear wife. Then the man received word that his wife had died in another prison camp. And in just a couple of days, the man died.
Frankl concluded that the man died, not because of some bodily ailment, not because he lacked food or water, but because he lacked hope. He lacked hope that there was anything to be had beyond the darkness of the bleak prison, that there was anything beyond the present anguish of Nazi brutality. We can live, said Frankl, longer without bread than we can live without hope.
Hope that the light shines in the darkness.
We gather on this night as those who yearn, who desire, who are not yet fulfilled, but who are confident that light breaks into the darkness, and we shall see, and we shall know, and we shall be filled.
The light, the world's light, our light, has a face, a name—Emmanuel. (December 17, 2007)
CHRISTMAS IN THE EMPIRE
On Christmas Eve we read a story about how a poor couple named Mary and Joseph were forced by imperial political decrees to pack up, to journey across the countryside (even though Mary was expecting a baby), to hole up in a cow stable, all as the result of Caesar's enrollment. The Romans had the most power and the biggest army of any Western country ever to conquer the Middle East. How are you going to keep these Jews in their place if you don't enroll them? So Caesar Augustus decreed, and cruel King Herod enforced the order that everybody had to go to the city of his or her ancestors and get registered. Mary and Joseph were Jews, under the heel of the vast Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world has ever known, with the largest army of occupation—that is, until us.
When I read the Christmas story, it is unfair for me to read myself into the places of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, or even the wise men. This was their home. They are under the heel of the empire, their lives jerked around by imperial decrees.
I live in Rome with Caesar Augustus, or maybe in Jerusalem up at the palace with that King Herod, lackey for the Roman overlords. I'd rather see myself as one of the relatives of Mary and Joseph. I wouldn't mind being one of the shepherds, out working the night shift, surprised when the heavens filled with angels.
But that is not my place in the story. My place in the story is as a beneficiary of the empire. I am well fixed. I don't live up in the palace, but I live in a home which—with its modern conveniences and security—the majority of the world's people would call a palace. I have been the beneficiary of a great classical education, and I am a citizen of a country that has dominated other countries, often without even trying to dominate other countries. We are the empire.
I don't like my particular place in the story of the first Christmas.
So when you think about it, in our context, it is odd in a way that so many of us should flock to church on a Christmas Eve. It is a bit strange that we should think that, in Christmas, we hear such unadulterated good news, that we should feel such warm feelings, and think that we are closer to God now than at any other time of the year.
I guess we ought to be of the same frame of mind as our cousin, King Herod. When he heard the word about the first Christmas, the Gospels say that he was filled with fear. Give Herod credit. He knew bad news when he heard it. He knew that the songs that the angels sang meant an attack upon his world, God taking sides with those on the margins, the people in the night out in the fields, the oppressed and the lowly.
But for the people up at the palace, the well fixed, the people on top, the masters of the empire, Christmas was bad news. And many of them were perceptive enough to know it.
So maybe that is why we cover up Christmas with cheap sentimentality, turn it into a saccharine celebration. Maybe, in our heart of hearts, we know that Christmas means that God may not be with the empire, but rather the empire may be on a shaky foundation, and that if we told the story straight, as the Bible tells it, we might have reason, like Herod (when he heard about the first Christmas) to fear.
Let us hear again the song of the angels:
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people." (Luke 2:10)
The angel did not say good news for some people. The angel was bold to say good news for all people. All. Though the angel wassinging to the shepherds, the angel meant the song for everybody. Herod no doubt had difficulty hearing the song, safely fortified as he was with his troops and his thick-walled palace. Herod, the old fox, missed it.
But you haven't missed it. Even though you are a card-carrying member (as am I) of the greatest empire that has ever ruled, you are in the right place to hear the news. Good news this day. There is born for you a savior. Our flags, government, armies, cannot save. Only that baby saves. One who is born among the lowly and the poor—only that one saves.
He comes not only for the oppressed, not only for Israel, but for the oppressor, that is, for all. O that we in the empire could hear that song, O that we could turn back to the Lord, change our ways, bow down before the manger, rather than before our power, acknowledge our need, and pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
Because he is our prince too. He comes to form an empire unlike the way this world builds empires; it's called the kingdom of God. And he shall reign forever and ever, and of his reign there shall be no end.
