I remember how soft his hands were.
I don’t routinely hold the hands of other men, but I do when the man is blind. In fact, we all did. We all held his hands, because this is how we guided him through a cluttered newsroom. And we helped him down the stairs to the cafeteria. That I remember very well. Then we sat with him as we ate our lunch together and enjoyed the company of one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.
Oh yes, I remember how soft his hands were. For the users of braille, soft hands are essential for comprehension. They allow a blind person to feel the bumps in the paper.
In the 1990s at BBC Radio Solent, I worked with the man with soft hands, one of the best broadcasters of his generation. He presented a whole variety of programmes before moving off to big-ger things in London. He now presents programmes for the disabled and is one of the presenters on BBC’s flagship consumer affairs programme, You and Yours.
His name is Peter White.
First, the expertise. Broadcasting is hard. Even when you’re sighted, it’s hard. There is an enormous amount of pressure. Deadlines approach every hour. The news at 3pm is never presented at 3.01pm. You must be ready. The idea of broadcasting as a blind person would turn most people to jelly. What if I’m not ready? How do I work in a world designed for sighted people?
To Peter White, however, it seemed effortless.
I used to be in awe of his ability to prepare himself. He would sit at his desk and listen to his producer dictate the cues (introductions) and links. His machine was a big clunky metal device not unlike an old-fashioned typewriter, and it stamped its mark on paper with the bumps of braille. Peter would scoop up his pile of paper with five minutes to go and someone would lead him into the studio. I used to think, “What would he do if those pieces of paper got mixed up?” He would be lost.
But he was never lost. Ever.
He was the consummate professional, running his fingers along the paper, reading his cues and then conducting his interviews with that smooth, silky, beautiful voice of his. He had a way about him—an extraordinary ability to connect with another person.
There are so many things I learnt from Peter. Here are some.
IMAGINATION AND COURAGE
I’m not one of those who believes the modern myth, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” Or “Anything is possible if you just believe in yourself.” I would love to run the 100m at the Olympics or play in a Wimbledon final, but sadly, that is never going to happen. No matter how much I train or “believe in myself.” And no, my inability to achieve these goals is not related to my lack of self-belief. It’s due to my age and my limited athletic ability.
So, no to positive thinking as an answer to all our problems. Peter didn’t think like that. He didn’t pretend that he could see. He knew he couldn’t. However, he possessed great belief in his abilities and he had great imagination. He didn’t look at broadcasting and say, “I can’t do that.” He looked at the obstacles he faced and figured out ways to overcome them. That requires both imagination and courage.
We all face obstacles in life, and some of us just get stuck. We succumb to our fears. We don’t exercise our imaginations to a sufficient degree, so we just stay inside the realm of possibilities we’ve always known. When facing a challenge, we often give in, because we lack imagination. And we lack courage.
We can do better. I know I can.
Peter White knew he was blind. He didn’t pretend that he could see. He, therefore, knew that, at times, he needed help. When we went to lunch, Peter could have used his stick to make his way down to the cafeteria. He could have worked his way past the obstacles, bumping his stick against chairs and desks to find his way through. But it would have taken time, and we didn’t have much of that. So he happily offered his hands, and we guided him down to the cafeteria. It was this gentle humility he possessed which marked him out as a person worthy of admiration. I think this was a character trait that made him such a good broadcaster. His humility and gentle demeanour made him approachable, and that is a great quality to have when you’re interviewing people.
Peter trusted those with whom he worked. Broadcasting is all about working in teams. For every presenter you hear, there is a whole team of people in the newsroom doing research, editing scripts, coming up with ideas, not to mention all the tech guys making sure the equipment is working. At BBC Radio Solent, I remember marveling at Peter’s ability to talk and listen at the same time. Even in the middle of an interview, the producer would talk to him through his headphones. Ask him about school investment. Ask her about what happened when she was lost at sea. He hasn’t answered that last question. Ask it again. These words would be filling his headphones at the same time as he was conducting the interview. And the listeners didn’t have a clue. He never hesitated, never became impatient, never gave any indication that he was both talking and listening. It was remarkable.
He trusted those around him. He trusted his producer to be there each morning with the scripts all ready to be typed up. He trusted those around him who brought him his tea, who made sure he could get to where he was going. He trusted the team who surrounded him and made him the great broadcaster that he was, and is.
This is a skill—and a character trait—that all leaders need. We all know about our need to trust God. That goes without saying. But what about our need to trust others? The truth is, when we trust others to speak, lead and take on tasks normally assigned to the leader, it’s possible that they will fail. It’s possible that they’ll mess up. But no good thing comes unless we’re prepared to set people free to develop their gifts. At some point, the chick must leave the nest and fly. This is scary but essential.
As I’ve watched church leaders over the years, one of the most serious deficits I’ve observed is insecurity. The insecure leader causes a great deal of harm to a community. Why? Because the insecure leader won’t let go of power. The insecure leader must always be the centre of attention. Yet it’s essential to trust others with tasks that take away your spotlight. You were never supposed to be the focus of that spotlight in the first place.
What did I learn from Peter? That you cannot truly thrive unless you trust others around you. Indeed, when you do, you all thrive together. I’ve written many times about the task of leaders to equip and release, but I make no apology for doing it again. Here is your job description in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
In the realm of story-telling, it is not uncommon for scriptwriters (authors) to create blind char-acters with exceptional wisdom. The unsighted see more than the sighted, and it’s often be-cause of their disability that they develop the ability to “see” more than others. When we read of such characters, or see them on screen, they often shame us. Our lack of faith, our pride, our insecurities are exposed by the simple faith they demonstrate. They see more than us, when we’re the ones with eyes. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes these well-known words.
For we live by faith, not by sight.
2 Cor 5.7
They are words with multiple applications. This verse comes in a section in which Paul is contrasting the life to come with the life of the body, and the suffering that must be faced by the believer, yet with eyes on the prize to come. It is a rich “body-and-soul” passage.
We live by faith.
Isn’t that the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? We must trust him, for our security is found in the Lord Jesus, and in him alone. Only he can supply our deepest needs. Only when we live by faith will we be ready to let go of our insecurities. And when we do, we ourselves will be released to become true “equippers and releasers” of his people.
Sometimes, we cannot see the way forward. We are blind to our own failures, to our insecurities.
Yet we live by faith.
To live by faith means trusting the One above. And in community, it often involves trusting those around us. So, when I hold someone’s hand, anyone’s hand, I’m reminded of the man with the soft hands. His name is Peter, he is blind, and he taught me a lot about imagination, courage, humility, and faith.
Especially faith. And for that I’m grateful.