Leaping to Conclusions

Edwin H. Friedman says a number of good and helpful things in his book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Too easily, he says, we allow our emotional engagement in a system to lead to a sort of gridlock that kills imagination and shuts leaders off from exciting possibilities. He’s right. But like many good books on leadership Friedman overstates his case, bases it upon what appear to be wild generalizations, and takes too long to say it. I’m clearly not a fan of books on leadership (except this one!).

As an example of innovation freed from such constraints, Friedman points to the courage and innovation of Christopher Columbus to whom he credits the restoration of European greatness. In so doing, Friedman paints a picture of European malaise drawn from a 1493 publication called the “Nuremberg Chronicle”. We ought always to be suspicious of points made by reference to single ancient texts. And preachers, no less than leadership gurus, are guilty of this.

Imagine in the wake of a nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, the only historical record of our age several hundred years into the future are several fragmentary speeches of Donald Trump.
We would not want generalizations made about life now based upon such sketchy evidence. Rodney Stark, a Baylor sociologist, speaking of the late Roman Empire as an “experienced pollster” has reminded us that we ought not to characterize

“…the ‘feelings and thoughts of fifty-million people’ on the basis of a few fragmentary literay quotations.” (The Rise of Christianity, page 200)

This reminds me of the caution that writer Barbara Tuchman developed in her own presentation of medieval history A Distant Mirror. The negative will always be over-reported.

“A…hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The moral does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, Papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something….
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.” (pages xviii-xvix)

Writing this in 1978 Tuchman had never heard of the internet, or imagined how it could magnify this tendency.

I say all this to urge caution in the generalizations that we accept as true. I say it as well as a caution that we not be those, especially we who are preachers, who further mistaken conclusions by making them or repeating them.

Ministry for Hire?

I understand that journalism is a contact sport and that the competition for readers is intense. That does not justify the exploitation or creation of controversy, but it does help explain it.

Recently I was directed to an article in the Huffington Post on the compensation of those who head up some high profile religious organizations. Also popping onto the radar was the story of the suspension of the German bishop by Pope Francis after the bishop reportedly spent $42 million to upgrade his residence. As well, a report was recently released charting the compensation of a variety of college majors, in which religious professionals come in near the bottom (at around $42 THOUSAND, not million).

All this attention calls for comment, particularly given our human love for scandal and judgment.

The Huffington Post article especially brought out the worst in my judgmental spirit. That proponents of the so-called prosperity ‘message’ (I can’t call it ‘gospel’) show up near the top of this list, is no surprise to me. I find it odious, but at least their lifestyle is consistent with their message.

Harder to swallow is the presence in this list of those heading up organizations devoted, ostensibly, to ministry to the poor. Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse reportedly receives $500,000 annually, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners $200,000. I could only think of how our small church in Bradenton a few years ago scraped together boxes of basic supplies to be shipped to needy kids overseas under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse. If these reports are true, Graham could have used pocket change to hire someone to provide these in our place.

Such reactions, however, are precisely what Huffington is after. Scandal used to sell papers; now it produces hits, and hits add up to advertising dollars.

I don’t question the figures (though they are inflated as they include all benefits, something that most in calculating their salaries never do). But we who see such figures should not be so quick to judge.

After the wave of condemnation passed over me, I pondered the situation of Jim Wallis. We do not know what happens to this money once it touches his fingers. The article does not ask those questions. We know nothing of his lifestyle, we know nothing of his giving habits. For all we know, he’s living on $42,000 of it and giving the rest away. He may not be. But we do not know, and yet we judge.

But why is he being paid $200,000 in the first place? Perhaps that is not his request but rather the wise judgment of a careful board. They of course will see Sojourners as an important ministry doing significant work, and they have to know that it takes an extremely talented person to manage, inspire, and oversee such a work. They may be astute enough to know that though Jim Wallis as the founder may be willing to do that work for far less, not everyone would be. Responsibly, then, they build into their budget what would be required to replace one such as Jim Wallis should something sudden happen to him. To be responsible to the ongoing viability of the work, they pay their leader not what he demands but what it would require to replace him. They may do this in order to prevent a crisis in the ministry in the face of his sudden death.

