Form Follows Function: What do we do trumps how we do it!

As a potter I hope that my pieces communicate something. The preference is that they communicate function over form, but I do like to dabble in creative risk-taking shapes sometimes. Form should follow function whether in pottery or the church. First you figure out what you think God wants you do, and then you figure out the means, structure, or whatever you need to accomplish it. If we can figure out our function first then our forms and the shape of our vessels should surely follow!

I prefer 19th century pottery forms because they got this point exactly right. The potters or “turners,” as they were called back then, didn’t go for the fancy stuff that’s more artsy than utilitarian. They made crocks, jugs, and storage jars, things you were going to use. Sure, they decorated the ware every now and then, but, for the most part, it was all about function first. I wonder sometimes if churches are first geared to perform our function, or do we prioritize our outdated and poorly purposed forms, means of worship and facilities. Do our forms follow our function to make disciples of Jesus Christ? What do we communicate?

St. John’s Apple Fest is this coming Saturday and I will be donating quite a few pieces of pottery since the proceeds support missions. I’ll be using a South Carolina theme where I use a sgraffito method and free-hand draw the palmetto and crescent symbols of our state on the wet clay. South Carolina has been through a lot this year, from massacre to mud, Charleston Nine to the Flood. Thus I want my work to communicate a love of our state and support ways that we can help alleviate some of the suffering that people have endured.

Forms communicate function and what we value. Fred Craddock, best preacher ever in my mind, has a great story, one of many, that speaks about the communication of values. He tells about when he was a youngster going to church with his mother. The story goes like this: “The minister would speak to my mother, ‘How’re you, Miz Craddock?’ and the five of us kids would go along like little ducks waddling after our mother. ‘How’re you, sonny? How’re you, honey? How’re you, sonny? How’re you, honey?’”

He goes on to say, “But I remember when another minister came to our church, and about his fifth or sixth Sunday when I went along there, he said, ‘Fred, how’re you doing?’ He was the best minister that ever was at that church, because there’s a big difference between ‘sonny’ and ‘Fred.’” Amen. The personal touch, with pottery and people, communicates something, doesn’t it? It makes all the difference, in my opinion. A church that communicates personal care and nurture is a boon to society as a whole, and to individual lives as well. What do people hear from us? Do they hear a well-intentioned, but impersonal, “sonny,” or “honey,” or do they hear the specific love of God that is tailor-made for them, as if it were only theirs to hear?

Another Craddock story expresses a need for better communication of our values: “I was in a church gathering in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and somebody asked me during the question-and-answer period what I thought about somebody’s view of the Bible that had just been published and they had all read about. I discussed it, and I said, “There’s a lot of thought there, and I’m sure this is a very sincere person, but his view of the Bible is not adequate for me. I think he puts too much water in the wine.”

Then he continued, “Afterward a woman came up to me and gave me two tickets to the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union banquet, a fine organization opposed to the use of spirituous liquors. She wanted my wife and me to go, and I said, ‘But why this?’ And she said, ‘We just don’t have enough ministers speaking out against drink, and I appreciated what you said.’ Now, what did I say, and what did she hear?”

These are the two questions that we must absolutely answer with every verbal interaction, sermon, and church service or program: “What did I/we say?” and “What did she/he hear?” If we ask those two questions and understand the answers we will have come a long way in adequately offering Jesus to a needy world. Our function is to offer Christ and our words and actions are the form, the vessel for the content of the Gospel. Answering “What did I say?” and “What was heard?” creates better communication, and proves that our forms FOLLOW our function!

>Throw Your Life Away: Be a Potter!

 

 

Adaptive Leadership Opens Door for God!

Adaptive leadership versus technical leadership is the buzz in the business world and the church. Technical leadership tackles a problem in a linear end-goal way: A+B+C=D. It answers problems with clear solutions. Sometimes technical answers to problems are necessary. They sure can be easy and WRONG! Life is much more ambiguous than simplistic answers. Adaptive leadership’s answers allow for complexity and uncertainty: A+B+C=A. Adaptive solutions have enough structure as to be effective, but seldom have a one-size-fits-all certitude.

