Dr Kenneth Baugh: A life's mission of servant leadership

ROBERT THOMPSON

Sunday, September 22, 2019

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The following is a lightly edited version of the sermon delivered at the service of thanksgiving for the life of former surgeon, Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister Dr Kenneth Lee O'Neil Baugh:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go where you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. — John 21:18

Today, a grateful nation joins with Vilma, Melanie, Warren, Gregory, and the rest of Ken's family in giving God thanks for a life that was truly a gift. Ken was blessed with a good and happy life, and with gratitude we acknowledge his generous spirit and his life of self-less service.

Each of us is created by God as a story waiting to be told. The challenge is, in finding an appropriate way to tell our story that will affirm our identity and give us a sense of hope. People without a place to tell their story and someone to listen to it never come into possession of themselves. I imagine that what inspired Ken's illustrious service to others, and what eventually led him into representational politics, was this need to help others to tell their stories. He knew that by the telling of our story, and by helping others to do that, people would ultimately come to recognise and own themselves.

Regrettably, we have reached a place in our society today where we imagine that all politicians are corrupt, and so we refer to them as the gang of Gordon House as if nothing good will ever come from the people who sit there. From time to time we encounter someone like Kenneth Baugh who embodied in his public life the godly images of integrity, honesty and trust. When we can identify those qualities in someone, we must celebrate, because that is the best of who we are as a people.

Ken was no victim. His illness placed limitations on his physical freedom, and yet he lived out of the richness of his own history right up to the last. His life was shot through and through with meaning and, because it did, he ignited others with that same sense of meaning and joy. As a physician and politician he always found ways to ameliorate tough situations. And he did it with such ease and with little noise since he had no need of promoting himself — a rare quality I dear say for a politician.

Ken is the kind of person Jesus described in Gospel when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If you are poor in spirit you have no need promoting yourself about how much good you have done. Jesus is not saying that those who live according to the beatitudes are sure to go to heaven. He said no such thing. What he is saying is that they are a kind of gift for nations and for communities.

Life itself is a gift, but some of us do more with that gift than others. Some of us regrettably squander that gift to the extent that it is no longer good for anything. But it is a wonderful thing when that gift is used in such a way that it inspires hope and joy.

We are always old enough to die. The young may find that hard to believe, but when you reach 70, the life span allotted to us by the Bible it becomes increasingly obvious. Perhaps that's why the text quoted above from John's gospel has such meaning. When you are young and you think of a future filled with unknown promises it is quite easy to believe in your own capacity to change the world. It is a different matter when you realise that, almost without noticing it, you have become old and that soon the incessant movement of life will carry you away, as it has carried away every generation before you. So, adapting to the time when we are no longer in control and learning to accept the inevitability of death are the final spiritual challenges that confront us.

In our text quoted above Jesus speaks words to Simon Peter to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. I read this passage of scripture for Ken on one of my visits over a year ago. He was more than ready to hear them. Although his departure brings much pain to the family, especially for Vilma who faithfully cared for him, we can all take comfort that Ken had a good death.

But the words are significant for another reason; not only for one who faces death, but for everyone who wants to live a mature and meaningful life. And so our text highlights the great paradox — that ultimately life finds its fulfilment only by letting go. The great paradox is that it is in letting go, we receive. Jesus said very much the same thing. Those who try to avoid risks, who try to guarantee that their hearts will not be broken, end up losing their lives.

In so many ways, the more we insist on control, and the more we resist the call to hold our lives lightly, the more we have to deny the reality of our losses and the more artificial our existence becomes.

Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be a leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that to be a true leader you must first be prepared to let go and be led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound a bit morbid, but for those like Kenneth, who have heard the voice of the one who calls us his beloved, and said yes to that voice, the way of service is the way of joy and peace that is not of this world.

Much has been said about the character of Ken's leadership in politics, as well as his vocation as a gifted surgeon. As we give thanks for this rich legacy, might we not use this opportunity to reflect on the qualities that undergirded the kind of leadership he exemplified? Our text suggests that the kind of leadership we need today is not one characterised by power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God is made manifest.

