Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Leader's Obligations

Leaders are always responsible for providing clear and accurate information. But leaders are also responsible for influencing the attitudes and opinions of those they lead. Consider the case of a story found in the Old Testament book of Numbers chapter 13. Moses commissioned twelve men, one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to conduct a reconnaissance mission into the Promised Land. Their instructions were to spy out the land and bring back a report. This they did. For forty days they surveyed the land, took soil samples, assessed defense capabilities, conducted feasibility studies, plotted topographical maps, analyzed environmental conditions and returned home with a boatload of fruit samples.

Upon their return to Moses they couldn't help but report on the lush fertility of the land beyond. They provided accurate information, but lost their focus. What dominated the leaders' attention was not the opportunity before them but the obstacles ahead. Instead of focusing their attention on the faithful covenant-keeping God and his mighty provisions for them throughout their storied history, they collapsed into fear and unbelief. And the leaders' fear and unbelief ultimately influenced their followers. What resulted was a big-time loss for all.

Leaders operate under obligation all the time. That's why they are leaders. They are obligated to present potential opportunities in light of all the facts before them. But additionally, leaders are responsible to influence the attitudes and opinions of those who follow. It's not that leaders are fearless in the face of insurmountable odds, it's that leaders act and respond faithfully despite their fears.

Whenever leaders capitulate to fear or intimidation, they telegraph that mindset to their followers. And worse yet, they shouldn't be surprised when their followers resort to grumbling or complaining about what's ahead. After all, they took their cues from their leader.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rocking Your Boat in Uncertainty?

What’s it like to lead others during uncertain times? This is the question I posed to more than 120 church leaders yesterday during the final day of a 3-day conference in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Business leaders daily face the uncertainties of a global economy. Government officials make difficult decisions amidst changing political fortunes. Parents face uncertainties concerning their children’s future. And church leaders are no strangers to uncertainty, especially in the central region of the African Continent.

Sometimes the hardest place to lead is in the place of uncertainty. I have to regularly remind myself, “The only thing certain is uncertainty.” I don’t always like to hear that, but I know it is true. And when uncertainty comes, which it always does, how do I continue to lead?

I turned our attention to the story of David in 1 Samuel 30:1-6. David was a king-in-waiting and a leader-in-training. He was young, slightly experienced, and rough around the edges due to the fact that David had managed to attract a rather unsavory group of people around him. This band of brothers is described as “those who were debtors, distressed and discontented.” (1 Samuel 22:2). Not the kind of people your mother would approve!

David and his men had been fighting on frontline and returned home to the city of Ziklag. Upon their arrival they were shocked to discover the city where their families had been left behind was all but burned to the ground. The women and children and David’s two wives had been hauled off along with all their possessions. The group was so distraught they, “wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.”The mood is very uncertain. To make matters worse, David apparently overhears a rumor that his so-called “brothers” were so bitter about the situation they take out their frustration on David. They gather stones to stone him. Talk about a crisis and talk about uncertainty!

The story of David is helpful considering my own journey as a leader. I have noticed two common and convenient default strategies deployed when faced with uncertainty. The first strategy is to withdraw—to check out, to go to the sidelines, to give up, to escape. Sometimes the uncertainty is so paralyzing, the need so staggering, the challenge so insurmountable, the problem so complex—all I want to do is disappear. When leaders disappear in times of uncertainty, we only make matters worse. Uncertainty is no time for a leader to disappear. Think about it, if there is no uncertainty, there is no need for leadership. It is precisely because of uncertainty that leadership is so critical. Uncertainty is a leader’s job security.

The second default strategy is to react. We grab another cup of coffee, work harder, increase the RPM’s and ramp up the intensity and press on. We instinctively grab hold of that which seems most comfortable and most familiar to us. We reason that we worked ourselves into this crisis; we can certainly work ourselves out! The result of this strategy is in most cases we only hasten our personal and organizational decline.

I’m stuck with David’s response in the midst of his leadership crisis and uncertainty. 1 Samuel 30:6 tells us, “But David found strength in the Lord His God.” His decision was pretty simple. He refused to withdraw from the arena of leadership and he resisted reacting in this moment of uncertainty. He turned to the Lord.

