Monday, September 26, 2011

Walking on Water: What kind of leadership lesson is it?

Thirty odd years ago I was a pretty serious athlete. I had a field hockey coach who would stop a drill with a blast of her whistle and we'd all freeze wherever we were for what she liked to call, "a teachable moment". Teachable moments were opportunities to learn from one another's mistakes. It was never very rewarding to be the one who made the mistake, but we all came to value the teachable moments as vital ways to strengthen the team. I think that Peter provided the disciples with a number of "teachable moments".

I’ve been thinking about the story of the night Peter walked on water (see It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar, I wonder what I might be missing. Jesus has just fed the multitudes (thousands of people) with a little boy’s lunch of two fish and five loaves. After everyone has eaten their fill, the disciples gather up the leftovers – twelve baskets full! The crowds wander off, I suppose in different directions to return to their homes and Jesus insists that the disciples set out by boat to cross the sea to Gennesaret. They shove off and Jesus goes off to the hills to pray.

I imagine that they’re tired but maybe energized by participating in a miracle – I think that I would be. And at least some of them – the fishermen among them - would feel at home on the water. But as is sometimes the case on the Sea of Galilee, the wind picks up and before long the boat is being battered by the waves. Even fishermen can be intimidated by rough seas. There they are, hanging on for dear life, trying to keep their fear at bay, senses on alert. It’s dark. There’s water everywhere. They’re soaked to the skin – scared. And now, to top it off, there’s a ghost – or something – coming toward them on the water. I think we sometimes rush through this part, but we need to understand – they are terrified – absolutely terrified.

Jesus is quick to reassure them. “It’s me”, he says. “No need to worry.”

So first question –why didn’t Jesus just meet them in Gennesaret? Why was it necessary for him to meet them in the middle of the Sea? There is clearly something for us to learn from the encounter that follows. Peter – brash, act now - think later - guy that he is – is perhaps anxious to disguise his own fear. Maybe he overcompensates and, as is his nature, gets himself out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. Others might be relieved to have Jesus join them in the boat, calm the winds, reassure them - "thank God you're here... we were so afraid!". But Peter has never been content with the easy path. No. He’s a take charge kind of guy. He needs to stand out, make a splash, so to speak. So he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat so that he might demonstrate his spiritual maturity - teach his fellow disciples a thing or two about real power and faith. Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to defy the laws of nature. For sure, no one could accuse Peter of being timid, or of hiding in the crowd. And when Jesus calls him out of the boat, he doesn’t ease himself over the side – he jumps out!

So the way I’ve always understood what happens next is this: Peter starts out strong - confident. He’s actually walking on water – one step, two, maybe three or four – but then he starts to think about how amazing it is. Or maybe he suddenly realizes how foolish he’s been – sure he’s walking on water but the waves are REALLY big. The fear rises up and he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus – “Master, save me!” And Jesus does. He grabs his hand and pulls him out of the water and the two of them climb aboard the boat. Only then do the winds subside.

The lesson, I’ve always thought, is that we can do amazing, incredible, miraculous things, when we’re willing to take risks – when we jump out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus. But today I’m wondering if that’s a lesson that is culturally biased. Maybe it’s the WRONG leadership lesson to conclude from this story.

Maybe Jesus humours Peter’s request – Lord, it sure would be cool if I could walk on water – or, to get to the underlying principle, a few miracles would greatly enhance my reputation - only to teach him to know the limitations of his humanity. What if Peter had made it all the way to Jesus and then back to the boat – or even to the shore? What if he was able to walk on water any time he wanted to? Would this have indicated his ability or preparedness for pastoring Jesus’ church? Did Peter fail a test that night? Since Jesus ultimately said to Peter “on this rock I will build my church” it seems clear that Peter didn't fail, and yet we tend to think that if we are going to be effective leaders, we ought to be able to walk on water.

Maybe we’ve taken the wrong lesson from this passage – maybe, in fact, we have too many leaders who have learned how to walk on water but have forgotten to call out to God, “save me”.

