Friday, September 25, 2020

"... A FRIEND INDEED"

 I have a few friends who knew me long before I got married forty-seven years ago. James McCall was one of those friends. Actually, he was a family friend. Two of my older siblings attended his wedding in Trinidad, more than fifty years ago.  

James was from a quiet township in Tobago. However, there was nothing quiet about the impact of his eighty-one years. On the passing of his dad at an early age, Jim assumed leadership for his seven younger siblings. Leadership traits began to emerge from that time until his untimely passing in New York a few days ago.

When my family and I migrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1991, Jim, as he was affectionately known, renewed contact with me. He initiated some of my visits to New York from our mid-west locations. His big-brotherly love was second to none.

His years in the police service contributed to his disciplined life. The many tributes offered at his zoomed memorial service alluded to him as a man of principle. Of the many accolades voiced at the service, one message was clear – James was a Christian first. This message was heard from his children, in-laws, grandchildren, siblings, neighbors and his many Christian colleagues.

In almost every telephone conversation with me, Jim asked for my wife. It was his way of emphasizing total care for the things and people for whom his friends cared. Each Easter he reminded me of my contribution in initiating an annual Christian convention in Tobago. His daughter’s tribute was correct when she said, “he left for the United States, but never left his love for Tobago.”

Jim received my blogs when I began blogging some nine years ago. Before long, he began to share each blog with his ‘fan club’. He thought I had something worth sharing and shared. For him, missing blogs suggested I was under undue pressure. He then called me to ensure that everything was okay.

One of his regular calls was to notify me of the death of mutual friends. It got to the point where, upon receiving phone calls or emails, I began to wonder who had died. Honestly, I was not prepared when someone else called me a few days ago with the news of his sudden death.

Of course, I am grieving the loss of a good friend. However, my sorrow is different. Like Jim’s son Stephen reminded us at the memorial service – “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.” Those of us who share Jim’s faith, refer to his death as sleep. That is the term used in the New Testament to describe the death of Christians.

Just like natural sleep, the death of a Christian connotes something temporary. In addition, natural sleep presupposes a renewed awakening. The apostle used the death of Jesus to reinforce his point – just as Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, “those who die in Jesus will rise again.” Paul argued, if this belief is not true, then we are no different from non-Christians, who die without hope (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). As a matter of fact, Paul contended, if the dead Christian does not rise again, then our preaching and our faith are in vain.  

Like me, my friend James McCall believed these truths with a passion. That passion was evident in his leadership as a church elder and preacher. It was at the memorial service I learned that even his neighbours called him preacher. He lived what he believed. Those beliefs influenced the care he showed for his Alzheimer stricken wife – he practiced the clause in his marriage vow, “in sickness and in health”.

My friend has left a rich legacy. He was an amazing baker and cook. He was a caring dad to his two adult children and to many children without dads. He was the joy of family gatherings. He was a leader par excellence. However, more than anything else, Jim loved Jesus. And, I am proud to be able to say, he was my friend.

Monday, August 31, 2020

CHURCH AND POWER

 A few days ago, a colleague in ministry requested a recommendation. His request was among similar requests from persons wanting favorable opinions. Persons requesting recommendations believe that the persons from whom recommendations are requested have the capacity to influence.

One’s capacity to influence is a basic description of power. To a greater or lesser degree, everyone has the capacity to influence, which means everyone has power. The problem is that few persons are aware of the power they possess. Some believe power is evil and therefore should not be acknowledged. As a result, many persons live feeling powerless internally, yet are expected to display power externally.

Honestly, we all have power, especially persons entrusted with leadership roles. Unfortunately, many leaders do not understand the sources of power and as a result do not understand how to exercise power responsibly.

In his book, Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers, Richard Gula, shares six primary sources of power. The first he refers to as POSITIONAL POWER. This is power that comes with a position or title. The position provides a platform for influencing others.

Gula cites PERSONAL POWER as a second source of primary power. This refers to the possession of specific competencies. For instance, gifts, personality, knowledge, privilege and education. We acquire some of these assets at birth and others through unique opportunities.

I would refer to the other source as SACRED WEIGHT. The power we carry when our role formally places us in a position to represent God. We symbolize something beyond mere human knowledge. We represent God’s presence, even if we feel inadequate for the task.

PROJECTED POWER is the power other people unconsciously project onto us. Others sometimes project their unmet needs and unresolved issues, in hopes that we will meet those needs and help them resolve those issues. As a general principle, the more distressed a person is, the more invisible power he or she is likely to project onto a leader.