I don’t KNOW that this is the case. I’m just saying that it is a very real, and in my judgment a very responsible, possibility.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, had in the last years of his life an unusually high income, due largely to royalties from his published works and sermons. He no doubt would have made Huffington’s list and we would have wagged our heads in judgment. But would such judgment have been deserved?

Wesley died with almost nothing, having resolved early on to give away nearly all he made. He had vowed:

“If I leave behind 10 pounds, you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.”

The point is, giving only one side of a story generates page hits and stimulates our judgmentalism. But it does not necessarily give us the truth.

I don’t know the backstory of these figures. But what I do know is that our sinful and judgmental hearts find in scandal the opportunity at self-justification, giving the occasion for us to stick in our thumb, pull out a plum, and say, “What a good boy am I.” Jesus condemns greed, for sure. But he condemns the judgmental spirit as well. And both are in need of a gospel cure.

A $42,000,000 home makeover may be scandalous (though, again, the backstory and the bishop’s defense never make it into our tweets). As well we may want to judge the average pay for pastors as scandalously low.

But clearly scandalous is our tendency to leap to the most judgmental conclusions on which the worst in journalism and politics depends.

Notes about Jobs

I don’t know if I will ever get to post anything substantive regarding the Walter Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs. A superb read, and stimulating for those who lead organizations striving for impact and beauty. Like a church.

Steve jobs book coverOf course, not all the lessons are positive. Some are sober reminders of perspective. Jobs changed our world – about few can that be said – in ways I deeply appreciate. And yet, though he changed the world, I have to wonder: did he ever shoot hoops in the driveway with his son? Makes me reflect on my priorities.

My normal bio and history diet includes dates like 1705 or 1905. I confess it is odd to read a bio that has sentences beginning with “By 2005…” with characters still alive and still functioning in the roles identified in the book. Very odd.

I look forward to discussing this book with others who have read it. (Among others, I’m looking at you JT, the one who insisted I read it.)

1776. 4th Down. 3 Seconds on the Clock. Washington Drops Back to Pass…

On Saturday morning I had no schedule. The family was away and I was alone. I sat on the couch intending to drink a cup of coffee and read for a bit. I drank a whole pot and read a lot. I read to the end, in fact, of David McCullough’s 1776. If I may indulge a sports analogy, I read like I was experiencing an 80 yard touchdown drive during the final 38 seconds of a football game. Though I knew how the game, I mean book, would end, I read away with tension thick.

This is the fourth of McCullough’s books I’ve read. That it is not his best is irrelevant, and only speaks to the quality of his other work.

McCullough’s intention is to take the reader through the first full year of the American Revolution from the military point of view. Congress in this book plays a minimal role as the focus falls upon George Washington’s desperate attempt to hold together an army of untrained and undisciplined men come together with disparate motivates and conflicting regional loyalties. That the army survived to see 1777 is nothing short of miraculous.

Washington’s failures and blind spots and weaknesses are on display. But also one sees his patience, his political wisdom, and his intuitive leadership skill. Much the same is seen in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s equally good Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Both Washington and Lincoln lead men of varying abilities and loyalties through a time of crisis. There are lessons to be learned here.

Leadership is not the only skill to be learned from these pages, however. I am captivated by the story-telling skill of McCullough, Goodwin, and others I’ve read recently, such as Walter Isaacson and Laura Hillenbrand. It would be worthwhile to return to each book and assess how they accomplish what they do.

Sure, I’d like to lead like Washington or Lincoln; but even more, I’d love to write like McCullough, Goodwin, Isaacson, or Hillenbrand.

The Diminishment of Life?

I began preaching this morning a series on the book of 2 Samuel. In the first chapter of that book (which could just as easily be understood as the 32nd chapter of 1 Samuel, so tied together are they) the not-yet-king David hears word that the recently-deceased king Saul and his three sons had died in the midst of Israel’s crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines. David does not celebrate this news, even though Saul had become an enemy, but mourns it, for there was much to mourn.

