Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Greatest Generation

This morning I had the opportunity to hear a World War II veteran tell his story.  A Navy medical corpsman, he was on a landing craft that supported the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.  The vessel ferried the injured and the dead from the beaches to England and returned for more.  On the fourth trip, June 16, the landing craft hit a mine and was broken in two.  Of the 150 men aboard, only some thirty survived including my friend.  After floating in a life raft for less than an hour, he and some other survivors ended up on a Liberty ship and finally returned to port.

Men like my friend knew that their lives were on the line when they entered military service in WWII.  For young men like him, life had been simple up to that point, but they had never had it easy.  After all, they grew up in the aftermath of the Depression when times were hard and opportunities were limited.

My friend completed his service in the States and was mustered out when he was 21 years of age.  He shared with me the personal and spiritual impact of being one of the few to survive on his ship.  At a very young age, his life was changed forever.  He returned home to be a good citizen, a loving husband and father, and a committed churchman.  Only recently has he started to talk candidly about his experiences in the war.

As we talked, I thought about my own father who served in the Pacific in the war.  My mother was at home, gave birth to me, and then went to work in the war effort.  Although some paid the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives, most of the Americans of that generation made major sacrifices for the war effort.

Tom Brokaw has called this group “the greatest generation.”  They won the war and came home to have children, build industries, and reenergize a nation.  They met the challenge that was set before them.  There are so few of them who are still with us and they deserve all the love and respect we can give them.

Monday, May 30, 2011


Memorial Day is designated to remember those who have died in the military service of our country.  In worship this weekend, one of our church members reported that 1.3 million Americans have died in all of the wars this nation has fought from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.  I believe that this is also a good time to remember others as well—not only the honored dead, but all those who have worn the uniform and those who have stood with them. 

In most of the conflicts of the 20th century in which the United States was involved, there was a common sense of sacrifice.  My grandfather was drafted to fight in World War I and was in a troop ship ready to put out to sea when the Armistice was signed.  My father was drafted and served in World War II in the Pacific.  Both men answered the call to service.  During both of these wars, especially WW II, there was significant personal sacrifice at home as well, not only among the families of those serving but everyone.  Many goods were rationed, industries were on a war footing, and women went into the workforce leaving children at home to be tended by others.  Everyone was part of the effort.

Things changed with the Korean War and even more so with Vietnam.  Certainly there was a draft, but there were also many exemptions.  I chose to enroll in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in college before I even knew where Vietnam was located.  By the time I received my commission, it was the primary destination for draftees and enlistees, whether Reserve, National Guard, or Regular Army.  In many ways, life went on as usual in the US while our military was engaged in Vietnam, that is, until the protests began.

Today, we technically have an all volunteer military.  These are men and women who have chosen to serve.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on with little or no disruption to the lives of average Americans.  There is no sense of mission or shared sacrifice involved.  The sole exceptions are the families and friends of military personnel.   They pay the price in separation, anxiety, and sometimes loss.

On this Memorial Day, I would like to remember not only those who have worn the uniform and are serving now, but their families.  When I went to Vietnam, it was not only a sacrifice on my part, it was a sacrifice on the part of my wife and my parents.  Their anxiety and uncertainty were tempered by their faith but these concerns were daily companions.  The same is true of the loved ones who pray for their soldiers, sailors, air men and women, and Marines today.  They all deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

50 Things Your Life Doesn’t Need

This is a book that is best taken in small doses.  I would suggest a chapter a day.  It’s not that the material calls a person to deep meditation, but the ideas presented here deserve time for reflection and rumination if they are to have the desired impact. 

Although there is little here that is profound and much of it is common sense, the ideas shared can be life-changing.  Davidson’s purpose is to challenge each of us to consider the things that get in the way of pursuing our passion—the thing that will bring us true fulfillment in life.

Some of his comments will cause you to smile, some to frown, and some will just get under your skin! Some things here will challenge you; some you will just find meddlesome or preachy.  Either way, you have the opportunity to consider whether to embrace the idea or not. 

