Of Donkeys & Lampholders by Thomas S. Buchanan

Of Donkeys & Lampholders

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
—Luke 14:11

It is an interesting fact that those who make the best leaders in the Church are not necessarily those who have the best “leadership skills” and that those who have the best skills are not necessarily made leaders. Although this goes against the grain of modern management strategies, it follows directly from the ancient biblical tradition. For example, Joseph spent many years in prison before leading Israel in Egypt. Similarly, Moses spent many years wandering in the desert before being used by God as a powerful leader. A modern example is Mother Teresa, who lived in relative obscurity until later in life. But was this because Joseph, Moses, and Mother Teresa lacked talent and people skills, or had weak resumes and needed more years of experience in lower management? I don’t believe so. Was this because they were not spiritually mature enough for the job? Again, no. Balaam’s ass was “spiritual” enough to be used as a “spokesdonkey” for the politically incorrect God of the Old Testament.

The leaders God uses are the ones he desires to use. Why did Mother Teresa just begin her mighty work when she was nearly twice the age St. Therese of Lisieux was when she died? Because that was the will of God. Joseph and Moses spent many years not being leaders because God chose not to use them in that capacity at those times. God’s idea of who should be a leader at a given time and ours may be very different. We should remember that even our Lord spent the first three decades of his life in relative obscurity.

Many people I have met aspire to be leaders of the Church for the wrong reasons. For some, especially young people, it often stems from a zeal to serve God but is misguided by an aspiration to be the person looked up to as a “good Christian.” For such people, leadership is sought to demonstrate their devotion. I have watched many a young person become frustrated because God seemed to have no use for them in an “important” way. For others, especially those who are older and knowledgeable in the faith and perhaps have pastoral skills, the desire to lead can come from an expectation that they deserve to be leaders. After all, they can preach or pastor as well as or better than their clergyman.

Both of these types of people miss the point of Christ’s admonition to leaders: everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. We should submit ourselves to God and let him use us as he will.

St. Gregory the Great once told a story of St. Benedict and a young monk.

Once when the saintly abbot was taking his evening meal, a young monk whose father was a high-ranking official happened to be holding the lamp for him. As he stood at the abbot’s table, the spirit of pride began to stir in his heart. “Who is this,” he thought to himself, “that I should have to stand here holding the lamp for him while he is eating? Who am I to be serving him?” Turning to him at once, Benedict gave the monk a sharp reprimand. “Brother,” he said, “sign your heart with a sign of the cross. What are you saying? Sign your heart!” Then, calling the others together, he had one of them take the lamp instead, and told the murmurer to sit down by himself and be quiet. Later, when asked what he had done wrong, the monk explained how he had given in to the spirit of pride and silently murmured against the man of God. At this the brethren all realized that nothing could be kept secret from their holy abbot, since he could hear even the unspoken sentiments of their hearts.

In this story we see that the young monk thought that he should be engaged in something more important than standing holding a lamp next to one of the greatest men in the history of the Church. He desired a position more befitting his status.

We need to submit ourselves to God for his use, whatever that may be. And we also need to be content with his choice. If we humbly offer ourselves to him as a living sacrifice, we can be confident that he will use us as he sees fit. Of course, that may not be what we had in mind.

Thomas S. Buchanan is the George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. He has studied at UCSD, Northwestern University, and MIT, and has held visiting professorships at the University of Western Australia and the University of Aix-Marseille. He has served as department chairman, deputy dean, and institute director, president of the American Society of Biomechanics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Biomechanics. He is on the Board of Trustees of Saint Katherine College, the editorial board of Touchstone, and the board of The Fellowship of St. James.

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