“The Truth is Your Friend”

I’m not sure when I first heard this aphorism, but I’m fairly certain it came from the late Charlie Siburt, who was over the DMin program at Abilene Christian University. Charlie, a mentor of many a preacher, became well known for his pithy quips he used to help leaders think more deeply about their leadership.

One such quip, “The Truth is Your Friend” has been a quite useful, and sometimes painful, reminder that all of us sometimes have difficulty telling it like it is—and most often we don’t even tell ourselves the truth. Honestly, it takes discipline and resolution to face the truth in the eyes.

In the context of leadership, truth refers to seeking reality as it really is—to the best of our abilities. This discipline requires us neither to maximize nor minimize the actual state of things. But it also requires us to face our own propensity to deny reality. For example, I may know that my organization is not doing well financially and month after month I avoid looking at the books and getting a real dollar amount for what the organization really owes.  This situation will only get worse until I do the hard evaluation to gather the facts, or the truth. Then I must do something to change the course that has been laid. Obvious, right? But we all have practiced some form of avoidance, perhaps, in our finances but certainly in other areas of our lives.

We do this every time we hope something will get better by doing nothing about it. Perhaps doing nothing is the right thing to do, but only if nothing is done intentionally. And we should alway remember that even doing nothing, whether consciously or through avoidance, is a decision to “do” nothing.

There are several things we need to become more truthful about—and doing this will increase our pain at first but will produce positive fruit in the end. Here are some that I find painfully helpful.

  1. How is it with my soul, really? Our internal life is what we will play out in the various arenas of our lives. In short, if we are not good people we will not be good leaders.
  2. How well am I taking care of me? Leaders need to remember that their primary “tool” of effectiveness is how they manage themselves.
  3. Why am I avoiding painful, but necessary conversations? We all need to have these painful conversations. But when we find ourselves avoiding one we know we must have, then . . . the truth is our friend. The first truth, however, might be that we lack courage.
  4. What tasks am I putting off? We all favour tasks we like but sometime the ones we do not like so much are important for our and our organization’s success.
  5. What are things I really can not change now? The truth may be that while something needs attention, it does not necessary need to be now.

Perhaps you can think of some other questions or situations where “the truth is your friend.”

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Motivational Speakers or Motivated Leaders

Following in the vein of yesterday’s post, those in leadership—to get their “data fix,” as Edwin Friedman would call it—often seek after the next best thing to catapult their leadership to the next level. One of the ways leaders seek to improve their leadership is through conferences decorated with a list of motivational speakers.

While thoughtful speakers can always teach us something, the one thing they cannot “teach” or “instill” in us is motivation. Of course, a speaker can inspire or guilt us into acting better (for a while) or give us a euphoric high as they describe the possibilities in front of us. But they cannot really “motivate” us and certainly not at that level of personal responsibility. That is a choice we must make and it will probably not be the result of having heard a great motivational speaker. Rather, it will be the brave act of confronting oneself about why we think and do (or don’t do) that things we do.

The subtle allusion here is that motivation is somehow externally activated. This is what gives power to quick fix mentality (go to this conference, read this book, listen to this speaker, ad infinitum) that promises that next year’s event will be bigger and better. Somehow we confuse attending conferences (and I do my good share of those) with actual training. We even give Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for just attending a lecture or a series of lectures without any proof that the experience changed anything.

Rather motivation is something the individual must own. Motivation is closely related to personal responsibility. For example, I do not get up every day to face the hard choices of leadership because I read a good book, went to a great conference, or heard a moving speaker, but because  I choose (everyday) to be a certain kind of leader. I bet the same is true of you.

What if leadership was actually less about motivation and more about who a person is? Less about doing and more about being?

Leadership Binges

Leadership has become a big and important word in my life—I have been involved in some form of leadership my entire adult life–both in the life of the church and now in Christian education. In Walker Percy-style, I get this nagging sense that what most are saying about leadership isn’t quite on target. Sure, there is a nugget here and a nugget there, but what is missing is something more comprehensive, something more wholistic, something that is more than just what leaders do, say, or how they act. And like Percy’s character Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, I find myself on the quest for something elusive. And like Binx, I don’t always have this nagging, gaping sense I’m missing something because I’m distracted by the details of everydayness, but when it comes, I can empathize with Binx:

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

The connection with the nature of leadership is that leadership is not (and should not be) a quest for the latest technique, the latest conference, the latest leadership guru who somehow, perhaps, might offer me the secret key to the mysteries of leadership. No, ultimately, the journey we call leadership is the same quest Binx is on. To find himself, or rather, more precisely, to find a self—A self that does not disintegrate under all the  pressures to conform to everyone’s demand that you be for them what they want you to be. However, a self that can remain connected to those around them so that that thing we call “leadership,” can actually happen. After all, it is true that if no one is following, you are not a leader.

