Monday, October 31, 2005

intercession and worship

It is easy enough to speak of the prayers of intercession, offered in worship, and their shortcomings. My divinity school professor of worship commented more than once that what is assumed to be one of the most spontaneous moments in worship is actually the most predictable. This perception can be traced to an important reality among parish ministers: the role is one of priesthood, the clergy functioning as the intermediary between those gathered for worship and God. An authentic priesthood implies significant time practiced in the presence of God, listening, questioning, clarifying. In like manner, an authentic priesthood implies substantial amounts of time spent in the presence of other people, again listening, questioning, clarifying. These two tasks cannot be ones assigned to the margins of ministry---they are core functions of our calling. And yet, in reality, there are other demands—preparation for preaching and preaching; care for administration, planning and visioning; relationships with key leaders and, where, applicable, staff members.

When significant time with God and with others is not set aside, the prayers of intercession lack depth, in both human and divine perspective. And so the prayers of intercession, or the prayers of the people, can become something else: advice for God; repetition of world events; recitation of those who are hospitalized; commentary on congregational activities.

These are not bad emphases, in themselves, and I am not intending to be critical of worship leaders. On this subject, I speak out of my own practices and shortcomings, as the “chief of sinners”! I am calling for something that is a hunger within myself—a time of prayer, immersed in relationships with the living God, honest in communication of human need. I am pointing toward the corporate need, simply expressed by Rowan Williams to “think of someone in the presence of God”. What could be a more appropriate place to do this than in public worship?

And how could such a prayer become a common occurrence and even an expectation? Several features of an authentic prayer of intercession, offered in worship, come to mind.

First, such a prayer must be biblical. It should be grounded in a conviction that we speak for a God who invites us, who listens to us, who is gracious and merciful, and yet whose ways are not our ways, and whose spirit blows where it chooses (John 3). For this reason intercession should never be predictable, for the God of the Bible is never predictable!

Second, such a prayer will inevitably be marked by a humility in the one who speaks. We approach God not by right, but through mercy. It is true that Jesus calls us no longer servants but friends (John 15), but this is yet another attribute of the divine grace that “stoops to our weakness”.

Third, such a prayer will creatively speak to a variety of human needs and concerns. Prayers of intercession that are continually focused on war, famine, illness and death are engaged with important human conflicts and struggles, but there are others. Some in the congregation are listening and praying in the midst of abuse; yet others are bored, and feel a sense of entitlement; others have never been called into service; others live beneath the poverty line.

Fourth, such a prayer will include space, ideally silence, for the person in the pews to form his or her own thought, intercession and response. In describing the wholeness of prayer, Walter Wangarin notes that first, we speak; then second, God listens; then third, God speaks, and then fourth and lastly, we listen. This pattern seems right to me, and yet it requires some time in the service, some patience on the part of the leader, and some engagement among those sitting in the pews. Those who gather in the congregation are participants in the prayer; they are called not only to affirm the interecessions of the leader, but also to offer their own.

Corporate worship includes several forms of prayer---praise and adoration, confession, thanksgiving and intercession. The responsibility for the depth and quality of the prayer is in part taken on by those who plan and lead, but also by those who participate and are led. It is helpful when intercession is not praise, or confession, for example. When each form of prayer is differentiated, the nature of God and the reality of human need (to adore, to confess, to offer thanks, to ask for help) are each honored, and a mature spiritual life is modeled.

Finally, a word can be said about the ritual settings that accompany the words and silence. Some parishes have traditions that make time available at the altar: perhaps during Holy Communion, or after receiving the elements, or in response to the preached word. There is no doubt that the movements of our bodies---walking toward an altar, or kneeling there---are a form of prayer. And it is also true that we connect with God in holy places, places made holy by God’s promise to be present, by those who have knelt before us, and by our own humble spirits, which are the sacrifices acceptable to God (Psalm 51).

