Between Life and Death
By David Ramos
Recently I was the guest speaker at a Sunday school conference sponsored by the church of my friend Rev. Fernando Otero—The Church of the Revelation in the Bronx. They conducted their retreat in a beautiful Mennonite conference center called Spruce Lake in Pennsylvania. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive as I snaked through the winding country roads full of lush trees and barns. As I moved through the last leg of the journey, I could see hawks flying above while I drove adjacent to a picturesque, tranquil creek; the scenery was so pleasant and peaceful. Suddenly, something stood out in graphic contrast to this otherwise idyllic setting, an unsettling image. On the road there was this home that had burned down to the ground. Its carcass seemed somewhat terrifying, one could see through every room, all that remained were its structural beams; the devastation was complete. The image gripped me and questions began to flood my mind: Was anyone hurt? Did they get out on time? What caused the fire, was it an electrical short circuit, a cigarette, an accident, or arson?
I was on my way to speak to leaders and the thought hit me, “What causes leaders to implode or burn out?” What goes on inside that causes some to self-destruct? Are there warning signs or some preventive measures we can take to protect ourselves from tragedy? How do we safeguard our lives from such devastation? Perhaps we can push the metaphor:
1. Short circuit:
Some burn-out or “fry” because they have way too much on their plates—they are always “on” and never truly get a chance to rest. Their demanding schedules and the maddening pace of their lives place them at risk, risk for heart attacks, hypertension or even moral failure. Juggling multiple roles, many leaders serve as parent, spouse, pastor, teacher, mentor, coach, comforter, counselor, community or market place leader, friend, entrepreneur, etc, leading many to experience “role overload.” For many, the boundaries of home and work have long been violated; there are an ever increasing number of people who continuously anxiously think of their jobs during non-work hours. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “cognitive intrusion.” Organizational cultures may over emphasize performance to the detriment of their greatest resource—their people. They are destroying the goose that lays the golden eggs. We need to check our lives long before we smell the fire.
I recently was examining an apartment for my mother-in-law who was seeking to relocate. While inspecting the apartment I was shocked to see that in the bedroom rug there were approximately fifteen cigarette burns. One was bad enough, but fifteen! The former tenant was definitely playing Russian roulette. Negligence can have a great impact on our lives and on our leadership potential. When we are negligent with our health, our time, our relationships, our friendships, our prayer life, we court disaster. Everything in life needs maintenance, and all too often, the important is eclipsed by the urgent.
Life happens! Bad things do happen to good people that at times have an indelible and lasting impact that can shadow an individual for lifetime. I know of a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl by a relative. This incident led her to use drugs as a way to anesthetize her pain. As a result of her substance abuse she became homeless, as a result of her homelessness she became depressed, this led to more drugs and vicious cycle became deeper. As a result of her depression she was medicated, the cocktail combination of licit and illicit drugs led to mental health issues and the downward spiral became more painfully apparent. While this is a graphic example, sometimes there are critical incidents that occur within our lives that play themselves later in our lives and/or leadership. Being picked upon can lead to aggression, being overlooked can lead to overcompensation and “workaholism,” being mocked can later lead to pride and arrogance once some achievements have been won. The dark side of our personhood often manifests itself in crisis or stress. We are to seek healing for our lives and seek ways to cope with pain, loss, and suffering. We must learn to trust others who can help us shoulder our load and turn to a God who specializes in fixing broken hearts and lives.
There are times that leaders are subject to demonic attack. Do I believe in the supernatural? Yes! Do I believe that there are negative forces that co-habit the sphere of the human? Yes! Do I believe that we should blame the devil for all misfortune and failure? No! Do I believe we should attribute unethical behavior to demonic activity, and attempt to absolve our responsibility of wrong actions? No! Nevertheless, some of God’s children occupy strategic positions or strategic influence for the kingdom of God and this predisposes them to the occupational hazard of demonic attack. Our adversary would love nothing more than to "blow us up,” to annul our influence and sabotage our effectiveness. Some leaders have crashed and burned, no doubt there were many reasons that led to their ultimate demise, but for many, I’m sure they were the victims of diabolic assassin teams that put out a “hit” on our sisters and brothers.
Driving down that country road it struck me that on one side there was a beautiful lovely creek—a symbol of the life, nurture, and sustenance, on the other side a burned out house—a symbol of death and destruction. It is sobering to realize just how vulnerable we really are, to think that as leaders, all it takes is one dumb move, or one stupid decision and it can all go up in smoke. There is one more thing I realized on that country road, on that road between life and death that I didn’t mention—the power of choice. As evangelicals we are taught that we are to go up to the altar and make a choice to convert to God, that our one-time choice we make guarantees we get into heaven—this is my faith. However, we are surrounded by good and evil all the time, between the call to our higher self and the gravitational forces that would pull us to a lower, baser self. We are earthen vessels with eternity in our hearts. We long for heaven yet at times witness hell. We long to return to Eden yet encounter a sword. I guess on the path between life and death we need to choose life everyday.
“I call on heaven and earth as witnesses today that I have offered you life or death, blessings or curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)