Tag Archives: Shrewd

Polarized Parties, Powder Keg Issues, and Paul

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee,descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Acts 23:6 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is our human penchant for thinking our current events and circumstances are somehow unique in human history. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” As a student of history I can usually find times and events in recorded history which were much worse than whatever it is that’s happening in the headlines today.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of polarization in political thought and the results have been tumultuous. The time of Jesus and the following decades of Paul’s ministry that we’re reading about in Acts were also tumultuous times in which there was polarization of both political and religious thought. Conflict, terrorism, and riots were a part of their landscape just as they are in ours today.

In today’s chapter, Paul uses this polarization of thought and the rabid, inherent conflict as part of his chess game with the religious Jewish leaders and their local Roman occupiers. Paul is standing before the same religious council that condemned Jesus to death and he knows they’re just as thirsty for his blood to be spilled. Paul, however, holds a trump card with his Roman citizenship (see my previous post). Standing next to him is a Roman military commander, known as a Tribune. Paul needs the Romans to take over his case.

It’s important to remember that Paul was raised and trained in Jerusalem as a lawyer. He would have known some of the men on this council. He knew their polarized religious beliefs as well as their corresponding hot button issues. Once again I find that Paul is not a random victim of circumstance. Paul is on a mission. He is driving the action.

Paul knows that the two rival parties within the council were the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two parties were just as opposed to one another as the far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are in the U.S. today. The watershed issue that divided these two religious, political parties was the concept of resurrection, or life after death. The Pharisees believed that there was a resurrection as well as an unseen spirit realm where Angels and spirits dwelt. The Sadducees believed the exact opposite. There was no resurrection, no life after death, this physical life and reality is all there is. When you die there is nothing else. Paul uses this hot-button, polarizing issue for his own purposes.

Paul loudly proclaims to the entire council his pedigree as a life-long, card-carrying Pharisee, and accuses the Sadducees of the council of putting him on trial because of his belief in the resurrection. Resurrection is the powder-keg issue (think Roe v. Wade today). Paul just lit a match and threw it into the middle of the room.

Watch what happens next. A bunch of Pharisees, who moments ago were critical of Paul, now jump up to defend him. As I’ve been watching current events it’s easy to notice that in polarized systems anyone on your team is good and must be defended at all costs, while anyone on the other team is all bad and must be destroyed at all costs. There is no middle ground. Paul successfully diverts the council’s attention from himself to the hot-button issue. In the riot that followed, the Roman Tribune responsible for Paul had no choice but to evacuate him from the situation because he was responsible for Paul’s safety as a Roman citizen and he would be held personally liable (and perhaps executed) if he allowed the Jews to kill Paul, a Roman citizen.

By pushing the council’s political buttons Paul ensured that the Roman Tribune would witness for himself what a volatile group the Jewish council was and the threat they posed to both of them. Not only this, but Paul knows these Jewish leaders. He could easily anticipate that their next move will be a conspiracy to assassinate him. It’s what they did with Jesus. It’s what Paul himself did with Stephen, and Paul himself has been on the run from Jewish assassination attempts on all of his journeys. If there is a plot to kill him Paul knows that the Roman Tribune will have no choice but to place Paul in protective custody and get him out of town. And, that is exactly what happens.

In a few minutes I will join Wendy in our dining room for breakfast and we will read the paper together. It will be filled with news and opinions of current events in our polarized, politicized times. This morning I am reminded that nothing is new under the sun and that I can only control my own motives, thoughts, words, and actions. Reading about Paul’s motives, Paul’s words, and Paul’s actions, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ more obscure and oft-forgotten commands to His followers:

Be shrewd as serpents; gentle as doves.”

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Kindness without Discernment is Foolishness

Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
2 Kings 20:13 (NIV)

Whether it be books, plays, television or movies, Wendy and I are lovers of good stories. We often find ourselves sitting on the couch watching a scene of a television program or movie and we will suddenly realize where this is leading. It’s really funny when it hits us at the same time and we turn to one another to exclaim our prophetic realization.

I had a similar moment this morning as I read the story of King Hezekiah welcoming the Babylonian envoys. As it describes him welcoming the envoys with open arms and showing them all his treasures my heart was like “Dude! Can’t you see they’re casing the joint!?!

In the very next paragraph, the prophet Isaiah confirmed my premonition.

Along this journey we encounter many people. As a follower of Jesus I am called to love them. My life, my words, and my relationships are to marked by patience, kindness, and gentleness. This does not mean, however, that I am to be naive and foolish. Jesus told His followers “be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Most people don’t even know that quote. let alone have it memorized. It doesn’t get artistically posted on Pinterest. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on that one. But it’s important. Loving kindness without wisdom and discernment becomes foolishness.

