Recently after giving a talk an enthusiastic young adult bounded up to me and asked “Wow, I want to do what you do, how do I get into ministry?”I at first thought that they were asking me how they could become a pastor, so I began to tell them. But then they interrupted me and told me that they wanted to know how they could speak to large groups, write and consult. I did this thing that I do when I am not sure how to answer someone which consists of me with one hand scratching my head, sort of half laughing and looking down at my feet. “Oh man……I don’t know” I replied. I could see that they were disappointed. How on earth could I distill all of the events, trials, errors, lesson, mistakes and people who have gotten me to this point in one conversation let alone in one Yoda-like aphorism that this young keen bean wanted to hear?
Later as I drove home I tried to think of Zen Master-ish statements that I could have uttered to this young person that would have made me look cool or wise or hopefully a combination of both, but alas nothing came to me. Yet one image stuck in my mind when I thought of my 15 year journey in full time ministry. It was the image of being stuck in a hole and looking up at the sky. This image was first burnt into my consciousness when I read the novel The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In the novel at a number of key points in the plot the protagonist Toru Okada finds himself stuck at the bottom of a well; all around him is silent, dank darkness. As he looks up, all he can see is opening of the well through which he can see the moon and the night sky. Murakami uses this image as a allegory of the human condition, so much of our time on this earth seems to consist of fumbling about in the darkness and seeming hopelessness of life, yet there are those times when we lift our eyes upward and see that small circle of clouds and blue sky, and rays of light and meaning floods our enclosed world of darkness. This image paints a picture of my experience of leadership, so often it has been exhausting, painful, lonely and confusing, but then there are these moments, when God lifts my head and I forget the darkness and see again the sky, and I again start dreaming God’s dream for the world.
The bible also contains it’s own leader in a hole story. In the book of Genesis we encounter Joseph, a talented ‘dreamer’, a spiritual gifted, handsome young guy. Of course we know what needs to happen with this guy, he needs to be placed on staff, he needs to lead the worship band, he needs to be keynote at the next conference, he needs to be branded. That is what our culture tells us to do to the young and talented.
However what happens next in the story surprises us, this young leader, the guy ‘most likely’ finds himself in the most healthy place for up and coming leaders to find themselves in, that is a depressing hole. Now lets remind ourselves this is not the nice old well that Murakami places his hero in, rather Joseph is placed in what my bible politely describes as a cistern. Translation, a dirty big hole in which you do you business in. Joseph sits naked, surrounded by excrement and ripped off by people who he trusted. Basically its the perfect place for a gifted and up and coming young leader. Why? Because God wants to test Joseph’s mettle, there are no short cuts to leadership. God is not a helicopter parent in the business of rescuing us from the unpleasant. God is not santa claus dishing out toys to his favourites. Rather God is in the is in the process of shaping and preparing. He has a bigger and better plan in place than we can imagine.
The reason that God allowed Joseph to literally be thrown in the toilet, was that Jospeh was going to be thrown in some non-literal toilets soon, namely that place which symbolized so much of what God was not about, the soon to be prison of the chosen people, Egypt.
Joseph was called to be a leader in a pagan nation, his leadership and his witness would at times be incarnational at other times counter cultural. Thus at several key moments his character would be tested. Joseph would prevail, and he would become a blessing to not only himself, but to a whole nation. His leadership and holiness would radiate through generations. The bible would remember him as a great leader as a man of exceptional courage and character. However the roots of this public victory I believe can be traced back to those first moments in the hole, that first test.
So for those of you out there who feel like they are sitting in a hole, a well, or even a toilet. Look up. It might just be the making of you.