II Kings 1-3, Psalm 106, Acts 21
Good leadership demands good succession planning
II Kings 1-3
A responsible leader is always thinking about succession plans for each of the leaders around him or her and ultimately for him or herself. Smooth transitioning from one fine leader to another is one of the marks of a great institution and a key to success. Yet, many fine leaders have been unable to let go and to prepare the way for another leader to succeed him or her.
Take Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, for example, the former chief executive officer of the mammoth insurance company AIG. When he was in his 70s, Greenberg routinely brushed off any discussion as to when he might step aside as CEO. Asked about retirement in 2002, he replied, “I had a great-grandmother who worked until she was 108 and then died in an accident.”
Greenberg was revered for his boundless energy and managerial brilliance. He had 100 people roaming the company constantly looking for wrongdoing. Anything they spotted was reported directly in writing to Greenberg and a handful of other leaders. It was a great practice, which more Wall Street firms would be wise to emulate today.
Greenberg, however, appears to have believed that he would live and lead AIG until he was 108. His sons, Jeffrey and Evan, were seen as possible successors, but both grew tired of waiting for their father to retire and pass the reins of leadership. Both left to run other insurance companies.
Other top level executives left as well, sensing that their opportunity to lead AIG would never come. Those who remained were not up to the challenge of handling the financial crisis that brought AIG and other companies to their knees. Poor succession planning is foolish.
II Kings opens up with a story of succession planning as one of the greatest prophets is about to die. His loyal lieutenant Elisha raises the question of succession planning with his mentor Elijah. Knowing that Elijah may soon die, Elisha requests a double share of his mentor’s spirit. “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you; if not, it will not.” (II Kings 2:10)
Shortly after as they were walking, a chariot of fire and horses swept down and separated the two prophets. Elijah ascended into the whirlwind in one of the Bible’s most remarkable stories, which gave rise to the name of the famous movie Chariots of Fire. Remembering what Elijah had said, Elisha kept his eyes fixed on the chariot of fire as his mentor ascended into heaven, crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (II Kings 2:12)
Just prior to this dramatic scene, Elijah, the greatest miracle worker in the Bible found between the time of Moses and Jesus, approached the Jordan River with Elisha at his side. Elijah had instructed Elisha to stay back while he went to Jericho, but Elisha thrice responded, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” (11 Kings 2:2, 4 and 6) His words were reminiscent of the words of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. Then Elijah struck the water of the Jordan River with his mantle, and it parted like the Red Sea; so the two prophets could cross on dry ground. Clearly, the author likened Elijah to Moses during the Exodus.
Shortly after Elijah ascended to heaven, Elisha returned to the Jordan River and struck the water with his mentor’s mantle. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he inquired as he struck the water, which immediately parted, allowing him to cross over on dry ground. Clearly, the mantle of leadership had been passed from one great leader to another.
I once was one of the finalists to succeed a much-admired Episcopal Rector, who was one of the finest preachers in our country. His shoes were huge to fill. He was a great preacher, teacher and pastor. He was also a friend and a mentor to me. If I had received the call, I would have asked him to pass his leadership mantle to me publically. His mantle meant everything.
The church called another priest to succeed him, a man who never sought to have his predecessor bestow his leadership mantle upon him. The new Rector was reportedly heard saying, “[My predecessor] brought psychology to [the church]. Now, I am bringing them the Gospel.” His new leadership was never accepted, and he was terminated within nine months.
We have to ask ourselves regularly, what key roles to I fulfill? Who can succeed me? How am I creating a situation for someone to succeed and build upon the good work that others and I have done? Envisioning our departure and someone else picking up the reins that we have held should not be frightening, but rather exciting and a natural part of institutional advancement.
Before departing from these chapters, we should note the disturbing gratuitous violence, which seems out of place in the Bible. King Ahaziah had fallen and was severely injured. He sent messengers to inquire of the Moabite gods of Baal-zebub, whether or not he would recover. An angel of the Lord notified Elijah that the king was ignoring Yahweh, and consulting foreign gods. The prophet was instructed to tell the king that he would soon die.
Elijah informed the king’s messengers of this. When they reported it to Ahaziah, he inquired what the prophet looked like. They replied, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (II Kings 1:8) Recall Mark 1:6, where we read, “Now John [the Baptist] was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist…” Mark made it clear that John was similar to Elijah, whom the Jews believed would return to earth before the Messiah came.
Three times the ailing King Ahaziah sent a captain with fifty men to meet Elijah, pleading for the prophet to come down from his mountain and meet the king, but twice the prophet refused and called down fire to consume the captain and his fifty men. One hundred and two men perished in a holocaust, until the third captain leading fifty men fell upon his face and begged for mercy.
Elisha appears to have received his master Elijah’s proclivity for violent retribution. When forty-two boys jeered Elisha on his way to Bethel, saying, “Go away, baldhead!” Elisha cursed them, and two bears emerged from the woods and devoured the children.
Several years ago, a much-beloved rabbi, who visits our church each year to preach and teach, told our congregation, “The Bible is full of deeply flawed people whom God works through, but they have major character flaws.” I cannot recall any seminary professor saying this, but it is absolutely true. The Bible is full of rogues.
Abel swindled his brother’s birthright. Moses committed murder. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister. David committed adultery and had Uriah killed. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied the Messiah. Paul held the cloaks of Jews while they stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Each of them like each of us was deeply flawed; yet, God worked through them. Hence, there is hope for us. If God can work through them, surely God can work through you and me.
