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Courageous Leadership
A Meditation for Epiphany
Peter Kerry Powers

Epiphany is a season of hope and newness, a celebration of the light of God’s revelation in human form, not only so we could see and touch the divine in our own bodies, but also so that we could know that God is with us and knows us as we are. The wise men, Simeon blessing the Christ child in the temple, the baptism, the first miracles of Jesus: all of these speak to us of the excitement of new beginnings and the promise of fulfillment. Perhaps too, these images suffer from the curse of their familiarity. In our rehearsals of revelation, we forget just how counterintuitive, even radical, the upside down images of Epiphany really are. We see in them the promise of future triumph and forget that Christ’s kingship in the world takes many forms; last of all does it take the form of any kingship with which we are familiar.

Last year during the season of Epiphany, I was asked to speak on the topic “Courageous Leadership” to a meeting of our Board of Trustees at Messiah College. Leadership is in vogue. New programs promising to teach everyone to be the leader they were meant to be are spreading like kudzu across the landscape of higher education. Programs in the liberal arts sell the fact that they build leaders for tomorrow, and summer camps teach leadership to thirteen-year-olds. Although the virtue of courage seems somewhat more quaint and Victorian, something better left to the poems of Tennyson, the idea of “courageous leadership” has also been enjoying a vogue. Among Christians, perhaps this is a result of Bill Hybels’s 2002 book by that name; among business leaders, perhaps because of the continuing trauma of the financial meltdown and recession; and among those of us in higher education, because of our pressing sense that we are in a perpetual crisis of reinvention, if not dissolution. When times are bad—either for a religion that worries it may be in retreat, or for a college fighting to convince constituencies of its value proposition—we feel the need for both courage and leadership. Indeed, the term “courageous leadership” seems somewhat tied to times of crisis, if Google’s Ngram viewer can be counted on for anything. Barely registering prior to the turn of the twentieth century, it began an ascent during World War I and reached dizzying heights of attention during and immediately after World War II. Crisis calls, it seems, for courageous leadership.

About the time I was asked to speak, I was given other reasons to think on courage, how it is manifested in our lives, and perhaps what it might mean for us as Christians and for colleges worried about their own survival. On December 28, 2014, my first grandnephew was born to my nephew John and his wife Kathryn, born pre-term at twenty-four weeks, five days. For several months, he lived in an intensive care unit at the University of Oklahoma. A day after his birth, I received this email from John:

My son is named James Courage Powers. He was named so, not because we thought he’d need it so soon, but simply because I’ve been reading a lot of Puritans these days and Courage seemed like a wonderful quality in the form of a Puritan name. Being a somewhat timid person, I thought I would like to give my son some encouragement in the form of a good Puritan name that was a noun, but not a proper noun! It seems destined now. He was born at 24 weeks and 5 days. Entirely too early for a human to be outside his mother. He will need courage because with this kind of start, nothing can be assumed about the future, even an hour from now.

Nothing can be assumed about the future, even an hour from now. In that realization, James Courage and his family have come to incarnate courage for me over this past year, as I have wondered what it must be to exercise courage even before this child could know or respond to his own name, as the family continues to face a still uncertain future. I have wondered what this courage, the courage of a child struggling for breath, a child no bigger than the palm of his father’s hand, might mean for me or for us.

I am easily drawn, I admit, to images of courage and of leadership that are in the heroic masculine style. As a kid, I loved biographies of great historical figures, most of them written to reflect the “Great Man” theory of history. In pop culture, I have no interest in being a Hobbit but am more drawn to characters like Aragorn and Gandalf, astride a horse and charging fearlessly into battle. I love Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the lone man of virtue resists evil and saves the day. I grew up on the portentous Sunday afternoon recaps of NFL legends narrated by John Facenda for NFL films, a man described by peers as “The Voice of God.” Indeed, I suspect an entire generation of men came of age like me, narrating our life stories in Facenda’s sonorous baritone, the music of Sam Spence’s “The Power and The Glory” pulsing in the background as we attacked our keyboards and conquered our cubicles.

