My first crack at shepherding a congregation came during seminary days when a group of twenty families, ranchers and farmers living on the Kansas-Colorado border, offered a parsonage and a small paycheck if I would be their pulpit-guy. My wife, Gail, and I enthusiastically entered the rural culture to serve the people. They taught us much, and we loved them in return.
A few months into this experience, the deacons convened a meeting to resolve a business issue. I can’t remember the subject matter, but I do recall that people I really cared for began to say things to each other that left Gail and me devastated. It was like being parents of children fighting in the back seat. It sounds prideful, but we couldn’t believe that people under our ministry influence could act so unpleasantly.
After the meeting, a women approached Gail and me to say, “Now you know who we really are. And some day you’ll be just like us.”
Gail responded, “No! We’ll never allow ourselves to become like that.” A bold assertion, of course; but we were young and self-confident.
Several times in my years of ministry I have seen repeat performances of that evening. And each time I have struggled with the same disappointment.
My go-to Bible story in such moments is Moses, coming down from Mount Sinai to find the children of Israel (brats might be a better word) dancing around a golden calf with his brother Aaron’s fingerprints all over it.
Up on the mountaintop Moses had been as close to God as you can get, and now he re-entered a world below (which is the “real world”?) where people couldn’t sustain even a few days of faithfulness on their own.
We have to admit that in the process of leadership there are moments of extreme disappointment and disillusionment when people we lead utterly fail to live up to expectations. Most of my own writings have been upon the failures of leaders (and especially my own). But there is a time to ask: what does the leader do when the people fail?
On such occasions it is wise for the leader to begin by contemplating how earlier leaders coped. I am not speaking of their organizational problem-solving methods. I’m talking about how they resolved the anger, discouragement, or blaming spirit that threatened to overwhelm their own souls. That’s how Moses became my main man for low-end times.
Leading a repulsive bunch
When you read the stories of Moses and Israel, you have to marvel at the defiant, complaining, unappreciative ways of the Hebrews and ask yourself why (or how) Moses ever stuck with them.
Knowing myself, I would have been tempted to resign and send resumes to the Amorites, Jebusites, or other local “ites.” Anyone else need a liberator?
What I never appreciated until recently was the significance of Israel being a community of ex-slaves with all the attitudes and default behaviors that result from 400 years of oppression. As many years as I have known their story, it never occurred to me that when one generation after another has been denied essential human rights and lost its dignity, such people will become seriously impaired in their ability to make decisions, be loyal, trust leaders, hope for tomorrow, or even get along with each other.
I used to wonder why Israel never gave Moses suitable recognition for his leadership. No banquet, no new car, no trip to the Holy Land (just kidding).
When did Moses fully realize what kind of people he had on his hands?
Was it when, at age 40, he intervened on behalf of a Hebrew and discovered no one was appreciative?
as it when Pharaoh implemented the bricks-without-straw policy and the people blamed Moses, saying, “You’ve made us a stench to Pharaoh”?
Was it when they complained about bitter water?
If we seek to pry into Moses’ heart, there is little to go on. Most of the time he appears to have handled things rather admirably, I think.
Leaders today may want to think about what characterizes people who enter the Christian community from lives of raw unbelief. That’s what we have to look forward to in coming years. Ours is no longer a Christianized society where most people come to us with a basic understanding of biblical ways and norms. The restraints and disciplines of a strong community life no longer apply.
The result: newcomers to church life arrive with a host of behaviors and attitudes not unlike Israel. They like Jesus a lot, but sports, shopping, fun, and money-making are pretty attractive too.
I think the day Moses saw the golden calf was when he really wondered if there was a future.
Moses had been on the mountaintop in extended time with God. Down below, the people apparently succumbed to something like abandonment issues, and they convinced Aaron to aid them in constructing a more visible “god” to worship. “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” How quickly some leaders can be forgotten!
An image made of gold, which Aaron would dismiss later, saying it simply popped out of the fire, was deliberately fashioned with tools. Almost immediately the Israelites began to regard the idol as the “gods” who brought them out of Egypt. Then an orgy of pagan ritual began. It appears to have taken just a few days for all of this to happen.
Need an illustration of shallow spirituality? You’ve got it right here. And shallow spirituality is what Moses saw when, accompanied by Joshua, he came down from the mountain. The two saw what was going on and couldn’t believe their eyes.
Curiously, God had warned Moses that something like this was in motion, but he had to see it for himself. God had said, “They are a stiff-necked people.” On the mountain it appears Moses had to intervene lest an impatient God impose a harsh brand of justice.
