Road Trip Epiphanies

Road trip!  There was a time when those two words had a sense of great excitement for me.  I guess they still do under a certain set of circumstances.  But those circumstances do not include a trip that you make because you have to make, as opposed to one you want to make.  Nor if you choose to make it as quickly as possible, even if it means traveling every day.  Nor if it occurs in the dead of winter and in the midst of the dreaded snow and wintry mix.  Nor if you encounter subzero temperatures along the way. 

It being the season of Epiphany, however, I’ve been trying to find some of those “Aha!” moments that are what Epiphany is supposed to be about.  And I found them.  In spite of all the circumstances above, I got to spend it all in the company of my granddaughter.   I enjoyed that very much.  Then I wished I could do the same thing with each of my grandchildren.  I seldom get to spend one-on-one time with them, and never for almost a whole week.  But not in winter and not because we had to.  Maybe when we had more time.  One of my grandsons even posted on Facebook this week that he missed the day-long trips in the car listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Old Stewball was a race horse …. Coincidence?  I think not! 

We already had a very tight and demanding schedule, but then we were thrown a wicked curve that required an additional two-day stay and two more travel days.  But we had no choice, so we simply decided we’d have to make the best of it.  As it turned out, the delay will save us a repeat of the road trip in about five weeks and would delay our return home by two days.  Those two days gave the sun and the plows time to clear the roads of the 12+ inches of snow that fell on the day we originally would have been arriving home.  I’m not suggesting that God delayed things in order to provide us with those two benefits.  I don’t believe that God works like that.  But I do believe that life is a wonderfully complex journey that includes the interaction between choices we and others make and circumstances over which we have no control.  Very little in life does not have a whole continuum of pluses and minuses.  We get to pick the places in which we search for our “Aha!” moments.

 I had a major “Aha!” moment all by myself.  I went to get the car to bring it around and pick up my granddaughter at the entrance to the building.  The temperature was approaching Absolute Zero.  Ok.  Ok.  But it was cold.  And that wintry stuff was everywhere.  As I walked to the car, I stepped on a patch of clear ice.  My feet flew up in front of me as the rest of me started over backwards.  For a brief moment I found myself suspended parallel to and about three feet above the cold, hard, ice-packed parking lot.  Clearly a metaphor for life itself.  In that moment, I actually had the thought, “This is not going to end well.”  It didn’t take long for gravity to bring me down.  After all, I offer a pretty good target for gravity.  My landing was not gentle, and it knocked the breath out of me.  As I lay there trying to catch my breath, I was afraid to try and get up.  I was afraid that my hip, which had taken the brunt of my hard landing, would be broken. I took my time, moving slowly, and found that everything was functioning well.  At least as well as anything functions in my sixty-nine-year-old body.  I was a little sore, but as functional as I had been before the crash landing.  Just wait until tomorrow, I thought.  I’ll hurt in places I didn’t now I had places.  I was wrong.  A couple of additional tender spots the next morning, but nothing like I was worried about.  Sometimes things turn out as bad as you expect.  Or worse.  But sometimes, like this time, your worst fears are not realized.  Be grateful.  I was, and I am.

 The truth is any journey, including life, will have its good moments and its bad ones. Falls will come, but most of them could be worse. Storms are always around and can be dangerous, but virtually any storm could be worse than it was where you were.  Circumstances we cannot control will impact our journey in both positive and negative ways. The road trip we call life is full of all kinds of experiences, any of which – whether positive or negative – can be one of those “Aha!” moments. But you’ve got to be listening and expectant in order to hear. I am grateful. For life.  For all of its complexities.  For epiphanies. For those along on the journey. Grateful.  Maybe, in light of everything going on, that is the most significant epiphany of all.

Nothing Says Love Like…

 “Nothing says love like a sizzling steak!”

Over the years I have heard many words and phrases associated with love, particularly in the context of our nation’s fascination with the annual celebration of love known as Valentine’s Day.  So when I recently opened an email from a restaurant my wife and I frequent with the above quote as the tease, it got me thinking; what does truly communicate love?  While I do enjoy a good steak, and on occasion have probably remarked with affectionate language my appreciation for it, I believe that something more than a piece of beef expresses love.

Jesus spoke of love in terms of sacrifice and service.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”   (John 15:13 NRSV)  What does that really mean for the routines of daily living?  We often hear these words in the context of some heroic act when someone has given his or her life to save others.  Most of us will not find ourselves in that setting too often, if ever.  So hearing those words, we more often than not think in terms of our willingness to offer ourselves as a possibility and not a certainty.  It is much easier to love in that manner when it is simple hypothesis.   Perhaps we need to hear Jesus’ words in tandem with other words he offered in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:9-10 NRSV)

Right about now I’m thinking that embracing a sizzling steak as evidence of love sounds pretty good.  Nourishment, the engaging of all the senses in the act of consumption, the socialization that often is found around the dinner table…I love it!  As the consumer of the steak, little is required of me and love is a momentary reaction to a visceral craving.  Jesus speaks, however, of something more…obedience born not of slavish duty, but rather because of relationship that is established with the One he called “Father.”  Embracing God by embracing Jesus is a way of living that turns from the simple satisfaction of getting what I want, to the eternal truth of seeking what God desires.  “We love,” John wrote in I John 4:19, “because he (God) first loved us.”  The focus shifts from my ability to love, to God’s ability to love.  As in all great love stories, it is not then about me, but about the One who loves me.

