Moses said to the Lord, ‘You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” Exodus 33:12
Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Exodus 33:15
Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. Deuteronomy 34:4-5
‘God’s preferred and promised future’ is language many people find difficult. I know because I use that phrase a fair bit and even on Zoom I notice the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. We use it a lot through the Re:Imagine process. My observation is most local church leadership teams have given zero time to discussing their future in these terms before we raise the question. Once raised, there are a few hurdles for some to overcome before they can start the conversation:
- ‘How do God’s promises impact how we lead?’
- ‘Do you really mean God’s preferred future?’
The wilderness through which the people of God wandered is a perfect example of liminal space; ‘the space in-between’ two recognisable territories; Egypt and the Promised Land.
The space in-between denotes transition, in their case from one geography to another, but more significantly from slavery to freedom. Liminal events and periods typically produce recognisable and significant transitions, such as significant loss or a global pandemic (at least we now have an example we can all relate to). Moses had to contend with people who would struggle. They tried to step back from the tipping point of no return whenever they could (you/me/leadership team?). Fearing the realistic plausibility of death, the Israelites saw slavery as a superior alternative to dwelling in the wilderness, even with the divine promise of their own land. Throughout the wilderness story runs the constant thread of Moses’ relationship with the Lord. Moses is given a mission. It is by anyone’s assessment, extraordinarily difficult. On top of this, he was not allowed to reap the rewards of his and his people’s suffering: entry into and dwelling in the Promised Land.
I can’t remember my initial reaction on my first hearing this story. It must have been when I was eighteen and working for Barclays Bank, my eyes fixed on becoming the youngest ever. To my mind then (young, ambitious) God disallowing Moses entry into the Promised Land seemed unnecessarily harsh and an unreasonable punishment. Today I don’t see it like that at all. Today, I am also more aware of the cost and realities of chasing God-given dreams. Today I am aware, it’s the easiest thing in the world to shift blame for procrastination to the church, other leaders, other church leaders, the Trustees, or the Union (in my case ‘baptist’, not ‘trade’).
What is it, which distinguishes leadership, that takes people somewhere, from stagnation? If I had to choose one word, it would be ‘responsibility’. The Lord called Moses because in spite of everything (you know all those things you see clearly in Moses and identify with and think they get you off the hook?) he saw someone who would accept responsibility. Moses stepped up to the plate, which is why he frequently turns round to the Lord, recognising ‘I can’t, so you must’, because he felt responsible. In practice for me, it means I must hang onto the word, the question, the challenge, whatever it is, which in a moment I recognise is from God with my name on it. If you’ve read all six questions, which arose for me reading Exodus at the beginning of this year, then welcome to my personal spiritual therapy sessions!
It’s the nature of the kingdom of God. Now, but not yet fully. Yet in this in-between space, Jesus is my Lord, the kingdom has a King.
#I am content to live with the tension in the space in-between
What on earth’s going on? I frequently ask this question within my world, but the pandemic has caused us all to ask it on the global canvas. Never before throughout human history have so many of the earth’s population been so aware of so much so quickly of anything of such far-reaching global impact.
What on earth can I do? I frequently ask this question too. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a challenge I regularly raise in my preaching over the years for anyone else too. The pandemic has provided plenty of human examples of individuals doing something to make a difference in the charity sector: Captain Tom, Rob Burrow, Spiderman (well the dressed-up version, Jason Baird, from Stockport). If I can be honest about a deep concern I have across the UK church, it’s the scarcity of stories we’re telling about individuals in our own congregations who are enabling people to encounter Jesus, whether that be for the first time, or tasting and seeing how good the Lord is.
It’s not difficult to recognise we’re living in a world of desperate need, too great for any of us to meet. On a macro-level the biggest crisis we face globally remains the climate emergency. Add in a global pandemic, serious shortages of natural resources, plus an ever-increasing poverty gap, and we have more than enough to exhaust us.
On a personal level, I’ve lived with the never-ending challenge of Christian ministry and mission for thirty-five years now. Never-ending, isn’t it? The more fruitful you are, the longer the queue of those who want a slice of your time. This week marked five years, since we moved into our present home. I’ve been taking pictures of the garden to mark the change in the garden; it’s so good to look back and actually see what’s changed. I was speaking to a colleague last week, also a keen gardener, who told me he often takes a picture at the beginning and the end of a day spent in the garden. You can do that with people, before and after counselling, a pastoral visit, baptism, but playing ‘spot the difference’ is hard to say the least.
Then there’s the nature of the kingdom of God. The ‘now and not-yet kingdom’. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth and whilst I’m grateful for every glimpse of the kingdom I’ve ever had, I know it’s simply the first fruits of what’s to come. If I then take a church-wide view, it’s the same reality. There’s my personal embodiment of the great commandment and the great commission. If I could take a photo, not of my garden, but my heart as Jesus speaks about it, I know it looks more like his than when I first encountered him, but I’ve a long way to go yet.
