Hineni: Here I am

I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.

Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.

This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.

Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.

Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.

Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.

Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.

Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?

And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.

How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?

If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.

And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.

Here I am.
I’m ready.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Choose me.

Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.

It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.

How could we let this happen?

There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.

The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.

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Five things that parenting is teaching me about leadership

Five unformed thoughts on being a parent, being a leader, and how the one informs the other…

1. It’s going to get messy!
My kids are messy: it’s how they learn.

They are most engaged with pretend play when I let them empty 8 boxes of toys all over the lounge, sit in the midst of it all, and act like I’m grateful for the plate of squashed plastic food I’m offered. But it teaches them social skills.

They are most likely to eat dinner when I turn a blind eye as they tip their food off their plates, rub their hands through it, and wave it around in the air. But it teaches them to be at ease with food.

They often need my best efforts at comfort when they’re at their dirtiest: blood and tears staining my clothes as I sit in the mud that they slipped on while I hold them and soothe their fall-induced sobbing.

Parenting is messy. But in the untidiness, my kids learn and thrive and grow. In the mess, they need my intimate involvement: sleeves rolled up and hair pushed back. I have to be in the mess with them.

We don’t lead from the margins. We can’t stay squeaky clean. The most effective leaders I know are the ones who jump down from the pedestal, roll up their sleeves, and get elbow-deep into the mess of their people. It’s not glamorous, there’s not much glory in it, but it’s where people grow.

Leadership: It’s going to get messy!

2. I learn as much from them as they do from me
Father never knows best. Neither does Mum. Sometimes I pick a battle with the kids and realise a split-second too late, actually, they’re right. Trumped by a three year old. Our relationship is at its best not in our head-to-head battles, but in our learning to listen, negotiate, understand, and see a different perspective.

The kids teach me something new every day. Simplicity, attentiveness, joy, kindness, acceptance and inquisitiveness are all gifts that I am growing into, because of their examples.

It takes courage for a leader to admit that their people have things to teach them. It’s one thing to say it – we all say it – but to live it and model it, especially when we have to admit that we’re wrong, requires gutsy humility. My leadership feels more genuine when I am both teacher and pupil. In this way leadership becomes a dynamic interaction that enables mutual flourishing, and we grow together through it.

Leadership: Leaders still have a lot to learn20160512_193707

3. They will not grow into a mini-me
How I am gripped by the temptation to sculpt my kids into small statues of my own self! They already look like me, talk like me, act like me. I want the best for them, and “the best” is everything that I didn’t quite acheive or experience. What is middle age when one can relive one’s youth through one’s offspring?

But they are not me. They will have their own hopes and dreams. Their own gifts and vocations. These things are not mine to snatch and sculpt. To speak into them, even when invited, is to tread on hallowed ground.

Leaders can be tempted to form our people into miniature versions of ourselves. Without great care, Christian leadership may turn into “helping people to become more like Jesus me”. The overwhelming urge to correct those who dare to voice an opposing opinion, or to belittle those whose faith story is alien to my own, is an all-present danger.

Good leadership is about providing safe space. Space in which people can explore, ask questions, and grow more deeply into their God-given self. It requires great trust from the leader: “Will my people be okay if it turns out that they are not like me after all?”

Leadership: Breaking the me-mould

4. Interruptions are hidden treasure
Parenting is one long interruption. From the positive pregnancy test, to the sleepless nights and the sick days away from school: kids go through crises on a daily basis. In a moment plans have to adapt and fit around this tiny person who wields such surprising power.

It’s frustrating, exhausting, and one of the greatest gifts of parenting. So there’s a full day of work planned and the toddler’s running a fever? Work has to adapt as home boundaries are drawn in. The central heating is turned up, blankets are pulled out of drawers, and pyjamas are worn. Jobs are done in-between cuddles. Phone calls are made to the soundtrack of cBeebies. Meetings are rearranged, and the space and stillness created for this little body to repair itself becomes like hidden treasure. The interruption becomes a golden moment for nurture, care, bonding and comfort.

We leaders have great plans for our people. The trouble is, the people keep interrupting the plans! And yet the inconvenient interruptions – the personal crises and pastoral fall outs and undiaried encounters – become golden moments in leadership. It these interruptions, unprepared and unscripted, which create space for God to be at work without me applying my own agenda and solution. The more experience I gain as a leader, the more I cherish and search for interruptions.

Leadership: The interruptions are everything

5. It’s all about the love
My kids are good kids. I think I’m a pretty good parent: the best, for these particular kids. We have good systems, boundaries, rules and strategies in place, and we all live within these.* But none of these are parenting at my most effective. At the heart of our family life is a self-giving, unconditional, honest love. Boundaries can be moved, rules broken and systems blown apart.  The time we spend together, and the attention we offer to one another, are the glue that holds us together. We create memories, share secrets, walk a long way together; we laugh and cry and gossip together.

*Sometimes.

But it’s not all idyllic. We bicker and argue. Sometimes we might be aggressive, verbally or physically (the kids are very good at fighting with their feet). We all have our selfish moments. Sometimes the kids make me so irrationally angry that by their bedtime I am reduced to stony, exhausted silence when I should be singing songs to soothe and comfort them. My oldest is only three: apparently it just gets harder from now. Every parent knows the heartache of loving their kids. Love hurts.

Strategies, boundaries and systems are great tools for leaders. But they are not leadership. When the fancy structures fall away, leadership is about building relationships, falling into steadfast love with our people, and committing to the flourishing of everyone in our care. It’s about offering a self-giving love so strong that it makes our hearts ache.

Leadership: It’s all about the love