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Lessons from a Weak Leader

Weak Leader (Chess)In reading and reflecting as I slowly work my way through Matthew’s Gospel, I have oddly enough had some thoughts about Herod Antipas.  I come from the standpoint that we learn from bad as well as good examples.  In Herod as portrayed in Matthew 14:1-12 and the parallel passage Mark 6:1-29 we can see some characteristics of a weak leader.  While Herod, no doubt, has absolute power in his small “kingdom” that encompassed Galilee and Perea he displays for us the characteristics of a weak leader.   Let me explain.

We are told in Matthew 14:3 that some time earlier Herod had arrested John the Baptist.  The reason?  John had gone public denouncing the marriage of Herod to Herodias.  Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s half-brother, Philip.  According to Dr. Michael Wilkins in the NIV Application Commentary on Matthew.  Philip and Herodias were private citizens living in Rome.  Herod Antipas visited Rome, met and fell in love with Herodias, while being hosted by his brother Philip.  She demanded, that Herod divorce his wife and then the two of them were married.  What Wilkins also points out was the Herodias was also Herod’s half niece (Wilkins NIV Application Commentary, Matthew p. 511).  So John spoke out against this incestuous marriage and was arrested.

Weak leaders do all they can to silence any criticism.  Criticism is hard to hear.  Criticism can sometimes be unjust.  Criticism makes us uncomfortable.  And yet we have a choice.  We can ignore it.  We can even, like Herod, seek to silence it.  Or we can respond to it and let it make us better.  Dawson Trotman is credited with the quote “Lord, show me any kernel of truth in this criticism.”  That is the response of a strong leader.  Strong leaders look for how they can grow when they are confronted with truth, or even criticism.

Weak leaders celebrate themselves.  Herod threw himself a birthday party and at that party the daughter of Herodias performed a dance for Herod and his guests (Mt. 14:6).  Mark’s gospel says that following the dance Herod offered her whatever she would want, up to half his kingdom (Mk 6:22-23).  The girl went to her mother for advice on what to ask and was instructed to request the head of John the Baptist.  She did as she was told. Weak leaders make grandiose declarations with little or no thought of the consequences. Herod was out to impress his guests.  He gave no thought to the fact that he did take time to listen to John, even while he was in prison (Mk. 6:20).  His thought was on the fact that he made a grand declaration and wanted his guests to be impressed the he was a man who “kept his promises.” Strong leaders don’t throw parties in their own honor.  Strong leaders also weigh the impact and the consequences of their words.

Matthew tells us that Herod was afraid of the people and so he was reluctant to put John to death (Mt. 14:5).  But now he had an excuse.  It was no longer his decision.  He was honoring his promise to Herodias’ daughter.  One could say that Herod self protectively changed the narrative.

Weak leaders work to change the narrative, so others are to blame for their actions.  We are told in Mark’s gospel that Herod was distressed but he could not go back on his promise.  The circumstances he had created helped him changed the narrative. Strong leaders take responsibility for their actions and accept the consequences.

As I reflect on this man with great power, who showed himself to be a weak leader, I am given pause to look in the mirror and ask God to show me where I need to be stronger.  We can each learn not just from good examples but from bad examples as well.



I wrote in the encyclopedia

Image result for Dr. Martin Luther kingWhen I was a kid our family had the World Book Encyclopedia. I can remember the day the boxes arrived.  Along with the boxes full of olive green colored books full of knowledge just waiting to be discovered, there was an additional set of books.  Childcraft: The How and Why Library.  My familial claim to fame is that I read through the entire 15 volume set of Childcraft books, sometimes by flashlight under the covers into the late hours of the night.   But I digress.

We had strict rules in our home about using the encyclopedia.  One of them was to not write in these volumes.  They were for our education.  But one night I broke the rules and to this day I am not sorry I did.  I was 9 years old on April 4, 1968.  I was just beginning to understand the horrors of the world around me.  A few months earlier I heard my father teach about the end of the world and the return of Christ.  This had been prompted by the Six Day War in the Middle East. I had figured I would not make it past the 6th grade before Jesus came. My uncle was sending letters every now and then from the base in Vietnam where he was stationed.  I would see the casualty count every evening on the television.  It was a bit frightening as a kid.

