In this passage, we are given a picture of the power of leadership. It can be like daylight breaking forth after the dark of surrounding storm or the end of a too-long night. Leaders can be the ones in our midst and communities who help set to right what is broken, inspire us to more fully become all we are made to be, and help us as a community truly work together for the good of all. This is true of leaders in all spheres of community – church, family, government, the workplace, schools.
When I first read such a stirring description of leaders as given in David’s oracle in 2 Samuel, I want to shrug it off. “Yeah, sure, easy for you to say”. A part of me scoffs. I, like many of you, have been burned by leadership gone wrong. I have seen the government official who treated those seeking assistance as just numbers on a page, not real people with real needs. We’ve all seen those in high office use their power for their own whims, letting common people’s needs go unmet.
Right now as I write, the news headlines are loudly pointing out leadership going wrong – popular preachers fleecing the flock God has called them to lift up by using their tithes to build lavish mansions, buy expensive planes. I grew up for part of my childhood in a church that I did not know until an adult did that. Hard-working people trying to care for their families gave much, yet the man at the top saying he was hard at work proclaiming the Gospel with that money built houses and gathered luxuries for himself all while hard-working folks like my parents struggled to care for their kids.
We see it too with political leaders, as just another scandal is across the news of people in power using their authority to cheat on their spouses thinking they won’t get caught, to take advantage of their position, all while opposing the requests for respect of certain citizens because it will put in ruins “family values”. When people use the language of morality and faith to oppress others, all while living morally dubious lives themselves, how it shakes our faith in the ability of anyone in leadership to do any good.
Yet isn’t this the second half of David’s oracle? That those who are in leadership and misuse that power will by thorns that choke the life out of people and communities who, until they are dug up and tossed away from their place of leadership, drain dry those they are called to serve.
Thankfully where I live in the US, we can choose as citizens to vote out those who do such damaging work. We don’t realize often but this is also true of the church. If our church allows voting we can vote against the leaders staying in power who abuse others. Even if we can’t we can vote with our dollars and our shoes – moving our cash and ourselves from organizations that use and abuse others to ones that lead through serving the least of these without prejudice. I know I am constantly shocked to see individuals who claim they oppose homophobia, mistreatment of women, and other social injustices continue to worship at, tithe to, and remain supportive of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples which consistently keep in power religious leaders who continue to promote such prejudice from the pulpit. You as a member of your faith community can and should stand against such injustice either from resisting from within or choosing to support those spiritual groups in your community who chose to have the courage to stand for such commitments against prejudice and for justice. They need your support, and the groups refusing to make such stands may not change while they think they have your support and the support of others. You can be a voice of change.
If we carefully consider our histories both personally and as a community, despite our cynicism that flow from being burned by bad leaders, we can see glimpses of good solid leaders.
In our histories, we have Sojourner Truths, Desmond Tutus, Mahatma Gandhi’s, and many many others who were people of conviction who stood for what was right, resisting injustice, calling those around them to lives of service, making the world a brighter place.
In our own histories, we have that. I think of how I came to be a minister myself. It was strong men in life who modeled compassion and justice, men like Greg Williams the pastor who baptized me and showed both an openess to learn, to change, while also a humble genuine concern for others. I think of Matt Crump, the youth minister who worked with the Youth For Christ group I found my faith in, whose down-to-earth spirituality and humor helped me realize you didn’t have to be out of the ordinary to find faith. A normal guy like me could do it. I think of other mentors like Jonathan Stepp, Bermie Dizon, and others who helped me find my way into ministry through their example. I also think of leaders who after I became a minister were lights on my way. I think of Rev. Sandy Williams of Heartland Christian Fellowship who when I had left the ministry of the church that ordained me over their treatment of LGBT people & women told me “quit talking like your ministry is over. It is God who ordained you. No church can take that away. If you keep listening and looking to God, you will find that calling continues”. Having planted and pastored many churches since then, and working now as a chaplain, I can say her words became prophetic for me though they were words of compassion simply spoken. I think of pastors Laurie Hays Coffman and Gayle Felton whose ministry provided a place of peace and healing at a broken time in my life, while also showing me my hope for church to be a place all are welcome is not just a wistful dreaming but an actual possibility.
I could go on, but I bet you too can list quite a few souls whose lives have lit the way for you, as they exercise the gift of leadership in ways that were healing to you and your community.
This texts calls me, calls all of us, to recognize it is not just them who are people of leadership but all of us. Each of us like drops of rain or pebbles from the beach leave ripples across the surface of the river of life, ripples that flow out in wider & wider circles touching all in their path. We do this without being conscious of it, but if we choose to raise our awareness those touched by our sphere of influence, whether it be as we lead as a parent, a school teacher, in our particular work however glamorous or unnoticed by others, in our neighborhoods or communities, or in whatever humble ways we help out in our religious communities, we can consciously choose to create ripples that are life-giving, full of compassion, bringing justice and healing by being conscious of how our choices affect others.
I think this is why, of all the qualities of leadership David exemplified, this text focuses on David’s worship of the God of Israel through song. Some walk away with a narrow and anachronistic understanding that this is suggesting that having leaders who strongly identify as Christian will make a better nation. This is missing the point. As Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of South Africa, once said we too quickly forget that religion itself is a tool like a knife. When cutting bread, knives are helpful and good. When used to slit a man’s throat, they are dangerous.
Loudly proclaiming yourself Christian (or any other faith) and trying to impose those values on others can be destructive, and we need only look at the history of intolerance and oppression in every religion done by people claiming to Christianize, Islamicize, or otherwise transform the world to the values of their religion.
What counts is not the set religion you have, but the heartfelt spirituality. Have you truly come to know yourself? To experience that move of spirit which leads you to see your faults, failings, and truly taken account of how you might be a barrier to life? Are you working to heal those barriers to life in you? Have you been moved with compassion, able to see the Sacred image in others, especially those very different than you both the often marginalized and those you disagree with? This is the heart of what true spirituality creates.
Someone may loudly proclaim themselves Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, you name it and it just simply be a play for power. Such a person will work great harm on their communities in the name of religion.
One truly transformed by spiritual movement in their soul, however, cannot impose any beliefs or values on others. They cannot push their culture onto others. Their actions must be motivated by the impulse they found in their spiritual practice to recognize all people’s, all life, as valuable and all as interconnected. We have all seen the leadership such a transformed life produces, and it is the sort of life-giving leadership that blows us away.
We are called in our own small way to be such people, and it begins in engaging that journey of heartfelt spirituality – becoming open to ourselves, to the Sacred in all of life, to seeing ourselves as interconnected and all others as having sacred worth. Let us continue that journey together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,