“Making sense of it all” Part 3

In her book, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today — a task I completely support — Avril Henry uses a quote to set the stage. “Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on.” (Thurman Arnold) I think that describes the underlying theme of life in the 21st Century. We are struggling to find ways to describe and understand the world we have created up to now — and all our ideas, programs and solutions seem to fall short. The sheer complexity and interrelatedness of everything makes past formulas for living a “good life,” even the Christian ideals, now seem somehow inadequate. The enormous difference in scale between what confronts us and what we can understand and control,  is what we need to make sense of in this era.

Hints of the way forward

I like to look for an author’s way forward in transforming the world’s situation. Their summary generally comes near the end of the book. I have selected a few brief passages from books written by authors I admire, because I think they provide hints about the task we face in the 21st century in making sense of the world.

  • Avril Henry’s final word in her book is about acceptance: “I invite you to join me on a journey of awareness, understanding, tolerance and ultimately acceptance of difference, which will enable each of us to create a better future and world for many generations to come.”
  • Margot Cairnes, in Approaching the Corporate Heart, sees the way forward in individuals accepting an invitation to make the hero’s quest: “May you rise to the call next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid, self-effacing, dry self-limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light.”
  • Elizabeth Dreyer, in Manifestations of Grace, sees the way forward as being, ultimately, dependent on community: “Grace is above all a community affair. In grace we see ourselves as peers, not only with all peoples, but with the earth itself.”
  • Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, sees the power and love we need as already emerging: “As we enter the Twenty-first Century we are experiencing a moment of grace. . . A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.”

Metaphors to guide us

We can only see what we don’t know in terms of what we already know, so these hints use metaphors to point toward something new emerging in the Twenty-first  Century. By unpacking them, we can begin to make sense of what is going on.

  • “Journey of awareness” [Avril Henry]
  • “Hero’s Quest” [Margot Cairnes]
  • “Community of grace” [Elizabeth Dreyer]
  • “Vision and energy coming into being.” [Thomas Berry]

You can use your own intuition to make sense of these hints. You may want to find others too; there are plenty around today.

Making Sense of the Twenty-first Century

My own sense is that these metaphors tell us something about ourselves indiividually, about our local communities and about the human race as a whole. I find the following “both/and” statements helpful in making sense of both the great uncertainty in which I find myself and the great traditions and wisdom of the past that have shaped me thus far, which are both relevant and yet inadequate.

  • Dynamic and unchanging: A journey is about movement, from something toward something. In my life I have been, and still am on a journey, and the entire human race has been and always will be on a journey. That is what it means to be human. We are becoming more conscious of our ever-changing yet unchanging journey in this Century, so we are becoming more responsible for guiding ourselves and the world in its movements.
  • Individual and together: My life is in my hands yet my life cannot be lived alone. Who I am becoming is inextricably connected to who my family, my church, my company, my country and the entire human race is becoming. In this Century the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ is disappearing, to be replaced by some new, commonly held view of what it means to be human in community. I am responsible for being part of conversations that are shaping that view.
  • Inner meaning and external actions: What I will become is being shaped in my core (my soul) and by my actions shaping the world around me. In the Twenty-first century, things can only make sense if we understand ther meaning in a much larger context then we did in the Twentieth Century. The future will no longer be measured by how well we as individuals, companies or countries competed,  found security, and achieved near-term outcomes. That just isn’t adequate. I am responsible for conversations and actions that help this new model for “success” emerge.

As an example of how to begin to think, act and make sense of it all  in a Twenty-first century way as a Christian, read my post entitled Christians and Muslims; A way forward. Also read my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation.

At the beginning of the First Century, Jesus established the unchanging yet ever-changing way forward for Christians. I could quote many verses but these seem to me to state His way:

  • “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In the Twenty-first century Christians must learn to include non-Christians in Jesus’ way, in a loving concern and respect for them as brothers and sisters.
  • “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:4] Creating unity among scattered Christians is our unchanging challenge, dealing with ever-changing forces of diversity.
  • “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2] The ultimate measure of our growth toward maturity is how well we imitate Christ and carry out our purpose as ‘dearly loved children of God.’ Love is the only way we can deal with the centripetal forces of hatred and greed threatening to divide humankind in the Twenty-first Century.

 

A. Why Change? — Are you a Change Agent?

Conventional wisdom says that that major change is the responsibility of powerful leaders. I believe that leaders cannot accomplish true transformation ‘top-down’ using their power.  ‘Bottom-up’ is ultimately how all significant change happens. The capability to achieve extraordinary change from tiny causes is built into reality. God has designed the world to adapt and change ‘bottom-up.’  I will cover more about bottom-up transformation in a later Post.

