Saturday, November 26, 2005

Step Through the Looking Glass...

and dare to be more than those little voices of doubt say that you can be. Read Liz's interesting and inspiring piece.

Leadership Lesson #3: The First Thing Every Leader Must Do

In the movie, Rocky, the title character's friend, Paulie, is baffled. Rocky seems to have fallen in love with Paulie's sister, the awkward and seemingly unattractive Adrian.

"I don't get it," the tactless Paulie says. He wonders what Rocky sees in his sister?

"Gaps," Rocky explains. "Gaps?" Paulie wonders. "Yeah. I got gaps. She's got gaps. Together, we fill gaps."

The first thing a leader must do is make a fearless inventory of her or his strengths and weaknesses. They must answer two fundamental questions: What am I good at? What am I not good at? They must also ask the question, To what must I give my greatest attention? Then they, must recruit people to do well those things that need doing which they can't do and those important things for which they don't have the time.

Other than Jesus Christ, Who had the advantage of being God and human, no person has ever been omnicompetent. And even if such a person existed, none of us has yet found a way to overcome the constraint of time on our activities: We each have just twenty-fours in our days and seven days in our weeks.

A leader unflinchingly acknowledges the gaps in their skills, experiences, and giftedness and the time they have to spend on things. Then, he or she finds people who can fill those gaps.

This is why there are so few true leaders in our world. Acknowledging one's gaps requires a rare combination of humility and security, a willingness to militate against the inborn human impulse we all have to try to "be like God."

I know of only one way for us to acquire this rare combination of traits: From the Savior Jesus Christ, Who Himself possessed them.

Persons who turn away from selfish living and toward Jesus Christ receive more than just the forgiveness that allows us to live with God forever. Christ also brings the presence of God into our lives, allowing us to be clear-eyed in our assessments of ourselves, enhancing our capacity to be of use to God and the world.

"For by the grace given to me [through Jesus Christ]," the first-century preacher Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans, "I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." Paul goes on to compare the church, the organization whose life he's addressing here, to a body. All parts of the body are important, but each has its own function.

Real leaders know that. They realize that they're leaders not because they know it all or because they're better than anybody else. They understand that they neither can or should do it all for their organizations.

Often though, leaders allow their egos, or their insecurities, or their charisma to get in the way of organizational effectiveness. In his classic book, Good to Great, Jim Collins, points to the damage done to organizations by superstar CEOs--in the church, we might say, superstar pastors--who can't acknowledge their own gaps or ask others talented ways that they're not to fill them. The organizations of such megalomaniacs may seem to thrive for a time. But without a dynamic mutual filling of gaps, the organization inevitably dies.

Consider two presidents: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

I love Jimmy Carter. He's brilliant, insightful, and multiply talented. His commitment to following of Jesus Christ is beyond question. But Jimmy Carter's presidency was never all that it could have been because he simply couldn't let go of anything. At one point in his term, he was personally handling the scheduling on the White House tennis courts.

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, was relatively disengaged from his presidency. He showed up in the office at 9:00 each day. He didn't know everything that was happening in his administration. (This probably hurt him in the Iran-Contra Affair.) But by and large, Reagan succeeded because he didn't try to do or be everything. He let others fill the gaps in his competence and interests.

[Next installment: The inefficiency every leader must embrace to succeed.]

[Previous installments in this series:
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders]

Friday, November 25, 2005

Michael Jackson: Anti-Semite

I missed this story several days ago, pointed out by Andy Jackson on his blog. Unbelievable!

[Links to three past Michael Jackson-related posts:
Jacko, PJs, and Sympathy
Michael Jackson and the American Love of Clarity
The Effects of Fame on the Famous]

Thoughts on OSM, the Blogging World's Big Train Wreck

I tend not to talk about "inside blogging" stuff often here. Many of my readers don't read other blogs and could care less about what is often called, the blogosphere. (A term I dislike, by the way. It seems so 1960s Tomorrowland to me, not at all descriptive of a twenty-first-century phenomenon.)

But there's been a blogging world train wreck unfolding over the past week. At a New York City party, a new blogging clearinghouse was launched. (At least I think that's a good description of what it's supposed to be, although I can't be sure.)

The founders decided to call it Open Source Media (OSM), but quickly had to retreat from that since the name was owned by another corporation. They've now decided to call themselves, Pajama Media (PJM), the name which they'd originally taken for themselves in honor of an insult once hurled by a CBS news executive at bloggers as people who sit at their computers in their PJs.

At a deeper level though, the entire effort has been marked by a lack of clarity. The movers and shakers behind OSM/PJM seem to want to be media moguls while retaining the personas of blogging media gorillas. But their product thus far, seems aimless, superfluous, and vacuous.

Ann Althouse has been repeatedly critical of the enterprise and has now posted about the self-criticism happening on the OSM/PJM site. (To see the self-criticism, click here.) I had a few thoughts I shared at Althouse's site. They're shown below.
My take on the whole OJM/Pajamas Media business is:

(1) When they first announced the thing months ago, I didn't get what they were trying to accomplish and now that they've launched, I understand it even less.

They talk about encouraging the sponataneity and freewheeling-ness of blogging. But since that already exists, how is that encouraged through the establishment of a blogging portal that appears designed to create a blogging pecking order of ins and outs? The whole bunch seems to have traded in their pajamas for suits while wanting to pretend they're still in pajamas. It's bizarre!

