A TV sportscaster was interviewing a retired Olympic runner just before one race at a big track and field event. One runner they were discussing was the favorite but evidently a strong competitor was in the lane beside him.
“What do you think he needs to do to win today?” the interviewer asked.
“He just needs to run his own race,” was his answer.
Frankly that seemed a bit on the obvious side. How could he run anyone else’s race? The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more taken I find myself with this advice. At first glance it may seem a consummate example of overstating the obvious, but it is more nuanced than one might think. It is also good advice for life and leadership.
Paul said “I have finished my course,” II Timothy 4:6.
Let me list them. You know them already but let me call their terrible names. Here are my choices for the top ten causes of depression in the ministry.
2) The fear of failure
3) Rebellious opposition
5) Mental and physical fatigue
7) Stress: usually financial
9) Accumulated hurt
10) Anger and unresolved inner issues
That is the big ten as I have observed them, not in some distant, statistical study, but up close and personal. I know I am not unique or even rare in this experience. I have occasionally struggled with depression, more circumstantial than clinical though not altogether, throughout my forty-six years of ministry. I have known dark moments and personal failures. I have been deeply disappointed in myself and struggled at times to stay in the ministry, or even to feel that I should stay in the ministry. In one truly terrible season, only the grace of God through my wife, two friends that refused to let me quit, and the wise and anointed help of a trained counselor kept me in the work.
How an organization thinks about itself is largely a function of senior leadership. Self-concept is critical to success at varying periods of the organization's history. This truth is easily observable in sports. Furthermore, it is commonly observable. One team, the unanimous underdog comes onto the field with a wild passion, an almost crazed determination. Their opponents, the prohibitive favorites, seem stuck in low gear. They just cannot seem to find the inner fire for which they have in the past been famous. What happens? Why does a team that is so much "better" suddenly lose to a team they ought to have beaten easily, and which if they played a series might predictably defeat nine out of ten times?
There are all kinds of factors, of course, and no one explanation is sufficient, but I believe the number one answer lies in an organizational communication failure between the coach and the team. Somehow the coaching staff failed to impart the correct self-concept. Many coaches and leaders think this is done by convincing the team they are winners.
The age of martyrs is now. It is misguided to believe that the worst persecution of Christians took place in the ancient Roman Empire. We are moved by the harrowing accounts of Christians being thrown to lions in the Colosseum, though the numbers may actually be somewhat inflated. The brutality of the First Century Roman persecution was real and those early martyrs should be honored, but in all of human history the most dangerous time to be a Christian is actually right now.
Two back-to-back conversations, literally back-to-back, on the same day, at the same venue, convinced me that the level of emotional toxicity, particularly concerning politics is at an all time dangerous high. While teaching leadership to a professionally diverse crowd, I used two examples of outcome-based communication. I was making the point that one way to measure the effectiveness of a speech, is simply by asking, does it accomplish, in the immediate aftermath, what the speaker hoped for?
The first example I used was Barrack Obama's first inaugural address. I explained that in terms of that measurement the speech "worked." Irrespective of one's politics, in terms of the Rutland "effectiveness analysis," Obama's speech was successful.
For a second example of an even more effective speech I chose Donald Trump's speech before congress on February 28, 2017. He had to do three things; rally a rapidly splintering Republican Party, defang the Democrat plan to humiliate and further delegitimize him at that very speech and he needed to inspire the nation to a positive vision of the future as he saw it. He accomplished all three. Even the least enthusiastic of his Republican colleagues, albeit a bit begrudgingly, admitted that with that one speech, Trump took control of the Republican agenda in Congress. Furthermore, the nation virtually exulted in his positivism. The speech got a 78% positive response on a CNN poll and the stock market shot up more than 300 points to pass 21,000 for the first time. Finally, he made the silly Democrat "protests" in the chamber look petty, petulant and irrelevant. All that in one speech. "Love him or hate him," I said, "that is an effective speech."
