Monday, April 30, 2012

Nonviolent Resurrected Jesus

On the night a squad of soldiers arrested him, Jesus mocked them, undaunted, asking if they were armed to the teeth to arrest him, an unarmed rabbi, as if he were a common thief. Ironically, the soldiers were not the only ones with swords. Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus’ disciples, the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his church, whipped out a sword and nicked off a bit of an ear—despite Jesus’ clear commandment that his disciples not carry weapons. Jesus cursed Peter: “Those who take up the sword die by the sword.” That night, Jesus once again refused to practice violence, even in self-defense.

“Those who take up the sword die by the sword” is one of the truest proverbs of Jesus. Both the victor and the vanquished must finally submit to the power of the sword. The sword we thought we were using to secure ourselves becomes our ultimate defeat.

As everybody knows, there is no way to get anything really important done without swords. That’s why we have the largest military budget of any nation in the world—to achieve security and then preemptively to spread peace and freedom everywhere. What war has been waged except from the very best of motives? To call Jesus a “Prince of Peace” is an oxymoron. A political leader who doesn’t make war when national security is threatened is no prince. And peace that is based on anything other than a balance of military power is inconceivable.

Thus, one of the most perennially confusing qualities of Jesus was his refusal of violence. “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer them your left cheek as well. Some Roman soldier commands, ‘Jew, carry my backpack a mile,’ take it one mile more. Pray for your enemies! Bless those who persecute you! Do not resist the evil one!” As if to underscore that his kingdom was “not from here,” Jesus healed the daughter of a despised Roman centurion. Was this any way to establish a new kingdom?

It would have been amazing enough if Jesus had said, “I always turn the other cheek when someone wrongs me,” or “I refuse to return violence when violence is done to me.” After all, Jesus is the Son of God, and we expect him to be nice. Unfortunately, Jesus commanded his disciples—us, those who presumed to follow him—to behave nonviolently. How do we get back at our enemies? “Love your enemies!” What are we to do when we are persecuted for following Jesus? “Pray for those who persecute you.” Thus, we have many instances in the New Testament of people violating and killing the followers of Jesus. But we have not one single instance of any of his followers defending themselves against violence, except for Peter’s inept, rebuked attempt at sword play.

This consistent, right to-the-end, to-the-point of-death nonviolence of Jesus has been that which Jesus’ followers have most attempted to modify. When it comes to violence in service of a good cause, we deeply wish Jesus had said otherwise. There are many rationales for the “just war,” or for self-defense, capital punishment, abortion, national security, or military strength. None of them, you will note, is able to make reference to Jesus or to the words or deeds of any of his first followers. You can argue that violence is sometimes effective, or justified by the circumstances, or a possible means to some better end, or practiced by every nation on the face of the earth—but you can’t drag Jesus into the argument with you. This has always been a source of annoyance and has provoked some fancy intellectual footwork on the part of those who desire to justify violence. Sorry, Jesus just won’t cooperate.

William H. Willimon
from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Call To Action

“Competent employees crave accountability; incompetent ones flee it,” writes one of our management consultants. I’m pleased that the North Alabama Conference, through the invention and use of our Dashboard, has pioneered a renewed culture of accountability. The spirit has caught on with the bishops’ Call to Action – a plan to build in accountability for mission into the life of our connection. Of course, like any innovation, the plan has its critics, most of whom see no need for increased accountability in our church [1].

Paul Nixon has become a very helpful coach to our pastors and churches who want to improve their mission engagement. Recently Paul published a piece on how measurement and accountability, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have motivated his own ministry.

- Will Willimon

I was sixteen years old, traveling with my church youth group in the New Mexico mountains: listening to an American missionary talk about his work in Korea. Blah, blah, blah the speaker went on. Calling us to action. It meant nothing to me. But it just so happened, as I zoned out from whatever he was talking about, that the Spirit of God started chattering in my soul. I experienced that night what my faith community confirmed to be a "call to ministry." I had no idea what I was getting into, but the sense of God's calling that began that night, has guided and motivated me now for more than 33 years….a Call burning in my soul.

So I have benchmarked my work constantly (and a bit ruthlessly) across the years. I cannot imagine not doing so! No bishop or DS asked me to do so. I did it because I believed the work mattered! Because I believed God demanded it!
In my first appointment out of seminary, as associate pastor to a suburban church, I decided in my first week on the job (the last week of June) that we needed to double the number of children's church school classes from 9 to 18. This would entail quadrupling the number of teachers by August. I convened a group that walked with me through the church membership roll, discussing each name, in terms of their potential to teach. I started calling with A, and secured my last teacher somewhere in the W's in early August. That year our church school attendance rose from 370 to over 500….
A few years later I was appointed to a church that was consistently taking in 200 new members a year. But I wanted 300. So I began to calculate, and to work a series of strategies that would kick that number over 300 within a couple years.
Some would say I was driven. Yeah, maybe... But I always took my day off, came home for dinner, played with my kid, and so forth. I just believed this work was really important - and so I kept careful score about key metrics that seemed connected to fulfillment of the mission. I constantly re-arranged my time to make sure that the most strategic things happened.

