The Legacy of Leaping
Speech Delivered to the National Pastor’s Conference, Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, October 2005
Former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite writers. After George Bush was first elected she wrote a column titled, “Happy Leader, Happy Nation.” Her main premise was that despite what may come to define Bush’s Presidency, if a President is happy, the nation is happy. Reagan and Clinton both exuded a “pride of place” and were men who despite unpopular policies and personal behaviors, won over the nation because they were “wild about the job.” For a quotidian illustration, she writes about a street juggler named Serge. He smiles and juggles and juggles and smiles while all the while he’s about the pointless act of throwing tennis rackets in the air. Why does she include a street juggler in her article about presidents? Because she says no matter who you are and what you do, “There is nothing so grand in all the world as watching a person who loves what he does, do it.”
King David’s political memoirs in the Old Testament are the words of someone who loves to be King. He tells of the drama of what it means to be human and King, its pains and losses, glories and breached confidences. When we read about a man who can say, “By you I can crush a troop and by you I can leap over a wall,” we read about a man who is, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “in the arena,” cast in the nation’s center where leadership bears not the mark of glory but also darkness and isolation. This is our human condition, and what we choose to do about it as leaders in elected office, the church, our nation’s classrooms or streets makes all the difference in and to the world.
As a Seminarian, I walk side by side as a Student Pastor with its leader. I think about leadership all the time, whether I am engaged in Calvin’s Institutes or Shultz’s Peanuts. Traits and situations count I tell myself, but after my own political career in Washington, D.C., I’ve learned it’s not the overriding factor. What matters is if we know about ourselves what Quindlen knows to be true about Serge: how to smile and juggle and juggle and smile, despite what befalls us.
My pastor Dr. W. Terry Schoener asked me to speak before you today about Seminary. Seminary is holy ground, at least for me. It’s where God trains God’s leaders. Here ancient texts come to life and we are called out of the world and into a sacred vacuum only to re-enter the world when we earn our last credit, as if a set of divine parentheses surround our matriculation. Here inside the parentheses we live out pieces of King David’s drama wherein notions of truth, justice, compassion and mercy are hyper-exaggerated for our inspection. The profane and pious, temporal and eternal converge in textbooks and in our daily student experience. We watch David’s dance with pride and providence as we live out our own, and we learn how and when to rely on our own traits and how and when to draw near to God and rely on His. Mostly, we learn what it’s like to delight in God.
If we are honest most of us identify more with the David who didn’t leap over a wall but the David who fell before it. We find ourselves not after God’s own heart but after the hearts of the ones we need to please, whether it be our Presbytery committee or Church Elders. Sit down to lunch at a Seminary round table and you’ll not hear about delight in God but about hurdles to get the leadership position to talk about God. Speak little and carry a pen and you can take notes on how to study for Ordination exams, where to find old tests, what groups to join to dissect faith statements and how to sit properly poised before examination of your Presbytery lest you fail. Because of this, most of us don’t think about how to leap over walls but how to straddle them. As we are asked to secure our pride and position in the face of scrutiny, we find we forget the only thing we ought to secure is our own humility.
When David fell, he learned how to balance piety and position, duck spears, crush troops and leap over walls – not by his own doing but by God’s. Girded with nothing more than linen, he performed his most glorious act as a leader: he danced madly for the Lord. David learned how to smile and juggle and juggle and smile while all the while the brokenness of the world turned inside and around him and he turned upside down for God.
There is much to learn from David’s life and the infallibility of eyes that look backwards over a career as I and other Seminarians look forward to ours. Last week I asked Pastor Schoener if it will be hard to retire. He told me the hardest part will be to end what he called his “happy habit,” those mornings he poured coffee and wrote sermons. Over the last two years as his assistant, I’ve watched a man move in and out of meetings, visit the sick, heal the broken hearted, and teach his intern: me. What did I learn? All the while the brokenness of the world turns and he handles it with a Serge-like grace. With each new obstacle, he smiles and juggles and juggles and smiles.
An ancient text is brought to life for me because of it and because of Terry I now know how to leap over walls despite what befalls me. My success will rest not on my traits nor situation nor even my Seminary degree, but whether or not I pass on the legacy of leaping, as David did for all of us and Terry for me. My success as a leader will be determined by whether or not there is someone in my midst who watches me lead and says to themselves as he or she watches, “There is nothing so grand in all the world as watching a person who loves what she does, do it.”