Another excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership Book

Another excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership Book

Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.

(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)


INTRODUCTION

Some years ago, I came across across a wrinkled, black-and-white family photograph of a newly-built stone farmhouse on the Oklahoma prairie (I am writing this from Oklahoma’s Green Country in the northeast). Scrawled across the bottom in black ink were the words, “Part of my consecration 1953.” At the age of 36, the author, a successful farmer and married father of five, heard God’s call to ministry. He traded his large farm and newly constructed home for his brother’s smaller property, and then set about constructing a brand new building for the church he began pastoring. Across the next half-century, he worked as a bi-vocational pastor in small, rural churches across Oklahoma and Louisiana. The family would grow to 10 kids, eventually sensing the call to settle in the Ozark mountains of northwest Arkansas. There, he carved a homestead and a church out of the cedars and rocks of the Boston Mountains. A small, modest chapel for ministering to the local mountain community was constructed in the woods off a county road. I was coming of age as a young teenager at that time, and had the opportunity to help this pastor, my grandfather, clear the land and work on the building.

My grandfather sacrificed a great deal to be obedient to God’s call. The photo of his new house, built the year of his calling, represents a consecration far beyond merely a home. His ministry will never make the pages of denominational histories or be publicly celebrated for its tremendous numeric impact or methodological influence. There are no great monuments to his leadership; the fruit of his work will not be seen in the books he authored, seminars he conducted, masses to which he preached, or countries to which he traveled. He did not serve among the intellectual, suburban, wealthy, or sophisticated; rather, he embraced a life of selfless ministry to an ordinary, common, and out-of-the-way people. With the exception of those who knew him personally, few will ever be aware of the affects of his ministry. Yet, in my reading of the life of Francis Asbury, I cannot help but see echoes of his life in that of my grandfather. In my own life, he modeled for me the life of a leader who imitated Christ through sacrifice, servanthood, humility, incarnationality, and devoted obedience.

I wrote this book because I firmly believe these stories — of devout, faithful, and skilled men who are so seized by a hunger for God that they will abandon everything — just might have something to say to modern western culture obsessed with celebritites and celebrity leaders, fueled by desires of self-expression, self-fulfillment, and self-gratificaiton, and unanchored to any transcendent point of reference outside of themselves. Nor do I think one has to look to far to realize this is an affliction as much in the church as it is in the culture.

The 21st Century could use another Francis Asbury with the spiritual, moral, and intellectual courage to lead boldly out of theological convictions and a personal experience of divine transformation and, in so doing, catalyze a renewal of both culture and church. At the same time, though, there are countless numbers of leaders in church, in business, in families, in the marketplace, who are just like my grandfather. Going about their calling with diligent steadfastness, pursuing righteousness and holiness in love of God and neighbor, and seeking to let all they do be informed by that pursuit. But their names are largely unknown. They do not grace the  fronts of bestsellers, banner ads for mega-conferences, or magazine covers because of their great influence. Yet they lead, they shepherd, they model, they exemplify, they give, they pour out their lives and change their corner of the world daily. Upon such men and women rests the kingdom of God and the vitality of human culture. This is, in one sense, their story.

Slavery and early Methodism: a book excerpt

Slavery and early Methodism: a book excerpt

Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.


Francis Asbury: “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not a sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” 

The issue of slavery was very complex and multifaceted for the Methodist Episcopal Church, just as it was in culture. It was a moral and political debate that would eventually tear both Church and nation  apart. Slavery would not legally end until Lincoln’s Emancipation in 1863. Two decades before that, in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South contingents along the fault line of slavery. It would take nearly one hundred years for the divisions to heal and the main bodies of the church to reunite.