Think of it another way—think about what David doesn’t do. He doesn’t focus on his followers. He doesn’t investigate who started the rumor. He doesn’t form a mediation group to settle the dispute. He doesn’t appoint a commission to investigate the crime. He doesn’t deploy a rescue squad to recover what was lost. He turns his attention toward his own spiritual life—his own heart and soul—his own leadership. David actually does something that is very hard for leaders to do in times of uncertainty. He leads himself first!

If you’ve ever been in a canoe on a river there are certain rules about canoeing that must be observed. When you encounter rough choppy water in a canoe, the canoe can begin to rock back and forth. Instinctively we reach for one side or the other to steady the canoe. But by reaching to the side we actually make the matter worse. In fact, the first rule of canoeing is: “when the water gets choppy and uncertain, do not reach for the sides of the canoe.” Why? By grabbing a side you are liable to tip both the canoe and yourself into the water. Experts will tell you is you the way to steady a canoe in choppy water is by using your paddle or oar, not the sides of the canoe.

David is facing choppy waters. His future and the future of his men and their families are very uncertain. David makes a wise choice in this moment. He invested in his own relationship with God. He made a deposit in his own leadership account. As a consequence he kept his leadership afloat and eventually led his men to recover all the women and children and all their possessions.
To lead well in uncertainty, leaders must invest in their own relationship with Christ. They must resist the temptation to withdraw or overreact. They must stabilize their spiritual center of gravity by finding strength in Him during uncertain times.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Image Management

This week the world’s eight most powerful leaders gather in the town of Enniskillen, Ireland for the G8 Summit. Summit leaders included President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Dan Keenan, a reporter for the Irish Times, reports that image-conscious town leaders made the decision in preparation for the Summit, “to fill the shop windows with a picture of what the business was before it went bankrupt or closed.”  In other words, grocer shops, butcher shops, pharmacies, etc. placed large photographs in the windows so that if you drive past and glanced at the window, it would look like a thriving business. Keenan reports, “it looks as if the door is open and inside you see a well-stocked shop. It’s nothing of the sort. The door has been locked shut for well over a year because the particular business went bust this time last year.” But it’s an image to make it look as if everything is normal in the town and the county, but unfortunately it is not.

The leaders are hoping to present their town in the most positive light knowing full well there is a deeper reality.

Truth be known, these town leaders are not the only ones who practice cover-ups. I prefer their style when it comes to my own spiritual reality. I too have mastered the art of image management. I try and hide behind the fa├žade of well-managed life. I want in the worst kind of way to cover up the reality of a deeper bankruptcy that stalks my soul. I’d much prefer to present myself to God and others as a well-stocked shop of virtue, good deeds and a bit of my own self-engineered morality. But I know better. My reality, like every other human being, is this: sin bolted the door of my heart long ago. And no amount of image management can cover up this ugly reality.

The Good News of the Gospel is a dual truth. I am more sinful and defective that I ever imagined, but I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope for. Sin is powerful, but it is not all-powerful! Only God is that! The cross of Christ is the key to unlock the most hardened heart, and restore the dignity and purpose that bankruptcy tried to steal away.    

Saturday, April 6, 2013

If History Teaches Us Anything...

I believe it was Mark Twain who said, "If history teaches us anything, it teaches us it doesn't teach us anything." Maybe Twain was right.

These days I have been reading through the Old Testament book of Judges. Relative to other books in the Bible, the book of Judges chronicles one of the darker and more depressing periods in the history of God's people. This particular book does not belong in the category of "inspirational." Instead it is quite troubling. How so?

The focus of the Book of Judges is the total collapse of Israel's society under the judges. The first sixteen chapters of the book describe how the people of God completely disregarded the commands of God and repeatedly broke faithfulness with the One who had made them. Their disobedience was illustrated by their refusal to complete the conquest of the land (chapters 1-2:5) and their unfaithfulness was demonstrated by the repeated cycle of sin, judgment, repentance and deliverance (chapter 2:6-16:31). The final section of the book (chapters 17-21) outlines what happens when people treat God this way--social chaos erupts; or to use the words of the book's author, "everybody did as he saw fit" (17:6).

All of this is to suggest that the Book of Judges presents a pattern, an outline of what happens to cultures and civilizations when God is conveniently left out of the equation. Does history teach us anything? The pattern goes something like this. First human beings ignore God by disobeying his laws. In short we write our own rules to live by. The notion of absolute and transcendent moral authority goes by the wayside. We do as we see fit. Does history teach us anything?

