Beckenham train station
I will never forget my first day at the train station in Beckenham on the outskirts of London, just a few years ago. Having lived most of my life in suburban USA, any commuting I had done was via the local freeway. Now, I was trying to find my way via the mass transit in a country which was so very similar to the US, yet also very different, almost quaint by my perception. Each day was indeed a new adventure. I thought I knew the language, yet that morning proved me wrong.
“I need to go to London,” I said, simply thinking that would be sufficient. “Single?” the ticket master asked me, in a South London accent. I wondered why it would matter whether I was single or married, but reluctantly responded, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I am, single, that is. Oh, and I need to return around 5:00.” “17:00? Our first train is at 17:20. So you want a return, then,” he said, never looking up from the task at hand, stamping papers and tickets.
I quickly started counting from noon, the hundred hours, and then said “Yes, please, I need a single to London and return, uh, at 17:20.” “Then, not a single, but return,” he said crisply. “No, I am single, but need a round-trip ticket,” I tried again to explain as the line behind me grew longer. He finally looked at me, like I was from a foreign planet. “A single and a return?” “I guess,” I said fidgeting with my coins, just wanting to pay and get away. Londoners do have a way of making you feel very uncomfortable without saying a word. So he slid across two tickets and the light suddenly dawned in my foreign head. A “single” in the UK was in Americanese a “one way” and “return,” “round trip.” So I paid for them all and the next day bought a monthly pass…
It was my privilege to have the opportunity to live in a country that was not my own, but I was also caught off-guard being in a country that seemed to be very similar, yet so very different from what was home. At times, just when all seemed comfortable, another Beckenham incident would come my way.
Recently, my devotions have taken me into the Old Testament, to the kings and leaders of God’s chosen as they struggled to return home to Jerusalem. So many who led were good, Godly people, others evil. And some who started off as Godly leaders became corrupted when authority and power became familiar and comfortable, when they started trusting in themselves rather than God. Or, even worse, when striving for more power became more important than the reason they were given the power. Then, authority and power became the expected, and the leading became more important than God’s plan to bring his people home.
What they didn’t realize is that a human being who has such power is actually living in a foreign land. We are not born “power-full.” We are born weak and needy, with a nature that wants only to satisfy self. Even if some are born into a status that gains them power simply by a name or title, the power must ultimately be given by others. God did give power and status to leaders of the Jews, but always, once they began to feel they deserved such power, then they began to cause pain to those they were leading, and ultimately they failed.
After my term in the UK, it is now my privilege to serve at territorial headquarters where sometimes I am provided with a “birds-eye” view of the leadership in this territory. Every officer/soldier/employee serving in some sense is in a position of God-ordained power, whether in corps, facility, program, or administrative leadership. And, all are serving in “foreign” territory, even if close to home. As humans saved by God’s grace, some are not so successful and some very much so. While it hurts to see those who feel they have failed struggle to find a way to fulfill what they see as God’s plan for their life, the ones who concern me the most are those who are comfortable in their success. It worries me that success (power) becomes the expected as they go from position to position. True, we know that as Christians, God is the victor and we can surely expect success when we are centered in him, but when the center begins to get just a bit off…
Could it be that God wants us to continually remember that we are foreigners in this world, that we always must be on guard not to become too familiar, too comfortable, no matter what position we are in? This especially applies to those given leadership responsibility, that the leading doesn’t become more important than those being led?
There is a fine balance to be struck between becoming comfortable right where we are, and never feeling quite at home. Certainly, we should never feel really comfortable as leaders because, despite what they say, no one is truly a “born leader.” To some, leadership may seem quite easy, but I admire those who struggle to fill their role realizing the skill comes from God and not from within. With leadership, there does come a certain earthly power, but it’s so very fragile and it’s not our own.
My Beckenham experience serves to remind me that no matter how much I think I know, I will never know enough. Thankfully,(and sometimes painfully) something similar happens again and again. Whatever role God places me in, whether in authority or part of a team, I pray I will never be so comfortable that I stop striving to fit in. There is an old song that says, “This world is not my home…” and it’s true. I pray none of us will even become so comfortable that we feel, as long as we are here on earth, that we are “right at home.”