Steps

It was 1989 and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. To the envy of every good and young adventurer, I was privileged to be sitting upon it when it did. Armed with a sledgehammer and spray paint (more about that later) we carved out a memory that would last a lifetime. The end of the soviet era came crumbling down and I was honored to have played a role in it, one hammer throw after another. I still treasure the barbed wire and slabs of the wall that I was able to transport home in my carry-on luggage, a pre-9/11 luxury that we will never see again. Many were the lessons of that night, but there was one in particular; getting robbed at knifepoint. In the midst of the excitement and speed of the soviet fall, entrepreneurialism fell upon the region just as hard and fast. Allow me to explain.

From the time that the wall began to teeter until the moment the first slab hit the ground in a swirl of soviet dust, vendors sprung up selling souvenirs, pieces of concrete, key chains and of course hammers. It was as if they were just below the surface of the earth and with the thud of the first slab of concrete, they sprung forth in mid-sentence selling their wares. It was a rented sledgehammer that plays center stage in my story. You see, my friend Greg and I rented a pair of them to leave our mark on history. At the first sign of crumble, the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism drove dozens of future ex-soviet tycoons to purchase sledgehammers and rent them out so that every tourist in Europe could stake claim to a portion of the previously infamous barrier to freedom. Genius!

Fast forward.

By the end of the evening, pockets full of concrete and barbed wire, we began walking to the place where we were going to return our sledgehammers. That’s when it happened! An obviously late-to-the-party and disgruntled would-be entrepreneur accosted me with a knife. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it was a knife with an attitude behind it. I’m guessing he went to the local hardware store to fulfill his entrepreneurial dreams and found that they had sold out of sledgehammers, so he decided to steal a few so that he too could open his “tools of destruction” franchise.

This was one of those moments where a rush of things happen in a microsecond and life gets crystal clear. I know that what follows is going to seem like too much information to process in a second, but they are the crystal clear thoughts that rushed through my mind which allowed me to make some good decisions. You see, my assailant was about 5′-5″ tops and I am 6′-4″. He had a little knife at the end of a short arm. I had a sledgehammer at the end of mine. He had a nervous, desperate demeanor and I had a clear path to his destruction. You see, when it comes to fight-or-flight, the younger—less sanctified—me didn’t do the flight thing very well. With the length of my arms and the added 18″ of the sledgehammer, my new friend was going to fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. He was in the danger zone, not me! He would need to take two of three full steps before I would have been in any danger, plenty of time for me to end his run. That’s when…

Spray paint.

I told you I would pick up on this later… Great timing, right?! Anyway, prior to our bludgeoning the wall with our sledgehammers, Greg and I purchased several cans of spray paint. In our thinking, the wall was coming down, there was media coverage everywhere, so we stayed ahead of the falling slabs of concrete with holy graffiti proclaiming the Word of God. We were creating Berlin Wall sized gospel tracts that the world would see on CNN. It was fun. Now, I don’t recommend graffiti generally, but hey, each slab was coming down in minutes… whom would it hurt? It was an opportunity for the world to see some powerful scriptures being painted by crazy Americans in a frenzied Germany. Sometimes life just moves quickly…

Clarity.

Returning to our would-be musketeer with his little sword. He is now twitching… Really! Ready to attack. In that moment, after all the thoughts about his size and mine, arm length, weapons, angle of attack, strike position, and aftermath, I though about the last scripture I had painted on the wall, John 3:16. Yes it’s true. I wondered who may have seen me paint that scripture and might also see me turn my new friend into a tent peg. I thought about the new me that Father had created only five years earlier and I let the sledgehammer go limp in my hand, handing it to this thief. That was tough! But I learned something valuable, that the war of the flesh can teach us important life lessons.

I have learned much from that experience so many years ago. I continue to ruminate over it regularly. Mostly, I am glad I did the right thing so that I pleased Father. Secondly, I am glad because I might still be rotting in a ex-Russian now German prison (smile/wink).

Allow me to share my latest thoughts about that amazing moment. Sometimes the best action in leadership is to take the stance of knowing the current reality intimately and acting on what is best to do in the greater picture even though your gut tells you differently. From our thief’s perspective, the right thing to do was to take two or three very clear steps toward his goal. From my perspective, it meant evaluating the situation and acting on what was best for all parties. It’s an easy thing in leadership to walk without strategy—taking steps—hoping it will all work out… At least you’ll be shown to be busy. That approach would have cost our thief some serious pain. It’s a harder thing in leadership to shelve your impulses and review all relevant data, applying it to your immediate context, and then acting strategically. It is a less visceral response, and it is ultimately and usually the correct one. The first is birthed of urgency and the other of importance. To him, his attack was urgent, my response, important.

