We celebrate many things. When we grow another year older, we celebrate. When we add another year to the length of our marriage, we celebrate. When our favorite team wins a championship, we celebrate. When we graduate – from kindergarten, from high school, from college – we celebrate. When our child is born, we celebrate. When we get a promotion, we celebrate. When we retire from our career, we celebrate. Clearly, we find and take many opportunities in life to celebrate victories, achievements, milestones, and joyous moments.
I have a few personal celebrations that really stand out to me, and I am sure you do as well. Some of my marriage anniversaries loom larger in my mind than others: my fourth, which I remember as the first time in our young marriage that I was able to do something really nice for my wife; my tenth, which we celebrated at a Disney resort; our twentieth, when we again celebrated at a Disney resort; and our twenty-fifth, when we celebrated with a New England Cruise, which had been a dream of my wife’s. I remember the day we celebrated that my wife was one year cancer-free, and even though her cancer has returned, we continue to celebrate that anniversary every year, marking another year that we have together. I also remember the celebrations that we had for each of our children when they turned thirteen, which were special events that we planned out, to mark their entry into adulthood, complete with dinner at a restaurant, pictures, a promise ring, and a framed letter and certificate.
I believe that celebrations are important, giving us a way to mark those meaningful occasions and reminding us of the moments that really matter. However, while we include them in our personal lives, I also think that they can play an important role in our jobs and our organizations, but we often miss valuable opportunities to celebrate in those settings. In my reading through the book of Ezra, I see descriptions of at least two celebrations, and I believe that there are several valuable lessons we can learn from them that can be very applicable to the activity of leadership.
The first of those celebrations is described in Ezra 3:10-13, when the people of Israel had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem:
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.” Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.
And the second is described in Ezra 6:16-22, after the people of Israel had completed the construction:
Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. They assigned the priests to their divisions and the Levites to their divisions, over the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.
And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean. And they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel. And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy; for the Lord made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.
In these two passages, I find lessons and examples that give us a blueprint for celebrating, showing us when we celebrate, how we celebrate, and why we celebrate.
When should we celebrate?
These passages teach us that it should happen throughout the process. In other words, celebrations ought to take place at both the beginning and the end of projects, tasks, and missions (and at important milestones along the way). The celebration in Ezra 3 took place at the very start of the construction, initiating the project, and it served to build support and community early in the process. The second major celebration, in Ezra 6, took place at the end of the construction, and this time it served to bring satisfaction and joy in the celebration of victory and completion. As a leader, when you take the time to celebrate at the beginning, it enables you to provide motivation and to build momentum; when you celebrate at the end, not only is it a victory celebration, it also provides an opportunity to recognize collective and individual accomplishments, giving value to people (and when you celebrate milestones along the way, it helps you to maintain momentum by reinvigorating people, and by keeping the end in view and reminding them of the steps that have been reached).
How should we celebrate?
The examples given in these celebrations indicate three important components. First, it ought to be a ceremony, an official celebration. Illustrated in this context, we see that the Israelites included the sacrifices and rituals that were officially part of the ceremonial law, and celebrated the national ceremony of the Passover. Second, it ought to be public. Make it visible, so that everyone is aware and everyone can participate. This is indicated in 6:19-22, when we observe that everyone was there together and that the priests conducted the ceremony and the sacrifices for the benefit of everyone present. And third, it should take place within the community and should involve the community, both those who directly participated in the work and those who were affected it. This is also evident in 6:19-22, as we observe that they celebrated as a nation. It was not just the leaders or priests, or only those who had done the work, or those who were specifically called and tasked for the mission, but, rather, all the Israelites who were there celebrated, and did so with great joy. These same three components ought characterize the celebrations that take place within our organizations. The celebrations that we have at the beginning, middle, and end should be official, public ceremonies, which involve everyone.
Finally, why should we celebrate?
I see three reasons that are illustrated in these stories. First and foremost, and more important than any other reasons, celebrations are opportunities to give credit and praise to God. Both of these celebrations clearly focused on giving praise to God, and later in the book, Ezra individually modeled the same thing, when he gave praise to God for a significant milestone (Ezra 7:27-28). Every Christian leader ought to recognize God’s sovereign activity in all circumstances, and therefore ought to make praise and acknowledgment to God an integral part of each celebration. Second, celebrations should be opportunities to remember, serving as a reminder of the accomplishments that have been achieved, the obstacles that have been overcome, and the progress that has been made. Third, celebrations provide a forum and a platform to express gratitude and to give appreciation and recognition, both individually and collectively. People need to be valued, and expressing gratitude (and doing it publicly) provides a way to do so.
The bottom line is, there is great benefit in celebrating. It’s good for the organization, it’s good for the people in the organization, and it keeps God at the forefront of all that is happening. Celebrations build positive culture, and build value into people, and those are things that should characterize effective Christian leaders. So, look for opportunities to celebrate, and make them a part of the life of your organization. Celebrate.
This is the tenth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.