'Give us a king to rule over us
- like they have'
Sermon preached at Derby Cathedral,
to mark the publication of 'Fear and Trust - God centred Leadership' (SPCK)
The elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel saying, “you are old …. set us a king to rule over us, like all the nations.”
There is something very familiar about this script.
Now, as then, the world is changing. Old ways are failing. The question is how to live in the new – and this, we are convinced, needs leaders.
Google the word 'leader' or 'leadership' and you will be offered 480,000,000 websites worldwide. There are nearly a million websites in the UK alone on the subject of '/Church leadership'. For a small market to be so saturated suggests at least as much anxiety as vision – and perhaps with good reason.
But whatever the impression given on the shelves of Waterstones 'leader' does not exist anywhere as pure theory or personality with a kind of universal adaptor to plug into any organization whose old one has broken down! Of course there are common insights and principles, but the lived reality is that leadership is always embedded in the story of a community or institution and the challenges it is facing.
And this is never more significant than in uncertain times.
There is much talk of a 'crisis of leadership' in our world. But there is self evidently a crisis of 'being led' too. Whatever their official title a leaders must always find ways of negotiating the unofficial job description, the hidden anxieties that are actually driving it all – all those idealized hopes, unmet needs and unacknowledged ambitions.
'Leading' and 'being led' need discussing together. This is far more than choosing which side to take or which party to vote for … it is about where our deepest sense of belonging, identity and community are to be found – and nearly everything in the national and international news at present is urgently posing this question.
The unexpected conversation
The idea for this book surfaced after an invitation to lead a session on 'Bible and Leadership' at a leadership training course. Well it was more like an assault actually! I had nearly said no. I was bored with 'leadership' as a topic and unconvinced by the way I often heard the Bible used on this subject. But somehow I strayed into the world of Samuel, Hannah, Saul and David and was gripped in a quite new way by this amazing work of ancient story telling and struck again and again by how much that world had in common with our own.
This book is a kind of conversation between the two worlds.
(The Old Testament books of 1&2Samuel tell of a central period of Israel's history as they journeyed from loose tribal federation to monarchy and nationhood.)
They, like us, were a people in profound upheaval and transition - away from long familiar securities and into an unknown future – and making very uneven choices in the process.
They, like us, fixed on 'leadership' as a way of securing their future. It was a strategy that brought its successes but also resulted in some catastrophic and violent failures.
And leadership and being led at all levels of our world today can be a very bruising and even violent experience. Both worlds lurch unevenly between hope and despair, faith and doubt, fear and trust.
The neglected truth is that it is not just gifted leaders we need if we are to be saved. It is the gift of being led and of being community. It is unleadable people who shout loudest for leaders, who clamour after messiahs and then crucify them with their impossible demands.
Both worlds struggle with the place of God, theology and faith in the midst of it all. Now we expect to hear this of our own age, but it is more surprising to find it among God's people in the Bible. But time and again events that begin in the name of God quickly abandon prayer, forsake listening and embrace strategies based on power and pragmatism.
Theology is replaced by technology.
Give us a king like they have is not actually a theological request is it? So we should not be surprised if it struggles to produce a theological outcome.
It is my conviction that this is one of the perils of our own age and church. We too want leaders. But where are we looking and what for? 'Like them'? And who are 'they'? 'They' are any organization or community over the fence from us who seem, to our anxious eyes, to have found an answer to the problems we face. For 'King' read 'CEO', HR, best practice, restructuring, middle managers? … and there is wisdom to be found there. But though we are not without faith and courage we are a church still seeking a theological confidence with which to respond to the challenges of our age. The answer is not to be found in simply appropriating 'what they have got' (and frankly there is quite a lot of what they have got that we seriously don't want in the present climate). We are called to be vulnerably, prophetically and subversively different. Then and now, the need is to find God in all this. We are called to a deeper conversion.
The unfolding stories of both worlds are shaped by an uneven partnership between women and men. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. So how startling then to find that in this story, from its beginning with Hannah, it is the presence, initiative, actions and wisdom of women that again and again transform the story - challenging the prevailing assumptions, confronting the behaviour, enduring and redeeming its more violent strategies - and so opening the script to new possibilities.
And we too are a society struggling to honour this partnership
– and a church that remains painfully slow to unambiguously celebrate the vision and gift of it.
Here too there remains more fear than trust.
Cover to cover
Now writers are at the mercy of publishers when it comes to book covers. But the choice of the painting on the front of this book is inspired, which I was I wanted the image to accompany this sermon. It is the work of a French artist, Leslie Xuereb.
It shows two figures.
One a king on a bulky throne,
crowned and gripping a spear.
The other a musician, simply
clothed, bare feet, perched on
their toes on a stool too high to
comfortably balance the large
harp on their lap. It could be a
man or a woman unless you
know the story.
It is in fact Saul and David.
Though they are in the same picture they are separated by a hard white light – a shared vocation but very separate destinies.
The background is stormy and threatening.
Both are attentive - inclining their heads to the centre of the picture, which is a large harp.
The harp is gold - as is the crown. And harp and crown incline towards each other. The music of the harp will interpret the vocation of the monarchy.
The image of David is full colour and alive. He receives the harp with open hands.
Saul is deathly pale. His posture is ambivalent, his back to the centre of the picture, twisting awkwardly, even reluctantly on the throne to attend to the music. His face is flushed and disturbed.
The harp also appears to be resisting the place of the throne itself in the picture – pushing it to the side. The message is clear. The throne is not the centre here - even if its carving has caught something of the likeness of the harp. But Institutions never are the centre they presume themselves to be. They too must incline and learn to attend.
Saul's spear slopes away from the centre too and he is gripping it in his left hand - in a culture where the right hand is the one that wields the power and initiative. The right hand holds our strength. But he presents from his left.
Whenever we grip status, authority or anything as a weapon to compensate our weakness rather than fulfill our vocation - we will be using power manipulatively. And the painting warns us it will drain us of life. And that was Saul - a person who never really found his strength and who more often acted out of weakness. His was a vocation that never quite began, a music left unplayed. He is an image of fear not trust.
But though David seems in harmony with the music and the harp rests on his lap he is not here the idealized, heroic alternative that Christian teaching too often assumes.
He is not the centre of the picture either. He too must incline and listen to the music. He too must learn the use, not abuse, his vocation.
It is the paradox of music that it can only be made by working with things that are in tension or even contradiction to each other. It requires the ability to harmonise across diversity, to embrace difference … the sensitivity to co-operate with rather than impose or dominate.
The contemplation of power in this picture – creative or destructive, fearful or trusting - is about far more than Saul and David.
There is no one here whose life and vocation is not found in this picture too.
It is not the story that is being told in 1&2 Samuel – but how it is being told that makes this it so telling.
The storytelling art is more that of a musician than a modern documentary or history lesson. Now as then the task is not to master yet more strategies or techniques but to learn to incline – to listen to a music that is playing.
As we seek the interpreting and redeeming of the story of our own trouble times this ancient saga models ways of trusting and responding, told by one, who long ago learned to listen to the music that was playing across the turbulence of his times – and understood - and trusted.
With grateful thanks to the Dean and staff of Derby Cathedral for their invitation and hospitality.
And to Simon Kingston and Alison Barr, my editors at SPCK.