My dad was a local politician who served for several years on the city council of Huntsville, Alabama. Watching him work the angles to get things done in local city politics was an education for me. In a lot of ways, growing up with my dad was the best education I could have had for my career in ministry. I learned a lot about people, processes, how to lose, how to win, and how to keep going, all from watching my dad work in the leadership of my hometown. As you can imagine, I have a notebook filled with examples and lessons on leadership from my dad's experience. Here's one of my favorites:
"Know the difference between the person who says they have the power and the person who actually has the power. They're never the same person."
Whenever it was time to get something done, Dad would have to wade through a herd of wanna-be power brokers. These people would talk about what they could get done, how much money they could bring to a project, and all the contacts they had to garner support for the project. Most of the time, these people were inconvenient at best, and at worst, they were a hindrance. Dad learned to look around the room and find the person who usually wasn't saying much, but was the actual decision-maker. For instance, Dad realized that knowing a senator's staff was much more important than knowing the senator. If you could get the attention of the governor's chief of staff, you had a better chance of the governor following through with any needed commitments. Know the difference between the person who says they have the power and the person who actually has the power.
The power dynamics of any local church are the same way. The people who tell you they have the power rarely do. The challenge is to find the person or persons who actually make the decisions for that particular church. Only when you're working with those folks can you get anything done in a local church.
The meditations of Lent remind me of this power dynamic in our world. Lent teaches us the painful lesson of realizing the difference between those who pretend to have the power and the ones who actually have the power. Once again, they aren't the same people.
The final hours of Jesus' life are filled with pretenders. The religious leaders claim to be the controllers of truth. They weren't. Pilate claimed he had the power of life and death. He didn't. The disciples claimed they had the power to stay with Jesus until the end. They didn't.
The silence of Lent is broken by all of the snake oil sellers who claim to have found some long-hidden mystery of the universe that will radically transform our lives. All we have to do is eat this, do that, and buy the monthly subscription and that will keep us informed and motivated.
It won't work.
Sooner or later, we'll figure out that self-help books don't work. Why else do we keep writing them? We can't fix what's broken in us. We've tried. We have really tried. No one could fault our effort. There are just some things we can't do. We can't put toothpaste back in the tube. We can't undo what we've done. We can't unsay what we've said. We can't heal the wounds we've inflicted on ourselves and others. Lent is hard because we are confronted with our helplessness. What are we going to do with the mess we've made?
Writing in Romans, Paul struggled with the same issue. Remember? Here's what he wrote:
"Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand, I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin." (Romans 7:24–25)
Too many of us end up like the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus' garment. For all of her effort in seeing doctors and trying their remedies, she only ended up worse off. That's us. We've tried all of the world's remedies and we're no better off. We're not closer to being healed. We are worse off than when we started. Lent is the moment when all of the pretenders are dismissed.
They have no power. They have no wisdom. They can't help.
We find ourselves left with only one hope, one chance -- Jesus the Christ. During Lent, we mercifully discover that He is the only chance we need.