Tag Archives: Authority

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?

Transition of Leadership

After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them.They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols.
2 Chronicles 24:17-18 (NIV)

Along my life journey I’ve witnessed, or been part of, a number of leadership transitions. Churches, schools, civic organizations, business, clients, not to mention the transition of power our nation peacefully experiences every 2-4 years. Some transitions I’ve experienced have been positive experiences, some have not.

In today’s chapter the Chronicler relates some fascinating details about the reign of young King Joash of Judah. In the previous two chapters we learned that the entire royal family of David had been wiped out. Joash had been hidden away as an infant in the Temple of Solomon for seven years. Then the high priest, Jehoiada, let a coup and placed Joash on the throne.

Reading between the lines on the Chronicler’s papyrus, we see there may have been a bit of an ebb and flow to the relationship between Jehoiada and young King Joash, between monarch and priest, between politics and religion. Jehoiada was, no doubt, a powerful figure. He was the one who hid the infant and protected him. He was the one who plotted and carried out the coup. He was the one who put Joash on the throne. Jehoiada was the power behind the child king, and he even oversaw who Joash would marry and with whom the king would have children.

The king grows up and gives orders for a tax to be collected to repair Solomon’s Temple, but the King’s wishes are not immediately carried out. Jehoiada was the power behind the throne, and the Levites knew to take their orders from the high priest, not the king. Joash summons Jehoiada before him. Joash had always taken his commands from Jehoiada, now the young king was testing and exerting his own power and authority over Jehoiada. The high priest submits, but we as readers are left wondering just how these two powerful men managed their relationship with one another.

The Chronicler then tells us about another transition of leadership. The powerful religious leader, Jehoiada, dies. There is now a vacuum of religious leadership. Immediately, the “officials” of Judah (leaders of clans, businessmen, state officials. and etc.) swoop into that power vacuum and pay a visit to King Joash. They convince the King to loosen Jehoiada’s powerful stranglehold on local religion and support the resurgence of the local Canaanite gods. Joash does so despite many prophetic warnings. The Chronicler makes it clear that this doesn’t end well.

This morning I’m thinking about transitions of leadership and of power. Jehoiada saw to it that Joash was placed on the throne, but the Chronicler’s account leaves me believing that he may have looked upon the young monarch as a puppet to be controlled rather than a protegé to be mentored. The difference is monumental and the fact that there was no successor to Jehoiada with the authority to command respect of the King and his “officials” says that the high priest had equally not done an adequate job preparing for his successor and ensuring that the legacy of his leadership would continue.

I have been blessed and privileged to be in many different leadership positions in my lifetime. In the quiet this morning I’m taking stock of how I have handled the transition of power and leadership to others. The results, I confess, are mixed. In some cases I feel that I’ve done well, and in others I realize that, like Jehoiada, I’ve missed the opportunity to bless my successor and those under my leadership with a wisely planned transition. I can’t change the past, but I can ensure that I handle future opportunities with greater wisdom and grace. I pray I do so.

Have a great week, my friends!

 

The Fool Who Speaks Truth

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die!”
Jeremiah 26:8 (NIV)

There is a device Shakespeare used in his plays in which the fool, the jester, or the lowly are the individuals who see and speak the truth while the high and mighty continue to live in their deceits and delusions. Great story tellers often use this device. There’s the simple, small Shire-folk who bring about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings, or the eccentric Professor Trelawney who spouts foolishness 99.9% of the time but on at least two rare occasions actually speaks a prophetic word (that she doesn’t even know she uttered). I’m sure you can think of others.

Today’s chapter in the anthology of Jeremiah’s prophetic works goes back in time to the early years of his career. Jeremiah goes to the Temple court and proclaims that God will destroy Jerusalem if the people don’t change their ways. His message of warning and doom is not well received. The leaders of the Temple and other prophets seize Jer in an attempt to kill him. A trial ensues. Even the King and the army want Jeremiah dead, just as they’d extradited and executed a similar prophet named Uriah.

Elders of the community defend Jeremiah, stating that there is plenty of precedent of prophets who spoke unpopular words but were not put to death for their message. A couple of high-ranking officials come to Jeremiah’s defense, and his life is spared.