The view of the church is complicated at best, so I’ll stick to my own, the English Baptists. We are in the midst of our own crises the virus has simply highlighted. We began over 400 years ago, the result of straight-forward obedience to a Christo-centric reading of Scripture. Today we risk subverting Jesus as Lord, in favour of an ecclesiological construct, which is more focused on the perceived needs of the church, than the mission of God. Today we face crises of leadership, discipleship and fruitful mission, but it’s easier to ignore the specific commands of Jesus and join the rest of the world in pursuit of a world of our own making, one which has no room for God. (That’s my very superficial summary of a book, which deserves more reading and re-reading by me: Leadership, God’s Agency, & Disruptions. Confronting Modernity’s Wager’. By Mark Lau Branson & Alan Roxburgh.)
The church is living in post-Christendom, but that’s been true for centuries. We are living through post-modernity, but surely that’s the space in-between modernity and what, we do not know. Either mean turbulent times, but together they are luring Christian leaders towards post-Christianity.
You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” Exodus 33:12 Wow! When I hear Jesus say to me: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15) – I know I am more blessed and privileged even than Moses and so are you. That’s why I can keep on keeping on.
#My future constant: determined to be seeking the presence of the Lord
Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Exodus 33:15
It never ceases to amaze me how often I make the same mistake! ‘Seek first the kingdom of God’, ‘fix your eyes on Jesus’, ‘be still and know that I am God’. All easy to understand, all I believe in, so why do I allow so many things to blur my vision or simply get in the way? I’m not suggesting it’s an answer which translates into practice every day of my life, but I’m learning to focus more on today than tomorrow. I’m slow on the uptake, clearly, because this is an element of what Jesus is telling us on the sermon on the mount, which provides the context for his call to ‘seek first his kingdom’ (Mt.7:33): ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself’ (Mt.7:34). It’s finally dawned on me; the sermon on the mount, is not for me to primarily preach to others, to study to understand, but to embody to live life in its fulness.
#I want to be a carrier of God’s future, today and tomorrow
I’ve become a little obsessed with this motif. ‘Carriers of God’s future’ is how Walter Breuggemann describes the people of God in the days when Jeremiah was almost a solitary mouthpiece for the word of God. However, unlike Breuggemann, I happen to believe ‘exodus’ is a more helpful metaphor for leadership in the UK church today, than ‘exile’. I’m not saying Breuggemann is suggesting this, but there is a real danger that pushing the ‘exile’ metaphor too much can suggest our aim is a return to Christendom, which makes the Church of God the focus, rather than the mission of God.
Re:Imagine is the name of the missional learning communities we began in the West of England Baptist Network and are attempting now to share across our Baptist Union churches. We talk a lot about transition and the subsequent, necessary changes, but at its heart the strapline ‘from doing mission to being missional’, has to become more of a reality. At the heart of what being a carrier of God’s future is about is intentionality. That’s at the heart of Jesus, who was both ‘full of grace and truth’. It’s both being and doing, it’s being a kind of friend of Jesus, he describes he lays his life down for, who also ‘do what I command’ (John 15;14).
#I shall listen for God’s voice above the busyness of the traffic
I’ve started a campaign: ‘Beyond Listening’ How many people get beyond listening, following a typical Sunday gathering? My best estimate is 10%. How many people get beyond listening following a typical small group, Bible study? My best estimate is again, around 10%. That’s my best estimate, so I’ve a long way to go. Of course, I have no means of really knowing, but I know my own heart. I know how I can deceive myself into believing because I’ve listened and heard to the point of comprehension, a particular word from the Lord, I’ve somehow obeyed. Because I read and understand intellectually and conceptually the subject of a book I’ve read, somehow, I can deceive myself I ‘know’ something. The word of God however, talks about ‘knowing’ and ’listening’ differently. Look at the parable of the sower. ‘Be walking Bibles’, as Spurgeon said.
#I shall pursue wherever the word of God takes me
Jesus only spoke what he wanted to see replicated in someone else’s life. He only acted in ways he wanted to see multiplied through the lives of all of us who are blessed to be called his disciples. I know this. I don’t simply believe it. I can see, looking back, my story since becoming a Christian has been far more about God’s faithfulness to me, than the other way round.
I’ve sometimes wondered why the Lord called me out of local Ministry. One thing’s for sure, I’d never have chosen what we now call ‘regional ministry’ myself, back in the day we didn’t apply for the job, rather responded to an invitation to interview, ‘we think you might be the person we’re looking for’, as David Coffey put it in the phone call. At the time, I was planning the celebration for welcoming our 300th church member, which probably expressed the reason, in my mind, I was called to Counterslip in Bristol. I was looking forward, anticipating another ten years of what God might have in store for us. I have wondered, both ‘why me’ and ‘why then’? Did the Lord remove me because the temptation to look at something as my achievement, might have been too great? It’s the closest I can get to identifying with how Moses might have felt when he heard the direction of God’s call, pursued for forty years towards the Promised Land, was not going to become his reality.
‘Strengthening the soul of leadership is an invitation that begins, continues and ends with seeking God in the crucible of ministry’. ‘It is a place where the quickest way is not always the best way, because the transformation that is happening in us is more important than getting where we think we need to go’. 
 Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Ruth Haley Barton. Page 210.
This is part 6 in the 7 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the first 5 blogs here.