Dream life of Angels

Sometimes poetry allows you to say things more clearly by giving the reader more space. My feeble attempt in describing faith-driven growth.

I want to get up and move                                                                                                more.  The comfort of this                                                                                               couch seems to have shackled                                                                                           me down, not allowing me

to go where I want.                                                                                                                   I struggle against these                                                                                               shackles not for first time,                                                                                                    not for the last, but every day.

I want to get the key                                                                                                                to the shackles, I want                                                                                                      them removed, to get out                                                                                                    and live life, but I’m afraid

my legs will break when I stand                                                                                            for the weight they need to hold                                                                                              is heavy, not changing, constantly                                                                                  forced down by the pull

of an incessant force.                                                                                                        even if I could stand,                                                                                                                 I doubt I could move.                                                                                                            my legs may hold the

unbearable weight, but                                                                                                           to pick them up, balancing                                                                                                    for a brief moment on                                                                                                          just one of them, should surely

cause them to buckle.                                                                                                              I can’t face that, tears roll                                                                                                 down my face, running                                                                                                      from the thought of failure.  I want

that key.  I can see it,                                                                                                                I know what it looks like,                                                                                                      and in my mind,                                                                                                                        I know what it feels like.

I turn away, and look out                                                                                                          a window past myself, past                                                                                                  the consciousness of the shackles.

I am a bird.

I go where I want.                                                                                                             There is no doubt                                                                                                                    in my mind where I will go                                                                                                        I just don’t know where it is.

I don’t really care either                                                                                                             I just want freedom,                                                                                                          going from place to place                                                                                                  flying to get there, watching

the world move below                                                                                                         with nothing to hinder me                                                                                                  here.  I want to open the sky                                                                                               with a key that leads to an adventure                                                                                  and freedom.

I am music.

There are rules so I sound                                                                                                right, so that I resonate with                                                                                                 the one that plays my key.                                                                                                   We become the same and have a

synergy of all other strings played                                                                                          in our key.  I make up the sounds                                                                                          to the dream life of angels.

I am a business man.

The keys to my success are                                                                                               laid out in successive order.                                                                                      Following each one leads                                                                                                       to a satisfying life that doesn’t                                                                                        involve second hand clothing.

I am out of Eden,

shackled to my couch,

ready for life

holding the key.

Year in Review – 5 books I found most helpful/interesting/challenging

For most of my life reading was a purely mental exercise. What I mean by that is, I would read a book and learn a bunch of new things, but those new learnings rarely translated into new practices. The ideas learned were simply fodder to be used in conversations/discussion/debates to make me look well read and intelligent. What they didn’t do was shift how I thought, and more importantly, how I acted.

Let me add, this was also my approach to the Bible. I don’t think I am alone here. I believe this to be a massive problem within American Christianity. We live at a time where information is in excess. You can get your hands on books, commentaries, sermons, lectures, or studies easier than any other time in history. And yet for all the information that is available, there is little to show for how that information has impacted American Christians to live more obedient lives to Christ.

In effort to change my practice of learning, I am spending some brief time reflecting the five books that impacted me the most this year.

To Change the World – James Davison Hunter

There is a mandate on Christians to have an impact on the world around us. This mandate was instituted in the beginning when God breathed life into the man and woman, who were created int he image of the Creator God, saying to them, “Work in the garden and take care of it.” While not identical, in our work to fulfill this mandate we mirror God’s creative act.

Since the fall, this work has taken on a restorative or redemptive nature, again, to mirror God’s restorative and redemptive actions in the world. In other words, we work to make this a better place to live as God redeems and restores. This work has direct impact on culture. Hunter goes into detail about the differing views on what culture is. For some, culture is the sum total of the values that are held in the hearts and minds of people. For others, culture is what is produced by society in artifacts, art, music and the likes. His explanations, critiques and proposals on thinking about culture were extremely helpful.

The second part of the book moves into how those on the theological and political right and left, along with the Anabaptist approach their efforts to influence culture. He highlights how both the right and the left utilize power and authority to legislate for their particular morality, and how the Anabaptist choose to withdraw from the greater culture in lieu of using authority or power.

But perhaps the most intriguing idea put forth by Hunter was his idea of a faithful presence in the world. After highlighting the shortcomings of each of the aforementioned approaches, he draws upon the incarnation as a model to approach culture calling it, “the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it.” Hunter’s theology of faithful presence calls Christians to “attend to the people and places that they experience directly…[it] gives priority to right in front of us – the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.”

