“Success exposes a man to the pressures of people and thus tempts him to hold on to his gains by means of fleshly methods and practices, and to let himself be ruled wholly by the dictatorial demands of incessant expansion.
Success can go to my head and will unless I remember that it is God who accomplishes the work, that he can continue to do so without my help, and that he will be able to make out with other means whenever he wants to cut me out.”
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.
On November 18th 1978, over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement either killed themselves or were forcibly murdered in their jungle base in Guyana. Only hours before they had murdered several people including US congressman Leo Ryan and prominent journalists who had come to rescue members of this cult.
What was chilling about this whole terrible tragedy, was that in its earliest days the Peoples Temple looked like the ideal Christian community. It was a multi-ethnic. diverse movement, its services were filled with pentecostal vibrancy, featuring healings and powerful worship. Yet the peoples temple was also deeply committed to social justice and racial reconciliation. The group managed to live out a community life that looked like the early church. The group was also highly missional sending out buses to spread the good news amongst disaffected youth across the country.
Yet a time bomb was ticking in the soul of its leader Jim Jones. Jones’ childhood experiences had left him with a deep fear of abandonment. This grew and grew inside of him, creating a monster that would completely corrupt Jones with devastating consequences. Jones’ fear of abandonment caused him to begin to run his movement with cult like control. His dysfunctions would send him into a spiral of physical and sexual abuse, paranoia and drug addiction.
Jones would eventually reject the authority of the bible, in one service he threw his bible to the ground as he publicly renounced it. He became Marxist, declaring his new found atheism. With no accountability, and no higher authority to look to, the People’s temple movement descended into madness. Eventually Jones’ fear of abandonment would lead him to cause the death of over 900 members of his movement. His dysfunctions had remained unhealed and in the dark. They grew into a cancer which caused him to turn leadership into control.
When you are a leader you place a megaphone to your dysfunctions, amplifying their devastating effects on those in your sphere of influence.
The one ray of light in this dark chapter is the example of Congressman Leo Ryan. I know nothing of his religious beliefs, but in this story, he was a “Christ figure’. Ryan was no ordinary politician. He put his money where his mouth was. After serving in World War Two, Ryan was inspired by John F Kennedy’s call to public service and he became a politician to serve his community. After riots had devastated the African-American area of Watts. Ryan instead of just reading a report about the incident, became in his spare time a substitute teacher in Watts so as to understand ‘on the ground’ the poverty people were living in. When he heard about unjust conditions in the prison system, Ryan had his staff arrange for him to be imprisoned under a false name, so that he could understand the system from a prisoners perspective.
In the last few years of his life, Ryan worked tirelessly advocating for families of cult members. He was one of the first public critics of Scientology. Such was his dedication to these families, Ryan decided to travel to Guyana unprotected and against the advice of the authorities, in order to rescue members of the People’s temple who were being held against their will. Ryan knew that he was walking into a lion’ den, yet he took the risk such was his dedication to others freedom.
Ryan was not able to save the 900 hundred who lost their lives, yet he was able to save a handful of People’s temple members before he was callously shot to death by a member of the cult during the escape.
Jones will be remembered as a leader who let his dark-side take over, who’s insatiable desire for control lead to unspeakable evil. Congressman Leo Ryan will be remembered as a leader who understood that leadership is service and self sacrifice. History will honor him as a leader who gave his own life so that others may live in freedom.