Psalm 106 is a lament intended to be sung in a liturgical setting as the community recounts the adversity that they faced after having committed many sins which brought about punishment from Yahweh, chiefly in the form of being scattered among other nations in the Exile. We are told, “Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” (Ps. 106:3)
This precedes acknowledgement that the nation has sinned and erred in its ways. “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly… They did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea.” (Ps. 106:6, 7b) This is as true today as it was then.
Each succeeding generation seems to have to learn for itself that God is faithful. It is not sufficient to go to church and attend Sunday school to believe in the saving work of God. Most of us go astray and must learn that hard way that we have a God who has been faithful to our ancestors and will be faithful to us, if only we obey, follow Jesus and serve God.
The Exodus from Egypt is recalled in this psalm, as God lead the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry land (verse 9), gave them food in the wilderness (verse 15) and yet they rebelled and formed a golden calf at Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai (verse 19). Fortunately, Moses stood in the breach and pleaded for them (verse 23).
We read that “They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood.” (Ps. 106:37) Only in Deuteronomy 32:17 do we find the word “demon” or shedu in Hebrew. A shedu was a winged creature like a cherub that served as a protective guardian and was concerned with an individual’s health and welfare. A shedu could destroy or protect one’s health. Hence, sacrifices were made to placate shedus.
Chapter 21 is a poignant chapter that reminds us how indebted we are to St. Paul. He was the Church’s first theologian, a church planter and a fervent evangelist, who possessed enormous faith and courage. Few of us could imagine doing a fraction of what he did to share his faith in Jesus and articulate the message in ways that would forever shape Christianity. He also exercised great stamina and resiliency as he traveled to proclaim the message of Jesus.
He traveled frequently by ship. Ships were the airplanes of his day. It is interesting to note that in verse 6, we read “…we knelt down on the beach and prayed, and said farewell to one another.” This is yet another of the famous “we clauses,” where the writer includes himself in the story. It is one of the reasons that many scholars conjecture that Luke wrote the Book of Acts. Luke is described as one of Paul’s traveling companions, and therefore could have written using the first person. There are also great similarities in the Greek used in Luke and Acts as well as introduction in Acts 1 indicating that the author of Luke’s Gospel also penned Acts.
In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has an elder devil instruct a younger devil to allow humans to believe that posture makes no difference in prayer. One can pray as easily and as effectively while lying down or slouching in a chair as kneeling in supplication before the Almighty. Of course, this is false. Posture makes all the difference in prayer. When we kneel, we signify to God and to ourselves that we are creatures and God is our Creator. We do not approach God as equals in prayer. If we are looking for equals, we can turn to family and friends, colleagues at work or classmates at school. God is our Creator, Redeemer and Savior.
Paul and his companions knew that it was vital to kneel as they prayed, and they prayed together. Not long ago, a wonderfully gifted lay woman invited me to pray with her. I was deeply touched. Only rarely have I had a lay person or a priest for that matter invite me to pray with him or her. Such an invitation creates a spiritual blending of hearts. There are few ways that we can care for a person more than by praying with him or her. Most of us can pray for someone, but to pray with someone is empowering.
I remember meeting with a priest in Nashville while I was attending seminary. At the conclusion of our visit, he offered to lead us in prayer. As he prayed with me and for me, I felt a strange but wonderful sensation come over me. The only thing that I can liken it to was what occurred to John Wesley on the day of his conversion to Christ.
On May 24, 1738, John Wesley opened his Bible at about five in the morning and read these words, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” That evening, he attended a meeting at Aldersgate in London, when someone read from Luther’s preface to his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. About 8:45 p.m., Wesley reported that “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” When the priest in Nashville prayed with me and for me, I, too, felt my heart strangely warmed. Never underestimate the power of praying with someone for someone. Never underestimate the power of prayer.
Paul was warned not to travel to Jerusalem. Previously, he had heeded certain warnings to insure his own safety, but now he seemed resigned to whatever additional suffering he might have to endure for Christ. Paul told those who urged him not to go, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13) How many Christians would utter those words today? Paul has his fair share of critics, but virtually all of his critics are unwilling to pay the price that Paul paid to proclaim Christ. We have to admire Paul on many levels. Those who heard him realized that he could not be deterred. They said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:14)
The words of the prophet Agabus (vv. 10-11) soon came true. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem. An angry mob of Jews beat him, but fortunately the tribune, several centurions and many soldiers ran to his rescue. Paul must have been a bloody, wounded mess, but he asked the tribune for permission to speak. The stage was now set for one of Paul’s greatest speeches, which teaches us how we can share our faith in Jesus in a personal and compelling manner.
As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you. (11 Kings 2:2, 4 and 6)
The Lord’s will be done. (Acts 21:14)
What roles do you play where someone must eventually succeed you? Who do you envision to fill the shoes that you are filling now? What are you doing to prepare for successful succession in your role and in the roles of the leaders around you? Have you ever prayed aloud with another person? If not, what holds you back? What posture do you use when praying? Do you believe that your posture affects your praying? In what ways have you had to trust your own instincts, and disregard the warnings of others just as Paul did when he chose to travel to Jerusalem? What would you be willing to sacrifice or to risk so that you could proclaim your faith in Jesus?
Holy and Gracious God, we thank you for the magnificent witness of your servant Paul, who exercised great faith and comprehension in Jesus and enormous courage and strength. May we, like Paul, have the courage to live and share our faith openly so that faith which comes through hearing may be heard and those around us might believe. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania