Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. 

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

 

The Bible speaks to isolation

One of the things that constantly amazes me about the Scriptures is their relevance to every situation we face. The Bible speaks to every generation, to every era, to every situation. It doesn’t speak in the same way, and contextualization gives new appreciation for passages that were always there but didn’t speak to us in a previous context, or didn’t speak to a previous generation the way it does today.

That means, even though I’ve never thought about isolation before, I knew before I even looked that I’d find relevant passages to our context today. It turns out there are loads of examples in Scripture. Here are a few that I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What was it like for Noah to spend a year and ten days on the ark with his immediate family? What load of grief did he carry for the earth’s population who lost their lives? What trauma did he carry from hearing the screams of those outside the door of the ark? He certainly had lots to do, in his floating zoo, but a year in a small space is a long time! (Genesis 6-9)
  • What was it like for a normal, healthy person in Jesus’ day to suddenly get infected with leprosy? The instructions of Leviticus 13 include going to a front-line worker, a priest, and being quarantined for 14 days before being forced to live alone. How devastating it would be to be cut off from one’s family and pushed away from society! These castaways often formed a new community of the marginalized, with perhaps their only commonality being their shared illness. (Episode 6 of The Chosen has an amazing depiction of Jesus interacting with a leper.)
  • What was it like for Paul to transition from an active missionary lifestyle to sudden confinement in prison? Acts 20 and 21 describe the premonition Paul had that imprisonment and affliction awaited him, and show that he was thinking about end of life issues. It wasn’t easy for Paul. Once imprisoned, Jesus paid him a visit at night telling him to take courage and helping him say on mission (Acts 23:11). As an unmarried single, he talked a lot about his desire to see those he loved. He eventually settled into life as a WFH author (working from home).
  • What was it like for a young Joseph, whose plans and career trajectory were disrupted by sudden injustice not once but twice—first, when his brothers sold him into slavery, and second, when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife? He found himself confined to the royal prison. Yet, even there, “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor” (Gen 39:21). (Story in Genesis 37-41)

I encourage you to mine these examples and send me the insights and applications God uncovers as you look at them again through the eyes of isolation and physical distancing. God’s Word is alive!

Christmas like you mean it

I inherited from my father a love for word play. I love palindromes, Spoonerisms and contronyms and I love verbing nouns. At this time of year, I like to verb the word “Christmas.” In other languages, it’s easy. For instance, the Germans verb Weinachten. The famous German poem that I memorized in High School, “Christkindl`s Weihnachtsgedichte,” includes the line, “es Weinachtet sehr,” which literally means, “It Christmases a lot.”

The English language has always been adaptive, ready to embrace new words. If you look online, English uses of the verb form today include towns getting Christmased-up and people getting Christmased out. Perhaps it’s catching. But it’s not just a new phenomenon. I found this fantastic poem from 1887:

The Verbing Man

“Oh, yes I Christmased,” says the man,
Who skips from verb to noun;
I dined and turkeyed à la mode,
And curry sauced in town.

I restauranted everywhere,
I whiskyed, beered and aled;
Cigared I on Havanas rare,
And on Regalias galed.I

New Yeared, too, on viands rich
And I champagned myself;
Or Tomed and Jerryed — can’t tell which,
Expenditured my pelf.

I resolutioned on that day,
As spirits throbbed my head;
But when the pangs next panged away,
I just cocktailed instead.

—Texas Siftings
[reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 1887, p.9]

Let me get to my point. We’re well into the Christmas season, and the annual grumbling has begun. One thing you can count on every December is the Christians complaining that nobody’s recognizing Christmas anymore. Cashiers and waitresses won’t say, “Merry Christmas.” Cards opt for “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” Now we have Holiday trees, Holiday spirit and Holiday blend coffee.

One song probably grates on these Christmas defenders more than any other: “Holiday Like You Mean It.” The CBC has been running it on radio and TV this month. (If you haven’t gotten the song stuck in your head yet, you can find it here.) Rob Wells captured the essence of the Holiday season: festive, jolly and merry; presents, lights and bells. The fact that the Holiday has reached the point of verbing tells me the culture has crossed a line. December is the month to Holiday as we used to Christmas. And I for one am grateful that we’ve finally gotten to this point of honesty.

As I was wandering around the Eaton Centre in Toronto at the beginning of December (with that jingle stuck in my head), I realized I’m happy to tease this mashup season apart. Let’s let Holidaying refer to the rampant consumerism and materialism, the hustle and bustle and general busyness of the season, even the Santas and reindeer and elves.

