Tag Archives: Power

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.

The Enduring Power of a Simple Story

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’”
Matthew 18:32-33 (NIV)

I have been training groups and individuals in the art of Customer Service for almost a quarter century. Along that journey I’ve learned that students rarely remember all of the bullet points and service principles I teach them. They remember the stories. Just a year or so ago a woman came up to me prior to one of my classes. She had been in my class before and I asked her if she thought the content was beneficial.

Oh yeah, it was good,” she said dismissively. “But just make sure to keep telling all the stories. You tell the best stories!

She reminded me of a couple of front-line supervisors from another client who regularly showed up at the new hire service training class I did at their company each quarter. I asked them why they kept coming back. “We just want to hear you tell those stories again,” they would say with a laugh. “They never get old.”

If you haven’t noticed it, our culture has been recapturing the power of story in recent years. There are books, conferences, and entire consulting practices around story. This isn’t new. It’s eternal. The power of story is woven into the fabric of life. We were created in the image of The Great Story Teller. Story, metaphor, and word pictures communicate concepts in profound and emotional ways.

This is why Jesus told parables. They are powerful in their simplicity, profound in their impact.

In today’s chapter, Jesus tells an amazingly simple parable. A servant begs his master to forgive his deep indebtedness, which the master does. The servant then immediately goes out and rakes his own servant over the coals for some small debt. I have read this parable countless times, and it still resonates with each reading. How many times have I confessed my many failings and shortcomings to God and begged His forgiveness. How great a debt God has graciously forgiven. How then can I refuse to choose to forgive the injuries, slights, betrayals, insults, and inconsiderations of others?

This morning I’m doing a Google search of my heart, mind, life and relationships for anyone I’m holding something against, or anything I’ve refused to forgive.

All because of a simple story I read again.

 

 

What We Find in Our Fears

Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

The king (Herod) was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.
Matthew 14:5,9-10 (NIV)

A few weeks ago we journeyed through the account of Herod the Great killing all of the baby boys of Bethlehem under the age of two, fearing that the Messiah born there (as reported to him by the wise men from the east) would grow up to supplant him. Herod was more afraid of losing his worldly power than anything else.

One of the little confusions in the story of Jesus is the fact that the Herod who killed the babies (that would be Herod the Great) is not the same Herod as the one we read about in today’s chapter. Herod the Great died (doesn’t matter how hard you cling to power and riches, death gets everyone in the end) and his kingdom was split up and given to three of Herod’s sons [cue: theme from My Three Sons]. The Herod who killed John the Baptist in today’s chapter is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

Now think about Herod Antipas for a moment. He is the son of a brutal and ruthless tyrant and watched his father desperately clinging to power. Think about the sibling rivalry among Herod’s sons for the throne and all that came with it. Think about the fear, machinations, and intrigue that may have been present between the three brothers. Think about their inherited lust for power and desire to cling to it.

Matthew gives us a couple of fascinating clues about the mind of Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas wanted to kill John. He had learned a lot about rubbing out your enemies to solidify your power from his father Herod the Great (“Leave the knife; Take the humus.”). The goal of Herod Antipas was holding onto what power he’d inherited, and John the Baptist was very popular with the people. Killing John might create a riot among the commoners, which the Romans would then have to deal with. The Romans didn’t like uprising and unrest in their Empire. Caesar Augustus in Rome might choose to replace Herod Antipas just as he replaced Herod Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, years earlier.

A few verses later we learn that Herod Antipas got played by his lover, who also happened to be his sister-in-law, his other brother Philip’s wife. Remember what I said about fraternal competition? Herod Antipas has stolen Philip’s wife who tempts Herod with her own daughter, his niece. Seriously, this is like a soap opera. Now, Herod Antipas is stuck with a house full of guests and his niece has publicly challenged H.A. to bring her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is afraid of the riot, but he’s even more fearful of looking weak in front of the rich and powerful players in the room. He’s stuck. Herod must choose between competing fears and their threat to his pride, prestige, and power.

This morning I’m thinking about Herod Antipas. He feared losing power. He feared losing face. What he obviously did not fear (and seemingly gave no thought to) was God or anything to do with the things of the Spirit. He was oblivious to the Great Story in which he and his father were playing, and would continue to play, a significant part.

Our fears tell us a lot about ourselves, our priorities, and our faith (or lack thereof). What are my fears? What do they say about me? Do my fears reveal a soul clinging to that which I can never really have, have enough of, or keep in the eternal perspective? Am more like Herod, or more like John and Jesus?

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
-Jesus

 

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Contrasting Rulers

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:16

In recent weeks the world watched on video tape as two females approached the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un in a Malaysian airport and, wiping a nerve agent on his face, assassinated him. This is the dark side of worldly power, and it has been this way since people began ruling over one another. Once you ascend to power you have to figure out a way to stay there, which means eliminating those who might try to take your place.

What a powerful contrast Matthew provides us in today’s chapter. Herod had qualities not unlike the North Korean dictator. A regional monarch put into power by the Roman Senate, Herod “the Great” murdered his own wife, three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others whom he suspected might try to rob him of his position and power.

Contrast this with the infant Jesus, who…

had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

This morning I’m thinking about my place in this world. It’s easy, even in relatively small ways, to succumb to the desire to gain,  keep, and cling the things this world has to offer. As a follower of Jesus, the example I’m given is to embrace an eternal mystery of kenosis: in order to have anything of eternal value, I must let go of everything and empty myself.

Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem, commonly referred to as “the massacre of the innocents,” stands as a horrific testament to the lengths one minor regional ruler will go to maintain his addiction to power, and it stands in stark contrast to the baby who emptied Himself of omnipotence to show us a better way.

I’m continuing to seek after the way of empty.

Promises of the Uncontainable

I am the Lord,
    the Maker of all things,
    who stretches out the heavens,
    who spreads out the earth by myself…

who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’
    of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’
    and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’
Isaiah 44:24b,26b (NIV)

I am reminded this morning of English class back in the day. Our teacher assigned us “compare and contrast” papers in which we were to compare two different things. We were to discuss their contrasts, their differences. Isaiah’s prophetic poetry in this morning’s chapter is a compare and contrast composition.

The first five verses are an introductory statement for Isaiah’s readers. They are a “now hear this” to draw the reader in.

Verses six through 20 are a treatise on the nature of the religious idols popular in society and culture of Isaiah’s day. Idolatry was common among the people of Israel and Judah at the time, and many would have Egyptian and Canaanite idols in their homes. People might worship both at the Jewish temple and one of the many idol shrines or temples in town.

Isaiah’s comparison poem focuses on the fact that these idols were images made by carpenters, smiths, and artisans. They were a product of a human’s hands. The carpenter might make a chair with part of a tree, and an idol with the other. The blacksmith might take a hunk of metal and make a hammer with part of it, and an idol with the rest. The idol is a human product, Isaiah repeatedly reminds his readers.

Isaiah then writes a second call to the reader in verses 21-23 in which he weaves all of creation. Clouds, morning, mist, sky, earth, mountains, and forests are all mentioned. Isaiah is already contrasting the small wood or metal god made by the carpenter or blacksmith with the expanse of all creation. The idol is a human creation, but humans are God’s creations. So, which is truly God? In verse 24 Isaiah makes his main comparative statement. God is the creator of all things, beyond the heavens, who cannot be contained in a hunk of wood or metal. God is beyond all that we see or know.

Having established God, the Creator’s, expansive, uncontainable person and power, Isaiah makes a prophetic promise. Those children of Judah living under political exile will return. A ruined Jerusalem will be rebuilt, along with the temple.

This morning I am reminded of the Creator who cannot be contained by human knowledge, reason, description, image or craft. God uses countless metaphors in communicating with us simply because metaphors are the very best we can do in our finite minds. Isaiah doesn’t even attempt to use a metaphor. God is simply the One who created all that we see and beyond it.

Isaiah reminds his readers that God is the power behind the promise of a rebuilt Jerusalem. As I stand on the cusp of a new year, not knowing what will happen, I am reminded that this same God is the power behind the simple promise given by Jesus (in a different compare/contrast statement) whose birth we just celebrated:

“If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Wise and Persuasive Words

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV)

Over the past couple of years our local gathering of Jesus followers has been engaged in an experiment of sorts that, in my experience, is rather unique. The weekly worship and message is not centered around a specific teacher or leader. Rather, a team of 10-15 individuals who are developing their gifts as communicators of God’s Message take turns. I have been asked to take on an informal role as mentor and acts as an anchor for the team.

There are some who felt this experiment would be an utter failure. The norm in our culture is to find people congregating around an individual leader with exceptional communication skills. Will people consistently gather to hear a broad spectrum of teachers who are diverse in their style, experience, and knowledge? The answer appears to be “yes.”

One of the things that I have been observing as I listen and interact with each of the teaching team members is that they each bring their own unique personality and style to their delivery. I want each of them to discover and develop the voice that God gave them. At the same time, there are simple rules and principles of communication from which we can all learn and develop our skills as communicators. I’m learning that there is wisdom required in knowing the difference.

One of the underlying themes that Paul is communicating in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is predicated on a similar situation that was creating conflict. Apollos was a dynamic speaker in that day who travelled and taught about Jesus. The believers in Corinth had begun to split into factions behind their favorite teachers. Paul addressed this in yesterday’s chapter:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”;another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Now, Paul continues to address the situation. Compared to Apollos (and perhaps Peter [Cephas] too), Paul knew that he was not a dynamic teacher. There is a story in the book of Acts in which a young man fell asleep during Paul’s teaching and fell out of a second floor window to his death. I have to believe that an experience like that would stick with you as a teacher.

To the people of Corinth, therefore, he is makes it clear that the power of the teaching is not in the skills of the orator, but in Holy Spirit’s presence. A skilled communicator can affect the thoughts and emotions of the masses, but spiritual impact of an eternal nature happens only through the work of Holy Spirit.

The truth of the matter is that different individuals have different styles, personalities, and communication skills. Moses was not a great communicator on a human level, but God used him to great effect. Paul seems to be placing himself in a similar camp. Those who teach should always seek to improve the quality of their communication skills, while acknowledging that the greatest of communicators is dependent on the power and work of Holy Spirit for our words to have spiritual potency or eternal value.

Today, I’m thinking about a message I have to deliver among our gathering of believers this coming Sunday about the unmanageable power of Jesus. As always, I’m diligently trying to prepare to communicate the Message well. I am reminded this morning that my preparations are not complete without acknowledging my utter need of, and dependence on, Holy Spirit.

 

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