Secondly, as the Book of Judges demonstrates, law-abandoning people eventually become complacent and uncritical about their religious life. Modern-day idolatries such as monetary greed, power-grabbing, sensual pleasure, paralyzing addictions, bodily fitness; just to name a few, eventually shrinks our soul. Add to this the uncritical acceptance of any and all forms of religious belief. We dine at a smorgasbord of religious systems borrowing beliefs that are best suited for our particular tastes. Does history teach us anything?

Finally and sadly what results is social anarchy. The last chapters of Judges record the breakdown of human justice and civil order. Whenever religious life is confusing or at best uncertain, disastrous consequences follow. The final chapters of the Book of Judges read like a modern anthology of sexual impropriety, human injustice, corruption, violence and depravity. Human depravity and breakdown in one area of society, if uncorrected will lead to deterioration in other areas, and finally the collapse of the civil society itself. Does history teach us anything?

There is a curious phrase that pops us throughout the book of Judges. The phrase is, in those days Israel had no king (18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The phrase suggests that perhaps the writer of Judges was looking back from a time when Israel did have kings. Given the abysmal failure of God’s people, the moral deterioration and the societal chaos and confusion, history can still teach us. Despite the dismal and disheartening circumstances, there is a silent stirring, an unspoken yearning for an ideal King—the anticipation of a King like David.

We know this King by a different name. His name is Jesus; the ultimate and rightful King of all Kings and Lord of all Lords. Does history teach us anything? You bet it does! History teaches us that God still accepts true faith in Him even in the muddle and mess of everyday living. No matter how dismal, dark and dreary the world can be, then and now, God embraces the sincere and heartfelt cry of faith in a better King!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Closets and Christmas

Last night I was overcome with a sudden urge to do something I don’t typically do—I cleaned out my closet. The urge doesn’t strike very often, so when it does, it stalks me until satisfied.

I have a laundry basket in the top of my closet that collects things; you know, faded jeans, oversized sweatshirts, exercise gear, a lonely sock here and there, coins, etc. I filled several bags with clothes, which will be donated. It felt good to engage in wardrobe inventory and the disciplined pursuit of less!

I really wasn’t expecting the experience to render any deep significant insight until I woke up this morning. It struck me that closet cleaning, especially at this time of the year, seems metaphorical. How so?

Well, it’s Advent. If you happen to be a person who didn’t grow up in the church or is not familiar with the ancient Christian Church calendar, the word Advent probably has no meaning. Advent is a season that marks the beginning of the Christian Church year. It is celebrated during the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. The Church has observed the season for centuries. The word Advent means “arrival” and the season is intended to teach us to wait for the coming of Christ, not just in Biblical times, but now. It’s a time of preparation and anticipation.

This got me thinking about John the Baptist. According to Luke (the writer of the third Gospel in the New Testament) John the Baptist was the fulfillment of a centuries old announcement by an old prophet named Isaiah. You can read about it in Luke 3:1-6.

John arrived on the scene to help people prepare for the coming of Jesus. But in what ways were the people to prepare, and in what ways can we prepare to welcome Jesus into the places of our world? John’s message gives us a clue:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:4-6

The Advent season is a lot like closet cleaning. It’s like inventory. In what ways have the paths of my life become crooked? Are there emotional valleys in my life that I have intentionally or unintentionally tried to fill with my pace, my possessions, my positions or my performance? Have I allowed my ego to become mountain-like, puffing and blustering about my own importance or superiority? What about my relationships—my relationship with my spouse, my family, my friends or even my extended church family? To what extent could these relationships be smoothed out so that God could be seen more clearly in me?

S t r e t c h e d,



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Geezers and Gazers?

I have a pair of red (and I mean red-red) polartec pants that I wear regularly around my house. They're old, worn and super comfy. Every time I put them on my children mount a protest. They have forbidden me to go out in public in my red pants. They swear and promise they are going to hijack the pants and donate them to Goodwill. They would be ideal at a Badger game! Therefore I keep them hidden in secret places! Now every time I wear them my children just call me "geezer!" Life is not fair. I know I am not a geezer.