Abolition was the general position of John Wesley and the English Methodists. In England, William Wilberforce had been waging his campaign to abolish Britain’s slave trade that would eventually result in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. About the time the Methodist Episcopal Church was forming in America, Wilberforce experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and worked closely with Methodist and Quaker abolitionists. Wilberforce was strongly influenced by John Wesley, who had been actively involved in the abolitionist movement prior to Wilberforce. Just days before his death, in a letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley called slavery “that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature” and referred to the American form of slavery as “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”

On the other hand, George Whitefield, a Calvinist Methodist preacher and close friend of John Wesley, was a vocal and influential champion for the institution of slavery on both economic and scriptural grounds. Whitefield argued that Christian slaveowners had a moral obligation to treat their slaves humanely, to care for their physical well-being, and to provide good spiritual training. But blacks were not equal to whites; they were a lesser form of creature. God, in his providence, had subjugated them to the care and authority of the whites.

Undoubtely influenced by Whitefield’s position, most southern Methodist conferences, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia, held that the Bible sanctioned or even called for slavery. Conveniently, this theological position reinforced the economic arguments of the South. Like Whitefield and other notable Christian pro-slavery leaders, the southern position argued that neither God nor the early church condemned the practice. They pointed to Jewish laws in the Old Testament detailing the proper treatment of servants, the Apostle Paul’s admonitions regarding slaves’ and masters’ treatment of one another, and the New Testament letter to Philemon, a slave-owner and early Christian.  Additionally, most southern preachers advocated a divide between political and religious realms. Slavery was a secular, legal structure, not a matter for the Church. The Church’s concern were the “winning of souls” and the spiritual wellbeing of people, not their political status. This included slaves. Conveniently, for the southern churches, the Church simply had no business interfering in the affairs of government.

On the other side, most northern conferences favored abolition. For them, slavery was a moral rather than a social or political issue. Many preachers strongly believed slavery to be inconsistent with Christian belief or practice, and considered it an unjust social evil. In America, slavery was an immediate and much more socially volatile issue for the common citizen than it was in England. As a result, it was far more personal and emotinoal. Asbury was caught in the middle. As bishop, Asbury was convinced his leadership had to span both sides of the divide. On the one hand was the mandate to care for and minister to slaves while advocating for an end to the system. On the other was the need to hold together the whole movement in unity and fellowship. Then, as now, the question of what unity meant or required was messy and harder to discern in the moment.

Asbury shared Wesley’s abolitionist views, insisting slavery was morally wrong and contrary to Scripture. The question was what to do about it in a church whose people firmly occupied diametrically opposed sides. He lamented that there was “not a sufficient sense of religion or liberty to destroy it. [Christians] in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” Compounding the problem was the fact that Methodism was strongest in the south.  In essence, the problem Asbury believed he faced was a Gordian knot: choosing between pursuing the abolition of slavery and maintaining the unity of the church. As history proved, it was a knot impossible to untie.

Throughout his ministry, Asbury showed concern for the condition and spiritual life of slaves and free blacks. He actively supported their participation in worship services, class meetings, and love feasts. He placed special emphasis on the education of slaves and their children, and traveled closely with Richard Allen, a free black, who would soon go on to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In places where segregation was demanded, he helped establish classes and churches just for blacks. But elsewhere, he was frustrated, sometimes to the point of anger, by the lack of charity towards slaves, such as one meeting where nearly one hundred slaves had to stand outside a half-empty house because they were not worthy to come inside with the others.

Early on, Asbury actively campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He sought to maintain the anti-slavery stance of Wesleyan Methodism in the church, endorsing resolutions calling for manumission and expulsion for unjust or inhuman trading of slaves. One northern conference “almost unanimously” agreed and resolved “not to hold slaves in any State where the law will allow them to manumit them, on pain of forfeiture of their honour and their place in the itinerant connexion [sic].” In any state where slaveowners were forbidden by to law to grant slaves their freedom, the conference agreed that slaves were to be paid and, when the current slaveowner dies, to entrust the slaves to a new owner who would work to bring about their legal freedom. But just a few years later, he described how grieved he was at Methodists who would “hire out slaves at public places to the highest bidder, to cut, skin, and starve them…I will try if words can be like drawn swords, to pierce the hearts of the owners.”

Eventually, Asbury realized he was walking the proverbial razor’s edge. Offsetting his concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of slaves and free blacks was his concern that a strong abolitionist stance threatened to divide the church along northern and southern lines or drive southern preachers out of the connection. He soon realized that a strong abolitionist campaign would stir up bitter feelings and potentially destroy the church.

