Christian leadership

Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html

It’s Lonely At The Top…and That’s A Beautiful Thing

Very recently (translation: tonight), I realized something about leadership.

For many years, I had two very different concepts of leadership.  Mental images, if you will.  One was of the “cool kid” with power–an image borne of my high-school years where equal parts charisma and discipline were an inherited family trait passed down from Student Council President to Student Council President in a sort of benevolent nepotism.  I learned, from those years, that there were people who were literally born to be leaders, the fact of their worthiness encoded into their genetics so that it was no surprise that a current Coral Reef (our student worship fellowship) President was the brother/sister/cousin of a previous one, because baby, they were born that way.

The other image, the one that came in university, was of a workhorse–a glorified machine that took on the hardest tasks and was expected to churn out success after success given minimal input.  In that sense, “Leader” was more of a courtesy title; the truth was closer to “scapegoat”–the Leader was always the person with the most to lose from the failure of the project, with the idea of “command responsibility” meaning that if the goods were not delivered your head was the first to roll.  As a grade-paranoid scholar who needed to maintain a position on the Dean’s List in order to do the one thing I really loved at the time–theater–I fit the bill perfectly, and so found myself strong-arming my way into heading groups where I scrambled for business contacts so we could finish a project or else sent irate messages via Facebook Notes to groupmates who hadn’t delivered on their promised pages of a group paper.  I hated being a Leader, even as I felt obligated to be one because, to be honest, that first image of leadership was burned into my brain: that of a “cool kid,” someone who was “loved.”  If I led my troops to victory, would they not love me?

…usually not.  Irate Facebook Notes and chronic grumpiness do not earn you a circle of friends, after all.

When I cried in the car about everything that was happening, my mum could usually be counted on to trot out, in the course of her hybrid pep-talk scoldings, the old adage “It’s lonely at the top.”  It seemed to be the blanket explanation for why, despite having “led” for several years, my circle of friends became smaller and smaller.  The loneliness was somehow supposed to be a “training ground” for something greater, though what that thing was I never understood.  Until now.

Today I finally realized something important about leadership, one that’s more or less shattered the two previous images that I’ve held until now.  It also explains what my mother meant by “It’s lonely at the top.”

See, leadership is neither glory nor abasement.  It isn’t hereditary, nor is it obligatory.  You are neither victor (“cool kid”) nor victim (“scapegoat”).  The truth is a little bit more complicated.

I always thought that being a leader must be lonely because of all the work you had to do, by yourself, without anyone to help you because being a leader meant being strong enough to not need the help, or else having no choice due to everyone else being unable to help anyway (see: “ego-fueled myth of leader being the most capable person in a group”).  Leadership was either handed to you (as in the case of the generations of high school SC Presidents) or else thrust upon you (as in the case of group work).  What I’ve realized now, however, is that leadership, real leadership, boils down to a choice.  

The choice is simple: Will you, or won’t you serve?

Note that the role in question is serve and not lead, because being a leader does not always entail literally being in the lead.  A leader is not always front and center.  More often than not, they’re in the back room, or in the middle of the battle, working or fighting alongside and for the people they’re called to lead.  Because that’s another thing about leadership–you’re called to it, whether by circumstance or some gut-deep longing in your heart to serve.  It both isn’t, and is, for everyone.  It isn’t, because many of us don’t ever feel the call, or else do their best to ignore it.  It is, because ignoring it does not make the call go away–we are all designed to serve.

And this is where the loneliness comes in, as a leader.  See, I always thought that the reason “the top” was such a desolate place was because you had to lose so many friends to get there, and not intentionally either.  Being a leader sometimes means looking like the “bad cop” or the “slave driver,” and there were times that I owned those roles with gusto, lashing out at my teammates with acidic fervor, tearing them to shreds with my words.  At the time, I thought it was necessary–they weren’t shaping up and I had to make them–even justified since I was shouldering the bulk of the work.  And maybe, in some instances, they were (though I will always regret the harshness of the words).  But that isn’t why being a leader is lonely.  Making enemies, attracting haters, isn’t part and parcel of that ascent.

Rather…the loneliness comes from a much deeper place.  One that I know and understand very well.