But he does not merely mourn. He leads those around him in an act of public lamentation that all might grasp the depth of what has happened. He is not an opportunist but a leader after God’s own heart. His grief is genuine, and his instincts are wise. To enable the public grieving, David composes a poem of lament which is preserved for us at the end of 2 Samuel 1.

Walter Brueggemann, in pondering this act, so unprecedented in modern society, reflects on our own temptation to devalue the power and significance of words to public life. There is something lost, he feels, in the temptation to silence all serious speech and to elevate calculation and technique.

I am persuaded that he is saying something important here, but its full importance seems just out of reach for me. I share his words here with an invitation for others to use the comments section to flesh out the significance, or irrelevance, of his reflections.

Interpretive words cannot catch the power, anguish, and pathos present in the poem of verses 19-27 [of 2 Samuel 1]. We may however identify three guides to its interpretation. First, words matter. Sound religion is so often a matter of finding the right words, words that will let us genuinely experience, process, and embrace the edges of our life. The cruciality of words needs to be at the center of the church’s life, for we live in a culture that grows mute by our commitment to technique. The dominant ideology of our culture wants to silence all serious speech, cover over all serious loss, and deny all real grief. Such a silencing is accomplished through the reduction of life to technique that promises satiation. But such a muteness will leave us numb, unable to hope or to care. Against such an ideological urging, speech like this poem is a bold, daring, subversive alternative. It is an assertion and enactment of the conviction that our humanness may not and must not be silenced. When there are no longer real words, but only cliches and slogans, life is that much more diminished. (Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, page 217)

Not a Recent Convert

This post may seem to come out of left field.

Well, technically it comes from the pitcher’s mound, the reflections of Dirk Hayhurst, a seasoned minor league baseball player, and the author of The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran.

He recently wrote an article for The Bleacher Report cracking a window on the world of professional baseball.

There is swearing in professional baseball, not to mention fighting, drinking, drugs, cheating, affairs, pornography, gambling, abuse, lying, stealing and just about everything else that would make your mother weep if she found out you were doing it.

Naked.

For some players, professional baseball is the worst thing to ever happen to them.

And as much as I enjoyed this as a baseball fan, I wondered about what being thrust into church leadership, into church office, into the pulpit, can do to some of us. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul says that an elder is not to be a recent convert.

Limpid Leader

Limpid

The picture above is of one Limpid Lizard, one of the cast of a favorite comic strip of mine from many years ago. I post it from sheer nostalgia and was reminded of this alliterative character by a recent book on leadership.

A number of years ago my friend Bill Mills told me to trust no leader who does not limp. In his mind, of course, was the incident along the Jabbok where in wrestling with the Angel of God Jacob learned the meaning of grace, and carried with himself forever the reminder of his dependence upon God. He became a limping, and trustworthy, leader.

Coming highly recommended to me by a fellow pastor, I recently read Dan Allender’s similarly slanted book Leading with a Limp. Allender’s contention is that no one can authentically lead without being honest about his weaknesses and sins among those whom he leads. Leadership can, in some circles, be all about bluster and deception, about assumed strength and self-confidence, with the consequent fear that if one’s weaknesses became known, leadership capital would evaporate. Allender dismisses such illusions with an appeal for leaders to me more honest and transparent, believing that a certain authentic strength arises from such.

To articulate with any authority Allender’s counsel may take another reading. Or perhaps not. Perhaps my inability to articulate the prescriptive side of Allender’s thesis arises from the weakness of prescription in the book. He does not quite seem clear on what it is I am supposed to do with this knowledge. And yet, what he says in many ways rings true. It is good to be reminded with all that is expected of leaders that being someone they are not need not be one of them.

Repentance

I’m too busy to blog myself right now, and so I am ‘inviting’ Dr. John Frame to do my blogging for me this morning.

All Christians confess in at least a theoretical way that repentance is important. We believe that all are sinners. Practically, however, we find it difficult to admit — whether to others, to ourselves, or to God — that we have personally done wrong and need to change.

“When someone criticizes our behavior, our first instinct is, too often, to defend ourselves. Although we confess in general terms that we have sinned, we don’t want anyone to think that we have sinned in any specific way. That attitude is even more prominent among people in authority. For them, the stakes are higher.