Monday, October 24, 2005

why we need boundaries (exodus 20)

If there is a stereotype about religion, is that it is a system of rules, regulations, procedures. Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”, someone has said. Our lives are governed by laws and boundaries. Human activity is restrained by gates, fences, credentials. We all live by some system of rules, regulations, procedures. Some are external: pay your taxes, recycle, educate your children, maintain your property. Some are internal: eat balanced meals, keep your distance from danger, smile politely at acquaintances in safe places. Some are external and internal. Slow down when you come to a speed bump. If you don’t, you are disobeying the visual message—that’s external, but you and your car may also suffer the consequences—that’s internal.

All of us live with rules, regulations and procedures. And the way we get along, in this world, is through conformity. We fit in. We keep most of the laws, more or less, right?. We drive the speed limit, right? We stop at red lights, right? We conform, because, if we don’t, there will be a punishment, a consequence.

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly a matter of avoiding punishment and the consequences. Religion was heavy on conformity. I served briefly, right out of school, in a mill village about 45 minutes from here. One of the members of the church told me that he could recall a time when, if he missed Sunday School two times in a row, the foreman in his mill, who was not a member of his church, would call him into the office to ask if there was a problem!

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly doing the right things, and when we did the right things, most of the time there were good consequences. And so we conformed. We conformed to avoid the bad stuff, and we conformed to get more of the good stuff.

There is a powerful urge within us to conform. And when we live in a culture of conformity, something about our human nature wants to know the specifics. What exactly am I supposed to do? What are the good things you want me to do? What are the bad things you want me to avoid? I remember being a teaching assistant in the undergraduate school at Duke, and later teaching religion at Greensboro College. I distinctly remember a certain kind of student, very engaged, very motivated by a central concern: what can I do to get a good grade, and to avoid a bad grade?

These questions have been ingrained within us, and I think we bring these questions to a study of the ten commandments. The problem is that the commandments are about something different altogether. They are not our usual code of rules, regulations and procedures. They are a way that leads to life. They are not about getting the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff. They are more complex than that. They are not about conformity to laws. They are about formation of character. They are not old words that should be pushed aside in favor or the enlightened world in which we live. They are new and living words, as relevant as this morning’s newspaper or last night’s television news, and we ignore at our peril.

The commandments begin with a statement, not about what we are supposed to do, but about who in charge, about who God is. I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, OUT OF THE HOUSE OF SLAVERY. Imagine that you are a parent, and you are trying to get a point across to your children, and at some point you say, “I am your mother, I am your father, I gave you life, look at everything I have done for you”.

God has rescued Israel from slavery, freed them from oppression. Remember me”, God says, “remember the burning bush and the Nile turned to blood and the cloud and fire and Pharoah’s army sinking in the sea and the manna every morning? Do you remember? Have you forgotten already? Of course, we sometimes do forget. We need to be reminded. And we need to know the context of the commandments, because the One who is about to speak to us has a right to say whatever he is going to say.

I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD…YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME. There are ten commandments, and this is the first---no other gods, not the gods of Pharoah’s Egypt, not the gods of Canaanite pleasure, not the gods of Babylonian pleasure. NO OTHER GODS.

This is the first commandment, and some of the rabbis argued that all of the other commandments are a commentary on this one. If you are a first grader, about to receive your Bible, or if you are a sixth grader in confirmation, or if you are in high school, you are going to grow up and along the way you are going to encounter the other gods. Someone along the way, a professor, a friend, a co-worker, will tell you, “you know, that’s just one explanation, there are others; that’s just one truth, there are others; that’s just one God, there are others”.

And there are other gods. There is a god of the marketplace. There is a god of sexuality. There is a god of warfare. There is a god of pleasure. There is a god of youth. We are commanded to have no other gods because there are other gods, other loyalties, other authorities. And we are tempted to build temples for these other gods, to make idols of them, to bow down to them.

Charles Barkley, the basketball player, insisted a few years ago that he was not a role model for anybody. Why did he say this? Have you ever been around a team of professional athletes in a public setting? There are people who will bow down to them. There are people who will make idols of them.

