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Leaders

 

If you are aware of the five love languages, then let me acknowledge that my primary love language is "words of affirmation". I appreciate the other four but I respond most to those words of affirmation. That's probably why I responded and resonated so quickly and fully to a sermon delivered by Dr. M. Craig Barnes to his congregation at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

I very rarely include extensive quotes in my articles but I know that what follows will strike a chord with the majority of leaders who read this article. Dr. Barnes' message centred on the episode recorded in chapter 6 of John's Gospel where Jesus fed the 5,000. In John 6/14,15, we read:

 

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6:14-15 NIV)

 

 I'll invite Dr. Barnes to share some of his insights into this passage with you. What follows is a selection of observations. The web address for the whole text of the message is at the conclusion.

 

When the crowd saw what Jesus was capable of doing with a handful of loaves and fish, they wanted to take him by force to make him their king. But that is where Jesus drew the line. He was delighted to serve the people but not on their terms. So Jesus withdrew again, going further up the mountain to be alone and disappointing the adoring crowd.

 

Anyone who is responsible, hard working, and who cares about people knows this experience. You know what it feels like to hear the constant demands of feed me, fix me, help me, work harder for me. And oh, the promises they offer. If only you would do something about their insatiable needs, they would make you king, or supervisor, or favorite teacher, or adored parent, or best girlfriend ever.

 

But if you have ever tried to measure your life by the affirmation of others, you know what it is like to live with constant anxiety. Because, as Jesus knew, the crowd would be hungry again tomorrow, and the day after that, and every day after that.

 

You are only as good as your last miracle. If they love you only for what you do for them, they will crucify you for what you do not do for them.

 

At this point in his ministry, the overwhelming affirmation by a very pleased crowd had to be as tempting to Jesus as anything the devil threw at him in the wilderness. All addictions are devastating to the soul, not the least of which is the addiction to pleasing people. Like any narcotic, you will just need more and more until your soul has been completely sucked away.

 

But again, like any narcotic, the first few hits feel so good. "You are the best thing to happen to this place." "Without you, we would have to shut the doors." "We have never seen anyone who can do what you can do."

 

I'm not questioning affirmation, which is a great thing if it is freely given. I'm cautioning you against taking in affirmation that has an agenda attached, particularly if the agenda is to meet a need in others.

 

When Jesus came back from his retreat on the mountain, he told the crowd that his real mission was to give them the bread of life - communion with God, food for the soul, and forgiveness of sins. And according to John, that is when most of the crowd stopped following Jesus. At that point Jesus turns his attention to his disciples and the others who are interested in the grace of God.

 

How did Jesus find the strength and freedom to be so internally motivated?

 

For one, he clearly knew how to retreat. Jesus lived with what Henri Nouwen calls a "drawbridge to the soul." Think of a medieval castle surrounded by a moat. It falls to the discretion of the lord of the castle to know when to lower and when to raise the drawbridge. If the drawbridge is down all of the time, you may think that you are loving and open to the world, but you are only allowing yourself to become public property. People will walk in and out of your heart according to their own needs and you will soon feel empty and used. Is it any wonder that you are irritable and often speak about burnout?

 

If you know how to raise the drawbridge some of the time, you can retreat into a place of sanctuary where you are renewed in your status as the beloved of God and where you are reminded of your true mission, which only God can give you.

 

If you sometimes raise the drawbridge, you find you are surrounded by those who love you unconditionally and who affirm the mission he has given you. If you sometimes raise the drawbridge, you find that your heart is filled with enough joy and freedom so that when it is time to lower the drawbridge, you are eager to return and be of service to the hungry world.

 

The challenge is learning to raise the drawbridge when people want to make you king because you are so good at meeting their needs or giving them what they want. They come not with spears but with flattery, and yet that is a more dangerous weapon. It is a Trojan horse that will plunder you.

 

Secondly, Jesus knew how to love the crowd without being captured by the crowd because he lives in two places at the same time. He is constantly in communion with God his Father, and he is constantly with the people the Father has sent him to serve. This is the real time management dilemma for Christians. It has nothing to do with trying to cram more busyness into the day. It has everything to do with knowing how to live in two places at the same time - with God and with the clamoring demands around us.

 

We retreat to lay our busy lives before God. We retreat to join God in the Sabbath. Even God retreated at the end of six days of creativity, not to take a break but to enjoy all that he had done. Sabbath, in the Hebrew, literally means "stop it." Stop allowing everyone else to be your god except God. Stop being so lazy with the drawbridge. Stop trying to meet the needs that God alone can meet. Stop your little argument about why people don't appreciate how hard you work for them. Just stop, and join God in a little joyful Doxology for how wonderful life is.

 

Well, there it is. I hope you can see why I wanted to share that with you. I love the imagery of the castle and the drawbridge. I'm somewhat convicted when I read about the potential addictiveness of affirmation. I've passed a copy of Dr. Barnes sermon on to the young men whom I mentor because I sense it touches a very vital part of our lives as Christian leaders.

 

You can find the full text of this sermon at

 

http://www.shadysidepres.org/node/17/2009?page=1

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