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The Deep Work of Leadership

I’ve heard and read this so often: Christian leaders must be thoroughly prepared for their task. Training is essential: study, testing, study, training, study, mentoring, and study. It would be a terrible mistake to turn leaders loose before they are fully equipped. Makes sense, right? Except, apparently Jesus thought otherwise.

Jesus demonstrated a radical model of ministry training. Friendship, relationship, and a deep soul-agreement are the ultimate preparations for ministry: first with Jesus, then with those we serve. Listen to the language—the images and metaphor—Jesus used when he finished his ministry with the disciples: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;” and: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” and:  “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

We place so much emphasis on preparation, but Jesus seemed to favor another method. From the very beginning of his work he talked about flowers of the field, birds of the air, and even when we face times of trouble he affirmed, "it will be given you in that hour what you are to say."

Of course, who could be against study and preparation? We are called to exercise mature judgment. No one would affirm that church leaders should teach error, or manage God’s church badly, but the subtle temptation of study and preparation is the urge to lean on your own understanding rather than hearing from the Spirit.

In the work of making disciples success is difficult to measure: the best disciple-Maker in history invested three years in a group that looked like failures on the very same night he celebrated a "graduation dinner" with them. Three days later the resurrected Lord spent an additional 40 days teaching them and finally turned them loose even when it was obvious this crew of disciples was far from perfect. Fast-forward to our modern churches: leaders are criticized because they do not have their act together, but perhaps, as leaders, we have invited this criticism by suggesting that we do.

It’s so much easier to measure ministry success by cold hard numbers, such as counting “decisions for Christ.” But the Father is all about transformation, not math. Even more surprising, the objects of transformation may be the ones doing the ministry, not just those receiving it. Perhaps this is why Jesus told Kingdom stories about the yeast silently working its way through a lump of dough, or of crops that grow while the farmer goes about his daily chores. What if the work of leadership involves making room for the mystery of what we do not know, as well as what we do?

The deep work of leadership is to find the harmony between sharing what we have learned from God, while remaining fellow travelers with those we lead. It is a work of service and grace—two qualities the world desperately needs.

A New Kind of Life

I once attended a meeting of pastors who were planning a “city-wide revival.” The pastor of a respected and growing church opened the meeting with these words: “God is only going to ask each of us two questions when we get to heaven: ’Do you know my Son?’ and ‘How many others did you bring with you?’” It was a memorable opening because it was short, dramatic, and wrong. The record of the first century church reveals a profound concern for a spiritual transformation that flows from a decision to follow Jesus.

The Apostle Paul prayed for the spiritual transformation of people who “already knew” Jesus. Perhaps we can discover God's transformational heart, as revealed in Paul’s prayer:

Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9-14)

First, we need to be filled. Paul asked God to pour “the knowledge of his will” into the believers in Colosse. Apparently the next step after coming to Jesus as Lord is to be filled with the knowledge of his will. It requires something more than mere human intellect--it requires spiritual wisdom and understanding. We have a tendency to apply the old way of living life to our new life in Christ, but the problem is we were “born again” into a new kingdom. If we take the image of the new birth seriously we should realize there’s a whole new life ahead. This new life ahead requires something beyond our old resources.

Second, we can live a life “worthy of God.” Each of us has heard the message of forgiveness so often we are tempted to think forgiveness is all there is to the gospel. Some live in a continuing cycle of sin-forgiveness-sin, and consider it normative for God’s children. Paul knew better. He understood there is a proper response to God’s initial grace. That response is a changed life--a life “worthy of the Lord.” A life in which it is possible to please God, bear fruit, and grow in new life. These first two aspects of Paul’s inspired prayer are beyond the grasp of many believers.

Finally the kingdom of God is at hand--especially for those who know him: Paul prays that we would each receive our inheritance: ”the kingdom of light.” Jesus died to pay the price for our sin, and like everyone who dies, he left an inheritance to his family: a new kind of life. This new life looks dramatically different from the old kind of life. He described this life as “righteousness, peace, and joy in he Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17). Here’s a bell-weather question for each follower of Jesus--does my life differ dramatically from my old kind of life? The inbreaking of God’s kingdom floods our lives with light, and light is necessary if we are going to move through this new kind of Kingdom-life. Paul envisioned a church filled with individuals able to receive the Kingdom-life God offers to everyone born from above.

Paul’s prayer was not for the Colossians alone: can you hear him praying over you now?

Listen

It was a strange dream, and it came in the midst of deep change. I had been asking God for direction that would point the way for the next 20 years, and after weeks of prayer and waiting I had a dream. I carried the dream-image in my mind for days, asking the Spirit for insight and illumination. *

It was like this: I saw before me a modern running shoe, but it reminded me of the sandals worn by the Roman god Mercury, with one significant difference: instead of a wing on each side of the shoe there was an ear. Yes—an ear in place of where the messenger should have had a wing. The dream was so vivid and real I was certain it had deep meaning.

A few days later, while holding this strange image before God, I heard the Spirit whisper: “I’ve not called you to go and speak, but to go and listen.” It was a thunderous whisper.

It also proved God has a sense of humor: as a pastor I had made my living for 15 years as a public speaker who delivered messages week in and week out by preaching to others, who had to sit quietly and pretend to be interested. Now, after years of training and practice in talk, talk, talk, God was instructing me to “go and listen,” yet somehow still delivering a message. In what could only be considered multi-layer funny, you can ask my family and friends: I’m not exactly known for my listening skills.