I think Hunter’s work is profoundly important as we continue to live in a society and culture that is markedly post-Christian.

A Failure of Nerve – Edwin Friedman

Friedman had my attention on page two when he wrote, “[this book] is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility.” That statement says a lot about the state of leading in our society. Friedman contends that throughout America there is a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try and remain a calm presence in the midst of a toxically reactive system. Rather than seeking emotional mature leadership, we have become a culture longing for quick fixes and band-aids that make us feel like a calm has been brought to the storm, but have done little to actually calming the storm.

This book challenged many of the assumptions I had about leadership, especially leadership in the church. To see such a challenge see my blog post here

The most challenging aspect to this book is that it will not give you easy solutions or techniques to make you a better leader. To become a better leader, one must better oneself. Leadership begins with who you are. If you are emotionally reactive, you can expect the system you lead to be emotionally reactive. As Will Mancini said, “You produce who you are.” A Failure of Nerve requires the reader to constantly look at self as they move through the content, and fight the urge to “fix” those they are leading.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times – Peter Steinke

I don’t think I have ever met a pastor who did not have a story about a congregation becoming anxious at some point. These stories are filled with other stories about frustrating, hurtful, obnoxious, and even sinful things people do in the midst of anxiety. Steinke actually says that according to his experience, four out of ten churches will face a moderate to serious conflict in any five year period. This book helps the reader understand anxiety and how it manifests itself within the system. This allows the leader to think systems as the move through and manage conflict. Steinke provides very practical suggestions in how to ones own anxiety as they seek to resolve conflict, as well as ways in which to minimize the negative effects of anxiety on the system.

My biggest take away from this book was two-fold: thinking systems when it comes to conflict management, and understanding that anxiety is not necessarily bad. Anxiety just is. Anxiety alone doesn’t hurt the system or organization. How the anxiety is managed, or not managed determines the effect of anxiety.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann

For anyone who has imagined a world that is not broken, but is as it should be, this book will fan that imaginative spark. Brueggemann looks at Moses and the Old Testament prophets efforts at creating a counter-community to what they experience in the world around them. We speak often of this in church. A world where status and ledgers don’t determine worth, but rather worth is determined by the intrinsic value of being a image bearer that all people have. We dream of a world where materialism and oppression don’t numb us to the world around, but we dream of a world where the imagination for something holy other inspires us to new living. Brueggemann encourage us to ask not whether “it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”

I found the following quote to be especially challenging.

“The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger.”

You Can Change – Tim Chester

I despise, and I am not sure it is for good reason or not, books and teaching that are systematic. If something “7 steps to…,” or “5 sure-fire practices…” or “11 things to do…” I will most likely never pick that book up. That is why Tim Chester’s You Can Change was so refreshing. This is not a “how-to” or a “Step-by-step” book. This is simply looking at the truths of the gospel and living into them in new ways to experience transformation in an area of our life that has yet to be obedient to Jesus. That’s it. Every chapter ends with thoughtful questions to help the reader engage an area of their life where they would like to see change. And these aren’t your typical study questions. These are real questions that, if taken seriously, will help people experience the gospel of Jesus to a deeper degree.

Those are my top five books of the year. What are yours?

The George Costanza approach to transformation

Last night I found myself enjoying a glass of wine and reruns of Seinfeld.  Why?  Because Seinfeld episodes are prolific…and spectacular.  So why not?  The episode I was watching was entitled “The Opposite”.  Near the beginning of the show George enters the coffee shop and claims,

Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

Who hasn’t felt this way?  Who hasn’t looked back over their life and wished that something could have turned out differently?  While many may not go to the extreme of saying their “life is the opposite of everything I want it to be,” it is safe to assume there is some part of our life that isn’t what we hoped for.  We may look over our life and wish we had contributed more to the well being of other people.  We wish we had a more positive influence on others in our lives.  Maybe we look at our relationships and, when we are honest, they are more shallow than we would like them to be.  We may look at who we project to be and who we are deep down and see two different people and long for the authenticity and courage to make those two people one and the same.

I believe the reason this happens is because we live in a world where pain is inevitable.  All of us have been hurt in life.  No one is immune.

And no one likes pain.