Then on April 4, 1968 the news came across the TV that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  I was not fully aware of the issues.  I sadly admit that race relations was not a hot topic in our family and not always were the conversations such that I would want to repeat.  But in my 9-year-old mind I knew that something was terribly wrong, and I had to do something.  So, I did.  I wrote in the encyclopedia.  It was all I could do at that moment.

I quietly went downstairs and found the correct volume of the World Book Encyclopedia.  I looked up the entry for Dr. King. And as a confused, sort of frightened, not fully aware of his world 9-year-old, I completed the date line.  April 4, 1968.  I looked at it for a few moments and then put it back.  That moment never left me.

It has taken the next 50 years of life to begin to understand the power of that moment in my life.  I have had to learn and understand and honestly admit the sin of  ͞white privilege from which I have benefited.  I have had to work to understand that every human is a creature, made in the image of God and needs to be treated that way. I have worked to teach my children that reality.  I have had to apologize to friends for offensive statements made.  And I have rejoiced in the richness of life of the many friends of color that God has graciously allowed me to have.  Friends who have helped me, challenged me, encouraged me, and by their very lives taught me the value of celebrating differences.

I was in the middle of this 50-year journey when, as an adult, I was visiting my folks in Kansas with my own young family.  I wandered to the basement one day and found the World Book Encyclopedia.  I pulled the J-K volume off the shelf and opened it to the entry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As I found the slightly faded date I had written I found myself deeply moved. I knew then that this would be a life long journey of living the words of Dr King to never judge someone “…by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  May I never forget the lessons that I have learned and continue to learn in a journey that started when I wrote in the encyclopedia on the fateful day 50 years ago.




I am working on a sermon series in 1 Corinthians.  It strikes me that one of the key themes in the book is a call to oneness.  The Corinthian church was in many ways a divided church.  They were divided over who was the best Bible teacher.  They were divided over who had the better spiritual gifts. They were divided because of lawsuits.  They were divided between the wealthy and the poor.  They were divided over issues of morality.  They were divided over the proper way to conduct a worship service.   You name it and it seems they were divided over it.

It is one thing to have differences and distinctions.  But it is quite another to draw “lines in the sand” and offer absolutely no room for compromise or healthy conversation.  This is especially true when we draw lines that God has not drawn.  A former professor once told me that the older he got, the smaller his list of “things to die for” became.  I am finding that very true in my own life.  I am finding the list of things and even some once held doctrines, are maybe not as important as I originally thought.  Before those who know me freak out, let me assure you that I am still deeply committed to the deity of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, and the fact that salvation based on one’s faith in Jesus and that alone, and the basic tenets of the Christian faith.  


That being said, I continue to work to be defined by what I am for, instead of what I am against.  It strikes me, and I know I am not the first to make the observation, that when any of us draw strict lines to define what we are against, we tend to expend much more time and energy maintaining those lines, than we do in accurately representing the person and character of Jesus.  I go back time and again to that fact that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who, in an attempt to protect truth, ended up drawing such thick lines of separation that they lost sight of the truth they sought to protect (see Matthew 23).  Maybe that is why I am so sensitive to the reality of the divisions in the Corinthian church and how that theme relates to us in the 21st Century.  

As I study 1 Corinthians again, I am asking myself the following questions:

  • What lines have I drawn in my life?  
  • Are those lines clearly drawn in the Bible?  
  • Does the effort I spend defining and defending my lines take away from or enhance my learning to love God with all my being and love my neighbor as myself?
  •  Do I have the courage to erase a line and admit it was not a right position to hold?

Just some things I am thinking about these days.

Thoughts to my fellow parents of millennials

For some time now I have been thinking about putting these thoughts down.   My main audience is my fellow Christ following, parents of millennial children.  We all know who we are and the rest of you can read along.  First of all, I have not, do not, and will not join the chorus of those who “bash” the millennial generation.  Since my wife and I have reared three millennials, it seems counter-intuitive and just plain wrong to bash children who are the products of boomer parents like me.  If I have any critiques in how a generation has been reared, I have no further to look than in the mirror.   The fact is I not only love my own children I love the millennial generation.  And, going out on a limb here,  God does too.   