I have my favorites in the collection and there are some with which I struggle.   In writing about “Perfection,” Davidson rightly points out that no one is perfect, but one can be remarkable if one finds and pursues his or her passion in life.  His key comment on “Poor Finances” is certainly appropriate—don’t spend more than you earn!  I am under conviction about his comments on “Instruction Manuals:  Learn Something Intimately” because I tend to be a generalist and would do well to learn more about less.  I am downright offended by his idea that you should get rid of college and seminary textbooks (even though some of mine are 50 years old).

Davidson simple asks that we take a clear look at what is really important in our lives and then to make some choices.  Once we have considered and cast off some of these hindrances, he suggests several questions to help clarify one’s vision.

  1. What do I spend time thinking about the most?
  2. If I’m known for only one thing, what is it?
  3. What do I value?
  4. What must I do every day?
  5. What do I tell other people about myself?
  6. When do I feel fulfilled?

Take a look at “50 Things Your Life Doesn’t Need.”  The insights you receive and the objections you raise may bring some clarity to your life and free you up to pursue your passion.

How Broad is Your Agenda?

Everyone has a particular worldview.  These are the preconceptions, ideas, and perspectives that help us to understand the world in which we live.  A worldview is not necessarily right or wrong.  In fact, it may not even be based on facts, but our worldview determines how we function and the nature of our agenda in life.

By agenda, I mean those things that are important to us, the things to which we will give our attention.  These are the things that give focus to our efforts and determine our priorities.  As we look at our work as Christians, our agenda is usually to build something.  We want to create something that is enduring and redemptive.  It seems to me that we as Christians tend to focus on one of the following agendas.

First, an agenda to build the local church.  This may take many forms and most of these are praiseworthy in themselves—reach people for Christ, develop them as disciples, stand with them in their personal struggles.  The danger here is that the church tends to become too inwardly focused, helping and serving those within the body without regard for the world in which believers dwell daily.

Second, an agenda to build a denomination.  The American faith community excelled at this task in the mid twentieth century.  Denominational agencies provided abundant resources, a strong identity, and aggressive ministries.  The downside was that every denomination, even those that professed to practice “local congregation autonomy“began to exercise some control over the churches.  If you wanted to be a “real (fill in the blank) church,” your congregation had to adopt certain programs within the congregation and support specific ministries (without question) beyond the congregation.

Third, an agenda to build the Kingdom of God.  As Christians have become dissatisfied with narrow sectarianism and denominational bureaucracy, they have started to notice that there are good things happening among other believers beyond their own congregations and denominational “tribes.”  Some of these things are being done by other churches and denominations but these ministries may be conducted by ecumenical, parachurch, or even secular organizations (see Tom’s shoes or Bread for the World as examples).  This agenda is especially attractive to young adults who are more oriented toward ministry than theology (that discussion is a matter for another day) and more concerned about putting their faith into action that discussing the reasons why they should.

Is it possible to embrace all three agendas at one time?  Not likely.  Once we perceive that “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21), we cannot help but make it our only agenda.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Speak No Evil

The featured speaker at last Saturday’s “Healthy Relationships—Healthy Living” conference sponsored by the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee was author, educator, and trainer Barbara Coloroso.  Her emphasis was on parenting and teaching and specifically on breaking the cycle of bullying.  In an interesting and informative way, she explained the roles of the bully, the bullied, and the bystander in this unacceptable process.

Coloroso pointed out that bullying is not about anger or conflict but about contempt.  She writes,

Contempt comes with three apparent psychological advantages that allow kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion or shame.  These are:  a sense of entitlement; an intolerance toward difference; and a liberty to exclude.

Although she is a nationally known expert in this area, her work is not limited to youth and to school campuses.  Coloroso has done work in places like Rwanda were dehumanization led to genocide.   Her latest book, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide is based on this work.  When carried to the extreme, bullying can lead to mass murder.


