Waking up from a medical procedure to the anxious faces of the medical team and my wife, when we had been told she wasn’t allowed in recovery because of residual COVID protocols, is – well I’m not entirely sure what it is. It was surprising, sobering, disconcerting, a little humorous, thought inducing, and eerie. There was no narration by Rod Serling. There was no sudden panic, on my part – I was out until revived.
“Raymond!” The voice was Greg, the nurse anesthetist. His was the first concerned look I was aware of.
One of the other nurse’s announced my blood pressure was returning to normal, a collective sigh of relief seemed to waft across the tented room, yet still the level of anxiety was palpable in the room.
The doctor explained that she had to abort the procedure midway because my blood pressure had fallen so low.
“Well,” I announced, “that should make me memorable.”
“We don’t like memorable,” Greg said, I was still looking at the doctor.
“How was your blood pressure through this?” I asked the doctor.
Her response was one word, “elevated!”
“Well,” I said, “I hope the rest of your day is boring.”
She appreciated the sentiment with a nod of agreement.
I was her first procedure that day.
The first thing to enter my head after this exchange, the team was still focused on my blood pressure and were darting about adjusting wires and stuff, was, “I’m still here.” I wasn’t surprised, nor did the thought have any particular drama in my head. It was just an observation.
I didn’t expect to be anywhere else, though I had noted that in the many lists of disclaimers, death was the last thing on the list. At the time I thought, “well there’s a sales pitch.”
So, I sat there, awake, feeling a little perturbed that my nice nap had been interrupted. I eagerly accepted the offer of juice. The doctor was going over all the events that unfolded while I was under, the faces were still quite concerned. I sucked on the juice box and thought, “this is – well, I’m not sure what this is, I’ll have to think about it.”
We checked out, I was given a ride to the car in a wheel chair by a nurse I encouraged to make the journey feel more like Mr. Toad’s wild ride – she ignored my suggestion. Once in the car Janice cried with relief, I held her hand. I still didn’t know how to categorize the experience.
I’m home, the question that has emerged is simple but contains a stronger sense of urgency. What do I want to leave behind for my children and grandchildren? I feel compelled, in a deeper way, to give them something to hold on to in life. Life is uncertain, it can be scary. It is always challenging. All of us exist after beating incredible odds just to be born – it is reported that scientists estimate the probability of any one of us being born is one in 400 trillion. (I think I will buy that lottery ticket.)
I want to invest my faith. But, I can’t. Faith can be modeled, it can be demonstrated, and communicated but no one can live by my faith. It is evident in looking at the matriarchs and patriarchs, for example, the faith of one’s mother or father has to transition, be experienced and be encountered for oneself. I live a faith in the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob….and now, Ray!
When I think about investing or communicating faith, I see it as a summons or invitation to engage a living God personally. To wrestle, as did Jacob, with the reality of the almighty. It is to question God’s work, as did the prophet Habakkuk, it is to agonize over the injustices of life like the prophet Micah, it is to question whether God is concerned at a personal level at all like the king, David. It is to ponder life’s meaning and purpose like Mary. And sometimes, it is to laugh at the absurdity life contains like Sarah.
I can explain my faith to my children and grandchildren, and I have. But I can’t magically invest my faith in them. I realize instead that I can testify to it. By that I mean I can share my experience with the mystery of God. I can demonstrate the phenomenology of faith that condensed into a creed cannot be contained in one.
So, this story is one more attempt to testify to my experience and awareness of the love, care, compassion, hope, and power I know in walking with God. There is nothing particularly dramatic in this story. It is another paragraph in an unfolding novel about one who encountered Jesus who rose from the dead. Read this story, debate its perspective. Analyze its argumentation. But, above all, I hope you see it is a consistent aspect of who I am, how I live, and it contains a still small voice that calls to you, “I love you.” It isn’t just my voice, there is a deeper voice, a timeless and incomprehensible one that speaks under, around, and through me. “I love you.” It is the voice of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Ray calling to you. “I love you.”
So what did I experience? I experienced another event in life when I was not forsaken, forgotten, dismissed, or minimized. I was, and am, loved – so are you!
We have been attending churches in Salem to find our new home church but also to familiarize ourselves with the tenor of the spiritual community here in Salem. A comment in this Sunday’s sermon at Brand X church with a history dating back to the Second Great Awakening caught my attention.
The speaker’s aside about his property taxes caught my attention. He noted two things. First, he had adopted gratitude over his taxes noting their distribution recognized his contribution to the community. Second, he made a rather odd statement, “I can control what I pay, but I have no control over how the money is spent.” Everyone in the audience chuckled. I was disappointed in the statement. Voting is the way we influence how our tax money is spent. It is the first step of stewardship with our form of government.
It seems to me that Evangelicals are often wimps when it comes to community engagement. There is a lot of bemoaning about the direction of the country, a longing for “family values,” a longing for a return to an unspecified period of greatness, and a rather odd lament that the church is facing horrendous persecution. Concerning the latter what passes for persecution here in the United States would be laughable except I know individuals in the global church who do face persecution, the risk of their lives for their faith. What we face here in the United States, i.e., people who disagree with us and who are at times hostile in their initial encounters with us, is not persecution it is social interaction.
For as long as I have been around the Evangelical world, the Evangelical church has suffered from social myopia. They simply cannot see what is right in front of them and hide behind platitudes, fear, and legislative sticks. In my first pastoral assignment, I remember being instructed by members of the congregation to steer clear of certain places in the city because people there were ready to persecute any Christian they happened upon like a cougar stalking unsuspecting deer. I went to those places in town, and I found people who were trying to live their lives, people who struggled to make sense of their experience, and people who had questions and wanted to engage those questions without having preconceived formulas framed as “answers” thrown at their situation. My conclusion then, and still today, is that enemies have no faces. Once you give face to an enemy it is much harder to reduce that person to an object of scornful suspicion. These alleged enemies transformed into names, Bill, Sue, Wally, and others I got to know.
