Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.

Corporate Changes; Eternal Brand

The Lord said to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.”
Numbers 18:20 (NIV)

I’ve recently taken on new responsibilities in our company that began with leading a strategic planning effort this past month. As part of that process, I’m evaluating the way our business does things and considering changes, enhancements, and improvements. I don’t want our team to simply make changes for the sake of change. There’s got to be good reason for the things we do that accurately reflects who we are and contributes to what we are called to do as a business.

As I think to the future and the road ahead for our group, I also find myself being mindful of the legacy of our founder’s mission. I don’t want to lose sight of what the company was created to be. There are some things that don’t change with regard to our brand. If anything, some things need to become enhanced. It’s simply who we are.

In many ways, the book of Numbers that we’re journeying through a chapter-a-day was God’s spiritual business plan for the ancient Hebrews. It’s an organizational manual for how God was establishing a system of worship. Things were not structured haphazardly. There are reasons that God, the founder and CEO, is structuring things a particular way.

One of the curious decisions God made was to make sure the priests and Levites, who were in charge of the temple, the offerings, and the sacrifices, could not own land or have an inheritance. “I am your share and your inheritance,” God said.

There is a very important purpose in setting up the team this way. Those who were part of the priesthood, the ones who were the spiritual conduit between God and humanity, were to understand and constantly maintain an eternal perspective. To quote the old bluegrass classic, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ though.” The priests and Levites didn’t own land and didn’t have inheritance passed between generations because they understood that ultimately this whole earthly journey has an eternal destination. The world and all the stuff get left behind. The priest and Levites were invested in that which is beyond this world, those things which are eternal, the things that the Founder and CEO are really all about.

Times changed over the course of history. The system changed. The spiritual marketplace went through a great depression. Legacy ways of doing spiritual business in this world changed. Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice once for all. Holy Spirit was poured out into all believers. It was a new economy for spiritual business, and God’s spiritual business plan was getting a face lift. Old religious practices passed away like the telegraph, the ticker tape, and the IBM Selectric. New sacraments and paradigms were put into place.

But some things don’t change.

The legacy concept of the priests not having an earthly inheritance did not go away as part of the updated business plan. In fact, Jesus made it clear that God being the “share” and “inheritance” was a foundational, core part of God’s brand. It was a corporate value that was no longer limited to one team in the organization, but shared by all. It was part of every team members job description. In speaking to all the shareholders on the mountainside, Jesus said:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” Matthew 6:19-21 (MSG)

The CEO was updating the business plan, and the old business silo of the “priesthood” was being functionally expanded to include everyone in the organization (1 Peter 2:9-10). Along with it, everyone in the organization was to understand that this world, and the things of this world, have zero eternal value. The world, and the things of this world, in no way contribute to the mission and goals of the organization. They will not help the organization be successful in implementing the strategic plan. Therefore, this world and the things of this world are not where members of the organization are to invest our resources, our energies, or our corporate concerns.

This is the legacy from the Founder. This is the brand.

It’s simply who we are, and who we are to be.

A Good Follower

The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.
Numbers 17:8 (NIV)

Years ago I was part of a team that had a leadership issue. Our appointed leader was a lightning rod who attracted a host of unnecessary concerns and distractions. Along with many other members, I could tell our team wasn’t functioning well. Our leader was an appointee, so there was no recourse other than to issue a complaint with the organizational authorities, but it appeared they fell on deaf ears.

As a member of the team, I came to a personal crossroads. I knew that becoming a part of the unceasing undercurrent of grumbling, complaining, and back-biting as not going to be profitable for myself or the team as a whole. Like it or not, this was our appointed leader. I could choose out and leave the team, or I could participate to the best of my ability, keep my mouth shut, and to support the team by doing my best not to be an active part of the dissension.

Grumbling. Whispers. Complaints.

If you’ve participated in any kind of human group, you likely have an example that you, yourself, have experienced. There is a spirit of unrest within the group; An undercurrent of disunity against the leadership or the status quo. In our chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers it’s been a theme now among the Hebrew tribes since they left Egypt. God has appointed a system and there is grumbling about the system.

