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Disruption or opportunity?

Sandy Pepper, Chair of Lee Abbey London, urges us to embrace the openings provided by the pandemic for the gospel

This article was published in the May to August 2021 issue of Rapport magazine.

The Israelites gathering around Joseph’s Sarcophagus after the Crossing of the Red Sea by Frans Francken II (Antwerp 1581–Antwerp 1642). The original painting can be viewed at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property in Somerset

This reflection is, conventionally enough, about a Psalm and a painting but, perhaps less conventionally, also about a valedictory speech given by Professor Clayton M Christensen at the graduation ceremony of Harvard Business School’s MBA class of 2010. I am after all a business academic!

The Psalm

Come and see what God has done,
his awesome deeds for mankind!
He turned the sea into dry land,
they passed through the waters on foot—
come, let us rejoice in him.
He rules for ever by his power,
his eyes watch the nations—
let not the rebellious rise up against him.
Praise our God, all peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
For you, God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance.

Psalm 66:5–12

The painting

Secondly, the painting. If you visit Tyntesfield, the National Trust’s property in Somerset, you may come across a picture by the Flemish painter Frans Francken II of the Israelites gathering around Joseph’s sarcophagus after crossing the Red Sea. The Israelites are seen resting in the sunshine on the left hand side of the painting, while on the right hand side you can just see, in the growing darkness, Pharaoh’s horsemen disappearing as the Sea closes over them.

So what is the connection with Clay Christensen’s valedictory speech given in the summer of 2010?

The speech

When members of the class entered Harvard Business School in 2008 the world economy was strong and their post-graduation possibilities seemed limitless. Just a few weeks later the business world was turned upside down by the global financial crisis, which, in turn, was the beginning of what has been described as the ‘great recession’, ten years of global austerity. Therefore the students had spent their two years at Harvard reassessing their world view and their definition of success.

The class asked Professor Clay Christensen to speak to them about how to apply his principles to the world they were now facing. He shared with them a set of guidelines which he said had helped him to measure his own life.

You need to know three things about Clay Christensen. The first thing is that he is famous for his theory of ‘disruptive innovation’, which has been described as one of the most influential business ideas of the early 21st century. Its main proposition is that the biggest business opportunities arise in times of the greatest disruption, and that the most successful entrepreneurs actually go out of their way to create such disruption.

The second thing is that, although not a Christian, he was a deeply religious man and understood that there is more to life than just the immediate and the obvious.

The third thing is that at the time of the valedictory speech he had just been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. This would eventually lead to his premature death last year.

What Clay Christensen said to the 2010 MBA class was this. The world is not as you expected it to be. What matters most is how you will react to this. You could be deeply disappointed about it and dwell on your disappointment. Or you could look forward to the opportunities arising at this time of great disruption.

He encouraged them to do the latter.

The pandemic

For most of us the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest period of global disruption in our lifetimes, far greater indeed than the global financial crisis or the great recession which followed. The question for us all is, how will we respond to this period of disruption?

Now, I do not want to underestimate the grief, pain, uncertainty and unhappiness that the pandemic has caused many people. It is right to be sad and to grieve for what has been lost. Nevertheless, it seems to me that, while we could be deeply disappointed about the disruption the pandemic has caused, and we could dwell on our disappointment, looking back to some imagined golden age of the past, it is better to look forward to the opportunities which will arise as a result of this latest great disruption.

The Old Testament is, if you think about it, constructed around a number of periods of great disruption, including the fall, the exodus, the destruction of the temple and the exile in Babylon. Jesus was Himself a great disruptor – He shook people out of their complacency.

Which brings me back to Psalm 66 and to the painting at Tyntesfield. The picture shows that the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and that the Sea had closed behind them. They had been through a time of great disruption. By closing the Sea behind the Israelites God was saying ‘don’t look back’. God’s promise to the Israelites was of a land of abundance ahead of them, exemplified by the light on the left hand side of Frans Francken’s picture compared with the darkness on the right hand side of the painting.

In Psalm 66, the metaphor changes at this point and the psalmist talks about the refiner’s fire. Fire and water. Which may also remind us, of course, of plague.

My prayer for the Lee Abbey Movement is that we will embrace the opportunities which will arise out of this time of great disruption.

Prayer to close

God of fire and water, of storm and stillness, give us faith to seek You in times of trouble. Reach out Your hand to us when we are sinking. Help us to look forward to the times of abundance ahead when we feel that the sea is closing behind us. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Sandy Pepper is Professor of Management Practice at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This reflection was given at the start of the Lee Abbey Movement’s Council meeting on Friday 12 February 2021.

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