On the one hand, Evangelicals act like they should dominate all political discussions and suppress any dissenting voices. This assumes that Evangelicals have comprehensive knowledge and experience in all matters of personal and public policy – they don’t. On the other hand, Evangelicals talk like they are victims of some large far-reaching leftist conspiracy – they aren’t. Perhaps a few lessons on how to be involved in our civic process would be in order. So, let me offer a couple of suggestions for engaging people who may hold opposing views.
First, approach your community with a commitment to service rather than dominance. If Jesus came to serve, and if Jesus commissioned us to fulfill his incarnational ministry, then it behooves us to be humble listeners. It can be difficult; I have been loudly told off for simply walking into a room. I remember volunteering to sit on a curriculum review committee at a local school district. I walked into the room, introduced myself, and was immediately cornered by an angry district employee. “I am sick,” he shouted at me just inches away from my face, “of you holier than thou Christians coming to these meetings to tell the rest of us how to live.”
He carried on with a few other raw emotive statements while the room stood awkwardly transfixed by his rant.
“I am not here as a Christian telling you how to live your life,” I began when he finally took a breath. “I am here as a father who has the best for my sons and the children of the district at heart. If you’d like me to take an antagonistic approach, I can mobilize the entire church community in a matter of hours, I can make calls that will plant television and radio media at your doorstep along with an army of demonstrators. Would you rather I contributed to making your next two weeks a media circus or may I participate as one voice, the voice of a father, a parent, or a volunteer, and work with you in designing a curriculum that will give our children the greatest opportunity for success?”
At this point an administrator had sided up to me, “The latter,” he interjected, “We appreciate you taking your time to work with us.”
What happened to the angry guy? He learned over the course of the next couple of hours that enemies have no faces. Once one gives a face to an enemy, they often become friends. He and I didn’t become great friends, we did, however, learn to appreciate each other’s point of view.
Second, get involved in the political process. It may be obvious, but the first level of involvement is voting. I shouldn’t have to list this but, as I learned in 2016, some Evangelicals are of the persuasion that not voting at all somehow makes their point that the system is broken. The only point this makes is that the person making this decision has elected to remove themselves from participating in democracy – ergo, they have no room to complain. Every candidate is flawed, just like everyone voting is flawed. In voting, read arguments for and against candidates and ballot measures. If you read Christian voting guides, then also read non-Christian voting guides. Why? Because we all have blind spots, we need to hear why opposing views exist.
In 2008 many Evangelicals in California supported Proposition 8, called the Same-Sex Marriage Ban Initiative. I was serving as part of a leadership team at a church in Southern California at the time. I was asked to support the bill and I refused. The vitriol I faced from good “Christians” was educational. “Let me tell you why I don’t support this bill,” I offered. “You claim to be making your decision to support Prop 8 based on biblical arguments regarding morality. More specifically you apply your biblical interpretation to society generally. Why? Paul is clear in his letter to the Corinthians that our to move the public to live a biblical morality, but the moral character of the church. What if Muslims wrote propositions based on the Quran? Would you support the adoption of Sharia law? Wouldn’t a pluralistic society be better served with broad guard rails that inhibited the loss of personal choice, or loss of property, or loss of opportunity, be a better approach?”
Every historical attempt to establish a theocratic government in church history has resulted in abysmal failure. We are not called to force “kingdom government” onto existing political/national structures. We are called to invite people into the love and transformative power of God modeled and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. We are called to be a new humanity (Ephesians 2:13-16). The ideal Paul outlines is highly attractive. The experience many have in being derided, ridiculed, insulted, diminished, and rejected by Evangelical norms is not.
Third, engage in discussions with opposing views, not rants, not proclamations, not truth claims, but discussions, i.e., a give and take of various views and perspectives. A discussion listens to understand, a rant listens for the opportunity to obliterate the opponent’s proposition. It is work to engage in discussions, emotions run high when our core beliefs are challenged. But here too Paul is helpful in getting us to recognize that our claim to truth must be carried humbly and open to critique because our perspectives are all limited and cloudy at best. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).
I once served as an administrative pastor for a congregation in Southern California. In chatting one day with our attorney, I made a bold proclamation about some subject. She looked at me curiously, “an interesting point,” she began. “Can you argue the other side?”
Her question left me stammering like a dunderheaded imbecile. Her smile grew and she graciously offered this sage advice, “If you cannot argue the other side, it is doubtful you fully understand your own.” She then peppered me with questions that demonstrated that my confident assertion did not have as solid a foundation as I first asserted. I thanked her for the great lesson, and we went on to have many discussions about faith and its impact on life.
As Christians, we claim to have a corner on truth, but the truth by its very nature is self-authenticating. Often the problem with our claim to truth is that we don’t allow it to demonstrate itself, we get in the way and pollute and diminish its impact in our own inconsistency of action and attitude. If we see through a glass darkly, it behooves us to allow what we think we know to be challenged.
Ultimately, I think it behooves us to see that we all live in a bubble of sorts that needs to be expanded. We need to see the community around us, hear their stories, endure the painful critique of our own failings as a Christian community, and fearlessly engage in discussions that allow our relationship with Jesus to shine as attractively as it is by nature. Sure, not everyone will engage, sure some with remain hostile. But, some will be gracefully drawn to the salvation you live and you will be surprisingly enriched by getting to know someone new.
