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Iron Fist - Rehoboam & Jeroboam


In my late 20's I was hired at a boarding school for boys.  I had a background in behavioral health and a strong track record for results.  The group had been a difficult one to manage and most people were scared to take on the task.  I knew that I needed to make a strong impression if I was going to get control of this group.  It would be far easier to start with a heavy hand and loosen up than to start soft and try to tighten up later.  My first few weeks I held a high standard and the results from my efforts were clear.  The group began working effectively and efficiently.  The boys struggled with the rules, but they adapted and they started to shine.  They were becoming restless though, and my heart was becoming cold.

One day, on the way to the cabin one of the boys asked a question about dinner.  We had a policy where we did not give out future information unless it was needed.  We would simply respond with the phrase "No F.I.", it stood for future information.  It was an attempt to keep the youth focused on the moment.  It had mixed effect.  I snapped back to his question "No F.I., keep it moving".  He paused and collected himself and then he said something that shook me to my core and impacts the way I live to this day.

"I know that is the rule, but why did you have to say it like that? Why did you use that tone?" He said it without anger, but his hurt was clear.  He was insulted, wounded even.  His voice quivered a little, but he was respectful and even tempered.  It caught my attention. It was gift that he could say it this way, had he said it with spite I could have written him off and justified myself.  He left me no room for that.  It was a blessing and a gift, that I was lucky to receive, because it is rare for an adult to have such control, let alone a child. 

I started to respond and then realized that I needed to think on that.  I told him that we would talk at the cabin after I had a moment to consider his question.  That night I apologized to him individually, and to the group as a whole.  I realized that I had listened to the wisdom of the world.  I had come in with an iron fist and my heart had grown cold towards them and their needs in the process.  They were shocked to have an adult apologize to them, to see someone admit to a mistake, and be vulnerable with them.  The group took a turn that night. 

They became the strongest group on campus, and occasionally people would ask how I did it.  I always had to admit that it was not the weeks of acting like a drill sergeant.  It was one night when I got real and admitted to my mistake.  It was not adding to their burden, but seeing their distress that made it all work. I eventually became the director of the school and I watched many other people come in with the drill sergeant mindset.  I watched it work for a short time and eventually the kids would rebel.  I loved sharing this story, and watching them fearfully try it out, only to see the magic of the Kingdom values at work. 

In our narrative lectionary reading for the week (1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29) we hear about Rehoboam inheriting the kingdom of Israel from his father Solomon.  The elder advisers encouraged him to go easy on the rules, but the young encouraged him to rule with an iron fist, to show the people that he was even stronger than his father.  He went with the wisdom of the youth "my little finger is thicker than my father's waist".  As a result he lost over half of the kingdom and the kingdom of Israel was split from that day on.  What would it have been like, if he had gone easy on them?  If he had been real?  If he had been vulnerable?

In moments when you are tempted to lead with an iron fist, just remember that the Kingdom of God has upside down values.  The world may tell us that we need to lead with an iron fist, but in God's kingdom things work differently. 

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