How To Be a Leader

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I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour…

1 Timothy 2:1-3 (NIVUK)

I was impressed a week or so back when I saw the photo of Bear Grylls praying over President Obama. Here is one of the many articles about it.

Most of the comments I’ve read have been praising Bear for this public manifestation of his faith, and I applaud that too – it’s something I could learn from. But I was equally impressed with Obama for allowing this image to be shared, and for what this says about him.

In previous generations he might have been described as “Leader of the Free World”. Even now, whatever you may think about his policies, character or beliefs, he is undoubtedly the most powerful individual human being in the world today, with an extraordinarily wide influence. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live that life.

So what the photo with Grylls says to me is that this most powerful man recognises his lack. He has the humility to allow another man to reach out and intercede with Almighty God on his behalf. This is what I want from a leader. Leaders must make decisions, and sometimes those decisions are not ones that we all agree with, but no leader is infallible, no leader has all the answers, and I have more respect for those leaders who admit and embrace their frail humanity, and who accept advice – and prayer.

You can learn a little more about Bear Grylls’ background and faith in this article.

This week brought a similar story from closer to (my) home, as Queen Elizabeth II became the longest serving monarch in British history. Again there were many articles all over the web, but this one spoke to me.

The Queen has no real power to speak of, although she has a certain amount of influence. Like the US President she has her critics, but from a slightly different variety of Republican!

In terms of leadership she is merely a figurehead, but the way she has carried out her duties – and continues to do so into old age – and how she has chosen to serve her country in the role assigned to her for the rest of her life, is a lesson to us all. She clearly has a strong Christian faith and feels that this is the way she has been called to serve God.

In the more humdrum environment of my workplace we have annual performance reviews, and these include an appraisal of our “leadership traits”. To say that I don’t enjoy these reviews would be an understatement, and I often wonder what’s the purpose? Why are you examining the leadership qualities of everyone, including the most junior employees, some of whom are content to just get on with the job and take home their pay, with no ambition to become supervisors, managers… leaders?

Well, although I wonder, I really shouldn’t, because the truth is that every one of us is a leader in some respect, if not at work then within our families, or friendship groups. Even if our roles in those groups seem to be more sheep than shepherd, in reality we are influencing everyone around us in the way we behave, especially in the way we respond to negative situations.

I often pray for leaders. Occasionally it is for political leaders, but most often it is for the leaders of the church – my own church, or those I have connections with, and sometimes for global church leaders such as the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury.

What we should all do is pray for everyone who has an influence on us – that they would be positive motivators for us. And we should pray that we will deliver a positive message to everyone whose lives we touch, that we can become more interested in serving than in being served, and that we will recognise our weaknesses and accept help and prayer in those areas.

Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:42-45 (NIVUK)

I Recommend PrayerMate

I became aware last year that my prayer life wasn’t everything that it should be. While I would frequently talk to God throughout the day, it felt like casual conversation, small talk. I knew that I needed to be more intentional in devoting time to prayer, and more focused in what I spoke to God about.

So I was very interested when I read about PrayerMate. I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly who mentioned it – I found it in an article referenced in an email from one of several Christian mailing lists that I’m subscribed to.

PrayerMate is basically an electronic prayer list, and this is how I use it: I have four categories, one for the Church (both local and global), one for my family, one for my Small Group, and one for my friends. Within each of those categories are a list of subjects that I want to pray for. So most of the categories contain a list a people. The Church category is different, as its subjects include local initiatives, global conflicts, and general issues such as Church leadership.

PrayerMate sets an alarm each day – very useful for me! Then I open it, and I am presented with one subject from each category, so everyday I will pray for three specific individuals and one Church issue. PrayerMate rotates the subjects so that they are different every day, and over the course of a week or so I will pray for everything and everyone on my list.

If there are particular issues concerning one of my subjects, for example a health issue for a Small Group member, then I can add notes about this, and those notes are shown when PrayerMate selects that person for prayer.

I will be adding a new category soon, for Praise and Devotion, as this is something I don’t include enough in my prayers. I will be adding lines of scripture, especially from the Psalms, to acknowledge God’s majesty and faithfulness, so that I give Him the honour due to Him before submitting my petitions to Him.

PrayerMate comes pre-loaded with a few categories and subjects, which you can adapt or delete if you wish. There are also many ways to configure the way subjects are selected for daily prayer, for example to focus more on categories that are closer to your heart. I haven’t used half of the available options.

I feel much more comfortable about my relationship with God now that I have this tool to help me develop discipline in my prayer life. If you don’t need help in this area then I am very pleased for you, but for me, PrayerMate has been an true blessing.

The Power and Purpose of Prayer

The primary purpose of prayer is not to persuade God to act on your – or somebody else’s – behalf. God has things pretty well sussed, His plans are made, and He’s not in the habit of changing His mind (Isaiah 46:10-11, Numbers 23:19).

No, the primary purpose of prayer is to change you – to move you to compassion, to transform your mind, to open your eyes to the direction where He is leading you, to align you with His will.

Consider a line from arguably the most famous prayer in the world, a line that is included in countless other prayers every day.