Self-reliance – something so highly valued in our culture - may actually be one of the biggest hindrances to the growth of the kingdom. When we're looking for the lesson for us in a teachable moment, we need to be careful of our cultural biases and make sure we're getting the intended message. God did not call Peter to walk on water and he doesn’t call us to. We are NOT Messiahs. The miracles - then and today - are God's miracles, performed for His purposes. We may have a front row seat, or even be in the spotlight on centre stage. Heck, it may even look like WE'RE performing miracles. But when it comes to leadership, here's the bottom line: We are not building our own kingdoms, but God’s kingdom and we’d best not forget that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Henry Ford once euphemistically said of his Model T Ford that “you can have any color you want, so long as it’s black”. Choice is something we - in middle and upper class North America anyway - take for granted. We make choices everyday: what to wear, what to eat, how to travel, where to shop, what to buy, who to connect with, who to vote for, where to vacation, where to volunteer, charities to support, what job or career to pursue, and so on and so on.

There are other choices too – choices on a deeper level – about who to be, who or what to worship, who to marry, who to trust, how to live and how to die. An unwanted, unplanned, unexpected pregnancy prompts a choice. A serious illness requires that choices be made about treatment and care and in some cases, end of life decisions. We make choices all the time – big or little, easy or difficult, good or bad. As we look back, we can see how these individual choices have become intertwined - creating, as Carole King says, a "tapestry"...

My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.

Sometimes we make decisions and will rationalize the choice we make by saying that we had “no choice”. I suspect that it’s rarely (if ever) true that we literally have no other choice, but it may certainly seem that way. And it seems obvious to me that no one sets out to make bad choices… we don’t wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I think I’ll see how many bad choices I can make today.” No. We make bad choices because somehow, at the time, it seems like the only or the best option we have. Sure, someone else in another pair of shoes, might know that our choice will lead us into trouble, but we don't see it the same way ourselves. Nor can we.

We talk a lot in this country about having the freedom to choose. We don’t like it when government or church or “big brother” tells us what to do, what to think, what to say, what to believe. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has enshrined the principle of choice in our legal systems and embedded it deeply in our cultural mindset. But how REAL is our ability to choose?

Are we so preoccupied with making superficial decisions about the daily minutia of our pampered lives that we don't even notice that the more substantial decisions are made for us? One of the parenting tactics that is recommended these days for parents who have been conditioned to think that children must be empowered to "choose", is to offer the child a "choice" - would you like to read a book or play with your blocks? We don't include in the list of options, activities that might be dangerous or inappropriate. It's win, win - or at least that's the theory. The child gets to pick and the parent has the immense satisfaction of seeing the child willingly engaged in an approved activity. It seems like a good idea when it comes to keeping our kids safe and reasonably content. But it's a principle that is played out at all kinds of levels.

Election time. You may vote for candidate A, B, C or D. Or you may exercise your right NOT to vote, or to spoil your ballet. It's up to you. You can live where you want, study what you want, work where you want - so long as you can make it all work together so that your life falls within the lines of social acceptability. By and large we get to choose, but we don't necessarily have any say in determining the available options. But, you might argue, of course it's not possible for us to all be completely free to do as we wish, without regard for the consequences of our choices on other people. We have a system - a democratic system - that takes all this into account. In order for social order to be maintained, we have to accept limitations, We have to entrust someone - those who are smarter, stronger, wealthier than we are - to establish the parameters of our choices. We suppose that they are looking out for us, or at least that they are preserving the "common good". And so we leave the BIG thinking to them.

