God Doesn’t Need Me: Reflections On The Children Act

 

boy in white shirt and black track pants

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Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate  – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.

By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone  – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.

Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains:  Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?

For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me.  I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun  (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.

So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have  – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.

That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.

Leadership Lies: Just Preach The Gospel And The Church Will Grow

man planting plant

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This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.

It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?

The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.

I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.

Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.

The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.

You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.

What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.

I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond  – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.

I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.

So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E4: “Five Votes Down”

1. Personal life can fuel leadership – but the former must always be in a healthy, life-giving blend with the latter.
2. Relationships count. Invest in people who might seem insignificant – some of the five votes down are people who might seem insignificant but feel neglected. In reality nobody is insignificant.

3. The alcoholism which we learn about Leo and Hoynes living in this episode shows us that no one is immune from addiction. Get help, whoever you are.

imdb.com plot summary

When an admittedly weak gun-control bill the White House has been backing turns out to be five votes short of House passage, Josh makes deals and threats to several Democratic reps, while Leo appeals to Hoynes for help. Elsewhere, while working the bill, Leo misses his anniversary, which he tries in vain to atone for, but eventually his wife Jenny decides to leave him.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E3 “A Proportional Response”

1. Good friends and colleagues – like CJ and Leo – tell you what they think and then work to protect you, even when they disagree with you. Foster those relationships; make them your first port of call.
2. In your anger do now sin. Anger in itself isn’t sinful, but ut can often lead us to do is.

3. Leaders are held to a higher standard – both by God and by people. It doesn’t feel fair – especially from people – but it’s true.

4. Even righteous anger can be dangerous – listen to dispassionate and trusted people, willing to speak truth about the dangers of your course action.

imdb.com Plot Summary

After being offered “a proportional response” to the Syrian military’s downing of a U.S. military plane on a medical mission (and carrying his newly named personal physician), the president demands an option that will have greater impact. Leo gradually must talk him down, while Bartlet snipes at everyone, including Abby. The president ultimately agrees to the initial option, but is not happy about it. Charlie Young is introduced as an applicant for a messenger job whom Josh decides to hire as Bartler’s personal aide (note: he mentions being sent to Josh by Mrs. De La Guardia, who is later introduced in season four as Debbie Fiderer, who becomes Mrs. Landingham’s replacement)

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode