Advent is Over – What Have You Learnt?

waiting on the beach

Today is the last day of Advent. I hope you have enjoyed reading the reflections in the series Let Us Wait As Children Wait. They have enriched my life and I pray they may have done the same for yours. Later today I will post a list of all the posts in the series, but first i want to ask What have your learnt? 

For me, this has been a journey of discovery. When I suggested the topic I felt I knew what it meant to wait as children wait – wide eyed, expectant, impatient, standing on tiptoe to catch the first glimpse of fulfillment. Along the way I learnt about many other aspects of waiting. The massacre in Newtown brought home to us the vulnerability of childhood waiting not just for those who were killed but for all the abused, abandoned and starving children of our world whose lives are cut short and whose hopes and dreams never come to fruition.

Anne Townsend reminded me that often the elderly also wait like children and are often even more vulnerable. This was a poignant message for me as I walk with my elderly mother through the last years of her life. I thank God for my brothers and their families who care for her and enable her to live in freedom and comfort in spite of that vulnerability.

It occurred to me this morning, that the waiting of childhood is also a waiting between the times, just as we wait between the time of God’s promise and its fulfillment. Childhood is full of potential, impossible dreams, hopes not yet realized, a longing for maturity and the time of adult fulfillment yet a living fully in the present moment with fun and games, and enjoyment, with exploration and experimentation, with the willingness to listen, to adapt and to change.

Christ is coming, deep within our souls we know and already rejoice because of the glory and majesty of his kingdom that is already breaking into ours. At the same time we despair at the length of time the fulfillment of God’s dreams takes.

A couple of days ago I was caught up short by the phrase in Isaiah 11:6 and a little child shall lead them.  So often Jesus reminds us to come as children, to live in the the upside down-ness of the kingdom where leadership is not with the powerful and the rich but with the vulnerable and the insignificant, where dependency, teachability, and the faith to believe that everything is possible reign.

This series has given me new eyes with which to look at the scriptures – the eyes of a child. What has it done for you? What lessons have you learned about God, God’s kingdom and yourself as you reflected on the posts throughout Advent? I would love to hear from you.

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Going Through Transition – Help from Walter Brueggemann

A journey into newness

A journey into newness

Tom and I have just returned from one of our quarterly retreats. These usually focus on our personal lives and the direction we sense God is nudging us into for the next three months. This time however I was focused on the transitions we are going through at Mustard Seed Associates. We are seeking to discern what MSA will become in the future, with new leadership at the helm. During the retreat I skimmed through three very helpful books which I will share about over the next few days.

The first of these was Walter Brueggemann’The Prophetic ImaginationBrueggemann has played a major role in shaping my theology in the past and I can that he will in this transition too. Though this is not a book about how to transition a ministry to new leadership, it certainly has a lot to say that can help in a situation like this.

MSA has always been a prophetic organization, challenging followers of Jesus to consider how the world is changing and how we as God’s people need to change to be more effective in the future. At its centre is a vision of hope, the belief that God’s kingdom of shalom is not only possible but is already breaking into our world and God calls us to be a part of that. We have always done a broad array of ministries – from Tom’s and my speaking and writing to networking and consulting and it is easy for us to look at the future and say – who can we find that can take over these tasks? It is easy for us to look at what we have done and attach the word forever.

As I read through Prophetic Imagination I realized that this will never move us into God’s future. The forever language is the language of kings and rulers who want to maintain the status quo. MSA has always been a prophetic organization and to continue to be prophetic we must be willing to let go of what has been and embrace the possibility of newness. Newness is only possible when we have the freedom to hope for something different and to allow for the possibility that everything can and should change.The question Brueggemann raised that really challenged me is: How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation? (44). Maybe beyond that, how can we allow others to have the freedom to imagine and articulate something that is totally new? Brueggemann goes on to say: The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined.  At this point we are not wanting to ask the questions – how can we manage change – that could stifle any possibility of something new. Our question is What is God’s vision of newness for us as an organization?

The prophet offers symbols of hope for a new future. Change and newness do not spring into being in a void however. It is not accomplished by discarding all the symbols and accomplishments from the past, but rather it means to move back into the deepest memories of the community and activate those very symbols that have always been the basis for contradicting the regnant consciousness (66). Israel stood agains the regnant consciousness of the Pharaoh in order to bring a new reality into being because they believed in God’s promise to Abraham that this alternative reality was both possible and desired by God.

So my question for us at MSA is what are the “deep memories”, the DNA of our organization that God would draw us back to? Interestingly as I thought about this none of what we do came to mind. It is not our activities but our beliefs and our passions that make it possible to face a future of newness.

Here is my sense of what that is, though I realize this is not something that can be defined without the discernment of the MSA team, Board and even the broader MSA community.

