Falling into Grace

Can you imagine the conversation?  CIA Director David Petraeus and cyclist Lance Armstrong are biking together along the Potomac River in Washington D.C. on November 7, Petraeus’s 60th birthday.

“How does it feel to be 60 years old, David?  You’re in amazing shape for a man your age.”

“Well, Lance, you know how important it is to be physically fit.  Not only am I feeling great, but I have a wonderful wife and children, and my CIA work is challenging as well as fulfilling.   How about you?”

“It’s been a year.  I’ll say that.  All of my Tour de France victories are gone, but I know in my heart that I’m still a 7-time champion.  Why would I even think of taking PED’s (performance enhancing drugs) after coming back from such an aggressive cancer?  When you’re famous, everyone’s out to bring you down.”

“Yeah.  I’ll say.  People get great pleasure in seeing their leaders fall.  But you get used to the criticism.”

“I’m not backing down, David.  I’ve got to be true to myself.  I’ve got to live strong.”

“Yup.  Leaders need to lead by example and be decisive.”

     There was no bike ride and no conversation that day because of two heroes and two hard falls.  It’s not far-fetched, however, because this past summer Paula Broadwell, with whom David Petraeus had an affair, left a security forum meeting in Aspen, Colorado, to go for a run with Lance Armstrong.  Her goal was to persuade Armstrong to work out with Petraeus on his 60th birthday as her gift.  Unfortunately, something else trumped the bike ride.

On Friday, November 9, two days after Petraeus’s birthday and five days after Newsweek published an article called “General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living,” the CIA chief resigned his position.  Would that hero Petraeus had followed his own 12 “Lessons on Leadership” (hyperlink) in his personal life.

  • Petraeus Rule 1: Lead by example from the front of the formation.    

Retired General David Petraeus, the first hero, is one of the most honored and decorated military heroes of our generation.  He was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring to become the director of the CIA in September 2011.

When evidence of an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell became public, Petraeus announced his resignation with these words, “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair.  Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”

  • Petraeus Rule 4: There is an exception to every rule, standard operating procedure, and poli­cy; it is up to leaders to determine when exceptions should be made and to ex­plain why they made them.

Under the military law that governed Petraeus’s 37-year Army career, adultery is a crime when it may “bring discredit upon the armed forces.”   It may also cause a military officer to be vulnerable to blackmail and thus become a security risk.

Petraeus may have seen himself as the exception to the rule until he was caught in a scandalous web that extended beyond him to General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Jill Kelley, an unpaid social liaison at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and even the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.  Army values dictate moral integrity at all levels, but when leaders do not model that integrity it can become a sordid, embarrassing mess.

  • Petraeus Rule 5: We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear­ view mirrors – drive on and avoid making them again.

To his credit Petraeus admitted his mistake, although he had few other options after the betrayal of his family and colleagues.  As news of Petraeus’s resignation spread through the Pentagon on Nov. 9, some referred to him as “King David.”  Like the biblical King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, I suspect that David Petraeus’s character defect lay in the temptation of the powerful and those wearing many medals to believe that they are above not only the law but their own carefully cultivated rules for living as well.  The fall was hard.

Few athletes are admired more than the second hero, Lance Armstrong.  Armstrong was given less than a 50% chance of living when he underwent four brutal rounds of chemotherapy for stage-three testicular cancer in 1996.  A professional cyclist, Armstrong went on to win 7 Tour de France races as well as an Olympic bronze medal.

In 1997 Armstrong started the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a cancer charity devoted to promoting cancer awareness and research.  The foundation, which has sold millions of Livestrong yellow plastic bracelets, has raised $500 million since it was founded in 2007.   The beginning of the Livestrong Manifesto (hyperlink) expresses Armstrong’s rules for living:

We believe in energy: channeled and fierce.
We believe in focus: getting smart and living strong.
Unity is strength.  Knowledge is power.  Attitude is everything.

Accused for years of living strong and channeling energy through illegal PED’s and blood transfusions, Armstrong vehemently fought back.  Starring in a 2001 Nike commercial he said, “What am I on?  I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day.  What are you on??”

Armstrong insisted for years that he was the only cycling champion who was clean, but evidence mounted that Lance was, indeed, on more than his bike.  He was cheating by using banned substances, supplying drugs to his fellow team members, and bullying them into silence for years.

This past summer the U.S. Anti-Doping Association (USADA) published a detailed report revealing “massive fraud” and “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”  Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France victories and Olympic medal and was banned from any future involvement in sanctioned sports.  Still proclaiming his innocence, Armstrong declined arbitration.

This fall Armstrong resigned from the board of The Lance Armstrong Foundation, which was renamed The Livestrong Foundation.  He also lost his personal sponsors, including Nike.  The fall was a lot harder than any of Armstrong’s bike crashes.

     “Ashes.  Ashes.  We all fall down.”  It’s the human condition.  Falling down is an inescapable rule for living.  However, it’s not the last word, for every fall from grace is an invitation to fall into God’s grace.  For those who follow Jesus Christ, falling can become the catalyst for discovering our true self by leading a cross-shaped life.

A life shaped by the world is a false self and is characterized by striving for power, status, wealth, upward movement, recognition, and conforming to the world’s expectations.  The goal is success at all costs.  By contrast, a life shaped by the cross exhibits the true self and is characterized by humility, downward movement, service, and the letting go of ego.

Unfortunately, the default mode for humans is the false self, the self that prompts even revered and honored men like David Petraeus and Lance Armstrong to travel down paths they themselves decry but eventually succumb to.  Leaders are particularly vulnerable because their special treatment tempts them to think more highly of themselves.

Of course, living within the true self does not imply giving up all ambition, excellence, or the best use of our talents and spiritual gifts.  The heart of God leaps for joy whenever human beings tap into their greatest and highest abilities.  The key is retaining our cruciform shape by lining up our reality with the cross and using the character of Jesus Christ as our measuring stick.

     The good news is that God’s grace is always waiting to embrace us when we fall and make all things new.  It’s never too late for you and me and even David Petraeus and Lance Armstrong to live a cross-shaped life.  The apostle Paul offers a Rule of Living that brings wholeness and shalom to all who practice it.  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”  (Philippians 2:3-7a).

How do we live a cross-shaped life?  It’s not about military honors, fame, victories, or even the bike.  It’s about falling into grace and rising from the ashes through a complete and radical reorienting of our lives.  It’s about self-examination, spiritual friends, gratitude, self-emptying, service, justice, and integrity of heart and life.  And it’s about living a life that fully exhibits our passion to make a difference in the world.

Those who are shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ have only one goal: to reach the end of life and be able to say with joy, “I have used it all.  I have followed the way of the cross and emptied myself completely.  I have given everything I have and everything I am to the building up of God’s kingdom.  There is nothing left but grace itself.”

     I’d love to go on a bike ride with David Petraeus and Lance Armstrong.  I think we’d have a stimulating, cross-shaped conversation about falling into grace.  I wonder how I could arrange it.




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