But now that he saw what was going on, it was Moses’ turn to go ballistic. He smashed the stone tablets he’d brought down the mountain. He pummeled the golden idol into powder, mixed it with water, and made the Israelites drink it. Some angry man, that Moses. Ever been tempted to emulate him?
As the story ends, we find Moses interceding for the people (has he cooled off?) and God striking the people with the judgment of a plague “because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”
The story reminds me how bad things can get in some leadership situations. Others may say, “My story is worse than that.” Me? I’ve known a few moments when I felt people imploded spiritually, but I’ve never been close to what Moses experienced. Nevertheless, I identify with his bewilderment, fury, and sense of devastation. Most leaders can feel it.
Fleeing the uber-temptation
The scholars I’ve read find it difficult to put the stories in this section of Exodus in perfect sequence. But I find it significant that what we read next is about a tent Moses pitches known as “the tent of meeting.”
This tent, the writer says, was located “outside the community some distance away.” Its purpose: to be a place where people could go “to inquire of the Lord.” Exodus 33:7 suggests that anyone could approach the tent, but we only hear of Moses doing so.
Why does the writer place the story of the tent right after the calf incident? Perhaps the writer is saying, “This is how Moses maintained his equilibrium in stressful moments.” When everything fell apart, when even his brother, Aaron, momentarily betrayed the cause, Moses had a place to go, where he could reinforce himself in the presence of God.
That raises a question for me: do most leaders have something similar to Moses’ tent? Let me suggest that an office, which is what most leaders get, won’t do. Too distracting a place.
One of the “uber-temptations” of a leader is to become so absorbed in the fortunes of his organization or church, that his perception of reality becomes controlled by what people are or are not doing. A leader is on quicksand when the applause or the apathy of followers becomes the measure of one’s success and satisfaction.
For Moses, when things turned ugly, he regularly headed to the tent for a reality check. It appears to have been a quiet place, separated from business and politics, where God could be heard at whisper level. When Moses started for the tent, all of Israel seemed to be aware. Each person, the text says, stood and privately worshiped when Moses went there.
That description of Moses walking to the tent and the people standing at worshipful attention recalls for me a boyhood memory of my father, then a pastor, who would walk down the aisle of the sanctuary on Sunday morning after the people had gathered.
At the front he would kneel near the pulpit and silently pray. All of us were treated to the sight of a pastor praying for his congregation, on his knees. That weekly sight made a life-long impression on me. I wonder how many congregations ever see their leader pray, really intercede, for them?
In one of his first books, The Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen writes of Terce, “the short prayer” monks pray immediately after a day’s work in the fields.
“Standing outside [the monastery] in our dirty work clothes,” Nouwen wrote, “we [would] read: ‘Is any among you in trouble? He should turn to prayer.'”
In the same way I see Moses headed toward the tent in times of trouble. In this case, the people have failed. Does he worry that there may be no tomorrow? Has this golden calf incident imperiled the dream of becoming God’s people? Who knows what swirled in his head.
Exodus 33 provides a powerful description of the kinds of conversation Moses and God had in the tent. Again, I concede that it is conjecture, but these accounts (the golden calf story and the tent conversation) seem to be adjacent to each other for some purpose, and I believe it is to show us what was most on Moses’ mind as he dealt with the hurt and the anger of what Israel had just done.
In tents and purposes
What is he seeking as he enters the tent? Assurance that God is not going to give up on them? Reaffirmation of God’s promises? I suspect that he feels unbelievably weak, and he needs to know where the energy to keep going will come from. That’s what I’d be looking for.
What do leaders pray for when they go to their own versions of the tent? What themes stabilize a downhearted leader in the fog of spiritual warfare?
A mid-20th century preacher on revival, Leonard Ravenhill, wrote in a rather poetic fashion:
“Poverty stricken as the church is today in many things, she is most stricken here, in the place of prayer. We have many organizers, but few agonizers; many players and payers, but few prayers; many singers but few lingerers; lots of pastors but few wrestlers; many fears, few tears; much fashion, but little passion; many interferers, but few intercessors; many writers, but few fighters. Failing here, we fail everywhere.”
We get an idea of how Moses talked with God if we muse on the issues he raises once he is inside the tent. They’re noted in Exodus 34.
1. Presence. On Moses’ agenda is something about holy Presence. He comments: “You have not let me know whom you will send with me. … If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (vv. 12, 15). Rightly or wrongly, Moses feels alone in his situation. With the possible exception of the young Joshua, everyone appears to have fallen short.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Aaron (Moses’ brother, for heaven’s sake) had just failed Moses (and the people, and God). His effort at guiding the unstable people of Israel in Moses’ absence had been disastrous. How can he be much of a “presence?”
