Right now, I am about half way through the book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership and the premise of the author Howard Gardner is that the most valuable commodity any leader possesses is the stories that they tell. Even more, the ability to tailor the story to the particular audience in order to build influence or compel people to action is a fundamental leadership characteristic found in great leaders throughout history.
The book is a secular book on leadership, but it is God who makes the principles, so He must exemplify this too I would think. As I write this, the first example of God using this principle that jumps into my mind is in Joshua after the entire Israelite nation crosses the Jordan River (now there’s a feat of leadership) and the people are probably super excited to get their share of the promised land – the original version of 40 acres and a mule. God stops them. I picture this scene like being a kid after a long car ride to the beach during summer vacation. You just want to hop out of the car, get moving, and enjoy running around with the sand between your toes. It’s time to forget the hot, cramped car. But Mom stops you to put on sunscreen. Now look at all the fun I’m missing.
God stops them. Wow, we’ve got to stop again? We have just spent 40 years on the other side of the river and now that we’ve traveled 100 feet we have to stop. Why oh why? God is the master of stories and as I’m sure you know better than I do, He has them pile up twelve stones with the injunction that when their children ask what the stones mean the Israelites would be able to tell the story of God cutting the waters of the Jordan off so his chosen people could walk into the promised land. The people would be able to tell of God’s red carpet – the dry ground He provided to welcome them home. It’s all about the story.
God wanted to lead his people though a story. One of many they had of the works of God among them. Stories that would help them keep their faith as they faced obstacles. Stories that were to be on their lips always. We, as followers of Christ, have our stories of God working in us, with us, and all around us. These are the stories that we are supposed to tell to encourage ourselves as well as build the faith of those around us.
Problem is, when things get tough it becomes more labored to remember these stories. Instead of the story of what God has done, the path of least resistance becomes the story of how we feel wronged. How we are frustrated by other’s actions. God gets bumped. Check that. He doesn’t necessarily get bumped completely, He just swaps positions. Rather than being at the center of the story, He gets shifted to the outside and we take the central place. Now our stories are focused on complaining. Don’t believe me? Remember the Israelites? This is the same bunch that after being set free from slavery, led by a pillar of fire, crossing the Red Sea on dry land, and eating manna every day began to say – we were better off in Egypt! Manna’s all you’ve got? I want meat! They (quickly) forgot their stories of God.
I am an Israelite in this. The road to being a pastor – to living out my purpose and calling – was not an easy one, but the hand of God was so evident. Yet I forgot the stories. The stories of God’s perfect timing, of his responding to my trust, of responding to the fears my wife had. There were so many ways God was evident in the process. And I forgot them all. My stories began to focus on what I didn’t have. (Where was my meat?) Why is there so much distance between my wife and me? Where is my respect at home? Where is the physical intimacy? Why can’t I speak at church more frequently? Why is that person getting to lead that project? I was so filled with unmet expectations and bitterness that I became the center of all my stories.
Stories have the power to lead. Even unintentionally. So, when the stories center on God and what He has done, those stories will lead to freedom and joy. That’s what God provides and that is what was so lacking in my life. My stories focused on me and what I lacked. They were stories of scarcity, desperation and unmet expectations. I became needy. Particularly with my wife – I hung my needs on her like she was a Christmas tree, and it weighed her down. Like the Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, she was buckling under the weight of my expectations. I was expecting her to meet my needs instead of God. I was expecting ministry to meet my needs instead of God. Friends, affirmation, you name it I was expecting it to meet my needs instead of God. Everyone else was supposed to solve my problems.
Instead of having freedom and joy in my stories of God, I was weighted down and I was doing the same thing to those around me. The spiral was vicious and downward until I finally got desperate enough to begin to face my fears and tell God’s stories again. But to get to that place involved me almost abandoning everything meaningful in my life.