‘The arrival of Jesus in our lives is not just something that happened 2000 years ago. It still happens now.’ (Steve Sutton)
20,000+ people gathered in London to demonstrate against horrific human rights abuses in El Salvador. A friend, Paul, and I travelled down by coach from the North East of England wearing our protest-style combat jackets and keen to add our own voices to the crowd. A large number of people were assembling in Hyde Park, the starting place, with various organisers moving among us to arrange the procession. Suddenly, Paul and I were approached by the leaders to carry a large banner at the very front of the march. We were astonished that, out of so many thousands of protestors, they chose us.
God chose us. We were and are nobodies, yet as a new follower of Jesus at age 21, it felt like Jesus was walking with us, among us. Spotters on embassy rooftops monitored and took photos through long camera lenses. Our image appeared on the front cover of a well-known human rights magazine. On arriving at Trafalgar Square, the police mysteriously allowed only Paul and me through the cordon to sit at the foot of the speakers’ platform. 2 years later, I was chosen to meet the main speaker at a secret rendezvous in a basement flat in Islington, but I could never have imagined that at the time.
On moving to London a few months later, I attended a vigil at St James’ Church, known for its firm stance on behalf of the poor and oppressed in the world. We were there to mark the inspiring life yet brutal assassination of radical follower of Jesus, Archbishop Oscar Romero. By God’s mysterious design, I discovered that I was sitting beside the Nicaraguan ambassador. At the end of the service, a Spanish nun, passionate follower of Jesus and human rights activist chose me to come forward, a lone stranger, to have my photo taken with Salvadorean refugees. She and I became life-long friends.
Some 40 years later now, I’ve had the humbling privilege of witnessing and experiencing so many more such miracles than I could ever count or recount. I don’t know or understand why God chooses us but I’m glad and grateful that he does. When he does, it feels to me like a Divine voice that calls out from within and beyond, that we hear and experience as a realisation. Hitherto 'coincidence' takes on a deeper significance. As we approach this Christmas with all that it holds for us and the world, the arrival of Jesus in our lives is not just something that happened 2000 years ago. It still happens now.
‘There are moments in history when a door for massive change opens, and great revolutions for good or evil spring up in the vacuum created by these openings. In these divine moments key men and women and even entire generations risk everything to become the hinge of history, the pivotal point that determines which way the door will swing.’ (Lou Engle)
Some have asked, ‘What happened next..?’ after I shared some early experiences in my previous blog, ‘Against the grain’. Having recently become a follower of Jesus and a left-wing social-political activist, my first action back in the workplace was to tear down the explicit pornographic posters that totally covered the workshop walls. (To understand the impact of this, the shop floor of such industry at the time was a heavily male-dominated environment. In fact, there was only 1 female apprentice in my year of around 80. Against this backdrop, I imagined I would get lynched for this act.) When my work mates saw what I had done, however, they just asked in dismay, ‘Why have you done this?’ I replied simply and assertively that the posters were demeaning to women. Nobody spoke a word.
Next, I created a petition to reform the trade union. I used every lunch break to travel to different industrial plant locations to invite colleagues to sign it. Almost everyone said they agreed with what I was doing and advocating. At the same time, however, many explained they felt afraid to sign it in case the union retaliated by dismissing them from membership. They therefore signed with disguised names that were barely legible. On learning of what I was doing, the local shop steward, as official representative for the union, demanded that I give him the petition. I refused and he became angry, warning me sternly that I was ‘playing with fire’. On handing the final petition to the site convenor, the highest trade union representative for that region, he too reacted with predictable outrage.
I didn’t wait to be dismissed or sacked. I sensed God was calling me in a new direction so I handed in my resignation, 3 months before I was due to complete my 5 years of studies there, and moved to London instead to work as a Community Service Volunteer. On just £12 a week, my family and friends thought I had gone crazy or joined a cult. In this role, however, I worked alongside a radical Marxist community development worker as part of an innovative social work team and, in my spare time, as a volunteer with local Central American political and human rights organisations. This was a decisive turning point in my life and I have never looked back for a moment with regret for that decision. When I completed this assignment, I hitch-hiked to the Middle East to work in a hospital for the poor.
But that’s another story…
‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference. That’s what it is to live and to have lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Life is hard-edged for the poor.
The last person who reached out to this marginalised community was stabbed. That was an unhappy ending to a hope-filled good intention. Not deterred by this, a Filipina saw the unseen, the unloved, the people considered criminal, unworthy and unlovable. She was warned to stay away from this mixed group of families who eek out a living among the dead, and the dangerous gangs who wouldn’t hesitate to end her life. Nevertheless, she heard Jesus' call so she went.
