Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
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Last Night with Lenny

Thursday evenings, a small group of us gather on Zoom to talk about leadership. Last night, we reflected on the life and leadership of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Such an intriguing figure, though much of my life has little in common with this musical genius. It’s enough for me just to coordinate with Alexa to get to the right Pandora station.

But there’s something I can relate to—Bernstein’s sense of time. As he approached the third third of his life, he said, “I don’t mind that I’m aged, that my hair is white, that there are lines in my face. What I mind is the terrible sense that there isn’t much time.” We only have so much of it, and unless the moments are seized, they are lost. “Moments,” writes McManus, “move in a timely manner, and time waits for no one.”

As critical as it is to manage our time, the more important task is to manage our hearts. This will determine how we manage our time. Proverbs admonishes— “Above every watch, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov 4:23). I like Peterson here— “Keep vigilant watch over your heart, that’s where life starts.”

We can confuse the mind and the heart, but they represent two different parts. Robert Louis Wilken captures the dissimilarity well—”Unlike the mind, which is acquisitive, aggressive, critical, and competitive, the heart is receptive, open, pliable. It is an organ to be filled, a thing to be ignited. The mind receives on its own terms, filtering, discriminating, judging, but the heart is patient; it waits, watches, listens, makes space for what it is to receive.”

Time urges us to keep watch over both, but especially the heart. “We live from our heart” (Willard). It is the core of our being, the “executive center” of our lives. It is here our outlook, choices, and actions are formed. In other words, what our lives amount to is largely, if not entirely a matter of what we become within. Hence, we must give a level of attention that transcends anything else we keep.

I’m not sure Bernstein got this. He made some unfortunate choices in his latter years. He kept watch over his music but was all too careless with the heart. We can do the same. We can become more attentive to wearing our masks to protect from destructive viruses, while leaving our hearts wide open to more serious diseases—hate, scorn, unforgiveness, virtue-signaling, and silencing those we disagree with. These, it seems, are doing the greatest damage to our culture’s health.

Keeping watch over the heart is a daily job. A core discipline. Praying the Psalms, notes Wilken, is one way. I am finding this to be some of my most important work. Each morning I join with the Psalmist, who speaks words of gratitude, disappointment, sorrow, delight, fear, awe, distress, joy trust, desire, shame confusion, praise, and adoration. His words become my words. I am saying things to God I would never say on my own. I am expressing emotions I did not know were there. And through it all, the heart is renewed, strengthened, and ready—to deal with time.

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