Lent for Leaders: With God in the Wilderness
“We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord. Without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the gospel to others. But with such a spiritual abode, we will become increasingly conformed to him in whose Name we minister.” – Henri Nouwen
There has never been a season in my lifetime when leadership has seemed more significant to the outcome of life in our human community. At this moment in our history the leadership landscape is particularly bleak; yet it is into this moment in our weary world, that Lent comes to our beleaguered souls. It almost seems cruel because everything already seems so weighty in our world and on the surface, Lent feels like more weight than we can bear.
But here’s the thing: if we can approach Lent as a season of transformation for us as leaders and listen to its deeper and more nuanced invitations, we might find it to be exactly what we need at this time. Here are three Lenten invitations I am encouraging us as leaders to listen to as we approach this season.
First of all, as leaders can we enter into Lent not just as a season for leading others but as a season of returning for ourselves—that is, returning to God with all our hearts? (Joel 2:12) Rather than relying on patterned responses and old coping mechanisms for dealing with the challenges of leadership at this time, could we return to a posture of active waiting and listening and depending upon God? During Lent can we resist the temptation to sink into despair, to hide from God, believing that we and our world are beyond help? Can we return to a place of fervent prayer for all that is wrong in our world, and to a place of active trust that our help does indeed come from the Lord who made heaven and earth and everyone in it?
Secondly, can we fashion our own wilderness so that what happened to Jesus in his wilderness experience can happen in us as well? Lent is patterned after Jesus’ experience in the wilderness immediately following his baptism, and God’s affirmation of his beloved-ness. (Luke 4:1-13) Like Jesus, we too must face the subtle temptations related to leadership so we can be “cleared out” of false drives and motives in order to bring what is good to the world around us. As Parker Palmer says, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”
It has always been so interesting to me that, after Jesus is affirmed publicly for ministry, the Holy Spirit does not drive him to seminary, or to a celebration party, or to interviewing and connecting with important people, but to the wilderness where he faced his own temptability. Jesus’ ministry on earth was very short, so perhaps one such experience was enough for him. But for me, and perhaps for all of us, I need Lent to come around every year so the Holy Spirit can drop the plow and help me dig a little deeper into my own patterns and motivations to see what still needs transforming! And then as we open ourselves to this kind of Spirit-guided reflection about our own leadership, can we incorporate practices that will help us transcend the false self and lead from what is truest and best within us?
Lent is about so much more than giving up chocolate or that glass of wine with dinner! It about facing our own very personal temptations so we can incorporate practices and disciplines that correspond to God’s intention that we transcend them.
And thirdly, can we open up and allow God to strengthen us? Can we dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord and let God’s angels minister to us? Luke’s gospel tells us that when the devil had finished every test, he departed; but both Matthew and Mark tell us that angels came to wait on Jesus, strengthening him until he emerged from that wilderness experience filled with power of the Holy Spirit. (4:14) Friends, if there has ever been a moment when we as leaders need to fashion our own wilderness so our motives can be purified for God-ordained ministry, the time is now. If there has ever been a moment when we need to be able to “see through” to what is really going on spiritually so we can reject the temptations of the evil one, the time is now. If there was ever a moment when we need to be strengthened by the angels of God in the wilderness places of our lives, the time is now. And if there was ever a time when the world needs leaders to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the purposes for which we have been anointed, the time is now.
This Lent, may God grant us the courage and the will to fashion our own wilderness, to face what we need to face, to say no to every temptation of our false self, and then to emerge strengthened for what is ahead.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2022. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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