(2) I think that part of the problem with the entire OJM/Pajamas effort is that it misunderstands blogging at a fundamental level, even though its founders themselves understand blogging very well.

While blogging is dialogical and creates all sorts of links and conversations between people, it is still fundamentally an individual pursuit.

And I think that's for the best. There isn't a single group blog that I read with any regularity. I like going to blogs where, on a daily basis, I not only will be informed or enlightened, but will have those things happen through the prism of a particular individual's perspective. The best blogs are written from the vantage point of one person, the more individuated and almost iconoclastic, the better.

Group blogs, which to the extent I can understand OJM/Pajamas, it appears to be, feel like conversations interrupted. They get homogenized and in the cases of both OJM/Pajamas and Huffington, corporatized. They seem irrelevant and very like the mainstream media they claim to eschew.

(3) I hate the logo. If the OSM logo looked like the symbol of a trucking firm, the PJM logo looks like something you'd see on the label of a women's garment.

Other than that, I think that Pajamas Media is a great enterprise.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

No Turkey Fire!

For those who may be wondering, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, with no turkey fire, no broken ribs, no endless work parties in our back yard, and no Vegetarian Wars. Instead, we enjoyed great food and good conversation. We also set out my It's a Wonderful Life collectibles on the mantel, fired up some Christmas tunes, and began the Christmas celebrating.

But our two children, now 24 and almost 21, who love each other very much but can still get on one another's nerves, brought the laugh of the day. The son, P-Diddy, told the daughter, my nickname for whom has always been MacDougall, "You always have to get the last word." To which she responded, "I don't have to get the last word. It's just that people always interrupt me." We all laughed...including MacDougall!

'Du Bist Deutschland' and the Tragedy of German History

I went to Technorati a short time ago and noticed that among the top ten blog searches in the past hour has been those for "Du Bist Deutschland," which means, "You Are Germany."

I have a soft spot for Germany, because it's the Lutheran movement's ancestral home, because my first parish was composed of the descendants of German immigrants, in a community where German music and culture were still revered, and because we have several German acquaintances and friends, including the family of an exchange student we hosted several years ago. At Christmastime in 2001, my daughter and I spent a week there and I enjoyed being able to preach at a Lutheran congregation in the northern village of Trappenkamp then. In addition, I've enjoyed close friendships with several Germans who live in this country.

Du Bist Deutschland is the tag line of an enormous PR-campaign designed to help Germans feel good about being German. But a problem has developed. A photograph has recently been discovered of a 1930s-era Nazi conclave in which a banner emblazoned with the motto, "Denn Du bist Deutschland," meaning, "Cause Your Are Germany" is shown. This evidently has caused a major controversy, calling the continuation of the entire campaign into question.

That German spirits need lifting is more than probable. Blogger Jeff Jarvis, a recent visitor to Germany, has written of his sense that Germans are depressed, and not just economically. Germans, Jarvis asserts, are sad. I agree with him.

Of course, Germany's high unemployment plays its role in this national malaise.

So too, I think, does disappointment that reunification has not proven to be the source of unmitigated joy that Germans probably hoped it would be, even though the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, comes from the East.

Another factor is the ongoing contraction of German social policies, a process that is both necessary and likely to be accelerated in the future, whatever happens to the "grand coalition" just taking over the German federal government.

But above all, the key source of German depression, I think, is its Nazi past. Repeatedly in conversations I have had with Germans through the years, they've expressed ambivalence about anything like national identity.

On New Year's Eve night in 2001 in Schleswig-Holstein, we all laughed and enjoyed ourselves. But when an innocent song extolling the virtues of Germany began playing on the stereo, one person asked that the song be skipped. When I asked why, I was told, "Because it reminds me of Hitler."

The song had nothing to do with Hitler or the Nazis. But for many Germans, it has become an article of faith that national pride must lead inevitably to gas chambers and war. (When this is understood, it also helps one see why Germans frequently question the actions of the American government which, for better and worse, often reflect a reasonably confident national self-image.)

This suppression of nationalistic feelings, coupled with the massive influx of Turks, has given rise to a backlash in Germany in the form of a small, but vocal neo-Nazi movement. Its existence, and the shame most Germans feel about its existence, only adds to the sensitivity Germans must feel over the PR-campaign's possible echoes of Nazi beliefs.

The tragedy of German history is that the German people, a group initially bonded together more by language than common ethnicity, has had little historical experience of national identity apart from an aggressive martial spirit and of course, the unspeakable travesty of the Holocaust.

Nationalism, Germans feel, has gotten them into trouble in the past and brought them shame. The overwhelming majority of Germans, understandably, while being completely willing to remember their past, wish to leave it behind in order to forge some new life. But even sixty years after the end of World War Two, Germans have apparently still not figured out what that new life will look like.

The Du Bist Deutschland campaign was designed, in part, to help Germans build on the positives of their past, a history that includes Bach, Beethoven, and Einstein. The discovery of this photograph from the Nazi past, sadly, brings the whole project into question.

[One of the best histories of Germany I have found is Germany: A New History by Hagen Schulze.]