Two of the most disappointing characteristics of evangelical engagement with the public square are the inability to listen and the pervasive tendency toward truncated single-issue harangues. For example, two issues predominately drive evangelical social engagement. First is the simplistic condemnation of abortion. Second is the condemnation of gay marriage or anything related to the LGBTQ+ community. In this article I address the Evangelical rhetoric about abortion.
“If you vote for a democrate you vote to kill babies.” This was the response of an acquaintance of mine when I challenged his single issue view of the last presidential election. He continued to question my faith and fidelity to Christ. With the emergence of the “culture war” mentality among evangelicals there began a decline in some Evangelicals ability to comprehensively address social issues. Evangelicals have always been at a handicap in social issues because of the emphasis on personal salvation and condemnation of so called “social gospel” perspectives. The distinction is not found in scripture, but it does emerge culturally as fundamentalists reacted to the emergence of modernity. Rhetoric on abortion that classifies all abortions as baby killing is sensational – but harmful and misleading. In the Evangelical rant there is no discussion of high-risk pregnancies, birth control access, screening and treatment for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases in rural areas that already face limited access to these services. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 50,000 people in the U.S. experience severe pregnancy complications yearly. Overall, Black people are about three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white people.
Factors contributing to high-risk pregnancies include preexisting health conditions, pregnancy-related health conditions, and lifestyle factors, including smoking, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and exposure to certain toxins. The social factors attending these in rural areas suggest that not all preexisting conditions are a matter of personal choice. The Rural Health Info Hub reports that income level, educational attainment, race/ethnicity, and health literacy all impact the ability of people to access health services and to meet their basic needs, such as clean water and safe housing, which are essential to staying healthy. Rural residents are more likely to experience some of the contributing social factors that impact health, such as poverty. The impact of these challenges can be compounded by the barriers already present in rural areas, such as limited public transportation options and fewer choices to acquire healthy food.
The point is that discussions about abortion are not simple; they are complex and include issues such as poverty, access to healthcare, economic development, and women’s healthcare. Abortion is not reducible to infanticide and to do so is to sweep contributing social and environmental factors neatly under the rug of deliberate ignorance. Simply saying that the desire to save babies is the panacea to all abortion concerns fails those who cannot access health care or who have faced the trauma of abandonment.
Until 1970, Evangelicals had no problem with the idea of abortion in part because the discussion had yet to become political fodder and in part because the Christian tradition has not always held the unborn to be persons. W.A. Criswell W.A. Crisell, president of the Southern Baptists, (1969-1970) commented on Roe v. Wade, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” While Criswell later reversed his position, his stated position was common among Evangelicals at the time. Many denominations opposed to abortion at least carried exceptions in cases of high-risk pregnancies where the life of the mother was threatened. But in the latest renditions of Evangelical rhetoric, concern for the mother is absent, awareness of the father is conveniently ignored, and women are awarded the status of non-persons.
Hence my rejection of the Evangelical argument against abortion. I see pro-life arguments as a strawman that avoids the awkward discussion of poverty, women’s health, racial bias, and access to healthcare that are closely related to Jesus’ ministry of bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom for the oppressed.
Already, antiabortion state legislation hasn’t saved babies as much as it has encouraged abortion providers pack up and leave states with bans. The unintended and/or unseen consequence is that providers take with them expertise in managing high-risk pregnancies as well as routine deliveries, particularly in less-populated areas, plus access to long-acting birth control and screening and treatment for cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
Similarly, medical students and medical residents avoid trainning in states where they can’t learn abortion techniques, which are often the same as care for miscarriages. In an already strained rural medical system these moves exacerbate the shortages of people trained to help patients give birth safely just as more people are being forced to carry pregnancies to term.
That is its own sub-myth — that the Plan B morning-after pill is the same as the abortion pill mifepristone. Plan B is a high dose of regular birth control that prevents ovulation but does not interrupt an existing pregnancy. Mifepristone ends a pregnancy if used in approximately the first 10 weeks.
And it’s not just pregnant women who are affected by the uncertainty. People with severe psoriasis, lupus and other autoimmune disorders are already reporting difficulty obtaining methotrexate, a first-line medication for those ailments that can also be used as an abortion medication.
So, what is my hope? I hope Evangelicals actually engage the related social issues around abortion, exercise awareness of the connected and needed medical procedures that reqire abortion, and engage the large issue of women’s health holistically, not as a culture war but as an expression of the hope of the gospel. I hope Evangelicals stop voting with a single issue myopia and begin to engage the complexities of social issues. Myoptic voting is not helping families – it is robbing them of health and wellness. It is time to move from “culture war” to being a redemptive influence.
Source: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22190-high-risk-pregnancy; Accessed 27 September 2022.
Source: https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/topics/social-determinants-of-health; Accessed 27 September 2022.
“There is no retirement in the Bible,” said yet another colleague when I announced I was retiring. I categorized the statement with other credulous truisms neither reflected in the scriptures nor the realities of aging, but which permeate the evangelical culture in which I predominately worked. I have always looked forward to retirement, in part my expectations were shaped by my dad, and other mentors who in retirement developed their mentoring, teaching, and relational skills. These mentors contributed to the development of others in retirement in ways they could not before retirement because of the demands on their time in the positions they held. My dad moved from a full-time professorship to pastoral ministry and adjunct work that had him working with young emerging professionals, prisoners, and other pastoral and lay leaders. Another mentor left the corporate world as an internal development coach/engineer to become a friend to pastoral leaders and a discipler of emerging professionals he found in his engagement with a local congregation.
