Living the Uncertainty of Our Conviction

Mount Hood
Photo Credit: Dennis Stilwell

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to God, “Look, you told me to bring these people, but you haven’t given me anyone to help. You’ve said on all my job reviews that I’m a stand-out, your favorite employee. So, if that’s really true, show me how you want things so I can understand you and be your favorite. And, don’t forget, they’re your people.”

God said, “My avatar will go with you, and I’ll give you some time off.”

Moses said to God, “If your avatar won’t go, don’t bother sending us up there. How’s anybody going to know I’m your favorite, how are your people going to know, unless you go with us? How else are your people and I going to be any different from anybody else on the planet?”

God said to Moses, “I’ll do what you ask, because you’re my favorite, and you are a stand-out.”

Moses said, “Please, show me who you are – not the avatar, the real you.”

And God said, “I will show you my whole self, and tell you my real name. And I’ll be generous with whomever I please, and I’ll kind to whomever I please. But you can’t see my face. I’d show you my face, but then I’d have to kill you.” God continued, “Look, you stand over here on this rock and while I pass by you can hide in the big crack in the rock while I cover you with my hand until I’m past. Then I’ll take away my hand and you can see my back. But you can’t see my face.”

There are three difficulties with religious leadership, even for the stand-outs like Moses:

  1. you don’t get much help,
  2. it’s hard to get time off, and
  3. all you’ve got to go by is a symbolic representation (an avatar) of God.

At the end of the day, when you come back down the mountain, all you have is your word against theirs that what you’ve heard and are convinced of is real. Whenever you make a move, you do it with the conviction that God will be faithful to the promise you heard on the mountain, but you don’t ever get to see God. The best you can do is see, in hindsight, where it appears to you God has been. You can see God’s back (and maybe pick up a trail), but not God’s face.

This is particularly problematic because people generally want convincing proof. Especially when the stakes are high. Especially when you’re asking people to give their lives (a religious commitment) to a project. People turn to religion when their lives are disrupted and they want answers. But concrete answers are the one thing good religion cannot provide – the whole religion project is to help people live more fully with the questions.

If Moses is any indication, the temptation for religious leaders is wanting to be able to finally provide answers. But as Moses talks with God, every one of Moses’ demands for relief is answered by some version of, “you’re just going to have to live with it.” Even the question, “How will people know we’re different from anyone else?” is answered by “I’ll do whatever I’m going to do.”

And that’s the point. However strongly you may feel that you are specially favored, there is no way to tell that one group is any better than any other on the planet based on religious conviction. From the outside, they all look equally plausible (or implausible). So all that is left is to follow your conviction (religious or otherwise) through life’s questions.

Vision Loss

Desert MoonExodus 17:1-7

From the Moon Desert, all the Israelites traveled in fits and starts as God led them. When they came to a place where they could spread out, they stopped there. But there was no drinking water. So the people started griping at Moses saying, “Give us drinking water.”

Moses said, “Why are you griping at me? Why are you always accusing God?”

But the insatiable people kept on griping: “Why did you bring us here from Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock by thirst?”

So Moses asked God, “Now what? These people are going to stone me.”

So God said, “Take some of their leaders and go on a little farther. And take your staff with you, the one you used to strike the Nile River. I’ll wait for you on the rock by the ruin. When you get there, strike the rock with your staff, and it’ll crack open a spring. Then the people can drink.”

So that’s what Moses did, in full view of their leaders. He called the place Griping Accusation, because it was where the Israelites griped and accused God of not being with them.

Being thirsty is one thing. Accusing someone of wanting to kill you is taking it to a whole new level. But then again, Moses hadn’t handled it very well, projecting the people’s frustration with him onto God. He gives the impression of carrying on the desert adventure a bit like Indiana Jones, “Give me a break, will ya, I’m making this up as I go along.” Traveling in fits and starts doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the leadership.

The story, in all, is a parable about what happens in communities under stress, when things aren’t going well and there is no clear direction. The people get grouchy, the leaders get defensive, leading to hyperbolic accusations flying in both directions. Bad scene.

The solution: a leaders retreat. Or rather, a leaders advance. And this is indeed what the church often does. And it seems to relieve the tension. At least something is being done about the presenting issue, and there is a short term solution. The people get something to drink. But the leaders retreat doesn’t fix the underlying problem. There is still no direction. They are all still stuck in the desert.

And the next thing they try to generate for themselves a sense of meaning, and for something to do: start a war. Exodus 17:8-15, has been conveniently left on the Common Lectionary’s cutting-room floor, but it’s an integral part of the story.

This story is, according to tradition, the moment where Moses screwed up. The incident at the “Rock of Horeb” is given as the reason he was unable to enter the Promised Land. And Horeb in Hebrew does indeed mean “ruin.” But the picture here is that there was more than striking the rock improperly that was involved in Moses’ downfall. This is the ruin where Moses’ traded his vision of freedom for a vision of establishing a new empire.

The Importance of the First Followers

Matthew 4:18-25

As Jesus walked along the seashore, he saw two brothers, Simon (also known as Peter) and Andrew, fishermen by trade, fishing with nets. “Follow my lead,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to start a movement.” So they began to follow. Then, he saw another pair of brothers, James and John Zebedee, who were in a boat fixing nets with their father. Jesus called them, and they followed, leaving their father behind.

They went around Galilee where Jesus taught in synagogues, preaching the message of hope, and curing anything that ailed the people. He was soon famous, even as far away as Syria. People started bringing others who were sick: the diseased, the deranged, the epileptic, the paralytic. And Jesus cured them. Soon great crowds were following him. People came from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the other side of the Jordan River.

From one man with a message, to crowds from all over the place, Jesus starts a movement. Note the importance given to the first few followers. Of all the people to follow Jesus: Simon, Andrew, James and John are the most important people in the story. They took the biggest risk, and they, not Jesus, made the movement around Jesus happen.

In three minutes, here’s what happened on the beach and around Galilee that day, courtesy of Derek Sivers and the folks at TED.


Two questions to think about:

  1. If you’re leading, who are your first followers, and how can you make it be about them?
  2. If you’re following, who are you following and why?

How You Lead a Movement

Philippians 1:12-14

Friends, know that what’s happened has increased the momentum of our cause. Everyone, even the goon squad, knows that I’m a political prisoner, that my allegiance to Jesus is the reason they locked me up. And because of that, our brothers and sisters in the movement have more confidence and speak out with greater courage.

Movements need leaders. Many of the leadership gurus focus on technique, strategy, all of that. But what’s really needed is a leader who is willing to put his or her own skin in the game. After that, technique and strategy are incidental.

Last week Bill McKibben did it for the climate change movement: he was arrested during an act of mass civil disobedience outside the White House and spent two days in jail. But even he was following the leadership of a lesser known leader. In July, Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for his protest against big oil.

Again and again, the most significant movements happen when leaders lead from the front line rather than the corner office. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, César Chávez, Oscar Romero, Paul, Jesus, Elijah, Moses. None of them were technically or tactically perfect. But we remember their names without having to look them up, which is more than we can say for whoever happened to be the last CEO of General Motors. (It was Rick Wagoner, resigned 2009 as a condition for receiving a Federal bailout.)

Leaders who put themselves on the front line of their cause demonstrate that the cause is worth the effort, that it is even worth the discomfort, the inconvenience, and especially the risk. After all, if you aren’t willing to take the risk, why should I? On the other hand, if you’re willing stand with me, to go to jail, to suffer, to take the time – then I just might be convinced.

Want me to join your movement? Show me some skin.