At the break I was accosted twice for equal and opposite reasons. The first was an older man who asked how could I use an enemy of America, a traitorous, secret Muslim as an example of anything "good." He said it was disgusting and bitterly disappointing of me to do so. Saying that I did not vote for Obama only seemed, inexplicably, to make it worse.
I walked away from that shaking my head but before I could even seek some calories-laden solace at the refreshment counter, I was thoroughly denounced by a woman for "praising an anti-Semitic racist." This person explained how she had admired me for years and now I had shattered all that and she was wounded, offended and deeply disappointed. It was obvious that arguing or even answering her would have been futile.
I was in the tenth grade and learning life from those who had gone ahead. A sophomore watches the seniors. From them he gains both good and bad. As a newcomer on the basketball team I was eager to learn from the "big boys." How to stand, how to dress, how to swagger as an athlete aught; these were the important lessons I sought. One day an older boy, not intentionally, by the way, taught me an unforgettable lesson about positive focus versus negative fixation. Now I do not for one moment suggest that Butch (not his real name) saw what happened as an example of that leadership principle. Likewise, even today, were ol' Butch and I to reminisce about that memorable moment, I doubt that he would see, as I do, that it afforded me a splendid teaching moment. I also want to state for the record that my understanding of the meaning of the incident did not come to me until years later. In the moment I just thought it was sweet poetic justice, the kind which involved a smallish sophomore's delight to see an older and frightening idiot get his comeuppance.
For what reason I never discovered, Butch, afoot, was chasing an eighth grader attempting to flee on a bicycle. Unable to get the bike up to speed, the terrified boy dismounted and fled on foot, leaving the bike by the road. Unable to catch and damage the little guy himself, Butch decided to damage his bicycle instead. I watched as Butch stomped on the boy's spokes. Unable to inflict the desired damage that way, Butch stepped back into the roadway to take a running leap, intending obviously to land with both feet on the offending bike.
This plan went wonderfully awry, however, when Butch stepped directly into the path of an oncoming motorcycle, the driver of which was a dangerous hulk named Darrel, one of the very few boys of whom Butch himself was afraid. Really afraid. The motorcycle veered wildly avoiding Butch and coming a screeching halt, Darrel dismounted walked coolly over to Butch and, without a word of warning, knocked him flat on his back. It was magnificent. It was a scene of glorious karmic retribution and one which I never forgot.
Reflecting on the disastrous final presentation at the 2017 Academy Awards, I immediately remembered Butch semi-conscious in the dust while I, a prudently hiding tenth-grader, laughed my head off. To this day I can remember the salacious thrill of watching Darrel, that unlikeliest instrument of God, administer punishment so well deserved.
Now from the vantage point of a half century of leadership I can see the real point.
Beyond the issue of poetic justice, there is a wonderful lesson for life and leadership.
Here, then, are some observations on the 2017 Academy Awards, compliments of Butch the bully.
Leaders in this contemporary world must brace themselves for a tsunami of ground noise. Whether in academia, business, politics or any other filed of endeavor, when a leader steps to the plate the chorus from the peanut gallery cranks up. The boos and the cat calls and screamed insults rain down. This unrelenting tidal wave of criticism can be discouraging to say the least and potentially crippling.
Leaders, after being scalded and scalded again and again by this acid rain, can lose their energy, their vision and, at least, their desire to lead. What some call burnout is less often fatigue from over-work, and more often combat fatigue.
I heard a customer in a tire store ranting about how he hates Valentine's Day and how he refuses to celebrate it. He went on and on about how Hallmark and the candy companies invented the holiday to make money, and that it's not a "real" holiday, and that they are definitely NOT getting any of his hard earned shekels. No flowers will he buy. No sir. No night out. No stupid, frilly card with hearts all over it and, one hundred percent, no romantic meal out at some overpriced restaurant or some weekend at B and B where they rip you off for a night's sleep and a breakfast that you can get cheaper at a Waffle House. And, by the way, no chocolate that she does not need anyway.