A Thanksgiving Gift from Tod Bolsinger

Tod Bolsinger quotes from a book by a grad of MIT who lived with the deliberately primitive Anabaptists to understand what technology has wrought among us. Tod quotes a passage in which the author, Eric Brende, a Roman Catholic, describes the singing of the Anabaptists. In it, the worshipers, remembered many things; that is, they were mysteriously re-membered with all the people and events of faith history, such as what we Lutherans believe happens when we receive Holy Communion.

Several lines that Bolsinger sites from Brende's book particularly struck me:
Yet what the singers remembered was no less important than what they forgot: themselves. This music reached for something higher.
It seems to me that one key to thankfulness and really, to happiness, which is always reached indirectly rather than by a rough singularity of purpose, is to forget ourselves. It's also how we experience God's presence in our lives.

That, I suppose, is another paradox of faith in Christ: We experience God when we both remember and forget.

"What Does It Mean to Thank God With My Whole Heart?"

That's the question that the always-wonderful Mark Roberts examines by looking at Psalm 111, here.

The First Thanksgiving

Here is the only first-person account of the first Thanksgiving in America.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Will There Be a Turkey Fire? Or Will Something Else Happen This Thanksgiving?

Boing Boing reports that Underwriters Laboratories won't certify turkey fryers because they're too prone to starting fires.

One of many Thanksgiving stories our family remembers each year revolves around the Turkey Day when, even without a fryer, we nearly managed to burn down my brother-in-law's house. Most of us evacuated in a cloud of smoke, while my brother-in-law Mike hosed the bird down with a fire extinguisher.

Then there was the Thanksgiving when one of my ex-sisters-in-law decided that she would become a vegetarian. Even if one acknowledged the validity of her choice, Thanksgiving was an odd day to kick off this new regimen, of course, and there was some good-natured ribbing directed at her.

But soon my other ex-sister-in-law started riding the new vegetarian fairly mercilessly about it. Her roasting went on for the rest of the day. After several hours, the conversation got less than good-natured. (It's all on videotape.) As I recall, the entire discussion was lubricated by a might too much Cold Duck. We could have used a referee to send the two to their respective corners, but no one volunteered for that thankless job.

That same year, when our children were nine and six, Phil, the oldest, spent a good deal of the day tormenting his sister, Sarah. This intensified in the midst of the chaos of extended family members leaving the house at the end of the day. Fed up, Sarah bit Philip on the chest. His whelp could be heard three states away!

Maybe the most celebrated of our Thanksgivings was the one on which my wife bought a brand new TV at Meijer's at 6:00 that morning. By way of background, you should know that, at the time, we had a set that I insisted was still perfectly functional, even though the On-Off switch had broken off and it could only be turned on by sticking a screw driver into the hole left where the switch once was. Also lost was the remote control. So, moving from channel to channel meant surfing with our hands on the set, through every cable offering every time you switched stations.

But I was adamant. The set worked. We didn't need a new one.

My wife saw an advertisement for an early Thanksgiving Day sale at Meijer's and decided to make a surreptitious pre-dawn buy. She drove our 1986 Nova, which was just a Toyota with a Chevy Nova logo slapped on it, to the store. It was a small car and after she'd made the purchase, she realized the new TV set wouldn't fit into the trunk. She had to take the set back into the store, come back home, get our other car, take it to Meijer's, load the set, and bring it home before I woke up. Complicating her mission was the fact that our garage, with its noisy door-opener, was directly below our bedroom. In spite of the hurdles, she got everything done while I slept.

I'm not known for getting angry. But when my wife asked me to go to the garage with my brother-in-law and bring in the item she'd purchased that morning and I saw what it was, I fumed. Her family said that they had never seen me angry before.

Today, I can say that while I wasn't keen on my wife's strategy, I was in the wrong to have resisted replacing the old set for so long. My brothers-in-law love telling the story of the Thanksgiving TV. They bring it up every Thanksgiving.

When we were much younger, my brothers-in-law and I liked to play an annual Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day. All the males in the party were joined by folks from the neighborhood for this football game. And it wasn't that sissy tag stuff, either. We played tackle football. No pads. No helmets. No talent. No sense.

One year, my wife's cousin-by-marriage, George, joined us for this athletic extravaganza. He made it through the whole game. But later that night, unable to breathe, George asked his wife to take him to the hospital. There, it was learned that George had broken several ribs during our game. George never played in the Turkey Bowl again.

The rest of us didn't have sense enough to take this a sign. Another year, the kid brother of a friend of my brother-in-law, Dan, played with us. I was a substitute teacher at the time and this kid had been in one of the classes I taught the week before. He was a mouthy kid at school and he continued his mouthiness during our game. He issued a steady stream of insults and taunts my way, which I basically ignored for nearly an hour.

But finally, Dan, as passive a guy as you'll ever meet, but powerfully built, had had enough. On the next snap, he put a fierce block on this kid, knocking him on his backside. With the kid still on the frozen ground, Dan told him, "Shut up or I'll kick your kidneys out!" "Kick his kidneys out?" I asked between giggles. I laughed so hard at that, I couldn't breathe.

One Thanksgiving gathering was held in rural northwest Ohio, where we lived at the time. The turkey was so hideously bad that I immediately took it to the burn barrel for summary re-execution. Twenty three years later, the memory of that bird's bad taste still elicits squints.