Lately, I have been thinking about a generation of children who grew up in church, went to Sunday School, youth group, retreats, youth camp, missions trips, and all the typical stuff associated with American conservative Christianity.  But now they seem to be “drifting” and we boomer Christian parents who only wanted the best of our children are in different stages of freaking out.  Our millennial offspring are not really going to church.  They are asking hard questions.  They are searching for answers in places that don’t square with all we have been taught.  In a word, I believe they are trying to make sense of their faith, in terms that they can understand and not just willing to settle for platitudes, formulae, and pat answers.  So, my friends, may I make a suggestion?  Relax.  “It’s okay.”   Let me put it more to the point: You are not bad parents.  You have not failed.  You have not lost your kids.  I know it is unnerving to hear their questions and to see where they are searching for answers. But I urge you to simply be a listener and a constant affirmer of your love for them and trust God with them.  And yes pray for them.   

How can I say all this? Well, one thing that I have noticed in conversations and by observation is that in many cases, there is a lot of communication going on between boomer parents and millennial children.  One thing many boomer parents have done well is to create a safe atmosphere for conversation.   I know parents who have had substantive conversations with their children.  They have listened.  They have assured their children that they love them and nothing will get in the way of that.  In a word, they have been safe.  How much better can it get than when parents give their children room to find God in an atmosphere of safety and love?  It is important that young people make their faith their own.  That will mean that the path they take will be very different than the path I took.  That may mean that their path could get a bit messy.  It may mean that their path could even look like they are straying from God, and in fact, they may stray from God for a while.  But I for one believe God is big enough and aware enough to handle that. 

 As we relax we may need to take a hard look at ourselves and actually repent.  What?! How can I say that?!  As I think back on the focus of a lot of our teaching in the past 30 years (and I point to myself as a pastor for all that time) we have often presented a sanitized version of the Godhead.  We emphasized God’s goodness, provision, protection, and love.  We often focused on a holiness of God that looked like a list of activities.  We tended to put people into categories and it often seemed that God disliked the same people we disliked. How convenient.  The message that was often heard, even if not spoken was, people who agree with us theologically, politically, socially, etc. are the people of God.  Everyone else is an “outsider” who needs saving.   What happened to our kids?  Life.  Our children grew up.  They went through the motions that were supposed to result in Christian bliss and then their friend from the youth group overdosed.  The kindest most authentic person they knew told them she was gay, and she was kicked out of the youth group.  They realized that sometimes church leaders do sin.  They started caring about the environment, and the poor, and the foreigner and all too often the church in which they grew up didn’t embrace them or their concerns. And sadly, when they did ask questions they often were treated not as honest inquirers but as rebellious kids who needed to repent.   

Unfortunately, we can’t change the past, so what now?  First of all,  rest in the fact that you have done the best you knew how with the knowledge and resources available to rear your children.  Trust your parenting.  Secondly, keep the lines of communication open.  It is important to keep talking.  Thirdly, rest in the fact that God is not shocked by the questions and paths that our children may be exploring.  If you and I still believe God is able, then that ability extends to his being able to speak into the lives of our children.  

A moment with my grandson

In downloadone sense it is over. It’s election day 2016 in the United States and it has been the most tumultuous, substance lacking, vitriolic, abusive, nasty, and divisive campaign seasons I can remember.

I am sitting here in a quiet moment alone in the house with my newest grandson.  As I watch him in a peaceful sleep I wonder what the future holds for him?  It is not a wondering that is filled with fear however.  You see there are some things that I know for certain that give me hope for the future of my grandson. What matters for my grandson is not the ebb and flow of American politics.  What matters for my grandson is not who is in office this year or any other year.  What matters for my grandson is not the erosion of assumed freedoms.  As one famous pastor recently said, “All of those things will pass away.”

The reason I have hope for my brand new grandson along with his big sister and four other cousins is because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that each of these children will be taught to depend on their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I have repeatedly reminded the congregation I have had the privilege to serve for 20 years, that our hope is not in Washington D.C.  And yet so many of the things I have read and heard over the last year have led me to believe that so many of us who claim to follow Jesus Christ live our lives as if he is not enough when it comes to our future.