By 1809, his position had tempered considerably. He lamented the loss of “great numbers” because slave-owners kept their slaves away from the Methodists due to their abolitionist principles. This was where he famously noted, “would not an amelioration in the condition and treatment of slaves have produced more practical good to the poor Africans, than any attempt at their emancipation? The state of society, unhappily, does not admit of this.” Regrettably, this emphasis on care at the expense of freedom would be echoed by slavery sympathizers in the church across the next 100 years. Asbury never relented with his belief in the immorality of slavery, but in the end he adopted a less active and public pursuit of social reform. He shifted to focus on amelioration of the slaves’ condition. Like many other leaders of the day, Asbury was content to allow emancipation to wait until a later day, hoping the institution of slavery would eventually die out.

Pradaoxically, Asbury’s position represents a posture of embracing humanity. Caught in what was truthfully an impossible situation, Asbury sought to embrace the slaves and hold the church together. Although from a modern, evangelical, Christian perspective, Asbury’s softening on abolition can be rightly criticized, one must appreciate the real tensions and exigencies of the day even while not needing to justify Asbury’s decisions. The humanity Asbury sought to embrace was fractured, broken, and deeply flawed. To embrace the whole of his social reality, Asbury had to reach his arms around two sides of a great cultural chasm. In one sense, Asbury felt he could not fully give himself to one cause without losing his ministry to the other; to choose one over the other was fundamentally wrong.

Asbury’s compromise was to leave the political arguments to others. All along, his primary concern had been the wellbeing of slaves and blacks regardless of their legal status. Whether or not emancipation was to be the law of the land, Asbury sought to embrace and care for them. That he did not go far enough in pursuing their legal freedom is a matter of debate and historical judgment (he did not). That he worked within the confines of the legal boundaries of his time to embrace those who suffered injustice and oppression while working to hold the Methodist church together is beyond dispute. From his perspective, the price would have been the unity–and even the existence–of the Church, a price he was simply unwilling to pay.

Asbury’s record on the problem of slavery is not flawless—he could have done a number of things differently—but his fundamental motive and concern was for the entire spectrum of those in the church. In this regard, Asbury’s embrace of humanity, in spite of its many foibles, misjudgments, and misguided actions, is nonetheless one born of love and identification with his fellow men.

 

Excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership book

Excerpt from new Kenotic Leadership book

Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.

(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)


Francis Asbury: “It is for holiness my spirit mourns. I want to walk constantly before God without reproof.”

OBEDIENCE
The Christian life was a call to the complete yielding out of love to the call of God and a full, willing obedience to go where God led, no matter how hard the circumstance. This theological understanding was foundational to Asbury’s life. His motive for coming to America was “to live to God, and to bring others so to do.” Asbury believed that in carrying out the office of bishop the way he did, he was being faithful to the primitive vision of the apostolic office and to his own calling to serve in America. His sole object was the kingdom and church of God.

Asbury molded his life around a wholehearted pursuit of the sanctified life. This was his ultimate goal for himself, for his preachers, and for the Methodist movement. First and foremost, Asbury pursued a holy walk with God in his own life. His leadership rose out of his relationship with God. He sought to draw others in to what he had experienced.  The wholehearted embrace of holiness meant yielding his life totally to God.

Asbury’s theology shaped how he viewed the world, the Church, himself, and his followers. It gave rise to his attitudes, values, sense of purpose, and responses to others; governed his views of conflict, sacrifice, love, and ministry; and guided his decision-making, planning, and vision for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The theological paradigm of optimistic grace and free salvation for all, holiness, and sanctification forms the core of the mimetic value of obedience in Asbury’s leadership.

Return of the King: The Final Benediction, pt. 3

Return of the King: The Final Benediction, pt. 3

Previous Parts: 1 | 2

“In the breaking of bread, fellowship is restored
and the one that has denied, rejected, and fled
is invited once again into the participation of the divine life.”

The Meal

There they are, Peter and these weary, defeated disciples. Maybe in their minds, former disciples.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.