And then, there was the time a few years back when my wife told our extended family members that there were a few shrubs in our backyard that needed trimming and asked if they wouldn't mind bringing chainsaws and other equipment for a short family work detail. None of us had any notion of how big a project my wife had in mind. Nine pick-up truckloads later, I told her on behalf of the rest of the group that that was the last year she was to be in charge of our Thanksgiving social activities.

I wonder what stories we'll tell about tomorrow?

A First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: Mark 13:24-37

[Inspired by something my colleague, Tod Bolsinger, said at the GodBlogCon gathering last month, I've been sharing some of my studies of Biblical passages on which my message for succeeding Sundays will be based. I ask folks for their feedback, insights, and questions.]

This weekend begins a new Church Year, the first week in that season called Advent. It lasts for four weeks and comes before Christmas. Advent is a word that means coming. The season remembers the coming of God to our world in the Person of Jesus Christ. It also anticipates His return at the end of earthly history.

Traditionally, the color of the season was purple. More recently, it has been blue, alluding to the hue of the sky, emblematic of the endless hope that Jesus Christ brings to all with faith in Him.

This Sunday's Bible lesson is Mark 13:24-37.

Mark is the shortest of the four New Testament books called gospels. The word gospel descends from an Old English compound word, God's or good (the word good comes from the word God) news or message. This directly translates the word in the original Greek of the New Testament, euangelion, the good news that all with faith in Jesus Christ have eternal life (John 3:16). In the strictest sense, Jesus is our good news. Christian faith is about a person, more specifically a relationship with a person, God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth.

As a genre of Biblical literature, the four New Testament books called gospels tell the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. But they're not really biographies. Their interest is limited to Jesus as the bringer of the good news. They tell us that He lived and ministered, did signs verifying Himself to be humanity's Savior and God-enfleshed, refrained from sin, voluntarily took death on a cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sin, and rose from the dead. Only two of the gospel books--Matthew and Luke--tell of Jesus' birth. Only one--Luke--mentions His boyhood.

Each of the four Gospels have their own characteristics and emphases.

Matthew is often seen as a Christian version of the ancient scribes. Some even see his book as being divisible into five "books," echoing the first five books of the Old Testament, referred to as the Pentateuch.

Luke uses more sophisticated Greek, sometimes even creating compound words in the language. Luke can best be described as an historian, quick to show the specific place in history when Jesus acted. His book includes the greatest number of parables, including the Good Samaritan and the most exquisite portrayal of God's grace, the Prodigal Son. In both his gospel and in the other New Testament book he wrote, Acts, Luke shows the link between prayer, an invitation by believing people to God, and events on earth.

John is the artist and the philosopher, an evangelist--a good newser--who most clearly originally addressed to a mixed Hebrew and Gentile audience. He was steeped not only in Hebrew Biblical faith, but also Greek philosophy. John most clearly emphasizes the God-ness of Jesus. He is an exquisite writer and in any given section of John's Gospel, there are between three and ten themes running at the same time.

If Matthew is the scribe, Luke is the historian, and John is the artist, I would say that Mark is the reporter. He tells the story of Jesus with the same sort of breathlessness you can hear from CNN's Wolf Blitzer. (I often wonder when Blitzer is going to come up for air.) Emblematic of Mark's rapid-fire style is his frequent use of the word immediately (eggus or engus in Greek). The point of this word is twofold: It demonstrates the action of God in Jesus Christ and the immediacy of God's presence through the Savior.

Scholars often describe the four Gospels as "extended passion narratives," passion being the word for Jesus' sacrifice of Himself on the cross. (The word passion, also from the Greek, originally referred to a person loving another so desperately that they're willing to die for them.) "Extended passion narrative" is especially descriptive of the Gospel of Mark, which tells the story of Jesus so quickly.

More on the specifics of the text in a later post.

UPDATE: For an extensive discussion of the Markan context, check out this overview by Ed Markquart.

"My goal in life is to be thankful for all of this"

Richard Lawrence Cohen, a writer of perception and beauty, has a post of incredible honesty. There are some rough places in the narrative, describing the rough places through which his life has passed. But you will be treated to the reflections of a man still searching for the transcendent...and something else.

The apostle Paul once encouraged a group of Christians to "be thankful in all circumstances." Note Paul didn't say to be thankful for all circumstances. Only a masochist would be thankful for pain or tragedy. But it is possible to be thankful in all circumstances, to, in Richard's phrase be the "zebra baring his neck to the lions" and somehow in the midst of that experience, find things for which to be thankful. It's even possible to be thankful for all that we learn in the difficult and painful experiences of life.

Speaking for myself, it's in those places of desperate vulnerability that I most clearly sense God's presence. Devoid of any capacity to prevent the pain, I run through the thistles while crying out to God. I find Him to always be there. But then, you'd expect nothing less from a God Who Himself became human and suffered on a cross to be one with us, then rose from the dead to be our Lord and Advocate for all eternity.

Read Richard's post. Happy Thanksgiving!

"Gratitude is Good for You"

So says Jan at A View from Her. She's got research to back it up. So, get healthy this Thanksgiving Day: Take it easy on the third helpings and spend some time being thankful!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Two Views of 'Walk the Line'

The new Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash biopic earns enthusiastic kudos from one of my favorite bloggers, Danny Miller. But another fave, Charlie Lehardy didn't care for it.