Leaders must play a critical role in bottom-up transformation, the role of Sponsor, supporting the efforts of those who drive the transformation, who are called Change Agents.  In transforming churches, the ‘people in the pews’ are the Change Agents. They must lead transformation in their local church, following Jesus’ leadership. These Change Agents need to enroll church leaders at the appropriate time, to play their role of Sponsor and support bottom-up transformation. To be very clear, bottom-up transformation of churches does not mean that church leaders are not involved.

What is a Change Agent? Are you one?

In my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation, I described Change Agents as “innocent fools.” In that book I made the case that the world needs a special breed of women and men, the ‘mid wives’ of a transformed world. I called them ‘innocent fools,’ in appreciation for their powerful yet largely hidden change work, in themselves and in the DNA of the ‘system of the world.’ I called them ‘innocent’ because they dream dreams that others dare not imagine. And I called them ‘foolish’ because they are not trapped in the ‘wisdom’ of the world. They choose to believe that they can make their dreams a reality against what seems to most people to be impossible odds. We can gain some insights into what it means to be a transformational Change Agent and innocent fool from Chrétien de Troyes medieval myth about Parsifal and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Parsifal was a Welshman, the only surviving son of a widow who lived in the Waste Forest. His two brothers had become knights and had been killed in combat, so his mother was terrified that Parsifal would suffer the same fate. She isolated him from any contact with the world and he grew up incredibly naïve and innocent. He never asked questions or strayed far from home because his mother told him not to. One day by chance he bumped into one of King Arthur’s knights riding through the Waste Forest and was immediately consumed with desire to become like him. For the first time, he disobeyed his mother. He followed the knight out of the forest to find the king and become a knight himself.

Parsifal knew very little about what was involved in becoming a knight, but that didn’t stop him. He arrived at King Arthur’s Court with only the rudiments of training in the art of battle and immediately challenged the most experienced knights in Arthur’s kingdom. That’s why Chrétien called him Parsifal. The name literally means ‘innocent fool.’ The young man had to be incredibly naïve and foolish to challenge the best knights in the world.

Surprisingly, Parsifal defeated them all, and quickly gained respect as a mighty warrior. But that was only the beginning. After his initial triumphs Parsifal encountered something that changed his life. While on a journey home to visit his mother he found his path blocked by a deep river. He was searching for a way across when he noticed two men in a small fishing boat. He asked them if there was a ford or a bridge nearby. They told him there was no way to cross the river for some distance, but one of the men invited him to stay the night in his home, which turned out to be a great castle.

Parsifal entered the castle and was welcomed by the man from the boat, who was now dressed as a nobleman and being carried by servants on a stretcher. He wondered about that, but didn’t ask. The nobleman invited Parsifal to sit and dine at a sumptuous feast. A procession entered the hall, led by two servants carrying brilliantly lit candelabras. Following them was a beautiful maiden. With two hands she carried a golden wine cup covered with precious stones. It was the legendary Holy Grail, but Parsifal didn’t know this. He sat silently watching the procession, remembering his mother’s instructions not to ask questions. While they ate, the Grail was carried back and forth before them again and again during each course of their feast. Parsifal never asked what the Grail was or who was supposed to drink from it.

After the meal the servants prepared a bed for Parsifal in the great hall and when they were done the nobleman left him, carried out by his servants on his stretcher. In the morning, Parsifal woke up to an empty castle. Not a single person could be found. He went to the chamber where the nobleman had been carried the previous night. He shouted and knocked for a long while, but no one answered. Everyone had disappeared. Outside the castle he found his horse saddled, his lance and shield ready, and the drawbridge of the castle lowered so he could leave.

As Parsifal rode away from the castle he met a weeping maiden holding the head of a slain knight. She told him the story of the Fisher King, the nobleman who owned the mysterious castle. The Fisher King had been wounded years ago in both his thighs by a lance and was consumed by pain. The only way he could bear the pain was to go fishing each day. The maiden asked if Parsifal had seen the Holy Grail procession while he was in the castle.

When Parsifal said he’d seen it, but had asked no questions the maiden was dismayed. If Parsifal had only asked the right question about the Fisher King and the Grail he would have freed the king from his pain and the entire kingdom would have been released from its curse! Upset by her accusation, Parsifal left the maiden and rode off in a state of confusion.

