More than once I have heard Bill Hybels say, “The hope of the world is the church.” If this is true, then the hope of the church has to be its future leaders. And any hope of future leadership depends upon those who will train them. This is what I have traveled to Kathmandu to do. That must make me very important.
God, of course, is not impressed. Not enamored with my Ph.D., my years of ministry experience, nor my books, nor my willingness to travel thousands of miles. So step by step, he ensures that such self-importance is stripped away. Expunged. Deleted. This is not entirely to my liking, but my soul loves it. It happens in various seasons, particularly when I travel overseas.
God seems to like to take me to important places—like Shilguri and Dimapur, the backwaters of Manila, and destination favorites like Beirut. And for the first time, he has brought me to a rural part of Nepal, to some very modest quarters, amongst a fair amount of poverty–where it is necessary to go through three locks to get to my place. It feels a bit like a self-imposed exile.
To prepare me, he begins his purging at the airport. I am the last to board because the computer is telling the agent I do not have a legitimate ticket. Flying economy also helps to shave off any hints of self-significance. Entering the airport of Nepal amounts to a sort of free-for-all. Find a machine that is working. Guess which line to stand in. After an exhaustive wait, have the immigration tell the next person (me) that he is off for a lunch break.
It’s my first day of ministry. I would like to impress you by recounting my morning preaching at an urban, international church. Tell you about the people hoping to find a seat to hear an international speaker. A church where guest speakers hobnob with influential people and talk about the latest book they have authored. But God has brought me to Nigah Christian Church, a thriving community of some thirty people, pastored by a former communist official. There is no address. It is off a remote street of a secluded road, each one in disrepair. Here, the people—most common laborers—take off their shoes and sit on the floor.
I’m ready to go. Take to the pulpit. Demonstrate my exegetical skills. I am speaking from a passage somewhere near the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. But before I speak, an inner voice tells me to read what Jesus did before he spoke: “Now when he (Jesus) went up on a mountainside, he sat down.” Think of it, the Lord of the universe sits down. He does not look for some vaunted pulpit. He is not interested in elevating himself, showcasing his credentials. He forgoes status. And at this moment, I hear God saying, “Leaders, who are worthy of being God’s leaders, must do the same.”
So I sit on the floor, amongst these simple Nepalese people, and do what Jesus did. Jesus instructed the crowd on how to live in a world where God rules. In this moment, I realize that this too is my task. Sermons must always be about how to live in response to the realities inherent in the kingdom of God. And do this as servants.
But too many of us like to feel important. Like to get to the top and have the edge. Be essential, notable, prominent. All too many church leaders like to impress with their diplomas and their experience and receive the praise of men. Like poodles that are so coddled they have forgotten they are canines, some leaders are so adulated they forget they are human.
It’s been a good day. There is something so centering in taking on a posture of irrelevance. I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s book on leadership, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen spoke before a group of heads in Washington, D.C., and he challenged them to dare to let go of their relevant selves—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, and build things.
It’s hard to let go, but as I am learning (still), only when one does, can one train leaders. I’m almost ready. Ready to tell emerging leaders that those who are great pursue a certain insignificance.