In these words, through the offering of a meal, the Savior offers the restoration of fellowship and human dignity. To quote the late great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Burning coals. Bread and fish. A meal together with Jesus.

We’ve been here before. Whether or not John the Gospel writer intended the symbolism, it is obvious and powerful.

  • Peter’s denial in the evening courtyard around the fire.
  • The miracle of supernatural provision in the feeding of five thousand.
  • The Passover meal in the Upper Room

That last Passover meal: maybe Peter’s last good memory of himself before it all fell apart. If that was the Last Supper, this is the Last Breakfast. And, as has every act of corporate communion since, there on that foggy beach, breakfast plays the role of the Eucharistic feast. In the breaking of bread, fellowship is restored and the one that has denied, rejected, and fled is invited once again into the participation of the divine life.

The Return of the King

There is a sense in which Peter’s redemption is incomplete until this moment. The resurrection itself remained a great mystery to these disciples. There hangs over the whole diorama here an air of bewilderment and confusion. Jesus is alive! The wonder, the awe – what does it mean? Who is he, an apparition? Thomas wonders. Even today, the resurrection by itself is incomplete without the appearance in the flesh of the risen Lord. It is not enough to us or to Him that He rose – He has come back to be with us.

Jesus didn’t merely rise. He returned. That changes everything.

He promises his disciples in the early hours just before his arrest: “I will not leave you alone!” He is not just alive but is living, walking, talking, loving, and eating with his disciples. Here Peter is restored to His teacher, lover and Lord. Thomas Oden has said that “nothing is more characteristic of the church’s essential identity and self-offering than bathing and feeding.” Every person needs a bath and a meal. Jesus, the Divine Word of God’s goodness to his world, offers a meal. What a picture of the divine Savior! John the Revelator, the one recounting this beautiful scene, speaks of this portrait of salvation in the form of Christ standing at the door and knocking. “And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Says Jesus to the humbled and shamed leader, to the rock of His church, “Come and have breakfast with me.”

Our salvation and redemption is ultimately to bring us into the joyful and very real presence of Jesus the Christ, Blessed Son of God, to share from His table, see his face, and converse with Him freely and without shame. For Peter, this is the prelude to Pentecost but it is the beginning again of his life. The direction and depth of his life is set on a new trajectory and we are the legacy of his obedience.

My Story

Fifty-two years of my own life’s history came together right here in this chapel a little over one week ago. In 1952, Gordon, a 37-year old dairy farmer and father of 6 heard the call of God in his own life and entered into the ministry. With his own hands he built the church building for the local congregation he began in their small Oklahoma farm town. Eight years later, Rev. W. Talmadge Johnson ordained Gordon as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

On a Friday night in 2004, I knelt at an altar and Dr. W. Talmadge Johnson — the son of the man who ordained my grandfather — laid his hands on my head, ordaining me as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene. As he stood before me and the entire congregation, he recounted for us his own memory of watching his father all those years ago bring my grandfather and his entire extended family into the church. As I listened, my mind was consumed with the words of the liturgy we had just spoken moments earlier, words that I could imagine my own father and his father before him having heard: “As a priest, you are to lead the people of God in worship, to administer the holy sacraments, and to be an instrument of God’s benediction in the church.”

More than five decades ago, my grandfather, Gordon Easley, heard those words coming to him, words of benediction, words of God’s good news. He responded with his life, family, and vocation and today I am a product of that legacy. In my own home, I am a priest raising up a fifth, perhaps sixth generation of men and women that know and follow God. That’s the power of the presence and the call of Jesus Christ in one life.

An instrument of God’s benediction: Vessels, conveyors, incarnate messengers of God’s goodness and freedom and redemption. People need to hear the good words of God, words of release, fulfillment, restoration and redemption. This is the climactic moment of the post-resurrection story, I believe. This account of Jesus’ appearance is unique; it is much more personal and conversational. In this story, the Word made Flesh is the bearer of the words of redemption and restoration. God’s redemption can never be detached from the person who brings it. Marhsall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” The Apostle John said, “The Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That divine Person who now lives among us is our hope of both the now and the yet to come.

