Tag Archives: Ethics

Where Is Our Leadership Leading?

Do you ever think about where your leadership is leading? Winston Churchill once commented that, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Having been the pastor of a congregation which met in a barn of an Art Nouveau Gothic church building, I really understand what he meant. Yet something else also shapes how we function as the church: our understanding and resulting practice of leadership.

I entered ministry in the early 90s, so I lived through the rise of the “leadership movement” within the evangelical church. My bookshelves are now packed with books on leadership. Over the years, I attended numerous conferences on leadership and took undergraduate and postgraduate courses on leadership. Like most pastors, my email inbox is daily bombarded by invitations to read blogs about leadership and listen to podcasts about leadership. With providential predictability and irony, as I type these words, I have an email notification beginning, “Seven Signs Your Leadership…”.

I confess that I have not been just a passive witness of this rise of leadership thought in the church but also an active consumer and even promoter of it. The books, conferences, blogs – and in the early 90s, even cassette tapes – churned out by leadership writers and consumed by me have shaped my self-understanding as one called to ministry in the church.  If I am honest, as a result, I came to understand my primary calling as being a leader. And my understanding of what it means to be a leader has in turn been shaped largely by models of leadership drawn from business and even the military.

Have you played the wooden block balancing game Jenga? If so, you know what happens: one by one, the wooden blocks are removed until the whole tower becomes shaky and eventually collapses. That’s what has happened to my confidence in the leadership movement  over the past few years: scandal after scandal has made my confidence in it wobble; now it feels to me like it’s collapsing around my ears.

For those of us who are called to serve the church, being a leader (as spelled out in the flood of resources aimed at us) was never meant to be our primary way of approaching that calling. For his PhD work, David W. Bennett looked at the metaphors for ministry in the New Testament. One of his main conclusions was, “Jesus focused more of his attention on teaching the disciples to follow rather than giving them instructions on how to lead. The single most important lesson for leaders to learn is that they are first sheep, not shepherds, first children, not fathers, first imitators, not models.” (Leadership Images from the New Testament) This is consistent with a quick approximation that in the New Testament the words “lead” or “leader” are found about seven times but the word “disciple” appears 260 times and the phrase “follow me” appears 23 times.

Despite what we’ve heard from the leadership gurus in the Kingdom of God, everything does not rise and fall on leadership but on discipleship. We can only lead in the Body of Christ through following Christ. In fact, what makes Christian leadership Christian is that it is expressed in and through Christian discipleship. In the church, following is leading, which is why Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” The problem is that a whole industry predominantly focused attention on “follow me” while virtually ignoring, “as I follow Christ.” After all, have you ever been invited to a global followership summit?

To be clear, I am not questioning the need for leadership in the church. What I am questioning is from where we draw our models and our mentors for leadership in the church, and the impact that has on church culture.

In The Strength Of Weakness, Roy Clements asked three questions that go to the very heart of the issue. “Let me ask you, what is your image of a great leader? Let me ask you another question, what is your image of a great Christian leader? Now, let me ask you a third question. Did the insertion of the word ‘Christian’ into the second question materially change your answer?”

Clements forces us to think about the sources we draw on for our definition of greatness in leadership in the church. Surely, only Christ gets to define that for his Body. In his clearest statement on leadership, Jesus said to his disciples,

“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.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)

Those words are a clear call for us as Jesus’ disciples to reject the leadership values and practices of the dominant culture rather than be inspired by them. Instead, we are to follow his example of sacrificial servanthood in how we exert influence within the Kingdom of God. Pecking orders and power plays are ruled out among his disciples. Author Lance Ford writes of these verses in Unleader, “His [Jesus] requirement is that we lay down the crown and spectre of leadership and pick up the towel and basin of servantship.” Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the leadership movement effectively encouraged me to do the opposite.

Rather than focusing our primary attention on Jesus when it comes to leadership, our focus has been elsewhere. For about two decades, Christian leaders have been encouraged to draw inspiration for their leadership from the leaders in the worlds of business and the military. As a result, many have come to approach leadership in the church as a position of power rather than a spiritual gift and an opportunity to serve. Recently, the evangelical movement has thrown its hands up in horror as a whole crop of its leaders has been revealed to have abused their power. There has been a litany of stories: leaders who have created toxic, unaccountable macho cultures, who have exploited and abused people and acted in narcissistic ways that served themselves rather than Jesus or others. In retrospect, where else should we have expected the version of leadership we popularized to lead? 

It is time to admit that the power-abusing, narcissistic church leaders of recent scandals are not aberrations but the all-too-predictable Frankenstein creation of the evangelical industry’s own leadership movement. As for me, I’m turning my back on importing the leadership modes of Fortune 500 CEOs, victorious generals, and leadership gurus. Here are the voices I am choosing to listen to; here are some of their leadership maxims, when it comes to my calling:

“Follow me.” – Jesus Christ

“He must become greater; I must become less.” – John the Baptist

“Follow me as I follow Christ.” – Apostle Paul

“If anyone comes to me, I want to lead them to Him.” – Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

“The bible is a book about followers, written by followers, for followers. I am always a follower first.” – Rusty Ricketson

When it comes to leadership, which voices are you currently listening to? Where do you think they will lead you and your church?

