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!