From that point in Chrétien’s story Parsifal went on many more adventures, but he never forgot the Fisher King. Finally, he decided to undo his failure to ask the right question in the mysterious castle, and made an oath that he would engage in no more knightly contests until he found the Holy Grail and freed the Fisher King and his kingdom. He vowed not to abandon his quest for any reason.

Interestingly, de Troyes never completed the story of Parsifal’s quest. He left off writing mid-sentence so we don’t know how the story ended. Four other writers added endings later, each completing the myth differently. In the third ending—the one I like— Parsifal eventually finds his way back to the hidden castle, sees the Grail again, asks the right question, and frees the Fisher King from his suffering, transforming his entire kingdom.

What does it mean to be a Change Agent in your church?

Let’s unpack this story to see what it means to be a Change Agent, especially in a local church.

1.     Parsifal had innate talent that wasn’t developed when he stayed at home with his mother. He was “stuck” because he didn’t leave the safety of his home in the forest. Change Agents are willing to risk the challenges of the unknown. The other knights in King Arthur’s Court were excellent men but they weren’t Change Agents. They preferred the structure, power and rewards of the status quo. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]

2.     It was only when Parsifal began asking questions that he discovered his destiny to find the Holy Grail and release the Fisher King and all his people from their suffering. Change Agents are willing to question their beliefs, not because they don’t believe in anything but because they come to understand that something greater depends on their willingness to possibly leave their old way of thinking. Beliefs are comfortable; leaving them can be the most frightening challenge anyone can face. Therefore, Change Agents are willing to leave their ‘comfort zone’ in the service of something more meaningful. “Í tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” [Luke 18:17]

3.     Parsifal’s quest took most of his life and was filled with difficulty. The quest for transformation – in local churches and the world — is likely to be a long, slow and painful journey. Unlike Parsifal’s myth, there is probably no one to write a happy end to the Change Agent’s journey – other than Jesus in whose service she makes the quest. “’I tell you the truth,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.’” [Luke 18:29-30]

4.     Although Parsifal had a position of great honor in King Arthur’s Court, he gave all that up to follow his quest for the Holy Grail. Change Agents are single-minded. Their vision becomes central in their life. It begins to consume their thoughts. There is no returning to your old comfortable life once you set out on the quest. But there is also no greater reward than knowing you are making the same journey that Jesus made. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5: 11-12]

How do Change Agent’s transform a local church? Using a marketing idea, you can think of them as ‘early adopters’ of a vision of a transformed world. So, in the beginning, Change Agents are the few people in a local church who ask questions and develop a passion to pursue Christ’s vision. Unlike Parsifal, they also persuade others to also ask questions and pursue this vision – first the ‘Fast Followers then the ‘Slow Followers’ in their church. By doing this, they free their local church from its wounds like the Fisher King and enable it to engage in Jesus’ work of transforming the world.

“Who am I and who do I want to be?”

Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish philosopher, linked personal and global transformation —  a “genuine person (is one) whose transformation helps toward the transformation of the world.” When we think seriously about Buber’s statement, it challenges us to transform ourselves if we want to be authentic persons.

The journey toward being authentic

The aspiration to transform oneself doesn’t feel natural or come easily to most people. In fact, we have learned throughout our lives to be “agents of the status quo” which already makes substantial demands on us. We would rather stay in this familiar situation than transform ourselves. Usually, in our accustomed way of living, one of our basic drives dominates our life. If it is power, then it feels natural to set goals, achieve, compete. If it is love, then it feels natural to relate, include and care for. It almost never feels natural to one focused on power to make their achievement more difficult by also trying to help others achieve, perhaps in competition with them. Nor does it feel natural to people focused on love to use their power in forcing issues to the surface, and engaging in the ensuing conflict to achieve some resolution.

To be a Change Agent and engage in transforming larger groups and institutions in the world, we must first take initial, halting and uncomfortable steps in order to learn how, eventually, to use both our power and love in service of a larger vision of reality. That involves, as Adam Kahane says in Power and Love “falling” then “stumbling” before finally “walking.” Why would anyone want to take that risk?

Becoming a Change Agent requires a “trigger” from outside ourselves

The desire and urgency to become a Change Agent is a gift not an achievement. It comes from outside ourselves. This could be the result of circumstances — “Someone has to do something because the situation is desperate” — or result from an invitation. A teacher, a friend, a minister could say something that opens our eyes to the implications of staying in the status quo. It could result from reading this blog. Wherever it originates, you can be sure that a genuine invitation to become a transformational Change Agent will disrupt your usual ways of thinking and leave you uneasy, rattled or even frightened. You cannot stay in this painful state so you either “fight or flee” from the invitation initially. Ultimately, perhaps, as Buber says, you begin to see that your response is linked to being authentic, true to yourself. When that happens, you begin the journey toward being a Change Agent.

