The Nebuchadnezzar school of leadership
Daniel 3: Anyone who does not kneel and worship shall be thrown…into a…furnace.
Any pollster will agree that an opinion freely given is more valuable than one that starts with, “If you don’t say this I’ll kill you.” One response of Nebuchadnezzar to his dream is to build a statue of himself and then command everyone to worship it. Can’t you imagine him watching this show and commenting, “See how they love me!” The truth of the matter is that there’s a lot more self-preservation than love going on in that event. This is leadership at its worst. A boss who says, “Do it or I’ll fire you” or a parent who says, “Do it or I’ll whip you” or a pastor who says, “Do it or God will get you” is a graduate of Nebuchadnezzar’s school of leadership. In this case, what the king wants is wrong in the first place, but even if what he wanted people to do was clearly the right thing he’s going about it in the wrong way. Real leaders lead by vision and example. People follow because they’ve made that vision their own and believe that the leader is the person who can help them get there. Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me or you’re going to hell.” Instead, he says, “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.”
Take Away: Real leaders lead by vision and example.
Three cheers for Ahikam
Jeremiah 26: Ahikam son of Shaphan stepped forward and took his side.
All’s not well at the Temple. God’s man, Jeremiah, already has a reputation for preaching gloom and doom messages and he’s at it again. This time he disrupts events at the Temple by telling the worshipers there that the Lord’s going to destroy both the Temple and them. It’s an understatement to say that they don’t like it. Jeremiah finds himself the center of a riot. Soon officials show up and they conduct court right on the spot. Simply put, Jeremiah’s life isn’t worth a nickel. It’s then that a respected man, Ahikam son of Shaphan, steps up. He reminds the people of another gloom and doom prophet, Micah, who during the reign of Hezekiah preached such messages. He also had many enemies but he wasn’t killed. It’s not that they’re above that sort of thing. Another prophet, Uriah, was hunted down and murdered because people didn’t like his message. On this day, though, Ahikam’s defense wins Jeremiah his freedom. Ahikam is an important man and on this day he brings his considerable weight to bear to save Jeremiah’s life. His stepping in isn’t likely the prudent thing to do, after all this is a mob we’re talking about. However, he has power and he uses it to do the right thing whether or not it’s popular to do so. Sometimes we have to spend some of our leadership simply because it’s the right thing to do. Position and authority are just fine, but only if they’re used for the right purposes. I’m not an important person like Ahikam, but I do have some influence in some limited circumstances. Am I spending it on things that really matter?
Take Away: Position and authority and leadership skills are to be used in positive ways – not just to get our own way about things.
Jeremiah 23: This is the name they’ll give him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.”
The religious leaders are a disappointment to God. They could have done a better job; treated people the way good and dedicated shepherds treat the sheep under their care. They haven’t done that and the Lord’s not only angry with them but he has another approach in mind. This plan will provide quality leadership to his people. David is considered the prototype king for Israel and the coming Leader will be cut from the same cloth as was David. He’ll be a descendant of David. He’ll also be strong, wise, and dedicated to God. That kind of man will take care of God’s people. In Jeremiah’s future and in my past that Leader makes his appearance. He does everything Jeremiah says he will. He’s a righteous man of justice and he goes to work fixing all that sin has broken. He’s worthy of the name Jeremiah gives him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.” The process started by this Leader isn’t yet complete, but we already see that everything he touches is changed for the better. Well, better put, “everyone he touches.” In fact, I can say that I not only believe in this Leader’s ability to transform lives — my own life is an example of his work. I’m not all I’m going to be, but by his grace, I’m not what I would have been.
Take Away: In Christ we find restoration and transformation.
Running out of wood can be a good thing
Proverbs 26: When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
As a pastor I have a pretty strong influence on what happens at church. There is, I suppose, always the chance that someone will attempt to take control of a church service but that’s unlikely. I have the main say concerning the order of worship and, of course, what is said in the sermon. However, what happens “out there” during the week is out of my control. Because of that, all the efforts on Sunday to create a loving, supportive family of God can be derailed if that same crowd spends the week fanning the flames of division. Knowing this is humbling to me and it reminds me that I’m not nearly as influential in my own church as I think I am. However, it also reminds me that my greatest resource is not my leadership ability. Instead, my greatest Resource is the One I serve. It’s my desire that the Lord will help me to love people even when they’re behaving in ways that cause pain. I want to personally set an example of how a sanctified Christian conducts himself, to help people who tend to gossip understand that there’s an underlying spiritual issue, and to pray that the Lord will exhaust their supply of “wood” sooner and not later that the church might be united in love for Christ and one another.