Interestingly, Charlie, a devoted Christian and a liberal Democrat, felt that the movie gave little attention to Cash's faith. Danny, who is Jewish, was by contrast, attracted to his perception of the film's portrayal of the tough and tolerant love of Christian faith.

I guess I'm going to have to go see Walk the Line now and make up my own mind. But one of the things I love about the blogging world is that it engages people in dialogue who otherwise would have never known each other. And that, I think, is a very good thing!

Reflections on JFK's Assassination, the Unthinkable, and the Reliable

Some tragic events are of such magnitude for us that their details chisel themselves into our memories, collective and individual.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, were that for my parents and grandparents.

More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have brought such memories to all of us alive on that day.

But today is the anniversary of another such event, the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

I remember that it was a pleasant, uncommonly warm November day in my hometown of Columbus. I was in the fifth grade at Westgate Elementary School. Our regular teacher, Mrs. Cleo Goldsberry, was not with us that day. Her substitute, Mrs. Shrum, the grandmother of one of my classmates, Cindy Smith, was a retired teacher and the class, as was obligatory with substitutes, gave her a hard time all day long.

Like most of my classmates, I walked home for lunch each day and returned for the afternoon session. I did that day too, and then tried to pay attention as I digested my food and looked out the window at the sunny day.

At about two o'clock that afternoon, the familiar voice of Dr. Harold Eibling, the superintendent of the Columbus Public Schools, broke in on the school P.A. system, carrying the signal of WCBE, the school system's radio station. He announced that President Kennedy had just been assassinated, that it was a sad day for our country, and that our classes would be dismissed.

I'll never forget the look of horror that crossed Mrs. Shrum's face. Her reaction was emblematic of the sentiments of many pundits and ordinary Americans in the days following the assassination. Of course, there had been several U.S. presidents assassinated in our history, the last being William McKinley sixty-two years earlier.

More recently, the divisive and megalomaniacal Senator and Governor Huey Long had been gunned down in Louisiana in the 1930s. There had been an attempt on the life of Franklin Roosevelt just prior to his inauguaration in 1933 and Puerto Rican separatists had been foiled in their plot to kill Harry Truman in the 1940s.

But we had the notion that in the modern, sophisticated 1960s, America had become too civilized for such things, too advanced. Something like this, we thought, was foreign to America.

Tragically, Kennedy's death seemed to be the opening act in a long killing season. Within a few years, Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy would all be felled by assassins' bullets. Alabama Governor George Wallace, running for the Democratic nomination for President in 1972, would be shot by a would-be assassin; Wallace remained paralyzed the rest of his life.

Many people say that America lost its innocence on November 22, 1963. I don't know if we did or not. But I can say that for the first time in my young life, what had previously seemed unthinkable no longer seemed so. Illusions about the certainties in this life were shown to be naive.

I'm sure that Kennedy's assassination, along with the flood of violence in the 1960s, the turmoil of the War in Vietnam, the struggle for civil rights, the riots in our cities, and the supposed certainties of science, with its unintended appeal to my adolescent ego, all had a role in my becoming an atheist in the early-1970s. No doubt this was born of the naivete that the reliability of God was somehow tied to the reliability of human beings or the functioning of a natural world burdened by the effects of human sin.

But I'm also certain that all these cataclysmic events played a part in my coming back to faith in the God made plain in Jesus Christ, the solid center, the Rock on Whom we can rely even in the midst of uncertainty and chaos.

Jesus has said that heaven and earth will pass away, but His Word, the same Word uttered to create the cosmos and that He later spoke to declare repentant sinners free and call dead men back to life, will never pass away.

"Thy Word is our great heritage," Martin Luther declares in one of his great hymns.

"Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path," one of the Old Testament psalms says.

A short time after the September 11 attacks, a woman told me that they had driven the last vestiges of faith from her. I told her that for me, they had driven me closer to God. More certain than ever that while we human beings have our parts to play in fighting evil, we can't face life's uncertainties without God's help, I had called out to God and felt His consoling presence in His Word, in my times of prayer, and in the fellowship of others seeking to follow Him.

If the cataclysmic events of today cause us to lose our confidence in the human race or in the clockwork-like functioning of nature, that's a good thing. It's only when we divest ourselves of the illusions of self-sufficiency or of the ultimate reliability of leaders, systems, or nature, that we become open to calling out to the God we know in Christ. The Bible promises that all who do so, will have Him in their lives...for good and forever.

ALSO: Charlie Lehardy had similar reflections on the assassination of President Kennedy.

With Merkel's Elevation to Chancellor, History Made in Germany

Angela Merkel became German chancellor today. She is the first woman to hold the post. Perhaps even more significantly, she's the first chancellor from the former East Germany.

But all is not well, as the BBC reports:
In the Bundestag 397 MPs voted for her, but 51 members of the governing coalition voted against her.

The BBC Berlin correspondent says this is a sign of the problems she will face in the future.
Interestingly, Merkel's foreign policy proposals would move Germany closer to the U.S. That may be of little long-term significance if she proves unable to hold her fragile coalition together.