Power and love and transformation

“Our most important learnings come not simply when we see the world anew, but specifically when we see ourselves–and our role in creating the world — anew” (Adam Kahane in Power and Love quoting Ursala Versteegen)

This type of learning is at the heart of transformation. Rather waiting for a magical leader to make our church / our community / our country / our world a better place, each of us must learn that only we can provide the power and love needed to change things.

What can trigger such learning in us? In my view, an encounter with the unexpected. Something that disturbs our comfortable assumptions. In a word, grace. Rather than seeing such encounters as luck or randomness, believers can see in them divine liveliness and involvement. And, seeing this, we must learn what it means for us. What is our role in what God is doing, here and now, in this moment?

God is never for the status quo. As St. Paul said, “The whole creation has been groaning as in childbirth” waiting for God and His children to transform it.

Personal AND Church Transformation

I often get asked, “Don’t you have to change yourself before you think about changing anyone else — or the church?” Yes, of course. But, on the other hand, we’ll never be good enough or ready — we have to rely on God to actually do the work of change in us and in others and in the church. So how do you know you are  ready enough, transformed enough to be bold enough to take on the role of Change Agent? I think it comes from seeing that both individuals and church communities need to be ‘loved into’ changing by God.

“First we receive love and then we can respond with love. Here we glimpse a glory and a beauty that not only calls us, but empowers us to a different way of life, to daily discipleship.”  This quote is spoken by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in an imaginary monologue created by Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Faith Maps.  It summarizes the relationship between personal and church transformation that I am suggesting. Let me break it down for you.

  • “First we receive love” Everything starts with God’s initiative. Even the fact that you are reading this  is evidence that God has triggered some desire in you out of love. Probably the most quoted Bible verse in America, displayed at many public places and events, is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] That, in a nutshell is what salvation means. God acted so that human beings can have eternal life. Salvation precedes everything and any human initiative.
  • “then we can respond with love” Deep movements in ourselves continually pull us toward God. The Spirit prays for us when we cannot. God inspires and draws us forward. So, our first step in transformation is responding when we perceive these deep movements. Our response can be to change ourselves or help some neighbor or begin to transform our local church. The Spirit’s power is enabling all these responses.
  • “we glimpse a glory and a beauty” When we respond, something happens. We may only feel some ‘shift’ deep within ourselves, or we may actually do something that is good, externally. But our awareness depends on our noticing that something has happened, and noticing happens in prayer. This may during be a special time reserved for prayer or as a gift ‘on the fly’ when the Spirit has prayed that we notice what has happened. These moments in my life are what I call ‘peak experiences.’ I am lifted out of my usual perspective and allowed to see something wonderful. That gift is given to be shared, to build up the sense of the real presence of Jesus among Christians and, indeed, everyone who has ‘ears to hear.’
  • “that not only calls us but empowers us to a different way of life” When we see the reality of what the Spirit is doing in and through us, we experience the desire to do this again and again. This is our ‘call,’ to follow a different way of life, and take seriously our own unique role in Jesus’ mission, even before we know what that is. We begin to discover a different kind of inspiration and power in our life.
  • “to daily discipleship” Finally, we want to follow Jesus, in the world but not solely of the world. We don’t know what this is, of course, and fall short often. Nonetheless, we strive to follow him. This striving, over time, perhaps many years, becomes a ‘24×7’ way of life. Actually, striving is the wrong word, because it is too connected with the common western culture. A better word is ‘floating’ in God’s Spirit. We learn to trust and float, as the Spirit carries us to the “good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10b] And we learn to trust that we will be up to doing these tasks, because it is God’s power in us, not our own self-development that is doing them. That is why salvation is the essential starting point for Christian transformation.

These wonderful things happen to us both when we are alone and when we are in a community of Christians. In fact, for many people, the ordinary experiences in the church community are how they encounter salvation and the lure of discipleship. This being so, we now need to talk about how personal and church transformation are linked.

How personal transformation is linked to church

Is the church necessary? If a personal relationship with Jesus is the essence of salvation, why get involved with church and ‘organized religion’ at all? Primitive man believed that life depended on being part of a tribe; you couldn’t survive alone. After Pentecost, believers didn’t “join” a church or an organized religion, but they became part of a community of Christians. But now, the common culture stresses “individualism” and therefore joining a church seems to mean giving up something, some essential freedom. What I’m saying is that we are all profoundly shaped by the point of view of the common culture, including Christians, and can no longer see the church’s utter necessity as Jesus sees it. Otherwise why would so many Christians see church as optional, or at best something they “need” occasionally, on Sundays or at Easter and Christmas? I want to help you get outside the common culture and see your local church through Jesus’ eyes. Then you will be able to see how your own transformation is inextricably linked to your local church’s.