Allow me to lay out two recurring themes in my reflection on retirement. First, what biblical foundations exist for shaping a healthy view of modern retirement and second, what developmental tasks do retirees face?
The modern Western concept of retirement isn’t found in scripture, nor is it possible in many developing contexts. However, transitions that come with aging are modeled in scripture for leaders and there are healthy and unhealthy examples. On the healthy side, I look to the instructions given to Levitical priests regarding temple service.
This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they[a] shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister[b] to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.” (Num. 8:24-26; ESV)
The reasons for the restriction of older priests from temple service allow for a release from the taxing physical labor of temple service. But it also codifies a continuous transition of leadership/service to a new generation of priests. God established a pipeline of multi-generational leaders. Many organizations could benefit from such a pipeline that captures the experience of its aging workforce and invests it in the emerging generations. Nothing in the text presumes older priests are ineffectual or irrelevant. There is an indication that their value as individuals and priests are celebrated in releasing them from the demands of the job while encouraging their ongoing participation in supporting an emerging generation.
The benefit of this forced transition stands in contrast to poor transitions of leadership also found in the Jewish Scriptures. The transition of Saul to David is a poignant case study of a transition poorly done. Yet, David apparently didn’t learn as much about transitions as he could have as the end of his reign is filled with unnecessary conflict and intrigue. When transitions away from active leadership do not occur in a healthy way conflict, relational damage, organizational dysfunction, and broken generational links often occur.
Is there a definitive developmental task for retiring leaders – or retirees generally speaking? One of my mentors, J. Robert Clinton, analyzed leadership transitions throughout their careers. He codified stages of development and the developmental tasks of those stages in his landmark book, Leadership Emergence Theory (1989). So, while reflecting on my retirement, I returned to his book to review what he said about retirement or what he calls “After Glow.” I was disappointed in the summary he offered, “honor God’s faithfulness.” My disappointment rests in the lack of specificity, not my disagreement with the general statement. To be fair, Clinton assumes that a leader builds upon each successive stage of development so that prior developmental tasks are not forgotten but become an indelible part of how a person addresses their career/calling.
In reflecting on my own experience, I identify four core development tasks in Afterglow.
Refine and define core life lessons. The initial shift in daily routine is shocking to every retiree I know, myself included. The move from direct responsibility for organizational and financial competitive health to the loss of power, prestige, and privilege inherent in leadership or a successful career is jolting. The jolt is amplified by the ageism of our culture that seems swift to relegate the retired to irrelevance. We live in a competitive society, business, jurisprudence, and governance all have a fundamentally adversarial (competitive) flavor. I include religious governance/service in this as we are not exempt from the cultural influence in which we live. The initial task then of retirement is how to conceptualize and then reproduce those life lessons that transcend the functional skills of leadership and the market in which we worked that helped us define purpose and meaning rather than mere success. This takes work since for many the formation of purpose and meaning was done on the fly and not always with a conscious enumeration. To the degree that purpose and meaning were consciously defined and conceptualized the initial stage of retirement seems less jolting because the transition to retirement is not a movement away from one’s primary contribution but a movement toward its undiluted and unfiltered expression.
Process disappointment and regret redemptively. I don’t know an honest person who hasn’t experienced disappointment in their expectations around their career nor some regret at things they would now approach differently. Processing disappointment and regret redemptively is rooted in the act of forgiveness. This includes forgiving others as well as giving/receiving forgiveness for oneself. We can process disappointment and regret because we are dynamic rather than static individuals. If retirement had no developmental tasks the exercise of deliberately defining disappointments and regrets would be an act of futility.
Exercise gratitude for a career well done. The power of gratitude is thoroughly documented. Being grateful for the successes, failures, relationships, resources, connections, and potential inherent in a life-long endeavor is an important transition exercise. Janice and I have had some fun doing this and have found that our perspective has shifted from past to future as we see an increasing sense of expectation commensurate to our gratitude. The nature of this expectation no longer frames itself in the sometimes-limited sense of our past (career growth, income, recognition, etc.), but has branched out to the recognition of the significance of friends, the contribution of experience, and the satisfaction of enjoying the fruit of our labor and the new relationships this enjoyment is generating. While many of our expectations about where we would go in our careers were radically assailed and changed by events, people, and circumstances well out of our control, hindsight gives us a wonderful perspective of the diversity and impact we have had on the lives we have encountered. Gratitude isn’t limited.
Be present. The steps of reflection and transition represented in the first three developmental tasks lead to the most exciting task, being present. As we have engaged in new avenues of endeavor including local and state government, clubs, a new city, grandchildren, neighbors, and new professionals in our orbit, we have found the most exciting task is simply being present where we are. It is amazing what doors of encouragement, coaching, and friendships. The only limit we have discovered to our current influence is the failure to actively engage in the developmental tasks of this stage of life.
Retirement isn’t a process of mothballing our existence or influence. Instead, it has become a means of amplifying our influence and our flourishing in life. We have found the promise of John 10:10 to be at work. There is a task retirement engages and the satisfaction of this stage is dependent upon whether one openly engages in that task.
 J. Robert Clinton. (1989) Leadership Emergence Theory: A Self-Study Manual For Analyzing the Development of a Christian Leader. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 313.
The New Year is a time I use to reflect and anticipate. This year offers both a familiar and unfamiliar journey for me. As I reflect on the past year, I have deep gratitude for friends with whom I have related, their help in keeping me honest in faith by asking questions and observing behaviors of which I am not conscious, sharpens me. I love the laughter inherent in a good friendship – the good-natured ribbing and unabashed love encourage me. I am thankful for colleagues with whom I serve who have promoted my abilities and offered opportunities for me to further develop my skills as a leader. I am deeply enamored and thankful for Janice who walks with me in my most vulnerable times and helps me gather my angst, fear, and concern to the feet of Jesus. All of this is familiar to me and each year I am amazed at the number of experiences and relationships that have influenced and encouraged me.