I now coach pastors. And I cannot count how many times in the past month I have gently but directly asked my pastors "How are you going to know you are making progress in the next six months? How will you know that you are on track in your mission?" Ultimately, they set benchmarks for themselves and I help them reach those goals. It is a ministry of accountability and encouragement. I believe in accountability.

I have learned over the years that accountability has very little to do with motivation, and that it rarely ever motivates a person to work harder. Pastors work hard because they are passionate about their work. That passion is almost always connected to their experience of God's call. It grows from within their soul.

My denomination is moving into a season of renewed accountability. Long past due! Some of our bishops now want a report card from their pastors every week. Maybe overkill, but a little accountability will not hurt The United Methodist Church.

What might hurt is the disappointment five years from now…, if we assume that accountability will produce the motivation now lacking. The motivation that produced the Book of Acts came from a place higher than the Council of Bishops.

If the United Methodist Call to Action yields anything, it may be because the bishops themselves take action to remove ineffective pastors from vital places of service when those persons persistently fail to grow their churches or meet reasonable benchmarks in changing community situations. If the Call to Action yields anything, it could be because conference leaders do what it takes to help their conferences recruit women and men passionate and competent for the work of growing the church….

To my friends in the episcopacy, thank you for caring about our church enough to call us to action - but now the church looks to you for action. When we see some $20,000 salary cuts begin to show up across the connection in response to pastoral ineffectiveness, that is when we will know you all were serious.

Hold us accountable!

Paul Nixon
The Epicenter Group

[1] For example, see the compromised

Monday, April 16, 2012

Following Jesus After Easter

I am still haunted by a long conversation I had with a man who was a member of one of my early congregations. He told me that one evening, returning from a night of poker with pals, he had a stunning vision of the presence of the risen Christ. Christ appeared to him undeniably, vividly.

Yet though this event shook him and stirred him deeply, in ten years he had never told anyone about it before he told me, his pastor. I pressed him on his silence. Was he embarrassed? Was he fearful that others would mock him or fail to believe that this had happened to him?

“No,” he explained, “the reason why I told no one was I was too afraid that it was true. And if it’s true that Jesus was really real, that he had come personally to me, what then? I’d have to change my whole life. I’d have to become some kind of radical or something. And I love my wife and family and was scared I’d have to change, to be somebody else, and destroy my family, if the vision was real.”

That conversation reminded me that there are all sorts of reasons for disbelieving the resurrection of crucified Jesus, reasons that have nothing to do with our being modern, scientific, critical people.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that a major reason for disbelieving in the truth of the resurrection is that, if the resurrection is true, then we cannot live as we previously have lived.  We must change or be out of step with the way the world really is.  If the world is not in the grip of death and death-dealers, how then shall we live?

William H. Willimon
-  from The Best of Will Willimon, (Abingdon Press, 2012)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


A student, asked to summarize the gospel in a few words, responded: in the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up. I’d add to this affirmation, Jesus doesn’t just show up; he shows up for us.

As the psalmist declared:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? If ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Ps 139:7-8)

I was visiting a man as he lay dying, his death only a couple of days away. I asked him there at the end what he was feeling. Was he fearful?

“Fear? No,” he responded, “I’m not fearful because of my faith in Jesus.”
“We all have hope that our future is in God’s hands,” I said, somewhat piously.
“Well, I’m not hopeful because of what I believe about the future,” he corrected me, “I’m hopeful because of what I’ve experienced in the past.”

I asked him to say more.

“I look back over my life, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times I’ve turned away from Jesus, gone my own way, strayed, and got lost. And time and again, he found a way to get to me, showed up and got me, looked for me when I wasn’t looking for him. I don’t think he’ll let something like my dying defeat his love for me.”

There was a man who understood Easter.

To the poor, struggling Corinthians, failing at being the church, backsliding, wandering, split apart, faithless, scandalously immoral, Paul preaches Easter. He reminds them that they are here, ekklesia, gathered and summoned by the return of the risen Christ. Earlier, God declared, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” That’s the story that, by the sheer grace of God, continues. That’s what this risen Savior does. He comes back—again and again—to the very ones (I’m talking about us!) who so betray and disappoint him. He appears to us, seeks us, finds, grabs us, embraces, holds on to us, commissions us to do his work. In returning to his disciples, the risen Christ makes each of us agents of Easter. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you” (John 20:21).

Will Willimon