Alive to the situation

I’ve seen some believers recently repost a story about a church that wasn’t able to meet together in their building, so they met at a local Walmart. Rather than celebrate with them this act of holy rebellion, I have some questions. Sure, it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the risk levels of worship and whether a church’s practices make a store or restaurant a poor comparison. But my concern is deeper: I wonder if anyone in Walmart that day was attracted to the gospel because of this improvised service. Was it the aroma of Christ to those employees and customers? Was that even on the minds of the church leaders?

My frustration during the second phase of this pandemic is that many churches are hyper-focusing on their rights and their comforts rather than equipping their people for these unique times. They’re focusing internally on whether and how they can hold services, when their congregants are lost to know how on earth they can live out the gospel within our socially-distanced, cancel culture. Few church leaders are speaking to how we can advance the mission right now in spite of, through and because of COVID.

I wonder if it reflects a mind block among leaders—something that is not limited to church pastors. Let me explain.

This is the greatest opportunity in our lifetimes for the Church. Rather than try our best to get back to the halcyon days of February 2020, we need to look for what doors God is opening right now. Churches need to realize this isn’t going away soon, and lesser imitations will only make people crave the old days, the old ways. Once church leaders cross the bridge in their thinking—that we won’t be back to normal on November 4, or even a year from now—then they’ll start seeing the opportunities. What opportunities? I’m glad you asked.

First, we have the same opportunities that the Church had in 1918-1920, when Christians died serving their communities in spite of risks of Spanish Flu. The parallels are clear. Governments today are following the same pattern of lockdowns, quarantines and masks. Churches had similarly-diverse responses: while some pushed back on religious freedom grounds, others got busy serving. These examples in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are inspiring: when in-person church services were shut down, Church of Christ and Episcopal pastors offered their buildings as field hospitals. A.B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate that the epidemic had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

In South Dakota, the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church report notes:

Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.

Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.

Capital Journal, Mar 19, 2020

Second, this is an enormous opportunity to adapt our model. I’m waiting for churches to begin truly innovating. In the early days of COVID, when churches had to scramble because they were suddenly locked down, there was some experimentation. Churches tweaked their practices out of necessity. But going to online streaming, virtual communion and squirting holy water isn’t really innovation; most of it could be categorized as lesser imitations of the original.

Let’s look at a parallel. To walk into most restaurants today is a depressing situation. Tables are marked off and furniture stacked in a corner. Hastily-improvised plexiglass screens are hung around the register, ordering counter or concierge desk. These adjustments have all the markings of an expectation that this is a short-term inconvenience. If restaurants in urban centers are struggling, you can imagine how challenging it is for an island setting, so imagine my surprise when my wife and I walked into The Groove Kitchen + Cafe in Mayne Island, BC last week.

The owner shared with us about how difficult the past few months have been for their business, and they almost didn’t make it. Hearing his story, I fully intended to tip well. So, when I went to pay and there was no opportunity to add a tip, I asked. He asked me, “What would you be tipping for?” They’ve reduced their services and costs so much that he believes tipping would be unreasonable. They’ve streamlined their staff from 14 to 2. No dishes to wash. All ordering goes through their website, with customers encouraged to order ahead of time and given the opportunity to eat on site, pick up the prepared order, or grab pre-packaged ingredients and cook the menu at home. All their seating is outside, and they used the inside space to launch a specialty grocery store for the items in their menu and ingredients unavailable elsewhere on the island.

The owner told me he wished they’d made these changes years ago. “We’ll never go back!”

Innovation is coming to our industries. If existing restaurants, stores, businesses and congregations don’t get there, new upstarts certainly will. We know the Church will go on for another generation, but it may not be traditional churches that do, or even church plants that do their best imitation of the the model that has been successful in the past decade. The question is who is going to get there first?

I submit that it will the leaders who stop lamenting the way church was done and seek out the new opportunities in this virus and ways to do things differently. They’ll draw the best ideas from other industries, and they’ll create some fresh interpretations of ancient practices. Some of these ideas will fail, but a new model will surely emerge from their efforts. Some of them will see the new version and conclude, “We’ll never go back!”