The unfamiliar aspect of this year emanates from a sense of uncertainty. The post-COVID world is unfamiliar to me, I am left feeling like the scenery is familiar, but the compass directions have all changed. It is not unlike the feeling I had on my first visit to China when I could not find anyone who spoke English and I had to navigate a plane change in an unfamiliar international airport. Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret capture my sense of disorientation in describing the impact of COVID as a great reset of our economy, social order, geopolitical order, technology, industry, mental health, and view of humanity.
Schwab and Malleret define my sense of disorientation by pointing out that the speed with which things have changed can be baffling to our ability to assess both challenges and opportunities. I have more information and analysis than ever before and less time to decide. As I look toward 2023, I see more opportunities and greater challenges than I can wrap my brain around. At times, I just want to retreat to a cave, with a fire, a cup of coffee, and a good book.
While the new year trudges irrepressibly at me I hear the invitation of Jesus, “follow me.” In past years I mapped out concrete plans and strategies replete with key performance indicators and defined milestones. And, I have some of them for 2023 – I am myself after all. But the invitation Jesus gives comforts me. I don’t know the ultimate direction of the next year, Jesus does. And so, I accept Jesus’ invitation. I am invested in doing the work of God’s kingdom. I am expectant, I am humbled, I am comforted. And I give a similar invitation to those around me, let’s follow Jesus, let’s do the work of the kingdom not just in word but in action. Let’s be the healing, comforting, and delivering presence of God to one another and the world around us. Happy New Year!
As I prepare to officiate another family funeral, I am reminded of something I once wrote to my daughter about grief.
It is never enough…I grieve losses too, sometimes even after decades. A passing thought, a memory, a place, a smell, a song. Each of these triggers a surge of sorrow – now perhaps not as convulsive (the intensity has waned but not the depth). Grief I once thought of as a fearful specter to be avoided, now has become an intimate counselor. Grief reminds me to be present, to be engaged, to appreciate the mundane and seemingly uneventful things in life that make up my humanity. Grief is a counselor not a friend; when I see grief approach, I don’t rejoice, I look a full look and sigh a deep sigh, but I don’t run, I sit with grief and listen to its questions, and it’s reminders to live fully – in all my emotions. So, at times I weep, sometimes I sigh, sometimes I say I don’t want to converse. Grief intrudes nonetheless, and I learn. Always though, as grief departs my friend, comfort arrives in a quiet, burden-lifting way. Thank you, comfort, for following up on my sessions with grief. I see more clearly through the tears. I feel more deeply through the sighs. I am here; they are not. I cannot change this, but I am changed by this – still.
Janice Ellen Wheeler, May 27, 1935 – March 14, 2022.
My brother called on March 14, I answered, he paused, then slowly enunciated, mom has died. He shared the few details he had, she hadn’t shown up for their weekly breakfast meeting, he asked her apartment to do a wellness check and that’s when they found she had died. Mom is no longer here.
The announcement of death is, in my experience, always a gut punch. My brothers and I all live a vibrant faith in Jesus, we revel in the hope of the resurrection. Mom was a model of faith, love, and hope. Still, death creates a void in the present. We knew mom’s health was fragile. We knew the two years of COVID isolation and restrictions were wearing on her. We were working to get her more help in cleaning and monitoring her health. We were calling more, picking her up for visits, and talking with one another to ensure she was not isolated from us. And that is part of the void of death – she is not here anymore. Faith never exempts one from experiencing life. Faith provides that anchor and stamina needed to engage, endure, survive, and thrive. Faith moves us toward healing in the face of pain, deliverance in the face of oppression, and hope and comfort in the face of loss and cynicism. Mom is no longer here.
I saw in my mom’s eyes the reflection of hopes and dreams for a family. I saw patience and a commitment to Christ that is personal and real. I saw sensitivity to others and commitment to excellence and a job well done.
Mom’s eyes shone with the reflection of generations living out the hope, faith, and love that have carried and sustained her in trial and triumph, conquest and defeat, and contentment and loss.
These things made her special to me. She was a woman of many talents. She was excellent in her pursuits and vibrant as a woman of faith and ministry. She was a wife of commitment and deep abiding love. She was a co-laborer of many and a healer of broken lives. She set captives free with her warmth and belief that Christ liberates any who will come to him.
But for me, she was my first healer of wounds, comfort in trauma, model of grace and strength. When you see me, I hope I reflect these characteristics of my mom. I love you mom and I am proud to call you this dearest and cherished of names – my mom. I miss you.
I said in Part 1 that the assumptions we carry into exegetical work influence how we frame our understanding of Scripture. When the assumed model of prophetic ministry articulates its metaphors from Israel’s kingdom period, one’s language and demeanor may trend to dominionist illustrations and proclamations. Conversely, framing prophetic ministry from the premise of being aliens and strangers tends to use differences as a starting point for dialogue and the demonstration of God’s intervening love.
I am intrigued by seeing how prophetic ministry works holistically for the well-being of the context. In reading through the life of Elisha this week, the diversity of social settings and situations he addressed caught my attention. The categories of influence may correlate to the seven social spheres of power, but the record provides its own, and at times, more compelling, classifications of prophetic ministry.
Defining reliable and valid prophetic ministry requires defining what I mean by prophetic. Often the word, prophetic brings to mind fortune-telling or magical incantations. In contrast, what I mean by prophetic are actions and statements that give insight into God’s nature and intention. Bobby Clinton’s definition of prophecy is a helpful starting point.
Prophecy is the capacity to deliver truth (in a public way) either of a predictive nature or as a situational word from God to correct by exhorting, edifying, or consoling people or to convince non-believers of God’s truth. The central thrust is to provide correction or perspective on a situation.
In my view, the impact of valid and reliable prophetic ministry is critically needed today, which is why the function requires a model. Modeled behaviors are mentoring and discerning behaviors. Models help us recognize patterns and scope. Models are like a road sign encouraging us on the path of discovery and practice.
I find Elisha to be a compelling and holistic model of prophetic ministry. What are the traits of an effective and holistic prophetic ministry? As I outline these characteristics, it occurs to me that some do not make much sense to us who live in privilege in the west. However, these characteristics are profoundly relevant and comforting for friends of mine who live under corrupt regimes,or in the middle of war zones, or in neighborhoods under the thumb of oppressive gangs.
Healed the environment. I’m intrigued by this. The men of Jerico expressed their concern to Elisha about the bad water in the area. It limited the potential of their otherwise pleasant situation. Elisha prophesied healing to the water. (2 Kings 2:19-22) Environmental issues about today. Entire neighborhoods languish with both pollution and crumbling infrastructure. God cares about ecological issues recognizing that cities cannot thrive in environmental hindrances. Prophetic ministry understands that one impediment to hearing the good news of Jesus is the struggle to survive.
Castigated intimidation, violence, and incivility. This text exposes our frame of reference in a unique way. The text is troubling for the severity of its consequences if, like me, you grew up in the relative safety of the suburbs here in the United States. My initial picture of these children accosting Elisha with name-calling is that of a group of cub scouts who escaped the supervision of their den mother. If on the other hand you have grown up in neighborhoods ruled by gang violence this text is profoundly comforting. These children and youth accosted Elisha with intimidating insults (translations don’t give it justice). They followed Elisha out of the city to a more remote part of the road to intimidate and bully him with jeering threats. (2 Kings 2:23-25) That he responds by acknowledging their insignificance to him (a possible understanding of the word “small” in the text) is the prelude to his dismissing their threats by an appeal to the power of God. Their incivility and intimidation met with the harshest consequences. In his response, Elisha elevated the value of others who exist in the image of God. Prophetic ministry stands opposed to the tyranny of threats and intimidation that seek to rob people of their dignity and freedom.
Spoke truth to power. Speaking truth to power has two aspects; encouragement and dissent. In the ministry of Elisha we see both. When the King of Israel faced the insurrection of a vassal state, he enlisted the King of Judah to help him squelch the rebellion. Jehosaphat, King of Judah, asked the council of Elisha before entering the battle. Elijah affirmed that the combined armies would gain victory. (2 Kings 3:12-27) Elisha’s encouragement of Jehosaphat points to the need leaders have for an outside voice in the face of threats and challenges for perspective. However, the story ends in the devastation of the enemy’s land and a child sacrifice made by the enemies of Israel to thwart their attack. The disgust engendered by this desperate act sent the armies of Israel packing. I take the story as a warning – even good council may bring about unintended results with devastating consequences. The text doesn’t take these consequences up. The political arena’s power, ambition, and compromise predictably distort outcomes. Before his death, Elisha was visited by king Joash. Elisha challenged Joash to act out the victory God intended to give him over the Syrian threat he faced. Joash met with Elisha’s dissent when Joash failed to carry through on the exercise. (2 Kings 13:14-19) Elisha also demonstrates dissent in obeying God in sending an envoy to anoint Jehu king – an act that God used to complete the judgment on the house of Ahab for his rebellion to God. (2Kings9:1-13). It seems obvious, but what Elisha predicted in each of these encounters happened – fulfilled predictions also validate prophetic ministry.
Meet physical needs. Food, health, and housing were all addressed by Elisha in the power of God. Elisha decontaminated a poisoned stew in 2 Kings 4:38-41. He meets a widow’s housing needs by providing her with a miraculous means of revenue in 2 Kings 4:1-7. He healed a leprous foreigner in 2 Kings 5:1-16. As a result of these actions of divine provision, people experienced the reality of God’s presence and love. Valid prophetic ministry often works among the poor and marginalized. Note that the subject of these miraculous acts included a single-parent family, foreigners, and a religious community, groups often unseen by social power.
Acted on emotional needs. One of the most touching stories from the life of Elisha to me is the Shunammite woman who, with her husband, served as a recurring host to Elisha’s visits. When he asked her what she would like in return for her hospitality Elisha’s servant pointed out that the couple was childless. 2Kings 4:1-17. Elisha prophesied she would have a son. She did have a son who then died in his preadolescent years. The woman was devasted and called for Elisha to come to raise her son from the dead – Elisha did. (2Kings 4:18-37) The event touches me because I have sat with numerous couples as they lamented their inability to have children. The grief is profound. Elisha saw God’s great compassion for this woman and acted on it. Later, Elisha warned her to flee the area about to enter a time of famine. She did, and her family survived the famine and later had all their property restored. (2 Kings 8:1-6)
Affirmed healthy social interaction. Elisha was with a group of prophets gathering lumber to expand their facility. One of the men used a borrowed ax. In work, the ax head loosened from the handle and flew into the Jordon River. The young man became distraught at losing a borrowed ax. As a result of Elisha’s intervention, the iron head floated back to the man on the water. (2 Kings 6:1-7) The respect for property ownership and the relationship that allowed the young man to borrow the ax resulted in a miraculous encounter. We aren’t told what the relationship of the ax owner was to the sons of the prophets. But we see that the relationship was meaningful enough for God to act through Elisha to save it.
