Thursday, July 12, 2018

On Turning 30

At this point in my life there are many things I thought I would have been true of me by now. Some are thankfully/positively not true. For example, I still have a thick head of hair, which I expected to have been reduced to a polished cue given that both my grandfathers were bald before 30.

Others are lamentably/painfully not true. I would have thought that by now I would have been happily married. Only the Lord knows how long and how deeply I have desired to know and love the woman God has prepared me for and prepared for me. To know and love her not as a category, but as a uniquely beautiful whole person. To know and love her with all the lifelong, immersive vulnerability, physicality, and grace that God intends for those called to the true mutuality of marriage. To share a love that, as it participates in God’s own love and life-giving grace, overflows into the joy of creating new life as an expression of that love. But a love like this I have yet to find, a prayer I have yet to see answered.

As I enter my third decade, I would have thought that I would have a child or even children of my own. As the Lord knows, I have wanted to be a father since long before I even had the slightest idea of how children are made. I look forward to the day when I can kiss my children’s foreheads goodnight as I tuck them in and say “I love you” even if they seem to be sleeping as my father did for me every night after he got home from work (as an aside I am keenly aware of how greatly I have been blessed to have the father and mother I have, without whom I might have had much a more difficult time understanding and experiencing the rich love of God—Thanks Mama and Dad for all you’ve sacrificed to make my brief 30 years so richly blessed).

My fatherly disposition I have always had. In fact, I miss having children more visibly present at the service I attend at my church. I miss being able to express the simple love of listening to their excited stories and their truly insightful questions. I hope I have always had the same disposition towards them as Christ has: warm and keenly aware of their sacred worth—refusing to let them be viewed as an inconvenient distraction to “grown up things.” My Catholic friends might suggest this is rather reflective of my pastoral vocation, the mark of a man destined to love the lambs of God. But while I would never completely reject the fatherly dimension of pastoral and even theological work, Jesus’ words still ring in my heart “Call no one your father on earth, for there is [only] One, your Heavenly Father. And don’t be called teachers either, because your teacher is One, the Christ.” And now living the land of the Oxford don, the danger of the latter is just as glaring as the former.

I also thought that by age 30 I would be entering the last year of my doctoral studies, rather than the second-to-last, Lord willing. I mean, I suppose I’m actually not too far behind on that account, but even still I had hoped to be closer to finishing. However, I’m actually loving my DPhil experience, it almost feels like vacation sometimes, or a vacation with deadlines I guess. I am even thinking the unthinkable regularly now: the postdoctoral research fellowship.

I would have hoped that by now I would have been more instrumental in bringing the faith to the nations, in seeing many turn to find faith, hope, and love in Christ. As one who wants all the billions to know the joy, love, and vitality of knowing Christ as Lord and Saviour, it does grieve me know that most of those billions still have not tasted, seen, or perhaps even heard that the Lord Jesus is truly Good. Some might cynically suggest this is about some vapid ambition towards a glamourous ministry, preaching to the masses—some weird twisted longing to be the centre of attention, but the centre of my attention is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not that I long to be recognized but that I long for Christ to be recognized as the God and Saviour He is in and through me. After all, as John the Baptist said, “He must become greater, and I lesser.” The supreme joy of instrumentality is not that I am known, but that He is known. Thus, for as long as my instrumentality can be said to have been ineffective in this regard, the greater my longing for a participatory instrumentality by the Spirit in making Christ known in my life, actions, and love in such a way that He is desired to be known relationally and not solely as some intellectual, cultural curiosity from some dusty era evacuated of all contemporary significance. Anyways, the point is I would have hoped to have seen many more fellow lost sheep be found by the Shepherd of our souls and had some minimal participating role in that historical process.

