Note: I have used “he” when describing the leader in the third person. This was not meant to be exclusive but chosen because much of this post is written in the first person. Because I am a male I thought it would be best if this was consistent in the post. My apologies for the limitations of language to adequately convey the non gender tone I desired.)
Over the past year I have been finding myself in the Psalms by making the Psalmist’s prayers my prayers. I have sought to find God’s and my own voice as I have rewritten them in my own words. My methodology wasn’t correctly exegetical in anyway and I think sometimes the reader may have difficulty in recognising the original Psalm. While rewriting the Psalms I have discovered some great personal truths as I have travelled with the Psalmist and his journey of love, justice, rest, God, faithfulness, betrayal, disappointment and the rest of the gamut of human experience.
Because of its length I will divide this essay into two sections. This first section will cover my exploration of my first two themes about leadership and the Psalms. They are as follows:
- Leadership and loneliness.
- Leadership and disappointment
Then in Part Two I will explore the following two themes:
- Leadership and rest.
- Leadership and courage.
The first two themes will explore some of the shadows that accompany leadership and then in part two it will look at the places where there is light.
The reason why most of the Psalms are written is because leadership is tough. The psalmist is usually facing a situation that is very difficult and often feels like it’s beyond his control. Prayer is the way that he is able to work out the way forward in his understanding of the situation in the context of belonging to God.
My key points in this post flow from the understanding that leadership can be difficult. As I have written my own versions of the Psalms I have sometimes reflected on my leadership experiences and empathised with the Psalmist and his leadership journey. The words that have emerged in my versions of the Psalms have come from my heart as I have found myself in his prayers.
As the themes emerged in my writing of the Psalms new words were brought to me each day as I uncovered a prayer in my heart for that day. One of the most confronting themes for me was that of betrayal, where those who I thought would be there in a crisis didn’t turn up and even worse I watched as they turned their backs on me. Disappointment is that knowing I was deserted and then seeing those people becoming my most vehement critics. This is often the leader’s lonely path and one that we know was experienced by David who is one of the main psalmists.
The second theme that I will write about in this section is that of disappointment. Disappointment emanates from a sense not belonging and the often hurtful discovery of this can be transformative. I felt one of my deepest hurts when I was told that I didn’t belong to something that I helped create. Although this rejection was deeply painful the experience was also the start of something transformative in my life. This is the nature of opposition that is often firstly painful before it becomes transforming that every leader will face and then need to decide how to respond to.
1. Leadership is lonely.
There are some really tough lonely conversations that the leader will have as he leads. Most literature on communication and leadership is about the way the leader speaks to those he leads but the leader is also required to listen to those around him. These conversations when tinged with betrayal and accusation can bring a sense of separation leading to a despairing loneliness.
All of us desire a deep connection with another person, when it happens it’s a discovery of that place where we we truly belong. In my versions of the Psalms I have often referred to that sense of belonging as, “home”. Loneliness is that place that makes us seek out togetherness and brings us to where we desire home above all else. As I wrote Psalm 143 I was recognising the gift of togetherness with God when compared to an angry outburst I had recently faced where the person’s aim was to lash out and hurt me.
As I watched this person’s anger reflected in his words and eyes I felt that deep disappointment of a betrayed trust that any such outburst brings. To help deal with this I sought God’s mercy, one version of this Psalm starts it with, “Lord, hear my prayer”. This is every person’s desire, we want to be heard. One of the leader’s most important tasks is to hear the voice of others but sometimes in the midst of that it can be difficult to find a place where he is heard.
Mercy is my heart’s cry today,
This morning your gift is its sweet words,
I allow only these words to fill me,
My dear enemy spews constant hate,
His cold eyes that have dark souls,
Drawing me into their emptiness,
Wanting to see me cling to false hope,
I feel the pain of disappointment,
The desert of loneliness,
When what was important,
Was too easily discarded for a trinket.
