02 November 2005

On Sunday morning, 4 February, 1968 exactly two months to the day before he was assassinated while talking on the balcony of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee – Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the pulpit of his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, George and delivered a sermon he entitled The Drum Major Instinct.

If your High School didn't have a Marching Band, or if you haven't seen many NCAA Division-1 football game half-times, or if you haven’t ever watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, then you might not be clear about what a Drum Major is.

Simply put, the Drum Major is the person who stays out in front of a Marching Band, leading with their voice and body language -- every step, movement, intonation and gesture inviting the band members behind him or her to stay focused, purposeful and moving in the same direction. This is the image Dr. King was referencing in his sermon.

The whole sermon is only 19 ½ minutes long; short by much of today’s standards. But King's words speak powerfully of the desire of Jesus to bring integration between what we say we believe, and how we actually live out our lives ... about moving past “good intentions” toward being Christ-followers whose words, deeds, and very lives, find both their genesis and rootedness in the Kingdom of God and its priorities.

Certainly, none of us can be measured accurately and completely simply by what we say … but by the congruity of what we say and what we do. None of us is perfect in this arena, but when it comes to our faith, if we’re going to grow up before we grow old, congruity of words and deeds has got to become the desire of our heart, the direction of our affection, and the goal we’re shooting for.
  • How are we actually doing at listening for His voice and obeying Him?
  • We say we want to “die to self and live for Christ,” but how are we actually doing at saying “NO” to the desires of our ego, our flesh, and to the impulses pressed into us day by day by our society?
  • How consistent are we becoming at saying “YES” to Jesus Christ, even when, or maybe most importantly when, He asks us to think and act differently than so much of the rest of the world?
Jesus Christ longs to help us bring our words and our deeds into agreement with one another so that we can live life with undivided hearts and minds. But back to the Drum Major ...

The Drum Major marches out in front of the band with a baton and a high-stepping gate. They’ve got everyone’s attention and nobody watching doubts that they’re leading the band, that they’ve got one purpose, and they’re not giving up. But here’s the thing … while the Drum Major is out in the front of the band, they’re not supposed to be what’s focused on. That honor belongs to the band ...and ultimately, to the one who wrote the music. And so if the Drum Major is really going to accomplish their job, they not only have to lead, but they also have to get out of the way, letting the music shine, and inviting the real focus to be where it belongs.

When Dr. King preached this sermon, he began by reading a story from Mark 10:35-45 – which is the story where two brothers, James and John, came to Jesus and asked Him if He would do them a favor. And Jesus, being the smart guy that He was, replied, “Well, tell Me what you want Me to do, and I’ll let you know.” And then James and John told Jesus that what they wanted more than anything else in the world was this: Once they were all in heaven, they wanted the honor of sitting on His right side and on His left side.

Now, when Jesus heard this didn’t seem ticked off … but He basically told them that they evidently didn’t get it, that they'd somehow missed the point of why He’d come and what He’d come to do, but that while they would be with Him again someday, that He wasn’t really in charge of the seating arrangements.

Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they were ticked off. And so to try and cool things off Jesus called everybody back into a huddle and said the words found in Mark 10:42-45 ...

You know that the so-called rulers in the heathen world lord it over them, and their great ones have absolute power. But it must not be so among you. No, whoever among you wants to be great must become the servant of you all, and if he wants to be first among you he must be the slave of all! For the Son of Man himself has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life to set many others free.” (The New Testament In Modern English / J.B. Phillips).

After Dr. King read this passage from Mark’s Gospel, he went on to point out some of the positives and the negatives of what he called “The Drum Major Instinct” that everyone of us is born with – this desire deep within us to lead … but not only to lead ... but to also get all the attention.

The negatives to the Drum Major Instict are obvious. When we’re out in front of the band it’s so easy for us to think we’re the big deal and soon we try to get all the glory ourselves. We couldn’t be further from the truth.