Several years ago, my son Jacob and I stood by the graveside casket of my great-Aunt Thelma listening to the wind and the singing of the gathered mourners. I closed my eyes, felt the wind tugging at my hair, felt the warm grasp of a four year old’s little hand in mine, smelled the sweet mesquite and sage in the wind and thought of the goodness of that moment. There was real comfort and joy present right then. I could see it in the eyes and tears of my grandfather and his three siblings, all in their late 80’s – they all walked with Jesus and had for many, many years. The soaring strains of my father’s violin and the words of the hymn floated through the warm, prairie air, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!” The promise of hope, words of good news – words of benediction even in the face of death.

Jesus is God’s blessed Word of goodness to his world, a Benediction showing up as a person to people mired in the dismal and often disappointing patterns of life. His face, his actions, his words of invitation transform those circumstances and change us! We are likewise called, as men and women bearing the mantle of divine ordination as leaders to be vessels of God’s good words to His world. We see, hear, and follow, even as we invite others to see, hear, and follow us.

 

 

Francis Asbury and Kenotic Leadership

Francis Asbury and Kenotic Leadership

From an upcoming book chapter on the leadership of Francis Asbury I am working on for an anthology in Wesleyan leadership. The working title of the whole chapter is “Imitating Christ: The Leadership of Francis Asbury”. Francis Asbury’s leadership corresponds to a “mimetic model” of Christian leadership built around kenosis, servanthood, humility, embracing humanity, and obedience. This is a short section on kenosis.


 

KENOSIS

Phil. 2:6-7: “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”

The kenosis of Christ is a voluntary divestiture of the privileges of his divine office for the sake of overcoming the separation between God and man. In the hymn, the self-emptying of Christ climaxes in Christ’s death on the cross. Christian leaders who imitate Christ voluntarily pour themselves out in sacrifice to the ones they are called to lead. Few contemporary leaders embody a posture of self-sacrifice and self-emptying better than Asbury. “My soul thirsteth for holiness in myself and others,” Asbury’s journal records, “…if my whole body…could labor and suffer, they should freely be given up for God and for souls” (1:456).

circuitridersAsbury lived his entire life in monastic fashion, never taking more a modest annual salary. Aside from what was needed for his frugal expenses, he gave away most of what he received. He never had a regular home and owned only what little he could carry in saddlebags. “I will live and die a poor man,” he wrote in 1800. At his death, he had saved two thousand dollars, all of which he left to the church. Asbury held a dim view of preachers who sought to “show the effects [of wealth]…by lording it over their poorer neighbors and by securing to themselves all the offices of profit or honor” (1:577). In one episode illustrative of a constant habit, a group of preachers at a conference in Tennessee “were in want and could not suit themselves; so I parted with my watch, my coat, and my shirt” (2:517).

Within weeks of his arrival in America, Asbury concluded, “my brethren seem unwilling to leave the cities, but I think I will show them the way.” In a time when most clergy and their superiors confined themselves to the comforts of city life, Asbury did just the opposite, pursuing both the unreached and embracing the uncomfortable. Across forty five years of ministry, he rode on average five or six thousand miles a year across rugged terrain crossing the Appalachian mountains over sixty times on poor roads and through all kinds of weather. He quickly earned the trust of the preachers because they were never asked by him to go to places or endure hardship in going that he himself was not experiencing. He truly did “show them the way.”

Asbury viewed leadership in terms of suffering and sacrifice. He suffered from chronic health problems like asthma and rheumatism, as well as the effects of poor diet, lack of sleep, emotional distress, extreme physical exposure, and ill-informed medical treatments. As a result, Asbury was frequently violently ill or in great pain. But he saw suffering as a necessary part of the calling, so he doggedly pressed on, noting in his journal, “it is only on condition that we suffer with him, that we shall also reign with him.” (1:181). Asbury literally sacrificed his physical health for the sake of his calling and office.

Because of this self-sacrificing posture and the willingness to give himself so fully to the work no matter the cost, his contemporaries revered Asbury as the ultimate example of the Methodist circuit-riding preacher.

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