These words came to me as I considered the encounter in which I experienced vehement opposition that spilled over to become very personal statement about me. At first I was surprised by what I saw in the person’s eyes because I expected the gift of friendship. This was replaced by words that sought to drive me away. I was shocked that something so special as the deep connection I thought we had could be betrayed so easily by the other person.
This took me to the place of loneliness, where my prayers to God were for mercy. I was seeking a sense of togetherness and this was now lost in this relationship. Loneliness brought about by being told I didn’t belong was a haunting hurt that required mercy’s voice to speak to me in a more loving way. This emerged from Psalm 143 and many other Psalms that have found me in that alone place.
2. Leadership is disappointing
Disappointment makes us reconsider reality, and question what we thought was secure. It can help us reconsider our sometimes too generous assessment of the loyalty of others. It can bring us back to a more realistic truthful assessment of the motivations of others.
I can be overly optimistic about the intentions of others and loyal without the common sense of wisdom. This has led to deep disappointments when this loyalty has not been repaid in the way that I thought it would to be. I was guilty of making a deep emotional commitments that were never going to be reciprocated. In hindsight I should have seen the signs that betrayal was inevitable and been wiser in what I allowed my heart to be open to.
For me disappointment and opposition often come together to create a sense of overwhelmingness. When the opposition mounts I know I can feel quite besieged. Inundated by the words that are often carefully chosen to bring the maximum hurt I have recoiled into a state of numbness born from disappointment.
Disappointment is a constant companion,
Opposition seems to dog every step,
Love isn’t my natural response,
To those who use confusion as their weapon,
Even those my own side are difficult,
Saying one thing but doing another,
They should be sticking up for me,
But, they are blocking my light,
I can’t see a way forward,
What will I do?
I think my best response to disappointment comes out of Psalm 142. I know that I have not always wanted to make love my first response but this was not right. I have discovered It is to whom I give my love that is important and will help shed light on the way forward. Making God my first love has helped me to be better able to love others.
I won’t depend on anyone now,
Except my God’s love,
Too many disappointments have come,
These seek to overwhelm me,
The powerful destruction of divided attention,
Is what slowly destroys love’s desire.
This world is always going to give its share of disappointments. Plans will not work out as we anticipated, people will be disloyal, we will be told we don’t belong. Each of us will experience these disappointments in our own way but one of life’s guarantees is all of us will experience it.
I know that when the disappointments have inundated me I have responded with uncertainty and by withdrawing. But, as I have sought God first and my attention has become less divided I have found the deep hurt of disappointment is able to be understood and then used as a transformative tool.
Leadership is a transformative task that requires the leader to work out their disappointments. Being let down is a part of the deal but as I learn to give my undivided attention I am better able to serve those who share a sense of togetherness in a task or common goal.
On the other other side of disappointment comes the possibility of transformation. Often what lies before has to be taken away before real change can happen. The leader’s task is to take up that disappointment and bring the group together with an undivided attention.
I finished Psalm 142 in this way:
My heart longs for a shared intentions,
The love of God above all things,
Lost in the maze of endless distraction,
But, I am brought home by trust in God,
Despairing of any loyalty,
My cry for help is heard,
Instead of pain I seek out the goodness,
That my God has given me.
Excerpt from “Monet Refuses the Operation”
by Lisel Mueller, from Second Language
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapour without end.
In the worst moments of my leadership journey I have wanted to disappear into a vacuum of nothingness. But, with a wife and four children and responsibilities crowding in from every direction this is not always possible.
What saved me was being able to take the time to step back from my circumstances. I was able to gain some perspective about my own loneliness and the deep disappointments that have come my way. I write this knowing that I have lived a privileged life that many people in this world would envy yet I still experience this deep yearning for what I believe is possible in the way that we work and live together. Writing my own version of the Psalms enabled me to pull the earth into the arms of heaven. The exploration of this world is expansive with increasing possibility that only expands my leadership capacity further as I bring God into the conversation.