Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Gambling with leadership

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying he could not believe that God plays dice with the universe. Not so, apparently, with apostolic succession!

“And the believers cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:26

I like this story. It is, of course, possible to read this in a determinative way that sees God as in charge of every last detail of the universe, therefore the dice had to land the way God wanted them to, ensuring that the "right" disciple replaced Judas to complete Jesus' twelve-man leadership team. For me, this approach runs counter to my faith, and begs way too many questions. (If the Twelve were so important to Jesus and in Acts 1, whatever happened to that institution? And a myriad of issues related to predestination and theodicy. Did God "set up" Judas as the betrayer and did God demand the murder of Jesus? If God is in charge of everything, is not God then the author of evil? And this theo-logic is so often used as a justification of the current order; since God is involved in every roll of the dice, this must be the best of all possible worlds.)

But I prefer to read this text as reassurance from the Holy Spirit, an appropriate corrective to the anxiety which often accompanies leadership succession in the church.

We might note that the apostles have a history of conflict over leadership and position. Examples abound. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37 and parallels). Peter’s earnest attempts to be Jesus’ chief apostle. John’s gospel hints, and tradition has long speculated that Judas' betrayal might have been related to his own desire for top rank. Many of Jesus' final moments with them in the passion stories have to do with the quality of community and leadership they are to practice when Jesus has gone from them. And the group has suffered several shocks - the betrayal of their teacher by his own, his murder, his resurrection appearances and loss again via ascension. Judas' death is another trauma that precipitates this scene, and the new apostle must fill his ill-fated shoes. Is it any wonder that this decision might be filled with tension?

Yet while this anxiety is a part of life as we know it, it is not a feature of the kind of community Jesus has been discipling his friends into. Nor - except as it is transformed, resolved, and healed - promote the kind of mission the Holy Spirit is working to bring about.

So we might take a step back and look at the scene without the angst of those in the midst of it. We apparently have two well-qualified candidates. They each meet the job description (Acts 1:21-22). And each has their supporters and advocates. We might reasonably see that this is a winning choice no matter which way the dice may role.

Lest we take our own leadership struggles too seriously, we might also reflect upon the fact that we never hear another peep from either Joseph Barsabbas ("Son of the Father") or Matthias. Canonically, it does not seem that the church's future mission hung in the balance. Whatever work they did, however important their ministry was to the church as a whole and the people involved, after this point it is "behind the scenes" of the New Testament. Neither individual, nor the office was the cornerstone of the church. (That job had already been filled, see Ephesians 2:20.)

In this light, the casting of lots is a graceful way to resolve a conflict over leadership.It depends upon the willingness of those involved to trust God - but also, I think, to trust the community which produces and which will support and nourish these leaders. It is great to have a capable, strong, energetic, Spirit-filled, wise, and compassionate person in the office of pastor or bishop. But their success in the office is due to so much more than their own abilities.

"Success" in ministry depends on the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads people in new ways, and brings about surprising methods and results. And it depends not so much upon the gifts - however substantial - of one talented leader, but upon the gifts of the whole community of saints. Ultimately, that "team" of disciples gathers together around not the leader, but the cross and the table.

No one person can build the church. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be - the kingdom of God is a community organizing project. Jesus Christ did not seem to care much about his "office." After all, he took his beloved Son-ship and became a slave, homeless, misunderstood more often than not, crucified. But he did care for his sheep, the ones who know him, who leap for joy at the sound of his voice, and who follow him, because the trust him.

Matthias, Joseph Barsabbas, bishops, presbyters, deacons... whether by casting of lots, election in assemblies, vetting by committees, the touch of one already in the office... if the people of God are faithful to their Lord, the church will do just fine. The Holy Spirit is busy sending the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. Best we get on with it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Word goes where it will

Notes on Acts 8:26-40 for the fifth Sunday in Easter.

Everything about this story is incredible. Did you really expect to see an Ethiopian eunuch, a man at once powerful and marginalized? Add to this the fact he is either a very marginal Jew, or a God-fearer who has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him. And speaks strongly enough for him to acquire and study the holy writings of Israel. Have you ever tried to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a wilderness road? The appearance of the water itself is a surprising thing in the desert – but perhaps not as exalted or lush as painters have imagined it. We picture an oasis, but it might just as easily be a humble waterhole.

The eunuch asks: "What is to prevent me from being baptized"?

Well, almost everything. The eunuch is missing the sign of the covenant (circumcision) for Jewish males. And, missing his testicles, he would not have been permitted in the Temple to worship. He could never be a "full member." Philip, who is not an apostle, is not clearly authorized to go out on his mission, or to baptize. (Note how in 8:1 the dispersion from Jerusalem is the result of persecution, not an apostle-planned mission strategy, and how in 8:44 the Jerusalem apostles follow Philip to Samaria to ensure that he is doing things right, especially regarding baptism.)

