The flappy shirt

Hand of drowning manWe have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom, but according to God’s grace. 2 Corinthians 1:12

My friend Robby has a plaque in his office that says, “The leader knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” A lot of people know the way, but don’t consistently go that way before they start trying to show others the way. Nobody’s perfect; we’ll all stumble and fall but there’s an irreducible minimum of personal holiness that’s required for the spiritual servant leader. Jesus said, “I sanctify myself that they too may be sanctified” (John 17). People are more apt to do what you do more than do what you say they ought to do. You may be a shepherd, but first you’re a sheep. You have to follow the Great Shepherd before you can tell others how to follow Him.

It takes more than charisma to lead people in the Jesus way. Oswald Chambers wrote, “It’s an easy business to preach – an appallingly easy thing to tell other people what to do. It is another thing to have God’s message turned into a boomerang.” In Paul’s qualifications for elders and deacons in Timothy and Titus, you’ll notice that, with the exception of “able to teach,” all the things he lists are personal obedience issues – above reproach, self-control, respectable, etc.      

Have you personally been exposed to the fallout of a fallen spiritual leader and the collateral damage that attends it? Then you know that pretty much everyone loses when a leader falls into adultery, theft, lying, and or any number of other practices that ruin the soul.

For several weeks during my bone marrow transplant I had to be hospitalized. In addition to the usual patient identification bracelet on my left wrist, for the right they gave me a bright yellow plastic bracelet that simply said in bold letters, “FALL RISK.” In other words, “Watch this guy – he’s wobbly, and can’t be trusted while on his feet. He could fall at any time.” It meant that when I was taken out of my isolation room for tests, lest I fall over in the hall and give them more to treat than what I was in there for originally, I had to be transported in a wheel chair. Nobody wanted that, so they designated me a, “Fall Risk.”

We’re all “Fall Risks” as we do our best to walk with Jesus. All of us are at risk of falling, of tripping up on temptation, and doing any number of things stupid things that make the Lord unhappy. And if you don’t think you are at risk of falling, then you are in the most danger of doing just that. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12) Maybe this will catch on as the new Christian bracelet, replacing the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) with, “FALL RISK!” Probably not.

The Dream (part 1): “The Flappy Shirt”

Some years ago I had a dream that I believe was generated from the Lord. In the dream I was swimming in a public pool, and an obese teenage boy playfully jumped on my back, expecting me to carry him across to the other side. I’m a very good swimmer (in the non-dream world, that is), and took him up on the challenge. But he proved too big a test, even for my aquatic prowess, and together we began to sink. I stroked frantically, gasping for air, until we finally arrived at the pool wall. I got the boy off my back and anxiously caught my breath. I was exhausted and terrified from our near-drowning escapade!

The boy, not nearly as traumatized as I, sprang up and said, “Let’s do it again!” At that, he jumped on my back again and we were repeating the former insanity! For some insane reason I complied, and before long I was again gasping for oxygen while swimming with all my might. This time there was another factor that made our hope of survival even more untenable. While fighting to stay above water, with a heavy teenage boy on my back, I was wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt. If the attire itself weren’t enough, the shirt was unbuttoned and un-tucked! It was flapping in the water, tangling around my flailing arms, making the irrational trek even crazier. Half way across the pool I woke up out of my dream in a sweaty terror. The dream itself was over, but left unfinished. I was enormously relieved to be awake and back in the real world, but was left hanging about the outcome of the foolhardy swim.

Through it the Lord made clear to me two distinct spiritual lessons. The first one had to do with the “flappy shirt, which clearly” represented compromise with sinful activity. It was a warning from the Lord about getting tangled up with unhealthy and impure habits.

Tucking the shirt in and buttoning it was an option, but the obvious need was to shed myself of it altogether. I could try, I felt the Lord saying to me, to minimize sin’s impediment, like fastening the shirt more tightly on my body. But discarding it altogether is the obvious call. It’s a no-brainer that even the best of swimmers can’t swim his best impeded by a shirt, let alone a flappy one, especially when trying to swim for two.

Spiritual leadership, the Spirit showed me, without purity is insanity. My role was to try to help people not drown, but if I’m tangled up in sin, I’ll drown along with them!

The part about “swimming for two” is the other lesson from the dream. Look for that next time…

This is part of my longer essay called, “Learning Leadership Lessons from 2 Corinthians.” If you’re interested to read more you can find it here

In the meantime, if you have a friend who’s a spiritual leader that would benefit from this, why don’t you share this with them and invite them into a conversation with you about it?

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