“Your will be done.” – Matthew 6:9-10

Often phrased as “Lord, have Your way,” this prayer was spoken by Jesus not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but also in Gethsemane as he contemplated his coming crucifixion (Matthew 26:39). And what Christ did next tells you everything about the purpose of prayer – He acted on it.

What do you imagine it means to God when you ask Him that His will should be done? Do you think it might prompt Him, stir Him into action thinking “I’m glad you reminded Me!” Of course not. As your prayer is directed to God, so He reflects it back to you in a perfected form, and if your heart is really open to Him then you receive that reflection, you recognise it as His response, and you understand how He is directing you to act. This is the power of prayer – it actually connects you to God’s will.

If you ask the question “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” then you’re likely to hear several standard answers. Among them are selfish motives, unrepentant sin, unbelief and hypocrisy (James 4:3, Psalm 34:15-16, Proverbs 28:13). At the root of all these issues is pride. Pride blinds us to God’s reflection of our prayer, and we refuse to acknowledge our part in the responsibility for doing His will.

Sometimes our part is very small, but that doesn’t make it insignificant – “For want of a nail…

And sometimes of course the only thing we can actually do is pray. In those circumstances, whether the answer comes through the actions of others or directly by God’s hand, and whether it comes today or years down the line, our prayers still need to change us. We need to learn to trust God, to be thankful to Him in all circumstances, to love unconditionally, and to keep our faith (Romans 8:18-39). As God reflects such prayers back to us, they come wrapped in His peace, and we gain a deeper appreciation of His sovereign power and His infinite mercy.

Promises

The promises of man
Are castles made of sand
And the tide will wash them through
Before the day is done

But the promises of God
Are stronger than a rock
And they will endure
Beyond the earth and sun

 

Almighty God, despite Your instruction I still worry too much about what tomorrow may bring. But I want to thank You today. I want to thank You for not promising me tomorrow, but instead promising me eternity, with You, in paradise. I thank You in the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

 

25 August 2010

Small Is Beautiful

More than once I’ve heard a preacher say that God is insulted by small prayers. He wants us to think big. He wants to show off. Is that what God really wants?

He wants us to reveal our hearts’ desires to Him – big or small. He already knows those desires, and even our grandest, most spectacular requests are nothing to Him who can provide above and beyond all we could ever imagine.

So don’t insult God by suggesting that what matters to you is too small for Him. And remember that a request that’s small for you could be the biggest thing in somebody else’s life.

Goldilocks and the Three Prayers

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for as long as I can remember. I started watching regularly towards the end of the Tom Baker era, and Peter Davison was the first Doctor I saw from beginning to end, so I guess those two are my ‘favourites’ though I can see merits in all of them (yes all of them!)

I’ve enjoyed the 21st Century reboot as well, but there was one particular change that bothered me. I think it bothered me so much that I even complained about it on internet message boards! It was the change in episode format and story length.

In the good old days the episode was generally around 25 minutes long, and a story typically ran over 4 episodes. That gave opportunities for classic (or not-so-classic) cliffhangers, but more importantly it gave a degree of flexibility to the story length. If necessary the story could be spread over a shorter or longer number of episodes – I remember the all time great Genesis of the Daleks was a 6-parter. In theory you could also have a one-off 25 minute story if you wanted to. Somewhere in my archives I probably have a list of all the stories that I could check to see if they ever did that – but I won’t!

The reboot changed the format more in line with the current US TV vogue. There was a 13 episode ‘season’ which had on underlying/overarching storyline ‘arc’, but within that were 45 minute episodes that were usually self-contained stories. Yes there was the occasional 2-parter but they were the exception, and in any case putting together 45 minute episodes naturally gives less flexibility than 25 minute ones.

Many stories work brilliantly within that format, but more often than I’d like, I’d see stories that seemed either padded out or squeezed to fit them into the required number of minutes. In my perfect world I would let the writers write a story that worked, of whatever length was necessary, and I’d let the director film it in as many parts, of whatever length, so that they would work on screen for maximum audience satisfaction. So a 30 minute story one week could be followed by a 2 hour TV movie the next, followed by a 90 minute story spread over two weeks with a terrific cliffhanger in the middle.

Of course that’s not how TV schedules work these days – I don’t know if they ever did. If you want the flexibility to produce a moving picture that is the perfect length for the story you want to tell, cinema is your best hope.

Other art forms aren’t as restricted by schedules – although some might be moving that way, as Billy Joel noted in his 1974 song The Entertainer:

I am the entertainer,
I come to do my show.
You’ve heard my latest record,
It’s been on the radio.
Ah, it took me years to write it,
They were the best years of my life.
It was a beautiful song.
But it ran too long.
If you’re gonna have a hit,
You gotta make it fit –
So they cut it down to 3:05.

I recall a magazine interview Mark Knopfler gave, back in the late 1980s I think, although he’s told the story on other occasions. He spoke about being in a bar, listening to “Telegraph Road” which was on the jukebox, and he found it overlong, overblown and lifeless. Straight afterwards, he heard Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”, about 13 minutes shorter, which was the complete opposite, and to Knopfler’s ears sounded so much better for it.

