Great Expectations

As I read the Scriptures, leadership transitions catch my attention. That interest led me to the handoff from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha was an answer to Elijah’s prayer of despair in 1 Kings 19. He stuck to his mentor like glue in his final days. And he boldly asked to inherit Elijah’s mantle as he prepared to end his ministry. But the protege was quite a different character than the mentor.

To tell you the truth, while Elijah is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, I hadn’t spent much time on Elisha… until Scripture Union asked me to write a series of devotionals on this eccentric prophet for theStory. They’ve been publishing them throughout this week, with a handful more coming at the end of the month.

In spite of the crazy miracles Elijah performs, like fire from the sky, he seems much more accessible as a character. Indeed, Hebrews says Elijah was a man, just like me. He was deeply emotional, rising to accomplish great feats and crashing afterwards. Elisha, on the other hand, seems like such a bizarre figure. His miracles seem over the top and without much of a point: floating ax heads and curing food poisoning and raising the dead to life.

2 Kings 5 is an exception. In the story of Naaman’s healing by Elisha, a first read gives the impression that Elisha is cantankerous, reluctantly healing an enemy after denying him the fundamentals of respect and hospitality. But digging deeper, I begin to appreciate that Elisha fully understands the politics involved, desires a far deeper healing than Naaman anticipates, sets aside prejudices to cross cultures and shapes the circumstances to facilitate learning. In fact, because we can identify with the characters and motivations throughout this story, it still serves up learning opportunities today.

It seems to me that most of the issues in this story stem from false expectations. In this post, let’s look at the expectations around power and greatness.

Naaman is a man of discipline familiar with proper protocol in the corridors of power. His king must talk to Israel’s king, and he wouldn’t dare to suggest a solution to a man of such abilities as the king of Israel. However, the king of Israel misses the point, forgetting all the resources he has at his disposal. Instead, he feels the weight of expectations when he reads the King of Syria’s reference letter. “That Syrian king believes I can cure this man of leprosy! Does he think I’m God with power over life and death? He must be trying to pick a fight with me” (v7, CEV). Elisha hears that the king tore his robes (or perhaps heard the robes tear—see 2 Kings 6:12) and offers to take responsibility. His goal is that the Syrian will know that there is a prophet in Israel. Clearly, Israel’s king needed the reminder as well.

Then Elisha dashes Naaman’s expectations of the prophet himself and the methods he will use to heal. For a great man like Naaman, it follows that he will get healed by a great man like Elisha. His expectations sound like he’s been reading Harry Potter. But the lesson he learns is pure VeggieTales: little people can do big things, too. It’s a little slave girl who first commends Elisha to Naaman. Then, when Naaman is prepared to throw up his hands, his servants convince him to follow to the prophet’s simplistic healing routine. As my Bible notes point out, in order to be healed, he must become as a little child.

And here is where my own expectations are surprised. I expect to find faith, humility and servant leadership among the prophets and leaders of Israel, not from a Syrian visitor. Clearly, Naaman is a leader who’s revered by his staff. Even Jewish slaves, who by rights could hold grudges, seek his best. Naaman proves to be a leader who (eventually) listens to the “little people” around him. I once heard someone say that it’s the leader’s job to define who the heroes are. The heroes in this story are the overlooked and unnamed, not the great men.

In her devotional for theStory, Annabel Robinson notes this passage is “about God’s power, about ordinary people in divinely strategic positions, about humility and obedience, as God reveals his kingdom by loving and healing the outsider, the enemy, the Gentile.” And the Syrian.

Check out her post, The Upside-Down-Kingdom, and my subsequent devotionals on this unique prophet:

[This post republished from my President’s blog on Wycliffe.ca]

More Willow Creek – little things

On day 2 of Willow Creek, one theme that stood out: Big change is accomplished by little things.

Dan and Chip Heath and Bill Hybels both talked about a series of little things. The Heaths recommended shrinking the change you want to see. If you can get it down to little things that are attainable, you can do it. And it’s amazing what those little things can add up to over time. They gave examples of people who changed counties, communities and countries by doing small things.

If you feel optimism versus being more and more discouraged, you’ve shrunk the change enough.

That paraphrase of what Dan said rings true for me in my experiences. Big change and big projects can sure lead to feeling overwhelmed. But when you work on the list of tasks you know you need to do today, after a year or two, you look back and you’ve accomplished something remarkable.

Hybels followed up with a reminder of the story of Naaman, where his entourage called him on his failure to obey Elisha. His paraphrase: “You’re a great man and would have done it if it was a great request. Do the little things he asked you to do.” It’s a great reminder of how God works, and our propensity for efficiency: one big thing to solve the world’s problems rather than faithfulness with smaller loads.

I see two issues. My dad used to watch my brother and me unloading groceries from the car, with a dozen bags hanging on our arms. He called it a “lazy man’s load.” “Why don’t you just take a bunch of smaller loads?” he’d ask. I still like lazy man’s loads.

I think there’s one deeper element to Hybels comments, though. I think we think of ourselves as “great men” and believe the lie that great men do great things. We want to do that great thing that gets noticed and puts us on the map. It’s the SportsCenter approach, where athletes try to throw in a few moves in a game so they get on ESPN’s highlight show that night.

But God cares more about faithfulness and fruitfulness than our pride. As Dave Gibbons reminded us yesterday, God’s metrics are different. He’s not all that concerned that our graphs always move “up and to the right.” He evaluates things differently, and he has a different definition of success.