“I think we’re nearly there” – Leading through brokenness

The story of The Exodus – the escape over three millennia ago of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey homeward bound – is one of the greatest stories ever told. And it begins with a broken man being called to rescue this broken people from a broken tyrant overseeing a broken economy within a broken culture.

I was reflecting with Jim today on the brokenness I have seen lately in people around me, and in myself. This brokenness is not a bad thing: the opposite, in fact. Some of the people I most admire and look up to; those who have taught me how to live well; are broken.

Actually, on some level, we are all broken.

And the more I become aware of the brokenness around me, the more I realise that my leadership – in all areas of my life – must begin in the brokenness.

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9

The people of Israel were so broken; their inward (and probably outward) cries of pain were so overwhelming, so unbearable, that they could hear and see and feel nothing that didn’t hurt.

We may not be slaves, we may not have experienced oppression to the same degree as the Israelite people under Pharaoh, but life hurts, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, life hurts so much that we can hear nothing but our pain.

Disillusionment, disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, hurt: these things begin to shape our narratives: they become the dominant stories that we tell. We lose sight of the future we were promised. We forget that there might be promise beyond the pain. We become hope-less.

A few weeks ago, I had a particular day where a number of people asked me to listen to their pain, and to pray with them. Thankfully, I had my anointing oil on hand! Following that day, I made a decision to always carry the oil – at least, as much as I would remember to. I think this decision arose from a realisation that I am ministering to a broken people. Not that the people I minister to are an anomaly; rather, I see in them the brokenness that many of us wear as casually and normally as our clothes. With the oil, I am ready to hear their brokenness, to embrace and anoint the darkest of their fears, and to speak words of comfort and hope and freedom.

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But…
Broken people don’t listen.

Why should they?

And yet, the story we have to tell – of resurrection and life and love and hope – needs to be heard.

So how do we tell it?

Anyone called to or engaged in Christian leadership needs to be ready to minister to the brokenness. Sometimes, the pain of our people is so profound – and shapes their story so crushingly – that before we can begin any meaningful work of discipleship or teaching or building up we need to address the pain.

Effective leaders must be pastors, listeners, healers, and encouragers.

If our people are broken in spirit, then the first – perhaps the only – tasks of leadership are:

To understand the brokenness
To listen, painstakingly, patiently, undefensively.
To hear the story behind the story; the meaning behind the words; the pain behind the aggression.
To be able to retell the story back to the storyteller in their words.
To empathise, and not sympathise.
To be there, with no agenda.

To bind up the wounds
To speak little, but incisively.
To offer words of healing balm, rather than explanation, defence, challenge, or frustration.
To embrace, without turning away.

To earn back trust
To recognise this is slow work.
To teach by listening rather than talking.
To offer freedom, autonomy, and space to make mistakes.
To be ready to go back to the work of listening, hearing, understanding, when the pain crowds in and this inner work is too much.

As a church, we are broken, and we have a difficult time ahead. Trust in us as an institution – as with many institutions – is at an all-time low. The narratives all too often turn to desperation, failure, regret. We must learn to lead our people through despondency, through disappointment, through brokenness.

But these things must never come to define our story.

We are broken, but our brokenness is not the end of our story. The great story of the Exodus probably never felt like an epic tale of adventure to the broken Israelite slaves. At what point did they, as a generation, realise the extent to which their story would be told, retold and learned by heart?

Probably never.

My greatest heroes, my cherished role models, are all broken people. But it is their brokenness, and their embrace of that brokenness, that makes them heroic.

We are all on a path through brokenness to wholeness. And increasingly, we need leaders who have walked that path, and who are willing to walk it again with their people; as slowly and as painstakingly as it takes. The best leaders never sprint off ahead. The best leaders stay with – and unite – the group. The best leaders tie up shoe laces and wipe snotty noses and sit with those who have given up and hand out snacks and plasters and jokes and say,

“Look ahead – I think we’re nearly there“.

And there is the wholeness we glimpse in brokenness. It is in the people among us to are ready
to listen,
to hear,
to heal,
to hope.

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Is anybody there?

Is anyone listening?
Does anyone care?

These anguished and lonely cries are as old as human life itself. Wherever there has been life, there has been hardship, suffering, oppression, injustice, cruelty and pain.

I love ancient stories of faith and spirituality. They contain great comfort and wisdom for any of us who are asking these questions.

In our Morning Prayer readings we are hearing again the story of the people of Israel, who have been slaves in Egypt for so long, that they have forgotten who they are.

20160317_103816As they are oppressed, they cry out.
Not to God, but to themselves. To one another.

Honest, angry, anguished and lonely cries.
Just like our own.

Suffering can snatch from us our sense of self.
It erodes our confidence in our own identity.
We forget our own strength.
We neglect to retell our stories.
We lose sight of who we are.

How do we know if anyone listens when we cry out?
How do we know if anyone cares?

We don’t yet know how our own story will end.
We don’t know fully what freedom we will find, or what oppression we will face.
But we can treasure the stories of others.

The story of Israel is precious, because it tells of God’s response to our cries of pain.
We may not feel like anyone has seen, or heard, or knows.
But this is God’s response to the people of Israel, and to us:

I have seen
I see you, struggling.
I watch, as you put in all that effort, for… what?
I notice, when you shed a tear and quickly wipe it away.
I look on, as your busy mind fights the sleep your body so desperately needs.

I have heard
I hear the anxieties that nag at your soul.
I know your thoughts, the moment you think them.
I listen, when no one is there and you allow your grief to rise up.
Do you even hear your own cries?

I know
I know how hard it is.
I know how others treat you.
I know the guilt you carry at how you treat others.
I know things are not fair.
I know that you feel like you’re wading through treacle when you should be soaring on air.
I know you.

I will
I will act.
Circumstances will change.
I will not leave you alone.

You shall
You shall be free.

I Am
I Was.
I Will Be.
I Am.

If you want to read this story for yourself, or you want to know what happens next, you’ll find it in the opening chapters of Exodus, which is the second book of the Bible.