All throughout my life, I have struggled with the fear and insecurity that no one will ever look out for me.  it is a fear that has come to life several times, most notably in my final, masters year of university when in a class exercise, I was described as someone who could “work for hours and hours and never need help; she always has it together, and she can always do the job.”  It was supposed to be an encouragement, but rather, it terrified me, because in that moment I knew that any time I screamed for help it would fall on deaf ears.  No one would believe that I was struggling…or rather, I felt that no one wanted to believe.  It’s the curse of competence–when you look like you have it all together (operative word: look–people who know me know that I can be a neurotic, perfectionist, panicky mess, and that’s on a good day), most people believe that you are.

The very definition of being a leader is being the chief servant.  The person who renders the most service.  Which makes everyone “under” you as a leader actually “over” you in the sense that they have surrendered some of their authority in order for you to grant them a degree of security.  It’s the social contract, the very core of our society.  It’s why our president claims that we are his boss, because being a leader means looking out for everyone under you…sometimes at the cost of feeling like no one is looking out for you.  That’s why it’s lonely.  You bear the burden of caring for all those people who trust you–and in truth, the very best leaders of us often are those with an incredible penchant for empathy, kindness, and genuine concern–alone, because being a leader comes with that insane tendency to feel a bit like Atlas: that you must bear the burden by yourself.  That no one else can carry it with you.

In some ways, this is true–there are some responsibilities a leader must needs shoulder alone by virtue of their position.  And it is true that a leader is called upon to take on that “command responsibility” of setting a good example, of showing courage in the face of fear or else cool-headed confidence despite the looming risks of failure.  Sometimes, a leader does need to look like they have it all together when in fact they don’t.  This is part of their service.

But it isn’t true that they bear it alone.

Tonight, I learned why being a leader is such an incredibly great honor, despite the fact that it can hurt so much to be one.  It is because, at the very top of that mountain, when you are alone and scared and don’t feel like you can have it all together, God meets you.  Being a leader means that plugging into God becomes essential to your survival, because you need something to fill you when you are constantly being emptied out for others in service.  It means a great and abiding intimacy, your life becoming in itself evidence that there is a God and He is real and he loves.  Because unlike earthly leaders, God never needs to drop the ball from time to time, and so He is more than willing to catch any that fall from the hands (or backs) of those who have heeded the call and shouldered the glorious burden of service.

It’s lonely at the top, because it is often in those places of solitude and desolation that the face of God becomes so poignantly clear, piercing through our exhaustion and pain to the peace beneath.  And this is why real leaders are so humble–because they know they aren’t doing this alone.  They know they aren’t doing this at all.  The only reason a leader can empty themselves out again and again is because Someone else is there to keep filling them.  And it’s something else to be filled by God, to live by sustaining grace.  It’s a place of such peace, because you know that you aren’t doing anything by your own strength–it’s all Him, and He is in control, and you are just his chosen face of the operation.  He does all the work, and arguably you get glory out of the bargain, glory that out of gratitude you reflect back to him.

The demands of leadership may naturally produce loneliness, but out of that loneliness such joy becomes possible–a joy you can’t help sharing, can’t help pouring out of the overflow.  Service, with all its difficulty, becomes a blessing, because in emptying yourself you leave more room to be filled again.

And this is why we are all called to be leaders in our own ways, big or small–because we are designed for this.  We are created for that relationship of total dependence, of being filled to be emptied again and filled again over and over with springs of fresh water.  Leadership is God’s invitation to a deeper connection with him, one wherein the feeling of loneliness is no match for the reality of never having to be alone.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid of leading.  I am.  I’m absolutely terrified by the prospect of ever having to lead anything, of being given authority to wield in the service of others.  I’m human, and flawed, and the fact of the matter is if it was all up to me I probably would end up sending irate Facebook Notes or lashing out at people.  Except that it isn’t up to me.  I know that when the time or opportunity comes for me to step up in faith, God will be on my side.  I will not serve alone.  And so this momentary loneliness, this pain of desolation, is merely a test I have to pass.  Beyond it, God beckons, saying, “I am here.  You are not alone.  You need only believe in spite of the feeling.  You have been emptied to be filled again.”

“I am here.  You are never alone.”

~ARoamingTsinay~