Yet, looking at our Christian stories and at the example of my grandnephew James Courage, I wonder if this is the kind of courage that God appears most ready and eager to use in furthering his purposes. Indeed, the Bible seems filled with leaders who are singularly unheroic, misguided, and mistake prone. King David was the least likely prospect for leadership among his brothers, and while we remember his slain ten thousands, among those thousands was Uriah the Hittite, the husband of Bathsheba. My namesake, Peter, was a rock, but less admirable is his failure in the courtyard while Jesus was mocked and beaten, and his efforts to placate traditionalists in the earliest moments of the church’s evangelism were rebuked by the apostle Paul. The apostles quaked in the upper room. Thomas doubted. From Noah to Abraham to the Apostle Paul, we look at Biblical leaders and are mostly impressed by what a motley crew they really were. We aspire after their successes. Aspire to be as they were. But perhaps in our hearts we know that in their doubts and in their sins, in their half-heartedness, they were as we are.

The word “courage” is related in English to the word “core,” and both words trace their roots to the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart,” thus the English colloquialism, “take heart.” The Latin Vulgate translates Acts 1:22 with the term “cor meum” to describe David as a man after God’s own heart. Latin has other possibilities. The word “robus” also means heart and is at the root of our word robust. In Latin, “robus” speaks to military prowess and physical strength; it connotes hardness or firmness, things we certainly associate with courage. By contrast, the word “cor” connotes terms such as “mind,” “soul,” or “spirit,” as well as terms like “intellect” and “judgment.” My favorite: in some Latin texts the term could be translated as the rough equivalent of our term “sweetheart,” a term of dear and intimate affection. When we hear God saying that David was a man after God’s own heart, we are hearing, in the distant echoing way that only poetry can achieve, that David is a man whom God loves and in whom God delights. David is God’s sweetheart, his intimate, a man held at God’s center, and there could surely be no higher name.

This is the season of Epiphany, and in this season we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. We also celebrate stories and images that suggest God’s understanding of leadership and fulfillment is very different from our own. The three sages saw their king in a little child, not in powerful Herod. John the Baptist submitted his own leadership to Jesus, and Jesus submitted to the baptism of John. Samuel is anointed as a prophet displacing Eli. If you are in a liturgical church, one of the principal feasts of this season is that of the Presentation, where we celebrate the recognition of Jesus by Simeon and by the prophet Anna who had waited for him their entire lives. From Luke Chapter 2:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

We affirm as Christians with Isaiah that

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

But perhaps we don’t believe this vision fully applies to us, something we reserve for another day, a future of God’s making. Yet in the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus resting in the arms and next to the heart of his mother Mary, was fully God and fully human. And as he was taken into the arms and rested next to the heart of Simeon, recognized as God’s salvation, not in some future tense, but in the present, he was fully God and fully human. In this child, in his vulnerability and in his weakness we recognize the one whom we follow, our perfection, and our hearts deepest desire.

So it may be that like David, we are courageous not by our great deeds or by the perfection of our strategies and policies, certainly not by the perfection of our virtues, and perhaps not even by our bravery, at least not as we usually conceive of it. Rather, to be courageous is to be in love. To be courageous is to be God’s intimate with all the vulnerability and need that can imply, like my grandnephew James Courage resting in his father’s palm. To be courageous is not, for the Christian, to ride outward with spiritual swords drawn to confront enemies both real and imagined. To be courageous is to ride inward toward God’s love for us and all living beings.

To be courageous, to be full of heart, is to begin by finding ourselves in the palm of God’s hand, drawn close to the center of God’s love for us. Returning to that center, we find that our courage is not in our sufficiency but in our need and vulnerability, fulfilled only in the love that God has for us. May it be our prayer this day and every day that our courage will not be the courage of heroes defending the keep, but that it will be the courage of Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but came to us not as a hero but as a child.

Amen.

 

Peter Kerry Powers is Dean of the School of the Humanities at Messiah College.

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