Tag Archives: Power

The Enduring Power of a Simple Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All because of a simple story I read again.

 

 

What We Find in Our Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Contrasting Rulers

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

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

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

Contrast this with the infant Jesus, who…

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

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

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

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

Promises of the Uncontainable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise and Persuasive Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

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Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Past
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Preparing for a Role: The First Rehearsal
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Character
Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
Preparing for a Role: Bits and Moments in the Grind
Preparing for a Role: Production Week
Preparing for a Role: Keeping Focus When Siri Joins You on Stage
Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance
Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!

 

Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.