Contemporary Perspectives : Still Pursuing WISDOM

Lent 2020 begins next week on Wednesday, February 26th. The word “lent” comes from the Old English word word “lencten” meaning “spring season,” when all around us signs of spring and new life appear, on our journey to Easter. We can be optimistic and hopeful.

For Lent this year, I plan to write a few weekly reflections, offering contemporary perspectives (basically optimistic) from an older historical theologian…

When I think of contemporary perspectives, I have two things in mind: (1) new ways of looking at older Christian realities, understandings, and belief statements; and (2) a focus on Christian life that shifts away from “churchianity,” with with its rigid focus on fidelity to doctrines and rules.

Churchianity is rooted in obedience and power over people. Christianity is rooted in love, compassion, and service. The central focus of genuine Christianity must be a living and lived-out relationship with God and with one’s neighbor. Doctrines and rules come later, but are of secondary importance.

Right now, I have the following thematic elements in my head, which I hope to expand on during the weeks of Lent: Youth — Jesus and His Young Disciples; The Gospels: About Faith Not About Presenting a Life of Jesus; A Contemporary Perspective on One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic — a Church Much Bigger Than the Roman Catholic Church; The Evangelical Vision — Four Gospels Four Christian Theologies; Contemporary Insights About Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death; and Resurrection Greater than Resuscitation.

There may be some adjustments along the way. I am not planning on long essays. The reflections will be brief and to the point. The focus will be a kind of meditative retreat on the road to Easter.

I may quote from books and articles I have read as well….. I do hope I can offer some reflections that are worth reading as well as stimulating and helpful. We are all confronted with much too much blah blah these days….Especially as we begin the nine month gestation period of presidential election rhetoric….

And so today, I conclude with a brief reflection about WISDOM from the Hebrew Scriptures:

Proverbs 8:22-31:

God brought me forth as the first of God’s works, before God’s deeds of old.

I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth.

When there were no springs overflowing with water,

Before the mountains were settled in place,

Before the hills, I was given birth.

Before God made the world or its fields

Or any of the dust of earth.

I was there when God set the heavens in place.

When God marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

When God established the clouds above

And fixed securely the fountains of the deep.

When God gave the sea its boundary

So the waters would not overstep God’s command.

When God marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at God’s side.

I was filled with delight day after day.

Rejoicing always in God’s presence,

Rejoicing in God’s whole world.

Delighting in humankind.

Warmest regards. May we live and rejoice in WISDOM.

Jack

Safe and Unsafe Leaders

Today a brief but, I hope, a helpful perspective on safe and unsafe leaders. I call it performance appraisal guidelines for evaluating leaders in religious, professional, and political life. The basic ideas are from the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, New Jersey.

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9. The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Ten warning signs regarding followers of an unsafe group/leader.

1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.

4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.

6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.

7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.

3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.

4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.

6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.

7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

Our contemporary challenge: reflect on these characteristics and then Observe, Judge, and Act.

Jack

Character and Credibility

In view of last week’s post, and this week’s political and religious developments, some reflections again about the need for prophets.

Prophets exhort, invite dialogue, and call for and promote change. They cannot, however, angrily promote a kind of nasty polarization in which people who disagree become vicious enemies. They can be outspoken, direct, and challenging. They cannot be hard-nosed warriors who denigrate, disable, and destroy their opponents. Prophets do not have an “enemies list.” Prophets speak out and bring change. Their primary values must always be compassion, truthfulness, and respect. Yes it takes strength, courage, thoughtfulness, AND humility to be a prophet.

Prophets and prophetic movements are much-needed agents of social change. We also need to support them. Being a prophet on one’s own, especially in the era of Twitter and Facebook is very difficult. Prophetic team-work is much better…. It is not easy to combat tweeting bullies and their ignorant followers, who thrive on distorted information.

One must also be alert to the prophetic occupational hazard: that prophets lapse and become arrogant, distorted, and deviant warriors —- just as distorted as the people and movements criticized by the prophet. Friends can be particularly helpful here….They can see closely what’s happening. Prophets must speak out, but they need to listen as well. And they need to maintain self-respect and respect for others.

We need prophets in religion and of course in politics. We need prophets especially today when the two get mixed up and the religion becomes a populist political cult which is “Christian” in name only.

Just to confirm: I am not anti-Catholic, nor am I anti-bishop. I am very proud, in fact, of some of my former students who are now competent, compassionate, and pastoral bishops. As a Catholic, however, I am amazed and disappointed how many lay Catholics and bishops have become strong supporters of the current White House resident, because he is “anti-abortion.” Is he really “anti-abortion”? Or is he good at political campaign rhetoric? He is certainly not “pro-life” in his policies and behavior.

Strange times for sure. The pastor of a Catholic church in Queens, New York recently encouraged his anti-Trump parishioners to just take a flying leap off the nearest building. “Show your hate for Trump,” he said. “Do it for social justice. #JumpAgainstTrump.” Tom Roberts, the Executive Editor of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote last week: “The selling of the church’s moral authority is complete. When someone so morally bankrupt and demonstrably anti-life as Trump, a misogynist who brags about assaulting women and whose primary interaction with others is to demean and degrade, can command the obeisance of the nation’s Catholic leaders, the moral tank has been emptied.”

Perhaps we need ongoing education and formation centers for training prophets. We need effective change agents. If I were pastor of a parish, I would make that my priority for a 2020 Lenten activity.

Yes I mentioned several months ago that there are five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents. Today I summarize:

1. Prophets have a clear vision: – Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents. They are absolutely no help in combating the know-it-all big dictators.

2. Prophets are patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. Many people get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough. The danger is that they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal.

3. Prophets ask tough questions – Effective change agents ask questions to help people think.They inform and combat the real fake news. The don’t just tell people what to do.

4. Prophets are knowledgeable and lead by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others.

5. Prophets have strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change.

My concluding observation for this week: I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our religious and political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..

United States Senate Chaplain Barry Black in his opening prayer for the impeachment trial session on January 31, 2020, addressed God, saying “Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct. Lord, help them to remember that they can’t ignore you and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow.”

Jack