Practicing Covenant Leadership: The Virtues of Christ

In our particular cultural moment, have you noticed a longing for values or traits that may seem absent in public life? Warren Bennis famously outlined key leadership characteristics, identifying vision, inspiration, empathy, and trustworthiness as essential leadership characteristics.  We long for leaders who model them; this longing seems innate in us.  In Scripture we quickly see that Jesus modeled these qualities. As the ultimate Servant, Jesus also modeled listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (see Robert Greenleaf’s work). Have you had the space to reflect on what characterizes your own leadership during this season?  Let’s take up the challenge to examine our leadership in light of Christ’s teaching by better understanding covenant versus contract leadership.

There are many examples of contract leadership. For instance, Dr. Richard Gunderman, M.D., a professor of medical humanities, might argue that the United States was founded on a contract. James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and considered a father of the Constitution, understood the voluntary nature of contract leadership when he wrote about the restraints on, and rights of, the government and citizens of the country.  As suggested in a 2011 lecture by Dr. Gunderman, contracts are required because of a lack of trust.  Contract leadership characteristics may include concern for profit, narrowly defined responsibilities, and expectations of performance. The transactional nature of contract leadership requires adherence to rules and procedures and does not insist upon supererogation. 

Regarding transactions, the way in which rational people relate to each other through economic terms is sometimes referred to as homo economicus.  Within the realm of homo economicus, the primary desire is the acquisition of wealth and the primary ability is the choice between means (Gunderman).  John Stuart Mill suggests that humans desire to accumulate the most necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries with the least quantity of labor, which is the modus operandi of homo economicus.  

For example, many employment relationships operate with this paradigm.  When employees do not perform, they are in violation of their employment contract, and the employment is terminated.  In this sense, contracts limit relationships, have expiration dates, and are concerned with personal benefit. Contract leadership seems to be a form of transactional leadership. This can be effective in some contexts, but Dr. Gunderman suggests that we find a better word than greed and a better idea than economic transactions on which to base our leadership.

In fact, he challenges us to “not be concerned with writing our personal story, but discovering the larger story of which we are part.” This suggests that a worldview change is required to be a covenant leaderCovenant leadership is an other-focused leadership style which is transformational, as opposed to transactional contract leadership. Transformation or metamorphosis is expected by the covenant leader: that followers and leaders would become something more than they were previous to the relationship.  As opposed to contract leadership in which breach of contract might mean loss of employment, Dr. Gunderman cites the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate breach being met with forgiveness, healing, and celebration. For the covenant leader, concern is for the relationship and the wholeness of the covenant, not on the breach of contract.

Where homo economicus operates assuming lack of trust, Dr. Gunderman calls leaders to operate in the mode of homo ethicus, relating to each other through principles. Where homo economicus operates out of greed, homo ethicus operates out of sacrifice and generosity. Although many non-Christian examples may illustrate the sacrificial, transformational leader, many examples are found in Scripture.

Considering covenant in Scripture, one can begin with the creation of humanity through inspiration, the breathing in of divine influence. Humans are to imitate God’s creative nature, needing inspiration – the breathing in of divine influence – “to be fully alive, and to help those around us to be fully alive.” The biblical arc is full of examples of the characteristics of covenant leadership: trusting like the Good Samaritan, bestowing blessing like Isaac to Jacob to Joseph’s sons, being transformational like Jesus to Lazarus (called back to full life), and being changed like Paul on the road to Damascus.

As a physician and leader in the ethics of health care, Dr. Gunderman calls organizational leaders to choose covenant leadership, issuing a challenge to assess whether we operate according to homo economicus or homo ethicus. We must evaluate what is most important to us and what we are striving to become. In the domain of homo economicus, work is punishment, a means to make money so that we can afford to do the things that we enjoy outside of work. In the freedom of homo ethicus, we work because God worked as a creative Being, creating not from necessity but from joy. Relationships within the work environment are to be enjoyed and used to generate transformed, better lives.

For covenant leaders operating from an assumption of homo ethicus, there is real opportunity to make a substantive difference. This is true even in a short time constrained by the brevity of working relationship. This leadership style is an active, ongoing choice.

Each moment, the organizational leader who desires to operate from the values of a homo ethicus approach must think of the sacred in the other, sacrifice selfish desires, and commit to the kind of creative, transformational covenant leadership found in the Creator’s actions throughout Scripture. 

Using the practice of covenant leadership as a guide, pastors and church leaders can endeavor to choose a homo ethicus approach as a consistent emblem of our servant leadership. When we cast vision, is it for the growth and transformation of those we influence? Do listen with awareness so that we can inspire people to Christlike character? Do we exercise empathy in healing, restorative, community-building ways? Are we trustworthy as we steward the leadership to which God has called us? What choices might you need to make in order to live as a covenant leader rather than a contract leader? Can you identify obstacles to this calling?

See Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

See Dr. Richard B. Gunderman 2011 lecture Leadership: command, contract, or covenant?

For more from Dr. Richard B. Gunderman, consider We Make a Life by What We Give. His new book Contagion: Plagues, Pandemics and Cures from the Black Death to Covid-19 and Beyond is available now in Great Britain and is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in early 2021.