Of course he wasn’t comparing apples even with oranges, but rather with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding! Completely different songs, trying to achieve entirely different results, with entirely different things to say. Each one works perfectly well in its own terms.

You might be wondering by now, just what all this has to do with my Christian journey? Well these examples were brought to mind when I was reflecting on this blog. What I like about the blog format is that I can write as much or as little as I want on a particular subject. I can even produce a series of posts on a theme (as I intend to shortly) to extend the scope wider if I feel it’s necessary.

But I’m still not convinced that I’m getting it right. There’s a danger of me writing too much, and just getting boring, or overly-analytical. I feel there’s even more danger of me not writing enough. I usually think about my posts for a few days before I write, though some are more spontaneous. I’ll tend to write them out in draft form, then read over them again a short time later to correct obvious grammar problems and generally tidy them up. But still I often look back on a post and realise that there was so much more I could have added to explain my thoughts, and my faith, more clearly.

Hopefully I will improve as a writer over the next weeks, months and years. And one of the advantages of a blog is that I can go back later to revise them if I really need to, although I’ll try to avoid that if possible, and maybe add links to better articles, or footnotes, instead. I’m not George Lucas and this blog isn’t Star Wars. I’ll try to avoid tinkering. If Greedo should have shot first, then I can only apologise.

Thinking about this also reminded me of other places where I’ve noticed the problem in Christian life. And the first of these is in sermons.

I haven’t been a Christian for that long – less than four years at the time of writing. I don’t have a vast personal experience of the variety of preaching styles that are available, but I’ve heard a few, and I’ve also heard that one of the hallmarks of some denominations can be the length of sermons. I hope I’m not stating the obvious when I say that I don’t mind how long the sermon is, as long as it’s appropriate for the message being delivered. Actually I hope I am stating the obvious there!

I was troubled to read this statement by James MacDonald in an article titled 5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word (on page 3):

“Twenty minute sermons”

I don’t know how it works at your church, but for us it takes 5 minutes to set the rig up and another 5 or 10 minutes to take it down. If you’re only preaching for 20 minutes, that gives you 5 minutes to drill. You’re not going very deep, are you? It takes some time.

Judging by the comments on the article there were several others who shared my concern. Of course, I’m not arguing in any way that 20 minutes is always long enough to explain even a single verse, but 45 minutes? An hour? 2 hours? How much is enough? How much can the congregation take? How much will sink in? If you preach the most devastatingly insightful and life changing message of the last 2000 years, but you’ve lost your audience, then what glory will God get from it?

Some services are unrestricted, while others are strictly scheduled, especially when multiple services are running through the day, so the preacher’s hands may be tied in some respects. But I would like to think that room can be found for flexibility in most cases.

I’m not going to make arguments comparing Jesus’ sermons and teaching, because what is written doesn’t necessarily reflect everything He said, and there are often layers of meaning to read into His words. But at other times He was able to encapsulate a major message in the simplest of ways, and that simplicity is something I cherish and want more of from my spiritual leaders.

There is a time for every sermon under the sun. Sometimes that time will be 20 minutes or less. Sometimes it will be 2 hours or more. Let wisdom decide.

And finally to something I’ve struggled with many times – prayer.

I’ve thought about prayer a lot over the years. Talked about it. Prayed about it! No doubt I’ll blog about it plenty in the future. I don’t understand how it can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time – particularly public prayer.

More than once I’ve been asked to pray at the start or end of an occasion, and the person before me has reeled off what seems an unfeasibly long prayer, full of the right turns of phrase, and making my own words that follow feel pitifully inadequate. In some circles there’s almost a cachet surrounding lengthy prayer.

But again, does the content justify the length? I don’t believe any of the people listening to the prayer need to be told the same thing in half a dozen ways. And I’m absolutely sure that God doesn’t. It saddens me that I’ve found myself not sharing a sense of God’s presence on occasions but instead thinking of Jesus’ words:

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

(Matthew 6:5-13)

The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words in the New King James Version. Of course that’s not enough to cover everything that you may wish to pray about on every occasion, but as a model it comprehensively refutes the idea that a lengthy prayer has more innate worth than a short one. And in case you want another example, turn to Luke 18, and say together with me:

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

But I say yet again that a short prayer isn’t always appropriate either. It’s all about proportion and balance. I’ve had quiet times alone with God when my prayers have gone on for twenty minutes, half an hour, or more. God knows it all already, so it’s really for my benefit as my conversation with Him helps me understand more clearly the situation and what He wants me to do in it.

And there will be times of corporate prayer where much does need to be said, and something serious will be lost if we short-change ourselves.

So let’s use the right prayer for the right occasion, be it 7 words, or 66, or 1000. And let’s give God thanks for the amazing privilege of speaking to Him directly about whatever concerns us.

(1894 words, excluding this line!)

Update 8 November 2012 – This article describes a different perspective on the length of church services, and sermons. I don’t agree with the rigid structure it suggests, but I can see its merits, unlike most of the commentators!