  1. From Biblical hope to new design: the core of MSA is its desire to articulate and bring into being something of God’s kingdom dream of a world made new where justice does come for the poor, healing for the sick and wholeness for all creation.
  2. A spiritually discerning community that seeks together to discern the will of God for us as an organization and the implement it. Ministry flows out of spiritual discernment in community not out of “what we do well”.
  3. A questioning organization (or should I use the word prophetic) that calls others to question the status quo of the secular culture and inspires them to create new models of life and faith that flesh out something of what they hope God’s kingdom will look like. It is only when we question that our imaginations can be stirred and newness can come.
  4. We are an organic organization and see planning as a fluid process that flows out of our spiritual discernment and constantly allows us to be reshaped by the ways God speaks to us as a community.
  5. Praxis and academia are both important to us. We don’t just want to talk about change, we want to be a part of it, allowing it to shape who we are so that we can move along the journey towards becoming the people God wants us to be.

I wold love to hear your thoughts on this. Some of you have travelled with us in MSA for a long time. Others have recently joined the journey. What is it that inspires and ignites your passion? As we move into the future we want to make sure that we listen to all the voices through whom God would speak to us. We want to make sure that allow for all the newness that God wants to give birth to.

Leading Spiritually – What I learned from the Business World

Starfish at Esperanza Canada

The art of leading spiritually

This is the final post in the series on Leading Spiritually. Thank you for joining with me in this journey. I particularly appreciate your thoughts and comments which have helped me grapple with these issues.

Check out the other posts:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

Leading Spiritually: What I Learned from the Business World 

Not everything about leadership in the business world is counter to what good spiritual leadership should look like. However, for me personally the insights I have gained from the business world are more likely to affirm or flesh out what God has already been saying to our discernment group rather than give new or fresh ideas.

Sometimes they have helped us name the processes we are using. When we started using a more organic approach to strategic planning, it was very encouraging to find information on organic strategic planning which is a recognized model in the business world. It bears a lot of resemblance to the group discernment process we use, but has helped us refine what we do and walk with confidence in our new approach.

When we were looking for networking models The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations  was an excellent resource to help us think strategically about what we wanted to accomplish and how best to achieve it.

I love articles like Productivity Lagging: Take A Nap  that remind me that taking a siesta increases productivity and creativity affirming my belief in the importance of balance and rhythm to our lives.  The business world even affirms the importance of contemplative practices in the creation of good leaders as in this article: Mindful Leadership: Compassion, Contemplation and Meditation Develop Effective Leaders  

Unfortunately most of the best messages I have learned from the business world are about how not to lead. The grasping after position, power and wealth, the centrality of self ambition and the use of others to gain these ends is widespread. It is also devastating to those they supposedly lead and is often destructive for society. Surely this was one of the lessons of the recent recession. Spiritual power looks very different from this.

What I am strongly convinced of is that there is no substitute for the wisdom of God when we want to discern how we should operate as leaders and the ways of God are often foolishness to the world. God does indeed delight in using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. As Richard Rohr says:

The bottom, the edge, the outsider… is the privileged spiritual position. In a word, that is why the biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive…. Stop trying. Stop forcing reality. Learn the mystery of surrender and trust, and then it will be done unto you, through you, with you and very often, in spite of you. You could say that God’s forever pattern is creatio ex nihilo; Yahweb is always creating something out of nothing…. God “brings the dead to life and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17) You could call it God’s primary job description. (Things Hidden p 90)

So let me end with a prayer from the apostle Paul who I suspect is speaking here to all aspiring spiritual leader.

We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better. We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. (Colossians 1:9-14 NLT)

May you grow in wisdom and become the leader and the follower that God intends you to be

Leading Spiritually from Within

 

Cross with candles

The following post is another contribution to the series on Leading Spiritually. Thanks for those who have commented and encouraged the continuation of this series.

Check out the other posts:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

Leading Spiritually from Within

I mentioned last week that writing this series on leading spiritually has been something of a process of self examination for me. Listening does not come easily to me. I am a great multitasker and can easily get distracted from what I am supposed to be focused on.  So I don’t always take the time to give God or others my full attention. In a world that applauds multitasking especially in leaders, I know I am not alone in this but to be good spiritual leaders we need to be able to focus.

Spiritual leadership is about giving full attention to all that is happening in the moment in which we are living. So how do we equip ourselves personally to be good spiritual leaders?

When I think of leadership Jesus style of think of washing feet, hugging kids, embracing lepers, healing the marginalized. I also think of desert retreats, nights spent in prayer, walks with his disciples. The attributes of a good spiritual leader that I see expressed in Jesus life are contemplative, activist, servant, spiritual director, generosity, justice and love.  Some of these may sound contradictory but for me they imply balance. Activism should always flow out of a contemplative centre. Spiritual direction should always flow out of a servant heart that is committed above all else to the nurture and fulfillment of others. And a heart full of the love of God will always be generous and just.

This type of leadership places huge responsibility on us as individuals. In fact the more I have written, the longer the list seems to become so I have decided to break it into two posts. Today’s post talks about intimacy with God and seeking our true and authentic self. Tomorrow’s post addresses listening, acknowledging doubts and uncertainties, gratitude and seeking after love of God and neighbour.

1. We must above all else be committed to a journey into deeper intimacy with God. This sounds obvious but I have noticed that I can easily be fully engaged in my regular spiritual practices of prayer and bible reading and still not be moving closer to God.  I have mentioned in the past that the chronic randomness of our prayer and scripture study often disconnects us from the presence and purposes of God. It can become more of an intellectual exercise than a journey into intimacy.

What we need most are intentional and disciplined patterns to our prayer life and to our reading and study of God’s word that deliberately draw us into God’s presence and into a deeper understanding of God’s purposes. My blog series last year on Tools for Prayer was an attempt to identify some of the tools that can help with this. If, like me, you like variety you may enjoy experimenting with one tool for a season and then trying another. Just remember however that the goal of this is not experimentation itself but intimacy with God.

2. We must be seekers after our true and authentic self. Salvation is a journey from death into life, from blindness into sight, from solitude into community, from false self into true self. If, as spiritual leaders, our responsibility is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be, then we too must be committed to the process of becoming who God intends us to be. This is often a very painful journey of self discovery in which God slowly brings us face to face with the distorted and dysfunctional being at the center of our being. It is also a very liberating journey that brings healing not only for us personally but often for those we lead as well.

One of the reasons that I see activism and contemplation in balance is because it is often activism that uncovers our dysfunctionality. It also usually births within us a deep craving for the newness of life that God wants us to experience. It is this that hopefully drives us into the secure womblike safety of contemplation where we can be transformed and reborn. One of my guiding passages as I started to allow God to work his transformation in me was Isaiah 58:6-12. Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness. (v10) Reaching out to heal and make others whole is often part of the pathway into our own healing and wholeness. 

Contemplative practices like retreats, regular use of the prayer of examen, regular check in times with a spiritual director or soul friend are some of the keys to this journey, but obviously this is a topic that could give rise to an entire blog series on its own.

3. We must never be too busy to listen, never be too tired to pray. This prayer which I wrote a couple of years ago is a good mantra for me to go back to when I feel overburdened, overstressed or aware of another area in my life where I need transformation. Its intent is reflected in Ruth Hayley Barton’s beautiful discussion of Moses’ turning aside to the burning bush. “The practice of ‘turning aside to look’ is a spiritual discipline that by its very nature sets us up for an encounter with God.”(Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership p52).

Encountering God in the midst of heavy responsibilities requires these moments of deliberate turning aside, retreating into ourselves so that God can permeate our being.  Often a repeated centering or breathing prayer enables us to retreat in this way without being in a place of physical solitude.

4. We must be willing to listen to all the voices through which God speaks. As a keen organic gardener I know that diversity is an important priority in maintaining a healthy garden. I think that it is also an important priority in maintaining a healthy, spiritually leadership team. Jewish philosophers believe that argument is the highest form of discourse and that we cannot have a true discussion unless there are dissenting voices.

God often speaks loudest to us through those who are different theologically, culturally or socially and if we are not open to voices outside our own little enclave then we will never hear the voice of God clearly. Particularly if we are making major decisions we need to make sure that the voices we listen to are as diverse and varied as possible. This is just as important for personal discernment and spiritual growth as it is for group discernment and spiritual leadership.

Work in the Spirit – Becoming the Change our World Needs

As many of you know the MSA has spent the last two days in planning meetings working towards a three year strategic plan.  I wrote yesterday that one of our challenges has been that the usual strategic planning methods do not apply to an organization like ours.  As we have grappled with that I realize that the challenge is bigger than that.  Our real challenge is that the ways of God and the ways of the world are really meant to be very different when it comes to our work.

First our goals are meant to be different.  Whereas the bottom line for a secular business is its economic profitability, I believe that the bottom line for Christian ministries and businesses is how well do we model and enable others to grow into God’s kingdom ways.  In his helpful book Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf comments:

Human work properly understood theologically is related to the goal of all history, which will bring God, human beings and the nonhuman creation into ‘shalomic’ harmony.

