On striking rocks and getting in the way of Jesus

(This is drawn from ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ – a book project I am working on, based around the story of Moses.)

Moses Striking the Rock (Chagall)

For leaders to lead in the way of Jesus is one thing (a good thing, if it means they are seeking to be like Him), but for leaders to get in the way of Jesus is something else.

By way of a final word on Moses’ leadership journey (and our own), we return once more to Meribah, and the rock-striking episode.

It was at Meribah (Numbers 20) that Moses’ anger re-emerged. What had been an arguably justifiable attribute when he responded either to injustice or to the people’s unfaithfulness was this time an expression of frustration as the complaints of the people tipped him over the edge. It led him to take a situation into his own hands, to deal with it in his own way, instead of trusting God, leaving room for Him to work, thus acknowledging His holiness.

Centuries later, referring to Israel’s history by way of warning the members of the church in Corinth about the dangers of an array of sins, including putting Christ to the test, Paul writes about the spiritual food and drink that were available to Moses’ followers. They drank spiritual drink from a spiritual rock, ‘and that rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

I don’t think Paul’s reference requires a non-historical understanding of the incident at Meribah, but it does point us towards a typological understanding of the incident: in the desert, Christ was the true source of the people’s nourishment.

The task of New Covenant ministers is to share Christ with people. He is the source of spiritual life and nourishment that people need. Beyond what Paul says here in this somewhat enigmatic paragraph, Jesus referred to Himself as both the Bread of Life and the Source of living water. Our task is to help people to engage with Him. 

May God forgive us when our words and actions get in the way of this and we drag His name into disrepute. How many people have been turned away from the Source of living water because of the behaviour or attitude of a Christian leader? It’s a tragedy when people cannot see past us to Jesus. Our calling is to point to Him, to guard the sense of Him holiness, and make sure that we do not make ourselves the focus.

May God forgive us when we make ourselves the focus of our leadership. It’s not simply the big platform, high profile leaders who are at risk (wittingly or not) of this. Any of us has the capacity to attempt to put ourselves at the centre. What good is our leadership if we get in the way of Jesus?

Those of us who are preachers need to be aware of the temptation to allow our frustrations to come out in the administration of harsh verbal lashes.  There is something wearisome about the kind of preaching that seems to see listeners as a badly-behaved class of children who need to be brought into line. Some good friends in our church in Switzerland were once kind enough to ask me if I liked Christmas (I do). They had noticed that in my zeal to ‘challenge’ the once-a-year visitors to our Christmas services, I was coming across as angry: Ebenezer Scrooge in the pulpit!

A few months ago I heard the story of advice that the Puritan, Richard Sibbes, gave to Thomas Goodwin. In Goodwin’s own words, his preaching could be described as ‘battering consciences’. After hearing him preach, Richard Sibbes said this: ‘Young man, if you ever would do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.’ 

There are times when, in our zeal, we simply try too hard. It’s for the best of motives but our ministry and leadership are all about ‘challenge’. Our preaching is always about the big stick. Our leadership is always about the next hill to climb, rarely pausing long enough to be thankful for the distance we have already covered. Of course there is such a thing as a sense of urgency, but it’s possible to try so hard that we end up getting in the way of Jesus. People grow weary and it seems as though we are only offering stale bread and lukewarm water while all along Jesus wants to invite people to taste the bread of life and drink of the living water.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Dawn McAvoy

This week’s guest on the podcast is Dawn McAvoy from the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland. As well as he work generally with EA, Dawn leads the work of Both Live Matters a movement that has tackled the emotive issue of abortion with a commitment to advocate for both of the lives implicated in a pregnancy. Part of their aim is ‘to create a life-affirming culture that values each woman and her unborn child.’

In our conversation Dawn talks about growing up in a family of faith and how her life took an unexpected turn while she was at university in a way that changed her direction and began to develop in her a sensitivity to the issue to which she has subsequently devoted so much of her energy.

Dawn’s advice to her 20 year-old self is drawn from something she picked up from the recent HTB Leadership Conference:

  • Be secure in your identity with God,
  • And walk in obedience to him.

You can get more information about Dawn and the work of Both Lives Matter by visiting the website.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Reggie McNeal on ‘A Work of Heart’

This week I am joined by Dr Reggie McNeal to talk about his book A Work of Heart. Reggie is a writer, and leadership coach who is passionate about God’s Kingdom. He is the author of some ten books, including Practicing Greatness and, his most recent book, Kingdom Collaborators. He is also the host of The Reggie McNeal Podcast.

The book we feature in this episode of the podcast was actually published just over twenty years ago. I was very struck by it at the time and have recently been suggesting it as reading for some younger leaders.

As the subtitle says, the subject of the book is ‘understanding how God shapes spiritual leaders.’ The book falls into two parts. The first tells the story of four biblical leaders whose stories are recounted in quite some detail in Scripture – Moses and David from the Old Testament, Jesus and Paul from the New. The second part highlights six heart-shaping themes that are discernible in these leaders stories, but which each merit a chapter on their own.

In our conversation, Reggie and I discuss these six themes:

  • Culture – leaders are not born into a vacuum;
  • Call – ‘something you orient your entire life around’;
  • Community – what part do others play in the shaping of a leader?
  • Conflict – hard to avoid, but essential to know how to navigate;
  • Communion – the challenge of maintaining a walk with God;
  • The Commonplace – learning to look for God in the ordinary events of life.

Along the way we talk about self-awareness (‘the single most important body of information you have as a leader’) – without it, Reggie suggests, a leader does not know why they do what they do.

Meantime, if you’ve not read A Work of Heart, do yourself a favour and get a copy. If you have read it, buy a copy to give to another leader!