If we don’t believe in God”, someone has observed,”it is not that believe in nothing, we believe in everything”. I see that you are very religious people”, Paul said to those gathered in Athens, in Acts 17. And so, we hear the commandment clearly: YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS, DO NOT MAKE IDOLS, and then, DO NOT TAKE THE LORD’s NAME IN VAIN, do not misuse the name of God.

How do we take the Lord’s name in vain? In the Bible the name is the essence of the person. Tell me your name”, Jacob said to the One who wrestled with him. Tell me your name”, Moses says to the One who meets him on holy ground. God is very reluctant to give his name. Why? Because we are tempted to misuse that name, to assume that if we know God’s name, that we can use it in some way, to our benefit. We assume that God is on our side, at our disposal, in our pocket.

And so we say the name of God only with humility and reverence. The name of God is above every name, Paul writes to the Philippians. The name is so holy that a Jew will neither speak it nor write it. We avoid taking the name of the Lord in vain by always asking, “is what I am doing in the name/spirit of God? The answer: only God knows, only God is the judge of that. We have killed in the name of God, pushed people out of the church in the name of God, done all sorts of things, holy and profane, in the name of God. NO OTHER GODS, NO IDOLS, KEEP GOD’S NAME HOLY…

A next command: REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, AND KEEP IT HOLY. Sabbath means “to stop”. There is nothing religious about the word “Sabbath”, “Shabbat”. It simply means “to stop”. Stop what you are doing. Why? Because, on the seventh day, God stopped and rested, literally God “caught his breath”. The word “holy” means “different” or “set apart”. Have one day in the week that is different than the other six. That is the command.

These four commandments are called the first tablet of the law, and they have to do with our relationship with God. The second tablet contains the last six commandments—HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, DO NOT MURDER OR KILL, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT COVET WHAT BELONGS TO YOUR NEIGHBOR.

These six commandments order our lives with each other, and they are connected to the first four. God is source, the foundation of our moral lives. We cannot separate religion and morality, believing and living, the first tablet—life with God, from the second tablet, life with each other. The last six commandments make life, everyday life, abundant life, possible. And here is the paradox--- they make life possible because they are restrictive…only one husband or wife, only what belongs to you, truth and not lies. They are restrictive because some things are in bounds and some things are out of bounds.

Boundaries are important. Why do we have boundaries? God must have felt that Israel needed boundaries if they were going to survive. Parents know instinctively about this. When our children were small we had clear boundaries. Don’t play in the street, don’t even go near the street. Why? The street is no place for a child, it’s dangerous, it’s out of bounds. And so we made boundaries. Our children grew up. We had curfews. Be in at a certain time. Why? Because not much constructive happens in the life of a teenager after a certain hour of the night—that is a father’s perspective!

God is saying, “these are your boundaries”. Do we go beyond them? Our human nature is to want to go beyond them. But someone has noted that “we do not so much break the commandments as we break ourselves upon them”. God makes these boundaries and says “live within them”.

But why does the God who created the universe restrict us in this way? Why do we need these boundaries? Why can’t we have it all? The boundaries have to do with our shortcomings, and not with God’s narrowness. I will sometimes go into a restaurant, and there is a huge buffet. It’s loaded with everything you can imagine. I sit down and someone brings a menu. My mind begins to move to a decision. There is something in my upbringing that says “you need to get the most for your money, it’s a buffet, it’s all you can eat, go for it!”

But then another voice speaks and says, “it’s too much, you won’t be able to restrain yourself”. You and I live in a culture that is a perpetual, 24/7 “all you can eat buffet”. There is more work than we can do, more money than we can spend, more gods than we can worship, more property than we can live on. And we are tempted. We have always been tempted.

