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:

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Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

Wartime leadership: tactics and schemes

Let’s start our study of wartime leadership by examining our defenses. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul gives instructions to the Corinthian church for dealing with a specific case, then adds these critical words: “…so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.”

Are we familiar? What do we know about Satan’s attacking style? The Bible offers us a few helpful metaphors.

  • A prowling lion: Satan is seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Thief: Like thieves, Satan doesn’t come in through the front door. He sneaks in to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:1-10).
  • Masquerade: Satan disguises himself in an attempt to resemble an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), and he sows weeds to blend in among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30).
  • Footholds: Satan uses slow erosion and any opportunities offered him (Eph 4:27).

What do we know from the Scriptures about Satan’s specific tactics? His primary tools are:

  • Division: He sows discord and goes after the unity of fellow believers (Rom 16:17). The Corinthian church is a great example (1 Cor 1:10, 3:3, 11:18)
  • Distraction: He attempts to entangle us in “civilian pursuits” (2 Tim 2:4) and get us busy doing good things, rather than remain alert and sober-minded (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Lies: Satan is identified as the “father of lies.” Lies are his mother tongue (John 8:44). He twists truth and speaks half truths to deceive those who don’t know the truth well (Gen 3:1-4, Rom 16:18).
  • Deception: Jesus referred to false prophets as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15). Even Peter became a false prophet and attempted to subvert the plans of God. Jesus quickly exposed Satan hiding in his words (Matt 16:23). The tricky part is that Peter thought he was carrying truth.
  • Betrayal: I think of this as weaponizing people. Those who are close to us know our weak points. When Satan can turn one of us against the organization or the community, he or she knows how to hit where it hurts. For instance: Judas with a kiss, knowing Jesus’ hangout (John 18:2); Peter’s denial (Luke 22:61); Demas’ desertion because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10).
  • Accusation: Satan is identified as the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10).
  • Picking off the unprotected: While lions may have the power for a frontal attack, they seldom come straight on. They hunt for the weak, the young, the old or the outliers rather than a full-out attack on the strong or the main group itself. Therefore Peter is saying that Satan pokes around the edges of the Church, looking for weak points. He targets the proud, who don’t believe they could fall (1 Cor 10:12). He pursues the exhausted and burned out. He picks off the isolated, including those who are traveling and alone.

I could go on and list doubt, discouragement, fear, the desires of our eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Instead of trying for comprehensiveness, let’s bring it right down to ground level and make it applicable. Take a step back and review the last couple of years.
1. How does Satan usually attack you? What is your weak point?
2. Where have you seen Satan’s tactics at work within your organization?
3. Where have you seen them in your church?
4. Where have we seen them in the broader Canadian and U.S. Church?

Now, consider the future.
5. What can we expect that we haven’t seen yet?
If there’s a specific form of attack you haven’t seen as much as you might expect, it’s likely an indication of what might be just around the corner. How can you prepare for it?

We know more than we think about how Satan operates. We need to be vigilant for ourselves and our brothers and sisters so that we don’t fall and so we don’t unwittingly help the opposition by causing another to fall. Denial only plays into our enemy’s hands.

In my next post, we’ll consider what we can do to protect ourselves.

The wrong people

This God who pursues us is always calling the wrong people onto a bus that isn’t expected to arrive.

Roxburgh and Romanuk in The Missional Leader are obviously trying to stir up some controversy. You don’t mess with Jim Collins! But they’re writing to a church audience while Collins clearly wrote Good to Great for a business audience. Even his monograph painted social sectors with a broad brush. Where do parachurch mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum? I know lots of people have opinions on that, but I don’t want to give a rash answer. I think it’s worthwhile to embrace the tension and wrestle with it for a week or two in this blog. Give me your thoughts as we go along.

What happens when the wrong people are in leadership? The Bible is full of examples of unlikely leaders. You know the obvious ones, so let’s look at the book of Judges for some more obscure ones:

  • Sampson, a guy with huge strengths and huge weaknesses. Probably had addiction problems, some anger problems and a taste for prostitutes.
  • Gideon, the “mighty warrior” who did everything he could to lay low and dodge leadership.
  • Barak, a guy appointed for leadership but who was more comfortable being in the #2 chair.
  • I think my favorite is Jephthah, the son of a prostitute who was chased away by his half-brothers until they got in a bind and asked him to be their leader. He was rash, unorthodox and creative in his leadership, but he also made some stupid decisions.