As believers, I say we let them have the Holiday and we take back Christmas. Rather than defend the label, let them move on to new terminology for the season they’ve co-opted while we return to the real reason for Christmas: God coming to earth to be with us and live among us. Let’s redeem the term and let Christmas be a reflective and joyful time, centred around Christ and the fact that he gave. Then let’s renew our commitment to His mission: to be light in a dark world.

The well-known conclusion of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol says of Scrooge that, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” In other words, after his transformation, Scrooge Christmased well. How did he do that? He took on the joy of generosity, his heart laughed, and “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them.”

Let the world Holiday while we Christmas. As we do that as a minority Church, we’ll stand out against the culture rather than fighting to conform the culture to our ideals.

Christians, let’s Christmas like we mean it.

The secret of our success

Since we first heard the stories about Jonah in Sunday School, we have learned that God is omnipresent; there is no place we can flee from his presence and no believer in whom he does not dwell. He’s everywhere. But if that’s true, then why do we see phrases such as these throughout Scripture?

The Lord was with…

My presence will go with you…

Lo, I am with you always…

Of course God is with us and goes with us. Right?

If the incredible frequency of these phrases in the Bible weren’t enough to catch my attention, the passion with which certain characters desire that presence certainly did. Consider Moses. He experienced enough of God’s physical presence in the burning bush, column of fire and smoke and face to face encounters that he wasn’t about to go anywhere without God’s presence. He argued, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)

David is another leader who knew clearly that his success came from God’s presence. “The Lord was with him but had departed from Saul…. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him.” (1 Samuel 18:12-16) No wonder, then, that after sinning with Bathsheba, David feared God would cast him out of his presence or take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). He was nothing without God’s presence.

I have a couple of foundational questions. If God is everywhere, why do we need to assure he’s present in our venture? And how can an omnipresent God remove his presence? These are critical questions for leaders, because if we don’t understand why Moses and David refused to lead without God’s presence, we lead at our own peril. Let’s look at a couple of things leaders need to understand.

Who gets the credit

There’s clearly some specific manifestation of God’s presence that gives a leader success. In addition to Moses and David, the Old Testament credits God’s presence as the secret to the success of Joseph (Gen 39:3,21), Joshua (Josh 6:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:19), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), Phinehas (1 Chron 9:20), John the Baptist (Luke 1:66) and Stephen (Acts 11:24). When I look back, I can see that, just as God was with Joseph in slavery, in prison and in the highest political office, he has given me success throughout my career, from the lows to the highs. I’ve seen problems solved through ideas that came to me in the middle of the night, I’ve seen doors open at just the right time and I’ve seen God give me favour in relationships that have advanced my career. I dare not claim any credit for those situations; the Lord was with me.

The key to effectiveness

The New Testament provides warnings and promises linking his presence to mission and leadership effectiveness. When Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, he promises his presence. As you go to baptize and make disciples, he says, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) A short time later, as he prepares to leave them, Jesus warns them not to try to be witnesses until he sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It’s only when the baptism of the Spirit falls on them that their mission begins.

In John 15, Jesus offered the image of a grapevine to talk about proximity to him, promising fruitfulness when we “abide in him” and he in us. While this idea of dwelling or remaining suggests sitting still, that’s not the point. God is always at work, and it’s far more effective to join him in that work than to stray from his life-giving power. Remember, he promised in Matthew 28 to be with us as we go on his mission. But Jesus doesn’t stop with just a promise. He also warns that there will be no fruit ”apart from him.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing.” Going further, he says branches that are not attached to the vine wither, are thrown away and are gathered to be burned. There are consequences for a leader who strays from his presence.

For the leader, these Scriptures suggest some course corrections. You might need to stop your forward progress and wait until you have assurance of God’s presence before you move forward. It might mean you need to discern his movement so you can join him. Stay close to him, steep yourself in his Word, know his character and learn his ways so that your direction aligns with his. Moses did this so well that his personal overall objective changed. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton concludes that through Moses’ journey in the wilderness, he eventually came to think of God himself as his promised land rather than getting to the land of “milk and honey.” It all comes down to the value we place on his presence.

In her previous book, Sacred Rhythms, Barton talks about the value of breath prayers. Breath prayers are cries from deep down in your soul that you condense into a simple phrase that can be repeated easily and almost subconsciously throughout the day. Often I find that the frequent cry of my soul is this:

Omnipresent Lord, I need your presence.

I’m obsessed with keeping God’s presence. I want to know where the Holy Spirit is moving so I can join in, as a sailboat looks for wind. I want assurance of God’s presence before I head down a road. And I want to abide in Christ and him in me, so that my actions are infused with power.

After all, the secret to my success has very little to do with me.

