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Becoming a Servant Who Leads

Lessons from the Desert.

 Dr John (Jack) K Cairns Jr

LUKE 4:1-15

Luke 4:1-15 “Jesus, for the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit into the desert, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “if you are the son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “it is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, where it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the Temple. “If you are the son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “it says: ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him until an opportune time. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. And he taught in their synagogues and everyone praised him.”’

Servants Who Lead

The 1st Temptation: To Be Relevant.

          “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” The Christian servant of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.

Henri Nouwen tells his story:

“After 20 years in the academic world as a teacher of pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality, I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, a community for mentally handicapped people.

So I went from teaching the best and brightest, those wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society. The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I felt I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, the books cannot impress them, and since most of them never went to school, my 20 years of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard did not provide an impressive introduction. All of my considerable ministerial experience proved even less valuable.  Once, when I offered some meat to one of the assistants during dinner, one of the handicapped men said to me, “Don’t give him meat. He doesn’t eat meat. He’s a Presbyterian!”

Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections and reputations could no longer be counted on. These broken, wounded and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self— the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things— and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable… I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the servants of the present are called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.”

The great message that we have to carry, as witnesses/minister’s of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us, not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love is the true source of all human life.

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: “turn these stones into bread.”

One of the main sufferings one may experience in the places of ministry is that of low self-esteem. Many servant ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but they do not see much change, what some may call fruit. Setting ‘being relevant’ as a priority will make competency the standard by which to gauge our potential, our worth. If by attempting to be relevant, we do not see outcomes that the world measures and declares to be successful; we can fall into a deep current of despair. It is at this point that many would give up and walk away.   Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we, as servants, look at ourselves through the lens of a seemingly self-confident society. It is here, in the tension of those moments, that the need for a new definition of kingdom servant-hood becomes clear.

Servants who lead, who dare to embrace their irrelevance, who do not rely upon their own understanding, who put no undue emphasis upon their gifts, talents and reputation, (just filthy rags) have the potential to overcome the temptation to promote an “I am/I can” self-image and become a surrendered vessel who is totally dependent upon the God’s Word and power.

Zechariah 9:9:  “Rejoice great”, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation; humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Our Response: Philippians 2:5-11   “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…”  “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.”

The 2nd Temptation: To Be Spectacular

“and he said to him, ‘… I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will be yours.”

Henri Nouwen:

“I was educated in a seminary that made me believe ministry was essentially an individual affair. I had to be well-trained and well-informed, and after six years of training and formation, I was considered well-equipped to preach, administer the ordinances, counsel, and run a church. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the necessary things to help the people I would meet along the way. Over the years, I came to realize that things are not as simple as that, but my basic individualistic approach to ministry did not change.

However, when living at L’Arche this individualism was radically challenged. There I was one of many people who tried to live faithfully with handicapped people and the fact that I was a minister was not a license to do things on my own.Suddenly everyone wanted to know my whereabouts from hour to hour, and every movement I made was subject to accountability. One member of the community was appointed to accompany me; a small group was formed to help me decide which invitations to accept and which to decline; and the question most asked by the handicap people with whom I lived was, “Are you home tonight Henri?”

Once, when I had left on a trip without saying goodbye to Trevor, one of the handicap people with whom I lived, the first phone call I received when I had reached my destination was from a tearful Trevor, saying,  “Henri, why did you leave us? We miss you so. Please come back.” I’ve learned how important the little things are and how much they mean to others and also how much they mean to me.”

The 2nd Temptation to which Jesus was exposed was precisely the temptation to do something spectacular, something that would win him great applause. Individualism can set a servant up to think of him or herself as deserving of the praise and gratitude offered from thankful congregants. We might give into the temptation to strive for significance through the spectacular efforts we accomplish; all when secretly boasting of our tireless work ethic and considerable human talents. For, after all, aren’t we called to do greater things than these?????

Diffusing this temptation through shared experience.

Jesus sent them out in twos. “Where two or three are gathered in my name.” “If two of you on earth agreed to ask anything at all…”

It is radically different when you travel alone than when you travel together. Together makes it almost impossible to be self-promoting, to take credit when the labor is shared.

Nouwen:

“In the past I always went alone. Now every time I am sent by the community to speak somewhere, the community tries to send me with a companion. Being with Bill is a concrete expression of the vision that we should not only live in community but also minister in community. Bill and I were sent by our community, and the conviction that the same Lord binds us together in love, will also reveal Himself to us and others as we walk together on the same road [journey].”

James 4:10  “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”

Our Response: John 3:30:  “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The 3rd Temptation: To Be Powerful

“The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the Temple. “If you are the son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Henri Nouwen:

“Let me tell you now about a third experience connected with my move from Harvard to L’Arche. It was clearly a move from leading to being led. Somehow I had come to believe that growing older and more mature meant that I would be increasingly able to offer leadership. In fact, I had grown more self-confident over the years. I felt I knew something and had the ability to express it and be heard. In that sense I felt more and more in control  (i.e. power). But when I entered my community, with mentally handicapped people and their assistants, all controls fell apart, and I came to realize that every hour, day, and month was full of surprises— often surprises I was least prepared for. When Bill agreed or disagreed with my sermons, he did not wait until after the service to tell me so! Logical ideas did not always receive logical responses. Often people responded from deep places in themselves, showing me that what I was saying or doing had little if anything to do with what/where they were living. When people have little intellectual capacity, they let their hearts— their loving hearts, their longing hearts— speak directly and often very unadorned. Without realizing it, the people I came to live with made me aware of the extent to which my leadership was still a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds. It took me a long time to feel safe in this unpredictable climate. But I am getting in touch with the message that leadership in ministry, for a large part, means to be a servant who leads.”

The third temptation of Jesus was the temptation of power. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible to a servant who leads? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of loving.  “For love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy it does not boast. It is not self-seeking it is not easily angered… it delights in the truth.” 1st Corinthians 13:4-5  Servants who do not share power cannot be love and love just so happens to be the chief defining characteristic of the God and Messiah whom we profess to serve.

2nd Corinthians 12:9a “but he said to me, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

 Our response: 2nd Corinthians 12:9b “…therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Excerpts taken from   Henri Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus. Reflections on Christian Leadership. (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company) 1989

 

 

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