I would have thought that at least in concrete earthly terms I would be able to say my pastoral work was more clearly fruitful. That when I left churches they were in better conditions than when I entered them. Alas, that is not the case. While certainly there were and still are amazing faithful people in all the churches I served, and while I did see some fruit from my labours, I have to admit that every church I served suffered upheavals or struggled against structural issues that limited their growth. Most people would measure success by how many people joined their church, but while I saw people join, I am still left measuring my “success” by how well I prepared them to face the challenges that were to come, not by which challenges I have seen them overcome. I am looking at how many God used me to send out, not how many God used me to keep. The truth is it would be easy to categorize my ministry from the outside as a failure.

So there it is: failure—simple, clear, and diverse in its claim. I’ve failed at finding love, having a family, progressing quickly in academia, sharing the good news, and pastoring churches, not to mention all the other things I don’t have space to mention that I would have thought would be true of me at age 30.


While one might say the only thing I have succeed at is failure, there is one thing I can say has been far more successful in my life than I could have ever dreamed: My Triune God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Despite all my failures, sins, and even outright rebellions, one thing has thankfully remained true: I know the true and living God and He knows me, because He never fails to make Himself ever more present, ever more real, ever more gracious, ever more faithful to me. At age 30, few people are given the grace to say in honesty: to die might be gain, but to live is Christ! I know Christ—crucified for my sins, and resurrected for my life!

I live acutely aware that not even the next breath is guaranteed, but at the same time I live gratefully into the guaranteed eternal breadth of life I have in Christ.

I am not perfect. Far, far, far, far, far, far from it. But I am perfectly loved. When I was a child I don’t remembering looking up to any of the Biblical figures as role models, just Jesus. He alone was King and Saviour, and I was too young see myself as anything but one of the precious children Jesus Christ would not let be kept from his loving embrace and the grace of His truth—and little has changed in many regards. Even still, as I grew and failed and became the man I am today, I came to identify more and more with two particular biblical figures.

As to my keenly theological, pastoral, and intercultural mind, I can’t help but to see some minor reflection of myself in Paul. Truly much of my days are consumed with theological reflections and pastoral affection for the global body of Christ. I think deeply and sarcasm is my native tongue—and if you don’t see how these are connected, please go read something of Paul’s. I am never satisfied with anything other than the growth of the global body of Christ.

But while I may think about the things Paul wrote, my personality and life pattern more accurately remind me of Peter. In fact, at this point, I am not sure there is any more characteristic interaction between me and Jesus than there was between Jesus and Peter at the Last Supper:

Jesus:   I’m going to wash your feet now Anthony.
Me:      NO WAY JESUS! I should be washing your feet.
Jesus:   If you don’t let Me wash your feet, you’ll have no part of Me.
Me:      Well, in that case, Jesus, give me a bath! Wash me from head to toe! Scrub me till my skin bleeds!
Jesus:  Take it down a notch, Anthony, you’ve already had a bath. Just the feet is enough.

*Some time later…Jesus is warning me to take heed lest I fall*

Me:      Jesus, I’d never DO THAT!
Me:      No, really, I would never do that. It’s an abomination to me!
Jesus:   Yeah, to Me too, but when you have I’ll wash your feet and you’ll be fully clean.

*insert some act of repulsive human foolishness*

Me:      Jesus, I can’t believe I did that. I don’t deserve any of your blessings. I’ve wrecked all you wanted to do with me. I’ve invalidated all your callings, promises, and grace to me.
Jesus:   Have you now? You’ve done all that?
Me:      Lord, you know, Paul and Peter have nothing on the putrid godlessness I just pulled! I am keenly aware of the consequences of evil. I’ve sinned and You discipline those You love.
Jesus:   Yeah, sure, but Anthony, do you love Me?
Me:      Of course, Lord, You know I love You. How could I not?
Jesus:   Then feed My lambs.
Anthony, do you love Me?
Me:      Lord, of course I love You. You know that.
Jesus:   Then shepherd my sheep.
            Anthony, do you love Me?
Me:      Lord, You know that I love you with all my heart!
Jesus:   Then feed my lambs.
Me:      O Lord, that I might love You as You have loved me!
Jesus:   Don’t worry, Anthony. You will. You will.

