Leading through Change: Back to School with the Bee Eater

Sometimes I wonder how Heraclitus could have claimed that change is central to the universe. I mean, how could the philosopher who is credited with the line, “You cannot step twice into the same stream,” not have realized that change seems to cut against every grain in the human psyche? I know, I know…we are constantly changing whether we like it or not.  I read somewhere that of our trillions of skin cells we slough off about one million a day (and that’s without exfoliating!). But I have yet to meet anyone who really, honestly enjoys change.

I am not saying people dread skin cell level change. I am talking about change at a deep level. You might know someone who went into college a brow-beating, fight-picking, conservative republican and came out a brow-beating, fight-picking liberal democrat (or vice versa). Did any real change happen there?

I recently finished reading The Bee Eater, a biographical account of D.C. Public School district chancellor from 2007-2010, Michelle Rhee. It is a fantastic true story of her campaign against the status quo in one of the worst school districts in the urban U.S.  The almost unthinkable changes she instituted in the District were met with stiff resistance from every side–City Council, Teachers Unions, and even parents sending their kids to these schools. The irony: parents sending their kids to schools with 12 percent grade-level proficiency in reading did not want to see their kids’ teachers fired. Change, even change for the better, can be terrifying.

Rhee was often criticized for refusing to collaborate with community leaders. In fact, she actually said, “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated” (p. 204). However, she was not saying that out of a desire to be a cold-hearted tyrant, but rather because she knew the dynamics of change in community.

She explained later, “If collaboration is the most important thing in your end goal, the only way to make a whole lot of people happy is to not change anything. But if you want to change things, the fact is there will be a group of people mad at you.” (p. 204)

Rhee makes the simple but profound observation that “people-pleasers” don’t get things done. That’s why Jesus was almost thrown off a hill in Luke chapter 4. That’s why people wanted him crucified.  He spoke the kind of penetrating truth that would bring deep, lasting, life-altering change if accepted–and it was terrifying. Leading through true change will always be, at some level, costly, painful, and defiantly resisted.

Now, as those of us in high school, college, and graduate school head back to the classroom in the fall, it might be our heady ambition to gain the tools we need to bring lasting change to our school, perhaps to our church, our city, and our world. For those of you with that aim, I commend you. Our broken world needs piecing together.  But consider with me this quote from Leo Tolstoy:

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. (Three Methods of Reform)

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a man in flux, who has on his shoulder “a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.” This lizard is ruining him, making him a sniveling, snarling ghost of a man. A flaming angel asks over and over if he can kill the lizard for him, removing its evil influence forever. But for some inexplicable reason, the man offers excuse after lame excuse. “I think I have a handle on it now….We can discuss killing it later….Maybe if I get rid of it little by little….I’m not feeling up to it right now….I’ll die!” Eventually he caves and the flaming angel destroys the lizard. Seconds later, the pathetic lizard corpse transforms into a strong, beautiful, muscular stallion. The man, after being himself transformed into something much more solid than a ghost, swings himself up onto his horse and rides off into the hills.

I want to suggest that only God can bring the kind of change our tragically broken world needs.  However, that truth should not lead us into apathy, as if humans are not a part of that change. It should not drag us into the quagmire of the status quo. If we want to lead our community into true, lasting, life-altering change, we need God to be in us. That’s what Christians call the Holy Spirit.

But we have to recognize that God being in us by his Holy Spirit…well, it will change everything in our lives. Our lizards will have to die. We will have to really, painfully own up to all of our own mess, and let God transform it.  We must change before we can be a part of true change. You can’t be the change you wish to see in the world without the God who makes all things new…including you.

Only human beings that have been radically transformed by God can reasonably expect to be part of radical God-ward transformation in our world.

One Response to Leading through Change: Back to School with the Bee Eater

  1. Yes, it is easy to like and admire a prophet who is only asking other people to change, not us. And if a voice fits in with this world, in the state that it is in, how prophetic can it be?

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