I'm not a geezer, but sometimes I'm a gazer. What's a gazer? Have you ever wondered what it might have been like for the apostles the day Jesus ascended into heaven? And what about those two men (angels) who showed up that day in mysterious dress? What was that all about? Read all about it in Acts 1:9-11.

Jesus is not heading out somewhere far beyond the moon, beyond Mars or wherever; Jesus was going into God’s space, God’s dimension. The two men dressed in white appear to tell his disciples, that Jesus has gone into this dimension of reality. One day he will come back and when he comes, he will finalize and complete his human rescue project by bringing together that dimension (heaven) and our present dimension (earth) as the new heaven and earth (cf. Rev. 21:1ff).

As Jesus is ascending into heaven the disciples were left “looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them” (vs. 10). Later the two angels indicate the way in which Jesus’ ascended is intended to “mirror” or share associations with the way in which he will come again. After all the two men say to the disciples, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”(vs. 11) How does Luke want us to understand the similarities and differences between Jesus going and his coming?

· In the same way Jesus left with a glorified human nature and body, so too, Jesus will come in a glorified human nature and body. In other words, his coming will be personal.

· In the same way that Jesus was seen as he was leaving, so too, he will be seen when he comes again. His coming will be visible.

· His going was glorious; his coming will also be glorious.

But does Jesus’ ascension also inform our understanding of the church and her mission? Curiously in Acts 1:10-11 Luke mentions the word “heaven” or “sky” four times. Apparently the disciples were quite taken by this event enough to keep gazing up into the heavens. But we should not take the angel’s words to the disciples as a mere question. It is more reproof and rebuke. It might better be translated, “Hey fellas, what in the world are you doing gazing up into the stars? Jesus has given you a job to do—now get on with it!”

The angel’s question functions as reproof to Jesus’ disciples; the same question functions as warning to the modern-day church in several ways. First, it’s all too common in today’s church to become preoccupied with the issues of heaven; with times and seasons and prophecies and their fulfillment. It’s ironic that the disciples were “gazing into heaven” immediately on the heels of Jesus instructing them about their mandate concerning earth. Implied is a warning to the church. If we are not careful these issues can distract us and keep us from our mission on planet earth—to be Christ’s witnesses. Secondly, the angel’s question should safeguard the church from what author Nancy Pearcey calls, “the dualisms and dichotomies”[1] that have plagued Christianity. Even early on in the history of Christian thought, leading theologians dressed up Biblical doctrines in Greek concepts. In an attempt to be conversant with the educated elite these thinkers meant well, but they picked up classical Greek ideas along the way. Years ago noted theologian and author Francis Schaeffer called these philosophies a “two-story” view of reality.[2] Greek philosophy presumes there is a stark difference between the material world and the spiritual world. The material world (earth) is dark, sinister, devalued and evil. The spirit world (heaven) is a higher world, a more noble and virtuous world and therefore the world we should aspire to. No wonder the disciples were sky gazing. Even they were influenced by the dominant worldview of their day. In their minds it was more preferable to be occupied with heaven than to be concerned with earth.

So what does God do? He sends two heavenly messengers to reprove them and redirect their orientation. The two angels remind the ‘gazing’ disciples to cease their gazing, and by implication, to get on with their work on God’s good earth. In so doing, God affirms the goodness of the earth and the created order. Since He created the earth, the earth reflects God’s good character and it is this place called earth that constitutes the place of my mission, your mission and the church’s mission.

What is that mission? More about that next time!

S t r e t c h e d

[1] Pearcey, Nancy, Total Truth

[2] Schaeffer, Francis. Escape From Reason

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ruthless Tenderness

It's hard for us to combine the words 'ruthless' and 'tender' in the same sentence. These two words appear to be polar opposites. But when we consider God's nature we must accept that he is simultaneously ruthless with sin and tender with us. God has no problem at all combining both qualities in His person. Perhaps it might help to think about it this way. What if God simply denied sin's existence or swept sin under the proverbial moral carpet? What if God cowered in sin's presence and wilted under it's power? Personally speaking, what if He refused to judge or condemn my sin? Such a view of God is dissatisfying to all of us. It ultimately renders God as a moral coward. If we are truly honest with ourselves, none of us wants a God who declines to deal with my evil or the world's. Thankfully in Christ he has decisively dealt with both!

S t r e t c h e d