Why did the Spirit send Peter out to immediately explain to the crowds what had happened to Jesus? What was Jesus saying about “church” in that first speech and the other speeches of the Apostles in the early days of “church? Not simply, look what you’ve done, but also see who I am, and what you ought to do in the light of the ‘last days.’ [Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41]

I believe that the three points made by Peter in his first sermon can lead 21st century Christians to a fresh understanding of how Jesus sees church. Let me expand each point of Peter’s sermon, and relate them to personal transformation and church.

  • What you have done. In a way, Jesus was establishing a ‘burning platform’ at the outset. To the crowds right after the Crucifixion, Peter said, “You are responsible for this. The Romans may have carried out the sentence but all of you are responsible.” Jesus is saying to us, today, “The human race is responsible for the wounds of the world and, because of that, I died. The Romans crucified me in the 1st century but you are responsible, even today, for the wounds that infect mankind.” I’m not preaching old-time fire and brimstone religion; I’m simply pointing out that in Jesus’ mind, what the human race continues to do is an extremely serious matter, which none of us can ignore, especially Christians who ostensibly know what’s going on in the last days.
  • Who I am. The crowd responded when they understood who Jesus is. Peter (in Luke’s telling of the story) led them carefully from what they knew, from Scripture, to who Jesus is. Their recognition was instant; over 3,000 people who heard Peter speak accepted who Jesus was on the spot. We can be certain that recognizing who Jesus is a key part of church. Not that there aren’t debates. Many of these arise from how our culture conditions even Christian thinking. But despite the debates Christians encounter who Jesus is and the fundamental necessity of a relationship with him.
  • What you ought to do. Here Luke uses the language of the early church to describe something that happened probably at least fifty years earlier. The story had been told over and over, but Luke’s purpose was to tell people who weren’t able to directly hear the story in his time and for all time, what they ought to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” were both phrases that developed as Christians considered what had happened in the first days after Pentecost. What these words do not mean is “Go, develop a private relationship with Jesus.” I think that they mean, “Realize something new has arrived in your life and come join the followers of Jesus.” The primary message is that the gift of the Spirit flows, at least in Christians, from accepting, perhaps tentatively at first, and finally fully at the level of conviction, that we are part of the Body of Christ. Church is essential to all Christians, not an add-on or crutch, as the modern culture sees it, for those who aren’t strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Church means being connected to the vine, being part of Jesus’ body, being part of God’s family. So how could any Christian possibly see the church as optional? Today, this happens because we are ‘swimming in a culture’ that has long since decided that life is for ‘rugged individualists’ and that being part of church detracts from our freedom. We accept that view because the church no longer presents a contrary view in any way that makes sense to us. That is another strong reason why local churches must be transformed.

My claim is that being part of a local church is not optional; it is essential to life “in the Spirit” for Christians. Is the Holy Spirit unable to operate outside local churches? Of course not. “The wind blows where it will.”  But, without a local church, how can any Christian firmly believe that they are part of the body of Christ? Yet, many Christians basically try to live outside any church community today. I think such Christians distance themselves from the reality of church because it is too painful for them to belong. Why? Perhaps because they agree with the common culture that there is something wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church. (Of course, the church could be perfectly all right and all these ‘Christians’ are simple wrong-headed or misled.)

Local churches ought to begin considering how much they need to be transformed by examining themselves honestly, not by assuming all is well. Jesus gave us a good way to assess ourselves. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A spirit-filled church produces good fruit; one that isn’t spirit-filled produces no fruit or even bad fruit. Spirit-filled churches have spirit-filled people. So, an excellent first step is to ‘soul search’ about whether your church is spirit-filled or not.

Let’s assume that you sense some gap and want to further consider transformation. This then raises a ‘chicken and egg’ question. To transform a local church must you initially transform its members to being spirit-filled, or do you transform a church so that it can help its members become spirit-filled? My answer is a “both-and” answer. However spirit-filled or wounded a local church may be, the members of that local church should begin the transformation process. By helping the church become a better follower and lover of Jesus, it will thereby be better at helping its members become more spirit-filled. And Spirit-filled people can help the church transform itself even more. This is a ‘virtuous circle,’ that starts in the hearts of its members.