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 20

[I've been presenting summaries of discussions in a group I convene at our church on Tuesday evenings. We're looking at the Old Testament book of Genesis. All the quoted Bible passages below come from The Message by Eugene Peterson.]

Genesis 38

1. Genesis 38 is one of those places to which scholars point as evidence that a long oral tradition, usually thought to have come from four different sources, was brought together by a later editor, not always seamlessly.

Some are troubled by this notion. But I think that we have to assume that the editors who pulled these various strands of the Patriarchal History, the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the ancestors of ancient Israel, together were not unaware of these seams and that they allowed them to remain, no matter the seeming inconsistencies. They did so for the sake of showing us different realities about God, God's grace, and God's people.

2. But personally, the excursion we take in Genesis 38 seems as irrelevant to me as the genealogy of Genesis 36. This seems especially so because we've been introduced to the compelling Joseph saga and then abruptly, find ourselves interrupted by the story of Joseph's brother, Judah.

Some scholars suggest that this abrupt intrusion heightens the suspense and interest in the Joseph story. It does have that effect.

3. To understand what happens in chapter 38, you need to know about levirate marriages. Under this system, if a married man died before fathering a male heir, the next oldest unmarried son in the deceased man's family was obligated to marry his brother's widow. The first son they produced would then fall heir to the late man's property. (Only the eldest son inherited property.)

4. Judah's oldest son is said to have "greivously offended God" and lost its life for it. Judah then instructed the next of his sons to sleep with his brother's widow. "But Onan knew that the child wouldn't be his," we're told, "so whenever he slept with his brother's widow he spilled his semen on the ground so he wouldn't produce a child for his brother." Genesis tells us that God was displeased with what Onan did and he too, died.

5. Judah's next son, Shelah, was much younger than the others. Judah told Tamar to live as a widow until the boy grew to manhood. But, fearful that Tamar (whose name means Palm) was bad luck and would prove fatal to yet another of his sons, Judah didn't fulfill his promise to provide his widowed daughter-in-law with a husband.

6. This is when Tamar concocted a plot. In ancient Hebrew culture, almost every life event and profession had its own peculiar attire, far more than is true today. Tamar had been dressed in the attire of a widow. She cast that aside and put on the veil of a prostitute. Her anonymity allowed her to spring a trap on Judah.

Another common practice those days, not among the Hebrews, but among the multiplicity of other religions practiced in the region, there were some that legitimized the practice of religious prostitution. As bizarre as it seems to us, there was an idea that consorting with such prostitutes was a sacred act. (See here.)

7. Of course, when the now-widowed Judah meets the woman he takes to be a prostitute at a sacred site, religion is far from his mind.

Tamar exacts a pledge of payment from Judah, his "seal-and-cord," or his signet, and his staff. As Gerhard von Rad notes, "The objective value of the two objects may have been small, and what could such a woman do with the signet of a strange man! But for Tamar the pledge was invaluable because it bound Judah quite personally to her." Von Rad goes on to explain "Herodotus says...that every Babylonian [of the era] carried a signet ring and a skillfully carved staff...; in Israel it can only have been the sign of a well-to-do-man, of a fine lord."

The seal, von Rad also says, was "a small cylinder that one rolled over the soft clay documents and wore on a cord around one's neck."

With these objects as blackmail, the relatively powerless Tamar hoped to force Judah into meeting his obligations under the provisions of the levirate marriage custom.

Judah was surprised to learn that when he sent his friend to recover his pledge and remit his payment, there was no prostitute "by the road near Enaim" and never had been. Surprised or not, Judah doesn't think anything more of it. He didn't care if the prostitute had his signet and staff.

8. Three months later, Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant. He was outraged. Tamar was a member of Judah's household and as such, it was thought that he was, with the legitimization of witnesses from the community, able to execute judgment against her. Some Old Testament law provided that women caught in prostitution could be burned to death and others proscribed stoning. Judah was intent on burning Tamar!

(An interesting sidebar for us in light of contemporary discussions about abortion is that in his resolve to burn Tamar for whoredom, the only evidence for which was her pregnancy, Judah apparently gives no thought at all to whether it would be right to bring death to the child in her womb.)

9. In the midst of his righteous indignation, Tamar calmly sends a message to Judah: "I'm pregnant by the man who owns these things. Identify them please. Who's the owner of the seal-and-cord and the staff?"

Presented with this incriminating evidence, Judah says that Tamar was in the right and he had been wrong to withhold his youngest son from her.

10. After the improbable tale of the birth that follows, the story ends abruptly.

Is there some value to this story? Maybe it's this: God can work in the lives of imperfect people. The tribe of Judah would go on to play an important role in Israel's history. You could look it up.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sparse Posting, An Explanation

The posting has been slimmer over the past several days because I've got a bronchial/sinus infection that has knocked me for a loop. I went to see a doctor today and he prescribed an antihistamine and an inhaler. By tomorrow, I should be feeling better and hopefully, posting more. Thanks for your patience!

Leadership Lesson #2: The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders

Read almost any book on leadership, whether it's written for business people, academics, clergy, or others, and you'll see essentially the same piece of advice. Leaders, they say, must start with and harp on a vision.

