July 20, 2009

Manny and Michael
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Michael Jackson’s death has dominated the news for a couple of weeks. American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and a colossal budget crisis in California have yielded the headlines to stories of the rock star’s public successes and public failures. Many people idolize Michael for his entertainment gifts; just as many, it seems, demonize him for his alleged child molestation and drug abuse.

Manny Ramirez is almost as big a story, at least for LA sports fans. He’s baaack! After a 50-game suspension for using a banned substance, Manny is once again a sparkplug in the Dodgers’ offense, and fans are delighted. Some fans, that is. Others are scandalized that he should be forgiven so easily and returned to superstar status.

Manny and Michael are role models for our youth. There’s a loud and angry public debate about what minimum standards a role model should meet. Have these two men become such bad examples by their failures that their potential positive influence on young lives is negated? Both sides can be argued persuasively.

One thing should be acknowledged, though—no human role model is perfect! This is very important to remember when it comes to the spiritual examples put before us in the person of our religious leaders. Whether we’re talking about TV evangelists, priests in the Catholic Church, or local pastors leading Baptist congregations, all of them have clay feet. They’re going to let us down; the only question is how dramatic and image-shattering their failure will be.

However, the Christian sub-culture we’re part of keeps pretending this isn’t so. There is a myth of perfect leadership that is intimidating to those of us who are sincerely trying to follow the Lord’s call in ministry. Because leaders feel the burden of being perfect in modeling the Christian life, they find themselves pretending a lot, showing only the positive side of their persona. This pretty easily slips into hypocrisy. When a leader wrapped up in such a cycle is caught in a moral failure, all his followers are shocked and shaken, and the unbelieving world has a chuckle or two.

Somehow we’ve got to change this. We’ve got to say up front that our leaders are fellow-sinners, saved only by grace. And we’ve got to be open and honest about our little failures, so that when we fail in a colossal way, those who have been following us are sad, but not shattered.

Our Michaels and Mannys may forfeit their ability to lead because of an open failure. On the other hand, they may recover and become role models in another way, by encouraging stumbling followers that God can pick them up and use them in spite of their imperfections. We ought to be open to whatever surprises God may bring through the fallible, flesh-and-blood role models he puts in leadership positions. They are in need of constant redemption, as we all are, and this provides a great opportunity for God to display his grace.