Coloroso’s work is a warning to those of us who find ourselves in conflict from time to time.  In these situations, there is always a tendency to label and belittle those who oppose us.  In so doing, we make those who disagree with us less than human so that we can justify the things we do and say.


Take a look at Coloroso’s work.  I think you will find it informative.



Monday, May 16, 2011

God is Not Finished with the Church

Pastor and writer Doug Pagitt has commented, “God is never finished with creation, and God is never finished with us.”  The same is certainly true for the church.  As we reflect on the church, its beliefs, and its practices over the last two thousand years, the developing and changing nature of the church is certainly clear.

In his sermon yesterday morning, Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, pointed out the dynamic, changing nature of the church.  He explained that a church that is truly alive is always changing and never achieves a final form.  So what does this mean for us?

First, don’t get too comfortable.  Just when we think we have found the best and most effective way to practice “church,” something will come along to upset the equilibrium—human need, culture, or new technology.  Very often, I will hear people say. “Things got worse for the church [the Southern Baptist version anyway] when we lost Discipleship Training (or Training Union or Baptist Young People’s Union).”  Of course, they fail to realize that the church got along without this form of spiritual formation for 1900 years. 

Second, don’t hang onto things once their time is past.  Edwards Deming once said something to the effect that “yesterday’s solution is today’s problem.”  Creativity has a short shelf life.  Basic concepts may not change but the ways in which they are implemented do.  The best lesson that a trapeze artist learns is when to let go of one trapeze and grasp another.

Third, be prepared for conflict and confusion when things change.  One organizational guru said, “It’s not that people don’t like the change; they just do want to BE changed.”  The discomfort that comes with changing the way we do things is not welcomed by anyone, but the consequences can be rewarding.  Bringing a new baby into your home will permanently change your life, but you certainly understand the long-term rewards that come from this change!

Fourth, listen for the voice of God.  Mike Smith said yesterday, “The church is sustained by the presence and power of God.”  The church is also moved to act by the voice of God.  We hear the voice of God in church members who express unmet need, in the challenges our external community throws our way, and in the quiet moments at night when we just can’t sleep because some burden is on our hearts. 

God is not finished with the church yet.  I find that rather encouraging.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Embracing Your Past

I sat down Friday night and watched the two-hour series finale of Smallville.  This concluded the program’s ten year run and perhaps the longest superhero origins story ever mounted.  I liked the series early on, but I have dropped in infrequently in recent years.  I stayed with it through the Kryptonite “freak of the week” period and the “superhero of the week” era, but lost interest six or seven years in.  For one thing, I think I missed Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) who was as complex a figure as Clark Kent/Kal-El (Tom Welling), the series’ protagonist. I also was tired of the “soap opera” dimension that was obviously provided for a younger demographic.

When the program debuted, the producers promised “no flights, no tights.”  Although they did violate the first rule from time to time when Clark was not himself, the new producers did allow a memorable flight in the finale although we never really saw Welling in the complete red and blue costume. Even so, we were given a relatively smooth transition into the fully-developed Superman story.

The finale brought back most of the major characters including Lex and provided a couple of nice montage sequences for Clark and Lex.  It also returned to some themes that were central to the early stories.  At least two were voiced by Lex.  For example, Clark was the “chosen one” and did not want it, whereas Lex consciously sought that role and pursued every scheme to achieve it.  Clark was blessed and was not ready to accept it while Lex hungered for the blessing.  Again, Lex pointed out that a person is known more by his enemies that his friends.  Those who oppose us, according to Lex, take us to greater heights.  You can see why I have missed the Lex/Clark dynamic.  It was complex and engaging.

The idea that the series’ creative team seemed to push in the finale was the need to embrace one’s past.  Only when Clark was ready to embrace both his growing up years as a human in Smallville and his alien identity was he ready to fulfill his destiny.  This was nicely depicted as Jor-El, his Kryptonite father, provided the costume, but it was actually given to him by his foster father, Jonathan (John Schneider).  In his acceptance of the costume, Clark embraced the blessing of both fathers.  He acknowledged all that he was.   And, yes, there are certain messianic connotations there.