My thoughts go to a person I know whose life has been marked by a long string of bad relationships. Out of a desire to be loving and kind to others in need, this person has attracted a string of crazy makers into their life. Like Hezekiah, I’ve watched them open up the treasures of their heart and life to others who are only too happy to take advantage. The crazy makers tragically raid this person’s being through manipulation and they don’t realize it until much injury of life and soul has occurred.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of discernment. I am called to love, but also be shrewd. Everyone needs love, but there are those who (consciously or subconsciously) seek innocent “lovers” whom they can take advantage for their own self-centered motivations. In following Jesus’ command, I want to be innocent enough not to be suspicious of everyone, but shrewd enough to discern when someone is merely casing the joint.

Costumes & Perceptions

But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning….
Joshua 9:3 (NRSV)

Last night at rehearsal for Almost, Maine, I was in five different costumes over a two hour period, playing five different characters.

Pete is on a very important date and dressed to impress in a fashionable leather coat, along with his hat and gloves to keep him warm as he and his date gaze at the stars and the northern lights.

Steve is an awkward young man who is both simple and cautious. He wears simple jeans and a simple plaid button down. He buttons every button on his shirt out of his need for caution. You’ll have to see the show to understand why.

Lendall is in construction and roofing. He’s dead tired after working hard all day and already in bed. Thus, when his girlfriend of eleven years comes knocking, he’s in his underwear and an old worn, bathrobe.

Randy works for Lendall. He’s a single young man who hasn’t had much luck with the ladies. There’s a reason for that. He’s still wearing his worn and weathered work coat, snow boots he hasn’t taken the time to tie, and a hat that’s not very becoming.

The fifth man, is home watching television in his sweats and zip-up hoodie. He is very different than all the rest. Hate to get all mysterious on you, but you really have to come to the show to learn more about him. [tickets here!]

Five different characters. I exit stage right, take off one set of clothes, put on another, and in seconds I am transformed for the audience into a completely different person. It’s amazing what a costume and a few hand props can do.

In today’s chapter, the people of Gibeon knew the power of perception. They knew that an effective costume and a few hand props could transform them in the eyes of Joshua and the Israelites. It worked. Joshua saw their dirty clothes and dusty sandals. He saw their moldy bread and broken, dry wineskins. Perceiving that these characters were from a distant land, Joshua and the elders made a peace treaty with the shrewd actors, only to find out that the Gibeonites lived right around the corner.

It is said that “perceptions are everything.” We create perceptions with our clothes, our look, our words, our physicality, and our actions. Do I give mind to these things? This morning I’m reminded of two, make that three, things, and asking myself two questions:

  1. When Jesus sent his followers out to do ministry among the people and towns of their region, He was careful to instruct them to go with nothing but the clothes on their back. He wanted them to be perceived as simple, honest men. How does Jesus want me to present myself, and to be perceived?
  2. Jesus once told a fascinating story about a man hired to manage his masters accounts. When faced with impending dismissal, the manager shrewdly prepared for his future by going to his master’s debtors and telling them to reduce the amount they owed his master. In doing so he earned their gratitude and favor.  Jesus complimented the manager and his shrewd ability to use what was in his means, not unlike what the Gibeonites did in today’s chapter to ensure their survival. How am I to be wise and shrewd with the means given me?
  3. Shakespeare wrote: “…the play’s the thing.” Indeed.

chapter a day banner 2015

Dealing with “God Told Me to Tell You” Statements

source: n3k via Flickr
source: n3k via Flickr

The man of God said, “I cannot turn back and go with you, nor can I eat bread or drink water with you in this place. I have been told by the word of the Lord: ‘You must not eat bread or drink water there or return by the way you came.’”

The old prophet answered, “I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’” (But he was lying to him.) So the man of God returned with him and ate and drank in his house. 1 Kings 13:16-19 (NIV)

Along my journey I have been, from time to time, approached by individuals who proclaim to have some kind of “God told me” word or statement that pertains to me. I am not discounting the possibility that God could speak to me through another person, but I have learned over time to approach these situations with Jesus’ words in mind: “Be shrewd as serpents and gentle as doves.”

The man of God in today’s chapter had been given a clear directive by God. Along comes another prophet whose “God told me” statement contradicted the clear word he’d been given. His blind faith in the stranger had disastrous results. I don’t want to make a similar mistake, so when someone claims to have a word from God that affects me, there are a few simple guidelines I’ve learned to follow:

