A Leader of Uncommon Strength

Some weeks ago, David Brooks asked people over 70 to send their “Life Reports” In his latest editorial in the NY Times, he gives a final assessment. He noted that those born in the 1920’s and 1930’s learned work habits in an age of scarcity; most went through a phase in which they did physical labor in a factory; some were influenced by the social revolution of the 60’s. A common lament came from people who worked all of their lives for the same company and came to realize how boring they must be.  Others regretted risks that were not taken. Most played it safe.

As I noted earlier in another post, if there is one who never played it safe, it was Theodore Roosevelt. I’m just into Strock’s Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership. Here was a man who stood 5ft, 9in, who weighed just under 200 pounds, a “steam engine in trousers”.  Roosevelt became a heroic leader of the Rough Riders, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, and eventually became one of the nation’s greatest Presidents.  He had this propensity to lose himself in physical hardship and danger.  Frail and sickly as a child, he overcame it by forcing himself into a regimen of harsh physical exercise, something he did all of his life. His idea of a vacation was not Camp David; rather, he would occasionally head for the badlands to fight with bears, often alone. As Strock notes, “Where lesser souls might hide behind oak-paneled doors to cover timidity, Roosevelt never hesitated to thrust himself in harm’s way.”

Nowhere is this more visible than in his venture to South America. In the book The River of Doubt, Candice Millard chronicles Theodore Roosevelt’s darkest journey.  When his political career ended, he was bored and ripe for an adventure. He was ready to change professions, become a naturalist and an explorer.  He was invited to venture into the dense jungle of the Amazon.  But Roosevelt went far deeper.  He shifted from the original plan, and to the horror of his sponsors, he decided to go where no one had ever gone in the Amazon.  He decided to explore the River of Doubt. It had never been mapped.  No one knew its length or direction, or anything about the perils that went with it.  Roosevelt saw it as his last chance to be a boy, but when he emerged months later, he had aged way beyond his 54 years.  After his journey on this 1000 mile river through the dense Brazilian rainforest, He was an old man who never fully recovered.

It’s understandable.  Just to get to the river required a harrowing journey of two months over vast and varied terrain.  His group lost 98 mules alone on the way.  And then they came to the river and began their descent, there was no turning back.  Here is some of what he and the others faced: hordes of gnats, sand flies, horseflies and bees and malaria carrying mosquitoes.  Staying afloat on their crude and heavy canoes was a must. The river was full of alligators, 500 pound anacondas, razor tooth piranhas, poisonous frogs, bull sharks, and candiru—tiny fish known for wiggling their way into the urethra, creating the most unimaginable pain.  On land, there were jaguars and wild pigs and the most lethal snakes in the world, whose bite meant the worst suffering and death within minutes.  There always lurked hostile Indians, violent and unpredictable, who celebrated their victory by eating their human prey. Worst of all was the jungle that was anything but a sanctuary, where everything fought for survival, and anything and anyone that was weak or infirmed was ruthlessly dealt with.  Daily deluges of rain drenched them, and then there were the terrifying sounds at night, spine chilling noises that kept a man awake in mortal fear.

Roosevelt chose to enter this world for the sheer experience of discovery.  But once he entered, disease, hunger, and exhaustion stalked him at every turn, down every falls, through every rapid, and on every hike.  By the time he came out, he and those in his party appeared almost inhuman.  Gaunt, hollow cheeked, clothes tattered, skin bruised and baked and bitten, Roosevelt lost one fourth of his weight.  The boy in TR finally died.

And yet, though his vision and hearing were gradually diminishing, and he suffered the lingering effects of parasitic disease, he still offered himself for service as a candidate for president in 1920. He wrote: “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” And then, after a full day’s work, Roosevelt died in his sleep.  Then Vice President Marshall quipped, “Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight.” Imagine what his “life report” would have read like to David Brooks.

There’s a lesson for us in ministry. Unlike Roosevelt, we may not be so willing to thrust ourselves in harm’s way.  But those God chooses to lead His church will face their own occasional “river of doubt”.  There may not be poisonous frogs and bull sharks, but there will be unreceptive hearts lurking in the jungle, dark nights of the soul, personal attacks—a journey with its own twists and turns.  In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul repeatedly warned that ministry will entail hardship—there are powers and principalities that contend with kingdom work. It will be a fight, but it is a good fight (I Tim 1:18). Likewise, Spurgeon, in his lectures to his students, gave this warning—“Upon the whole, no place is so assailed with temptation as the ministry…our dangers are more numerous and more insidious than those of ordinary Christians.”

Along the way, we will need something of the tenacity of a Roosevelt.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

4 thoughts on “A Leader of Uncommon Strength

  1. What an excellent post. Our leaders do need to have that tenacity. Especially in a world that seems to love to see people fail or fall. And if you’re not falling on your own… they’ll give you a push. That’s why it’s so important to pray for our leaders.

  2. Thank you, John! This is the exact perspective and wisdom we need to leave with the next generation of preachers!

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