Michelle Bauer ~ Paying Attention to Poverty

“Remember the poor…” is the encouragement that the Apostle Paul received from the Jewish leaders as he shared with them his vision for planting churches throughout the Gentile world. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10) This challenge is also meant for us today. As we go about our days, as we make plans and use our resources, we are to “remember the poor” – pay deliberate attention to people suffering in poverty.

At my church, we celebrate Compassion Month every November. While we seek to be compassionate throughout the year, this month is specifically set aside to renew our vision for paying attention to and caring for people who are poor in our community. Join us as we explore the Scriptures to better understand God’s heart for people living in poverty.

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8; 10-11)

“Hardhearted” and “tightfisted” are harsh accusations. If you are willing, allow the Holy Spirit a few moments to examine your soul. How did you feel when you read these descriptions? In what ways does your heart need to be softened? What are your fists wrapped tightly around?  Ask God to bring you clarity and rest in these areas.   

“Lending freely” sounds risky! What fears or concerns do you have about this encouragement? What protections does God offer those who love and care for those in need? In what ways might giving to others have caused you pain in the past? In what ways might receiving from others have caused you pain in the past? Talk to God about those experiences.  

When you come across the word “poor,” what immediately comes to mind? In addition to economically, what are some other ways in which we experience poverty? What kind of poverty might figure in your story? Are there narratives that inform your attitude concerning poor people? What distracts your attention from the people you encounter in everyday life who struggle through poverty? In what ways might you be tempted to insulate yourself from impoverished living?

Think about influential people in your life; who has been “openhanded” to you? What effect did that have on your life? Take a moment to imagine God offering you his open hand. What is in it? How do you feel receiving what God gives?

God calls our actions and our attitudes to be right toward people with few resources. Consider this beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah, later read by Jesus in a synagogue:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,

the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations. – Isaiah 61:1-4

In Luke 4, Jesus stands to read at the synagogue and chooses this passage from Isaiah. In what ways did Jesus fulfill this ancient prophecy? Think of some times that Jesus’ ministry illustrated compassion to people who were poor. Ask Jesus to show you his heart for people who have less than you do.

What pieces of “good news” would people living paycheck to paycheck be encouraged to hear? How would you describe your comfort level when interacting with people whose challenges you struggle to grasp? Ask God to provide what you need to be a good friend and advocate.

Why might people fighting poverty be brokenhearted? How do you feel when obstacles are constantly moving your goals farther away? Have you ever had to choose between one essential and another? Did you grow up with enough to eat in the cupboards; were your parents college-educated? What things might you take for granted, and how would awareness of them change your approach to people who have encountered hard times?  

In verse 3, Isaiah offers three sets of contrasting images:

Crown of Beauty <——–>Ashes

Oil of Gladness<——–>Mourning

Garment of Praise<——–>Spirit of Despair

Where you are on the continuum between each image? How does it feel to see where you are? In what ways is God helping you to move towards healing and wholeness? Ask God to show you what needs rebuilt in your life. How have the tough situations in your life developed compassion in your soul towards others?

Leave this time trusting that God is compassionate, sees our struggle, and does not leave us abandoned.

Aaron Duvall ~ Good God: The Problem of Morality

Why do we sense that some things are intuitively unjust, unfair, or even inhuman? What drives our common appeal to an unspoken or implicit set of “rules” for living? What insights can we find in the New Testament to shine light on this general sense in humanity that some things are right and others are wrong? This weekend’s sermon is from Rev. Aaron Duvall, who explores the basis of our moral impulses. It begins at minute marker 1:00.

Aaron Perry ~ Desire and Duty in Everyday Life: The Narrative of Ethics

C.S. Lewis argued that before writing a story, two elements must be considered: desire and duty. The story begins with the Author’s desire. Something captures the author that he or she needs to get out. Before the writing process begins, however, the story should be considered for its value as well. So consider the would-be storywriter from two angles: the Author and the Person. The would-be writer as a Person must answer not only, “Do I want to write this?” but also, “Should the story be written?” The story can only emerge if the writer has a desire, and the story should only be written if it contributes to the benefit of humankind (duty). Both desire and duty are necessary for this free action to be rightfully taken.

Much popular ethical reflection still begins with desire: what does the “Author” of one’s own life want? However, the check or restriction on one’s desire is almost never the “Person’s” duty. Instead, desire is checked only by how one’s desire impacts the desires of another. The result is a spirit of permissiveness as long as one’s desires do not hinder another’s desires.

But duty still sneaks into the conversation. Think about how often you hear people say that they “owe it to themselves” or need to “be true to themselves” or “deserve to get my rights.” These phrases communicate something important about ethical deliberation. The individual cannot be swallowed up by the community entirely; however, without an objective reality (whether family, community, the Divine, a friend), duty crumples into a simple reaffirmation of subjective desire. Duty to oneself – “I owe it to myself” – is moral language repurposed to express individual desire. In effect, we become our own standards of right and wrong: your moral duty is to identify and fulfill your desire. 