The redemptive grace of loyalty is so powerful it can literally fill any situation with healing and miraculous blessings. Any force that powerful, however, cannot be violated without dire consequences. There are few viruses in the kingdom more honored by God than loyalty. Absalom’s doom was sealed by his disloyalty to David, but David’s loyalty to an unworthy Saul confirmed his destiny for the throne.
Five princesses, each in costumes of purple and blue and flowing green, five tiny little princesses can fill a Taco Bell with their energy. Like a tornado on the prairie, they burst into the Taco Bell where my wife and I were sharing some nachos. They crawled, giggling and squirming all over the booth where they were "corralled" in the loosest sense of the word. More napkins, more taco sauce, then straws and definitely more water, always more water. Their desperate errands propelled them from booth to drink machine to condiment counter in unceasing energy. Then, of course, there was the bathroom. There was hardly a single five-minute span in which one or two or more of those princesses was not sprinting to or from the bathroom at top speed. They were loud little fairies in flight, laughing, seething pixies in constant motion, and in the midst of them, sat my new hero.
On January 20, 2017, the United States of America will celebrate one of its most treasured values in a grand public ceremony. A new president will place his hand on the Bible and take the oath of office. It is a solemn, sacred and significant moment that is not really about the person being sworn in. The inauguration ceremony is actually about the most fundamental, non-negotiable value of this republic; the peaceful transfer of power subject to the will of the electorate according to a constitutionally established process.
In the more than two centuries of this nation's history every transfer of power came by ballots not bullets. No president ever seized power. No dictator ever came by the gun. Never in our history has some army colonel taken over the radio station and proclaimed himself "president for life." We have had our share of contentious elections but we have never had a coup d'etat.
Years ago in a season of great personal need, I longed for renewal in my prayer life. What I found was exactly what many have discovered: when prayer is most needed, the words are the hardest to find. How to start? What to say? What is even ok to ask for? I was stressed, afraid and less capable of effectual fervent prayer than I should have been. In desperation I turned to the Lord's Prayer (and a bit later, Psalm 23) and began a journey into its healing, restoring power. I have received blessings and healing in a 21-second prayer taught 2000 years ago by a Jewish rabbi. I did not so much take hold of the Lord's Prayer as it took hold of me. And it has never let me go. I pray it multiple times daily, often silently in meetings, while I drive and even at basketball games. By the way, you can pray the Lord's Prayer before the shot clock runs out.
I have likewise encouraged others to rediscover the Lord's Prayer. Many of them, with emotional wounds that hampered their lives, found inner healing in the Lord's Prayer. It seems to me that the habitual use of the Lord's Prayer, as good as that is, cannot be compared in effect to its healing power. Especially in combination with Psalm 23, the grace to forgive and to be forgiven, what King David called soul-restoration, is exactly what so many long for. I have seen so many utterly amazed to find it was there all the time, right there in the Lord's Prayer.
Biblical metaphors relative to the laws giving and receiving include no mention of grateful crows, but a little girl in Seattle, Washington has proven they might well have done so. Eight year old Gabi Mann began sharing part of her lunch with the crows each day. No surprise there, I suppose. Countless people show the birds a little love at back yard feeders and with popcorn in the park. Not many, however, experience any crow reciprocity.
In 1966 a fabulous comedy film, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! starred Brian Keith and Alan Arkin. The movie was a riotous jab at the prevailing Cold War tensions between Russia and the USA. The concept of the film was this. When a Russian submarine runs aground off the coast of New England some of the sailors must come ashore to steal a boat to tow the sub free. The ensuing clashes with the locals were a supremely funny look at the panic-stricken New Englanders and the equally frightened Russians.
