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:

Don’t delegate this!

I have been on a journey around spiritual leadership in the past seven years. That kind of leadership doesn’t come naturally to me. In terms of my style of leadership, I’m more of a king than a prophet or priest. When it comes to spiritual leadership, there is no better model than Moses. Ever since a board member first handed me a copy of Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, I have been intrigued at the depth of Moses’ relationship with God as the basis for his leadership. However, I’m not sure spiritual leadership came naturally to him either—it was an acquired discipline, skill and way of life. Over the next few weeks, I want to mine some gold from one event in particular.

In Exodus 17:8-16, Israel faces its first battle since God miraculously helped them escape Egypt and single handedly wiped out Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Now, as Amalek attacks, Moses turns to someone never before mentioned in the Bible and tells him to choose men, go out and fight while he goes up on a mountain. The passage never definitively unpacks what happens at the top of that mountain.

Have you ever read a passage where numerous things don’t quite add up? You sense it needs deeper study to understand the complexity. Over the past year, I’ve been continually drawn back to Exodus 17. At one point, I read it every day for a month, writing down my discoveries. It’s not transparent, and there are layers to be peeled back. Some of the questions that triggered my study were:

  • If Moses has a “tent of meeting,” where he regularly talks to God face-to-face, why does he go up on the mountain to pray?
  • When we have so many great prayers of Moses recorded, why do we know nothing of Moses’ day on that hill other than his hand positions?
  • When he comes down at the end of the battle, why does he have a message about Amalek so completely out of touch with Joshua’s experience that day?

My study of this passage has shaped my understanding of spiritual leadership and how my role needs to shift. Let’s jump in.

Don’t delegate this!

To be effective, every leader has to ask the question, “What is it that only I can do?”, then delegate everything else. That’s the lesson Moses will get drilled into him by his father-in-law in the next chapter. The ancient historian Josephus says Moses was a general in Pharaoh’s army. Sure, he’s long retired from his own fighting days, but when Amalek attacks, he chooses to delegate on-the-ground leadership while keeping spiritual leadership responsibilities. Why?

There are some hints about the insights that lead Moses to this conclusion.

The first thing I noted is that this story begins with the word, “then.” It begs the question, “what came before this?” Moses has just produced water from a rock, but in a context where the people are angry enough to stone him. It’s a critical-enough moment in Israel’s history that the place will forever be identified with the events of that day. However, rather than naming it after the miracle, Moses names it after the danger: “Testing and Quarrelling.” There are several fundamental questions raised in that event:

  • Is God among us or not?
  • Does Moses speak for God?

Moses clearly identifies the circumstances as a spiritual attack – an indirect attack on unity, using accusation and division.

Before they have even left that site, a direct attack comes. It’s a test of a very different nature, and Moses recognizes that it needs a different response.

We also have the benefit of hearing Moses’ commentary on that moment, recorded years later. In Deuteronomy 25:17-19, he would remind Israel that, “When you were weary and worn out, [the Amalekites] met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind.” Such predatory behaviour, picking off the weak and isolated, resembles Peter’s warning to believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). 

The second half of the chapter is a continuation of the same two foundational tests: whether God is among them, and whether Moses speaks for God. Moses could dive into the task at hand, boldly leading the people in battle from the front. Instead he holds onto components that address the deeper spiritual nature of this challenge. That is the part he can’t delegate.


Moses on the Mountain series:

Wartime leadership: a case study from Nehemiah

Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)

Romans 12 – patience and prayer

12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

In crisis and trouble, the second trait a leader has to have is patience. When I think about Moses — who found his 1-2 year change process extended by 38 years — leading a bunch of grumbling sentimentalists for decades, I marvel at his patience and perseverance. The Bible only reports a couple of incidents where he let his frustation show.

Leaders have to take the long view. Crises come and crises go. One way to get past them is to take a patient view, riding out the latest challenge. I’m currently reading a biography, William Pitt the Younger. Pitt was the youngest  and second-longest-serving prime minister of England. He had things he wanted to accomplish, including abolishment of slavery alongside William Wilberforce, that got put on hold year after year as new crises came up. His perseverance through year after depressing year during the war against the French sapped his health and aged him. He never lived to see the anti-slavery cause completed, just as Moses never saw his promised land, except in their visionary dreams. Both cases show there’s something solid and unwavering in a leader that might get rocked but doesn’t give up in difficult challenges.

What was Moses’ secret? Trait #3: he prayed. When I read about Moses’ discussions with God, “prayer” seems too formal a label. He spent hours in the tent talking face to face with God — to the point that his face collected and retained some of the radiance! He climbed a mountain and spent 40 days with God. When setbacks came, he dumped on God rather than the “stiffnecks” he had responsibility for.

I wish I had that kind of deep and conversational prayer life. It’s a great way to keep your head above water. But when I begin to idolize Moses, I recall that he still didn’t put all of his burdens on God. He cracked twice in very visible ways, and the second one was serious enough an error to prevent him from leading his people into Canaan.

I love the way our text says, “keep on praying.” It’s not a one-time thing, but a daily practice. It’s the only way to maintain perspective and to acknowledge that, as talented as we think we are and as many things as we think we can control, God alone is the one who is Sovereign. That realization is at the heart of a godly leader’s perseverance, confidence and identity.