This article appeared in the October 15, 2019 edition of the Center for Healthy Churches newsletter.
One of the Desert Fathers, St Anthony (251-356) said: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack that one and say, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’” We live in a time like the one Anthony envisioned. The air we breathe is clogged with madness, in both senses of that word: temporary (I hope) insanity and persistent anger.
These are troubled and troubling times: we live with tragedies of war, recalcitrant racism, stubborn sexism, senseless gun violence, and a suffering climate. We deal with frayed relationships and unraveled promises. Large numbers of people are bound by agonizing addictions, systemic poverty, and intractable trauma.
These struggles aren’t new. What feels distressingly different just now is a spreading erosion of conditions for addressing them: commitments to facts and truth, to the common good, to civility and mutual respect, and to compassion. In both political and congregational spheres, fear drives a disturbing number of Christians to embrace harsh, divisive, self-centered, and transactional leadership. Jesus’ way of peacemaking, humility, and transformation seems to too many of his followers like madness.
How do we practice Jesus-shaped leadership in times like these?
Wayne Oates once said that many of Jesus’ instructions aren’t only demands for how we should behave; they’re also descriptions of how we do behave. For example, Jesus commands his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself”—to extend to others the grace and mercy we hope to experience from them. First and foremost, it’s a commandment; but it’s also a description of how things are: over time, we tend to treat other people the way we treat ourselves. If we’re unaccepting and unforgiving of ourselves, it will be hard for us to be understanding and reconciling in our relationships with others. If we can extend respect and tenderness to ourselves, we’re more likely to offer them to others, too.
In Matthew 10, there’s another imperative of Jesus which we can also hear as an indicative: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops” (10:27). In this section of his gospel, Matthew’s speaks to the tension his readers felt during a time of madness. Some of them were like defenseless sheep among ravenous wolves (Matt. 10:16); they faced persecution, arrest and punishment (10:17, 23). Jesus encouraged them to “have no fear of those who oppose you” (10:26) and to remember that they were “of more value than many sparrows” (10:31). Jesus offered his friends a practice for living wisely amid the madness: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
Journalist Nat Hentoff said that Jo Jones, a great jazz drummer, had a “nearly religious feeling” in his gift for music, and he generously mentored younger players, especially about the importance of their calling to be musicians. One night, at the Savoy, Jones said to a protégée: “You’re a musician. Don’t ever forget that. You can do what very few other people can do. You can reach people, but to move them, you have to be all open. You have to let everything in you out. And you have to be in a condition to play what you hear.” [Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Life (NY: DeCapo Press, 1961/1975), 24.].
Jesus says something similar to us: You can move—lead—people; but not if you’re shut down by fear. Be open. Play what you hear. What you hear whispered, proclaim. Inevitably, that’s what we do: what we hear in the night finds its way into our daylight speech and actions.
What do we hear in the dark? Too often, the voices we hear in the dark are the voices of darkness—our fears, insecurities, guilt, and shame. Thankfully, we have some choices about what we hear; we can intentionally and regularly tune-in to God’s whispers of faith, hope, and love.
We can immerse ourselves in the songs of creation and hear anew about God’s beauty, grandeur, and abundance. Getting outside—of the office, of the house, and of ourselves—and getting inside the marvels of nature is a way of getting away from the madness.
We can ponder the scriptures, not for something to say to others, but for the healing truths God speaks to us though them: “You are my child. I love you. I delight in you. I forgive you. I will never leave you.” All around us—in the news, on social media, in anxious conversations, and in our hearts—the madness swirls. More than ever, we need to be still and know that God is God.