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Resisting a Failure of Heart

November 13, 2020 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-15 (NRSV)

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;  but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at…”

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?… I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once….”

Focus

Leadership is hard. Actually, what is really hard—we are learning—is leading people in times of uncertainty. People, the very people we are called to lead and to love, can be the very ones who make the life of a leader so discouraging. Oh yes, there are beautiful, blissful, meaningful moments.  But every now and then, we feel like Moses, when he said to God, “If this is the people you want me to lead, kill me now.”  And learning how to face that crisis—without losing heart—is one of the most important lessons of being a leader.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.

Devotion

Moses is losing his patience.  His people are grumbling. Again.  They used to grumble when they were hungry.  Now they are grumbling because they have grown tired of the miracle that God performs for them every day to keep them fed.

The first time they grumbled Moses met the challenge with faith. The second time, he needs to face the challenge with a resilient faith. In Exodus 16, he faced Israel’s food shortage with creativity, faith, and conviction; hearing his people grumble now because they are tired of the miraculous manna that God has been providing them every day is too much. And he faces a leadership crisis—an internal leadership crisis. While the people have struggled with what one expert calls a “failure of nerve,” that is, succumbing to fear and wanting to turn back to slavery, Moses is now struggling with what I call a “failure of heart.” In this passage we will likely recognize ourselves; and how often we become disappointed, discouraged and eventually disconnected from the very people we are called to lead and the very purpose for that calling.

(Have you ever felt that way as a leader? Have you ever felt like saying to God: If this is the lot you want me to lead, just kill me now! Or maybe, “God just let me do anything else besides be a leader!”)

In 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke what may be the most famous phrase from any speech in the 20th century. “I have a dream,” he cried. And invoking the hope of a world made right in Isaiah 40, King painted a picture of justice and racial equity for all of God’s children in a world that has been deeply divided by race. It was soaring, beautiful, and profoundly inspiring.

Three and half years later, in 1967, Dr. King was asked by an NBC news correspondent about the famous “dream” had invoked in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  He responded:

“I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future…I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficulties ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with a solid realism.”

“Solid realism,” Dr. King says; “tempered” solid realism is critical to a leader who is called to overcome the long, discouraging days when those who answered the call to work to complete a mission or fulfill a dream fall back into grumbling, lose faith in the cause, or look to other less-faithful ways of achieving their aims. Tempered resilience is the antidote to the leader’s failure of nerve and failure of heart. A tempered, resilient leader doesn’t give in to the group’s “failure of nerve” by abandoning the dream. And a tempered leader does not fall prey to one’s own “failure of heart” becoming brittle and cynical, or discouraged and disconnected when the people flail or falter.

In the Lincoln Memorial address, Dr. King pointed the way, to the tempered resilience that he and so many other leaders who are working for genuine transformation have had to develop:

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Did you see that phrase in the middle of that stirring passage? “We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

How do we become a tool that can “hew,” a tool that can “transform”?  Like a soft piece of metal that must be shaped into a chisel to hew a hard granite slab, the leader has to be formed and worked. Like the steel that has to be transformed—forged and formed and tempered—so that it becomes strong and flexible enough to, in the words of Dr. King, “hew stones of hope out of a mountain of despair,” the leader must be formed, over time—deliberately and intentionally—into someone with the strength and resilience, the adaptability and tenacity, to “hew hope from despair.”

Dr. King ends that sobering interview in 1967 with reiterating a call to nonviolence and a commitment “to get rid of this hate and injustice and all these other things that continue the long night of man’s inhumanity to man.” (See Martin Luther King Jr., “King in 1967: My Dream Has ‘Turned into a Nightmare,’” interview by Sander Vanocur, NBC News, May 8, 1967).  He reaffirms the vision that he cast in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls his followers to endure, resiliently, in “the long arc” of history that bends toward justice. In the wilderness of the Exodus, the streets of the marches of the Civil Rights era, and today as leaders commit themselves to the vision of God’s love and justice being revealed in the world by the transformed lives of people of faith, Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 words call us to a way of tempered resilience—a path of personal formation.

Are you willing to become a tool that can hew? Are you willing to become a leader who can bring hope from despair, transformation from discord?

Reflect

Consider the attributes that you need in your life to resist a “failure of heart.”  What do you need God to continue giving you or doing in your life to keep you from cynicism when you are discouraged?

What is one spiritual practice that you can add to your life to help you be more tempered and resilient when you are facing resistance and opposition?

Act

Resilient leaders are those who know that they can’t maintain the focus, courage, and empathy needed to lead change all alone. Like Moses needed Aaron, Jethro, and Miriam, they know that they need partners, mentors, and friends to support them in times of challenge. Who are your partners, mentors, and friends?  Could you set up a regular time to meet with one or more of them to give you support as you lead?

Pray

Oh Lord, you know my heart.  You know how often I am eager to lead when things are going well, and how I get discouraged when things are not. You know that I can grow weary and then in my weariness, cynical. Protect my heart, O God. Protect it by making me more open to your Spirit.  Transform my heart, O God.  Transform me, so that I am may better participate in your transformation of the world. Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).

P.S.

Today’s Life for Leaders devotion was written by Tod Bolsinger. You may already know Tod from his contributions to the De Pree Center website, but especially from his bestselling book, Canoeing the Mountains. I’m excited to let you know that Tod has just published a new book, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change. Canoeing the Mountains was about helping people lead deep, adaptive change in their churches and other organizations. Tempered Resilience follows up by helping leaders of change grow into greater resilience. Given all that’s happening in our world, especially the challenges related to COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine a more timely and more desperately needed book than Tempered Resilience. If you’re a leader, you’ll want to read this book. You might also give a copy to your pastor for Christmas.

Until recently, Tod was a vice president at Fuller Seminary and the chief of the Leadership Formation Division. But, a couple of months ago, he transitioned into a new role as Senior Congregational Strategist for the Church Leadership Initiative (part of the De Pree Center). Tod is thrilled to be focusing more of his energy on training, supporting, resourcing, and encouraging leaders. He continues on as an associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller. Before joining the seminary, Tod was for many years a pastor. He brings to his work a wonderful combination of pastoral experience and academic insight, as well as a mature faith in Jesus Christ.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Challenge to Moses’ Authority (Numbers 12)


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