As I process this line of thinking more, I am reminded how we are culturally inundated with immediate gratification solutions to every conceivable situation. I believe we are deeply harmed by this as a society. Nothing good comes quick, easy and without thought. Doing the right thing is hard, not easy. It is slow, not fast.

As an individual in a culture of progress, commercialism and immediate gratification it is increasingly easy to fall into a plug-and-play mentality as it pertains to everyday life. However, as leaders, we must be on guard with advisors who appeal to such approaches in our pursuit of transformational change. Lasting, impactful change cannot be achieved so easily. Think about the quickstep books that have invaded our leadership development and church planting culture. Transformational change demands a familiarity with one’s personal current reality and no book can provide that context. Each of us possesses books in our library that have titles like:

Twelve Dynamic Steps to Success
The Eight Practices for Transformation
Ten Principals for Renewal

Am I saying that such books have no value whatsoever? No. Only that our dependence upon them, or the expectation we place upon their methodologies have to be weighed. In them, you will not find your Aha. The Aha comes with a deep understanding of your immediate context. Steps without clear objectives can be hazardous. Think about the two steps that my 5′-5″ musketeer was going to take. Two steps to tragedy. I’ve done the research. Here are some other steps that may help drive the point home.

Eleven steps to the end of the plank on a pirate ship.
One step out of bounds at the half-yard line.
135 steps for a dead man walking at sing-sing prison.

Think about this; steps without strategy are dangerous. As a leader appointed by Father, you have an obligation to think strategically, to define and engage your current situation, to get the facts, counsel, and numbers. Measure everything. Rely on His voice. React to the important before the urgent, and show yourself approved.

Flying Elvis

Tension leads to Release

There is something very powerful about a release, whether it be edifying or destructive. There is that moment when all the harnessed energy comes to the point where inaction is no longer possible, it releases, and the tension is gone. Even if it is destructive, this flash of release is gratifying. However, the moments that follow are what determine whether or not the release causes additional stress or bliss.

Like the archer in slow motion who grasps her bow. She grips it in her support hand in just the right position. She knows as soon as she picks it up whether or not it will need adjustment. Even though her eyes are fixed on the bow, the mind is fixed on the target, the distance, the trajectory, the wind, crowd, competition, results, consequences, muscle response, pain, equipment, pull, tension and ultimately, release. A flurry of senses, thoughts, calculations all happen at a subconscious level and the bow has not even been raised. Eventually, it is, and muscle memory brings extreme tension, calculated mental action, and reaction, and then release. If all is well accomplished the arrow will strike center.

A few years ago I was in Orlando Florida, and as I so often find myself, I was sitting at the desk in my hotel room rummaging through the paperwork of the day and the tension demanded release. I jumped up with a start and remember murmuring to myself; “I am so out of here!” You see, there comes a time as a leader when the fog of data and systems clouds the creative response. Hear me! In those moments it is time for your creative pause, it is time to check out. It is time to let the subconscious go to work and you need to go and play. It is not an option.

Drive… No Direction

Thrust into action with only one thought–getting on the highway and seeing where it would lead–I found myself in Kissimmee. I turned off the highway and began driving small gravel roads as if pushed forward by the tension of the hotel room and the earlier meetings of the day. There I was, glancing side to side, looking for a yard sale, a flea or farmers market, something brainless. That’s when it happened. As I rounded a long sweeping turn between small homes on large parcels, I broke through the trees and my eyes and mind were drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I was on an airstrip of beautiful green grass. “Oh yeah!” I muttered underneath my breath, “Play Time!” There was definitely fun to be found here.

Walking into a glorified shed with a sign above the door that identified its offering as “Glider Rides,” and after reading the necessary disclaimers and a release of liability, I took my pen and signed my life away to an old friend named New Experiences. Little did I realize the adventure would reflect the events of the day so closely.

Systems Birth Stress

The tension began to increase as I signed the release of liability. Basically, I was putting my life into the hands of a bearded Neanderthal of a man I had just met, and if I die, says the release, it’s on me.