Seeing with spiritual eyes

What did you hear from God?

That’s the question I anticipate others wondering after I’ve taken a full day in solitude and prayer. It is no easy thing to take that much time in a busy period, and it’s painful to consider coming away with nothing tangible. When spiritual expectations are high, leaders have a strong temptation to make something up rather than admit they didn’t hear anything.

I wonder if the reason that no great prayer is recorded in Exodus 17 is that, up on that mountain, Moses is more focused on listening than speaking. In my experience, a day of prayer includes both sending and receiving. I would expect that, as a friend of God (Ex 33:11), any conversation between Moses and God would have been two-way. It’s possible the words aren’t recorded because they are not as important as what Moses is hearing and seeing.

Continuing the discussion of my last blog, in this post I want to consider a second line of thought:

B. What should I see that is not visible?

What does Moses see? When he reports back after his day on the mountain, it’s clear that he has seen some things that went way beyond what played out before him in the valley. When the battle is over, God tells Moses to write down a record, and recite it in the ears of Joshua, of what seems to be God’s plans over centuries (Ex 17:14,16). God has revealed His purposes, pulling Moses out of the present and into His mind for the nations and eras. This will prove to be merely the first battle with Amalek, and it will be a war that carries on from generation to generation. Eventually, someday, Amalek’s memory will be blotted out, but not before continual attempts to “wipe [Israel] out as a nation” (Ps 83:4)

It’s chilling to consider how this will come true in later passages of Scripture.

  • When the Israelites first listen to the ten spies instead of Caleb’s and Joshua’s advice, then change their minds and try to enter the promised land in their own strength, it’s Amalek who decisively defeats them (Num 14:45). Amalek relishes its role when Israel is at its weakest.
  • They will feature in almost every attempt to destroy David’s messianic line. For instance, it’s Amalek who kidnap David’s wives and children at Ziklag (1 Sam 30).
  • It should be no surprise that Haman, the man who led the most blatant effort at anti-Semitic genocide, was descended from an Amalekite king (1 Sam 15:7, Esther 9:24).
  • Moses’ reflection on this moment in Deuteronomy 25:19 takes on modern relevance when he says, “you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

In fact blotting out Amalek is exactly what Samuel commands King Saul to do in 1 Samuel 15:2-3. God tells him to devote the Amalekites to destruction and annihilate them because of the ambush of Israel in Exodus 17. When Saul lets some of them live, failing to carry out God’s “fierce wrath against Amalek” (1 Sam 28:18), God rejects Saul as king.

So this isn’t a run-of-the-mill, single, flesh-and-blood battle. Moses is tuned into an epic battle between the spiritual forces taking place behind the scenes. None of it was visible to anyone else.

In my last post, I mentioned three responsibilities of a leader in his or her intercession:

1. Gaps

2. Traps

3. Opps

To that list, I want to add another:

4. Insights

Seeing the invisible

A leader can gain several levels of insight as he prays. It may be long-term perspective, or spiritual underpinnings, or prophetic revelation. A key factor is the leader’s practiced sensitivity to God’s voice—which largely comes from personal spiritual disciplines such as solitude and silence, reflective practices like examen, and discernment practices such as consolation and desolation. It also comes from a commitment to courageous responsiveness to any direction received from God.

How does a leader develop that kind of sensitivity? For most of us, it doesn’t come easily. Some leaders have more of a prophetic or priestly approach to leadership; I have more of an kingly bent. What’s more, I didn’t have much practice in these disciplines before I stepped into the top job at Wycliffe Canada. Motivated by an overwhelming hunger for God’s presence, knowing that a large organization was too heavy a load for me to carry (Num 11:14), and a longing for the wisdom that comes from God (James 1:5), I was grateful when a board member introduced me to Ruth Haley Barton. Her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, drew out lessons from Moses’ life—how his own 40 years in the wilderness prepared him to lead a nation through the wilderness for 40 years. Encouraged by her prior book, Sacred Rhythms, I began to try to put into practice Moses’ rhythms of seeking God, spending time with Him and turning to Him in frustration, weariness, and anguish.

