On Tuesday, Sept. 11, I celebrate my 41st year as an ordained minister. I was first ordained in my father’s church, The Second Baptist Church of Slater, Missouri. I was also ordained later in the former United Presbyterian Church, USA.
My mother used to tease me by saying that the only reason I wanted to be an ordained Presbyterian minister was so I could drink alcohol without a guilty conscience.
Seventeen years ago, on Sept. 11, two of my Princeton classmates were killed in the attack on the Twin Towers. We had just spoken earlier that week and laughed about the funny experiences we had shared at Princeton. It was a great talk. Who would have thought that just a few days later I would be mourning their deaths?
Sept. 11 has become the symbol of my life. It is a bittersweet day. It reminds me that life is a constant flow of zeniths and nadirs, heights and depths, mountaintop events and valley-type occasions. It is interesting to me that one learns his or her best lessons not on the mountaintop, but in the valley. For this time of reflection, I share some things I have learned along life’s way.
• Good leadership is grounded in good follow-ship. It is amazing to me how many young pastors want to lead churches and academics to be administrators but who refuse to sit under someone to learn how to lead.
Leaders are not born, they are developed. Anyone who thinks they do not need to listen to someone, commit to taking the low seat sometimes and just be humble will never be a great leader.
Never let blind nationalism or zealous denominational doctrine keep us from the true test of leadership: Does your leadership demonstrate love, and, does your leadership set people free?
• Be slow to anger and quick to reconcile. I used to have a terrible temper. I would fly off at the drop of a hat. An old preacher once told me that “If you get mad quickly, you have to apologize a lot.”
He was right. When one becomes angry quickly, you make mistakes. Some mistakes take a lifetime to overcome. Be slow to anger.
• Some things are more important than money. We all need and want money. We were born in a capitalistic system that trained us to believe that success is determined by materialism. It particularly applies to those of us who struggle with the huge economic disparity apparent in this society.
But time and tragedy teach that integrity, friendship, family, vision, justice and hope are much more precious than wealth. Living well is good, but sleeping well is better.
• Commit yourself to something bigger than yourself. Our social commitment to individualism has made too many of us selfish and self-centered. Our music reflects it, and so does our worship.
Church too often is about my blessings, my anointing, my miracle, my, my, my. ... We can only be our authentic self when we commit to something larger than we are.
I have committed my life to overcoming racism. It is especially frustrating when I hear people blaming the victims of racism for the presence of racism or watch institutions ,especially academic and ecclesiastical ones, talk the talk of diversity but practice tokenism. But in the end, it is the work and faithfulness to the struggle that makes life worth living.
• Be your own person. Live your life your way. When I first began in ministry, parish and teaching, I tried to be like those I admired. I tried to preach like others, teach like others, pastor like others, etc.
I suddenly realized that God had called me to preach and teach like me and not like them. If we live our lives by other people’s opinions and structures, we will never know the joy of authenticity. When I die I want people to say, he did it his way.
• Be happy. At age 64, I can truly say I am happy. I wonder why it took so long to get here. Perhaps it was because I thought happiness came from the outside. Now I know happiness comes from the inside.
I urge you to be happy. My friends who died on 9/11 were happy because they were doing their thing. They were in touch with who they were.
It is hard to be happy given the division, violence and struggle all around us, but be happy because, in the words of the old black spiritual, “trouble don’t last always.”
The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr. was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at MU. He teaches at Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College and writes for the Missourian.