The simple answer is that things are never simple. Technical leadership tends to be top-down and hasn’t worked in the church since James and John put their Mom up to asking Jesus if they could sit beside him in the Kingdom. Their position-of-power understanding of leadership was turned on its head by Jesus in his ministry to the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost. Jesus modeled the greatest adaptive leadership tool ever used when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17).

Clearly Jesus’ leadership was adaptive more than technical. Jesus practiced open-ended servant leadership by constantly yielding to the whims and vagaries of life and the ever-occurring poor decisions of his closest followers. Technical leadership from Jesus wouldn’t have been eager to wash the disciples’ feet. Technical leadership would have proclaimed, “Here’s what we’re going to do!” What Jesus did was teach in ambiguous parables that left great latitude in interpretation. It’s like the difference between a funnel-in-the-head three-point sermon, and an open-ended sermon by Fred Craddock that leaves you hanging and taking personal responsibility for how the message ends or actually begins.

Ponder the dichotomy in our denomination right now: on one hand they want us to measure everything seeking a technical solution to what ails us, but, on the other hand, they say we need to be nimble and meet the adaptive challenge. Maybe the two can go hand in hand, but it strikes me as a desperate search for a technical solution to an adaptive spiritual problem. Accountability is a good thing, but I don’t recall Jesus ever asking his disciples about numbers. He wanted faithfulness knowing that what he told Nicodemus was right in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” This means to me that the measurement of the Spirit’s actions is hard to do! You can know some things like the sound, but to measure more than that is to box in the Spirit.

This has all made me think about the tension between a live-and-let-live openness to church ministry and top-down “my way or the highway” strong-arming. Who am I, even as a District Superintendent, to declare by “divine” fiat that a church or its leadership is flatly wrong? Yeah, I know: I’m supposed to interpret and decide all questions of church law in the Columbia District (Par. 419.10, 2012 Book of Discipline and 423.13 in 2008), but what’s more important – doing things right (technical solution), or doing the right things (adaptive solution)?

A key book for me in discerning which kind of answer is needed has been Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Listen to what Amazon says about the book:

“Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman’s insights into leadership are more urgently needed than ever. He was the first to tell us that all organizations have personalities, like families, and to apply the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, rectors and rabbis, politicians and teachers.

Failure of Nerve is essential reading for all leaders, be they parents or presidents, corporate executives or educators, religious superiors or coaches, healers or generals, managers or clergy. Friedman’s insights about our regressed, seatbelt society, oriented toward safety rather than adventure, help explain the sabotage that leaders constantly face today.

Suspicious of the quick fixes and instant solutions (Think “Technical” solution) that sweep through our culture only to give way to the next fad, he argues for strength and self-differentiation as the marks of true leadership. His formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy.”

What this boils down to for me is theological: the difference between process theology and a static understanding of God’s work in the world. I am quite orthodox in believing God is immutable and unchanging in God’s nature, but there’s plenty of evidence that God is constantly responding in ever changing ways to our human vagaries. Such is the unchanging nature of God’s love towards the whole creation. Why would we have to pray “Thy will be done…” if God already gets God’s way all the time? Praying promotes adaptive leadership because it trusts in a God who can answer in lots of ways! The upshot of this is to approach problems/opportunities from every angle and without a specified result in mind, and trust that the Lord is going to always be on our side. I need the nerve to let things play out and respond accordingly, secure in God.

Adaptive leadership leaves room for magnificent yet oftentimes unexpected possibilities. For instance, ponder this information dated 1999 about Nonlinear Dynamics from Erick Larson in Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History:

“Most tropical disturbances dissipate over the open sea. … Occasionally they become killers, although exactly why remained a mystery even at the end of the 20th century. Satellites sharpened the ability of forecasters to monitor hurricane motion but could not capture the instant of transfiguration. No matter now closely meteorologists analyzed satellite biographies of hurricanes, they still could not isolate the exact coding that destined a particular easterly wave to a future of murder and mayhem. Satellites could document changes in temperature of a few thousandths of a degree and capture features as small as a foot wide or a few centimeters tall. “But suppose,” wrote Ernest Zebrowski, Jr., in Perils of a Restless Planet, “that a tropical storm develops, and that we play back the data record of the previous few days. What do we find as we go back in time? A smaller storm, and yet a smaller disturbance, then a warm, moist windy spot, then a set of atmospheric conditions that looks no different from that at many other locations in the tropics.”