Jesus attended funerals

Last Sunday, I had an epiphany as we read the story about Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8. That’s the story of a desperate father who asks Jesus to heal his daughter. As Jesus heads to his home, he gets interrupted by a woman who touches the edge of his robe. The father’s worst fears are realized: he receives news after this delay that his daughter died. Jesus isn’t dissuaded; he says she’s only sleeping and raises her from the dead.

That’s when the obvious occurred to me: all the stories we read about Jesus can’t possibly include everyone who died in his three years of ministry.

Of course, we know from John 21:25 that the gospels are a synopsis of Jesus’ life; we don’t have everything written down. But, given the much shorter life expectancy of Jesus’ day, in three years there had to be a lot of funerals. We know that Jesus was selective about those he healed. John 5 is a remarkable passage where Jesus tiptoes through a crowd of sick people — excuse me… pardon me… sorry about that — to heal one person and then — sorry… excuse me… didn’t mean to — tiptoes back out. I can only conclude that Jesus also chose not to bring some back to life.

It gets worse that that. We know Jesus went to weddings. The only one that got recorded involved a miracle, but Jesus likely went to many weddings. He no doubt went to funerals as well. Can you imagine Jesus sitting in a funeral? All eyes had to be on him. The expectations were palpable. But he only chose three to raise from the dead.

A couple of leadership principles come to mind. First, know your mission and don’t get distracted by the huge need. This is certainly true for nonprofits. Jesus could have easily been overwhelmed by those who needed healing. Several times, he rejected miracles as a means of drawing a crowd for his message. Neither healings, raisings nor crowds were his main point as he set out with determination to launch a kingdom.

Going a little further, Jesus didn’t let others define his mission. He certainly left some people very disappointed and disillusioned.

I also recall a leadership principle I heard from Andy Stanley: Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. Rather than get paralyzed by the need and decide out of fairness to not do anything for anyone, it’s better to choose a couple of opportunities to get involved. I read recently on CNN how Steve Jobs periodically sat at the help desk and answered phone calls and emails. In a few cases he intervened. In many others, his replies were very terse. But he made an impact on those he engaged with.

If the God-man had to place limits on his scope and ministry, how much more should we? It’s refreshing to me to realize that Jesus could attend a funeral and grieve with the family without having to intervene and try to solve the problem.

Quality and quantity

You’ve probably heard the line. Parents excuse a lack of quantity time with their kids by falling back on the axiom that it can be replaced by quality time. It’s just not true, right? I believe it can be true from a team perspective.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to build community and trust, particularly in distributed teams. When Wycliffe USA went through a process of closing down satellite offices to integrate staff into national strategies, this was a big topic of discussion. How do you create a “virtual water cooler”? I resisted most of the easy answers like technology or social media as incomplete. They help fill in the gap, but they don’t replace an communal work setting. Almost three years later, a theory is finally coagulating for me.

Trust is developed in a team or community best either through quantity OR quality. The obvious path is through a quantity of time and common experience. Most of our friendships are built this way. Well, that same trust can be established through a single, brief, intense experience. It doesn’t happen through retreats that try to distill a quantity approach into a concentrate. Fun and interaction doesn’t build that level of trust. Meetings certainly don’t.

On the other hand, an intense experience does. Think of people who go through a crisis together. It establishes a point of reference, a set of inside stories, and a sense of accomplishment. For instance, the connection my wife and I have with neighbors who went through three hurricanes in 2004. The bond shared by Wycliffe staff who went through Jungle Camp or Pacific Orientation Course experiences when they were heading overseas in years gone by. For me, it was the 4-week interview process Wycliffe USA was using in 1997. Last week, I shared a 13-year-old inside joke via Skype with one of those fellow interviewees now living in Vanuatu.

Let me take a detour for a minute. In my experience, churches that have stagnated or are shrinking are churches who have grown inwardly-focused. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to grow is to look outside yourself. For starters, people are drawn to a mission. They’re drawn to vision. They’re drawn to a cause. The way to turn around a negative trend is not to focus entirely inward — though there may well be internal issues that need addressing — but to return to the mission you exist for. Okay, hold onto that thought.

Here’s my theory: the best way to build trust and community is through quality, and the best way to establish quality is to look outside yourself. Instead of bringing a team together to do a ropes course or play paintball, why not get your team to serve together for a day building a house with Habitat for Humanity? Instead of trying to gauge the quality of new staff by watching them in a classroom setting for four weeks, why not work alongside them? You want to build common experience? You want to build trust? You want to assess someone’s cross-cultural ability or servant heart? Spend a few days volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse in Galveston, Texas after a hurricane, sleeping on a gym floor and interacting with a dazed, hurting community.

As you look outside yourself, you might even make a difference in someone else’s life. Now, that’s quality. You’ll share that experience for decades.