“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.

20180316_181012

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.

Advertisements

In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

20160818_091116

In quietness and trust: Two simple questions

This is the second in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Two simple questions: The Examen

When it comes to bedtime prayers, we have never knelt by the bed!
Bedtime can be fraught: everyone is tired. Jim and I are often on our way out to a meeting or service, or halfway through a piece of work, or counting the minutes until our own sleep time.
We’ve survived tea time and bath time and we’re onto the final hurdle: stories, songs, prayer, sleep.

Bedtime is a time for simple, reflective prayer. The Examen is an ancient way of praying that encourages us to review the past day, and to notice. To notice where God has been at work, to notice ourselves and our feelings – so often pushed down within us and unprocessed – and the feelings of others. There are many ways of praying The Examen, but it focuses on two main questions (and endless variations thereof):

For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?

And so this is what we do, as a family. We ask one another:

What was your best thing today?
What was your tricky and difficult thing today?

We ask.
We listen.
We share.
We notice.

And then we sum up with a really simple prayer, thanking God for all the good things of the day, and asking for his help the next day when things get tough.

This is both simple and profound. The kids love the ritual and the repetition. They love asking, and sometimes they stop to listen to the answer. But it goes much deeper too.

First, it asks each of us to be honest, with ourselves and each other. It encourages us not to turn away from the difficult bits of the day and the feelings they created, but to acknowledge them and own them. It encourages us to look for the unseen gifts of the day, and to be thankful for them. It helps the kids to see that their experiences and feelings are valuable and cherished. It gives us a moment to pause, to remember, and to tie up loose ends.

Second, it reminds us that there are four of us in this family. What one of us may have found difficult, the others barely noticed. What another is rejoicing in, the others failed to value. Practicing the Examen together draws our gaze to the other. It gives us glimpses into worlds and feelings beyond our own.

And third, over time, it helps us work out what is important to us. What draws us close to one another? What makes us happy? What unsettles us? How can we build stronger family relationships? How can we listen and hear one another more through the day? What do we each value? How do we decide what is important when we make big decisions together?

In these simple questions, we are noticing God at work, and we are teaching each other that everyone matters. No matter what has happened that day, the Examen draws us together and helps us end well, and not unthinkingly.

And all that from two simple questions.

20160818_091034

 

Bridging the (generation) gap

Generalisations are as good as it gets!
Ann Morisy, in Borrowing from the Future (2011).

It’s been quite a day. The consequences and opportunities of today’s Brexit will not be clear for some time. Our politicians, civil servants and economists have a massive job ahead.

The rest of us need to start building some bridges. The best people, nay, the only people, up to this task are you and I. Where to start: Social class? Nationality? Politics?

How about age?

Lord Ashcroft Polls have shown that in the EU Referendum, the older the voter, the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Social media was quick in its condemnation: the youngest in society (many of whom were not allowed to vote) will pay the price (and arguably bear the brunt) of this decision, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Baby Boomers have been pitched against Millenials (and before you read further, revisit Ann Morisy’s quote at the top of this post!).

Here’s the thing: I’m a Millennial. At times I feel undervalued, disenfranchised, hard done by, and misunderstood. I am frustrated that the Establishment doesn’t seem to hear or value my opinions, probably because fewer of my contemporaries vote than those of older generations. I feel sad that my generation and younger are often caricatured as lazy, uncaring and disengaged. I believe that for someone in their teens, 20s or early 30s life is tougher now than it was a generation or two ago.

But I spend a lot of time with Baby Boomers. I see how hard life can be for someone living on a state pension. I hear how uninspired, confused, and frightened many Boomers are by the pace of change that my generation seem to thrive and capitalise on. I know how painfully aware Boomers are that they may be ‘out of touch’ with younger generations. And, critically, I am yet to meet someone of my parent’s or grandparent’s generation who doesn’t care about the future of their children or grandchildren.

The problem seems complex, and yet it’s actually very simple. The problem is this: The world is changing so fast around us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another. The pace of change we are trying so desperately to keep up with affects not only our technology. It has an impact on our relationships, our behaviour, and our language. And it has hit our inter-generational relationships especially hard.

Maybe we have lost the ability to say and hear (Boomers to Millenials, and Millenials to Boomers):

I care about you.
I feel let down by you.
I want the best for you.
I am worried about you.
I’m confused.
I feel that life is hard for me.
I’d like you to challenge yourself.
Life isn’t like that for me.
It seems like you had/have things so easy.
I’m frightened about the future.
I don’t understand.
Please tell me about…
I love you.

We have bridges to build. So let’s talk. Let’s talk free of blame and guilt and anger.

Boomers, hear us when we say that life is so very different for us than it was for you. Some things are much easier. Other things are tougher – or different. Let us tell our stories of hardship without feeling that we are blaming you. Listen to our cries for help – our need for your wisdom of experience and your encouraging words of comfort that remind us of what is really important (and we know it’s not property, pensions or prosperity!).*

Millenials, know that Boomers care deeply about our future. Open your eyes to see that they carry a burden of guilt, bewilderment and responsibility about the fact that so few of them were able to sustain such a good quality of life for more than a generation or two. Hear their words of wisdom about life’s real priorities. Listen to stories of what has made their lives so wonderful (and know that it is not wages or wealth).

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we talk, and as we hear, we may come to a better understanding of one another. We are parents and children. Grandparents and grandchildren. We want to see each other happy and we love one another dearly.

Listening, really listening, is rarely comfortable. It will challenge and move us, sadden and gladden us. Hearing one another’s stories will ask us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and fallibilities.

And yet what bricks do we have for our bridge, but our stories and our questions and our ears? The rebuilding must start now, and it must happen quickly. Without this bridge, we will lose something precious and irretrievable. We will lose each other.


* And a personal note. Thank you to those Boomers – Ann Morisy and my parents and many, many others – friends and relatives and colleagues – who have noticed and drawn attention to the plight of Millenials. Thank you to every person who has already listened, and heard, and understood, and asked. You have taught me so much.

20150831_140716_Richtone(HDR)