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The example we all need right now

April 16, 2020

I left a lot of books on the shelf at the church office when I finished my last pastoral call. But I still brought many home – those that I thought would be most valuable to me in the future.


One of them, tucked inside a large cardboard box filled with bulky biblical commentaries and heavy theological opuses, is a small book called Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son, by Gene Stallings and Sally Cook. Stallings recently celebrated his 85th birthday. The autographs inside the book are a reminder of the priceless gift of a day spent being overwhelmed by humility, hospitality and grace.


If you tune into one of the daily presidential press conferences on the coronavirus or click on social media for just a few minutes, “humility, hospitality and grace” may not be the first words that come to mind. I worry that one of the legacies of the pandemic might be normalization of angry rhetoric and gracelessness that seem to be infecting all of us.


Unquestionably, damage is being done to our social and political conversations. Because politicians do it, angry statements and personal insults have become more acceptable to others – not just in political discussions. Ill will is spreading like a virus. Many pastors I have spoken to say they have experienced more surprise personal attacks from their parishioners than ever before. Gene Fowler has authored a new book called Church Abuse of Clergy: A Radical New Understanding. Fowler writes that “merely mentioning the topic can yield story after story.” What impact is this having on pastoral leadership?


Humility and grace are increasingly not seen as being attributes of a “strong leader.” I see Facebook friends who constantly diminish these qualities in favor of leadership that “gets things done.” However, if we look hard enough, we can still find those who lead with conviction while modeling selflessness. Are they being drowned out by the roar of the  crowd? At my last church, one of our young people turned in a card nearly every Sunday that said, “Please pray for all the angry people.”


In looking for successful people who actively practice humility, I go back to a day on former coach Gene Stallings’ Paris, Texas, ranch in late 2005. I came home that day with a new cap, the signed book, and an example of a strong leader who had his priorities in order.


Inside the cover of the book is a short handwritten inscription: “To Matt. We hope you enjoy this book. Gene Stallings.” Under the large cursive writing in very small print, which says, in all caps, “JOHN.” I remember Stallings saying as he handed it to me that I would own one of the few books signed by both him and Johnny, his son who was born with Down Syndrome and a birth defect.


As a reporter for The Associated Press, I drove to Stallings’ North Texas ranch to talk with the former Dallas Cowboys assistant about the upcoming Cotton Bowl game between Alabama and Texas A&M, the two schools with which he had a rich history.


My photographer and I entered his spacious ranch home through the kitchen, where he was cooking eggs on the stove and offered to serve us breakfast. He gave us a detailed tour of his home and showed us some of his favorite things. And Johnny was excited to show us his room, decked out in Alabama crimson.


Stallings, a tough guy to say the least, was one of the “Junction Boys” who survived Bear Bryant’s grueling A&M training camp. As he spoke, he reached over and stroked his son’s hair, joking that his life’s work did not get a lot of respect at home. “To Johnny, the most important person is the trainer,” Stallings said. “Anybody can coach, but the trainer gets to take care of the players.” Johnny, however, was clearly his Dad’s number one fan, and he could quickly rattle off all the places his father coached.


My story, published in advance of the 2006 Cotton Bowl, reflected the warmth I felt that day when I met a winning football coach whose compassion and hospitality would remain with me. I wrote this about Stallings then:


“He’s just as likely to tell visitors about the excitement of unearthing arrowheads across hundreds of tree-studded acres or accommodating a large church group for lunch. Though proud of his many football accomplishments, he glows over a newspaper once naming him Father of the Year.”


Johnny died in 2008 at the age of 46 after a full, rich life.


I’m not letting go of this valuable book, and from time to time I peak inside the cover to be reminded of a special day when the things that are really important became clearer: kindness, hospitality, relationships, compassion, and most of all: love.


The strongest leaders in our nation and our world are those who show empathy, love and compassion. They are hospitable to others. They do not consider love to be a sign of weakness, but rather their greatest strength. The way they live their lives challenges us to do the same, though it is difficult. Now more than ever, we need their example.






One Comment leave one →
  1. April 16, 2020 7:07 pm

    Have you changed churches and moved? Retired? It’s been awhile since we communicated.

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