  • Consider the source. If approached by a stranger or a casual acquaintance whom I don’t know, I am going to be appropriately more cautious. If it comes from Wendy, one of the guys in my inner circle, or a fellow believer who knows me and whom I know and respect, then I’m immediately going to give it greater weight in my consideration.
  • Beware of contradictions. There are some things that I’ve learned about myself and believe wholeheartedly based on my own experiences and faith journey. I am supposed to be in Pella. I believe that God has a purpose for both me and Wendy here. If someone approached me today and said, “God told me that you are supposed to move to Timbuktu,” then I would be immediately, shrewdly suspect. This contradicts all of the sign posts and waypoints on my journey.
  • Seek wisdom. I have a strong circle of family and friends who are wise, who know me well, and whom I have given carte blanche permission to speak into my life. Before giving a stranger’s “God told me” statement any credence, I would run it by these people whom I trust. If I share the word given to me and their B.S. Meters start sounding an alarm, then I feel totally secure dismissing it.
  • Don’t worry. God will accomplish His purposes in me (consider Jonah). I am open and actively listening. I am continually asking, seeking, and knocking. If I’m supposed to move to Timbuktu then that’s where I’m going to end up. Just because a stranger tells me such doesn’t mean I need to obsess about it. Chill. Have faith. Follow. Press on.

David Becomes a Free Agent

1913 Chicago Cubs, baseball card portrait
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But David thought to himself, “One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel, and I will slip out of his hand.” 1 Samuel 27:1 (NIV)

Professional sports can be a funny thing. When you’re a long suffering fan of a perennial loser (in our case that would be the Cubs or the Vikings) you face the annual dilemma of who you are going to cheer for in the playoffs. All season long you’ve hated the other teams in your division for beating up on your boys of summer/winter. But, now it’s the playoffs and you know the other team well. Do you stay loyal to your division or league? Or, do you take alliance with some strange team from the other side of the country whom you’ve never watched with the hope that they will beat up on your local rivals?

I find it equally fascinating to watch players move from team to team and all of the machinations that go along with such moves. Financial considerations are, of course, the most common reasons I see for player moves. Nevertheless, there are loyalty considerations, political considerations, and personal considerations that all play into the decisions of coaches, managers, owners and players.

In David’s day, the region around Israel was made up of small towns who acted much like independent city states but were loosely tied to a larger national confederacy. It’s much like a league of teams that are part of larger divisions. David, the rabidly loyal star player and league MVP for team Israel, got cut by his headstrong coach, even though the team owner didn’t approve of the move. David is now a free agent and, in today’s chapter, he chooses to switch divisions. He negotiates a contract with the rival league to be a player/manager for team Ziklag which puts him in the Philistine division, but the remaining season schedule means he will only face teams from the Amalekite division. David doesn’t have to face his former team who is in a bitter pennant race with the other teams in his new division.

It was a shrewd move. David spends the rest of the season wiping up the new competition while biding his time. He’s guessing that his former team will lose big under it’s current manager and coach, Saul. David knows he’s a favorite of the team owner and the owner had once promised David that he would someday run the team. Nevertheless, Saul has been a fan favorite, a star in his own right, and he’s still under contract. David realizes he has to bide his time. If and when Saul goes down to defeat, David knows that the phone is going to ring and the owner will name him the new player/manager for his hometown team.

Playing Fast & Loose with the “God Told Me” Card

Playing Cards
(Photo credit: Eleaf)

Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit.” 1 John 4:1a (NLT)

When I was young, I confess to playing fast and loose with the “God told me…” card. It wasn’t a conscious deception but a sincere delusion in which I confused very strong thoughts, feelings, and selfish desires with God’s voice. I felt such strong infatuation for this girl that it must be God telling me we’re meant to be together. I really, really want to go on this trip so it must be God planting within me this intense desire. Thus, “God told me….”

I grew up and moved along in my journey. Some of those things I said “God told me” never came to pass, and I had to own up to the fact that if it really had been God telling me then it would have happened. So, maybe it was my will all along. I had other situations in which I had manipulated the “God told me” card to get my own desires only to find out that it wasn’t a good thing. Things didn’t work out so well. Was God leading me astray, or had I used God to put a spiritual rubber stamp on my own selfish desires? It didn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to know it was the latter. Ouch. Mea culpa.

I have learned over time to be careful, thoughtful and discerning with what God may be prompting within me. I test it against what I know God’s Message says on both macro and mirco levels. I test it with mature and wise companions who are walking the journey beside me and who know me well. I am quick to listen and slow to speak. I give things time.

I am also very wary of those who play fast and loose with the “God told me…” and the “I’m discerning…” cards the same way I used to do. Believe me, I can recognize it pretty quickly: “Wait a minute. I know this one….” When I encounter it in others I typically find it to be a sign of spiritual immaturity and self-delusion the same as I experienced in my youth. I do my best not to judge the individual but also to my best to proceed with caution in my relationship with such individuals. They can be crazymakers. If I don’t know them well I simply give them and their spiritual manipulation a wide berth. If I know them well, I may try to have a loving conversation to confront what I’ve observed.

Jesus’ encouragement to we who follow is an apt reminder when confronting those who actively gamble with a “God told me” deck of cards: “Be shrewd as serpents and gentle as doves.”