A cold wind blew through the plywood press box protruding over the top row of empty metal bleachers at Green Run High School in Virginia Beach, Va. It was a rainy Friday night in late October, with only a few hearty fans in the stands for a high school football game being played on a soggy field I overlooked from my perch. How miserable was it? The cheerleaders wore rain gear and huddled for warmth. The marching band stayed home. The coaches relayed plays from the locker room, refusing to come out to the cold. The concession stands sold coffee on a stick.
OK, I made those last two up in a lame attempt to bring a chuckle. This happened years ago, as I started my communications career, so some of the details are a bit fuzzy. But the story is true and the vocational lessons learned guide me to this day.
Alone back then in an unheated, dimly lit, glorified tree house they had the audacity to call a press box, I bent over my yellow legal pad, charting each play of the game with a dull pencil and increasingly numb hand. I craved a hot cup of coffee in the worst way but the only thing on the menu that night was “humble pie.”
“Let’s see,” I asked myself, peering through the pelting rain. “Was that last run by number 32 a 3-yard gain or a 4-yard gain? Let’s be generous and give him 4 yards.”
How did it come to this?
Two years earlier I was covering the Green Bay Packers, not Green Run High School. Writing for a national news service, I was among the select few in a heated, glass-enclosed press box above legendary Lambeau Field, a press box stocked with piping hot coffee, the best stadium bratwursts in America and professional statisticians keeping me well-informed as the game went along. With much prayer and more than a little faith, I quit that fun job to get a master’s degree in journalism that would help me transition, I thought, from a sportswriter to a hard-hitting news reporter who would afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, expose evildoers, right wrongs and win a Pulitzer Prize (or two), humbly giving credit to God, of course, in my glorious acceptance speech that would be videotaped for aspiring young journalists to listen to and learn from for years to come.
Things didn’t unfold as I envisioned. After graduate school, with my wife six months pregnant with our first child, I applied to all the major newspapers I could think of in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The only job I could land was covering high school sports for the Beacon, a Virginia Beach tabloid inserted into The Virginian-Pilot a few times a week before it lined the bottom of many bird feeders. I seemed to be descending, not ascending, the career ladder, and felt confused, frustrated and, during particularly humbling moments like this, ornery. It was my first—and certainly not my last—encounter with “downward mobility.”
Over the years, I have learned a thing or two about this downward mobility, a counter-cultural lifestyle we as Christians are called to embrace, even in our jobs. Do a search for “humility” or “servant” in your Bible and you will see what I mean. You will eventually find yourself in Philippians 2.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So how can we live out this calling of intentional downward mobility on our jobs? Here are three suggestions this Lenten season.
ASK GOD FOR HUMILITY: I try to pray regularly for humility. One of my favorite verses is 1 Peter 5:6, which says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Take it from me, this is a lesson you will have to learn as a Christ follower, and it is far better to humble yourself than to have God humble you. That “due time” of lifting up (some translations say He will “exalt” you) rarely seems to be my chosen time, but His, with a notable exception. Sometimes I like to think of it as “dew” time, the early morning time of blessed, precious, intentional silence when I seek and receive His presence while the dew is still on the grass. Have you ever asked God for humility?
STOP PROMOTING YOURSELF: In this era of promoting your personal “brand” on Linkedin, on your blog (you do have a blog, don’t you?), to your boss, to your co-workers, to your customers and constituencies. This is somewhat radical, especially in a place like Washington where the perception of power is power, and power is the name of the game. There was a time when quiet, loyal hard work over years of service was more valued and rewarded by employers. Giving others on your team credit for a successful project while downplaying your role may seem suicidal, and perhaps it is. It’s certainly sacrificial, which makes it perfect for Lent. Try fasting from self-promotion for a few weeks. Let me know what happens (email address below).
SEEK SECRET SERVICE: I’m not talking about donning a dark suit and sunglasses to protect the president but finding small ways to serve others in your work. Make the morning coffee without letting anyone know who did it. Quietly volunteer for menial tasks. Better yet, just do them. Do excellent work, beyond the call of duty, to serve your customers. Take that struggling colleague to coffee or lunch to encourage him or her, and don’t tell another soul. The Lord sees and is pleased. Oswald Chambers, reflecting on Philippians 2:17 (see February 5 entry of his classic devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest”) put it this way: “Are you ready to be not so much as a drop in a bucket – to be so hopelessly insignificant that you are never thought of again in connection with the life you served? Are you willing to spend and be spent: not seeking to be ministered unto, but to minister? Some saints cannot do menial work and remain saints because it is beneath their dignity.”
After that miserable football game ended it was my job to interview and get quotes from the high school coaches and athletes for the article I would write.
Have you ever smelled a locker room full of grunting, belching, muddied, sweating, testosterone-charged adolescent boys after playing a football game in the rain? I sought and found the team’s quarterback getting dressed at his locker.
Award-winning journalist with a master’s degree: “On your game-winning touchdown pass, what did you see and how did the play develop?”
Inarticulate adolescent: “I looked up. Saw he was open. So I threw it.”
Award-winning journalist with a master’s degree, realizing that last quote stinks so he better come up with another question to try to get something useable out of this kid: “How did you feel when you realized he caught the pass and the game was essentially over?”
Inarticulate adolescent: “Cold.”
I wondered if Woodward and Bernstein experienced something like this. Sometime after that miserable game, exactly when I can’t recall, it dawned on me that my on-the-job attitude wasn’t exactly reflective of Philippians 2. I repented, asking God for humility, asking Him for new eyes to see who I can serve covering high school sports for The Beacon.
I soon began to notice articles I wrote cut out and proudly tacked on to bulletin boards outside the office of high school coaches. I became aware that when I mentioned some inarticulate adolescent’s name in the community newspaper a happy mother or grandmother called friends and family and put that article into a scrapbook which would one day be read and cherished by that inarticulate kid’s children and grandchildren. I saw how people who couldn’t get to the game, perhaps due to weather, truly relied on my reports for information.
This was community journalism. Covering the Green Bay Packers for a national news service, I never heard from readers and it’s unlikely many people cherished my articles as family keepsakes.
My grumbling turned into gratitude, my misery into joy. This was my calling for this season of my life, a blessed season of downward mobility.
In 2012, when this essay was first published, Mark O’Keefe was a communications consultant for nonprofits and businesses. Contact him at [email protected] and find him on Linkedin.