The Jewish people were given these laws, and, of course, they broke them. We all break them. And so the rabbis had an interesting response. They came up with 613 laws. And a devout person would need to keep these 613 laws, and by doing so would not even get near the ten laws. This has been called “building a fence around the law”. Christians sometimes ridicule this practice, but we have our own way of building a fence around the law. I remember the phrase, growing up, “don’t drink or smoke or dance or chew or go out with girls who do”.

Ultimately, building a fence around the law, making more laws, didn’t help. Then Jesus comes along. Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that it is not about conformity to law, but formation of character. It’s not just “you shall not kill”, but don’t be angry, for anger is the seed of murder. It’s not just “you shall not commit adultery”, but do not think about someone who is not your husband or wife in a sexual way, for that is the seed of adultery”.

Jesus knew that we could do the right things---conformity---for the wrong reasons. And yet Jesus is clear. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. We cannot live without the law, without boundaries. All of us are like children who need to learn, throughout our lives, about what is good and evil, about what is safe and what is dangerous.

When the people received the law, there was thunder and lightning, and they trembled. These laws are like thunder and lightning for us. We do not so much break them as we break ourselves upon them. You and I stand under the judgment of this law, these commandments. They did not go away when Jesus arrived on the scene. My prayer for us is that we will hear these words and know that they are God’s way of leading us to the life that He wants for us.

You shall have no other gods.

You shall not make idols.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Honor your father and mother.

Do not kill.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not bear false witness.

Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

It is not that we need more information---the laws are pretty clear, the boundaries are pretty visible. We do not need more information. We need formation in the character of Jesus, whose life was a fulfillment of the law. We are saved by grace through faith in his perfect obedience. Let us give thanks to God, who brought us out of slavery, who is the way, the truth and the life, for the gift of boundaries. Blessed are those who delight in the law of the Lord.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

lauren winner on harriet myers

I loved Lauren Winner's memoir of young adulthood and conversion to Christian faith, entitled Girl Meets God. And so I was also fascinated by her take on Harriet Myers, the most recent nominee for the Supreme Court.

Read it here.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

postmodern preaching: a review

My review of three recent books on postmodernism and preaching, which appears in the current issue of Christian Century. Read it here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

prayers for guatemala

From Dianne Thompson, a volunteer in mission serving in Guatemala. Pam and I have taken part in teams in Momostenango and Quetzeltenango. Dianne is a nurse, and I first met her husband doing flood relief in Princeville, North Carolina. They are great people. Here is a portion of her letter. Pray for the Thompsons, for their work, and for the people of Guatemala.

I thought I would give you a brief update as to the situation here since there is now no news coverage in the U.S. press. All of the roads connecting Mazatenango with the outside are impassable and have been since last Wednesday. There are essentially four roads that connect us with the outside, three go throught the mountains and one parallels the Pacafic coast from Guatemala City. The coastal highway has had at least five bridges completely washed out. Two of these bridges would be comparable to spans we would see crossings major rivers in the U.S. such as the Missouri. There will be no quick fix for these. The mountain highways have several areas where they are impassable due to mudslides. These will be easier to clear, but it is still no small task. In some areas the mudslide has washed the road down the mountain, so rebuilding involves a major construction project. Needless to say, we are cut off from Xela and Guatemala City. Since the roads are closed they are running out of food. There is no gasoline for vehicles and they are rationing electricity to a few hours a day as there is no resupply in sight for fuel for the power plant. Hundreds of villages have been so heavily damaged from the mudslides they are no longer safe to live in. The weather forecast is not encouraging. There is presently a tropical storm developing off the coast of Panama and the projected landfall is Guatemala. Even though Hurricane Stan is gone, it has rained most of every day the past two weeks. Many of you have responded that we are in your prayers. Thank you! We are working with local relief efforts. One of our focus points will be to restore the road from San Francisco to Paquila and Chuisamayac. Lots of rock will be needed and we have been communicating with our villages through Manuel Mas who walked six hours to see us. A medical construction team from Florida is in country. They were scheduled to work with us on the clinic in Chuisamayac. They are in Guatemala City doing some remarkable disaster relief. I praise God they came."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

