Tag Archives: Power

Human Endeavor vs. Divine Direction

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Acts 5:38-39 (NIV)

When I was younger I had all sorts of ideas of things that I could do for God. I was part of a number of groups and fledgling movements and ministries that I, and/or others, were convinced were going to be “big.” Looking back, I confess that I regularly confused what I was going to do for God with what God wanted me to be doing. I’m pretty sure that my motivations were often the same as Peter and the boys when they were selfishly vying for positions of power and prestige in Jesus’ earthly administration.

What a contrast in today’s chapter to see the change in Peter and John now that they find themselves immersed in what God intended, as opposed to what they were envisioning they would do for God just a few chapters back.

I have always loved the simple wisdom presented to the Jewish leaders by Gamaliel (who, btw, was the Apostle Paul’s teacher and mentor). If what is happening is a human endeavor motivated by human desires under human power, then it will fade and fall apart. If, on the other hand, it is something divinely directed by God and part of what God is doing, then no one can stop it.

I long ago gave up my efforts at spiritual prognostication and looking for ways to predict and be in on the “big” thing that God’s going to do. I find that God is constantly doing a lot of really awesome and powerful things through a lot of amazing, faithful people. That’s cool, but it doesn’t mean it’s what God is divinely directing me to do. I discovered long ago that it is easy for me to become enamored by the desire to be part of the next “big” thing God is doing and ignore the “little” menial acts of daily spiritual discipline that make up the core work of being a follower of Jesus. If I focus on the latter, then the former takes on a completely different perspective.

I sometimes hear prophetic words given that God is going to do this or that. I think it’s awesome and I believe that nothing can stop God from doing what God is going to do. I’ve simply come to the place in my journey where my core desire is to be discerning between human endeavor and divine direction.

I simply be where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to be doing. The rest will take care of itself.

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 Prophet and The Politician

He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.
Jeremiah 38:5 (NIV)

Not long ago I ran into an old school friend from my middle school and high school years. In casual conversation about where our respective journeys have taken us, she asked if I was ever going to run for political office as had been my plan and passion back in the day. I was taken aback that she remembered, and I laughed to myself as I realized how long ago I tossed that childhood dream by the wayside.

Along my journey I’ve known some individuals in politics. Being an Iowan, I have occasionally involved myself in the election process and rubbed shoulders with a few of the small army of candidates who come campaigning for President every four years. I believe that there are really good people in politics who do their best to do good for our country. Yet, here’s what I have observed:

Politics is a game. Power is the prize. A politician says what people want to hear just to get elected. They then say and vote as the power brokers of their party demand in order to get ahead. Both parties pull identical political stunts (depending on their power position in the moment) then point the finger at the opposing party and scream accusations as if they’ve not done the same thing a few years before.

While I’m sure it’s somewhat different at a local level, I learned long ago that I’m not wired to play that game. It would slowly drain all Life from my spirit.

To get a feel for what’s happening in today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story, you’ve got to read the political situation that’s present between the lines. First of all, the ancient practice of siege warfare was a slow, brutal process. The Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem and cut off all supply lines into the city. As the supply of food and fresh water diminish, fear and anxiety grow to unprecedented levels among the population. Power structures break down and those in power desperately try to stave off anarchy.

King Zed finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His political rivals, sick of listening to Jeremiah’s incessant prophesies of defeat, ask the King for Jeremiah’s head. The King grants it (because that’s what you do when you’re a politician trying to hold onto power). Jeremiah is thrown down the bottom of a muddy well to die. The King’s eunuch then asks the King (in private) if he might rescue Jeremiah. The King tells him to do so in secret (because when you’re a politician you secretly work back channels to accomplish what you want).

Jeremiah is summoned by King Zed who asks the prophet to give him a Word from the Lord. “Give yourself up to the King of Babylon and you’ll live,” Jeremiah tells him. Zedekiah, however, is afraid that those citizens who have already surrendered themselves to the Babylonians will turn against him if he gives himself up (and a politician is always worried about maintaining his/her power, popularity, and position). Jeremiah assures the King this will not happen.

Upon conclusion of their private conversation, King Zed warns Jeremiah that he will be asked what they talked about. Being a politician, Zed tells Jeremiah how to “spin” his answer so as to avoid political trouble for both of them (because a politician is always looking for a good win-win).