But the book of Acts is misleadingly titled. Its traditional name, "Acts of the Apostles," is true enough – except the apostles are not the ones driving the action. One sees the apostles busy organizing a reform movement and new, communitarian institutions based in Jerusalem. But the book instead shows the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new assembly, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-pushing people into fellowship with Jesus. The Spirit, not bound by human constraints ("we've never done it that way before"), is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where this good news is to be proclaimed.

It is interesting to note that the interaction between Philip and the eunuch is driven by questions:
+ Do you understand what you are reading?
+ How can I, unless someone guides me?
+ Who is the prophet speaking of?
+ What is to prevent me from being baptized?

One easily imagines that the eunuch is seeing in Isaiah and hearing in the Jesus story something of himself (echoes of the Samaritan woman in John 4), for his powerful position comes at a price, and he is cut off from the earth, in that he will die childless.

Yet what is impossible with humans is possible with God. This is a theme with Luke (see Luke 18:27, 1:37, Acts 2:24), but one might even more regard it as a canonical theme of the scriptures. Everything about the journey of faith that began with Abraham has been about God making space for divine transformation in the narrow places of human life.

It happened with Abraham and Sarah, laughing at the prospect of children, much less a nation flowing from their journey and remembering their stories. It happened with a young at-risk girl in the Judean hills who said "Yes" to an angel, to God, and to the new life that she would carry. In the background of this Acts 8 story, this holy reorienting is happening to a zealous persecutor (Paul) who would fall off his high horse and into a heaven which shocked him, and to an energetic apostle (Peter) who would be driven further into the unclean world of the gospel. And it happened to a eunuch on the road to Gaza, a sexual minority who is today revered as the father of the Ethiopian church.

There are unlikely apostles everywhere.

Listen. Listen to the Spirit telling you to go to that unlikely place. Listen to the questions and the stories of the people around you. Pay attention to the interaction between the words of scripture and words of peoples' lives, of your life. Share the goodness of God as you have experienced it. The Holy Spirit is still blowing, especially in the edgiest places of life. With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.

We might wonder where in our churches and in our communities the Spirit is blowing right now? Perhaps, for a hint, with the eunuch and Philip we might read again the words of the prophet - "In his humiliation, justice was denied him" - and go to the places where human humiliation becomes the opening point for divine glory. And that is a good place to ask a few questions.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Augusto Boal

Augusto Boal, actor, activist, teacher, humanitarian, died early on Saturday, May 2nd.

Augusto Boal is best known internationally for developing Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.), what he called a "grammar" of theatrical methods, related to Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. T.O. aims to help people, using their senses and bodies, perceive, analyze, and transform situations of oppression. It invites spectators to become spect-actors, fully involved not simply in theatrical performance, but in the life-work of liberation.

Because of his work, Boal was viewed as a threat by Brazil's military rulers. Iin 1971, Boal was kidnapped, tortured, and eventually exiled to Argentina, then self-exiled to Europe. This period of exile led to the publication of his first major theater text, Theatre of the Oppressed, and to the spread of his method to Europe and North America. Since then, T.O. has literally traveled aroud the world, with active and beautiful work on every continent.

I was privileged to study with Augusto Boal in several Theater of the Oppressed Laboratory workshops over the past decade. One of the things I will remember best is the way he had - as teacher, as actor, as person of power - of being able to direct a large gathering of people. With the gentle power of his presence, and using the power given him by the audience, within moments a few hundred people would be drawing circles with their feet and crosses with their hands, bumping into one another in the act of introduction, laughing, and on their way to learning something new about themselves, what is real, and how they can transform the world.

Yet I think I know him better from his students and from his grammar of liberation - the Theater of the Oppressed. If, as Shakespeare said, "the play's the thing," Augusto Boal was always a player. A player in the interplay of workshops, in the conscientization of theater, and in the artful work of liberation. This took place not only in theaters and workshops, but on the street, in the fields, in prisons, and in legislative chambers, acting upon the structures of civic power. The play was always foremost. And the "play" was the end of oppression, the growth of liberative community. This is an amazing legacy, a great gift to his friends and to the people of the world.

I find that it is often hard to be precise about the many influences which have led me on my own path of transformation. Yet the schooling of bodies willing to move together, eyes willing to look together, and people willing to think and act together through Theater of the Oppressed came to me at a very good time. And Augusto Boal's personal example remains quite inspiring. At one and the same time he was committed to popular education, participatory liberation, and opposition to oppression - and thoroughly good-humored, optimistic, and engaged. His gentle and lively spirit remain very much alive for me.

Augusto Boal, 1931-2009.
Rest in peace. May light perpetual shine upon him.

For further information:
A Brief Biography of Augusto Boal, by Doug Paterson
Wikipedia: Augusto Boal
Short list of the best books on T.O.
Boal in his own words - audio from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 4/3/08