Members of 11 tribes are grumbling that Aaron and the Levites are  the only ones who can serve in the Tabernacle. The Levites are grumbling that they can’t own property like all the other tribes. Certain Levites are grumbling that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam being the only appointed prophets. There’s already been a rebellion. The unrest is growing, and threatening to spill over into division.

In today’s chapter, God prompts Moses to gather a staff from the leader of each of the tribes. They place the walking sticks in the holy place of the traveling temple tent. The next day Aaron’s staff (representing the Levite tribe) had sprouted, bloomed flowers, and produced almonds. God was giving his unquestioned support to his appointed priest and system, and attempting to silence the grumbling.

Last week I found my meditation focused on the qualities of leadership. This morning, at the beginning of a new week, I find myself thinking about the role of being a good follower and member of the team, group, or organization. In a representative system where leaders are elected, I have the opportunity of making a change by supporting an opposition candidate to the incumbent and voting in a new leader at the next regular election. In an organization with appointed leadership I have far more limited options.

Along life’ s journey I’ve come to understand the wisdom of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” Once complaints are registered with authority and that authority chooses to support the incumbent leader, then I am typically left with three options. I can leave the organization (if that’s  even an option). I can continue to participate in grumbling, complaining and stirring up dissension. I can keep my mouth shut and press on, doing the best I can in the circumstances.

My experience is that leaders come and go in all organizations. Poor leaders will typically implode or move on. To quote REO Speedwagon, sometimes there’s wisdom in simply “riding the storm out.”

If I want what is best for the team or organization as a whole, then being a good follower often means actively choosing not to participate in destructive grumbling despite the self-centric satisfaction derived from doing so.

Facing Opposition

Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.
Numbers 16:1-2 (NIV)

Every leader of an organization, whether it be politics, business, community, church, or non-profit, will face opposition. It is, I’m afraid, simply part of the  territory.

In today’s chapter, Moses and his brother Aaron face yet another round of opposition to their leadership. They’ve already faced multiple waves of criticism, experienced sharp drops of popularity, and had to address multiple acts of defiance. Now, a Levite and three men from the tribe of Dan were ring-leaders of a 250 person rebellion. Their beef was that Moses and Aaron sat a lone at the top of the religious system. They wanted a piece of the power. “We’re all holy,” they argued. “Why is it only the two of you alone get to enter the Lord’s presence and speak for the Lord?” 

I’ve found it very common for leaders to face opposition from members of the group who envy all of the benefits of leadership. I also have found that these individuals often ignore the very real responsibilities and burdens that come along with that leadership. I’ve also observed that where there are a few passionate opposition leaders, you will soon find a growing group of supporters that they will have stirred up in order to support their own feelings and desires.

We later find that part of the opposition wasn’t just about power and control, but about material possessions. The Levites weren’t allowed to own property. God intended for them to take care of the temple and to be provided for through the temple and the offerings and sacrifices of the other tribes. Those opposed to Moses and Aaron’s leadership eventually reveal that what they want is the ability to own property like everyone else.

I’ve observed that opposition is often rooted in others’ appetites for power/control, money, or both.

I also observe this morning a couple of important lessons from Moses’ response to this latest round of opposition:

  • Moses didn’t ignore the opposition. Moses acknowledged the opposition and even allowed for a test of their opposition. He confronted Korah the Levite directly. He attempted to speak with the leaders of the opposition from Dan, but they wouldn’t speak to him. Opposition rarely just goes away and it often refuses direct communication. Left unchecked, opposition typically grows to become a larger and larger issue. Good leaders rise to the challenge and find ways to address opposition. There are many and diverse ways of addressing it, but I have learned (in some cases through failure, I confess) that it needs to be addressed.
  • Moses differentiated between opposition and the whole.  Rather than stepping back and accepting God’s anger to burn against the entire assembly, Moses’ pled for the consequences to be confined to those responsible. It’s easy from a position of leadership to perceive that the opposition is greater than it really is. Trying to remain objective and place responsibility and consequences where they are due can be critical to future success.
  • Moses continued to exhibit love and compassion for those under his leadership. At the end of the chapter we find Moses pleading with Aaron to make atonement for the entire assembly before a plague gets too far out of hand. It is easy when frustrated by opposition and the weariness of leadership to stop caring. Moses continued to exhibit deep concern for the people, despite the never-ending headaches they caused him.