This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the contrast between Jeremiah the prophet and Zedekiah the politician. The prophet suffers for speaking the truth and being true to the Message, but beneath the suffering the prophet seems to exemplify a certain spiritual peace that comes from being true, steadfast, and faithful. The politician, on the other hand, enjoys the position and creature comforts afforded by his power, but beneath the surface lie fear, anxiety, worry, and the mental chaos from constantly navigating political minefields in the endless desperation to survive.

I am thankful this morning for the good people I know doing their best to serve in the political arena (on both sides of the aisle). I’m also thankful that God led my journey down a different path than the one I’d desired when I was a wee lad. I’m wired to be more prophet than politician, I think.

Though, I confess that I’d prefer not to get thrown into a well.

The Crazy Man in the Ox Yoke

This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.”
Jeremiah 27:2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Remember metaphor from middle school English class? A metaphor is something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (which would then make it a simile).

Consider this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

In other words, all that God made is a metaphorical expression of who God is. We can find Him by simply looking at the universe and all that is.

When Jesus talked about Himself  He used metaphors:

  • “I am  the water of life.”
  • “I am the bread of life.”
  • “I am the light of the world.”
  • “I am the gate.”
  • “I am the good shepherd.”
  • “I am the vine.”
  • “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Other metaphors are used in scripture for Jesus such as:

  • “Word” or “Living Word”
  • “Lamb of God”
  • “Righteous Branch”

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion He said:

“This is my body.”
“This
is my blood.”

God regularly gave the ancient prophets metaphors to convey His message. In today’s chapter, God tells Jeremiah to strap an ox yoke around his neck. An ox yoke is the crossbar placed around the neck of an ox to control it when using the ox for pulling a cart, a plow, or some other task. Jeremiah was then to tell the envoys of the neighboring kings who were visiting Jerusalem that if they will all become servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon they will be spared the humiliation of being defeated by him.

You have to imagine that for a second. A man standing there strapped to an ox yoke in front of these high-powered diplomatic envoys telling them that they are going to be oxen strapped to a yoke, so they would be strapped in servitude to Babylon. No wonder people thought him crazy.

Just yesterday Wendy and I were talking about a message I gave this past Sunday among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. She once again echoed what I have heard over and over and over again across the many years I’ve been a public speaker: “People love your stories.” I recall a client one time telling me “Just keep telling stories. You tell the best stories.” Stories are metaphors with a “moral” or a meaning larger than the story itself. That’s why Jesus told parables. When talking about God’s kingdom Jesus didn’t give dry lectures on systematic theology. He told stories about lost coins, scattered seed, lost sheep, a priceless pearl, and a runaway son.

Metaphors are powerful. Everything is metaphor. Metaphor is the language of God.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about another message I have to give in a few weeks. I’m thinking about a training session I have to present to a client’s Customer Service team tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the truths I want to communicate as much as I am the metaphors, the word pictures, and the life stories that will best communicate those truths.

After 40 years of public speaking I can tell you that people will quickly forget a list of dry bullet points, but they never forget a good story or word picture that made them feel something. The diplomatic envoys in today’s chapter could easily have tuned out Jeremiah’s words, but they would never forget the crazy man strapped to a yoke. When they returned to their respective kings you know that they said, “Oh king, I have to tell you about this crazy man we saw strapped to an ox yoke.”

Exactly. I’m reminded again this morning that if I want to be an effective communicator I have to continually hone my craft at wrapping my message in stories, word pictures, and images.

The language of God is metaphor.

(FYI: Last Sunday’s message has been added to the Message page)

Decor and More

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 4:6 (NIV)

For the past few years Wendy and I have made a post-Christmas excursion to shop for Christmas decorations. So it was that I found myself wandering through a retail ocean of decor this past week. As I wandered up and down the aisles I noticed that a fair amount of the decor ocean included various phrases and verses from the Bible screen printed on anything and everything imaginable. More than once I noticed that verses were presented completely out of context. I found myself wondering if people hang verses on their walls like a modern-day talisman, not having a clue about their original meaning or place in the Great Story.

A verse from today’s chapter is a great case-in-point. The words “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” is a well-worn phrase I’ve heard endlessly repeated in church services and have seen on many trinkets, but I imagine few know the context. The words in today’s chapter were directed by God to a man named Zerubbabel.

