The Bewitchment of “Group Think”

 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
Numbers 13:31 (NIV)

In today’s chapter Moses sends out twelve men, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, come back with a report that the Hebrew tribes should press forward and conquer the land. The other ten spies reported exaggerated claims of giants living in the land whom the Hebrews could not defeat. Their report stoked fear in the hearts of the people.

It’s fascinating how susceptible the majority can be to “group think.” It happens to be the morning of All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, as I write this. Perhaps that’s why the ten spies swaying the nation of Hebrews with their exaggerated claims reminds me of a handful of schoolgirls convincing the people of their village that they saw upstanding members of the community in cahoots with the devil. Nineteen people were eventually hanged as a result of the Salem witch trials. It’s amazing how bewitching “group think” can be (pun absolutely intended).

The social psychologist Gustave Le Bon theorized that there were three stages of crowd think. A group of people submerge themselves in the collective whole, losing a sense of individual thought and responsibility. Individuals are then susceptible accept, without question, the contagion of popular thought within the group, opening themselves up to suggestion of different kinds. Even in a nation and culture that celebrates freedom of thought and speech we are prone to follow the crowd in all sorts of ways.

As an enneagram Type 4 I tend to be a fierce individualist. Nevertheless, this morning I’m reflecting back along my journey. It’s funny to think about fads, social trends, and popular thoughts I’ve observed and even found myself a part. The further I get in my journey the more desirous I am to think and act independently, rather than allow myself to be submerged in the bewitching trends of the group think of the moment. It’s hard to do. The unconscious draw of group think is often subtle and subconscious as it was for the ancient Hebrews, the puritans of Salem and still is today.

I’m preparing to deliver a message on Sunday morning and one of the key verses on which I’ve been meditating is this: “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

God, grant me open eyes, open ears, perceptive spirit, and a mind increasingly renewed by Divine Truth and Lady Wisdom.

Prejudice, Comparison, and That Which I Control

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this.
Numbers 12:1-2 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the past eight weeks in a series on “Kingdom Culture.” In the prayer Jesus taught His followers to pray it says, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We’ve been talking about what it means to live and relate with one another as a part of God’s kingdom on earth.

The sticky wicket, of course, is that any group of humans in an organization tend to have relational struggles and conflicts over time. Despite what Dr. Luke described in Acts 2: 42-47 as an idyllic beginning, even the early church began to struggle rather quickly. Most of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address relational struggles within the local groups of Jesus’ followers. Paul himself had famous rows with Peter and Barnabas.

It was no different for Moses and the Hebrew tribes as they leave Egypt and begin to be make a nation of themselves. In the previous chapter the conflict was with the whines of the “rabble” within their midst. Today is is Moses very own siblings.

What’s fascinating to me is that Miriam and Aaron at first complain about Moses’ wife being a Cushite. There were multiple regions referenced as Cush in ancient times. It is not known for sure who they were referencing here. At least some scholars believe that they were referencing Moses’ wife Zippora who was from the land of Midian. Whatever the case, they complained about Moses’ wife being a foreigner, but then immediately discuss what appears to be envy and jealousy for their brother, Moses’, standing and position. How very human of us it is to complain about one thing on the surface (Moses being married to a Cushite) that masks a deeper resentment (sibling rivalry, envy, and jealousy about brother Moses’ standing with God as leader and prophet).

This morning I’m thinking about how common the human penchant is for prejudice, jealousy, and envy which leads to back-biting, quarrels, and conflicts both small and great. I’m reminded of Jesus’ conversation with Peter on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee when he prophetically reveals to Peter the violent end he will endure. Peter’s immediate response was to look at John and ask, “What about him?

Jesus answered, If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

I am so given to worrying about others, comparing myself to others, and seeking some sort of perceived personal equity with others. Jesus response to Peter tells me to stop concerning myself with useless and destructive comparisons. Each person is on his or her own respective journey, and their journey will not look like mine. My time, energy and resources are to be focused on my own journey, my own relationship with God, and the personal thoughts, words, and actions I control with my heart, mind, eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet.

Leadership and Rabble Cravings

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
Numbers 11:4 (NIV)

Throughout my life journey I’ve had the privilege of serving in numerous leadership positions from small groups to decent sized organizations. Leading others can be both a joy and a curse and it is almost always a challenge. When you step into the spotlight of leadership you immediately become an easy target.

This morning as I started reading the chapter I immediately laughed to myself. We just read at the end of yesterday’s chapter that the Hebrew tribes had finally embarked on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.  We’re only four verses into journey and people are complaining. Not only are there complaints, but I found it humorous that the author describes the complainers as “rabble” driven by their “cravings.”