the middle of the fall blur

For as long as I can remember, for at least fifteen years, I have experienced a time during the fall---usually 8-10 days--when everything happens. Everything in the local church, everything in the community, everything in the denomination, everything in continuing education, everything in life. I have just come through this 8-10 day period: two brief trips to Nashville, another brief trip to Durham, packing and unpacking, arriving home now for good, for awhile, for the foreseeable future. Some of this happens because of the way events scheduled. Some of this is my own fault---accepting things or plugging into them in the summer, when the activity levels are lower. As I noted, this has been something of a rhythm in my life for at least fifteen years---it is simply the ways things are scheduled.

Not that I am complaining, because really good things happen. Among them:

Having dinner, twice, with my daughter Liz in Chapel Hill: one night just the two of us, the next with several of her friends at Pao Lim (which means "Pilgrim"), highly recommended!

Having lunch with Larry and Julia Webb Bowden at the Q Shack in Durham...again, highly recommended.

Seeing good friends like Mike Cartwright, who teaches at the University of Indianapolis, and Doug Tanner, who directs the Institute of Faith and Politics in D.C. I have not seen either of them in a long time.

Attending the dedicatory service of the Divinity School chapel at Duke, the service beginning in the university chapel and concluding in the divinity school chapel.

Hearing three superb lectures by Ellen Davis on scripture and the ecological crisis.

And in Nashville, working with dedicated people on the beginnings of the UMC ministry study, which will go to the general conference in 2008, and then, a week later, attending the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry meeting. The latter group, affectionately known as GBHEM, also has important work to do, especially in seeking to call forth new generations of leaders in the church, in ongoing support for important initiatives like Africa University, and opening up the pipeline between United Methodist colleges and the church, and in strengthening the connection between the denomination's objectives and the local church. That the latter seems such as odd idea, or even worthy of pursuit (or strategic pursuit) gives you an idea of the mistrust that exists across the institutional church. I do think there is a desire to move toward each other.

I also had lunch with Bob, an editor at Abingdon, who does great work, and we discussed a possible book project. Who knows?

I got drenched in the rain in Durham.

I left my daytimer, by accident, in the hotel in Nashville.

Holger, a German theologian, and I wanted to go the Bluebird Cafe one evening, but it was tickets available.

On the home front, a rich sermon by Rob Weber this morning, and a nice lunch with New Orleans evacuees at our church today (wonderful people). One of them said to me, over lunch, "you know, people are always asking me, what do you need? And I say, I have everything I need. My apartment has everything I need. And if I have more than I need, I give it to someone else".

And I talked to three children who joined us at the same lunch, and asked, "what is your favorite thing to eat?" And Angel, one of them, said, "red beans and rice".

Then the CROP Walk this afternoon. My daughter Abby is 16, and this very well might be her 16th walk...I am sure we pushed her in a baby stroller early on, and then carried her, and then pushed her, and now she is doing it herself, raising almost $1000 herself, for hunger, amazing, that she is doing all of this, that she is 16.

Life across 16 years, or over 8 days or so, really is a blur.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

you cannot do it alone (exodus 18)

The people have left Egypt. They have lived through the plagues. They have come to the river and passed through it. They’ve wandered in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses has been with them. God has been with Moses. A guiding hand has been upon them all, and they’ve made great progress. Just prior to our passage is a brief but important incident in Exodus 17. Israel is in battle with their enemy, Amalek. Moses stands on the hill, looking out on the people. Whenever he holds up his hand, Israel prevails. Whenever he lowers his hand, the enemy advances. And so the friends of Moses take a stone and put it under him, for he is weary. Then Aaron and Hur hold up the hands of Moses, one on each side. And his hands are steady until the sun sets. Israel prevails.