In postmodernity, a common move has been to find others with similar desires. Intentionally or not, one may then ground the pursuit of one’s own desire as duty to this community. In this way, desire is carefully hidden in the name of duty for one’s community. In case this feels abstract, consider how the mindset has impacted political communities. The postmodern political move has been to galvanize these communities linked by desire, using the underlying fear of tyranny from those who are “not like us” or whose desires are different. It’s not a phobia: human beings do master and control one another on big and small scales. The final result is communities of desire with self-justifying duty against other communities of desire with self-justifying duty. This complexity then requires a political solution who breaks in from beyond. Hail the political hero who is “not an insider,” who is “just like one of us.”

In contrast to this kind of politics, the Christian narrative teaches that there is no true outsider except for Jesus: the one whose life truly reveals ourselves and whose life truly reveals God; the one who so truly reveals because he is both God and human. In him, desire and duty are unified: his duty to the Father is his desire, and his desire to please the Father through the power of the Spirit drives his faithfulness to his duty.

Here the Christian community, especially in the local church, provides a correcting and prophetic word to other political allegiances. The unity of the church doesn’t come from shared desires with other members: the unity of the church is in its leader. There is membership not in what is owed to ourselves, but in what is owed to Christ because we are now in him. The local church provides an all too flesh-and-blood community that puts us in covenant relationship to other people in Christ not simply in the abstract, but concretely to the man or woman in the seat next to us at our small group or in worship. The politics of allegiance in the church is not simply of desire, but of duty to one another—the actual person—in Christ.

The Christian story, in the form of this community, does not merely affirm that Jesus is the Savior, but that through Christ we will be conformed to his image, too: our lives, from the inside out, will be remade, and any split between desire and duty perfectly healed.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Pain of Misalignment: God and the Disordered Body

The statement on the website shouted loudly and clearly what many people instinctively know if they let themselves notice it: The Key to Relieving Pain Is Fixing Our Misalignment.

I was visiting a website that sells therapeutic insoles for people with aching feet. The promises of pain relief were backed up by “Science” and a compelling founder’s story from a man who just wanted his little boy to be able to play and run with his friends again. Most insoles give you cushioning, the site explained. But these insoles realign your ankles, counteracting the chain reaction that occurs when your ankles are misaligned. When your ankles are misaligned, your knees, hips, lower and upper back, and neck are all thrown out of alignment too. Align your ankles, though, and the other joints are restored to proper positioning.

The Key to Relieving Pain is Fixing Our Misalignment.

Look around, and you will find pain everywhere. An announcement goes out from a friend on social media who has just had five siblings placed in her foster home: clothing, car seats, basic toys are needed. What pain preceded the moment they arrived on her doorstep, children walking into a stranger’s home?

A regional newspaper announces a workshop on how to administer Narcan, a drug that can halt an opioid overdose, potentially saving the life of an unconscious drug addict. Deaths have skyrocketed, and people beyond EMTs and first responders are learning how to stock and use the medication.

There is, Mother Teresa said, a poverty of love. “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

We think we do not love each other enough. In part, we are right. Why can we not welcome each other? How has the tone of our words become so strained, sudden, explosive? Most people in North America do not buy a semiautomatic rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and drive to a nightclub to shoot and kill people; but our words are high-caliber. Accusations are unloaded, pop, pop, pop. We hear someone’s words and take aim at their character instead of their reasoning, like a trainee on a shooting course who pulls the trigger at a pop-up of a civilian instead of a combatant.

We need love, we think. We need more love. We need to be more loving as people, toward other people. But this is like saying that we need more cushioning; we need more support. And while we do need more cushioning, the key to relieving pain is fixing our misalignment. Because we are not only impoverished in love; our loves are disordered, out of alignment. We can attempt to cushion them as much as we want; only realigning misplaced joints will relieve the pain, though.

There is misalignment in all our lives. Over a millenium and a half ago, a North African Christian thinker named Augustine diagnosed the nature of human disorder by thoroughly handling our propensity for disordered loves. The essence of virtue, wrote Augustine, is rightly ordered love. For Augustine, the problem is not that we don’t love each other enough; it is that we don’t love God enough:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”

Centuries later, C.S. Lewis parsed this out: “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.” Cushion the stride as much as you want: beginning with love for others does not address the fundamental misalignment. The right ordering of loves is essential for an aligned Body.

But you cannot love whom you cannot know.

To love means to know: not to know comprehensively – what finite mortal can comprehend God – but to know truly, truthfully, in reality, even if it is a tiny sliver of reality. If God is so transcendent as to be genuinely unknowable, then we cannot love God: God is too other to interact with. If God is so imminent as to be the same as all created matter, then we cannot love God: God is as finite as a summer dandelion. If all is only mystery, or if all is accessible and comprehensible, then we have the same problem: a God unknowable, or a God not worth knowing.

John 1 throws open a window on the Great Realigning. The universe was created in alignment, we read. But it did not recognize the one who created it, through the depth of its own injurious misalignment.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

A God we can know is a God we can love. In loving God as the highest, greatest good, as Augustine would say, we find alignment: here, there is relief from pain. Here, where the sequence is adjusted. Here, the alignment of creation stands in sound wholeness. Here, we can now love our fellow-creature fully: because we love the Creator first. Our joints are rightly ordered, and our stride is sure and strong.