What goes into a lifestyle of listening? Listening seems so passive; it feels like we surrender the initiative—and the agenda—to someone else. But it turns out that listening is deep preparation for delivering a deep message.

Consider Jesus, who spent 30 years listening before his three years of preaching. His preparation for ministry was composed of listening. He lived life among us, suffering the daily rise-and-fall of life, commanding no great attention nor seeking a vast audience. He worked in obscurity, and listened to the wisdom of the scriptures as he heard them read week after week in his community. Imagine the very Word of God, silent for three decades. Imagine the humility required to listen—and keep on listening before bringing a message that would change all creation. Even in listening, Jesus is our example. When Jesus finally engaged in public ministry, he punctuated his message with his deep secret, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” 

Here is the wisdom of James, the Lord’s brother: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20) I suspect James saw this modeled year after year before his very eyes.

When God himself became the Incarnation, he spent three decades absorbing the human experience. His quiet life reveals that true communication flows from shared experience, from common ground: What if the best way to deliver a message is to listen carefully?

 

* What? You don’t think God speaks through dreams? Go check with Jacob, or his son Joseph, or Daniel, or Joseph the husband of Mary, or even the Apostle Paul. And don’t even get me started on church history.

The Secret Stone

To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. ~ Revelation 2:17

Today I’m intrigued with a smooth white stone, engraved with a name known only to God--and the path to that stone.

The setting for this single verse is Jesus, resurrected and glorious, walking among lampstands, dictating letters to believers huddled together against the attacks of a dying world. In every single case (there are seven of them) Jesus suggests “overcoming” is a practical, attainable hope. He himself is our example of overcoming—not by winning the next battle or election, but by laying down his life, even for those who hate him. We discover the overcoming life only when the Father raises him again to a new kind of life.

The path to the white stone not only involves overcoming but also a secret, supernatural food, the hidden manna, given from the Lord’s own hand. I have no firm idea what this means: perhaps the sustaining life that comes from abiding with Jesus day-by-day, or perhaps yet another miracle wrapped in the Eucharist. I know only that it is from him, and I hope to have the good sense to eat the bread he offers. It is a Kingdom meal, served to those who sit at the banqueting table made possible by his life, death, and resurrection: no worldly connections will gain a seat at this table, where the poor, the sick, the lame, and sinner find an engraved place setting.

And finally: there, among the overcomers and the feast of the secret bread, Jesus presents a personal gift. Let the rich and famous have their swag bags. The swag of God is a small white stone, engraved with a name not even you yourself knew, but when you see it for the first time you immediately know it to be your true name, the name only a loving Creator can bestow. All your life you had the feeling that whoever you were, it wasn't really you. Not fully you. Not even you knew you. The name you learned to spell with great block letters as a child, the name that followed you through adolescence and adulthood, the name you handed to others like a business card—it never fit. Not fully. But there was someone who knew who you really were. Someone who was calling you by that name, and the sound of his voice summoned you to a new identity.

Carl Jung said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.” He was only half right: while the world asks our name, Jesus reveals our name. While the world tries to twist our desires, Jesus serves the true food, the food that satisfies forever. Only in the overcoming do we discover our destiny, and we overcome not by our effort but by his example.

Only then will I know myself. Today, the only correct and satisfying answer is, "I'm his."

The Divine Scandal

Is there anything more irresponsible than grace? It’s the refuge of losers, the hiding place of the harebrained, the only hope at end of the line. How do we learn anything from grace, where we are shielded from the fruit of our ways? How can we grow into responsible adults if we are allowed to avoid the shipwreck of our poor choices?

Better to live well grounded in the predictable world of choice and consequence. Consequence is the lever of choice, tilting upon the worldly fulcrum of cause and effect; sowing and reaping are the dependable laws of nature. Karma chants responsibility: “Choose, and eat the fruit of your choice.” How can we mature apart from learning the mathematics of choice and consequence?

To look at grace from the outside is to see someone getting off scot-free. The work of grace is the spoiling of an only child. Grace runs counter to good stewardship. Grace is the foolishness of giving a field hand a full day’s pay for but a few hours work.

Oh, but from the inside—to taste of grace is to drink the water of life. It’s the meal without the tab; the drinks are on the house. Grace is more and better wine even though the guests are tipsy. Grace is calories that somehow don’t count. Karma is the voice of reason; grace is the voice of love.

Reason cautions us: this makes grace even more dangerous: the unscrupulous can figure the con quickly. Grace can be abused, grace can be played the fool, grace can be wasted—but grace doesn’t care. Grace is the divine scandal. Grace is the way of Heaven, where mercy triumphs over judgment: not that judgment is unknown, but rather tried and found wanting.

Simone Weil said there are but two forces capable of moving the human heart: gravity and grace. Gravity, the great force of nature, exerts its unstoppable influence from the outside; grace, the beautiful power of super nature, floats on air.

And here is our dilemma: we want grace for ourselves, but choose Karma for others. Grace seen from the outside is how rouges get off scot-free. Grace seen from the inside is the spring of life. The trick is to see grace from the inside—on behalf of others. Grace is more than a gift; it is the example of Heaven. Grace is the way, the truth, and the life. Grace calls us not only to taste and see, but also to come and follow.

The grand goal of grace is that we would not be mere partakers, but that we would become the servants in its grand banquet. Grace calls us to fill the glass of every thirsty soul.