It is a story about endurance, about overcoming, about hanging in there and keeping our eyes on the prize. Moses is the leader, but there are many who contribute to the final outcome. Now we come to our passage. Jethro, the father in law of Moses, comes to visit, bringing his daughter, the wife of Moses and their children. He has the kind of outside perspective of a wise consultant. And he immediately pinpoints the problem.

He notices, first, that Moses is overwhelmed. He says, to Moses:

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone (18. 18).

Moses, the father in law says, “you are overwhelmed. This is not a sustainable way to live. You can’t keep this up!” Maybe you are sitting here, this morning, and you have heard the wisdom of Jethro coming through the voice of a spouse, or a co-worker, or a friend:

What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out.

Of course, your intentions, my intentions are good, right? We are trying to save the world. Moses is trying to lead his people to freedom. There is a lot at stake. But it helps to remember that most of what is at stake is beyond us, beyond our powers. We are not superman, or superwoman. That realization reminded me of an incident that made the rounds a few years ago.

Mohammed Ali had boarded a transatlantic flight. As the plane was making its way out of the gate, the flight attendant went down the aisle make sure that everyone had their seat belt fastened.

When she came to Ali, he was reading a magazine and had not buckled his seat belt. So she said to him, very courteously, “Pardon me, Champ, but you need to fasten your seat belt”. Ali kept right on reading his magazine and didn’t even look up, but he did say, to the young flight attendant, “Honey, Superman don’t need no seat belt”. And the young woman was just great. She was quick with her response; she said, to Ali, “Honey, Superman don’t need no airplane”.

We sometimes operate under the delusion that it is all about us. I use the image of a funnel. We sometimes think we are the funnel through which it all has to flow. This was where Moses was. Was he superman? Maybe…some pretty amazing things had happened in his life, and because of his leadership. But he was human, just like you and me. The words must gotten through to him:

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

You cannot do it alone. I know that I am privileged to preach to a congregation of people who have been given resources in this life, opportunities in this life, in part because of where you were born in this world, in part because of your efforts, in part because of God’s grace. You are people who bear responsibilities, sometimes heavy responsibilities: in this world, in the workplace, in the community, in the church, in the home. And many of you are motivated, either explicitly or implicitly, by a simple but tough teaching of Jesus: to whom much is given, much will be required.

And so you want to do what is right: Because you are conscientious, and because you know that there is a lot at stake, whether you are thinking about the livelihoods of hundreds of people or the future direction of a city, or the environment of a school or the life of a child.

Moses was there, working all day long, from morning until evening. Have you ever had one of those days? It starts early, ends late, the origin of what we call “burning the candle at both ends”. But there is a problem: It is not working. It is not a sustainable way to live. Sooner or later we experience, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard, “the cost of doing it alone”.

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

Many of us have carried heavy things in the last few weeks: mattresses, washing machines, chests of drawers, couches, tables, chairs. You know what it is like when you carry something by yourself, and then how different it is when someone is carrying that with you.

The task is too heavy, the voice says to you. You cannot do it alone.

It’s not Lent, but if you wanted to give up something, today, right now, it might be the idea, the assumption that I have to do it alone. You cannot do it alone. Ron Heifitz says, again:

the myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior:

the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enables him to lead the way. This notion reinforces the isolation”. [251]

There is another problem, because it really is not about you or me. When we live in this way, when we lead in this way, other people are affected. Exodus 18. 13, 14 tells us that

the people stood around from morning until evening”.

The needs of the people go unmet. When leadership is flawed, the people suffer. They are standing around, from morning until evening. but nothing is happening.

Moses is exhausted.

The people are frustrated.

Moses is overwhelmed.

The people are neglected.

Does this sound like life as we know it? Here is the insight. God is not limited to what Moses can do. As great as Moses is---and we learn at the end of the Torah that “there has never arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, who knew God face to face”, as great as Moses is, God is not limited to what Moses can do. And God is not limited to what you and I, as individuals, can do.