Obviously, I am not speaking about a psychologically weak leadership in which the leader is simply the passive victim of the manipulative game of others. No! I am speaking here of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favour of love, and where competitiveness gives way to co-operation and trust. It is the kind of leadership that searches for ways whereby the contribution of everyone is valued.

Perhaps what we will remember most about Ken is the fact that he never lost sight of his common humanity, he was never a pompous leader; no artificial distance existed between him and others. This was true whether he was among his political colleagues or playing with his grandchildren. In his presence, no voice was silenced.

Management consultant Margaret Wheatley wrote: “What gives power its charge, positive or negative, is the quality of relationships. Those who related through coercion, or from disregard for the other person, create negative energy. Those who are open to others and who see others in their fullness, create positive energy. Love in organisations, then, is the most potent source of power we have available.”

Jesus said: “The greatest among you must be your servant... For who is the greater, the one at the table or the one who serves?” The world would say immediately, “The one at table.”.“Yet,” says Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus is saying, in effect, I am telling you that the world's way will not work. In the action of washing the disciples' feet, Jesus underlines what has been true from the beginning and which must be true to the end; that his way, and the way of those who would be his disciples, is, before it is anything else, a way of service.

“So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet.” This is the paradox of servant leadership. We grow up with the idea that “the greatest people are those who have the most servants”. But Jesus is saying precisely the opposite. As he said in Mark 9:5, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” The Greek word is “diakonos”, from which we get the word “deacon”; one who serves. “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus. Greater is the one who serves a hundred than the one who has a hundred servants.

Why then is the temptation of power so irresistible? Maybe because power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love and service. It will always seem easier to control people than to love them; easier to own life that to love life. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter asked, “Can we sit at your right hand in your kingdom?” People like Ken Baugh who resisted the temptation to replace love with power to the end, give us hope and remain true saints.

Herein lies the second thing our text points to: If Peter's leadership is to be effective, not only will he have to let go of any pretence of power and control, he must be willing to stretch out his hand and be led by another. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in his confessions, tells how he could find no logical purpose for his existence. He was successful, happily married, rich, yet it all seemed pointless. He came to the conclusion that man only lived because he believed in something beyond himself.

St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, puts it another way when he wrote: “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.” And now everything is possible. Everything is possible because in Christ we are invited to think and to hope beyond this life. We are invited to think and to hope beyond fixed parameters, beyond the doubts scattered in our paths. We are invited to imagine a different world with new possibilities of living out our humanity. And yet, despite this possibility, we repeatedly hear the argument that human beings cannot change. “You can't turn back the tide,” they say, so “Go with the flow.” This, sadly, is the narrative we have bought into and accepted. And so we resign ourselves in accepting these things to be true, because, regrettably, we have focused our attention on personalities and institutions that reinforce, rather than change, human behaviour.

Not so for Ken, who believed that whatever we are, we might be different. He belonged to that generation of Jamaicans that believed in themselves and their ability to make a difference for the greater national good. And because he believed that, he had eyes to see the rich potential latent within everyone.

One of the tragic features of life in Jamaica today is that so many have become cynical in not believing, and therefore are not prepared to fight to preserve values that will ultimately enrich our collective lives. That's not a risk Ken took, and neither must we.

The good news for the Christian is that the Risen Christ is the source of new life and hope to those who choose to believe in him. This is not some empty promise that has no practical implication for our lives. It says to us that once our source of meaning is located in things that are imperishable, and in a future guaranteed by God, new possibilities will open up before our very eyes. This, I believe, was the passion that shaped Ken's life, where life for him was not simply a task, but a mission.

Such a spirit comes from a lifetime of commitment and trust. It doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't come easily. There are good days and there are bad, but there is always the thread of faith that ties us to Risen Christ who said, “Someone else will put a belt around your waist and lead you where you may not wish to go.”

After years of leading others, Ken finally stretched out his hand to be led by the one who called him my beloved. Today we thank God for his life of service to family and nation. May he rest in peace. Amen!

Right Reverend Robert Thompson is the suffragan bishop of Kingston in the Anglican Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.


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