Good news. For this day in the city of David is born a Savior, Christ the Lord. Good news for all. Amen. (December 24, 2007)
Throughout the churches of North Alabamssa United Methodism, we are preparing to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. The proclamation that God became flesh and moved in with us (John 1) is one of the most distinctive affirmations of the Christian faith, perhaps the most distinctive. Comparison with other accounts of who God is and what God does is instructive.
In Islam, at least from my amateurish reading of the Koran, there is this constant distancing of God, apparently as a means of honoring God. The view of God that emerges in the Koran is noble and exalted, but God is clearly at some remove from the world. God is as absolute, as majestic as God can get. You would have to know the Christmas story to know why that's a problem.
Christians don't know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Emmanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to save us, that's what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.
A story: A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in hell, after his departure from this life. His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to hell, and moved by the man's misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, "Let him out! Let him out!"
Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.
Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man's eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan's sense of fair play and compassion. The great iron gates refused to move.
In desperation, the man's pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if he were to lead a Sunday service. "Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!" Still, the gates of hell stood fast.
Then, after all the friends and well wishers finally departed in dejection, the man's aged mother appeared at the gates of hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, "Let me in."
Excerpted from A Will to Lead and the Grace to Follow by William H. Willimon, Bryan K. Langlands. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Chapter 1 Advent and Christmas 1
The Challenge of Advent 1
In the Darkness, a Voice, a Light 3
Christmas in the Empire 6
Christmas Meditation 8
Chapter 2 To Easter 11
No More of This! A Meditation for Holy Week 11
The Violent Bear It Away 13
While It Was Still Dark 15
He Came Back…to Us! 16
The Last to Believe in Easter 19
Chapter 3 Iterations of Resurrection 21
The God Who Refused to Be Done with Us 21
Thinking Resurrection 23
Christ Got Up 26
The Practical, Organizational Relevance of Resurrection 27
Chapter 4 The Work of the Church 29
Effective Congregations 29
Being Honest about Churches 30
What's the Point of Worship? 31
Who But the Church Will Tell Such a Truth? 33
Chapter 5 Courageous Discipleship 35
My Name Is Will, and I Am Addicted 35
Keeping Work in Its Place 38
Traveling Light 41
A Way When There Is No Way 42
Chapter 6 Theological Politics 45
Mixing Religion and Politics 45
Thinking Like a Christian 51
Thinking Like a Christian 2 53
Jesus the Immigrant 54
Patriotic Thoughts 55
A Prayer for George Alexander, Jr 57
Chapter 7 Women and Ministry 59
Divine Wisdom among "Little Old Ladies" 59
The Reverend Grandma 61
A Faith That Is Based on the Testimony of Women 63
Chapter 8 Evangelism, Consumerism, and the Emerging Generation 65
Evangelism as the Invitation to Be Different 65
Church of the Second Chance 68
The Church and the Conversion of Emerging Adults 69
Resisting the Clutches of Consumerism 71
Reaching Young Adults 73
Chapter 9 Provoking Change 77
Christ Means Change: Further Thoughts on Ministry of Conversion 77
New Creation 79
Conversion as Justification and Sanctification 80
Leading Change in the Church 83
Beyond the Boundaries 85
Chapter 10 The Problem of Sin 89
Sin in Christian Ministry 91
Despair as Sin 94
Chapter 11 Adventures in Pastoral Ministry 99
Be Where You Are, or Learning to Love the Local 99
Continuing the Journey 101
Ministry to Those Not in Crisis 103
The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry 104
Chapter 12 Ordination and New Clergy 107
Advice for New Pastors 107
Advice for New Pastors 2 109
Gatekeepers into the Pastoral Ministry 111
Gatekeepers into the Pastoral Ministry 2 113
God Send Us Preachers 116
Chapter 13 Ministerial Character 119
Weak Clergy, Watered-Down Christianity 119
Sowing and Harvesting in Ministry: The Case of Moses 120
Pastoral Humor as a Resource for Constancy in Ministry 122
Pastoral Wisdom 125
Chapter 14 The Craft of Preaching 127
Matthew's Meaning 127
Preaching: Character and Credibility 130
For God's Sake Say It 132
On Not Reaching Our Culture through Our Preaching 134
Chapter 15 Apocalyptic Riff 137
To: The Church Called Mainline 137