This is both a source of critique and comfort to us as leaders. Critique, because we are not ultimately in charge, in control. When we say “Jesus is Lord”, we are giving up on the idea that we are in charge, in control. That comes to us as bad news---we really would like to be in control---and good news---deep down, we know that there is so much that is beyond our control.

And so Jesus comes to us and says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. His yoke is easy, his burden is light.

Do you know what a Messiah complex is? It is the belief that we are here to save the world. Christians, of all people, should know that the Messiah complex is a form of heresy. We believe that the Messiah has already come.

The Messiah complex is not about wanting to improve or repair the world, or make it a better place. We all want to do that. A messiah complex is all about the idea that I am personally sent into the world to redeem the world, to save the world, that it all depends on me. And, of course, we are bound to fail at this. Because we believe that the Messiah has already come. Jesus is the Messiah.

And so Jesus says, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. He is the savior, he is the redeemer, he is the messiah. We do not take his place. We join in the work that he has already started, a work that began before we arrived and will go on long after we have departed.

The heresy, that it all depends on me, that I am the funnel, is one that causes suffering in the lives of other people. Moses is the only judge, the sole source of authority, and it is not working for him or for the others. The needs of the people are going unmet. And so Jethro says to Moses, here’s a solution: look for able people, and set them over groups of thousands, and hundreds, and fifties and tens.

Call it decentralized government.

Call it delegation of authority.

Call it flattening the organization.

Call it empowering other people.

Call it what you want.

Jethro says, “Let them do the stuff you don’t need to do. If it is important, let them bring it to you”. It will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you (18. 22).

If you do this, Jethro continues, you will be able to endure, and these people will be able to go to their homes in peace.

Moses, wise leader that he is, follows the advice of his father in law. Surely this is one of the miracles in the Book of Exodus!

Three wonderful things happen here: First, Moses finds a way to stay in the journey. He is able to avoid the fatigue and exhaustion, and the expectations others have of him. Second, the people benefit. Their needs are met, their voices are heard. And third, other gifted people are called forth. It is not just about one person, one leader. It is about the gifts and commitments and callings of many leaders and servants.

One question occurs to me: why did Moses listen to Jethro? Leaders are not known for acting on this kind of feedback, or wanting to hear it. Maybe Jethro was the one person who could tell him the truth. Family members have a way of doing that! Maybe he was at the end of his rope, so exhausted that he needed to try something different.

Another question arises out of this passage for me. Why did the people remember this story? Maybe it had to do with our tendency to place all of the focus on one person. We do, in our culture, tend to focus on the leader: the president, the quarterback, the mayor, the coach, the CEO, the school superintendent. But there is a truth that great movements are about people working together, sharing the responsibility.

I grew up as a big fan of the Boston Celtics basketball team. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, I remember an interview once with Robert Parrish, the stoic center for the Celtics, nicknamed “The Chief”, after the Celtics had defeated the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan had scored 61 points that game. Did the Chief have any comment about Michael Jordan. He’s great”, Parrish said, “but it is hard for one player to beat a whole team”.

You cannot do it alone. There are people in this world who need our gifts, but we will be of no enduring good to them if we don’t hear this word. None of us is superman, or superwoman. The messiah has already come, two thousand years ago. If we are in it alone, that is a clue that something has gone wrong.

It’s not about one player, it’s about a team.

It’s not about one leader, it’s about a movement.

Israel was able to reach the promised land, in part, because they remembered the encounter between Moses and his father in law, and the lesson.

Perhaps there is a lesson for you and me, self-sufficient North Americans, leaders, people on the move, writing out our goals and working toward them, making the world a better place. Perhaps there is a still small voice speaking to us, too.

What you are doing is not good.

You will surely wear yourself out.

The task is too heavy.

You cannot do it alone.

***Let us pray:

I invite you to say these words, silently:

God, I need your help.

My life has become unmanageable.

I cannot do it alone.

Come into my heart, and change me.

Come into this world, and use the gifts of all of your people.

I cannot do it alone. Amen.