Humility: A Painful Lesson to Learn

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  -Matthew 5:5

My friend and colleague Beth Marie Halvorsen did her doctoral work looking at two dimensions of the godly life, framing them as a continuum.  The dimensions were boldness versus humility.  As a lay person learning leadership in the business world, I did not have many role models who demonstrated humility.  It is not a trait common to successful business leaders. 

Boldness I understand.  Throughout my life, when I have encountered a leadership vacuum, I have stepped in to fill the void.  No one ever taught me how humility and leadership can blend.  When I began to understand how my gifts, passions and experiences were leading me into a calling to help equip emerging Christian leaders, I found a void in leadership development in the Lutheran church.  I had sold my business in a halftime move from success to significance, and I was beginning to discern the path God was leading me to follow. 

Despite my proven leadership abilities in the business world, I had no credibility in the church world.  So I began to transform the narrative of my life into a story of leadership. I thought this would help me gain credibility and gather people around my vision of a high-potential leadership development initiative for pastors. 

Sadly, sharing my story of learning leadership and growing a business didn't come across as demonstrating humility, especially among the Norwegian Lutherans in Minneapolis.  You know the story of how to tell an extroverted Norwegian--he looks at the other fellow's shoes.  So when I rolled into town, trying to build momentum for our initiative, several of the large church pastors I met with were put off by my style.  In their view, my lack of humility disqualified me as someone who should be teaching pastors leadership.

Last winter, I learned a powerful lesson in humility.  In October, just before the TLi pilot class was convening in Ohio, I hurt my back.  I learned I had a bulging disk pressing against a nerve root.  We spent Christmas at the cabin in Colorado with family, and my back was significantly worse when I returned to Atlanta.  I did not correlate my days of skiing and hauling wood for the fireplace with my deteriorating condition.  While back in Atlanta, I got an epidural injection of cortisone into my spine.  I also began daily exercises designed to improve my condition.  Within a few days, I was 80 percent better.  Our normal routine is to spend a couple of months in Colorado in the winter, so we packed up and went back out in late January. 

I was feeling good, and there was abundant fresh snow, and we love back country skiing.  So in the first 10 days out there, I skied six times on the mountain behind the cabin.  The last day, we pushed too far and too long.  My back started hurting again.  The next morning, I bent over to plug something into the wall, and my back gave out. The next day, I was supposed to fly to Ohio for our second gathering of our pilot class.  I had to cancel.

Within a day or so, I was unable to sit, stand or walk for more than two minutes without the pain getting above 5 on the pain scale.  For two weeks, I was bedridden, only able to find relief laying on my stomach or flat on my back with legs elevated.  For a month, I did not leave the cabin except for Genie to haul me down the mountian to the doctor.  And then I had to lay in the back of the car. 

This was my first experience with disability, and it was humbling.  I could do very little for myself.  I was totally dependent.  I was taking hydrocodone every four hours just to take the edge off the pain, and I lost 15 pounds in two weeks.  Thank God for the Winter Olympics--they helped keep me sane during the time when I could not even sit up to read or write.  I had been dealing with a whole series of health problems since September, and I'd had ample time to pray and reflect on my health problems even before this came up. 

For the first couple of weeks, while I was completely disabled, I found that by focusing my mind on the promises of God's presence during this dark time, I could feel His presence.  I spent time listening to inspirational music on my iPhone, and I continued my daily reading of the Celtic Prayer Guide and a couple of Bible verses listed with each day's meditation. 

That was the most I could do, but it was enough.  I realized that we experience everything for a reason, and that there is learning in each painful experience if we will look for it.  So, rather than ask God to heal me each day, I simply experienced each day, and asked what I could learn.  Lord, teach me what I need to know.  I won't deny I had some bad days.  I tried Genie's patience at times.  But, for the most part, spending time with God kept my attitude from tanking.  I was quite surprised, actually. 

I had three more epidurals, each helping a little bit.  As I weaned myself from pain pills and was able to finally sit more comfortably, I began to read two wonderful books.  I recommend both of them to you.  Neil Cole's Organic Leadership is one of the best leadership books I have picked up in a while.  He is one of the great thinkers and practicioners of the emerging organic church models. 

I also picked up Richard Foster's latest book, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation.  Reading it in tandem with the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, which is another product of Foster's collaboration with other gifted writers, has been a wonderful experience.  Foster's Celebration of Discipline introduced me to the spiritual disciplines 25 years ago.  I am finding this Bible to be quite different that most study Bibles I have.  I deeply appreciate its focus on helping us understand how to live out this Life with God.  He points out time and time again a poignant question from our Father, "I am with you, will you be with me?"

It slowly dawned on me that it is hard to learn humility without a humbling experience.  Just as when we ask God for patience, be careful, because we will probably be surrounded by very difficult people so that we might learn.  For a decade now I've been trying to live a servant leader's life, but humility has been a slow road.

Slowly, as the epidurals took effect, I could stand, walk and sit for longer and longer periods.  I told Genie that as soon as I was well enough to ride in the car for the two days back to Atlanta, I wanted to leave.  Sitting there watching her shovel snow off the steps and walkway, haul firewood into the house, and do every chore for me, was painful in itself.  With the help of the good people at the Egoscue clinic, I am learning to regain proper posture to relieve the pressure on my bulging disk and nerves.  By the time I was strong enough to travel home, I had gotten to where I could walk about a half mile.  As someone who just last summer hiked up to the Continental Divide, gaining 2,000 feet in elevation, topping out at 12,000 feet, to be restricted in mobility was a real eye opener.

Before this experience, I've always found it difficult to spend time in prayer, or to sense God's presence during times of illness.  It was quite a revelation to see how, in this very difficult time, I was able to find communion with God in the little things I was able to do.  What could have been a totally wasted month turned into a time of learning and growth. 

I have learned the painful lesson that humility can be learned.  I think I've got this message, Lord, can we move on to the next one?