The 2×4 and the Feather

by Lisa Allgood, Executive Presbyter

A 2×4 and a feather walk into a… oh, wait, no, that’s not it…

A very good friend recently made a book recommendation to me, one that just issued its 25th Anniversary Edition (I find that those are often my favorites).  Kosuke Koyama, a John D. Rockefeller Professor Emeritus from Union Theological Seminary, wrote Water Buffalo Theology after spending 8 years teaching at a seminary in northern Thailand.

In one of the first chapters, Koyama writes “Theology must be pursued with the crucified mind, not with the crusading mind.”

Mind blown (as one young woman in my Confirmation class told me, after I’d quoted St. Francis: “Preach at all times; use words when necessary”).  Along with many others, that phrase stuck out to me – in fact, melted in to me. 

Much of the rest of the book details his insights on how to approach Westernized Christianity in the context of embedded Eastern culture, and Koyama tells story after story about how he – a Japanese male raised in New Jersey working as a theologian in Thailand – parsed through the cultural nuances to eventually arrive at the core enduring truths of Christianity.  It went the other way for him as well, as he later brought his own Eastern background and experiences into a New York City seminary classroom.

I taught Situational Leadership for 30+ years – still do, occasionally.  One of the first and foundational teachings of servant leadership is: Leadership isn’t about you. It’s about the person sitting across from you.

One of Koyama’s foundational insights is the same: Discipling isn’t about you.  It’s about the person sitting across from you.  Or the person in the meeting or pew or Bible study across from you.  In the same way, bringing people to Jesus – or Jesus to people – is about them.  It’s about where they’ve come from, where they are on their journey, and what they need from you at that moment in time that will move them and engage their hearts in the Jesus journey – not about what you feel they need or what you want to give them.  That’s more often than not about what you need on your timing (and about your training or acculturation). 

Scripture often shows Jesus’ feather touch. Yes, of course – He overturned tables at the temple and challenged the Pharisees; He used a 2×4 against the infrastructure.  But when He was teaching, He approached the people with a soft, quiet, humility; when leading them through stories they could relate to, He started where they were. He led them gently, over time, to an understanding about His Father and about His Father’s love.  Isaiah 42:3 says the Messiah would not break a “bruised reed” or snuff out a “smoldering wick”. Jesus Himself said: “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Paul reminded the early church: “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you” (2 Corinthians 10:1), and even how he himself treated those he was bringing to the Way: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).

Yes, Jesus told us to take care of the widow, the orphan, the marginalized.  He showed us how to do that, time after time, with His wisdom and a gentle approach. 

Per Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That can be preached, and lived, with a 2×4, or with a feather.

This is not about watering down or simplifying the Gospel.  It’s not about letting each person – including us – create our “own personal theology”. 

It’s about the core of why we exist as a church: to give the people Jesus, and an ongoing sustainable way to build Christ into the center of their own life – starting wherever they are. 

It’s intent vs. impact: you may intend your crusading message to be as soft as a breeze, but to an un-ready recipient it’s received as a 2×4.  (Or hammer.  Or cudgel.  Insert favorite blunt object here.)  To the ready recipient, a 2×4 might be the thing that takes them to an even higher level of activism.  But to the un-ready recipient, the 2×4 approach will feel like extremism.  It certainly won’t feel like understanding, or love.  That has two consequences – it will push some people too far, too fast, and they will tune you out and lose Jesus. And it can end up replacing the core work we are called to do: Love God – Love people – Make disciples – who will go out and Love God – Love people – and Make disciples.

Lao Tzu said: “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

In these last 15 months of people mixing up politics and science and religion and justice and masks and vaccines, opinion rules.  We can choose to be a 2×4 or a feather-soft still Spirit-driven voice of love and truth.  We can even do both (even better perhaps), but – not to the same people, and not all at once. 

It’s a lot harder to do the day-in, day-out work of discerning where the people around you are starting from, and making disciples of them in the way that will best reach them, and nurture them, and move them forward.  Which is what a leader does.

Christ at the Center.  Let’s find out together how to keep a foundational “crucified mind” as we set about His work.