Not long afterwards, she stepped off public transport near this place only to witness, beside her, a woman shot dead in a hail of bullets. She learned later that the woman was killed by drug dealers, concerned she might disclose their identities to the authorities. Scared yet persevering, this Filipina has persisted in reaching out in love, building friendships, ‘sacred encounters’, as she calls them, and providing food and simple mattresses for those in greatest need.
I ask her why she does it. ‘I want to show them the living Jesus walking among them, the Jesus who loves them and cares for them. I want them to know that they matter to God.’ I’m humbled, challenged and inspired (from a safe distance) by her courage and self-sacrificing love. I keep reflecting on Bob Hunter’s (founder of Greenpeace) radical stance: ‘Put your body where your mouth is.’ That’s what Jesus did – the Incarnate divine – and that’s what she’s doing now.
‘The question is: how to ensure a healthy life-life, work-work and life-work balance?’
It felt like losing the plot. Spinning plates isn’t unusual or new yet, as a freelancer, the tell-tale signs were beginning to show. I met with my coach, Sue, to re-ground myself and my work before, like some scene from a Greek wedding, plates began to fall and smash in pieces around me. Sue asked me, ‘If you were to conduct an appraisal of your life and work for the past 12 months, what would the highlights be? How would you rate your life and business health and performance?’ My mind immediately went blank. I had allowed myself to become so busy that the year was a total blur.
So, I sat down that evening, took out my diary and created a simple summary. I discovered to my surprise that I had worked with people from 150 organisations (charities; NGOs; churches; public sector, e.g. social services, health, education, police); from 35 countries; 60 coaching sessions; 30 training workshops; 25 action learning set meetings; written 25 articles and blogs; provided ad hoc TESOL support for refugees and asylum seekers; and, by God’s amazing grace and the generosity of family and friends, sent £23k in support to the poorest and most vulnerable in the Philippines.
Strikingly, until I did this review, I had no idea. I had lost sight and sense of the wood in the midst of the trees. So, Sue asked me next what I enjoy most about this kind of work-life that I choose to live. I responded, ‘A sense of purpose as a follower of Jesus – and freedom.’ She came straight back with a challenge: ‘Where, for you, is the boundary between freedom and chaos?’ That hit the nail on the head, hard. Freedom is, for me, tied up closely with choice. I was at risk of becoming reactive, falling backwards. I needed to regain my balance, my grounded stance, to be truly free to choose again.
Sue offered a suggestion. ‘How would it be if you were to set aside periodic ‘Creating Freedom’ days in your diary – to do those things (apart from your work) that you find life-giving and will help keep you grounded; or that will drain away your life and perspective if you don’t do them?’ That was a great insight and idea. That evening, I marked out spaces in my calendar for silent prayer, physical exercise, time with family and friends, holiday breaks; and for doing the headache-inducing financial and administrative parts of my life-work that I would otherwise procrastinate over or subtly avoid.
That was my confession and solution. How do you ensure a healthy sense of purpose, perspective and priority in your own life and work?
‘Good is the enemy of great.’ (Jim Collins)
When we look out for great qualities, talent or performance; when we attempt to codify great competencies and to recruit, develop or retain them; we need to ask ourselves seriously: ‘Great - in relation to what?’
An existential view reframes everything. If shifts our attention from, say, ‘How can we make this more profitable?’ to ‘How can we make this more purposeful?’ or, ‘What is my career trajectory?’ to ‘What is my calling?’
Good is the enemy of great? Yes, if by ‘good’ we mean mediocre, a failure to reach a true, positive potential. No, if by ‘good’ we mean those ethical-spiritual values that call us back to who and what really matter most.
How do good and great feature in your life and work, and those of your clients – and how do you/they manage the relationship between them?
Harley Pete is a rough diamond. He’d say so himself. This morning we sat in a small group in the local biker café. In spite of the sunshine, it was freezing cold. One bloke arrived feeling wrecked because he ran out of petrol on route and had to push his bike uphill for a mile. Another arrived late because his bike wouldn’t start. We were glad for hot mugs of tea and the struggling warmth of a single oil-filled radiator.
A bloke appeared at the doorway. I’ve never seen him before but he strode in, walked up to Harley Pete and shook his hand. He then turned to the rest of us, looked a bit self-conscious about having interrupted the conversation and announced quietly yet with conviction, ‘Because of this man and because of Jesus, I am still alive.’ Then he walked out. The rest of us glanced at each other, then at Harley Pete. Silence.
Turns out the bloke had been involved in drugs and stuff and his life had fallen apart. I don’t know the details, what Harley Pete had done, what had made the difference…but what an impact. In that unbroken moment of utterly transfixing silence, I sensed a bright light flash across my own life, my work and my relationships. ‘Because of this man and because of Jesus, I am still alive.’ What a legacy. What a calling.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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