Chris de Vinck remembers how his daughter, Karen, learned to ride her bicycle alone:
"We began in the early fall," he said. "Karen and I. I took her training wheels off, but she insisted that I grasp the handlebar and the seat as we walked around the court."
"I'll just let go for a second, Karen."
"No!" she insisted . . . .
After a few weeks Karen was comfortable enough with my letting the handlebar go, but I still had to clasp the rear of the seat.
"Don't let go, Daddy."
Halloween. Thanksgiving. The leaves disappeared. We spent less and less time practicing. Wind. Cold. Winter. I hung Karen's bicycle on a nail in the rear of the garage. . . . Christmas. . . New Year's Eve. . .
And then a sudden warm spell. [On one of those unseasonably warm days] I found Karen in the garage trying to unhook her bicycle. I walked [over] and lifted the bicycle off the nail.
"I love my bicycle, Daddy."
She hopped on as I pushed her across the crushed stones of our driveway to the street. I gave her a slight shove. "Let go, Daddy!" And Karen wobbled, shook, laughed, and pedaled off as I stood alone watching her spin those wheels against the blacktop.
. . . I wanted to run to Karen, hold the seat of her bicycle, hold on to her handlebars, have her dark hair brush against my cheeks. Instead I kept shouting, "Keep pedaling, Karen! Keep pedaling!" and then I applauded (Christopher de Vinck, Only the Heart Knows Where to Find Them. New York: Viking, 1991, pp. 124-126).
We're often like Karen--novices, trainees, and beginners. Maybe we're learning a new skill, taking-up a new practice, starting a new job, enrolling in a new school, moving to a new community, or connecting to a new church. We feel the awkwardness of growth and the anticipation of change.
Perhaps we're not so much beginning as beginning again: starting over after failure or disappointment, reengaging with ordinary life after illness or grief sidelined us for a season, or exploring fresh possibilities after being mired in swampy sameness. We feel the surprise of grace and the joy of renewal.
Beginning, or beginning again, we're like Karen; and we need for someone to believe in us, to hold on to us until we're ready to go it alone, and to cheer for us even after we're on the way. We need, in other words, someone like Chris, someone who guides, helps, and mentors us. Another way to say it is that all of us need leaders--people who envision our possibilities and encourage us to claim them, who nurture our potential and help us to realize it, and people who teach and model the joy which comes from being authentically oneself and fully alive.
Who has been that kind of leader for you? Your mother or father, your grandmother or grandfather? A friend's mom or dad? Your football coach or tennis instructor or choir or band director? Your 7th grade social studies teacher or college English professor or church Bible study leader? A boss who took an interest in you early on? A minister who was there for you at a pivotal time in your life?
Whether or not they have official positions and titles and whether or not anyone besides us recognizes them, real leaders help us to believe that life can be abundant and free. They encourage us to trust that we can always begin, or begin again, no matter what has happened to us, no matter what we have done, and no matter what we have failed to do.
Most of us find it to be true that with some people we're like Chris, while with others we're like Karen. We both nurture and are nurtured. That's as it should be; after all, we need help, even after we become helpers. We're seekers and guides, learners and teachers. We're wounded and we are healers. We lead and we follow.
In an essay about the 2000 presidential election, David Foster Wallace wondered why so many potential voters, especially younger ones, seemed so "uninterested in politics." He concluded that more than anything else younger people found politics boring and disheartening. They were bored by talking heads who seemed to say nothing that mattered. They were cynical about people who talked about public service but who seemed to be in it for themselves. They were disappointed, because there were looking for genuine leaders and all they were finding were opportunists.
Wallace ventured this description of authentic leadership:
A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own. It's a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids . . . . Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn't be able to if there weren't this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please . . . . In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006, pp. 224-225].
Ephesians 4 is, in part, about the real leaders which the church needs--people who can catalyze followers of Jesus "to do better, harder things" than we are likely to do on our own. Verses 11-13 tell us, in quick, summary fashion, about some of the people whom God has given to lead the church: "The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers"
Some church leaders are, this text tells us, like the "apostles"--they're men and women whose experience with Jesus Christ is so immediate that their minds reflect his light and their hearts radiate his warmth. They have an authenticity and an urgency which comes from their experience with Jesus. Some are "prophets": they are able to discern the sometimes subtle intersections of God's word with the world, have eyes to see the signs and ears to hear the whispers of God's presence, and have the ability to put their visions and intuitions into words. Others are "evangelists": they are such trustworthy embodiments of good news--such magnetic examples of faith, hope, and love--that they attract people to the Jesus who is at the heart of their own lives. Still others are "pastor-teachers": they have a tender and tenacious concern for the people entrusted to their care. They combine compassion and wisdom; they offer truth tempered with love and love strengthened by truth.
The text also describes the work God calls those leaders to do: equip the saints for the work of ministry, build up the body of Christ, help people to become like Jesus. Equipping involves training. Leaders offer people experiences which help them turn their gifts into skills, their talents into practices, their passions into actions, and their concerns into disciplines. Equipping as training is an indispensable part of a church's ministries of Christian education and spiritual formation.
Equipping is more than training, however. More deeply, equipping is about restoration and healing. The word equip in our text comes from an interesting family of Greek words which describe, among other things, the setting of broken bones during surgery, fostering healing, and working for rehabilitation.
This same family of words makes an appearance in the Gospel of Matthew's account of Jesus' calling Galilean fisher-folk to be his followers. When Jesus invited James and John to the adventure of discipleship, they were "in the boat with their father, mending their nets." (Matthew 4:21) Mending is from this same family of words, so mending and equipping are related, which means that to equip is to weave back together the frayed edges of life, to repair brokenness rather than to write-off the broken, and to restore rather than discard the shattered. It is to help people trust that in spite of what life has done to them and with them they can be useful again.
This understanding of equipping means that leadership involves a crucial dimension of healing and restoration. All of us have experiences which rend and tear us; we all have times when fatigue or failure tempts us to give up on ourselves. Leaders recognize that, sometimes, what people most need is not to refine their skills or to avail themselves of more training. Instead, what they need are grace and mercy, renewal and confidence. They need to know that it's always possible to begin or to begin again.
As I've worked with this text, the refrain of a John Mayer song has been echoing in my spirit: "I'm in repair, I'm not together but I'm getting there." [Continuum, Columbia Records, 2006] In repair, not together, but getting there--those words describe all of us. None of us is completely together, unflawed and whole. But by God's restoring grace and with one another's encouragement, we're getting there. Mercy has us in repair; hope has us on the journey.
Let us pray: Loving God, your heart overflows with compassion. Bind-up the broken, mend the torn, and restore the despairing. Help us to be for one another sources of light and encouragement, so that, together, we may live in the energy and hope of the good news; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.