God’s Decision to Work With Us

As I sat last night reflecting on yesterday’s Gospel – St. Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, I recalled a passage I recently read from a Shane Claiborne book. The passage makes an important point about how God chooses to work in the world. Shane writes:

Jesus took what the people had and added a little God stuff to it. He teaches the disciples to offer what little they have and promises that when we do that, there will be enough. it is not the same miracle as when God rained down bread from heaven, though it is reminiscent of that. This time the miracle is that God can take frail, meager offerings from our hands and do the work of the Kingdom. What a crazy idea – the God that can feed the masses on His own resists the temptation to turn stones into bread or rain down manna from heaven and chooses to use us, to need us, to want us! Jesus chose to do the miraculous work with a group of followers, albeti a ragtag bunch that over and over were arguing, flailing, denying, betraying and embarassing Him. But that seems to be the nature of the kingdom of God. It is the story of community. We have a God who doesn’t want to change the world without us.

It would, of course, be so much easier if God just did it all for us. God would probably do it a lot more efficiently, a lot more elegantly…a lot more a lot of things. But, instead, God chooses to enlist.

That doesn’t mean putting everything into our meager hands. I love the imagery of God taking our little offerings and adding a little “God stuff” to it. Alone, what we can achieve is, indeed, pretty meager. But with God, we can accomplish tremendous things – even feeding the entirety of a starving world.


Christian Leadership

I just finished reading Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. I’ve said a number of times what a fan I am of Shane Claiborne, who can be described as someone who believes Jesus meant what He said and who tries to live his life accordingly. In this book he teams up with civil rights leader John Perkins for a series of conversations that explore what it means to be a good leader and a good follower.

Written in a conversational mode that preserves the individual voices of the two authors, the book offers neither “a new theory or prescription” nor a “comprehensive study.” Rather, in Shane’s words, it “submits our experiences, our lessons learned and our unresolved questions, in a a day and time that needs leaders and followers of integrity and action.”

There is much in the book I will go back to, but as I read it, I jotted down some of the qualities of leadership that come out of the authors’ discussion that seem to me key for those who would lead in the name of Christ.

First, integrity. To be a good leader, one’s life must give credibility to their words. It is easy to see through people who talk the talk without walking the walk.

Second, imagination. It is easy to tear down, to protest and criticize what exists. But what is necessary for effective leadership is to be able to imagine a world different from the one in which we live – to imagine the world to which we wish to help lead others. Good leaders don’t simply identify what is wrong; they point toward what is right.

Third, developing people rather than creating institutions. This is a tricky one because institutions can help. But it is also a temptation to start worrying more about the institution than about the people being served; the institution can too easily become the end rather than the means. As Perkins writes, we need to make sure we hang onto the “original vision,” and “we have to keep our focus on the people of God – reconciling them to God and each other.”

Fourth, a good leader works himself out of a job. He or she works with others, working as part of a community rather than as a lone ranger. I know myself that it is often far easier to just do something myself rather than invite others to participate. But a good leader empowers others and helps them develop their talents. That is the key to long term success. Success, suggests Shane, “has nothing to do with money or notoriety and everything to do with whether or not people will carry on the vision when we are dust.”

There are more but these offer some good suggestions both for those who would be leaders and for those who seek to discover those who are worthy of being followed.

Ordinary Radicals, Prayer and Community

I’ve spoken before of my admiration and respect for Shane Claiborne and the authenticity which which he lives his Christian life. This past Saturday evening I attended one of the many book release parties that took place throughout the United States and abroad in connection with the publication of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, witten by Shane, along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro. There I met and prayed with a small, but mixed, group that included Mennonites, Evangelicals and Catholics. During our gathering we received a phone call from Shane, who prayed with us via speaker phone, an experience I found very moving. I also happily came home with a copy of the book (actually two, since I picked up a copy for some friends.)

Since the book is intended for daily prayer, rather than to be read cover-to-cover, the only thing I read immediately was the Introduction, which (like everything Shane writes) contains some beautiful ideas to contemplate. The book is aimed at unity and community, as evidenced by the use of the terms “common” and “liturgy” in the title and subtitle, and much of the Introduction speaks to the theme of community in one way or the other. A number of things struck me particularly when reading it, of which I’ll mention a couple.