Along my life journey I have learned that great stories echo wisdom of the Great Story. When emotions are high and “the crowd” is in an uproar (especially when stirred by those in institutional authority) I often perk up my ears to listen for a still, small, contrarian voice amidst the din. Throughout the Great Story I find that God’s messengers are typically unpopular with the crowd. That’s why Jesus told His followers, “You’re blessed when people revile and rebuke you – when they speak all manner of slander against you.”

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded that Truth is rarely popular. Jesus said that the road to Life is a narrow, dusty footpath. It isn’t particularly well-marked and the trek is challenging for the relative few who are willing to embark on the journey. By contrast, the super highway the crowd follows is an easy commute (though one typically has to deal with traffic jams). And so, at the beginning of another day I find myself pondering which path I will choose today. Which role will I choose to play in the Great Story? Am I, like Jeremiah, willing to play the role of “the wise fool” who speaks Truth?

I guess my answer will be revealed in the choices I make today.

 

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Power in the System

Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Amos 7:14-15 (NIV)

Early in my life journey I worked for an old and well structured organization. There was an organizational chart and rules of governance for the organization. It had operated successfully for well over a hundred years. I had a position of leadership on the staff of the organization, so when our long-time executive director decided to retire I, along with the other staff, were concerned about the choice of an interim director to lead while we searched for a permanent successor.

A potential interim came in to interview. It was a nice person with all the right qualifications, but there was a general consensus among the leadership team that this person was not the right fit for us. A vote of the organization agreed and the candidate was informed that we were going to move a different direction.

The following morning when I arrived at work I was called into a hastily arranged meeting that became one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The chair of the organization’s Board, who just the previous day had agreed that the interim candidate was not right for our organization now blasted the staff’s leadership team for embarrassing the organization and denying the interim the position. We were criticized, chastised and reprimanded for actively conspiring to sway the vote of the organization.

I remember leaving the meeting utterly confused by what I’d just experienced. I couldn’t figure out the 180 degree turn the Board chair made overnight. I felt blind-sided, wrongfully convicted, and punished by a kangaroo court. It was not long afterwards that I came to realize what had really happened.

In this organization was a long-time member who had been active and in leadership for many, many years. This person was also a successful local business owner who had donated a lot of time, energy, and money to the organization over the years. When the vote on the interim did not go the way this person wanted calls were made. Commands were given, pressure was applied, and power was leveraged. Despite the fact that it went against the organizational structure and by-laws of our group, the Board chair buckled and obeyed the demands of this one power-broker who remained hidden behind the scenes.

Human systems naturally develop centers of power. Governments, businesses, organizations, churches, and even families develop systemically around those who develop and wield power to drive the will of the system. It was a hard lesson for me to learn that the organization I worked for was not really governed as organized. The real power in the organization was a power-broker hidden behind the curtain pressuring the organization to do their will even if their individual will ran contrary to the will of the organization as a whole.

In today’s chapter, the backwoods prophet Amos runs into a similar situation with the power brokers of his day. Amaziah was a powerful priest and the religious right-hand of King Jeroboam. Amaziah ran the idolatrous religious center of Israel’s northern kingdom and helped Jeroboam maintain control over the people. When the poems of Amos (critical of the northern kingdom and predicting the nation’s downfall) grew in popularity , the small-town prophet suddenly became a target of Amaziah’s political power. Amos refused to back down, and gave Amaziah a prophetic vision of the down fall of his own house and family.

This morning I’m struck by Amos, the shepherd and fig farmer from a backwoods town whom God used to shake up the powerful systems of government and religion in his day. “My ways are not your ways,” God tells us through the prophet Isaiah. Human systems tend to favor the powerful, the wealthy, the beautiful, the well-connected, and those willing to step on others to gather and cling to worldly power. Again and again in the Great Story God chooses the weak, the broken, the least, the marginalized, the outcast, and the youngest to accomplish His purposes. Jesus teaches that real power, spiritual power, is found when you let go of power and give it away for the benefit of others. Jesus exemplified this Himself when He…

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:6-8

Today, I’m thinking about my early experiences in that organization and the power-broker who used threats, pressure, and power to pull the organizational strings from behind the scenes. As I have progressed in my journey I hope that I have learned to follow a very different example with what little power and authority I’ve been given. I hope that I can increasingly follow the example of Jesus, who didn’t grasp and cling to power for His own advantage, but let go of it for the advantage of us all.