Cool! No tension there!?!

With a grunt, he leads me out into a field and to his glider which looks like it was built back when Elvis was overweight, sweaty, dressed in white leather with red stripes and could barely walk the stage. In fact, this antique reminded me of the king, flipped up collar and gasping for breath between songs. No composites here only aluminum and rivets, and yes, painted white with red stripes. This thing was vintage.

Much to my surprise, he dragged Elvis into place with one hand as he walked this wannabe retired airplane to where the “real” airplane was going to hook on for the ride. I remember thinking; I am 6′-4″ and 215 pounds and I am going to sit in something that can be dragged onto the airfield with one hand by a man whom I am sure just smirked at me through the side of his face as if to say, suckerrr.

Our eyes meet, and he says, “Get in!” He then begins to put me in a five point harness and pulls it really tight. At this point, I am feeling the panic of claustrophobia and the canopy is still up. He leans over and points to the release lever. “When I yell ‘Now!’ pull it.” It was in that moment that I realized my head is sticking way out of the natural body lines of this glider, and I say, “I don’t think I’m going to fit.” He proceeds to try to close the canopy. I cock my head as far as possible sideways and it was still not close to closing. His next words; “Get out!” Our man of many words now begins to rip the seat out of the glider. No joke! And in some sick replay of other dumb decisions I’ve made in life, I actually go along with this. I climb in and sit on bare aluminum in the cockpit and Mr. Wax Eloquent checks the canopy and starts strapping me in again. Each of the five points of the harness seems to gauge my increasing tension. Meanwhile, the real airplane has appeared and connected itself to me without my noticing. In a nonverbal acknowledgment that everything was a go, my new friend slaps his hand on the canopy as if to say… Well, I’m not really sure what it said. Good luck perhaps?

The next thing I know, I am experiencing a very rough rush of forward acceleration as the real airplane takes off down the runway. “Um, what do I do now?” “Wait for me to say ‘Now!’ and pull the release handle.” came the reply. I remember thinking to myself, he actually speaks in sentences? It brought small comfort. We continued to climb. Tense and stressed, I was absorbed by the chaos and found it very difficult to focus on the beauty around me with the constant noise, bumps, drops and clatter of being dragged–by a rope–where I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go. Then, piercing all the mayhem and propelling me from the fog to hard reality came the cry, “NOW!” I reached out and pulled…

Silence

As if God Himself had reached into my reality and turned the volume knob from eleven to one, everything became clear. My mind which had been trying to process the inundation around me had cleared. My ears heard little but the wisp of outside air. My eyes focused on the tow plane as it seemed to fall tragically from the sky, leaving me behind, then to the breathtaking beauty of my seat in the sky. My hands were no longer shaking but steady and sure on a now smooth (previously vibrating) control stick. It was bliss.

For forty-five minutes I swept through the sky like a bird without reservation, smooth and fluid, embracing positive and negative gravitational forces alike. Even the discomfort of sitting on the aluminum structure of the glider ebbed away. Tension had given way to release and the experience was, well… Clear. It’s the only word that describes it. I had traded the stresses of the procedure and systems for the joy of flight. I felt inspired.

As leaders we each must learn the lesson that I was privileged to learn that day, that is: Clarity comes after the systems and procedures are necessarily worked, and unless you are willing to subject yourself to the tensions they create, you will never see the fulfillment of your dream. Altitude is gained through struggle and if the struggle scares you, and you stay on the ground, you lose. Leadership is not like the third grade where everyone receives a ribbon. Some win, most do not. I had traded the tension of a hotel room surrounded by paperwork for the tension of a seat-less cockpit in pursuit of my creative aha! I found it, and clarity, at 5000 feet.

Postscript

Could I have found that moment alone? No! It took a pilot, a plane, and a landing strip. Skilled people had to assist me in getting there. I had a team. Without them, I would have never had the experience, or I would have tried it alone and killed myself in the attempt.

If you are a leader/church planter, you want to fly. I get that. Remember that you cannot fly without partners that can actually get you airborne. A mentor to strap you in, to train you, challenge you, grunt at you. Prayer partners who provide the airstrip to launch you into the exciting unknown. Financial partners that will attach themselves to you, provide the horsepower, and empower you to a higher level and are willing to yell “Now!” Ultimately, the ride of your own leadership begins when you respond and pull the release. Then, and only then will you soar.