All of them had major flaws, but God used each of them in their times.

Perhaps the classic example is the twelve-seat bus that Jesus put together to transform the world and launch the church. He filled seats with a few hotheads, a handful of uneducated fishermen, a couple of dire enemies (a zealot and a tax collector) and a traitor. Not the team any leader I know would assemble. Roxburgh and Romanuk again:

Look at the ordinary people Jesus begins with; this is consistent with how God has always chosen to act…. What is present here is literally that in God’s economy the Spirit is among the people of God…. God’s future is among the regular, ordinary people of God. It’s not primarily in great leaders or experts but among the people, all those people most leaders believe don’t get it.

Ouch. I’m guilty of thinking some of these people don’t get it. I have a bent to engage with leaders but write off those who aren’t interested or gifted or called to lead.

So, how should a Christian organization engage with these tensions? On the one hand, we are stewards of God’s resources, with a huge responsibility to manage our assets well. We want good management and good leadership. On the other hand, we have the verses that say God’s power is strongest when we are weak. We have the examples that God can use a man like Peter — a disciple who’s quick to speak and slow to listen, a devotee who steps out of a boat in the middle of a lake, a coward who denies a friend at his neediest moment. The wild card is what the Holy Spirit can do to fill someone and make him useful. Acts 4 describes the transformation Peter went through and names two factors: he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he’d been with Jesus. I can’t say I’ve ever looked for those two criteria on a resume, though I have looked at previous failures and testing and how a person has grown — perhaps evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.

There’s my challenge for you: in your hiring and development work, how are you looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work?

The package

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.

Romans 12 – self awareness

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.

Still more Willow Creek – failure

One more thread I heard from a couple of speakers: some challenging comments on failure. I’m not sure any leader enjoys failure. But it’s not only a necessary step on the way to success, it’s the best way to learn. So, what is the relationship between success and failure? Here are two theories.

Pastor Dave Gibbons: “Failure is success to God.”

Authors Chip and Dan Heath: “Failure is an early sign of success.”

Chip and Dan again: “In times of change, failure is a necessity.”

When I read back over my notes on Dave Gibbons’ talk, a lot of the things he said that resonated at the time simply don’t make apparent sense to me today. Either I didn’t take detailed-enough notes, or his session gave all the highlights, and you have to pick up his book for them to make sense. But let me try to unpack them here.

Dave followed his quote above by saying that failure is the way the world resonates with us. It’s seems like Christians market themselves to the world as moralists who always do the right thing. I think that’s the reason the world laughs hardest when they see self-righteous-ism fall into the traps of sin. It’s when we admit our struggles, sins and failures that the world finds common ground with us. Painful though it might be to detail our failures, we can now talk on the same level with those who tend to be more open about their struggles. When that happens, God can move in and do amazing things.

We already know that God’s power is strongest when we are weak. I’m looking forward to reading the book, Leading with a Limp, because it’s built around the idea that you can lead out of brokenness and weakness. Think of the incredible power Wess Stafford has had available to him as CEO of Compassion International because of the horrific abuse he suffered before age 10. The thing is that we’re all woefully inadequate and desperately insecure, and we need God to redeem our failures and turn them into success.

I think what the Heaths are getting at is that we are too quick to give up. When we get hit with failure after failure, we too quickly assume that failure is on the horizon as well. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison are two frequently-cited examples of great men who could have given up but tried one more time. I think the Heaths would say that failure is part of the process that leads to success, and often, it can be the mark that you’re getting close. My problem with that statement is that it sounds like something you say when you’re failing to keep up your courage. How do you know which failure is going to be your last failure before you break through?

Dave, Chip and Dan didn’t explain their comments. Maybe I just need to buy their books.

The winner in this set of quotes is the last one. In times of discontinuous change, leaders should take courage. This is the time to innovate. This is the time to try new things and see what works. After all, in times of change, there are no templates. So, try and fail, but keep trying, because your breakthrough might become the new template on the other side.