Furthermore, this journey called leadership is prone to all kinds of false quests, that feels like one is on the quest, but ultimately leaves a person with that nagging, gaping sense that something is missing. The late Edwin Friedman noted in A Failure of Nerve that leaders today are “data junkies” under the false assumption that one more piece of information, one more technique, one more something, will some how make a leader, well, a leader. From this perspective, the chasing after the next conference, the next book, the next motivational speaker is more like an addictive binge than a real quest for what makes leaders whole. Thus, this chasing after the next “fix” is to confuse expertise with what really counts, namely, a leader’s presence.

In the next several blogs, I would like to continue to explore my own quest. If you are on this quest as well, please, let me know of your experiences of the quest.

I Am the Good Shepherd!

Reflections on the Gospel Reading for April 26, 2015: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

At the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hammond, Louisiana, suspended between the narthex and the sanctuary is a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. I would like to know more about that window. I don’t know who designed and created it. I don’t know when it was made. What I do know is that it goes back to at least the 1920s when the church bought the church building on the corner of N. Cherry and E. Charles. At that time, the glass hung behind where the choir sang.

In the early ’60s when the  current sanctuary was built, the window was placed in its current location. However, much more important than the history of the window, is its symbolic meaning for the life of this church. If I could, I might call our church “The Good Shepherd Christian Church” and not just because of the window, but because the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd resonates deep within us–both in terms of how Jesus continues to shepherd but how he has taught us to shepherd.

Of course, the notion of the Good Shepherd is much older than our stained glass window. In fact, the ideas are older than the words of Jesus above. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that “shepherding” is the predominant metaphor in Scripture for “doing ministry.” As sampling of some of these texts would include the following.

Referring to the appointment of Joshua to follow Moses, Moses prayed

Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17 NRSV)

The language of “sheep without a shepherd” shows up again in the ministry of Jesus  when he feeds the crowds (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).

Or who can forget the prophet Ezekiel’s scathing critique of Israel’s shepherds:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2–6 NRSV)

One should probably read the entirety of chapter 34 but this snippet gives a good idea of how important “shepherding” is a key for understanding the nature of ministry.

Perhaps no text has influenced what we think when we hear about the Good Shepherd more than the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I will not be in need . . . “

You can take it from here.

Thus, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he chose an image that was loaded with history, meaning, and interpretation—it was an image that tells the Story of God in the Bible.

Our text, John 10:11-18, begins with a contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. The point is simple: when danger comes, the hired hand will save his own skin, while the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep when necessary. Of course, this comment presages what will happen when Jesus lays down his life.

In v. 14, Jesus repeats, “I am the good shepherd.” This second declaration marks a shift in the conversation away from the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. Now the emphasis is the special relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. Jesus says, “I know them and my own know me” AND in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. Typical of the Gospel of John, the writer holds before the reader that the same intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father can be theirs, too, that is, with the Father, with the Son and with each other.

This should not be missed. John is not just saying one can have a good relationship with God, but the same kind and level of relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. Thus, just as Jesus knows the Father, so we can know Jesus. The level of union with God promised here is amazing and available, and too often, unrealized by many Christians.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so, of course, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what we do when we love someone, is it not?

But who are the other sheep? A couple of possibilities have been suggested. One is that the other sheep are the Gentiles who will be added to the flock. Other options might include a reference back to the OT promises to restore the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Yet another is the church that will grow around his apostles (this fold?). I tend to favor the first option, but the emphasis in the end is that we will belong to one flock and have one shepherd.

The final note of the text returns to the theme of Jesus’ laying down his life. Why would he do that? Simple answer: Because he wanted to. Or as Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The placement of the last sentence, “I have received this command from my Father,” suggest that the command was not that Jesus must die, but rather that Jesus had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In the final analysis, the Good Shepherd, to be “good,” is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. This has great implication for the kind of people we are called to be.

Now while I don’t know much about our stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, I do know this. The Good Shepherd knows me and I seek to know the Good Shepherd.