In response to a world where there is pain we develop self-protections to minimize pain.  We keep people at an arm’s length so there is less pain if the relationship breaks down.  We don’t say what we are actually feeling so as to avoid potential conflict.  We use humor to try and defuse pain.  We get aggressive when we feel threatened by a person or situation.  We withdraw from relationships when we first begin to sense pain.  We never try anything new or take risks because the thought of failure is too much to bear.  All of these (and there are many more) are self-protections used by us to avoid pain in a painful world.

While these self-protections keep us from pain, they also keep us from experiencing life.  Keeping people at arm’s length (or another way to say it would be keeping the relationships shallow) does protect you from pain.  But it also keeps you from enjoying an authentic relationship where you are truly known by another person and accepted for who you are.

Our self-protections are so ingrained in us they become instinctual.  When a potentially painful situation arises, we react out of instinct and we do what it is we do whenever a painful situation arises.  And because we react the same way every time, we get the same results.  So when George Costanza exclaimed, “Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat…It’s all been wrong” he was on to something very profound.

The instinct that tells you not to let people get to close to others is all wrong.  The instinct that screams your not good enough is all wrong.  The instinct that says you are defined by what you do is all wrong.  These wrong instincts lead us to a life that we never wanted.

If we want something different out of life then we have to stop listening to our instincts.

George comes to the following conclusion which drives the events of the rest of the episode.

Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

Maybe this is what we need to do.  So for example, if I wish I had more authentic relationships where I known, when my instinct tells me not to be vulnerable because it might be painful, maybe the best thing I can do is the exact opposite and be vulnerable.  Maybe then I will experience relationships where I am known.  If my instinct is to disengage from the relationship, I do the opposite and engage.  If my instinct is to become angry, I become quiet.  If it is to play it safe, I take a risk.  Doing the opposite of our instinct is doing something different, and doing something different will lead to something different.

Lady Gaga, irrationality, and leadership

A friend once gave me some great leadership advice. Leaders need to spend time trying to understand how the world occurs to a person in order to make sense of their actions. Why? Because no one ever wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “Today I am going to act in a way everyone else would think was irrational.” Rather, people act in a manner that is completely rational to how they view the world. If leaders understand how others view the world, then they can understand their actions.

I think this is great advice. Its insight is brilliant because of it’s simplicity. But it has me wondering…is there a singular rational way to live?

We live in culture that loves irrationality. Chance, collage, anarchy and deconstruction are things we adore. These are so ingrained in us as a culture we have no problems swimming in the incongruity enabled by them. For example, Lady GaGa could easily be considered the poster-child for post-modernity and irrationality. She crosses gender, sexuality and race boundaries seamlessly. The art of her performances seeks to display the role culture plays in constructing our identities. At the same time she sings, “I was born this way…” This seems completely irrational and paradoxical. How can one claim that gender, for example, is a social constructed label while singing that the way one is established at the time of birth long before society has a chance to construct something?

Back to my friend’s statement.

How do people view the world? If they see the world as paradoxical in nature and devoid of any absolutes then perhaps, the irrationality makes complete sense. Who is to say whether we are socially constructed or if we are born a certain way? What if it is a combination of the two? Perhaps it just arises out of living in a world that seems full of contradiction and irrationality. We live in a world that is beautiful and ugly, complex and simple, full and empty, hopeful and despairing, blessed and tragic. A world where at times all events seemed to be threaded together by a single narrative, and other times is seemingly individual events occurring in chaotic randomness. Surrounded by all that, how does one keep themselves from becoming irrational?

In light of this, I believe the advice my friend gave me is spot on. Admittedly, I often judge the behavior of others to be irrational. But it irrational to me.  Which is simply to say that based on how I perceive the world I have determined there to be a singularly rational way to operate irregardless of the circumstances and forces impacting another persons perception of the world.

As a leader, taking time to listen and understand why they do what they do provides many opportunities to lead.  Listening communicates a concern for the person and builds relational capital.  It allows the leader to learn and gain a broader understanding of the world and how it impacts those around them.  Finally,  it provides a place for the leader to facilitate greater change.  If a leader can understand how one acts based on how the perceive the world, they can help change, not only the action, but the perception of the world.  Which is absolutely transformational.  It is the type of change that affects the whole life of the person.  It changes how they think, how they act, their attitudes, and their relationships.

And as a leader, it changes me.