Shaped by grace?

By Rick James

Grace is at the core of my faith. But is it at the core of the way I live? Does it really affect how I behave at work? I don’t think grace has even been used to describe my contribution or performance in any annual appraisal. And yet I believe we are called to be ‘stewards of grace’ (1 Pet 4:10) at work.

Grace is the distinctive feature of our faith. As Desmond Tutu wrote: ‘I preached my only sermon – that God loves us freely as an act of grace’. Grace is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. It is what should set Christian organisations apart from all others.

Yet grace does not fit easily with our current approaches to management. It’s counter-cultural, even scandalous. It’s often misunderstood and misused. Grace should not be an excuse for sweeping important stuff under the carpet. It is about dealing with openly and honestly and honestly with the human condition. Grace is radical and transforming.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if grace characterised our organisational cultures? Our leadership? The ways we relate to partners? Our theories of change? Our office culture?

It starts with you and me. This week think about:

  • How are you being shaped by grace at the moment?
  • What opportunities do you have to be a steward of radical grace?

Taking God’s hand into the coming year

By Rick James

Every New Year, I’m reminded of this poem by Minnie Louise Haskins quoted at the outbreak of World War II by the British King George VI. I really like the image of taking God’s hand and walking into the uncertain year ahead.:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”.

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way”.

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

You can read the rest of the poem here. It may be helpful in the next few days or couple of weeks, to make some time to prayerfully contemplate the year ahead and commit it to God. As I enter 2023, I know I need to still my striving, busy and all-too anxious soul and take God’s hand into the darkness. To help me do this, I’m planning to go for a long prayer walk this weekend with my wife.

How might you still your soul at the start of the year? What will work for you?

Thankfulness in 2022

By Rick James

Gratitude is such an incredible asset. Scientific research studies tell us that it brings:

Mental, psychological and spiritual benefits such as:
– Making us happier (by 10% in the long term according to studies)
– Improves our mood, making us more positive and optimistic
– Increases our self-confidence and self-esteem
– Helps us deal better with grief and trauma and protects us from depression
– Makes us more forgiving and less prone to envy or jealousy
– Strengthens our relationship with God

Being thankful also brings social benefits according to the research:
– It makes people like us more, increasing our social support circle
– Improves our friendships
– Helps our romantic relationships
– Strengthens our family support, especially in times of stress

Gratitude also provides some surprising physical benefits as it:
– Improves our sleep quality
– Increases the likelihood of us taking exercise
– Reduces our blood pressure
– Improves out immune function
– Increases our lifespan with 7-9% less risk of heart disease

Who does not want all those benefits?

As I reflect back on 2022 with all its challenges and trials, what specific people and events can I be thankful for?
How can I make gratitude more of a habit, so that it becomes part of my character?

Space for Grace wishes you a blessed Christmas. The next Weekly Thought will be published on Monday, the 16th of January 2023.

Where is my own mind set?

By Rick James

In my consultancy work, I talk a lot about changing mindsets – in communities, churches, organisations… But where is my own mind set? If I am being brutally honest, at the moment my own mind oscillates a bit between seeking my own comfort and worrying about what is going on in the world and with family and friends. It feels a long way from Romans 8:5 which talks about having ‘our minds set on what the Spirit desires’. My mind is not naturally ‘in step with the Spirit’.

But when I do intentionally create spaces to re-set my mind onto what the Spirit desires, then my perspective on everything changes. The burden I feel when thinking about preparing and leading groups at church shifts. Work priorities no longer feel so onerous. The global and national news does not provoke so much anxiety. My mind is a battleground. I need to try and take captive my thoughts, not be taken captive by them. The only way I can do this is by pressing the re-set button every day.

How do you re-set your mind to focus on what the Spirit desires?

Daily choices of character

By Rick James

“It is not what you achieve in life that matters, but who you become”. I was struck by this statement a few weeks ago in the wake of a friend’s death. Andy had certainly achieved a lot in terms of leading various organisations and churches, but in the end what mattered most was who he had become. He gave a short talk ‘In thin air’ after his diagnosis with a brain tumour, in which he said that in one sense a terminal illness changes nothing – after all we are all going to die one day.

He said, the choices we face today are the same as ever:
Are we going to follow Jesus today? Walking with him and looking for direction and guidance.
If so, then we choose to recognise God’s goodness every day, not give in to despair, darkness or discouragement.

Making these simple choices influenced who Andy became.

As I consider the week ahead, Andy’s example challenges me about where I put my attention:
Am I more focusing on what I achieve, the tasks ahead of me this week in my to-do list?
Or do I need to focus more on who I am becoming? How do I deliberately choose hope over fear?

A Christ-centred federation

By Rick James

Last week I facilitated a governance review for a global fellowship of 30 different leprosy missions. Such federations are notoriously difficult to manage. Large NGO families tend to be characterised by frustration, bureaucracy and division. But this one was different. The motivating glue that held them together was trusting relationships and highly impressive servant leadership. But at the heart of this network of organisations was a shared commitment to being genuinely Christ-centred.