Zerubbabel was a Jewish civic leader who was part of the first group of Babylonian exiles to return to a destroyed Jerusalem to begin the work of rebuilding (the story is largely told by Nehemiah). Zerubbabel was appointed Governor of the area by the Persian King Darius. It was Zerubbabel, in partnership with the high priest Joshua, who undertook the task of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, was fraught with political obstacles and physical danger. One could argue that the political situation surrounding Jerusalem was as heated then as it is now. Some historians argue that Zerubbabel’s Temple initiative was made possible only because Darius was distracted by revolts elsewhere. The project was a gutsy move that could have easily backfired in myriad of ways.

Zechariah’s vision and message to Zerubbabel was a divine affirmation. God had ordained the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Zerubbabel did not have to carry the weight of the task himself nor depend only on his human efforts. This was God’s project and God’s spirit would be the power source by which it would be accomplished. Zerubbabel could depend on that, and I’m pretty sure he needed that affirmation.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking back over projects, initiatives, and ministries I’ve been involved in over the years. Many failures come to mind. In retrospect there was more than a pinch of human hubris and ego at the core of them. I can also think of a handful of projects, initiatives, and ministries that I’ve experienced which were more spiritually successful than human design, effort, or ingenuity could have devised. I sense that God, through Zechariah’s vision, was reminding Zerubbabel that his project was definitely not the former, but the latter.

As I stride down the backstretch of my earthly journey I find myself more and more discerning about where I spend my time, energy, and resources. I’ve only got so much “might” and “strength.” I find myself more intent on trying to discern where God’s Spirit is moving and tap into that flow, where my meager investment can yield the most spiritual benefit.

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.” I didn’t see any trinkets or wall hangings with that one at the Big Box home decor store last week. Maybe I’ll keep my eye open for that one. Just something small for my office. Knowing the context of the phrase from today’s chapter, I can safely say that it’s a good affirmation and reminder for me, as well.

featured photo courtesy of m01229 via Flickr

Preparing for Leadership Change

Moses told the Israelites all that the Lord commanded him.
Numbers 29:40 (NIV)

For almost a quarter century my vocation has afforded me the opportunity to work with a number of businesses of all shapes and sizes around the globe. I’ve worked with small, family owned firms and giant global corporations. Finance, retail, telecommunications, insurance, manufacturing, and you name it. It continues to be a fascinating journey.

One of the observations I’ve made along my tenure is that every company’s culture flows out of the executive suite. Even in publicly traded companies and global conglomerates I observe that the leader’s personality, values, and priorities ripple through the organization. Positively or negatively, employees become acclimated to this corporate culture. It becomes the culture they know and are used to working within. When there is a change in leadership, there is always a wave of anxiety that courses through the company.

The transfer of leadership can be a tenuous and troubling period for any group of people. This is especially true with charismatic, larger-than-life leaders who build large organizations over a long period of time. Perhaps no one in the history of humanity fits that description better than Moses.

One of the realities that made me scratch my head when I first began reading God’s Message as a young person was the repetition. In the past few chapters of the book of Numbers we have a repetition of the description of prescribed feast days and festivals that God has given through Moses which were already described in the book of Leviticus. Why repeat it all over again?

As we near the end of Numbers Moses is nearing the end of his tenure as Patriarch and leader of the Hebrew tribes. He led their rescue from slavery in Egypt. He led them out of Egypt. He led them to Sinai where God prescribed through Moses the law, rituals, and traditions that gave their fledgling nation identity, organization, and order. He has been leading them through the wilderness to the land God had promised. He is old and a transfer of leadership is about to begin. Joshua will soon take the mantle of leadership. Believe me when I tell you that anxiety is rippling through the Hebrew nation. Even Moses, arguably the greatest leader in history, has got to be feeling it himself.

Are they ready? Is Joshua ready? How are they going to manage? Are they going to be okay? Will they succeed without me?

And what to good leaders do when they’re transferring leadership of the organization they’ve loved and served? They prepare the team for the transition.

And how do you prepare an organization for the leadership change? You remind them of the things that are important to remember.

While Numbers is right next to Leviticus in the Bible, it was written many years apart at completely different times and occasions. In today’s chapter, Moses is reminding Joshua and the nation of the things that are important for them to remember by repeating for them the outline of prescribed sacrifices, festivals, and feast days.

This morning I’m mulling over some transitions I’ve recently experienced and am experiencing in my own personal world. As a leader I want to be mindful of how my personality, values, and priorities affect the people under my leadership and the organizational culture that results. I want it to be positive. Likewise, I’m reminded this morning that good leaders prepare the people they serve, as best they can, for transitions of leadership. That includes reminding people of the important things they need to remember.