In our reading today from Genesis, Israel (aka Jacob) does several things on his deathbed that no one expects–He puts Joseph’s sons on par with Joseph and his brothers, he gives Joseph an extra portion to his inheritance, and perhaps most surprisingly, gives his patriarchal blessing to Ephraim, the second-born, over Manasseh, the first-born. I have to admit, as I read the story, my mind tends to wander towards how Ephraim must have felt about that–any of us who have become accustomed to being happy to occupy the #2 slot knows how stressful suddenly being thrust into the #1 spot can feel.
When I read this story, I often think of the great Harry S Truman quote upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House Press Corps: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
It’s a feeling any of us can identify with, when we suddenly find ourselves taking the lead in a system where we were effective and comfortable in the place where we were. I can only imagine that Ephraim felt the same way. That #1 spot almost always comes with a variety of predictable, but uncontrollable emotions on the part of others. Jealousy. Fear. Insecurity. Oh, yes, and even downright derision, and not even behind-the-back derision, but in audible stage whispers. One can almost hear the tumblers clicking as others line up for their shots to move up the hierarchical ladder in the new order of things.
I think for a lot of us, suddenly being thrust into the leadership role, whether it’s at home, work, or church, can carry a great deal of heaviness, hesitancy, and fear. We tend to most quickly discard the must fundamental truth of the business of ending up in a leadership role–most of the time, even under sudden or unusual circumstances, a good bit of how we ended up there to begin with, has to do with who we are already in the sight of God and others. I can’t believe Israel blessed Ephraim with his patriarchal blessing on a whim or from senility. There was just something about his bearing and countenance, I believe, that oozed from him, no words necessary. I have a friend whom I believe to be the most skilled person at chairing discernment committees in our diocese. I once asked her how she was able to be so skilled at that. She just looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know, really–I just know that I know a priest or a deacon when I see one.”
Yet, so often, in our new-found and sometimes unwanted new leadership roles, we toss aside the possibility that our God-given selves are sufficient for the task, and then proceed to undermine our own leadership by trying to be the leader we think others want. It almost always results in disaster, and often ends in failure. Sometimes, we are given enough room to rectify our mistakes–but sometimes not. Even then, we shouldn’t think of failure as utter failure, but instead, consider the possibility that our failures shape new opportunities to get it right the next time. All it takes is a thorough reading of the Hebrew Bible to see the unlikeliness, and, at times, the failures of those called to be leaders, prophets, and great teachers. None of them ever entirely get it right–but many of them got it right enough in the end.
As a friend in recovery once told me, “All I have to do to live a life that matters is to get up one more time than I’ve fallen down.”
How might our roles as leaders in our families, workplaces, and churches change, if we embrace the possibility that God believes that we are enough for the task?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid