I was at a para-church organisation leaders meeting recently and had an interesting experience. I was the youngest member in the room (in fact, I had just tagged along) so I walked around pouring tea for the respective leaders and as I was doing that, I recalled a vivid memory from a conference that I organised just a few years ago.
One of the keynote speakers for that conference was the former Archbishop of Sydney, The Revd Dr Peter Jensen. I have an incredible amount of respect for Dr Jensen even though our interactions didn’t go beyond a few phone calls leading up to the conference and some brief conversation during the evening. I’ve been told about some ‘war stories’ that he was engaged in earlier in his ministry and it makes one go ‘wow, I’d love to be faithful like that’. But above his courteous speech, theological acumen, and gentle aura (I really don’t know how else to express this. But for those who’ve been in contact with him, I’m sure you know what I mean), I was most impressed by a single act that he did on the evening of the conference.
Here’s what happened.
We were all in a briefing room before the conference and I was running through some final details on the run sheet. Some other key organisers were also present, including Peter and his two sons Michael and David (both of whom were also speakers for the evening). Now, there were some biscuits and sandwiches on the table that sat right in the middle of the room. But for one reason or another, no one touched it for the first 10 minutes or so. I was a little shy because I’ve been brought up in a culture where no one eats until the eldest person in the room makes the first move. In this case, I was waiting for Peter to take the first piece of something. And I think the others (at least the guys and girls on my team) felt the same way. And I think Peter sensed what was going on. So what happened next was incredible.
Peter, the eldest man in the room – former principal of Moore College and former Archbishop of Sydney (either of these positions would have been respected and honoured beyond recognition in my community and culture), stands up, picks up a plate of food, and starts going around our gathered circle to serve a bunch of young punks like me. Because we were all sitting down, he bent forward to each of us, smiled, and invited us to take something from the plate. Now, I immediately jumped up because that was absolutely unacceptable. In fact, I remember thinking to myself ‘how can I let this happen? I’ve messed up! He is our guest! Our honoured guest!’. Yet he just smiled, told me to sit down, and continued to serve the entire room before sitting himself down.
At this stage, someone else in the team was running the group through some other details and I just remember sitting there shocked by what had just happened because this would have never happened in situations that I am familiar with. The cultural order that I was accustomed to had been torn into bits right before my eyes, not least by a man so honoured by all. It was at that point where I prayed an said to myself ‘God, please make me like him’. I wasn’t asking to be the next Archbishop. No, I wanted to be the humble leader or servant leader that he was.
I know how easy it is for leaders to think so much of themselves. I’ve served with some of them (in fact, I’m sadly accustomed to thinking too much of myself!) and I know how easy it is for leaders to assume the front row seats or feel like they deserve respect and honour. Now, I don’t think there’s something wrong with respect and honour, I think we need to give it where it is due. But there is something about deserving it yet forsaking it for the service of others that oozes Gospel truth.
I don’t know if Peter will ever read this, but if he ever does, I want him to know how grateful I am for all that he has done for the church both in Australia and the rest of the world. But most of all, I want to thank him for being a man of integrity and godly character. It reminds me that God is more impressed by godliness than effectiveness and it pushes me to pursue both but more of the former than the latter. I hope this story inspires you to desire the same.