A Pauline mind with a Petrine heart pretty much sums up the whole of my life with the Triune God, really it sums up the last 30 years of my life quite well. I screw up more and worse than most, but I am given more and better grace than most.

I write these things knowing full well there is a certain heaviness about them, and that those who do not know me well will think I am languishing is some dismal hole of depression or disappointment. But if so, you have missed the hope of grace which is the true theme of this whole reflection. I feel deeply—oh yes—but faith, hope, and love are more fundamental to the laws of the universe than gravity. 30 years has given me access to such a perspective.

Consequently, I write these things, because it is appropriate at certain points in life to take count and consider what has been one’s life. I write these in the hope that they encourage others and that they provide a model for my brothers and sisters who themselves will come to a time of self-assessment, to a moment of recognition, to a season of waiting on grace. The timing and trajectory of God’s grace always operates according to a superior logic of perfect love than the frail logic of human rationality. Essentially, many things may turn out in ways we would not have predicted or chosen for ourselves, but all things turn out better than those predictions or expectations for those who love God and are called according to His gracious plan.

In 30 years-time, I may reflect again and think about all I failed to see become true of me in life, knowing mine is largely over. However, this one thing will remain true then as it has till now: the grace of God.

Therefore, this one thing I do, as I run the race of faith by the Spirit so as to win the prize for which I have been called heavenward in Christ Jesus: I press ever more fully—running with feet regularly washed by Christ—into the grace of my One and Only Heavenly Father. May I love Him as I have been loved by Him. May that love—mine and God’s—overflow to my family, to the body of Christ, and to the nations for whom Christ died.

Post Scriptum:
I want to especially also express my sincere thanks and love to my brother Christopher, who has had to forgive more than his fair share as a younger brother, and who I am very proud of and miss gaming everyday with more than he’ll ever know. And to my sister, Olivia, who will always be adorable and 7 years old in my mind, to her great chagrin, and who I hope will take my constant nudgings to move to Spain as an expression of my desire to have her closer to me. You both have made 28 and 23 years of the 30 much more fun and the next 30 years all the more desirable! I love you.

Mama and Dad, I am very grateful to you for all that you do and have done. Thank you especially for always pushing me academically and for supporting my call to ministry, despite how financially destitute it may leave me. Thank you for putting up with all my pickiness as child, and for all the freedom and responsibility you gave me in equal portions. Thank you for feeding, clothing, and housing me. Thank for all the love and affection as well. I love you.

And to all my friends, who in the scope of 30 years are far too many to name—though I am tempted to try—but without whom I would not be the man that I am today. Not only have you made life fun, but you have challenged, encouraged, rebuked, shamed, supported, prayed for, and humbled me. Thank you. I love you. And I look forward to being connected with you 30 years from now.

However, I simply must succumb to the temptation to name my friends who have been actively involved in my life for 20+ years: Paul and David Vinci with the rest of your family, and Jon Dennis with the rest of your family—we may not be technically related, but you and your families are my family too I love you all and look forward to looking back 30 years from now and reflecting on friends that endured half a century.

And lastly, though first in my heart, all thanks, praise, glory, honour, power, worship, allegiance, and love to my God and Father, and to my Saviour and King Jesus Christ, and to my Leader and Empowerer the Holy Spirit! Without You, my Triune God, I would be hopeless, lifeless, useless, and loveless! Knowing you IS eternal life, full stop. Thank you for 30 years! May I be granted at least 30 more for your glory and for tasting more of your goodness! Amen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

On Leadership: Overview and Leadership as Skill

It's been about 4-5 months since resigned from my church in Chicago to follow the Spirit to the University of Oxford to write my DPhil dissertation, currently titled "Stories the Church Lives By". And as much as I love both the calling and the process of fulfilling that calling, my pastoral soul is itching to preach as much as it is itching to lead. Not everyone is called to leadership, but as someone who is called to it, my bones yearn to lead someone, anyone, somewhere. 

Unfortunately, at least until I complete the necessary work to move to stage two of DPhil and open the doors for teaching in the fail, my bones will have to yearn on. But there must be some small balm for this itch, some tonic for my yearning bones. 

