I’ve written on this before, but articles, posts and bits of news keep bringing me back to it. It’s been said that generals and admirals are always prepared to fight the last war, and while I think that is very unfair to generals and admirals, I do think it is true about a great many of those who feel passionately about some particular cause or overly confident in some particular success. It seems that, as we age, we are often too comfortable in continuing the passionate fight of our youth in spite of the fact that conditions, events and issues in conflict have changed, sometimes radically.
One colleague is as deeply passionate about the fight to ordain women and give them equal treatment with men as she was thirty years ago. By that I mean that she is still fighting that battle as if the same terms and conditions applied today as they did then. She seems unaware of the magnitude of change that has occurred over the last thirty years. Many acquaintances, more male than female, but including both, are still deep in the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, and treat every political event as a continuation of that struggle. Democrats continue trying to resurrect Kennedy, while Republicans are afraid to move away from Reagan. Some of those I counsel reveal that they are still preparing to refight the battle they had in high school or college, and are certain that every perceived threat of conflict is an echo of that very moment.
The downfall of many rising stars in corporate management and ordained ministry is that they were once creative and had tremendous early success in meeting new challenges, but they have continued to use the same tools and strategies that worked so well then even though the playing field has changed and a new game is under way. We used to joke about executives and pastors who had only two or three years of experience, but they had it ten times over.
As the old saying goes, you cannot drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. The disciplines needed to look ahead and anticipate what might be coming are not complicated or hard to teach, but I confess that in all my years of teaching, very few ever paid much serious attention to learning them. It does require a good study of history to discover not only what happened but why and how, and from the view of the losers as well as the winners. We need to be in conversation with the voices of the past, but it also requires intentional scanning of the horizon to see what is happening out there that is different. It requires an examination of those differences to see what, why and how they are different. And it requires some reasonably clear sense of how all of that will affect us, our organizations, and the goals we have been trying to reach. I do not think that the skills and energy needed to do that reside only in the chain of next generations. I do think that we have a tendency to get lazy and complacent, and that is our key problem. Lent is a good time to think about that.