This commitment went way beyond easy Christian jargon, but it was displayed through their behaviour and actions – particularly at times of crisis. To make it happen, they had created a diverse, global steering group of members to plan and guide implementation; wrote it explicitly into their strategy and measured it with indicators; invested considerable time and resources into a variety of prayer initiatives; ensured their sources of funding supported this and modelled forgiveness and servant leadership.

Considering that ten years ago the international board was concerned about losing their Christian identity, this is a testament to what is possible. I heard of another faith-based NGO this week, who calculated that they spent 14% of their work hours in prayer. These examples make me think:

How much time do I spend praying and listening to God in my work?
How will I model Christ in my inter-actions at work this week?

Where do I take refuge?

By Rick James

Last week has been tough. The shocking stories and pictures from the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the evil in people’s hearts. I find it almost too overwhelming to think about. I desperately want to pretend it is not happening. Jesus’ words “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) are too painfully true. At a more personal level, an NGO I know and love is failing to deal with its organisational problems; my church is really struggling without leadership; close members of my family are sick and others are unable to find a place to live; friends not able to find work… The list of worries large and small goes on. Yet Jesus also goes on in John 16 … “But take heart for I have overcome the world”.

I don’t know what quite this means for people in Ukraine at the moment, but I do take heart from the defiant acts of hope in that country. For example, last week Jews and Christians came together in Kyiv to recite Psalm 31:
In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame;  deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge,  a strong fortress to save me…
… Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

The Deputy General Secretary for the Bible Society, Anatoliy Raychnets, said: “This ancient prayer – written several thousand years ago – now we see is so alive, so living.”

I can learn from their example. It makes we think:
Where am I taking refuge?
What or who am I making my rock and fortress?

Ending well

By Rick James

Last week I had the privilege of sitting in hospital with Joan, a 93 year-old neighbour, in her last days of life. She had a remarkable story. 45 years ago she left her family (including teenage children) to move in with another artist, abandoning her faith along the way. In the last year since her partner died, she rediscovered both her faith and then her family. Despite decades of no contact and obvious hurt, her daughter decided to leave her job and come to live with and care for her mother. Though angry at first, she quickly found she could forgive her. She discovered an unexpected and overwhelming love for her. A couple of months ago at Christmas, Joan met grandchildren and great grandchildren she did not know even existed. This reconciliation has spread further out affecting other broken family relationships.

It was a beautiful example of the power of forgiveness, when conflict is the norm in the world, in our organisations and even churches. Paradoxically, the last months of this elderly lady’s life became life-giving. It showed me the importance of good endings. Endings that bring healing, reconciliation and new life. These probably often involve forgiveness.

This week let’s consider:
What are the upcoming endings in your life or your organisation’s?
What might you do to encourage good, life-affirming endings?

Walking with Jesus into 2022

By Rick James

How are you feeling as you enter this New Year?

For me the end of 2021 felt pretty rubbish with family Christmas visits and celebrations largely cancelled and the sudden death of the 5-year old son of a close friend. I feel very tempted to enter 2022 in fear and frustration. Life is not quite as smooth and comfortable as I imagined.

But what if life is not meant to be easy? Maybe my expectation of life – like a warm summer’s day – is all wrong. What if our time on earth is more like living at night-time, yearning for dawn? There’s certainly a lot of darkness around us, but also glimpses of joy and hope, like stars. There’s sometimes even a full-moon that powerfully reflects the sun.

It reminds me of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24 13 – 33), who went away from Jerusalem downcast in their profound grief and painful destruction of their dreams. But walking with and talking with Jesus, while the circumstances remained the same, their understanding of them was transformed. Joy and hope bubbled up as ‘their hearts burned within them’.

So as we start 2022, think about:
Where do you see God already at work? What is going well?
What is Jesus saying to you as you talk with him through the disappointments of 2021?

‘Learning while working’ through the COVID-fog

By Rick James

The profound uncertainty from the ramifications of COVID-19 is like leading in a fog. A leader’s competence will be judged by their ability to create sustainable new worlds for their organisations. Judgement and vision are key. Yet how can one prove oneself to be an able leader when you cannot show them a simple end goal? This will require leaders to engage in ‘learning while working’ according to David Nabarro from the World Health Organization. When navigating the unknown, leaders will need to learn to constantly take in new information and work with diverse sources of intelligence and expertise. We really have to look to learn from those closest to the reality on the ground.

NGOs have spoken for years about actively listening to the people we exist to serve. Sadly this has largely remained as easy rhetoric. We have rarely let it have a genuine impact on our programming and decision-making. Yet in the face of COVID, even the business sector is acknowledging that “addressing social inequalities by understanding the world from the perspective of those who are excluded will also be a distinguishing attribute for future leaders” (Hope-Hailey 2021).

  • How does your organisation really listen to those you exist to serve?
  • What one thing could you do differently to make it more active and meaningful?