Does Moses’ comment in the tent indicate that he is becoming increasingly aware that any venture that is sacred needs a sense of presence that is much greater than what any “mere man” can provide?
“Who will you send with me?” Moses asks. And God answers, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
I love those words. They seem to assure Moses that he need never panic; he can depend upon the Presence of Almighty God the rescuer.
This same promise would be affirmed over and over again to leaders that God would call into service long after Moses: I will be with you. Sacred presence. And it is repeated in the promise of Jesus to the apostles, “I will be with you even to the extremities of the earth.”
Questions worth pondering: What does it feel like to experience the Presence of God? How would you distinguish such an experience from all other experiences?
2. Direction and Purpose. Moses’ second agenda in the tent has to do with Direction and Purpose. “Teach me your ways,” he asks. In other words, “What are your intentions for these people and me?”
These are the words of a leader who needs clarification of God’s purposes at a far deeper level than just budgets and program planning.
“This nation is your people (not mine!),” Moses reminds God. It’s almost as if he’s saying, I’ve taken my best shot, and it’s hard for me to find much that’s redeemable about these people. Is Moses underscoring that piece of doggerel: How odd of God, to choose the Jews? I hear him saying: “They’re your people, God. I can’t handle them. So tell me what is it that you intend for all of us?”
Moses’ cry for further illumination reminds me of how often, as a young pastor, I would become confused by all the invitations and advertisements concerning conferences and seminars that promised to make my ministry a high octane, revival-level experience. Everyone, it seemed, had a program for my leadership life.
Dr. Howard Hendricks came to visit, and I confessed to him my bewilderment in knowing how, from all the options before me, I was to lead our church. His words were instructive and reassuring: “Whatever the choice of direction may be, it starts not by reading the promises in the magazines or brochures, but by settling the important things first on your knees. Cultivate the ability to hear God speak about these things.”
He was right. While Hendricks’s words did not solve the entire problem, they spelled out the first priority, which Moses illustrates. A leader has to remain on his/her knees until God has spoken. And when you’re young and energetic, that’s difficult to do. In Moses’ case God did speak: “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Moses got what he asked for: a guarantee that if everything else falls apart, he, Moses, remains in the crosshairs of God’s pleasure and assurance. Just because people are responding poorly does not mean God is displeased with the leader.
3. Glory. Moses also asks: “Show me your glory.” Glory equals power, and in this context, I think Moses is seeking a greater appraisal of God’s capability. Has he forgotten about the powerful initiatives of God in previous months? Perhaps not.
But Moses, like us, is human and it’s tomorrow he’s worried about. As they get further away from the site of the original miracles, does Israel’s God still have the power it takes to overcome the gods of the tribes and nations they will face?
Can God’s power hold this herd of “cats” called Israel together? Can God keep Moses going?
This question of power and its source is worthy for today’s Christian leaders too. Can leaders become overconfident in the new ministry schemes, the technologies, the hype that flows today? Can we reach a point where we become jaded and slowly lose interest in this core issue of spiritual power that comes from God and God alone?
In the apparent lessening of teaching on one’s total reliance upon God’s Spirit, is there a dangerous growth in a private self-confidence that rises out of modern management technique, technology, charisma, and celebrity ministry?
I see Moses clamoring for a renewal of confidence in God’s glory/power and realize that he’s struggling. He’s not sure this Promised Land vision is going to work unless he is re-energized by a vision of God’s glory. The disappointments of the last days have been so devastating that he is almost back to square one: those days before the burning bush.
How kind of God to patiently remind him with an apparent display of power. “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19).
Meaning? “Moses, these Hebrews are a messy people. But my mercy and compassion begin with people who are capable of being the worst of the worse. That, apparently, is Israel in all its faithlessness. The power of God lies not necessarily in an ability to overwhelm armies and their generals; it begins first with an even greater power: to redeem hopeless people who dance around golden calves (or whatever) the minute they get a chance.”
That, anyway, is what transpired when Moses went to the tent. When he came out, he knew three things: God was with him; God had great purposes; God was adequate to the situation. I suppose he also learned again that he was God’s man for the hour.
You learn those kinds of things in such “tents.” And that has served to stabilize me in most of the moments in my life when quitting seemed an attractive option.
I read Moses’ story the morning after that first church business meeting that went sour. And I’ve read it many times since. It never stops speaking to me.
And it occurs to me, then, to repeat this question of every reader who has gotten this far: Where is your tent? And when was the last time you entered it?
Gordon MacDonald is Leadership editor at large and chair of World Relief.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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