Take Away: Some issues will simply die out and go away if we stop fanning the flames.
Leadership, not dictatorship
Proverbs 16: A good leader motivates, doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit.
Solomon knows a lot about leadership. He’s watched his father, David, lead Israel for many years. Then when he becomes King he asks God for wisdom that he might lead His people. In all this he comes to understand leadership dynamics as well as anyone who ever lived. In the passage before me today I get just a taste of his philosophy of leadership. The guy who says these things isn’t some pastor with an all-volunteer staff of church people who might just walk off if they don’t like the way things are going. Rather, he’s King of Israel. He has “off with their heads” authority. In other words, if he wants he can order the direction and everyone has to follow. However, Solomon has learned that dictatorship isn’t leadership. He says his job is to motivate people to move together in positive directions. He says he isn’t supposed to promise what can’t be delivered and he isn’t to get people to do what he wants just to get something for himself. Honesty, unselfishness, persuasiveness — these are leadership qualities Solomon brings to my attention today.
Take Away: Dictatorship isn’t leadership.
Follow the leader
Proverbs 14: The mark of a good leader is loyal followers; leadership is nothing without a following.
There’s no such thing as a leader without followers. The Bible has several stories of leadership. Moses led for 40 years. David led not only in military and affairs of government but in worship as well. His son Solomon led to prosperity. Here are three things that come to mind when I read about these leaders. First, each of these men is not only a leader, but is also a follower who accepts the authority of the Lord and spends time with him getting his marching orders. Second, these men know how to share leadership and to train leaders. They don’t try to do everything themselves and surround themselves with capable people to help carry the leadership load. Third, they lead people to meaningful goals. These men have God given visions that gives their leadership real purpose. People believe in them and they believe the goal set out for them is worth their sacrifice. Leaders such as these have no problem attracting followers.
Take Away: God-called leaders lead with purpose in a God-chosen direction.
God and me
Proverbs 11: The more wise counsel you follow, the better your chances.
Western culture exalts the individual. In the words of the song, “best of all, I did it my way.” We like our independence. It’s true even in our religion. We Protestants don’t have a pope and we don’t even want the church to tell us what to believe. Instead, we prefer “us and God” — an approach that can often be more truthfully stated, “Me.” We don’t have a pope, but when we’re honest with ourselves, we like it when we can be our own pope: “I’ll get my Bible and decide for myself what it says.” Now, I know that there are some positive aspects to this. After all, the “protestors” who became the “Protestants” did have something to protest about. Still, doing religion “my way” isn’t necessarily an improvement. Doing it “my way” leads to aberrations of doctrine. Walking down the “me” road isn’t the road to God. In fact, it’s the original path away from God that’s described in the opening pages of our Bibles. Learning to listen to others and even being willing to submit to the authority of those who the larger body of believers has recognized to be uniquely prepared and gifted to lead will, in the words of the proverb “better your chances” of staying on the right road to God.
Take Away: “Me and God” quite often is really just “me.”
A failure of leadership
Nehemiah 13: I was angry, really angry.
Having accomplished his mission of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and having had a unanimous agreement from the Jews there to live according to God’s Law, it’s time for Nehemiah to return to Babylon. He leaves things in the hands of those who are to keep things organized and on track. However, Nehemiah’s heart is now in Jerusalem, so he once again asks Artaxerxes for permission to return there. When he arrives he’s greeted with all kinds of bad news. One man has made a deal with one of the old enemies of the Jews, Tobiah, who he’s allowed to use the Temple storerooms. The worship leaders were left unpaid and have had to leave the Temple to earn a living. The civic leaders have forgotten the Sabbath and are allowing that day to be a time when business as usual is being conducted. And, the Jews are again intermarrying with the idol worshipping people of the area. Nehemiah is “really angry” about all this and immediately goes to work repairing all this damage. I can’t help but wonder where all those declaration signers are, or even more, where Ezra the priest of God is at this time. That’s a mystery the Bible doesn’t solve for us. However, the rest of it is pretty easy to understand. Nehemiah’s a strong leader and when he leaves it creates a void that no one steps in to fill. One of the dynamics of the human race is that people, even well-meaning people, need leaders who not only cast a vision and oversee the pursuit of that vision, but, even after the fact, provide a compass that keeps things moving in the right direction. This doesn’t excuse those civic and other leaders for their failure, in fact, they should have provided some of that “God-centered” energy themselves. Reading this story is a real life lesson in leadership. It also reminds me of the importance of my staying focused, even when the biggest part of the project has already been done.
Take Away: Even when the biggest part of the work is done there remains the danger of losing focus and giving up gains that have been made.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.