The boogey man of the fifties and sixties was Russia. Indeed, they were enemies and they remain enemies. Vladimir Putin is no confused Russian sub-mariner comically terrified of as well as terrifying New England yokels. He is a ruthless dictator with one of, if not, the most powerful armies in the world.
Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” Likewise, the power of influence is virtually inexhaustible for as long as it remains silent. In the Book of Esther, three people at one time or another find favor in Xerxes’ eyes and influence his decision. At the end of the story, one is beloved, one is promoted and one is executed. The one executed was he who squandered his influence on self-promotion.
Imagine a scenario in which two widely known and well respected ministerial leaders have a serious conflict over which associate to hire, so serious in fact that they end their professional association and go their separate ways. Each then hires his own associate and they never work together again. Imagining such a story hardly stretches one's creativity. It reads exactly like the petty conflicts that rupture ministries and make for sad headlines in the modern Christian press.
However, that particular story of ministerial conflict is NOT modern. Two thousand years ago, Paul the Apostle and his sponsor and mentor, Barnabas, differed on whether to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. Both Paul and Barnabas had seen John Mark's pitiful failure on a previous journey. The young man had left the team in the lurch and gone home. Barnabas, the aptly-named encourager, wanted to scoop the youngster up off the sidewalk and give him a chance to redeem himself. Paul, however, was a type A choleric with NEVER GIVE AN INCH tattooed on his bicep.
Paul maintained that mollycoddling quitters was no way to do the dangerous and demanding work of first-century church building. Barnabas insisted that giving up on talented and anointed young people because of a failure was no way to do the difficult task of believer building. The conflict was beyond resolving and what had been designed as one mission team became two. Paul hired Silas and formed his own missionary team. Barnabas elected to "mollycoddle" John Mark.
Great leaders can have insurmountable differences of opinion and viewpoint. Both may still be great. Both may even be "right," and for that matter, both may be "wrong." The story of Paul and Barnabas is more than a cautionary tale about church squabbles. It affords some important insights.
In an article in The Mississippian Magazine (March 1922), William Faulkner lambasted Mark Twain as a "hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven surefire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy."
Notwithstanding his own undeniable literary prowess, why in the world Faulkner would have felt obliged to demean Twain's is beyond comprehension. Such smug dismissiveness of the talents of another is unbecoming to say the least. Beyond that our mean spirited criticisms of others do not make them look bad. They make us look bad. One must wonder what was going on inside Faulkner to make him write such a thing. I suspect it was a projected fear of being compared with Mark Twain's formidable place in the pantheon of American writers. Perhaps I should say, enviable place, for envy is at the back of most such petty attacks on the accomplishments of others.
Being measured against the greats who have gone before us may not be the pleasantest sensation in the world, but if we approach it with humility and a sense of humor it can actually make for an opportunity to shine. For some years I preached at Mt. Paran Church of God in tandem with one of the pulpit greats of all time, Dr. Paul Walker. Intimidating? You betcha!
One day another minister asked me in what I felt was a conspiratorial tone, "Do you think Walker is as great a preacher as they say?"
I believe in fasting. I also believe in feasting! Thanksgiving is all about the latter. A feast is a sacred gathering of joy, abundance and relationships. The Judeo-Christian culture recognizes that fasting, the discipline of self denial, is an important part of seeking and serving God at a deeper and more intimate level. Likewise our culture also embraces celebration as a real part of worshipful living.
This year at Thanksgiving I intend to celebrate. I mean it. CELEBRATE! I am going to rejoice with my family and enjoy a great feast and remember God's goodness and grace. I urge you to do the same. Feasting is a statement of faith because it slaps down hoarding which is a factor of fear. If I'm afraid that what I have, is all I'll ever have I tend to grasp it, parsimoniously doling out crumbs to make it last. If I can trust God for more, if I truly believe He will provide tomorrow as abundantly as He has for today, I can feast with joy. Of course, one cannot feast every day any more than one can fast every day. To everything there is a season. There is a time to fast. There is also a time to feast.