But what mercy is there in observing someone with a dislocated shoulder and offering ice for the rest of their lives? The agony of being out of socket is considerable. The arm is useless. The pain is blinding. We can place a cushion behind the joint that is out of socket, but we know that ultimately the key to relieving pain is fixing the misalignment. The short-term gasp of agony at resetting a dislocated shoulder is a mercy compared to the long-term pain and loss of use.

The right ordering of what has been out of alignment, dislocated, or out of whack is strange and painful at first. We have become accustomed to low-level pain that slowly increased until more and more energy was spent ignoring it; there is disequilibrium in the corrected stride. Proper alignment feels odd when we had learned to cope around dysfunction.

There was a time in my twenties when I attempted to jog around an indoor track while holding my then-boyfriend’s hand, a sweet but silly attempt. It became more challenging as I became aware that he was limping from a knee strain, and the limp made it impossible to match his uneven stride. If I continued to hold his hand, in order to match strides and not have our arms bang into each other, I had to adopt a limping stride too – but that was not good for my own legs. If we wanted to jog while holding hands, our strides would have to match; I would have to adopt the dysfunction of his knee, or else continue to abruptly bump into each other. Needless to say, we stopped the attempt at holding hands: our strides could not align unless I adopted an unhealthy one to match his injury.

We know there is misalignment in our world; everywhere we look, we see pain.

Where, today, is there misalignment in the Body of Christ? Where is the Body exhibiting a limp? What misalignment in an ankle is sending a cascade of disorder through the whole?

Each tradition must answer for itself; across the Body of Christ around the world, there are places of solid health and wholeness, and there are places of systemic dysfunction and injury. Places where limps were being concealed have been revealed in spectacular dismay, like a runner whose hamstring snaps in front of millions.

Christians believe that we cannot fix our misalignment ourselves, as much as we humans like to try to grit our teeth and force a bulging shoulder back into socket. We believe that rightly ordered love only results from God first loving us and making the heart of the Trinity known to us through Christ, the Word Made Flesh. We believe that the power of the Holy Spirit aligns our unstable hearts that are “bent toward sinning” – “prone to wander, Lord I feel it – prone to leave the God I love.” We believe that in Christ, we find the great aligner, who can reset what is out of joint in our lives, in our world, in our universe. There is pain in the reset, but peace in our steps as we look forward to a day when entropy – decline into disorder – is halted, and sound wholeness prevails.

“But, speaking the truth in love, may [we] grow up in all things into him who is the head—Christ—  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God…”

Gently, the Apostle Paul says, disentangle yourselves from a stride which causes you to limp. The Body of Christ is not meant to adopt misalignment or to be a means of dysfunction in a world of entropy: rather, it is meant to grow up in all things into Christ, by whom the whole body causes growth when joined and knit together by what every joint supplies.

Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment; Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment, order our loves by centering our hearts on you, and relieve our pain.

Featured image: Sketch of a Foot, Vincent van Gogh

Omar Al-Rikabi ~ The Stuff of Life

Note from the Editor: Enjoy this…fascinating sermon from Rev. Omar Al-Rikabi.

In a first for Wesleyan Accent, we recommend listening for ages 13 and up or at parental discretion.






Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Silencing the Shame Machine: Our Call to Craft Peace

Recently, I heard a church leader describe the instinct to “drop Facebook napalm” in an online debate. What a great image. Our cultural currency right now isn’t the American dollar or the speculative Bitcoin: it is outrage.

Outrage is addictive, and it’s so easily justified: we sanctify it with the word “prophetic” or the word “faithful.” God calls us to be prophetic, to offer a bold word against corruption or misused power or oppression. God calls us to be faithful, to offer truth against confusion or heresy or trendy emptiness. Outrage energizes us when we’re tempted to lean back in apathy; it gives us a sense of purpose or righteousness when we’re feeling pointless or despicable.

Blessed are the outraged.

Even now, a few readers will want to protest about how important and urgent and warranted their causes are.

Of course they’re important and urgent and warranted. That’s not the point. Confrontation doesn’t require public shaming. If it does, we’re doing it wrong. Confrontation doesn’t require we put opponents in public stocks and heave a well-aimed rotten vegetable viral hashtag at their head. Even furious anger and indignation at injustice doesn’t require public shaming.

Do we think that shaming someone will lead to repentance? That hearkens back to The Scarlet Letter. Shaming someone else rarely calls forth transformed behavior in them – or in ourselves. Shaming another person gives us the vaulted position of judge, jury, executioner, and obituary writer without having to get our hands dirty by investing in their lives.

The great irony of our time is that we chant “don’t judge” while giving into the outrage that is comfortable shaming opponents in the public square. Maybe we chant “don’t judge” because we’re so busy shaming others; in repeating “don’t judge,” we’re trying to fight our worst internal instincts: that of devouring each other.

Our motto would serve us better if it were, “in your judging, be kind and embody humility.” And that really captures the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ better. Judging isn’t the problem: shaming is.