Her next book, Pursuing God’s Will Together, led me in leading a team to sharpen our ability together to listen and pay attention to how God speaks: as Scripture comes alive; as we notice His activity and presence; as we sense His peace and consolation in a decision; as He draws our attention to facts we might have missed; or as we examine a check in our spirit, a sense of desolation.

I’m still not great at it. If I’m not in practice, I lose the ability to receive from the Lord. But I’m committed to listening for God’s voice and insights. It’s a discipline that’s critical for my spiritual authority as a leader. I’m only worth following as I follow Him.

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Moses on the Mountain series:

Praying with eyes open

Why did Moses go up on the mountain in Exodus 17:8-16? Everyone who’s ever attended Sunday School will tell you he’s praying, but the passage doesn’t actually say it. The only thing we know is Moses’ hand positions, and the resulting impact on Joshua’s gains or losses. The account of what happened on the mountain was written later and second-hand, by someone who was a distant and distracted observer on that day.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Moses will soon establish a pattern of praying in a tent  (Ex 33:7-11), but he doesn’t head for his tent this time; instead, he climbs a mountain. Joshua can understand that instinct. After all, a military man like him would see elevation for its strategic advantage—for reconnaissance purposes, artillery placement (arrows or stones) or infantry positioning. The common thread is that any of those options requires communication of some sort, and Moses and Joshua make no signalling plans. Moses has a different strategic purpose in mind, and a different form of communication.

There’s only one reason to go up on a mountain to pray: clearly, Moses intends to have his eyes open. On the mountain, he is helpless and completely dependent to act save for a single priceless weapon: a direct connection to the Almighty. If he sees an ambush or an advantage, his only recourse is prayer.

In Moses’ day, the only way to have the full picture, to see the scope of the battle, was to gain elevation. In today’s world, there are so many other ways we can broaden our view. I believe this is one of the indispensable roles of a leader.

My studies of this passage have led me to refine my times of prayer as a leader. I start with two questions prompted by Moses as he stood on that mountain with eyes open, hands lifted up and no temptation to action.

A. What can I see that others don’t?
B. What should I see that is not visible?

I’ll cover the first one here.

Seeing what others don’t

There’s an old adage that a leader is the one climbing the tallest tree, surveying the situation and concluding, “We’re in the wrong forest.” Leaders have a mandate to see the bigger picture and assess the situation, but they also have the privilege of access to a more complete set of data than anyone else.

Strategic prayer is prayer with knowledge. It’s significant that the intercessor in Exodus 17 is the one who can observe the entire scope of the situation and direct his attention accordingly. No one else can see the big picture the way a leader can. Therefore, she should pray for the larger issues, the deeper underlying themes, rather than the obvious surface-level requests. Where she sees with spiritual eyes—because she takes the time to ask and look—she prays for what others can’t see. She can sometimes pray with confidential knowledge of world events.

Don’t shy away from connecting the pieces. Ask the Lord, “How should my prayers be directed?” And, “What can I pray about that others don’t or can’t?”

There are three advantages and responsibilities that come with the vantage point of leadership.

1. Gaps. From above, it’s easy to see the gaps and weaknesses that open up in battle lines. I can pray for reinforcements, and I can pray for healing for the sick, strength for the weak, encouragement for the fainthearted, justice for the oppressed and comfort for the afflicted (Ez 34:4,16, 1 Thess 5:14, Ps 10:17-18, 2 Cor 1:3-4).

2. Traps. I can also see ambushes and traps. I can pray for shielding, for cover, for light to overcome darkness and truth to expose lies. I can pray for other leaders, that they would not give Satan a foothold.

3. Opps. Weaknesses in the opponent’s strategies are laid bare, and I can see where my team is making breakthroughs. I can add my prayers behind initiatives pressing the advantage. I can pray for unity, love, confession, forgiveness, mutual submission and truth as proactive moves against Satan’s strategies of division, accusation and deception.

During my quarterly days of prayer, I have taken to posting sheets of paper on the wall and labeling them with these categories. As God shows me something in each of these areas, I write it down so I have a takeaway, and perhaps an action point.

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Moses on the Mountain series: