Courage to Follow, Courage to Lead

Shepherds in Ladakh(Creative Commons Image by Koshy Koshy on Flickr)

Few people thrive on conflict. Yet leadership can bring us face to face with it in unexpected moments. What motivates normal people to overcome fear when confronting potential controversy?

The sequence of passages from Acts leading from Easter to Pentecost narrates stories of individual and communal valor in the face of perilous opposition. Yet today’s churches often find themselves shrinking before conflict, taking refuge in acts of charity, but failing to take stands that can be perceived as political, failing to call leaders to lead and to call members to exercise citizenship.

As Anglican Martin Palmer has said, religious groups “own about 8% of the habitable land surface of the planet outright, and contribute to about 50% of schooling worldwide,” and claim about 85% of the world’s population among their adherents, and “are the third largest investment group in the world” and “produce more newspapers and magazines than the entire European Union.”1

These resources make religions extremely potent powerhouses for environmental change. Most importantly, it is religion that asks, and seeks to answer, questions of human values and purposes, that upholds ethical standards, and that calls the world to compassion. Religious groups have tremendous potential to influence their communities and even governments when it comes to reducing destructive environmental practices, especially when those practices create human injustices, such as unequal suffering from toxic waste or climate change related events.

But how do leaders find the necessary courage? Perhaps the stories in Acts offer some models, since a common thread among them is a sense of urgency and conviction great enough to overcome fear, as well as the presence of God’s Spirit strengthening human hearts:

  • Acts 2:14a, 36-41 (May 4): Peter is often criticized for his understandable cowardice on the night of Jesus’ arrest. But when the Holy Spirit fills him, he sets aside his fears and begins to speak with conviction to multitudes, as he had often seen Jesus doing.
  • Acts 7:42-47 (May 11): The growing community of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem relinquish security to share their possessions and devote themselves to this new gospel.
  • Acts 7:55-60 (May 18): Stephen dies courageously without denying this gospel.
  • Acts 17:22-31 (May 25): Paul begins reaching out to Gentiles, preaching of a shared creator God who lives beyond all human imagination, in whom, in fact, “we live and move and have our being.”

The four readings from 1 Peter all reinforce disciples’ need for, and access to, courage:

  • 1 Peter 1:17-23 (May 4) says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
  • 1 Peter 2:19-25 (May 11) lifts up Jesus as the example of endurance even in the midst of unjust suffering.
  • 1 Peter 2:2-10 (May 18), like the Psalm for the day, employs the metaphor of stones, calling the disciples “living stones” that are being “built into a spiritual house.”
  • 1 Peter 3:13-22 (May 25) reminds disciples that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”

While Acts and 1 Peter highlight courage, readings from Luke and John reinforce this theme by emphasizing Jesus’ continuing presence:

  • Luke 24:13-35 (May 4) shows Jesus revealed to two disciples as they break bread together.
  • John 10:1-10 (May 11) uses the extended metaphor of a shepherd with sheep to describe Jesus’ continuing care for disciples.
  • John 14:1-14 (May 18) reassures disciples of Jesus’ continuing presence, which is to be known through faith.
  • John 14:15-21 (May 25) assures disciples of the Spirit’s presence, and reminds them that they too have a responsibility to faithful service.

Psalm 23 (May 11), in six brief verses drawing images from the natural world (trusting sheep, green pastures, still waters, dark valleys), encapsulates God’s guiding presence that dispels fears. Other psalms highlight subtle themes from the natural world:

  • Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 (May 4) reinforces gratitude for the blessings of earth, asking,” What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?”
  • Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 (May 18) describes God as the psalmist’s rock of refuge.
  • Psalm 66:8-20 (May 25), reinforcing courage, compares humans to precious metal, saying, “You have been tried as silver is tried.”