Zebrowski proposed that the answer might lie in the science of “nonlinear dynamics”: chaos theory and the famous butterfly effect. He framed the question this way: “Could a butterfly in a West African rain forest, by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right, possibly set into motion a chain of events that escalates into a hurricane striking coastal South Carolina a few weeks later?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes!” Adaptive Leadership leaves room for the whims of butterflies, evil, and the Spirit of God. Technical leadership reads more like a dry book on systematic theology that boxes life and God into fixed presuppositions and predetermined actions. Adaptive leaders rely on the greatest adaptive leader, Jesus. He can give us the nerve to navigate the uncertain waters through the certain assurance of divine love! Take comfort: Jesus and you are going to have a great adventure today!

Transfiguration Pinnacle and People

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Epiphany season in the church has been a time through the centuries to sense the power of God’s self-revelation to the world. It is the season of encouragement that immediately follows Christmas and precedes Ash Wednesday and Lent. Epiphany is a reminder that though Christ is about to enter his “dark night of the soul” in the controversies that led to his crucifixion, he knows full well just who he is. He is God-Incarnate, God-in-the-Flesh.
This knowledge changes everything. It doesn’t lessen the pain and humiliation that Christ is about to undergo, but it does help him endure it. Epiphany season ends with the greatest affirmation of Christ’s personhood, Transfiguration Sunday, which we commemorate this Sunday. On the sacred mountain, Jesus is reminded that only he is God’s beloved son. Though the valley of suffering is deep beyond compare, God will transfigure the ordinary into extraordinary, the crown of thorns into a crown of Gold.
Transfiguration Sunday’s climatic end to Epiphany season doesn’t diminish the pain Jesus resolved to endure, but it did fortify his soul for the journey. Isn’t this why we come to Sunday School and Worship? Isn’t the Lord’s Day our Day of Transfiguration? We seek to find out who we are on Sunday and pray that it helps us through the dark nights of the work-a-day week.
Such a transfiguration took place in the life of a man named Ben Hooper. Fred Craddock ran across an elderly gentleman by this name at a restaurant just off I-40 in east Tennessee. The older gentleman found out that Fred Craddock was a seminary professor, a teacher of preachers, in Atlanta. The gentleman, without hesitation, said that he had a story to tell about a preacher. Fred had heard many such stories over the years but he listened attentively. The old gentleman told how he was born in the hills nearby, and that his mother was not married. He described how children made fun of him and called him names. He recalled how everyone would stare at his face trying to figure out who his daddy really was.
The old man said he felt embarrassed and unworthy everywhere he went, especially church. At church, as a young boy, he would slip into the back pew after the singing began and slip out before the last hymn finished. One night, however, the new Methodist preacher talked long and hard about God’s grace and love for everyone no matter who they were. He was mesmerized. Before he could slip out, a group of people had already queued up in the aisle. Before he could move, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the preacher! He spoke while staring at the boy’s face, “Well, son, let me see who you are. Oh, yes! I see a striking resemblance. You’re a child of God … Go out and claim your inheritance!”
The older man told Dr. Fred Craddock that night transfigured his life. He felt God’s grace like never before. It changed him forever. Fred Craddock asked the man what his name was again, knowing this would make a great story to tell preachers. The old man replied, “Ben Hooper.” “Ben Hooper, Ben, Ben Hooper!” Craddock thought to himself. And suddenly it came to him that his father had once told him about the time when, for two terms, the people of Tennessee had elected a man named Ben Hooper, who had been born to an unwed mother, as governor of their state. What a difference transfiguration makes!
Think about the millions of people around us who need a transfiguration. They wonder if the institutional church is relevant, and so do I. However, the Gospel is relevant, if we’ll connect to people and let people know through word and deed that Jesus has made a difference in our lives. People are starving for salvation and need transfiguration. I pray that we will guide them in real, relational, and relevant ways to an encounter with the Living God!