Changing Rules & Healthy Development

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured.
Isaiah 28:13 (NIV)

When our daughters were young children there were a lot of rules that had to be made, repeatedly communicated, and enforced. Children, by their very nature, lack of development and require these rules for their safety, instruction, and healthy development.

There came a time in their development, however, when the rules alone were insufficient. The girls’ growth and natural development as  human beings allowed them to think, reason, and act with greater and greater complexity and autonomy. The black and white world of a parent’s rules were trumped by their ability to think and act as individuals.

As a parent, I recognized that my role had to change. Instead of authoritarian rule maker I had to introduce reasoned instruction to my role as father. It was no longer wise or practical to use my parental authority as a battering ram of family law. While I had a license for policing, judging, and punishing my children at will, the black and white approach that worked so well on young children was inadequate for the task of dealing with teenagers and young adults.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah prophetically finds a similar situation with  the religious leaders of his day. As the shepherds of Israel they found it easier to parent their flocks by making endless black and white rules to control behavior rather than wade into the admittedly more difficult pedagogy, understanding, and demonstration of love, wisdom, mercy, and forgiveness.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jesus faced off against the same human tendency toward legalism when he angrily told off the religious leaders of his day (cf. Matthew 23). Today, we still have religious leaders and their followers who reduce the power of divine love to the spiritually impotent authority of fundamentalist legalism.

I was by no means a perfect parent, and our daughters are quite capable of providing you with evidence of that. Nevertheless, I am enjoying watching each daughter, now in their mid-twenties, finding and developing their very own unique and life-giving relationship with God. This was not the result of rules and parental penal authority. I did my best to be an example and to show them the way, but I couldn’t legislate them into maturity and spiritual openness.

This morning I’m thinking about the many ways we live in a world where humans love to paint everyone into a black and white world. It’s quite useful for categorization and alienation, but I have found it useless at developing the things that God requires (in either grown children or adults):

to act justly
to love mercy
to walk humbly with God.

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featured image: doctorow via Flickr

A Cynic’s Confession

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NIV)

When you live in Iowa, you get a larger dose of American presidential politics than most. Iowa is the first state in the parties selection process for presidential nominees. Therefore, Iowans tend to have a more generous dose of candidates, surveys, and political ads before everyone else. I kind of like it, in the general sense. About 95 percent of the time the major media outlets ignore us here in flyover country. If there’s not a tragedy, natural disaster, or the need for a heart warming Americana story, then they prefer to keep their cameras and microphones grounded on the coast. It’s nice to have the opportunity for our thoughts and opinions to matter for a few months.

At the same time, I will admit that the whole presidential circus gets a bit silly at times. I was once avidly involved in the political process, but confess that I have become jaded and cynical the further I’ve progressed in life’s journey. I vote regularly and do my civic duty, but I am increasingly appalled at how elected leaders look out for themselves and leverage our collective future to solidify their personal standing in the present. I’m talking both sides of the aisle here.

As I read Paul’s admonishment to pray for “all those in authority” this morning, I was struck by just how cynical I’ve become. It’s almost to the point of being a fatalist. If I’m truly honest, I have to admit that I find myself thinking, “What will be will be and my prayers, petitions, and intercessions won’t make a bit of a difference.”

Then, I think of Paul and Timothy out there under Roman occupation  and sandwiched between persecution from both Jewish authorities and Roman authorities. Theirs was not a representative republic. They didn’t have a vote. The media of the day was not surveying everyone in Ephesus to find out what they thought, and Caesar was not pandering to the backwater Hellenists. Their political impotence was far greater than mine, and still Paul urged vigilant prayers for all in authority.

Today, I’m a bit humbled to admit how hard my heart has become towards those in governmental authority. I am revising my prayer list. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few petitions to bring before the highest authority of all.