Complaints are part of the territory for any leader. Sometimes the complaints are well-founded and point to critical needs that need to be contemplated and addressed by leadership. There are also complaints that arise from disgruntled members whose focus is less about the vision, mission, or good of the whole and more about their individual felt needs and self-centric perceptions. When you’re busy trying to lead a major group effort, these grumblers can be maddeningly frustrating to manage. They drove Moses to such madness that he asked God to kill him rather than have to deal with them. Even God’s reply sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with whining children:

“Tell the people, Consecrate yourselves. Get ready for tomorrow when you’re going to eat meat. You’ve been whining to God, ‘We want meat; give us meat. We had a better life in Egypt.’ God has heard your whining and he’s going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.”

I’m reminded of whiners and complainers I’ve had the opportunity to manage over the years. I confess that the word “rabble” seems an apt moniker in some cases. In every case, however, I have to recognize that they were/are not evil individuals or bad people. I think today’s chapter is a great object lesson in the fact that whiners and complainers are often individuals discomforted by their own felt needs. These poorly managed inner cravings get expressed as tantrum-like complaints and childish demands that steal leaders’ time, energy, and attention away from more important matters.

This morning I’m encouraged by the truth that Moses, and it appears even God Himself, can reach a point of exasperation. I’m reminded that more than once Jesus expressed exasperation (i.e. “How long shall I put up with you?” Lk 9:41). When I as a leader experience craving-driven whines I am in good company.

I’m also reminded this morning that listening to and addressing complaints is part of every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory and being a good leader means managing complaints, including the craving-driven whines of self-centered rabble. Jesus said if you want to be a good leader you have to be a good servant, even to those can be frustrating and distracting.

God, grant me wisdom, patience and grace in the positions of leadership to which I have been called. Help me to serve well, love well, and lead well – even in my periods of utter exasperation.

featured photo courtesy of Tamara via Flickr

South Carolina

Speaking of embarkation, Wendy and I embarked on a long discussed trip to South Carolina this past weekend to visit our daughter, Madison. Maddy Kate has been living in Columbia for well over a year now and works as a sales and training coordinator for a cosmetics company with SC and portions of NC as her territory.

We flew to Columbia on Thursday evening. Madison picked us up from the airport and took us to Publico, one of her favorite haunts the serves craft beer and Mexican. We could tell that she’s a regular there as the bartender was quite familiar and friendly. After a bite and a quick catching up she took us to our hotel.

Columbia Art Museum, Columbia SC

On Friday Wendy and I worked in our hotel room most of the day as Madison likewise had to work. We had originally planned on flying in  on Friday but he airfare was so much cheaper on Thursday evening that it paid for the hotel room and then some. Wendy and I knocked off mid-afternoon and walked to the Columbia Art Museum which had a couple of really interesting exhibitions. We then walked down Gervais Street and stopped at the Casual Pint where we enjoyed a….wait for it….casual pint.

Madison met us at Gervais and Vine for dinner with her friends, including Max, a Pella peep, who is in law school at the University. We enjoyed a leisurely evening with Abby, Sara, Max and Madison. The wine and tapas were top-notch, and it was fun getting to know Madison’s Columbia crew.

On Saturday Madison took us to the Soda City Farmer’s Market, which was a lot of fun. We also got to stop and check out her apartment and share a long-time-coming house-warming gift with her. We then jumped in the car and headed towards Charleston.

We spent a few hours at Magnolia Plantation. The grounds and gardens were unbelievably gorgeous and it was fun to walk and wander. We finished our time there touring a group of slave cabins built in 1850 and still standing. It was sobering to learn that a family of 15 was living in one of the tiny cabins as late as 1969.

We journeyed on to Charleston and we were all very hungry. It was late afternoon and we hadn’t had lunch. We found Mac’s Place, a Chicago themed Irish Pub complete with a Cubbie bear painted on the front window. After a bite and a rest we walked a few blocks to McCrady’s Tavern. I first visited McCrady’s Tavern when I visited our friends Dave and Maria about twenty years ago while they were teaching at the College of Charleston. The tavern dates back to 1778 and served George Washington back in the day. I really wanted to visit again and share it with Wendy and Madison. We sat at the bar and enjoyed some excellent beverages concocted by the talented bartenders.

We finished our brief visit to Charleston with a stop at Carmella’s dessert bar where we grabbed coffee and a small fudge cake. We walked down to the sea front and sat on a swing. It was fun to eat our cake, drink our coffee, and watch the ships leaving the harbor as we swung together and felt the sea breeze on our faces.

Sunday morning Madison took us to her church. It reminded Wendy and me of our local auditorium gathering at Third here in Pella. Once again, we enjoyed getting to meet Madison’s community. Brunch is a big deal in the south, so we left church and went directly to 116 State where we enjoyed brunch together in the quaint little wine and espresso bar.

It is football season and we wanted to watch our beloved Vikings play. Madison took us to the Carolina Ale House where we got to enjoy watching the game together. Madison was on the nods in the second half and we told her to go home and take a nap. After all we’d had to eat those couple of days, Wendy and I were glad for the long walk back to our hotel to stretch our legs.