Do I believe in the democratic process and do I exercise my right to vote?  Yes.  I don’t think I have missed voting in an election since I was 18.  But do I think that the true heart change that is needed in the lives of people to bring them into right relationship with God can be legislated or voted into existence.  A thousand times “No!”  As I read my Bible, I am reminded repeatedly that Jesus and the writers of our New Testament, while teaching respect for the government (Luke 20:21-25; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) had no inkling of hope that the government was for them, nor would it essentially advance the kingdom of God.  I believe it is God’s will that I pray for my leaders at all levels (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
God can and does work through them even when they don’t know he is at work.

No my hope for my grandson is not in any human government.  No matter who wins the election today, my hope for my grandson will not dwindle, because like it or not the most powerful person in the world is only in that position by the ultimate hand of God.  My hope is in the God who “deposes kings and raises others up” (Daniel 2:21).  My hope is in the God who says “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1).

So sleep well little guy.  Your future is secure.  Election Day 2016 will come and go.  Politicians will come and go.  Nations including your own will rise and fall.  But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of your grandpa, grandma, Mom and Dad, is still on the throne, still in control and you can rest in Him.  So can we all.


Pray and Think First

Like just about every other person of faith in the USA I have been doing quite a bit of praying, thinking, and talking about our current political climate and what the future could hold.  In some ways we are seeing political history made right before our eyes and in other ways we are seeing a grotesque display of the lack of true civility and political discourse.  I confess I have not watched a single debate to date in this political season, and what I read from multiple sources just confirms that I learn more from researching candidates based on their websites, voting records, speeches, writings and businesses than I would from all those hours watching the privileged trade personal insults with one another.

As a Christ follower, who calls the Bible his guide for faith and practice, I began to ask myself what kind of leader does God favor?  I was reminded of a passage that few of us consider as we think about leadership.  In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses reiterates God’s law we find a passage that all too often gets glossed over.  In Chapter 17, verses 14-20, Moses gives the stipulations for the person the nation would choose to be their king.  Now I know we don’t elect a king in the USA, but there are some overriding principles in these verses that give me pause in the emotionally charged political season.

Through Moses God told Israel that the day would come when they would want a king.  So he outlines some characteristics for this person.  The king was obviously to be an Israelite (v. 15). He was not to acquire a large stable of horses (v. 16).  He was not to marry many wives;  nor was he to amass personal wealth (v. 17).  He was to personally write the Law of God, and carry that copy with him at all times (vv. 18-19).  He was also to not be a person who considered himself better than those he led (v. 20).  That is quite the list, and frankly no king in Israel’s subsequent history lived up to that list perfectly.  But those who followed it even partially had more successful reigns.

So what does this have to do with our American way of government?  Consider the overriding principles in those stipulations.  The leader of the nation was to be a person who understood that amassing personal wealth and power would not lead to successful leadership.  In that culture building a large stable of horses, having many wives and much wealth was paramount to the king believing that he was his own person and relied only on himself and the negotiations he could forge, for his success.  Arrogant leadership and personal power were not and are not qualities that God espoused.  And yet it seems that this is the rule for some who aspire to lead this great country. 

God wanted those who led his people to be humble and not think they were above those they were leading.  The trait of humility is one that is revered by our Lord throughout scripture.  Jesus said that the best leaders were first of all servants (Mark 10:43-45).  In any endeavor the minute a leader considers themselves better than the people they lead, they lose the respect of those they lead.  From my observations the next stage is to lead by manipulation, intimidation, and fear tactics and that is the way of many totalitarian dictators.

I get the fact that people in our country are angry over gridlock in our nation’s capital.  Angry voterHey, I live in Illinois, the state that is the new picture of gridlock as the Land of Lincoln has not had a state budget since last July.  I have seen how this gridlock of politicians who are arrogantly unwilling to compromise has affected ministries and friends that I care about.  I am as angry over arrogant, power based politics as the next person.  And yet I am reminded that “…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV, James 1:20).  It is unwise to make a major decision, even to cast a vote for a candidate in anger before considering the ramifications of one’s choice.