Often our most effective work from God’s perspective brings no economic profit, in fact it may do the exact opposite as when we work for justice amongst the poor and the marginalized who are penniless.  And work in this context cannot be isolated from the rest of life.  We are recognizing this more and more in the ways we work here at MSA.  Our spiritual disciplines, our personal joys and struggles, our financial challenges and provisions, our health and physical fitness all impact the ways we work. So we need to take all of these into account as we discern together, plan and work towards God’s shalomic harmony.  Our work is a part of our lives that is meant to be interwoven through all else we are and do.

Second, our way of working is meant to be different.  In his book Whole Life Transformation, Keith Meyer talks about the fact that churches should have spiritual formation at the centre.  I believe Christian ministries and business should too.  I am more and more convinced that one of the important roles of a Christian leader is akin to that of a spiritual director.  Spiritual direction is a contemplative practice in which we help others look and listen for the mystery of God in all of life, and enable them to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment.

Even in the secular business world there is a growing recognition that effective leadership is not meant to be a hierarchical authoritarian position.  There is a growing understanding of leadership as a process in which we mobilize others around a shared vision and work together for societal and personal change in a way that meets people’s enduring needs.  From a Christian perspective, leaders are servants, those who encourage, nurture and enable others to become all that God intends them to be and in the process we often discover who God intends us to be as well.

This form of leadership frees Christian leaders from the need to know everything and be everything to their co workers.  It also hopefully frees us from feelings of superiority and prestige.  It frees us to recognize that we are merely part of a community in which God can speak through any and all members.  This also places tremendous responsibility on us as leaders to nurture and grow our own spiritual lives.  We cannot be effective Christian leaders if we do not have good spiritual disciplines, or if we are not open with others about our struggles and shortcomings.  We grow together as a community not as isolated individuals.

Keith Meyer encourages the development of a corporate rule of life in which together as a community we develop guidelines and practices that grow both their individual and corporate spiritual maturity.  Here at MSA the Quaker discernment process has enabled us to accomplish that.  It takes our focus away from us as the ones who accomplish the work to God.  It enables us to relax because we are more aware of the fact that God is in control.  Every success or failure becomes an opportunity to listen to God and learn from God.

It is not surprising therefore that we have become a very organic organization, more a community of like minded believers who God has brought together to accomplish common goals.  We truly are aware that in sharing our dreams together and listening to God together we are all empowered to co-create with God.  And it is my hope that as we do so others will be enabled to become co-creators with God too.

As a result we all left our planning meetings yesterday inspired, energized and excited about the future.  It was not anything I as the executive director of MSA said or did.  It was more the sense that in our place of planning we had been in the presence of God.  And as we listened to God speak through other members of the team, through the changes and challenges of our society and through the serendipitous encounters and activities that have come our way we became more aware that God is leading us together towards something that bears the fingerprints of God.

What has become clearer for us is that MSA is becoming a birthing centre that reflects something of God’s loving purposes for our world.  As we see our world changing at lightning speed, we want to use our imaginations, and encourage others to use theirs, to develop new ways to live, serve and celebrate into the future that God is bringing into being.

We can easily feel threatened by the changes occurring in our world, which usually results in insecurity, anger and violence.  Or we see these changes as a design opportunity to work together with our Creator God to bring glimpses of God’s shalom eternal world into existence.

Leadership as Spiritual Direction

This last week I was interviewed by a M Div student for her class on leadership.  I told her that for me leadership was not a position of privilege or of prestige but rather one of discernment and encouragement.  I said that to me the prime function of a Christian leader is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be.  I talked to her about our use of the Quaker discernment process and the group decision making structure we have set up to encourage cooperation and mutual support within our team.  She was excited by this concept and commented – This is leadership as spiritual direction.

I have thought a lot about this since we talked.  What is leadership meant to look like?  What was it that made Jesus leadership special?  Our modern concept of leadership, even of Christian leadership is a very hierarchical and very much based on position and prestige.  The concept of leadership as spiritual direction turns this on its head just as Jesus does when he talks about the servanthood nature of leadership.  It places the advancement of our team members ahead of our own “be thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) and it makes us as leaders responsible for nurturing our team members in ways that nourishes their spiritual development as well as their physical accomplishments.  Jesus rarely told his followers how to do something he asked questions that enabled his disciples to find the answers that God had already placed within their hearts.

I talked some about this in a previous post “Planning with Spiritual Formation at the Centre” but I am realizing that this is a concept that it key to the way that we help followers of Jesus move into the future.  It is also a key to our being witnesses of mutuality and love to those around us.  I have already been told that I need to write a book on this but I suspect that is some way off in the future.

However I do have several questions for all of us out of this.

  1. How do we rethink our leadership models so that they are more like spiritual direction than hierarchical power structures
  2. How do we encourage community building and spiritual formation as part of our leadership models so that we see the transformation of all we work with
  3. Where are the resources to help this happen – I would love to hear from you on this and am looking for books and online resources that can help me further develop my thinking