Jesus lived this love before his disciples again and again in the gospels.  He spoke of the significance of intentionally placing one’s self last instead of first.  He took a towel and knelt to wash the dirty feet of his disciples and then told them they were to do the same.  And yes, he told them that the greatest manifestation of love was to give one’s life for another.  When God’s love is at work in our lives, we value others and ourselves differently.  We begin to see that love marks us in terms of obedience, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  No wonder we would rather consider a sizzling steak, or a dozen roses, or a box of chocolates as evidence of love; much less commitment…much less investment.

In the immediate aftermath of Valentine’s Day, 2014, whether you expressed your love through a box of chocolates, a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a piece of jewelry or even a nice dinner with a sizzling steak, don’t be too hard on yourself.  These are perfectly acceptable expressions.  However, recognizing that love isn’t an annual expression, perhaps you and I might consider anew the words and actions of Jesus who calls us to follow his example of love through sacrifice, service, and obedience.   I am giving you these commands,” Jesus said, “so that you may love one another.”  That is the greatest gift of all!

Jim Abernathy

Myth Busters. Myth #6: Servant Leadership is Inherently Christian

Christians of various denominations and theological convictions seem to have fallen in love with servant leadership.  Books on the biblical foundations of servant leadership have proliferated, and countless seminars and workshops have been conducted.  This sudden and explosive popularity of servant leadership can be explained in part by the widespread impression that it has been taken directly from the Gospels.  After all, Jesus implored those of his disciples who wanted to be great in His Kingdom to be servants to others.  He gave them an example by washing their feet.  In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that servant leadership is effective in delivering profits, as the often cited example of Southwest airlines supposedly confirms.  And what can be better than leading like Jesus while reaping spiritual and financial benefits and thus bringing a powerful witness to those in the workplace who are not Christian?

Those who hold that servant leadership is inherently biblical may be surprised to learn that it did not originate from the Bible.  As it stands, it has its beginnings in the writings of Robert Greenleaf, a long time AT&T executive and management consultant.  In building his theory in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century, Greenleaf drew his inspiration from various sources, primarily from Journey to the East, a novel by Herman Hesse.  Leo, the main character, exemplifies the servant leader: in leading a group on the journey, he does menial chores and sustains the group spiritually.  Greenleaf defines the servant leader as the one who feels the call to serve first, and then lead.  He does not give the list of servant leader characteristic in a neat bullet point format, but names listening, understanding, imagination (paired with language), withdrawal, acceptance, empathy, intuitive knowledge beyond conscious rationality, foresight, awareness, perception, persuasion, action (phrased as “one action at a time”), conceptualizing, healing and serving.  Imagination, intuition, foresight, awareness, ability to persuade, perception, conceptualizing and ability to take action are important for any kind of leader, not just for servant leader, and the quality of serving is tautological.  We are left with listening, understanding, withdrawal, acceptance, empathy and healing.  These qualities are distinctly therapeutic, and servant leadership as originally conceived basically turns leader into a therapist.

A few years before Greenleaf penned his theory Philip Rieff published his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  In this volume, Rieff predicted a seminal shift in Western culture: in a relatively short time it would be permeated with a therapeutic mindset.  No longer would family, church, political party or nation provide spiritual guidance.  That role would be assumed by hospitals and therapists.  The religious person is born to be saved, but the therapeutic person is born to be pleased.  “I believe” would transition into “I feel,” and saints as a cultural ideal would be substituted by Everyman looking to get rid of extraneous institutional shackles in order to achieve the true self-realization by endless self-exploration and catering to his desires.  Rieff’s book turned out prophetic in some important respects and Greenleaf’s theory appears to be a byproduct of that rush to shift into a therapeutic culture.  So, the question of whether servant leadership is inherently Christian hinges on another question, namely, whether the therapeutic mindset of modern Western culture can be integrated into Christian faith without fundamentally altering the latter.  It is exceedingly challenging to see how that could be accomplished.

There is another quality of servant leadership that many Christians find appealing, and that is simplicity.  In this day and age of short attention spans, leadership gurus, including Christian ones, feel the pressure to give simple, almost bumper sticker solutions to complex issues, such as the nature of leadership.  Servant leadership, or at least the way it is often presented, seems to fit the bill, and offering simple solutions to complex problems tends to rake in clients and finances.  But does it deliver real solutions?  The exact stats are hard to come by, so let me offer the following three considerations: an empirical one, a philosophical one and a theological one.

First, I will broach the empirical.  After forty plus years of numerous books and countless workshops on leadership in general, and servant leadership in particular, is there evidence that the quality of leadership in this country has improved?  I have had a chance to ask this question in numerous settings, and almost invariably it has been met with laughter signifying that the negative answer is rather obvious.

Second, I will explore the philosophical.  Life is complex and resistant to humanity’s attempts to fit it into the Procrustean bed of simple schemata. H.L. Menken’s words, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” ring true of many efforts at populist oversimplification, including those in leadership theory.  A viable theology of leadership needs to have a sufficient complexity to it enable it to deal with various intricate leadership issues presented by modern culture.

Last, but not least, the theological.  Throughout church history, church fathers staunchly resisted attempts to simplify Christian theology by watering down, or even doing away altogether with its complexity.  Efforts to remove tensions between the human and divine natures of Christ, the indivisibility and distinctness of these natures and between singularity and multiplicity of the Trinity by removing one of the poles have been uniformly rebuffed as heretical.  This theological posture should serve as a warning to many Christian leaders today as they are tempted to lift up a given dimension of theology of leadership and make it the whole of leadership theory.  That holds true even in cases when the dimension so lifted up is a crucially important one, such as service.

The above mentioned words of Jesus need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and an authentic Christian theology of leadership must have a robust service dimension to it.  At the same time, these words must not be used either to baptize a modern therapeutic mindset or circumvent the hard work needed for working out a viable theology of leadership capable of making a difference in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.

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