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How to lead

Good leadership is something that is essential to us all at this time- we seek that in our Government and its politicians, we ask that of our scientists, and all those in power.

Fortunately, we are blessed at St Mary’s with excellent leadership from a range of individuals who come together as a team to allow people to grow spiritually and for us to truly ‘share the love of Christ with all’.

But what exactly is leadership and what makes a genuinely great leader? The example of what a Christian leader should be that we are given in the Bible is “The one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8).

In my time there have been some inspirational leaders like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King and both of them used oratory and the art of public speaking to empower others.

If I was forced to give a more recent example of great leadership I would turn to someone that a lot of you may not have heard of. His name is Colonel Tim Collins. In 2003 and on the eve of the Iraq War, he commanded the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and gave a speech to his men and women who were about to go to war.

It is put simply, a magnificent example of what I regard as true leadership- I know of soldiers who were there when he gave this eve of war speech and even today they are moved by the example he set for them. Listen to some of what he said:

We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them. Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread, tread…lightly there”.

What Tim Collins is saying here is that although his team were going to war, that they should show respect to that country and those in it and understand where they are going- they are going into Holy land and they should revere that.

“If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.”

Here the Colonel talks about the need to show compassion to those who may die and that they should again be shown true respect and dignity.

“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts, I can assure you they live with the Mark of Cain upon them. If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform nor our nation.”

Tim Collins was born and raised in Belfast and grew up in ‘The Troubles’ and had personal experience of the impact it has on someone who takes another life. He talks well when he refers to people living with the ‘Mark of Cain’ on them forever more when they take a human life. He was keen to impress on young soldiers that real war is not like the movies- it is not fun, it is not glorious, it is not something to be proud or boastful of- sometimes it is necessary, but it is always regretful.

“As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is north. “

Tim Collins ends his inspirational speech by making it clear to all those under his command what they are there to do- and to get on with it.

You get a flavour of just how impactful Tim Collins’ speech was on people with the clip below where Richard Branagh (also born and brought up in Belfast) speaks his words in the TV drama ’10 Days to War”.

 

To get the message

Someone who seemed omnipresent in my younger years is now someone who is largely forgotten but was probably one of the most influential English speaking intellectual evangelists – one Malcolm Muggeridge. Those of a certain age will know who I am talking about.

Muggeridge had done everything it seemed in his long and active life. He lived in Russia under the horrors of Stalin, corresponded with Gandhi, worked for MI6 alongside the Free French in WWII, before writing for the Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph, where he got sacked for criticising the Royal Family.. He finally found his real role on TV in live debates discussing pretty much everything -especially Christianity, although he was frequently made fun of by satirists at the time. He went from being Agnostic to being a Christian in the 1960’s (and becoming a Catholic very late on in his life- influenced by the time he spent with Mother Teresa of Calcutta ) through the writing and talking of several influential books in which he railed against what he saw as the permissive time he was living in – summed by his intense dislike of what he called the culture of “pot and pills”.

I mention Malcolm Muggeridge because he had the most amazing use of the English language and he had that rare ability to be able to say something that is not just elegant but totally profound. My favourite line of his is:

Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message."

One of the reasons I think this quotation speaks to us is because it shows how God communes with his children, not necessarily directly to each and every one of us, but through all the things that happen to you and me. The small ‘coincidences’ that we may often dismiss as being anything more than just that, but it is how God teaches us something through them- if only we had ears to listen. God’s ways of moulding us are infinite and come in different forms.

It can happen to us by simply, apparently at random, getting up to look out of a window and seeing after a downpour a wonderful rainbow, or you put down whatever it is you are doing, and just decide to see or talk to someone and suddenly an overwhelming feeling of love, compassion and empathy for that person comes over you. This is how God teaches us.

The theologian Frederick Buechner must surely have been right when he wrote:

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness and beauty is as close as breathing, and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world

Malcolm Muggeridge in his quote also points out that the critical part of understanding God’s message is that the art of life is “to get the message”. If we don’t truly listen, as opposed to just hear, then it is unlikely that “we will get it”. That is when the message truly registers and hits home with us, that we understand the lesson we are being taught and can use that infinite wisdom.

How do we listen then? I think we can start by understanding that our relationship with God is a two way conversation. It shouldn’t just be us asking God to correct the problems or crises we currently have, but we need to listen and discern His word and what is being said to us.

John 10:3-4 teaches us that when we are told:

To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice

A lot of this comes down to a different aspect of faith. The faith that allows you to realise that it is not always down to you to find a solution to whatever it is that you are trying to address and have the belief to trust God to lead and guide you towards the right, just and wise action.

Let us all have eyes to see, ears to hear and wits to understand!

He's ain't heavy, he's my brother

For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?, and when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”

And the King will answer them “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” “

I thought about that passage from Matthew 25:40 when, the other day, I was listening to the 1960s/1970s rock/pop group The Hollies’ version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, also made famous by Neil Diamond. The song was co-written by American lyricist Bob Russell whilst he was dying from cancer and it sums up our responsibility to our fellow man and woman.

Its history is interesting as it is believed that the song came about as a result of a story told in ‘The Parables of Jesus’, written by a previous Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, who witnessed a little girl carrying a baby almost as big as she was, who said to him “He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither” and in time it became “He’s no heavy, he’s my brother”.

The Hollies’ version (a certain Reg Dwight- now Elton John played piano on it for the princely sum of £12) is I think the most poignant and spiritual and the words express it all:

The Road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to (who knows) where, who knows where?

But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him-yeah, He ain’t heavy-he’s my brother”.

At the moment of course we must all be feeling that we are still on a winding road and we truly don’t know where it will end but by trusting in God we knew we will come through it. So many people have risen to the challenge to “carry” people though these troubled times – whether it is helping out with the Food Cupboard or checking that neighbours and loved ones are OK, and that is in many ways not just our duty but it can also be a privilege.

So along we go, his welfare is my concern, no burden is he to bear, we’ll get there,

But I know he would not encumber me, he ain’t heavy-he’s my brother,

If I’m leaving at all, if I’m leaving with sadness, that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another”

Here this reminds us of what Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ was told by his late partner Jacob Marley: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business”.

We should realise that God put us here to help, heal and love people on their road in life, and why not share that journey and lighten their burden with them?

Below is the best version of the song and some very moving and suitable images:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_xzD8Pn4nM

To be a (tough) Christian

 

 A common comment I can get from my secular friends is about how ‘soft’ they think Christians are. Quite often they, and the wider media, can describe us as ‘bleeding hearts’, as people who get taken in too easily, who are too trusting and who are easily taken advantage of.

Now, there is some kernel of truth in some of that as so many of the Church’s safeguarding abuses have come about from being too trusting of certain individuals and thinking the best, rather than the worst, of them. However, the stereotype of Christians is often undeserved, and some of the strongest people have been and are Christians.

Take the original ‘Man in Black’ -the late Country singer and actor Johnny Cash. Now he was no ‘softie’. He lived through the Depression, helped dig the grave of his beloved brother at the tender age of just 12, was infamous for smashing up hotel rooms, involved in numerous car crashes whilst on drugs and was arrested no less than 7 times. He became a Christian as a boy but saw himself as the ultimate ‘sinner’ who was not faithful to God, but God was to him. With his life spiralling out of control and unable to address his drug addiction, he retreated to a cave in Tennessee to die, but whilst there he recalled the God and faith of his childhood, was granted an epiphany, and was re-born.

Johnny Cash got it right when he later said :

“Being a Christian isn’t for sissies. It takes a real person to live for God, a lot more person than to live for the devil, you know? If you really want to live right these days, you gotta be tough”

Another tough living individual is ‘Alice Cooper’ (real name Vincent Furnier) one of the ultimate heavy rockers whose glam rock anthem ‘School’s Out’ (1972) was banned by the BBC but is still selling copies today. Remember that this is the same ‘Alice Cooper’ who gained worldwide infamy for his onstage antics and his ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ series of gigs . But the real Alice Cooper knows just how important being a Christian is.

He talks openly about being saved twice by God, the first when he survived a serious operation and the second when he realised his life was failing badly. He was drinking with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon who all died in their 20s or 30s and knew he was on that same path of destruction. He returned to his boyhood faith and rededicated his life to Jesus.

Alice Cooper also questions how Christians are seen and sees no conflict between being a follower of Jesus and being an entertainer:

“Being a Christian is something you just progress in. You learn. You go to your Bible studies and you pray. There’s nothing in Christianity that says I can’t be a rock star. People have a very warped view of Christianity. They think it’s all very precise and we never do wrong, that we’re praying all day and that we are all right-wing. It has nothing to do with that”.

He sums it up well when he says:

“Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”

Now this does not mean that you all have to find a hard mean streak in order to live your faith, but it does show that by being a Christian we are choosing a hard and an unfashionable road to go down, where there will be challenges that we will need to overcome, and we may be ridiculed or mocked for what we believe in. In Luke 14:27 Jesus teaches us about that cost:

“And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple”

As both Johnny Cash and Alice Cooper would testify that is the toughest gig of all, but as true disciples remember this, we know the love God has for us and that truth allows us to love others which is what it is all about.