This morning I’m thinking about my own experiences and qualities as a leader. I’ve had my share of successes along the way, but I’ve also failed at every one of the three leadership qualities I observed in Moses this morning. Specific situations, individuals, and circumstances come to mind. As I ponder these failures it humbly brings a final thought on leadership to mind: I can’t let failure stop me from trying. Learning from failure is perhaps the most critical lesson any leader can embrace.

As I get ready to start my day, a familiar quote from Teddy Roosevelt comes to mind:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mnemonic Devices and Initiative

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.”
Numbers 15:38-39 (NIV)

On a cubicle wall, in an office outside of Minneapolis, there hangs an old pink sticky note. On this sticky note are three handwritten reminders that the resident of the cubicle scrawled during a call coaching session I had with him several years ago. He added a hand-drawn finger with a string on it to the list and stuck it up where he would see it next to his computer monitor while talking with customers on the phone.

The three reminders on the sticky note were service skills that I told him were top priorities for improving his service delivery when speaking with customers. Within a short period of time his consistency demonstrating the three behaviors vastly improved. Over time he became one of the most consistent service providers in the company. He credits the simple mnemonic device for its continuing power to remind him what to say to his customers.

Visual reminders and mnemonic devices work to bring to mind and memory things we don’t want to forget. God gave the ancient Hebrews multiple mnemonic devices to help them remember His commands, including the wearing of tassels on their robes specified in today’s chapter. These devices are still used and practiced today because they work.

This morning I’m reminded of the power of reminders, even as simple as the annoying buzzes, beeps, and pop-up notifications on my devices. They do work. But, like many things in life, I’ve discovered that they only work if you work them. I had coached the gentleman I referenced in Minnesota for many years before he finally took the initiative to scratch out his reminder list, put it up before him, and commit to behavior change. It would be easy for me to shake my head in frustration at his long delay, but I’m as guilty as anyone at saying that I want to do things, perhaps even writing them down on a list, and then not doing them.

James 1:22 comes to mind in the quiet this morning: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Mnemonic devices can remind me of what God’s Message says, but only my initiative can put those reminders into daily action.

 

The Motivation Behind Life’s Blocking

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
Numbers 14:44 (NIV)

Faith is an amazingly powerful, amazingly mysterious spiritual root force. Jesus said that faith as small as a speck could move mountains.   Repeatedly, Jesus told those whom He healed that their faith was the active ingredient in their healing. The author of Hebrews wrote that without faith it is impossible to please God.

Today’s chapter is an object lesson in faith (or lack thereof). Yesterday the Hebrew tribes spy out the promised land, but swayed by the exaggerated claims of ten of the twelve spies, the people doubt that their conquest will be successful. Swayed by their fears they speak of going back to slavery in Egypt and threaten to stone Moses to death.

When a mysterious plague afflicts the ten doubting spies, the people’s’ fear of God becomes instantly more powerful, in the moment, than the fear of death in conquest that had felt so powerful the previous day. Their fear prompts a hasty decision to move forward with the conquest despite Moses warning that their impromptu actions is doomed to fail. Why? They were acting out of fear, not faith.

What a word picture the tribes provide for fear-based thinking and reasoning. Their actions over the past few chapters have perpetually been motivated by what they feared most in the moment: starvation, discomfort, death, or plague. Fear is the constant and consistent motivator; It is the active ingredient in their words, decisions, and actions. Their fear leads them to false presumptions on which their decisions and actions were based.

This morning I’m reminded that it is that which motivates my actions that is critical to my spiritual progression in this life journey and the activator of spiritual power. If I am primarily motivated by fear or shame, by pride or personal desire my actions will certainly propel me down life’s path just like the Hebrew tribes climbing the hill. My movement, however, will be void of any real progress or direction of Spirit. As any well-trained actor knows, it is the motivation that drives the action of the character. Blocked movement disconnected from the characters underlying motivation becomes prescriptive, mindless action that empties the performance of any real power.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the actions on my multiple test lists. If, as the Bard wrote, “all the world’s a stage” then my task lists are my prescribed blocking in life’s script. Go here, do this bit of business, then go there and do that bit of necessary action so that she can proceed with her bit. Family tasks, business tasks, personal tasks… What’s the active, motivating ingredient?

Is it faith?

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.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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