I got together with a new friend the other night – we met recently at an event and decided to get together and explore the possibility of friendship (you know that dance that occurs when you meet someone who seems interesting and you decide to spend focused time with them to check your first impressions). In the course of our conversation we talked about how we came to faith in Christ. Both of us came to faith from different directions, he had no family connection to church but stumbled into an encounter with some vibrant Christians who demonstrated God's love. I grew up in the church and stumbled into an encounter with Christians who showed me how to know God personally. In my journey I didn't really have a quest toward a specific faith - I had questions. I was in the first grade when I asked a question that set a tone of how I approach faith. The teacher described the miracles that occurred in the life of Elijah the prophet. The story intrigued me. I asked, “Why don’t these things happen today?”
The teacher obviously flustered said, “Raymond, wait here until I get the pastor.” (Adults used my full name as a sign of their elevated agitation level, an insight I learned from my mom who usually followed the use of my full name with a litany of my offenses and in ultra serious violations a promise that she would recite my offenses to my father who would then deal with me accordingly.)
Knowing I had not done anything more than ask a question and not understanding the agitation I saw in the teacher I simply waited for the arrival of the pastor who could apparently answer my question.
The pastor arrived and pulled me aside from the class to the doorway, “Young man,” he said, “What did you say to your teacher?”
I remember being surprised at the intensity of his question. I repeated the Bible story of the day and my question, “Why don’t these things happen today?”
The pastor got the same flustered look the teacher had and said, “You wait here until I get your father.”
I was really surprised by this response and thought, “my dad knows?” We had never discussed this at home but my dad was a knowledgeable guy – a scientist and engineer so I waited for dad to arrive.
Dad looked agitated, that was not a good sign. He marched up to where I was standing, now in the hallway, and said, “What did you say to the pastor?”
I repeated the Bible story and my question, “Why don’t these things happen today?” At that point my dad heeled around toward the pastor and they engaged in a lively discussion the nature of which was over my head as a first grader. The net result was that we left that church never to return and went to another. On the way home from church that morning my dad attempted to answer my question with an explanation that I didn’t quite follow – but at least he engaged the question.
Why do we as leaders stop engaging the question? I get it, really I do. Life throws reality at us in a way that feels like a little league player put into the batter’s in front of Clayton Kershaw’s 97 MPH fast ball.[i] It’s not a pitch it’s a missile. As leaders we end up with a litany of barriers, obstacles, and disappointments all of which lead to the conclusion that not much is going to happen - the conclusion itself seems confirmed by our situation. This kind of confirmation bias leads men and women down a rabbit hole of mediocrity.
Consider a statement the apostle Paul made to the Ephesians:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV)
So here is the question, do your questions engage the possibility of God’s work or do you limit your questions and hence your actions to a scope you can both generate and manage yourself?
The discussion with my friend reminded me of my childhood question. Paul pushes me to ask it again as an adult with all the depth of my experience and education. What I have observed in working with pastors and Christian leaders over the years is that those who risk beginning their thinking from the starting point of what God does see a depth of engagement and results that others never see. On the other hand those pastors who begin their thinking on the basis of their situation or experience consistently fail to see what they hope for and begin to talk like they are victims of a circumstantial conspiracy to rob them of success and significance.
Starting one’s thinking from the what God does is not an exercise of denial about obstacles, setbacks, barriers, or disappointments – Abraham, Isaiah, Elijah, David, Nehemiah, Paul, Peter, Ruth, Esther, Naomi, Huldah, Mary, and etcetera illustrate that faith instead sees the circumstance with crystal clarity. However, these same people started their thinking from the perspective of God’s promise.
Do your questions engage the possibility of God’s working or do you limit your questions and hence your actions to the scope of what you can generate and sustain? Perhaps it is time to renew your relationship to the undomesticated God of the Bible in a fresh way and to begin asking new questions.
[i] 2014 MLB Player Pitching Stats. Source: http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/pitching/_/order/false; accessed 7 August 2014.