Confronted conflicts of interest. Following the healing of Naaman, the leper Elisha turned down Naaman’s offer for a reward. This didn’t keep Gehazi (Elisha’s valet) from pursuing Naaman to take the reward for himself in the false premise that Elisha had sent him for the tip to give it to two needy prophets. (2 Kings 5:20-27) Gehazi violated his position of trust by manipulating the power of Elisha’s reputation. Elisha confronted Gehazi for his action, and as a consequence of Gehazi’s abuse of power, he fell ill with leprosy. Elisha made his ethical stand clear and refused to tolerate any compromise or receive gratuitous rewards due to God’s work.
Exposed maleficent intentions. The king of Syria intended to defeat Israel. (2 Kings 6:8-14) However, every strategy the king of Syria formed with his servant was revealed to Elisha by God. Elisha then forewarned the king of Israel, who escaped more than one entrapment. Politics and posturing exist in every group of people and make for strange bedfellows. In this case, prophetic ministry exposed such posturing and made way for the king of Israel to escape disaster.
Reinforced the humanity of enemies. The Syrian invasion forestalled by Elisha’s prophetic insight into Syria’s strategies angered the Syrian king to the point he repositioned his strategy to capture Elisha. The king sent troops to Dothan to surround the city and eliminate Elisha. (2 Kings 6:11-23) When Elisha’s servant Gehazi saw the Syrian troops, he panicked, Elisha prayed, and Gehazi could then see the armies of God surrounding the Syrian forces. Elisha then asked God to blind the Syrian troops. Blind and unable to fight, Elisha led the Syrians to Samaria and then prayed God would open their eyes. The Syrians saw that they were defenseless in the capital of their enemy. Elisha fed them and sent them home rather than kill them, as the king of Israel wanted to do. What does this unique event suggest about prophetic ministry? Prophetic ministry does not minimize threat but exercises mercy on the defenseless, forgiveness toward enemies, and reinforces the humanity of others.
If the characteristics of Elisha’s ministry are generalizable, which I think they are, then behaviors that contradict these traits are susceptible to censure. To illustrate contradictions, I reviewed news stories and websites that express the opposite of Elisha’s work. I reject those claims to prophetic ministry that behaviorally contradict the traits of valid and reliable prophetic ministry.
What does give one pause, however, is the unwillingness on the part of so many evangelical Christians to condemn abuse when it does occur. (cf., https://reformedjournal.com/evangelicals-lets-talk-about-violence-against-women/). When Evangelicals ignore gang violence or excuse it as an inherent trait of minority populations a contradiction emerges.
Everything you feel in evangelical circles must be filtered through the right words and expressions. For example, you can talk about your feelings, but can’t show them. You can admit you’ve been going through “struggles,” but can’t break down and sob or have a panic attack or say, “life sucks.” (cf., https://www.theodysseyonline.com/evangelicals-emotional-labor).
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners defines fraud as “any intentional or deliberate act to deprive another of property or money by guile, deception or other unfair means.” Many Christians would be surprised and disappointed to learn that such behavior was occurring in their church or favorite ministry. (cf., https://www.ecfa.org/Content/Fraud-in-Ministries-Real-Examples-and-Red-Flags).
Rhetoric that stereotypes to incite fear and reaction, e.g., language referring to liberals, LGBTQ community, Islam, the poor, etc. Christians have too often opted for a harsh approach to interacting with public communities. How can we get back to the concept of honoring everyone, regardless of their status or religious and cultural perspectives? (cf., https://cct.biola.edu/church-incivility-happened-honoring-everyone/).
To conclude, I love the longing of Moses when told two of the 70 elders he appointed were not present at the commissioning meeting but were nonetheless prophesying. Joshua wanted Moses to stop them. However, Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”
 Dr. J. Robert Clinton and Dr. Richard W. Clinton. Unlocking Your Giftedness: what leaders need to know to develop themselves and others. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1998.
If you are unfamiliar with the current “prophetic” trends in Charismatic/Pentecostal churches and nonprofit organizations, this article may not register as relevant. Thank you for checking in, and please watch for future articles about leadership if that is the case.
However, if you are part of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement, I’d like to observe the work of Biblical prophets as a model for seeking the well-being of our cities. Suppose you have been troubled by prophets in the news, predicting, prognosticating, backtracking, and doubling down about the last presidential election. In that case, I may confirm your concerns and offer a practical model to serve our broken world. This article may not sit well if you follow the latest “prophetic” assertions. But, I ask that you give me a chance to spell out valid and reliable prophetic ministry characteristics.
My thesis is that the work of Elisha the prophet provides a compelling and holistic compendium of a valid and reliable prophetic ministry. Elisha’s ministry focused on the well-being of others and reconciliation with God. He functioned within the covenant community of Israel and operated in what Ralph Winter called a centripetal mission focus, meaning God drew the nations to Israel to encounter God. In contrast, our centrifugal mission is sent to the nations to bring an encounter with the redeeming work of God. So, the holistic approach of Elisha is all the more significant as we move into new contexts.
Corollary 1, Jesus and the New Testament define their relationship to the world around metaphorically them from the context of the exilic period using descriptors such as pilgrims and strangers (cf., Jeremiah 29:7 and Hebrews 11:13 and 1 Peter 2:11). Jesus never assumes a socially dominant strategy. He employs a servant strategy rooted in seeking the welfare of others. He talks about dominion applied to exercising authority over the demonic and disease (cf., Luke 10:19). In contrast, today’s “prophetic movement” among Pentecostals/Charismatics found their definitions of social interaction on the word “dominion” from the context of Genesis 1:27. Their metaphorical imagery draws from Israel’s kingdom period. In the context of Israel’s kingdom period, dominion equates to subjugating those outside the “kingdom” and inviting them to conform to godliness.