Some insist that the vision must well up from the leader, from his or her gut or as the result of prayer. Others commend a process that develops consensus through a systematic poll of an organization's stakeholders. But however it comes about, the gurus tell us, once a vision is identified, it must become the roadmap, the obsession, and the mantra of the leader.

There is merit to this, of course. But a vision can become a prison for a leader. It can also become an excuse. I knew the leader of a large organization who was big on "the vision thing." It dictated his every decision, to the point of his neglecting the necessary care and feeding of his subordinates and failing to take advantage of opportunities that would have been well-suited to his company. Inertia set in and soon, it became obvious that when he talked about vision to his board or employees, they were tuning him out. He resigned his position.

Don't get me wrong. Leaders need to have a vision. But their visions must be kept in tension with other elements of the leaders' art. A helpful article appearing in the latest issue of Leadership magazine profiles lay and clergy leaders of churches that have turned around to grow after plateauing numerically. One of the article's conclusions: "Turnaround leaders pay careful attention to team building and timing, not just vision."

Caring about people and being sensitive to when it's time to forge ahead, or consolidate, or innovate are at least as important as vision. Vision is overrated when these other attributes of leadership are subordinated to it.

[In the next installment of this series, I'll talk about the first thing that a leader must do.]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Leadership Lesson #1: The First Thing a True Leader Must Be

[Most of what I know about leadership, I've learned through failure. This is the first of an occasional series I intend to present here on lessons I've learned from those failures, other experiences, my reading, and my observations. I hope you find it helpful.]

I was ordained as a pastor in 1984, four-and-a-half years after I'd left the political world and started seminary, nine years after I graduated from Ohio State.

Time and again, seminary classmates had affirmed that I was "a leader." And it's true that throughout my life, including those years before I went to seminary, whenever I was thrown in with a group of people, I seemed to always and involuntarily emerge as a leader.

But after being told so often what a naturally-gifted leader I was, I may have become a victim of my own "good press." I was a bit too sure of myself, at risk of developing the greatest mistaken attitude that leaders can adopt, a sense of entitlement. People with this attitude see themselves as being in a superior class. Those with a sense of entitlement may be "bosses," who throw their weight around, but they're not leaders. Bosses can't inspire respect or superior performance in others; leaders do that.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, you'll find the story of Joseph, favored son of the patriarch, Jacob. When Joseph was young, he apparently had a strong sense of how his father's shepherding business should be run. He also had the gift of "dreams," a spiritual capacity for envisioning things.

While he was undeniably imbued by God with the capacity for visionary leadership, Joseph demonstrated his lack of maturity when, as a young man, he used his gifts to squeal on his brothers to their father and when he gloated over dreams indicating that one day he would be their lord.

It was only after enduring the crucible of hard experiences that Joseph's leadership qualities, once a justification for arrogance, were tempered by the realization that a real leader is, first and foremost, a servant.

Of course, the ultimate servant-leader was Jesus Christ Who, on the night of His arrest and betrayal, did the slave's work of washing His disciples' feet. He then told the disciples that anyone who aspired to be with Him or to do God's work in the world must learn from His example and be a servant too.

Without adopting the attitude of a servant, a leader will never fulfill the promise of her or his life. They'll be fatally focused on themselves. I'll talk more about this in later installments of the series.

[Next installment: the most overrated quality for a leader.]

Real Faith Risks Giving

[The following message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on November 20, 2005.]

Matthew 25:14-30

The story that Jesus tells this morning is likely one that you’ve heard many times.

A master, preparing to go away on a long journey, gives whopping sums of money to three of his slaves, in lots of what were called talents. To one slave, he gives five talents; to another, two; and to a third slave, he gives one talent.

Now, there’s no reason for us to feel any pity for the third servant. One talent amounted to between 75 and 96 pounds of silver and equaled what one day laborer would have received for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years of work. So, the Master is generous to all three slaves. He gives them their money, tells them he’s going away, and leaves.

Later, the master returns and asks the slaves to tell him what they’ve done with the money he gave them.

The first two report that they’ve found ways to double the master’s gifts. The master is so pleased that he invites the two to party down with him and he gives them greater responsibility.

The third slave, probably confident that he’s done the right thing, explains that out of fear of losing anything the master gave him, he had buried his one talent and now was bringing it back.

The master isn’t pleased at all. “How wicked and lazy can you be?” he tells the third slave. “At the very least, you could have opened a savings account and gotten a little interest.” Then he orders that the one talent be taken from that slave and given to the first guy. And the third servant is sent away.

There are three things I want to say about this story this morning. After that, we’ll have a prayer and I’ll invite you to individually bring forward both your offerings for this coming Sunday and your estimates of giving for 2006. Immediately following that, we’ll have our lunch. (On December 18, we’ll be asking you to estimate how you will use your time and talents in the ministries of our congregation in 2006.)

So, three things. First: It’s important to understand that the master in Jesus’ story didn’t simply entrust this money to the slaves, he gave it to them. That doesn't come through very well in our translation. The word describing the master's action in the original Greek of the New Testament is paradidomi, which means to give over or hand over. The talents given to the three slaves was their money to use, to invest, to disburse, or to squander. The choices about what to do with those gifts were theirs to make.