The first, which resonates so deeply with the Catholic vision of the human person, was the idea that in common prayer, “we enter a counterintuivite story.” Such prayer “helps us to see ourselves as part of a holy counterculture, a people being ‘set apart’ from the world around us (and the world inside us) to bear witness that another world is possible. We’re invited to become a peculiar people, living into a different story, and orienting our lives around a different set of values than those we are taught by the empires and market around us.” Specifically, in a world the prizes individualism and autonomy, our life as Christians is a communal life. In contrast to a world that views “the essence of our being [as] the ‘I'”, our essence is communal. And whether we pray alone or prayer with others, “our prayer lives connect us to the rest of the body of Christ around the world.”

The second is that the community of which we are a part is not comprised of only those who inhabit the world today but those who came before us and those who will come after us. “We are one in Christ, a union so strong and eternal that nothing can separate us, not even death, and certainly not stime or space.” Thus, just as our “ordinary” calendars include the dates of the birthdays of our siblings, cousins and other relatives, the calendar by which we orient our lives includes the holiday so the biblical narrative as well as the lives of the saints who came before us, in whose “imperfect but beautiful lives, we can see our own possibilities and potentials.” Among other things, this book of Common Prayer aims to help us “keep God’s story at the center of our lives and calendar.”

I’m looking forward to praying with the book, both alone (I’ve already started to use the morning prayer each day) and with others. Doubtless I’ll have more to say about it as time goes on.

Seeing Shane

I have long been a fan of Shane Claiborne. I thought the two books of his that I have read were terrific and I have watched various videos of him that have increased my admiration of him.

Last night, for the first time, I heard him speak in person. Through a Facebook announcement, I learned that he would be speaking at a high school in the area. So I attended with my friends Doug and Marcia. Happily so: I haven’t been as deeply arrested by a speaker since the first time I heard Helen Prejean speak.

Shane is even more powerful in person than in writing or on a video. His faith, his integrity and his love are palpable with every word. And he challenges those who listen to him. Really, really challenges, which is, after all, what prophets do. Speaking of the Old Testament prophets, Shane characterized them as crazy people who call us back to who we are meant to be. And that is exactly what he does.

His claim is, at one level, a very simple one, the claim that we are invited as Christians to challenge the patterns of the world in which we live – to interrupt the patterns of the world with prophetic imagination. And that means having a different approach to suffering, a different approach to money and and a different approach to violence than that of the secular world. It is an approach that requires us to recognize that, as he put it, maybe God has a different dream than the American dream.

As to suffering: The world teaches us to run away from suffering as fast as we can, while the core of our Gospel is a God who moves into suffering – who is born into a place from which nothing good is said to come and who suffers what we suffer until he is killed. That raises for us the question: how do I take who I am and connect with the suffering of the world.

Money is a hard one for us; many of us who have no difficulty citing scripture to justify various things step back from things like the command to sell all we have and give it to the poor or the instruction not to store up treasures but to depend on our heavenly father. While the world teaches us to accumulate more, our challenge is to learn how to live with less and to “hold lightly” those things we have.

And in a world riddled in violence, our invitation is to find ways to disarm and interrupt that violence, something Jesus was so good at. I was almost in tears listening to Shane talk about his two visits to Iraq and his meetings with the people there and to his reports of discussions with returning servicemen about the horrors they experienced. Simply put, he said that it is impossible to reconcile the sword and the cross and that when Jesus disarmed Peter in the Garden, he disarmed every Christian. The challenge for us is to find imaginative ways to stop violence without ourselves committing violence, in our local communities (and he told some great stories about diffusing violent situations in his Philly neighborhood) and in our world.

Let me end with two lines of his that I copied down (with the broken pen Marcia gave me) that I think are good lines to reflect on for all of us who seek to follow Jesus’ command in the world:

Our faith is spread best not by force, but by fascination.

We are called to makes disciples, not believers.