Our task is to give witness to Jesus as Lord in the midst of the public square. As today’s text reminds us, despite our track record, abandoning the public arena is not an option for faithful disciples. In the context of each of our leadership responsibilities there is a public dimension to our faith. How are we to live it out?
There are times in leadership when we find ourselves isolated. Sometimes we find ourselves there of our own making. We’ve had to make some hard decisions with which everyone else strongly disagrees, and we feel alone. Sometimes it’s the result of others’ actions. We find ourselves marginalized politically or even have our organization “right-sized” out of existence. Where once we had colleagues and superiors who supported us, we now find ourselves isolated. As the Psalmist prays in today’s text: “Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.”
I have spent much of my working life trying to develop “covenantal” business relationships. The word “covenantal” implies a focus not merely on the economic transactions of the relationship, but on the well-being of the other person or institution. While there is considerable interest today in forming strategic business partnerships, those partnerships are usually dominated by, if not exclusively concerned with, matters of business self-interest. But what if self-interest were supplanted by—or at least augmented with—a real interest in the common good made possible by the relationship? One such relationship that I experienced started well. Our business counterparts shared many of the same strategic interests and cultural values as our company did. We built a mutual business relationship rooted in figuring out what made business sense not only for ourselves but for the other. But, over time, things changed. For a variety of reasons, our business partners began to treat the relationship like any other. From their end, the business relationship had devolved from a covenantal one to a transaction-oriented one. We were faced with the question: How should we respond?
There are different kinds of enemies and different sorts of violence they seek to perpetrate. In the world of work and leadership, there are personal and impersonal enemies. As an example of the former, some people see others as obstacles in their ascent to or retention of power, and therefore seek to undermine the others’ roles and work. As an example of the latter, market forces can create competitive situations where one organization effectively seeks to destroy another in the quest for customers and market share.
The Hubble Telescope is an extraordinary invention. With it, we can see from unimaginable distances some of the farthest reaches of the universe; and simultaneously we can look back in time to see stars and galaxies as they were thousands and even millions of years ago. Perhaps the Hubble serves as a useful analogy for God’s ability to see from far away what is going on in our lives, and to look back through our personal history even to our formation in the womb. But, unlike the Hubble, which passively gathers information from a long time ago and from galaxies far away, Psalm 139 reminds us that God knows each of us personally. Extraordinarily, God sees, not from a vast distance, but up close and in person.
In the context of a congregation, the psalmist acknowledges that leadership is a vocation lived in all aspects of life: in the court of public opinion, among colleagues and competitors, and particularly in the presence of deadly adversaries, a life of faithful leadership plays out. Faith for the psalmist is neither tangential nor compartmentalized. It is central and integral to leadership, even a matter of life or death.
New Creation. Heaven on Earth. The End is Beginning.
Some of us are at the height of our careers, at the height of our powers. Others are at the beginning of our vocational journey, where much is promised yet unfulfilled. Some of us are nearer the end of our journey than the beginning, where our lives and gifts appear more fragile and uncertain. Wherever and whenever we find ourselves, the challenge is to be “trustworthy in a few things.”
The God who made our universe is unchangingly reliable, “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” That’s good news in a harsh and unreliable world. We have a divine counterclaim and divine counterexample to the world around us. In a world that is regularly ruthless and self-absorbed, God is always “compassionate and gracious.” In a culture increasingly ready to do and say anything, God continues to act consistently and overflows with “love and faithfulness.”
Today’s text suggests that God is not a distant deity with vague warm feelings toward his creatures. Instead, the Lord’s compassion and grace overflow in action with an abundance of steadfast love and faithfulness. God’s heart, God’s word and God’s actions are all congruent with one another. So it should be for all of us who claim to follow and lead in God’s Way.