So who will I vote for?  That is between me and the ballot box.  But I will take time and think long and hard about my choice.  I will pray about my choice and I will run my choice through the grid of God principles for leadership.  The bottom line for me is this reminder: A leader who forgets that he or she attained their position with the help of many others is foolish at best and arrogant at worse.  A leader who simply says what others want to hear in order to attain a position of power is by definition a demagogue.  Neither of those options are remotely satisfactory.

I would urge anyone who calls themselves a Christ-follower to consider two things:   First, never forget that nothing happening in our country right now has caught God by surprise.  As Daniel reminds us about our God:  “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises others up” (NIV, Dan. 2:21).  God is in control.

Secondly, just a bit of wisdom from Paul Green, (Director of the Institute for Politics and Arthur Rubloff Professor of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago) “When a candidate tells you they are going to make sweeping changes ask two questions. 1) What are you going to change?  2) What is it going to cost me?”                                                                        
I guess my point to my fellow conservative evangelicals is to pray and think long and hard about God’s standards first before casting an emotional vote.

Worth the Wait

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Simeon-with-Jesus-2“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke 2:28-32

In An Advent Meditation entitled  A Sky Full of Children  the late Madeline L’engle wrote:

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Power.  Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing.  Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for  birth.(

…and she gave birth to a son and wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Joseph and Mary followed the law in regards to their son.  He was circumcised on the 8th day and given the name Jesus (obedience to God on Joseph’s part.).  33 days later this couple and their new Baby made their way the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  They were to offer a sacrifice and through that sacrifice set apart their first born son to God.  They could not afford a lamb but instead used two turtle doves provided by the law for those who were impoverished.

When you are poor you don’t want to stand out any more than you already do.  But when your baby is the king of the universe, the reality is someone is going to notice.  Especially someone who has a unique relationship with God and is tuned into the Holy Spirit.  Simeon was such a person.  An old man who had waited all his life for one thing…to see the Messiah, the presence of God in the flesh.  When he saw Mary and Joseph and their baby, he knew…he just knew.  What he exclaimed on that day 1 month and 11 days after Jesus was born we celebrate each Christmas.

Jesus is salvation…  (Luke 2:30)

Because of sin…and we all sin…not a one of us is innocent before God.  Acts as simple as peaking at presents when Mom & Dad had forbidden it, to crimes against humanity that have brutally paraded themselves across our TV and computer screens in the past year; are all evidence of sin   We have an innate propensity to go our own way.   Sin separates us from God…sin puts us on a path to spiritual and eternal death…and we need to be saved…in fact I submit to you tonight, that every person is looking for redemption of some kind, we all want to be loved, to matter, to be forgiven…so God provides His salvation…since he is the one who created and the one who is offended…he sets the rules for being saved.  He sent his son

Jesus’ birth is God’s plan (Luke 2:31)

God had planned long before the world was created that he would provide a means for his creation to be restored to relationship with himself.  God in his plan chose to create us with the ability to choose knowing full well that we may end up choosing our way as opposed to his.  God knew that the consequences of our sinful choice would lead to death.  So his plan was to offer up his own son to pay the penalty for our choice to live independently from him.  Jesus paid the debt we owed.

Jesus is light (Luke 2:32)

If you are not Jewish by birth, you are a Gentile.  Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles.  He came to show you the way to have relationship with God.  It is through Jesus we can be restored to right relationship with God.

The presents under your tree this Christmas may thrill you, they may surprise you, they may meet an immediate need.  But they will wear out.  They will break. The warranties will expire and you think you will need more next year.  The problem with putting our hope in the sights, sounds, lights, and gifts of the season is that the season eventually ends and life goes on.

When you and I open our lives to Jesus, we have a deeper satisfaction and fulfillment.  It is not that we don’t enjoy presents and surprises and even warranties…it is that we don’t put our hope in them, we know they will never fully satisfy the deepest longing of our heart.

That can only be done by Jesus.  He is the one we celebrate and the one who loves you and the one who invites you to celebrate him above all else this Christmas.  He was worth the wait for an old man named Simeon and now he waits for you.