We are called to love and pursue Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, ancient transcendentals which have called thinkers to study logic, aesthetics, and ethics. If our outrage turns ugly, we may fight for goodness with confrontations of the truth, but we will have lost the grace of beauty, and we will have lost. If our outrage turns to ethical fragmentation, we may fight orderly and with grace, but we will have lost the grace of goodness and clear moral direction. If our outrage turns incoherent, we may fight attractively for the good, but we will have lost the order and reason and sense of truth outside of our isolated cause.

We all discern: we all judge. We judge whether or not a dairy product is good or has gone bad, we judge whether one dog is closer to the ideal of its breed than another, we judge whether a habit has a positive or negative outcome on our child, we judge whether a leader takes us closer or farther away from a goal we judge to be worthy of pursuit.

We all speak: we all confront. We confront a cashier about a mistake in our favor or against our interest, we confront a business about a mishandling of our package or our order or our service, we confront discomfort in our own lives through healthy action or unhealthy avoidance, we confront strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family members online.

What we don’t all need to do, of necessity, is to shame. A call to repentance is not inherently or of necessity shame-causing. There is no order, no beauty, no goodness in shaming: there can be order, beauty, and goodness in discernment, judgment, or confrontation.

And not all feelings of shortcoming or inadequacy are bad. I ought to feel inadequate to pilot a nuclear submarine. I ought to feel inadequate to trade stock at the New York Stock Exchange. I ought to feel inadequate to administer anesthesia to a surgery patient.

And I ought to feel a sense of shortcoming if I engage in a pattern of behavior that hurts myself, others, and God. I ought to feel a sense of shortcoming if I smack a child on the face. I ought to feel a sense of shortcoming if I lose my temper and berate a stranger.

If we are dressing up our outrage as “prophetic” or “faithful” but we don’t have love, we’re a sounding brass, a clanging symbol. Love bears all things and hopes all things. It’s hard to persevere in bearing all things and in hoping for redemption in the midst of shaming someone.

Loving acts are beautiful acts; they are good acts; they are true acts. They shout the beauty of being a person created in God’s image, they shout the goodness of peaceful confrontation, they shout the truth of our own worth and inadequacy. To proclaim justice does not require arrogance on our part. But shaming another human being requires a certain amount of arrogance within ourselves.

Jesus is Truth – the Word, or logos made flesh. Jesus embodied and spoke truth. Jesus’ incarnation gave Reality itself fingerprints. So when Jesus confronted others, it was almost always because they were busy shaming instead of confronting. The religious leaders weren’t just confronting the woman caught in adultery, they were deliberately shaming and humiliating and depersonalizing her. To shame a person is to remove the dignity of being human from them; and if we have removed their humanity, we are no longer bound to treat them with respect and care. Jesus didn’t shame the shamers: Jesus discerned – that is, judged – their motives, and he confronted them. Repentance, Jesus knew, didn’t require shaming a person, even if it did sometimes require judgment and confrontation.

Truth is beautiful: so communicating truth, however confrontational, cannot be done in a way that smears the inherent beauty within our fellow humans.

Consider, in closing, these reflections from artist Makoto Fujimura, in Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture – 

Why art in a time of war? Jesus stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). The Greek word for peacemakers is eirenepoios, which can be interpreted as “peace poets,” suggesting that peace is a thing to be crafted or made. We need to seek ways to be not just “peacekeepers” but to be engaged “peacemakers.” Peace (or the Hebrew word shalom) is not simply an absence of war but a thriving of our lives, where God uses our creativity as a vehicle to create the world that ought to be. Art, and any creative expression of humanity, mediates in times of conflict and is often inexplicably tied to wars and conflicts.

The arts provide us with language for mediating the broken relational and cultural divides: the arts can model for us how we need to value each person as created in the image of God. This context of rehumanization provided via the arts is essential for communication of the good news. Jesus desires to create in us “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Phil 4:7), so that we can communicate the ultimate message of hope found in the gospel, the story of Jesus, who bridged the gap between God and humanity to a cynical, distrustful world.

The Outraged will wear out; Blessed are the peacemakers.


Differently Abled in the Church: “Life Unworthy of Life” & the Kingdom of God

What does your church do with people who are differently abled, disabled, mentally handicapped, handicapped, or crippled? (All of those terms have been used in my thirty-odd trips around the sun.)

Do you have someone in your church who comes in a wheelchair? Do you have training for teachers and nursery workers, preschool workers and children’s ministers on how to engage kids with autism? Do you know a person with Down’s Syndrome? Are you equipped to recognize mental illness? When you offer communion, do you comment on how someone who is differently abled may access the Body and Blood of Christ? 

I have two children. So far, to my knowledge, neither one is differently abled. The youngest can’t yet read; it’s possible we’ll learn she has dyslexia later on. Both are what strangers would call, “healthy.” For now, of course. A disease or tumor or accident could hit, leaving one with impaired cognition or missing an arm or with burn scars. When I was expecting my first child, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for various possibilities – miscarriage, birth defects, a disabled child. After all, there are a few pregnancy screenings most expectant mothers go through.

Growing up in North America at the end of the twentieth century during a constantly shifting linguistic atmosphere that aimed for more sensitivity, however imperfectly, meant changes in popular dialogue.