Corollary 2, using imagery from Israel’s exilic period, focuses on the city’s welfare (Jeremiah 29:7), resulting in a definitively different agenda for action than seeking to control (dominate) the city and its systems of religion, governance, education, media and entertainment, healthcare, family, and business. The focus on the city’s welfare is an extrapolation of the Abrahamic covenant of blessing.
Because in today’s Charismatic/Pentecostal movement it is vogue to talk about dominion theology, I feel compelled to set out my contrary assumptions. Dominion theology undergirds the suppositions of some individuals covered in the media. “Seven Mountains of Influence” also undergird the assumptions of some individuals covered in the media. The two perspectives sometimes conflate into one frame of reference. What are they?
Dominion theology asserts that the first coming of Christ has restored dominion over every area of life. Therefore it is the task of the church to reclaim the rule of Christ on planet earth. For the Reconstructionist branch of dominion theology, this is accomplished through the ethical means of obeying the Word (Biblical law). The Charismatic branch teaches that dominion is achieved through the metaphysical means of confessing the Word. Thomas D. Ice of Liberty University notes that both branches believe that Christians take dominion over all humanity before Christ physically returns to planet earth.
Dominion theology founds its views the commission God gave Adam and Eve in Genesis (Genesis 1:27). However, Dominion theology misstates the Genesis commission in its focus on dominion over people and their systems—Genesis limited human dominion to the planet and animal kingdoms as stewardship of care. In what is the most overt twist of the meaning of dominion, George Grant (1987) wrote in Changing the Guard,
Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ-to have dominion in the civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less. If Jesus Christ is indeed Lord, as the Bible says, and if our commission is to bring the land into subjection to His Lordship, as the Bible says, then all our activities, all our witnessing, all our preaching, all our craftsmanship, all our stewardship, and all our political action will aim at nothing short of that sacred purpose.
Grant’s assertions are inaccurate. Our obligation is not dominion over people or the public square through the force of asserted prominence. Our obligation is to love others and to be the metaphorical salt that influences others. Jesus was clear in his discussion with Pilot that political dominance fell far short of the work he initiated – Jesus did not initiate a revolutionary political action in his death and resurrection but something far more reaching, cf., John 18:36. In advancing Jesus’ mission, Peter was clear that leaders must serve not to dominate, cf., 1 Peter 5:3. We possess authority and power over the demonic and diseases, cf., Luke 9:1. Our task is not conquest; our task is to deliver people from sin’s grasp and make disciples.
The concept of Seven Mountains or Spheres of social influence was framed in 1975 when Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade and Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission(YWAM), developed a strategy to reach the world for Christ. Their mandate: Bring Godly change to a nation by reaching its seven spheres, or mountains, of societal influence. They concluded that to transform any nation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, these seven facets of society must be reached: Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts & Entertainment, and Business. On its own, the Seven Mountain perspectives recognize those centers of influence in which the love of Christ makes a difference. It is an inspiring recognition that the church exists in and is called from every aspect of society.
However, popular practitioners of Seven Mountain thinking vilify their target audience and reframe shaping these centers of influence to dominating them. For example, one group writes,
The Christian Church is described in the Greek language as the ecclesia. Literally translated, the word ecclesia means “governing body.” Although we don’t condone theocracies, this translation suggests that the church should have great influence in all other spheres that make up a society.
Here too, I take issue with definitions. The rendering of the Greek word ecclesia above is suspect. The lexicon definition isn’t governance; instead, it is a gathering of citizens to deliberate. Deliberation denotes thinking about or discussing something very carefully to make a decision. Discussions are a discovery process, not an imposition process. Specifically, it is used in the New Testament to denote a meeting of Christians for worship. To infer governance stretches the definition to fit a dominionist perspective.
On its own, the observations of Bright and Cunningham can help Christians get out of the bubble of their Sunday services to see the work God is doing in the lives of people around them at work. But when the Seven Mountain perspective marries Dominion Theology, the message of good news about God’s love for humankind devolves to ugly sectarianism that is indistinguishable from any other form of sectarianism.
Christians who promote domination need to hear themselves. They decry the existence of dissenting voices. Decrying diversity isn’t limited to just other religious agents but every voice that doesn’t align with the speaker’s assumptions. It is impossible to differentiate Christian dominionist or fundamentalist speech from any other type of toxic fundamentalist speech that aims to conform society to sectarian norms.
Using the Seven Mountain perspective constructively recognizes that Christians already work in these areas and can use their social networks as a platform to share and demonstrate the love and power of God. Even seemingly inconsequential voices in these seven areas can make a significant and long-lasting change, as is illustrated in the impact a little girl enslaved in the house of Naaman had when she told him of the prophet in Israel who could heal his leprosy. (2 Kings 5:1-14)
Here again, I refer us back to the starting assumptions. Suppose the model of prophetic ministry frames its metaphors from Israel’s kingdom period. In that case, one’s language and demeanor may trend to dominionist illustrations and proclamations. Conversely, suppose prophetic ministry starts from the premise of being aliens and strangers. In that case, it tends to use differences as a starting point for dialogue and the demonstration of God’s intervening love. In Part 2, I discuss the significance of Elisha’s holistic ministry and what it may mean for prophets in the church today.
 Jeremiah’s strategy for survival and influence is surprisingly useful for the majority of Christians in the world who are minority populations, “But seekthewelfareofthecity where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7 ESV)