(This is the opening devotion I gave when I hosted the regional gathering of my denomination’s churches – Classis Toronto of the Christian Reformed Church as it’s called – at York University, Toronto on May 6, 2010)
Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13 (I read from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Click on the link to read it.)
When we think of leaders, we often think of charismatic leaders, people who are natural influencers, natural born-leaders, people who act the part and look the part as well. I have read student ministry books that suggest you target and recruit mainly those students who are natural born leaders in their social circles. When we look at king David, we often see the quintessential leader, perhaps the greatest king of Israel in the OT. We think of the man after God’s heart. But his beginnings were very different. Before David was pushed into the spotlight with his victory over Goliath, David was not a natural born leader. He was not a ring leader nor was he charismatic. No one, it seemed, thought much of him. And no one expected much of him.
David was the youngest of eight brothers; he was the runt of the litter, so to speak. In ancient Israelite culture the first born has status, expectations, and privileges. The youngest has very little status, expectations or privileges; he was at the bottom of the totem pole.
My Chinese culture is similar. I am the youngest of six and I can relate a little to David. My oldest brother has the highest profile and the responsibilities. Till today, I am still treated like the baby sometimes: given unsolicited advice as if I couldn’t solve my problems by myself, given directions as to what to do even when I already know them, etc.
So, David was the youngest. Not much was expected of him. His siblings may not think much of him. He was looking after the sheep, after all. Nowadays, we may have romanticized the shepherding job too much. In those days, shepherding is a dirty job – though an important one. Sheep was needed for food, wool and for altar sacrifices. But the job is tedious, requiring long hours outdoors (remember the shepherds were out at night on the first Christmas?), boring, making you smell like the dirty sheep around you, and basically cutting you off from social life with anyone else. It’s not a job that you aspire to when growing up. It’s the kind of job that people who can’t do anything much better end up with. The closest modern day equivalent I can think of is garbage collector (no disrespect intended to garbage collectors). It’s an important job for various reasons but generally nobody wants to make it a career choice if they can help it. David, the runt of the litter was probably assigned to sheep duty because not much else was expected of him.
Even his own father didn’t think much or expected much of David. When the prophet Samuel came looking to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king, Jesse left David out with the sheep. He didn’t even think of bringing him in for Samuel to see. That was how little he thought of David. He could not imagine that David, his little runt, who is only good for spending time with sheep and dreaming away, strumming on his lute, composing silly songs no one will ever hear, THAT David is even in the running for kingship in Samuel’s eyes!
Imagine the shock when Samuel anointed him in front of his more accomplished older brothers, and father! It seems that David was far from being seen as a potential leader by anyone closest to him – his father and brothers. Yet, God saw something in David that no one else did. This makes the statement that God looks at the heart while we look at appearances even more striking to me.
I ask myself this question: if David is here today, studying at York University, will I see him as a potential leader, or will I see what everybody else sees – a loser? Someone you don’t think much of and don’t expect much from. Someone who is definitely not a natural born leader. If a David-like person is in your congregation, would you be able to spot him or her? Or do we look at people’s appearances, at their so-called charisma, at their gender, at their abilities or disabilities, at their connections, at their “normality” and not into their hearts? Good leaders might come from unexpected or even unlikely sources.
Finally, natural born leaders might be easy to spot but spirit born leaders are the real gems we need to seek. David, I believe, from all accounts, was not a natural born leader – no one saw his potential. But David as our bible passage suggests is a spirit born leader. After God chose him and Samuel anointed him, “the Spirit of God entered David like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering him for the rest of his life.” (v. 13) And the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m not saying we neglect or reject the natural born leaders. But perhaps we need to adjust our eyesight to try and see people through God’s eyes and spot those potential spirit-born leaders among us.