THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
What do we mean when we say that God goes before us into situations?
When Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement as manager of Manchester United, the first thought of many was to pity the person who would replace him; some people are so successful that the next one is doomed to failure by comparison. We can pity the folly or admire the confidence of David Moyes for being willing to try, but Fergie’s stature will inevitably cast a shadow over several managers to come. The same might be said of the Queen’s eventual successor, though the person concerned has less of a choice in the matter than Moyes.
Succession planning is one of those phrases that entered the corporate lexicon, as if no-one had thought of it before, yet it has always been a process by which nations and institutions either gain or lose standing in the world. Good leadership creates space for successors to emerge and grow into the role. Many leaders fail this test because their ego hinders the development of others; they cannot cope with sharing the privileges and duties of power. Other problems may present themselves: the people being led cannot imagine anyone else inhabiting the role; they expect the successor to be a perfect digital copy of the previous leader; the new leader is not given time to prove themselves, the people having forgotten how long it took the old leader to establish their power.
All these risks were present when the Israelites learned that Moses was not to lead them into the Promised Land and that Joshua was to do it instead. The nation may have worshipped the invisible, almighty I AM, but they were prone to preferring more tangible support: when Moses was delayed on Sinai, they fashioned a golden calf to put their trust in. Moses was an immense figurehead for the people. He had faced down Pharaoh, led the tumultuous exodus out of Egypt, sustained them through the tortuous and bewildering years in the desert and brought them to the brink of their destination. On the face of it, this was not a moment to try out a rookie as captain: if they had failed to secure the land promised to them, the people would have fragmented and ultimately disintegrated. The people were querulous, volatile and disloyal: a toxic cocktail for an unproven new leader. And yet it worked, because the succession planning was wise and rooted in the promise of God.
In Deuteronomy 31, Moses publicly allies himself with his successor, Joshua. His words of support are not private or provisional. In the hearing of the people he offers full and unambiguous support, cutting off any source of gossip or doubt among the people. Moses also gives Joshua a charge: to be strong and bold and not to be afraid or dismayed. These few words, like some ancient Gettysburg address, are stunning in their power and simplicity. They also speak across the ages to us today.
Underlying questions of succession planning is the problem human beings have with change of any kind. We have an instinctive preference for the way things are in life, even though observation tells us that life is an endless process of dynamic change, from the time we are compelled to leave our mother’s womb to the moment we take our last gasp in life. We have little control over large changes; they overtake us in the natural course of things. This means we often fight most fiercely over the lesser kinds of change we might have more control over.
When we next encounter such change, we would help ourselves by remembering these poetically empowering words of Moses:
Be strong and bold…It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed (Deut. 31: 7-8)
We often pray for the strength to do the things we must, but there is a hint in Moses’ words of a part that we should play. Joshua had within him innate strength and courage; we all do. When we seek God for strength, we should remember he also calls us to show courage from within, resources which are waiting to be mined like an untapped oil reserve. We think of sin in terms of the things we do; sometimes it is located in the things we do not do. The failure to exercise inner courage is one such.
We can express confidence in tackling change because God promises to go before us. This is a telling turn of phrase. We are familiar with the assurance that God is with us, but his going before us suggests something else. Shakespeare described the future as ‘the unknown country’; we become afraid when we cannot picture what lies ahead. When the President of the United States visits a domestic home he has not been to before, the security checks are so extensive and intrusive it is a wonder anyone invites him round for tea. We know from experience that God is not a talisman who protects us from every harmful eventuality in life, but to share with him our fears about a future he already inhabits is a creative and liberating encounter. We can ask him both to prepare us and the ground we are walking into, that we may find his will and know his peace. When we are next faced with unavoidable change, it is worth intentionally praying this prayer to the God who is already there waiting for us.
We spend so much of our energy in the debilitating fear of failure, the risk that we will be exposed for not delivering what we ought to in life, that we easily miss the implication of God’s assurance that he will not fail us. Moses does not speak of the risk that Joshua might fail God (which may have been uppermost in Joshua’s mind). Instead, the risk and the burden of success lie with God himself. In seeing this, he and we are freed from lingering anxiety. Ours is a very performance conscious age: we assess, audit and monitor one another, yet these measurements often inhibit rather than liberate human performance. In the life of faith, God is the guarantor of performance, for he has given us the gifts which combine with his power to fulfil his purpose.
Just as Moses began his address with the injunction to Joshua to show some strength, so it ends with the encouragement not to be afraid or dismayed. Fear is largely fuelled by the phantoms we imagine are waiting to leap out on the unsuspecting, but we already know that God’s formidable presence goes before us to prepare the ground. The call not to be dismayed is something different. This is the response we make whenever our fears are realised which, we should be honest, sometimes transpires. We all face the temptation to doubt the goodness of God when things turn out badly for us or those we care for; it always hits us harder than hearing abstractly about the misfortunes of others. It is perhaps human nature to ask these questions of God more acutely when they cause us, rather than others, pain. The biggest challenge of all is not to be dismayed because we have been promised that God will not forsake us.
One terrible effect of pain and suffering is the peculiar sense of aloneness it confers on us. We feel we cannot reach others and they feel they cannot reach us. Moses’ words speak of a God who enfolds our past, our present and our future with a pulse that edges us ever closer to our redemption and the fulfilment of all things, like that baby moving inexorably to the moment of birth. He is there with us, and he is always there one step ahead of us. This is the gift he offers us at the moment of change.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?