What is that tonic? the balm? The next series of posts. Over the next several posts, I will be exploring what leadership is, as well as more practically how to do it. Leadership, as much as it is a gift, it can also be a cultivated skill. As anyone who's ever tried it knows, it's not about mere knowledge, it's about wisdom. 

Series Overview
As true wisdom starts with some knowledge, and with some awareness of dangers (that is knowing that a cliff is high and present is not the same thing as knowing you're safer not roughhousing near one), this series will start with the Three Cores of Christian Leadership: Faith, Hope, and Love. After the question of what it means to be a leader is addressed, we can move to consider how to actually lead in more concrete situations. That section will address things like Psychological Dynamics, Social Dynamics, and Structural Dynamics. 

Leadership as Skill
Conspicuously absent will be the normal mission, vision, values, etc. that you can pick up in virtually any leadership book, popular-level or otherwise. That's not to say that mission, vision, values, etc. aren't important. They are. But they are well covered. That, and true leadership is always more complicated than mission, vision, and values. The reality is that mission, vision, values, etc. (hereafter MVVE) is a popularized leadership tool, not leadership itself, which is why many people, companies, and churches can have MVVE and still fail to have leadership. 

It's true you have to tell people what they are headed towards, how they are going to get there, and what kind of constraints or ethos they should have along the way. However, if all you do is throw this MVVE tool at people, probably all you're going to get is a bunch of people ducking out of the way so they don't get hit by the flying wrench through the air. A wrench has to be fit over the nut and used to either tighten or loosen the bolt. 

Likewise, if you fail to realize MVVE is just a tool and not the skill of leadership, you are likely to fall into the same trap as the old adage "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." And this is often the main problem when some people read some leadership book, or take some leadership workshop/seminar. They think they are going to get leadership, the skill, but really all they are get is leadership tools. So, because they have learned a leadership tool and not leadership itself, they go back to their respective leadership situations and start wielding their newfound tool as if it was the skill of leadership. 

This means, even if aspiring leaders go to a good workshop that gives them a bunch of tools, but fails to make it clear that's all they are, then they will go home and use the hammer, wrench, and screwdriver on things that require a saw or a drill. Have you ever tried to cut through a 2x4 with a hammer? Don't. You can beat the crap out of that board, but will you ever really be able to say that you cut it? Will you ever get the length and shape you were looking for? Maybe--probably not--but at what cost? As with the 2x4, there is a cost to using a leadership tools without leadership the skill--both for the leader and to the led. 

Leadership is a skill and not a tool, an art, not a technique. The most important things about leadership are not tools, like MVVE and others we will cover, but faith, hope, and love. This is because leadership is not about us as leaders, its about people as created in God's image and called to God's glory and purpose. Thus, leadership is about God and others, but only tangentally about leaders. 

Who is This Series For? 
To that end, many people--aspiring leaders of all kinds--should be able to benefit from these next few posts, whether pastors or not, whether Christians or not. However, I will be gearing my tone towards my fellow pastors, since they are ironically not always trained in leadership as skill and my heart goes out to them, and since theirs is the context that I know best. If you are a elder or deacon or some other kind of lay leader, it should be easy enough to translate things to your own set of responsibilities--and I probably will throw in some comments in your direction too. 

If you're a business leader or some kind of community leader, I think there will be plenty that you can gain as well, although not everything will translate--like I said, leadership is a skill and art, not a set of tools, so seek the skill of leadership and pick up any tool that looks helpful. 

If you're outside of the family of Christ, do join us in the discussion and don't let its Christiany-ness keep you from gaining something. Full warning though, Christians often view leadership very differently than those on the outside, but I think our version of leadership has a great chance at leading to large-scale human flourishing. Also, I might point out that Jesus was apparently so good at leadership, that 2000 years later the leaders He trained are still training new leaders, and we continue to learn much about leadership from Him. 

So let's venture together to discover what leadership is and to increase our skill in it. 

The next post will be On Leadership: Trusting in God and Entrusting to Others