Leaders who follow
During the years when I was growing up I remember being taught that it was important to develop leadership skills. People can either be followers or leaders, our teachers said, and so it was good to develop leadership skills to get ahead in life. I had no problem believing this was a good thing because we need good leaders in our world. For sure, it became obvious as I looked at situations in the world which were the result of bad leadership or no leadership at all. But I have come to see that if one is to be a good leader there is a need to develop the skill of being a good follower first. I say that because that is what our Christian faith teaches us.
This past week we celebrated a number of wonderful feast days, such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Francis of Assisi, and the Guardian Angels. Each feast celebrates those who are followers of Jesus "par excellence." St. Thérèse developed her Little Way by learning to live the Gospel message of Jesus in all the simplicity with which it was intended: she learned to become as a little child to follow Jesus with trust. St. Francis lived the Gospel message of Jesus radically. He literally gave up all he had in order to live the Gospel in word and deed, preaching and aiding the poor. Even the Guardian Angels are followers. They serve God continuously by helping us to stay on the right path in order to arrive at the end of our journey home with Him.
Those who are holy are those who have learned how to follow, just as the first disciples learned to follow Jesus. He needed to tear down the injustice and materialism of the world and build up the compassion and love which is what His Kingdom is about. Therefore Jesus needed (and still needs) followers in order to bring the Kingdom to fruition. Our mission is nothing less than to show others the way to the Kingdom, and to help them to accept the gift of salvation. We cannot achieve this on our own or in our own way. It takes work to overcome the values of the world, to establish justice, to help others in poverty to have what they need to live, and to work for the values of the Gospel to overcome hatred and sin.
To become a follower requires a radical letting go of having it our way so that the Lord can teach us how building the Kingdom can be accomplished. The saints discovered that only God can achieve this end, so they spent years cooperating with grace, having to let go of that which kept them from following as completely as they could. In other words, they had to work hard to follow Jesus, but they fell so in love with Him that they could have it no other way. That love and desire is what enabled them to follow, even at great cost. Often the cost was in discovering their flaws, limitations, brokenness, stubbornness, and whatever it was that kept them from inner freedom. But with perseverance and a lot of prayer, (and even some blood, sweat, and tears), they were able to let go of all that kept them from freely following the One they loved. Those who grow in holiness do so not for the sake of a project, but for the sake of a Person: they do it because they love Jesus so much that they trust in His word and His promise. They are willing to serve Him because they love Him and know of His love for them.
In order to follow similarly, we have to be willing to let God lead. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But the reality is that most of us want to take the lead and are very uncomfortable with letting go of control. It is like dancing: someone leads and someone follows. If we both try to lead, there are a lot of toes stepped on! Not only that, but God has more wisdom than we do, and so He is truly the only leader we can follow who has our best interests always in His heart. His simply loves us and wants us to be close to Him forever.
If we call ourselves disciples, then, we need know who it is we follow. Do we really know the God the Father or Jesus the Son well enough to know what it is they are leading us to do? The best way to know who we follow is to spend time with God in prayer as well as to look for His presence throughout the day. In getting to know Him, we will come to know His message. Therefore reading the Scriptures and praying over them is important. The Holy Spirit can help us to have insights as we pray over the texts, but it is also important to do some Bible study, take a class, listen carefully to the preaching at services or simply watch someone who is living the message and learn from them. The saints are great role models in learning the way of the Master, Jesus.
We are called to follow, but ultimately we follow because of love. And we follow because we value what Jesus values. Even if we do not understand His ways, we know that He leads us in wisdom and truth, like a good shepherd leading His flock. In taking on His values, we stand against the values of the world, which are about self, greed, power, and possessions. Following Jesus is counter-cultural: we follow the banner of Christ, which leads us to others, sharing, love, and Godliness. But the bottom line is love, His for us, and ours for Him. If we love Him, we will follow.
So often I hear people say they really want to pray, but they simply do not have the time in their busy schedule. It is all a matter of doing what is most important to us. If enjoying God's love, growing in relationship, and becoming a better disciple are important values to us, then we will do it. But if we say that it is important, and we have every good intention to do it, and yet find we rarely ever take the time to pray, perhaps we really are not that committed after all. When we love someone, we always try to spend as much time as we can with them. It is a matter of priority.
We all struggle to find the time for all the things we need to do in our busy, demanding world. Perhaps a place to begin is to set a goal that is attainable in order to spend a little time with the Lord. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes in the morning before we get too busy, will help the day ahead not only go more smoothly, but we may find that we become more of a light to those around us. And perhaps ten minutes of Scripture reading or something spiritual at night may lead us to want to say more to the Lord or ask Him questions, leading us to desire to extend our time of prayer. It is important to ask for the same help which the disciples before us asked: "Lord, teach us to pray." The Holy Spirit will help us know what to say and will also enable us to become more adept at hearing the response of love which the Lord has for us.
If we become better followers, we will then become better Christian leaders in a world sorely in need of leadership. If we live the Gospel we lead by living the message; we lead by our example. Christian leadership means being loving and all that loving involves. It means being Christ for others, putting our own judgments and ego aside. It means humility, service, and charity. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta said, it means doing little things with love. If so, we do become leaders. But it also takes courage to stand against the values that are contrary to the Gospel and it takes courage to love as radically as Jesus loved. Therefore we need to stay connected to the Lord in order to have the graces we need to imitate Him as a follower. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to help us to follow so we may lead.
May we trust in the promises of the Lord that we may truly be His disciples! May we ask for the grace to be followers of God who leads us to life, and not followers of the ways of the world which lead to emptiness! May we become leaders, building the Kingdom with the building blocks of faith, hope, and love! And may we be instruments of His love and peace, bringing others into the Kingdom by being disciples who lead! Let us continue to meet in the heart of our Lord, Jesus, who is the one we follow! Peace!
The first photo is from Sicily. It was on a road in the Palermo region, on the way to the interior of the island.
The second is a photo of the Christ Pantocrator icon which is in the cupola at the cathedral in Monreale, Sicily.
The last is a photo of a painting of St. Thèrése of Lisieux and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, two modern followers of Jesus.
10/7/2013 09:17:59 am
Michele, I think this reflection is one of your best and most challenging. You are spot on when you write that when we fall in love with the Lord, we can't help but want things to be done His way. It is all about the relationship with Him who loves us unconditionally; but as we both know, love can be quite purifying :)
10/7/2013 10:16:03 am
Absolutely love this one. Definitely speaks to me on getting priorities straight. Awesome work!
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Heart Speaks to Heart