Our RELATIONAL POWER grows as people entrust to us their fears and secrets. Sometimes we stand with people in their most vulnerable moments. We listen to painful experiences and at times unimaginable evils. These we hold in confidence. Each time we are entrusted with one of these moments, it adds to our power base.

CULTURAL POWER might include everything from age and race to gender, ethnicity and ranking within families. In my own upbringing, I was taught to respect the contribution of older persons, including older siblings. In many countries men carry more power than women. Sadly, the colour of one’s skin and or ethnicity conveys a greater or lesser amount of power. Each of these factors impacts one’s ability to influence others.

According to Peter Scazzero, “emotionally healthy leaders are keenly aware of the sources of their power as well as the nuances in their use of power” (The Emotionally Healthy Leader). Scazzero contends we should identify and own the sources of power that apply to us. However, we do not affirm our power in order to flaunt it before others. Neither do we deny power as though ignorance is humility. Then, how should we handle power?

Jesus answered that question in his strategy of humility and sacrificial service. In the world, Jesus says leaders throw their weight around – “but it is not so with you…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). Jesus demonstrated power, not by force or control, but by humbly washing the feet of his disciples and by dying on a cross – humility and sacrifice.

Simply put, we have power. However, we must use that power to empower the powerless. Like Jesus, that requires a posture of humility. Humility is not a surrender of power. Rather, it is strength to control power, in order to accomplish unselfish gain. Some may contend that that looks more like personal weakness. It is through that apparent weakness, God’s strength blossoms.

Interestingly, the New Testament often mentions about God “tabernacling” or taking up residence in the weaknesses of his people. Why would God do this? The apostle provides two reasons. Firstly, “…so that no one may boast before him” and secondly, “that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (2 Corinthians 1:28-2:5).

Honestly, if I am the only one to benefit from the power I have as a leader, then I am guilty of abuse of power. My power should benefit the powerless and bring glory to Jesus who replaces human imaginations of power with his strength.

Monday, August 17, 2020

I HEARD FROM GOD...

 “But Dad, how can you know for sure that God is calling you back to Jamaica?” That question from my daughter-in-law was prominent among those asked by younger members of my family. Like any other millennial, my daughter-in-law wanted specifics.

Her question presupposed a relationship with God. A relationship that enables one to hear His voice. Such a relationship can only exist if one first accepts the existence and availability of a Living God. Thankfully, my worldview resonates with a theology that accepts the existence of God and affirms His ability to communicate with His creatures.

Nature testifies to God's existence and ability to communicate. This was Paul’s understanding when he wrote to the Christians at Rome - “What may be known of God is manifest in them [godless people] for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19, 20).

 

Like Paul, the Psalmist clearly articulates God’s voice in nature (Psalm 19:1-6). The writer to the book of Hebrews contends that God speaks through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:2). Again in Hebrews we read: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to the dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

 

But did God speak to me specifically when I decided to return to Jamaica to pastor a church? Yes, God did. The first nudge came from the Christians in the church. Because of their heritage, they have never had a full-time pastor. Throughout their sixty-year history, they used itinerant preachers for pulpit ministry. Nothing from their history should have prompted their invitation. Yet, they felt inclined to invite me to be their inaugural pastor.

 

The leadership at the church never formally considered a resident pastor. However, upon learning of interests within the congregation, the leaders were willing to pray and consider the option of a resident pastor. The growing list of unsolicited favours seemed to be sending a message of God’s approval on the venture.

 

In addition to the institutional affirmation, I listened to hear the voice of God as I read the Scriptures. My structured daily readings do not allow me to select preferred texts. It was during one such reading, I came across this passage:

“The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away” (Isaiah 50:4-5).

 

So, the mission to Jamaica is one for which I am academically equipped. It is one to which I was invited to serve. Unsolicited endorsement continue to flow from a variety of sources. What appeared to be an arbitrary text from the Bible was used to affirm my decision. Confirmation also arose from hearing sermons and songs. And, most important for me was confirmation from my wife of 47 years.

 

In seeking to follow the voice of God, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) believed we must become indifferent or totally open to anything but the will of God. Our sole desire must be to obey what we believe God is saying to us. Personal preferences and monetary rewards must never influence the outcome. One’s sole desire must be obedience.

 

Agreed, this posture makes one vulnerable. Personal ambitions are sometimes sacrificed. At times, institutions exploit the submissive attitude and obedient disposition of people who are called. Despite these negatives, obedience to the call of God should not be undermined. This is not naivety. Rather, responding to God’s call is a focused, intentional attempt to seek joy in obedience to God’s voice alone.

 

Unlike the American singer Frank Sinatra, who sang I Did it My Way, the obedient Christian has one option, to do it God’s way.