Heartfelt obedience?

If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will.


Matthew 21:23-32

None of us likes to be on the receiving end of direct orders. Even when the order comes from a legitimate authority, the moment the order is delivered, we bristle. Our autonomy – to do what we like when we like – is threatened.

Even in institutions which function by giving and following orders like the military, the wise officer only gives direct orders in the context of a shared mission: this order is for us, rather than for you.

We recognise in ourselves the two sons ordered to work in the vineyard. We too can say ‘Yes’ to an order and then work out how to get out of doing it. We too can say ‘No’, and then grudgingly turn to obedience. In our fear and timidity, we can also find a dozen other ways of passive-aggressive obedience or disobedience.

Jesus asks, ‘Which of the two did the will of the Father?’ (Matthew 21:31a) His listeners sided with the son who obeyed after initially refusing. But his was the ‘least worst’ option. Neither of the sons responded with a heartful ‘Yes’ and went out and diligently worked the vineyard. That would have been their father’s hope.

The father, the owner of this vineyard, got it wrong. God is not like this father. This father needs lessons in human resource management and parenting. Jesus is teaching a better way of leading than giving direct orders. If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will. This kind of authority neither the ‘chief priests [nor] the elders of the people’ (v. 23) could understand.

God generally does not give direct orders. God builds relationship and empathy. God invites and calls. God knows what we are like. God knows we trip over our autonomy when told what to do.  God always leaves us room for a free response.

We as Christian leaders can do better than the owner of this vineyard: we can lead by love and example, as Jesus did. People will respond according to the authenticity they see in us.

As Christian followers, our challenge is to discern God’s will and try to do it in heartfelt obedience.

Alan Blackwood: Builder of Men


Alan Blackwood is dead, and I salute my former house-master and colleague.

Boys nicknamed Alan “Hoont”, and it was a sort of joke that we all knew why. I never did. I always spelt it in my mind “Hund”, as in the German for “dog”, but that’s the last thing you’d call Mr Blackwood.

As a figure of authority – he was Deputy Headmaster for over 30 years – Alan Blackwood had an extraordinary sense of justice. He believed in corporal punishment and regularly handed out 4 or 6 lashes of the cane for serious offences, but boys rarely felt treated unfairly.

He was always for me an exemplar of manhood. Alan was a big man who held himself well with practised military bearing. He carried the mystique of having served in Special Forces during the war. He spoke less about this experience than Headmaster Peter Moyes, who was also reticent to describe his time in Z Force.

When I returned to the school, I worried about how he would receive me as a colleague. On my first day as chaplain, I called him “Mr Blackwood.” He surprised me with a warm smile. “It’s Alan,” he said, “now you call me Alan.” He turned out to be the easiest of colleagues, supportive, friendly and helpful. In particular on the five-man School Executive, Alan was the encourager, the man who could see how others’ vision could be put into action.

As his chaplain, I never really found out what Alan believed. I suspect he had seen things so horrible in the war, things that human beings should never see, that he had suspended his belief in God. But he also must have seen some special padres, and he held my office in high respect. He fought against measures to dilute the effects of Chapel-going. On the other hand, he did not disguise his contempt (in private, at least) for a chaplain colleague who was not, in his opinion, up to scratch.

Many Old Boys and staff were closer to Alan than I was. But I knew him as a decent, upright human being who loved Christ Church and showed many boys how to be men.

Francis – program notes


Program notes for the play Francis, presented by the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, November 21, 22, 23 and 24, by Julian Mitchell and directed by Drew Stocker tssf.

By Ted Witham tssf

Poster for the play “Francis”

Saint Francis of Assisi became a leader by giving power away. Francis Bernadone was born in 1181 or 1182 and grew up in a wealthy merchant’s house. As a teenager, he became a leader of wild parties through the streets of Assisi. He was known as ‘The King of the Revels’, and used his money to attract friends.

Like all young men in Assisi, Francis chose to join in the little wars the town fought – for the Emperor (against the Pope) and against the neighbouring hill-town of Perugia. After one battle Francis was taken prisoner in a dark prison in Perugia. Having a wealthy father meant that he was held for ransom.  It took a year to negotiate a price for his release. He began to realise that even with money he couldn’t have what he wanted when he wanted.

After his release he bought a knighthood to fight in the crusades. Instead of a glorious tour in Palestine, Francis returned home sick. In a vision God showed him that he didn’t want him to be a knight, so he gave away his lavish armour.

Everywhere around him, Francis could see people fighting: fighting to keep their possessions and power. Assisi had always been a barter economy, but now, as Francis grew to manhood, it was becoming a greedy money economy. Instead of giving each other life’s necessities, the people of Assisi began to amass cash. The division between the privileged and the poor grew rapidly.

Francis saw a solution to this greed. All people should treat each other as members of their family. Instead of grabbing resources for themselves, they should share with their brothers and sisters what they had. Francis started a community of those who would follow this way. He dreamed of a new world where people gave everything away to each other, so all would be equally rich.

Francis struggled for the rest of his life to find the best way to be the leader of this community. His idea of a leader was someone who did not have power over others. Like Jesus, Francis wanted to be the leader in serving others, a servant leader, a leader in giving power away. The concept was – and is – difficult to put into practice, but the communities Francis founded continue to try to make it work.