“For a prominent person, to admit to sin is to endanger the status that one may have carefully nurtured for a long time. So when a Christian leader freely admits sin and asks for forgiveness, many of us find that strange. It is impressive, however, not only because of its rarity, but also because of its profoundly biblical character. It marks people who aim to lead as servants, rather than as masters (Matthew 20:25-28).”

[John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, pages 331-332.]

Quiet Inspiration

Barb and I were blessed in college to have as our model of pastor and wife Willard E. (Mike) and Betty Michael. Pastor Mike and Betty loved us and shepherded us in ways we did not even realize then. It was while listening to Pastor Mike preach that I first learned what preaching was to be. It was the open door to their home that taught us, a couple not yet married, what an open and safe home could be like.

One day Pastor Mike and Betty invited Barb and I, an engaged couple soon to be married, to their house for dinner. Joining us for dinner was a couple from Colorado, Dr. and Mrs. Vernon Grounds. Dr. Grounds had been Pastor Mike’s teacher and mentor. Why Pastor Mike felt that WE should meet this couple, I cannot say. What transpired during that dinner is a distant memory. What I do remember clearly is that I left there with a twist on Henry David Thoreau’s assessment that ‘all men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Here was a man who stunned me with what I called his life of ‘quiet inspiration’.

Perhaps that is what Pastor Mike wanted us to gain from that evening.

Shortly thereafter, Barb and I were married. Surprisingly, and thoughtfully, there was in the stack of gifts a book entitled quaintly The Bride’s Book of Ideas: A Guide to Christian Homemaking. Attached to the gift was a card, which we have saved, wishing us great blessing in our marriage.

It was signed by Vernon and Ann Grounds. Photo on 2010-09-21 at 17.13.jpg

Dr. Grounds passed away last week at the age of 96. As I read testimonies about him from men I greatly respect here and here, I’m humbled to think that God granted to me, a nobody with no Christian pedigree, no evangelical connections, no special promise, an evening with a person of such character. And in the short time we had together I sensed what these men knew from long experience. What privilege God granted Barb and I.

Let the following paragraph set the tone, and then read these testimonies for yourselves. Consider the men and women God has placed in your life and long, aspire, endeavor, to be like them.

Vernon Grounds earned his Ph.D. in psychology. He was a certified scholar. But he rarely felt the need to refer to himself as Dr. Grounds. I cannot remember seeing him write the letters Ph.D. after his name as so many scholars are wont to do. That was not where he wished to make his impression. How can it be better said than simply that he was just Vernon, LOP … lover of people.

[Note: for some helpful thoughts on the desire to ‘imitate another’, read here.]

An Exemplary Response

Follow this link to a public response of the faculty of Covenant Theological Seminary to the sad and frustrating attention being given to one extreme “evangelical” pastor calling for the burning of the Koran.

Apart from the content of the response which is dispassionate and sensible, we can learn a great deal from the APPROACH taken. Two things stand out:

1. The authors of this response have shown great respect to the pastor and his flock by actually READING and interacting with what he has written and said, and not relying on the media distortions of what he MIGHT have written or said. This should always be our policy. Listen before we speak.

Christians have, for example, taken President Obama to task for his ‘support’ of the proposed NYC mosque. But how many took the time to READ what he actually said? (You can do so here.)

This is an important principle. If we are going to be critical, we should exercise great humility in doing so, especially if we have not directly interacted with what we criticize.

2. The authors practice a principle of gospel peace by finding all they can to affirm before they turn their guns to critique. This is so rare, and sadly rare among Gospel believing Christians. There is truth to affirm in a bad movie, in an awful hymn, in a questionable pastoral position, and yes, in a president with whom some have frequent disagreements. To affirm what we can before we critique is merely to practice what we have come to know as the Golden Rule. How many of us want to burn Terry McCoy as viciously as he wants to burn the Koran? We must always find what we can affirm before we criticize.

So, this is an important statement not only for its content but also for its approach. I hope we, at least, learn from it.