Recently a news story emerged about the drastic reduction of Down’s Syndrome in Iceland, ostensibly nearly “eliminated.” Actress Patricia Heaton stepped up and publicly challenged the portrayal of the reality: you’re not eradicating it, she said. You’re eradicating people with it. Because Iceland’s supposed “progress” wasn’t through some medical breakthrough: it was through abortion. 

Around the same time, when I didn’t recognize the name of one of the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, I researched it online. The preview of their site used the word, “fit.” Fit. Not healthy or well-toned or strong. Fit, as in, fit or unfit. As in, who is fit to liveNazis had no use for people with disabilities, or people who might need special education. I was sickened to see the word “fit” on that website as my mind went back to the documentaries on the Holocaust. 

Life is a gift. Life is a good. 

Downs people matterBlack people matterJewish people matterCatholic people matterGay people matterHandicapped people matterRoma people matterPeople who protect these people matter. 

All those people went into camps and didn’t come out. 

Life is life.  

Jesus said, “let the little kids come to me.”

When someone talked about a guy born blind (in front of the man, mind you) and asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus challenged the notion that there was something wrong with parents of a child who was different than other children, and Jesus challenged the notion that there was something to be avoided about a person who was born with a physical limitation.

In fact, Jesus went on to clarify that the differently abled man was part of God’s inbreaking Kingdom, a specially chosen revelation of the power and love of God. 

Around the same time that I read the word “fit” on the Neo-Nazi website, around the same time I saw the news out of Iceland about the approaching “eradication” of Down’s Syndrome, I happened across the video below. 

Sometimes Wesleyan Methodists use the word “perfect” or “perfection.” We use it to mean, “complete in love,” “fullness of love,” “free of the desire to separate ourselves from God.” We use it to mean the kind of perfection alluded to in the Greek language of the New Testament – perfect, having met a full goal: whole, complete.  

We never, ever use it to mean superior, or “fit,” or more worthy than another. All through the New Testament, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies work differently than other peoples’, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies don’t work “right,” but Jesus always sees them. Jesus makes eye contact. Jesus extends dignity. Jesus acknowledges personhood 

Zaccheus, we read, was a man “short in stature.” He may have been a little person, a human with dwarfism. Zaccheus was small, and for whatever reason, he was in a very unpopular profession. He risked ridicule by climbing up a tree to see Jesus. In the middle of the shoving crowds, Jesus looked up and made eye contact. He saw Zaccheus, he didn’t see through him. He didn’t avoid him. While Jesus is the star of the day, the big news in town, whose house does Jesus decide to go to? “Zaccheus, get down from there. I’d like to come to your house for dinner, is that okay?” The small man’s life was changed. 

There is no “life unworthy of life” in the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Matthew we read about Jesus saying, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” 

One of the sisters of Mother Teresa’s Order commented on the value of disabled children a few years ago “Each life ought to be lived,” Sr M. Infanta said, even if it does not meet utilitarian criteria or is not “productive” according to today’s models. “These children have been created to love and be loved. They are a unique source of blessing for us, society and the whole world,” she said. 

Similarly, a few years ago a movie called “The Drop Box” was released about a Korean pastor who takes in otherwise abandoned infants, many of whom are disabled in some way. (At the time of publication, “The Drop Box” is available to view on Instant Netflix.) 

What a diametrically opposed view Christians are called to embrace in contrast to the concept that there is, “life unworthy of life.” But more than a viewpoint or a concept is the challenge of practice.  

In a subsection editors titled “The Judgment of the Nations,” we read these words from Matthew 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

An Icelandic mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome posed this question in the news story referenced earlier: “what kind of a society do you want to live in?” 

I don’t know about you, but I want to live in one that looks more and more like a place that welcomes people Jesus loves. I want to live in one that looks more and more like the Kingdom of God, where we make eye contact, where we smile, where we kneel down, where we reach out and touch, where we embrace, where we see what we have to learn from people who are different than us. 

Churches can become beacons of this merry, determined band of disciples that doesn’t leave anyone behind. The question is whether you will.

Picking up mentally handicapped adults in a church van for Sunday services isn’t glamorous. Pushing a heavy person in a wheelchair uphill with an oxygen tank banging into your shins doesn’t readily come with an apt hashtag. Learning how to serve a family with special needs kids might not headline any popular ministry conferences. 

But Jesus made eye contact. Jesus knelt down. Jesus reached out. Jesus went out of his way. And we cannot ignore that Jesus made eye contact with us. Jesus knelt down for us. Jesus reached out to us. Jesus went out of his way for us.  

A convenient time will never arrive. But if you look for them, beautiful moments will. There is no life unworthy of lifeLife is beautiful.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Dismembered Body of Christ


In light of recent events Wesleyan Accent is not posting our usual weekend sermon today, but rather will resume our normal practice next weekend.


I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Romans 12:1, I Corinthians 12:21-23, 26-27

Bodies matter to Christians.

Life matters to Christians: even Christians who believe in just war, who believe in the occasional necessary use of violence, should and often do consider the matter with grave sobriety, aware of the sacred worth of human beings. Christianity is not the only religion to value human life, but it is one of them.