A few hours later a refreshed Maddy Kate picked us up and we went a couple of blocks over to 1801 Grill where we were met by her significant other, Doug, who had just returned from a friend’s wedding in another state. The restaurant was getting ready to close, so we had appetizers (Wendy liked the grit french fries) and a drink. We then drove to another local dive that Madison and Doug appreciated because they’re always open and always serving food. It was a lovely, quiet evening chatting and enjoying one another’s company.

On Monday Wendy and I packed up for home and checked out. Madison picked us up late in the morning and took us back to Publico, and we ended our Carolina trip where it began. Doug met us for “two dollar tacos” lunch. We bid him farewell and went to a local coffee shop where we got a little bit of work done before heading to the airport.

Wendy and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Columbia and Charleston. There’s so much more to see and experience there. Madison seems to have settled in, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find we have many more Carolina experiences ahead of us.

Planning and Embarkation

On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud liftedfrom above the tabernacle of the covenant law. Then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran.
Numbers 10:11-12 (NIV)

For those who regularly follow along with  these posts, do you happen to remember the first post on this journey through the book of Numbers? I talked about the fact that we were setting off on a journey with the ancient Hebrews into the wilderness. Just last night on my way home from a meeting I was thinking about that post and the reality that here we are a couple of weeks later and the journey hasn’t even begun.

For the first ten chapters of our Numbers journey we’ve been making preparations. There’s the organization of how the nation would  camp and in what order the people would organize for the march. There’s been the organization of how the portable temple tent would be taken down, transported and set back up again. There has been the preparation and organization of how to mobilize and communicate through the use of banners and trumpets. It’s been over two years of preparation and we’re finally setting out on the journey.

This morning I am reminded of two key life lessons in the chapter.

First, sizable tasks require thorough planning and preparation. As a right-brained, go-with-the-flow type I have always been susceptible to spontaneous embarkation on different adventures and pursuits. I have steadfast faith in my ability to “figure it out” as I go along. This mindset serves me well in relatively small, isolated individual circumstances. It’s not a big deal if I’m on my own. It can, however, be disastrous in larger group settings in which the welfare and emotions of more people are involved. Lady Wisdom has taught me that there are times when my go-with-the-flow temperament must hold its horses and take the time to plan and get organized (and fight the urge to throw a passive aggressive fit in doing so).

The second life lesson would fit neatly with the author of Ecclesiastes (and the Byrds) memorable lyrics, “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.” There is a time planning and organization, and there is a time to embark. While there are times for planning and organization, there is also foolishness in endless preparation if you can never pull the trigger and set out. This life journey is filled with well intentioned endeavors that are ceaselessly talked about, planned for, and prepared but never executed. There comes a time when you have to call the preparations good and set out. Lao Tzu famously said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” At some point, you have to take that step.

God, grant me the wisdom to know when to plan and when to step.

The Slippery Sweet-Spot Between Acting and Waiting

Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.”
Numbers 9:8 (NIV)

There are many forks in life’s road. There’s no avoiding it. It just is what it is.

Where do I go to school?
Should I marry him/her?
Do I speak out or hold my tongue?
Should I take this job that’s been offered to me or hold out for the job I really want? 
Should we rent or should we buy?
Do I invest in new or get by with used?
Should we stay or should we go?

As we traverse the Book of Numbers there is a pattern or repetition that many readers don’t catch. The phrase “The Lord said to Moses” is used repeatedly. In fact, it’s used over 50 times. In today’s chapter, some of the people bring Moses a question about how to handle an exceptional circumstance regarding the Passover celebration. Moses simply says he’ll check with God and God provides a seemingly quick answer.

We then go on to read in today’s chapter that the decision of going or staying was miraculously provided for the ancient Hebrews. According to the story there was a cloud that hovered over their traveling tent temple which gave them indication whether God wanted them to move or stay put. When the cloud remained over the tent they stayed put. If the cloud lifted they broke camp and moved.

Wow, I’d love it if God’s guidance and direction were that easy for me to see. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that this may have been the only easy thing in the experience of the Hebrews. I’m quite sure I’d struggle living the life of an ancient nomad wandering in the desert with a couple million cousins.

I have discovered along life’s road that there is a slippery sweet-spot of tension between discernment and decision. We live in an age when time is measured in nanoseconds and we are used to getting things “on demand.” I perceive that the virtues of patience, peace and prayer are increasingly found in short supply in our culture. At the same time, I have known many followers of Jesus who take so long to “prayerfully consider” decisions that they make no progress in their respective  journeys.

This morning I find myself once again seeking to both find and hold the tension between acting and waiting. I don’t want to be so quick to make decisions that I forget to pray for guidance and to give wise consideration to options and potential consequences. At the same time, I don’t want to become paralyzed waiting for some divine sign when there is a clear need to act judiciously and with expedience.

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.