But there are also some positives to this Drum Major Instinct – and while they’re less obvious, they’re important for us to connect with. And the positives go something like this ...
  • God needs you and me to go after leadership positions.
  • God wants His people to lead the charge, to be at the head of the pack – both within the Body and out in the world.
  • God isn’t "anti Drum Major", but as Paul told Timothy (his friend and the pastor of the church at Ephesus), “We’re not called to a spirit of timidity, but to a Spirit of power and strength and a strong mind.” (Second Timothy 1:7)
  • When we say “yes” to God and move into positions of leadership, our vision, our determination and our purpose have to be found and rooted in God’s heart, or soon we’ll be crippled by all the dangerous side-effects of ego: arrogance, covetousness, and judgmental comparisons.
Don’t tell me that you don’t know what King was talking about. Don’t tell me you can’t relate to this temptation to cross over the line and get a big head, and begin to think that it’s all about us instead of remaining all about God and serving others. Dr. King was right.

It’s interesting that Dr. King used this image to describe himself and the role God asked him to fill. Dr. King wasn’t flashy like a real “decked out” Drum Major, but as he pastored his church and as he led the nation and the world in redefining peace, change and righteousness
  • He was willing to stand out.
  • He was willing to lead the way down roads that hadn’t been traveled before.
  • He was willing to let people’s eyes focus on him so that then he could then point them to God and to God’s heart and plans.
  • He was willing to take risks – huge risks – for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
  • He was willing to be put up to ridicule.
  • He was willing to let God entrust him with much for the sole purpose of being a steward of God’s gifts – learning along the way both the benefits and the costs of faithfulness.
After listing off all the things we don’t need to possess in order to serve … (a college education, subject-and-verb-agreement, an intrigue with or understanding of Plato or Aristotle, or a familiarity with physics), Dr. King reminded us of two things we do need ...

A heart full of grace
and ...
A soul generated by love

And it was that definition, that Dr. King said, made it possible for everyone to become a servant … to be a single-hearted, a single-minded, Drum Major for God.

Grace is the love of God that takes away our sin. Mercy is the love of God that takes away the pain of our sin. People with “hearts full of grace” come to God often for confession and forgiveness. Because who, if not the contrite person, knows more about God’s grace? In other words, as we begin moving toward greater servanthood, we will develop an intimate awareness of our own tendency to live out the sinful, ego-driven realities of the Drum Major Instinct.

And as this happens there will also be a growing desire and a deepening willingness to be “roused to honest thought” (cf., First Peter 3:1 / The New English Bible) about whether we really want all the glory to go back to God, or whether we’re holding onto it for ourselves. And as this happens, we will become equipped to ... Keep our focus on God and off ourselves, keep our priorities Kingdom shaped instead of self-shaped, and keep our vision rooted in the confidence of Christ instead of in the arrogance of pride.

Are you pursing "a heart full of grace?"

Dr. King went onto say that the person who serves as Jesus served will be a person whose “soul is generated by love.” And here we come back to this integration of what we think and what we do. Our soul is made up of ...
  • Our mind ... what we think -- What are we putting into our minds?
  • Our will ... what we decide -- How do our decisions reflect God’s heart?
  • Our emotion ... what we feel ... Is our faith shepherding our feelings or are our feelings steering us through life?
Now just to let you in on something … I struggle with this just as much as anybody else. Being a pastor-teacher doesn’t mean that I have the Spiritual Gift of Discipleship. There’s no such thing. If there was, I would be praying night and day for that gift instead of writing these words. But there is no such gift. It’s a choice each Christ-follower has to make each day … to serve Jesus or to not serve Jesus.

Listen to me, seriously … the opposite of love isn’t hate, it is self. To live life for ourselves as ego-driven Drum Majors, or to die to ourselves and live as broken, humbled, useable Drum Majors for Christ. How are we inviting God to generate, fuel, focus our minds, our wills, our emotions, with His love?

Bob Dylan was right when he sang that we “Gotta Serve Somebody”. It might be the devil, it might be yourself, it might be the wishes of somebody you feel indebted to … or … it might be the LORD. It’s your call. It’s my call.

Prayer ... God, we want to stop living life for our own reasons … we want to join You in new ways in the things You are doing. Teach us to take risks with You. Teach us to be instructed by You, shaped by You, corrected by You, trained by You. Give us "hearts full of grace" and "souls generated by love." We love You. Thank You for loving us, today and even when we weren’t giving You the time of day, or when we were actively working against You. It’s a miracle that You want to use us at all. Thank You for entrusting us with important work to do … work that may not get done in any other way if we ignore Your callings and purposes for our lives. Amen." Godspeed.



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