It is 40 years since I was ordained a deacon at Sheffield Cathedral, and I have the privilege of being present for the ordination of 21 new deacons at Chester Cathedral today. These are people who have listened to God, heard his call, and responded with “here, I am”. These words are a commitment to being “present”, to “lifelong, disciplined attentiveness” according to David Runcorn in Fear and Trust.
Runcorn contrasts the failed leaders of 1 and 2 Samuel (there isn’t a success story among them) and offers the examples of Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) and Dumbledore (Harry Potter).
both bring the gifts of widely lived and well processed experience
both are significant guides and mentors to younger characters
both have taken the time and trouble to enter and understand worlds very different from their own
both are able to function peaceably without being the centre of the action
both display a combination of gentleness and decisiveness, authority and compassion
both are reconciled to their dispensability and accept that when the time comes, the world will continue without them.
That sounds good to me as a summary for ordained ministry and as a guide for theological education.
In the beginning you weep. The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute. One would think it should be otherwise but the pain … Is antecedent to every new opening in our lives.
David Runcorn uses this quote to introduce the “unexpected starting place” of leadership in 1 and 2 Samuel in Fear and Trust. There patriarchy, represented by Hannah’s husband Elkanah and Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Patriarchal leadership had produced a very barren spiritual landscape. The unexpected starting place is a childless woman who Eli thought was a drunk.
If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.
We learn a lot from ants. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise.” (Proverbs 6:6). The death mill of the ants remind us of another biblical truth, that “where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Helen Keller remarked that “the most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.”
The lesson we learn from the ants is that blindly following our leader is no guarantee of better times. We might just be going round in circles. The person in front of us might not have a clue where we are heading. Call him/her a leader? I don’t think so. But in bad times we will look round for the people we think can get us out of the mess. We will not always search out the same person. Someone who can get us through a forest of emotions may not be the same person to get us through deep water.
We talk about vision in leadership as if there is only one vision to be had, and as if there is only one person to have it. But we don’t have a single vision, we have visions. Some of those visions are immediately relevant, but other visions will only be useful once we have got over the hill we are currently climbing, for which we are depending on someone else who can help pace our climb and who can help us envisage cresting the hill. A community will thrive on the visions of its visionaries, not on the vision or hallucinations of its appointed leader.
Intelligent living means picking up information from the data around us. Where have you been? What have you seen? What have you found? Why do we see what we see? Why do we see it that way? These questions of curiosity shape what we see into something wiser. Vision is 360 degrees, and arises from looking all around us. My own work is supporting ministers in their parish ministries. Looking all around is so important for them if they are to be numbered among the visionaries (and leaders) of their communities. They have to look behind them to be aware of how they have arrived at their current position and to appreciate the journeys made by the people who make up their communities. They have to look round them to listen to the visions of those around them and the longings they represent. And they have to look forward with all these horizons in their mind’s eye to try to discern their foci.
David Runcorn underlines the importance of looking backwards in a sermon he preached at Lee Abbey. He comments that the best pastoral counsellors have learned to be “careful historians”. We all live in and from our history and none of us can leave our past behind. He said: “The need for understanding and healing of memories; to be reconciled to people, events and hurts there, remains one of the most commonly expressed needs. It is also vividly illustrated through the experience of asylum seekers and victims of abuse or torture in our time. Before they can embrace any kind of new life they must find a way of recovering their past from the horrors they have endured. What is not remembered cannot be healed.”
There are many histories, longings and visions in a community. Vision needs to be celebrated as a complex process. It should not be reduced to a leadership task but should be allowed to develop as the height of intelligence.
What we learn from the ants is the importance of independence. According to Surowiecki “independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is familiar with. The smartest groups are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you don’t make the group any dumber.”
Oppressed communities have leaders and views imposed on them, but when we are free we are able to choose the leaders who will help us. Those choices aren’t based on position and status. Instead we turn to those who have deep knowledge and understanding of where we are. They are our wise guides. In their hands we feel safe. They will help us find our way.
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy reminds us, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land”. The reading community is told “If there is anyone of you in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”
This remarkable passage (Deut 15:1-11) adds a further twist implying that it’s worth keeping on the right side of your neighbour in case “your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you.” I may not have noticed this had I not read Psalm 56 alongside the Deuteronomy passage. There the Psalmist says “”You have counted up my groaning; put my tears into your bottle.” Tears count for God and he favours the one who cries.
David Runcorn reminded a group of us this week that tears count, and that they should be regarded as a spiritual gift. For Orthodox Christians they are a gift as important as the ability to speak in tongues. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in a chapter in Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination, refers to Abba Makarios beginning an address with “Brethren, let us weep”. For Bishop Kallistos, it is only tears that count at the Last Judgement. (We can weep inwardly).
Hezekiah, king of Judah, prayed with tears. God prompts Isaiah to respond to Hezekiah’s prayer. He says, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will heal you”. Jesus wept over Lazarus and Jerusalem, and one of Jerusalem’s sacred sites, the church of Dominus flevit(Jesus wept) treasures that moment. There is a time to cry, and that is this time. The Psalmist says “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Ps 126:5) and it is only in the fullness of time that God will wipe every tear from every eye (only those who are crying?), and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Rev. 21:4)
My own concern is my own increasing difficulty to cry. I am not easily enough moved to tears. Have my tears stopped because I have been used to managing grief and to managing lament and complaint? Have I preferred a quiet life? Have I changed sides? Do I side with the oppressor? And, as a society, have we put our fingers in our ears against the cries of the poor? Have we justified our tight-fistedness by austerity measures? The counting of tears doesn’t seem to be part of the economic measures we adopt, in stark contrast to the measures outlined in Deuteronomy, the Psalms and throughout scripture. Sadly, in our culture, crying is a shame.
I think I am ready, for the moment at least, to pray. “O Lord, hear our prayer, and let our cry come to you.”
PS. The photo of the church of Dominus Flevit is by Gashwin and shows clearly the tear bottles on the corners of the building used for measuring and treasuring tears. The photo of the Crying Giant is by Chris Murphy.