And if you don't like the way things are, well you can organize a protest, write a letter to the editor, set up a Facebook group, engage in some form of civil disobedience. In this country at least, no one can make you like the options you have so long as your protest doesn't pose a danger to anyone or threaten the stability of the system. You're perfectly free to rant and rave so long as you don't push too hard or too far. And, if you're especially persistent, you may actually make a difference in a law or public policy. But don't hold your breath. The system is pretty tight. It can't and it won't tolerate too much rebellion.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I guess my point - at least what I thought I wanted to say when I began this post over a week ago - is that we need to be patient if we are to live according to kingdom ethics in a world where such ethics truly are counter cultural. If we really want to follow in Christ's footsteps we can expect resistance. But it's ok. At the end of the day, what counts - the ONLY thing that counts - is whether or not we did our very best - our UTMOST - to live out our faith in every area and aspect of our lives. It's the big choice that we affirm or deny with every little choice we make, day in and day out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"...?

I woke up the other day with one line from an old song on my mind: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose". Odd. And it played over and over again, all day long. Just that one line. You may recognize it - it's from a song called Me and Bobby McGee, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster back in the late 1960s. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. Is this profound social commentary or misguided cynicism?

So I've been thinking about it. As I write, the sister of a friend is very near the end of her life. She has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). She was diagnosed just over three years ago and doctors predicted that the disease would progress slowly but surely for about three years before it would take her life. According to the US National Library of Medicine, "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement." It's a terrible disease. Cruel. Completely insensitive and inhumane. I wonder if she would agree that "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"?

Or, I think of the millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia who are literally starving to death. Do they feel free? Or just tired and hungry and hopeless and abandoned? I don't know.

What about someone who has lost his job, spent his savings, watched family walk away - does he feel "free"? Or someone with Alzheimer's? Is THAT freedom? Did the Old Testament character, Job, experience freedom when he had lost everything except his very life?

But before we conclude that the songwriters were just blowing smoke, is there a sense in which what they're saying IS true? What is freedom? I think that there are times when losing something - health, wealth, ambition, dignity - having the proverbial rug pulled from under us - can be freeing. Sometimes we wake up in the morning and the world seems to be pretty much as we left it when we drifted off the night before, but a moment can change everything. Sure enough, the change can be devastating. But it can also be liberating.

Years ago I heard a preacher use an illustration. Sadly I don't remember the exact details, but the gist of it was that things that looked like they were "good" ended up having negative consequences and the things that looked like they were "bad" ended up having positive consequences. The lesson was that things aren't always as they appear. I think he was explaining Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.In ALL things, God can work good. No - more than that. In ALL things, God DOES work good... for those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.

But where's the "good" in ALS? Where's the "good" in famine and drought? Where's the "good" in the loss of health, wealth, ambition and dignity? Where's the "good" in broken relationships and family breakdown? What "good" is there in the ruination of lives? Are we fools to worship a God who makes such extravagant claims and yet still allows such misery and suffering?

It's an honest and sincere question. And just to close the loophole that you might be tempted to wiggle through - NO, it doesn't mean that bad things only happen to bad people and good things always happen to good people. Calamity is NOT a punishment for individual sin and health and wealth and happiness are NOT an indication of God's favour.

I don't have the answer. And to be honest, these questions just seem to drive me deeper into the "cloud of unknowing". But through the mist of uncertainty, I have a sense that freedom comes not from losing everything, but from simply letting go. Surrendering our expectations, our demands, our justifications and rationalizations. Laying down our agendas... even our lives, moment by moment. Trusting - despite our tainted ideas and experiences - a God whom we can neither see nor fathom.

When we lay down what we "have", it's quite true that we have nothing left to lose. Jesus laid down what he had and invited us to follow him into a freedom that defies human wisdom and understanding. And Jesus warns that in this world we WILL have trouble... but he then turns the tables with this simple statement: "But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

No matter how hard the path we're on, and no matter how deeply we may suffer as we make our way through every horrendous hardship, Jesus is present - "our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). And I believe that he IS now and forever on the other side of ALS and famine and drought and loss of every kind. Take heart indeed!

Just in case you are reading this as a prescription for inactivity - for simply letting God sweep us along this way or that - be assured that that's NOT what I mean. No - we are to live a life worthy, bearing one another's burdens and living as the incarnational presence of Christ in the world... people-shaped evidence of the coming kingdom!