Recently I witnessed Christians – including some clergy – marching with signs and posters and placards bearing giant words: “I can’t breathe.” “Jesus can’t breathe.” It has become apparent to most North Americans that sometimes Black deaths are more easily accepted than White deaths, that sometimes to live as a Black person means something quite different than to live as a White person.

Bodies matter to Christians: something that has bearing on theologically orthodox or traditional views of human sexuality. As sexual beings, what we do with our bodies, with whom we do it, and when, all matter.

(Incidentally, Christians, while showing tender kindness and acceptance to all persons, may also want to think about how we can sensitively encourage each other to embrace emotional and psychological healing that will allow us all to live more mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy lives, as good stewards of our health for our own sake, our family’s sake, and our faith community and our world’s sake. What does it mean to be a well-rounded, healthy person? Pastor?)

Yes, life matters to Christians, including those in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, even if we do have some semi-benign inconsistencies to work out (like driving with a pro-life bumper sticker on our way to engage in belt-popping gluttony at an all-you-can-eat buffet after church).

And if #Jesuscantbreathe when a Black man suffocates at the hands of White law enforcement officers, then #Jesuscantlive when physicians inject a needle through a woman’s abdomen to stop a growing baby’s heart so that it’s easier to remove in pieces from the uterus.

It is a hard subject to face, as so many subjects have been in the past few years. I have written before about the need for followers of Christ to acknowledge evil without flinching. It’s often a difficult subject for men to discuss, especially pro-women, egalitarian, pro-life men who celebrate women’s accomplishments, encourage their flourishing, and grieve the reality of abortion in our country. It is painful for me to address because I have spent time as a pastor – and simply as a woman – and I know and love and value women who, for one reason or another, have had abortions. I never want to speak or write words that demean them or obstruct their full experience of God’s grace and love.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe that the Truth will set us free: the truth of the world we live in will set us free to confront evil where we find it, and the Person who is Truth will set us free when we follow him. As a theologian, as a pastor, as a woman, as a Mama, as a friend, then, I encourage us to quiet our rants for a moment – whatever opinions they express – and listen to the voice of God.

Are we willing to present our bodies as a living sacrifice? To discover what it means to live in the freedom of holy sexuality? To fight for our cardiovascular health so we can continue to be Christ’s hands and feet to others? To step out in deep courage and faith and bear a child we may raise or may put in the care of someone else to raise when the pregnancy represented chaos or uncertainty or crisis? To swab the inside of a cheek so that we’re entered in a database of potential bone marrow donors? To experience painful shots and immunizations, exhausting jet lag, bug bites and strange tastes while serving on a medical mission trip or sweating through building projects?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice means more than walking down an aisle during an altar call – though sometimes that’s included.

The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child
Saint Joseph and the Christ Child

When a nurse checks pieces of a small body to make sure all are present and there is nothing accidentally left in the womb – when, as the Planned Parenthood website describes, the “uterus is emptied” – has something beautiful occurred? Has something merciful taken place?  No.

And the apostle Paul, when writing about spiritual gifts and the community of faith, likely didn’t picture his words describing infants in the context of modern-day abortion. But as a Christian – regardless of the legality or medical ethics of the situation – when I hear the loss of life of the innocent young described in ways that emphasize how to take life without destroying certain organs – when I hear words of crushing and dismemberment, my mind can’t help but go to the verses of scripture that celebrate all the different members of the Body of Christ. How precious was the earthly, physical arms and legs and head and torso of Jesus, as a hiccuping baby, as a wobbly toddler, as an awkward youth, as a growing man. How telling were the moments when the resurrected Jesus ate fish, dared Thomas to feel his wounds, tore bread with stunned disciples hungry after a walk.

Flesh matters: the Word became Flesh. The Word redeemed flesh. And we celebrate the Word-Become-Flesh and the redemption of our bodies, not the mutilation or dismemberment of them. There is no freedom, no liberation, in attempting to change our gender or rid our body of a baby: those are pathways of loss. Not irredeemable, but empty, ultimately unfulfilling in themselves.

How can we live and celebrate the reality that Jesus took on flesh to redeem it and set it motion the ultimate redemption of all Creation? Where in your thoughts, your attitudes, your actions, have you undervalued life? The body? This created existence?

How can you live as a testimony to the redemption of flesh and blood? What is keeping you from living a full, healthy life?

Are there areas in which you live inconsistently with your value of life?

If Jesus physically died and was physically resurrected, how does that challenge your notions of your own body and its value?

When you take communion, what does the ritual communicate to you about the promise of the redemption and resurrection of all Creation?

What should be our response to a culture of death? This is not a challenge to post Bible verses on your Facebook page. No – what should our community of faith do to confront our culture of death with a whole, healthy, beautiful, fulfilled picture of life? Practically speaking, how might congregations engage in activities that value life and show its beauty?

Let’s live lives that ardently pursue true happiness, beauty, and fulfillment. Let’s live out our calling to show in a million ways that life is beautiful.


For another article by this author on this topic, visit http://goodnewsmag.org/2012/11/call-the-midwife/