My first car was a 1963 white Dodge 330. Some of you may remember those cars. I called it The Tank. I bought it...for a dollar from my grandfather. He gave the dollar back to me after we’d had the title work notarized. In other words, it was really a gift. And it was a pretty valuable gift, too, because my grandfather, just like my other grandfather, and just like my father, was a mechanic. (Which I most definitely am not!) When he gave that car to me, it was in tip-top condition. How do you think I responded to his gift? I ran that sucker into the ground. In fact, I did that with the first five cars I ever owned. We didn’t know what it was like to trade a car in until we moved here in 1990. (Even then, I wondered why the car dealer had given us any trade-in on our old car!)

Now, here’s the point: Our lives and the minds and bodies we use in order to gain our incomes are all gifts from our master, the God we know through Jesus Christ. So too, is the new and eternal life that goes to all with faith in Christ. Gifts like these demand a response of gratitude from believers in Jesus Christ. The way I treated the car my grandfather gave me didn’t display gratitude to him. I pray that the way I give my money and the way I live my life display gratitude to God for all His gifts to me. So point #1: God’s gifts deserve our gratitude.

Point #2: The master in Jesus’ story gives no specific instructions on how his gifts are to be used by the slaves. He just gives them and leaves.

You and I, as followers of Jesus, live in what can be called the in-between times. We’re in-between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension into heaven, on the one hand, and His return, which will happen some day, on the other.

Jesus has given some general directives to us. They’re called the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, five directives that we studied as part of our 40-Days of Purpose earlier this year:
  • Worship God with our entire lives;
  • Live in genuine, upbuilding fellowship with God’s people in the Church;
  • So open ourselves to God’s Spirit that we grow to become more like Christ;
  • Serve others in Jesus’ Name; and
  • Tell the world about the free new life God offers to all with faith in Jesus.
But Jesus never tells us exactly how to do those things. Like the slaves in His story, we must decide for ourselves how to live in this in-between time, how to take the gifts God grants us--including our finances--and live faithful, useful lives.

In a few moments, in conversation with God in personal prayer, you and your households are going to be asked to decide how much of your financial resources you will be giving to this congregation's mission and ministry in 2006.

As I mentioned in my email to all of you a few days ago, Jeff and Nanci, from our congregation, decided several years back to tithe--that is, to give away ten percent of their taxable income as it appears on their tax return each year. Some of us may be unable to do that. Some may be able to do much more than that--with a portion of it going to Friendship’s ministries.

But whatever you and I decide, we who live in these in-between times have the same sort of awesome freedom the slaves in Jesus’ story had. We are given the choice of how to respond to God’s gifts to us.

Point #3: Like the slaves, we’re to do something with God’s gifts to us. A number of years ago, Guideposts’ annual book of daily devotions had a piece written by a young man majoring in business who apparently had a talent for investing in the stock market. By the time he’d reached the end of his junior year in college, he had apparently gotten very successful at it and looked down his nose a bit at his parents for failing to make the most of their money. At home for a break, he made a few comments about this to his folks and how he believed they could do better with their investments.

One day during his visit home, he accompanied his mother to a mall where they ran into a young person he’d never met. She had benefited from a scholarship provided by an organization of which his parents were an active part and to which they contributed gave money. His mother explained, smiling, “That’s one of our investments.”

Pastor and author Randy Alcorn says that we Christians can’t take our money with us. But we can send it on ahead to heaven. We do that by investing in people. People are the only things besides God that will endure after this world has ended. We invest in people when we become involved in worthwhile community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club or Habitat for Humanity. And of course we do it when we give to the Church, which proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ that can change people’s lives for eternity.

At Friendship, we haven’t even begun to do all that we could or should do to make investments in the people of this community that can pay eternal dividends. We need to hire a full time youth director, a music director, a ministry coordinator, a director of assimilation, and a secretary.
  • Growing churches don’t staff in response to growth.
  • They staff in response to God’s gifts and they anticipate the growth that God gives when they’re willing to invest in people.
  • I dream of Friendship being that kind of church. How about you?
Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen wrote something which you may have seen cited on my blog this week. To be a good and faithful servant of Jesus, he said, “is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and takes risks.” What sorts of risks may God be calling you and me to take today?

Methodist pastor Douglas Mullins tells the true story of Belinda, a member of one of the churches he served. Belinda had become the single parent of a five year old son when her husband left her after she’d had breast cancer. He left when he realized that she would be disfigured by the surgery she’d undergone.

One night, she was tucking her son, Ryan, into bed, reading a story to him, when he interrupted to ask if she had bought the book she was reading for him. “Yes,” she said. And had she bought his bed? “Yes.” And the house in which they lived? “Yes.” And the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes” was the answer again.

As Mullins explains it, Ryan “thought about how good [his mother] had been to him...and finally said, ‘Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.”

In this matter of giving, none of us has anything that God needs.

But if you and I are going to faithfully respond to His call on our lives, if we’re going to express our gratitude to God for all His gifts, if we’re going to find our own unique ways of responding to God’s gifts, and if we’re going make investments of eternal significance, we need to give.

The decisions you and I prayerfully make today have nothing to do with God’s need of our gifts and everything to do with our need to give.

Think about that and pray about that as you prepare to make your financial commitments to the ministries of Friendship for 2006.

[The entire series of which this message is a part was inspired by the fine work done by the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.]