Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This morning's prayer, and some musings on leadership....

I just returned from a week-long conference of peers, my annual retreat with nine colleagues in ministry-all of whom are in the same generation of life. We share a lot in common, and a lot makes us different from each other, as a group of priests gathered to ponder this particular point of reference in both our public and private lives. How we are going to continue to be leaders to and in the Church was a dominant conversation. It has been going on since we started meeting, and I anticipate it continuing until only one of us remains alive. At least, that is our covenant with each other. Whatever life brings, we have promised to remain connected.

What matters in the here and now for me lies in this year's debate on what our role in the Church is to be as we enter the middle years of our ministries and careers. At this point, we have been leaders for long enough to have made some serious mistakes and to have celebrated some wonderful moments of success. We have been surprised by the Holy Spirit working gracefully in the counsels of the Church. We have also seen it stumble and trip itself up, obscuring its work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a sad miasma of controversy and conflict. In other words, we have seen the Church being itself, as much in this generation as in any other. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes it all goes horribly wrong.

I was musing on that reality as I opened up the lessons for morning prayer when I got into work earlier today. Great way to begin the work of the morning, a passage from I Samuel in which God speaks to the prophet at a particular nadir in his experience as a leader in Israel. Saul has, effectively, gone off his rocker. The king Samuel didn't want to install has now become a liability to the people, both with regard to their safety among other nations and more importantly in their relationship with God. Still, God is decent enough to offer some consolation, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out....I have provided for myself a king among [Jesse's] sons."

So quickly the mantle passes. It is true of every generation. We get our shot at making things happen. I suppose it helps when you are in the first flushes of the hubris of youth. When you don't realize how powerfully intractable human institutions can be, and when you don't know your own limits of strength and spirit...well, it all seems possible. As we get older, the reality of having to live within these same institutions sets in. Samuel is being sent to anoint a new king. Before the old one dies. God has told him to fill his horn. this won't be a pretty, Hollywood ending at all. Still, Israel has chosen to live with an anointed king, and God will (and always does) provide. The rest of the details we will have to work out.

One of my colleagues offered this as we pondered our roles as change agents in the leadership of the Church: Our greatest mistake as revolutionaries is that we presume that we will be the ones who fix things, once and for all. At best, we can hope to create enough of a ripple in the structures of the Church that we might be able to shift it from some quite unsuccessful ways of being and doing business to some more effective ways of being a missional voice of action for the good of the Kingdom of God.

Samuel took a heifer and his oil and went where God sent him, to Jesse of Bethlehem. Someone among this man's sons was to be the newly anointed king. Which one? The tall one? The smart one? The one with the great speaking voice? The oldest? The most materially successful? God's hand passes over all of them until the baby shows up...a nearly forgotten son who had been sent out to tend his father's sheep in the hills. Could anyone remember the last time he was here around the house? No? By the Name, he has grown! Look at that suntan! It's like he has been sleeping outside for months. Well, really, he has. And those scars on his arms and chest? Claw and bite marks? Check it, though....no marks on his back. He has always faced his dangers head on....

Of course, from our perspective, David is the perfect choice. But it is clear he was the last person anyone was thinking of when it came to wondering who God would command Samuel to anoint as king.

Just when we think we have it all figured out, God opines that-well-we should take a few moments to try and see it from perspective She takes. It is not about easy answers, but about being willing to ask better questions. The glory of God is in the way one major concept can be addressed, modified and innovated upon with nearly infinite variety. Don't get caught up on appearances, certainties or the opinions that what worked best before is the template for what will work well in the future. God is not done speaking; and demonstrates that the one true constant in the life of the universe is change itself.

Take the idea of bread. This came up during my morning walk with my wife. Leadership is something that is infinitely variable in the challenges it presents. Simple enough to assume, cut very complicated in execution. Our arrogance is that we think that we can define it, once and for all as ONE thing. Actually, in the end it is a concept. God and the human spirit will determine its ultimate shape, texture and flavor. Really? Bread?

OK, then, BREAD! A simple thing to make, with a bit of flour, some water and leaven. Perhaps a bit of salt and fat to aid in the leavening and to add flavor. But, from there the variations kick in. What kind of flour? Where does your water come from? Olive oil or butter, or perhaps some animal fat? Sal de mer or simple iodized salt from that blue canister on the shelf? What about the oven? Is it wood-burning? Are there ceramic slabs? What is the moisture content in the air? Etc. etc. There are as many variations on the ideal of "bread" as there are human cultures on the face of the earth...more, even.

So, then, who gets to determine the definition of "bread?" Can anyone? The moment we bind up the concept, we lose creativity. To define bread is to limit it.

Better to ask, "Where will this concept of bread take me today?"

Give us this day our daily bread.....

God is infinite in patience, and is desperate, I believe, to see what we are going to do with the tools we are given in this life to work toward the continually inbreaking glory of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Thing is, we have to be careful-first to avoid getting mired down in certainty; and second to maintain an enthusiastic momentum in seeking to change things enough that God can continue to do good work through us and those who follow. What works for me, what is bread for me...who is "king" for me is not what, or who, will work for those of other generations. Not for those who are ahead of me on life's path, nor for those who follow. My task is to continue to seek God's will in coming up with more variations on "bread," enough that we might, in one of those recipes, find something that will feed us enough today that we might see tomorrow....

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