Certainly the struggle to understand and embrace our past and the things that have made us who we are is one that everyone must consider.  For good or bad, we are the product of what has gone before. As we consider what we hold on to and what we bury, we establish an identity.  When done properly, we become the persons God intends us to be.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"We Don't Talk About That"

Bill Karlson, a career coach, presented a program at the Tennessee Coaches Alliance meeting today.  As he explained the process he uses in working with clients, he posed an interesting question.  He asked, "In dealing with career change, what do you address first--resume, goals, feelings, or skills? 

Although I will not share my response, my choice was not Bill's.  He believes that it is important to get the client to deal with his or her feelings first.  Feelings can be a stepping stone or a stumbling block.  The person must process feelings--anger, hurt, sadness, shame, or even joy--associated with the present or previous position before considering the next career move.

In the discussion, someone pointed out how difficult it is to get men to discuss their feelings in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter!).  Karlson acknowledged this and spent some time talking about how to get around this reticence.

This incident caused me to think about feelings in church staff settings.  I am convinced that spiritual and relational issues are at the core of a healthy church staff team but it is difficult, especially in a male-dominated team, to get relational or feeling concerns on the table.  Men will go to great lengths to avoid discussing feelings and have developed elaborate systems to keep this from happening.

Since all of supervisors have been male, I have pretty much bought into this system and have few alternative models at my disposal.  This awareness challenges me to consider processes and exercises to deal with feeling issues in groups as well as becoming more vulnerable about my own feelings.   Not a bad insight.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nobody Goes to Church

Seth Godin’s primary field is marketing, but he shares some ideas in his daily blog that must be applied to the church.  In a recent blog, he commented on “Marketing to Nobody”: 

Nobody wears a watch any more. Nobody wears a tie either.  Nobody shops at a bookstore, at least nobody I know.

The market of nobody is big indeed. You can do really well selling to nobody if you do your homework. In fact, most companies selling to nobody outperform those that are trying to sell to everyone.
In my reading, I come across a lot of information about declining church attendance.  I also read the comments of some that “nobody goes to church anymore.”  Declining attendance is pretty well documented but complete lack of attendance is not.  On any given Sunday (or Saturday night), millions will make their way to a place of worship and participate in the services offered there.  This provides an opportunity for the church to move these individuals from attendees to participants. 
Although I am a strong proponent of the church reaching out beyond its walls, I also realize (as Godin would say) that there are a significant number of folks within the walls who are prime candidates for deeper involvement.  If given the opportunity, they can become committed and involved disciples.
 The staff ministers of our church are taking seriously the questions to measure member engagement found in Albert Winseman’s Growing an Engaged Church:
  1.          As a member of my congregation/parish, I know what is expected of me.
  2.          In my congregation/parish, my spiritual needs are met.
  3.          In my congregation/parish, I regularly have the opportunity to do what I do best.
  4.          In the last month, I have received recognition or praise from someone in my congregation/parish.
  5.          The spiritual leaders in my congregation/parish seem to care about me as a person.
  6.          There is someone in my congregation/parish who encourages my spiritual development.
  7.          As a member of my congregation/parish, my opinions seem to count.
  8.          The mission or purpose of my congregation/parish makes me feel my participation is important.
  9.          The other members of my congregation/parish are committed to spiritual growth.
  10.      Aside from family members, I have a best friend in my congregation/parish.
  11.      In the last six months, someone in my congregation/parish has talked to me about the progress of my spiritual growth.
  12.      In my congregation/parish, I have opportunities to learn and grow. 

If a church can help participants to respond positively to these questions, all of those “nobodies” who cross the threshold will come to understand that they are “somebodies” to God and God’s church.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Becoming a Coaching Leader

Although he is a Christian, Daniel Harkavy’s Becoming a Coaching Leader is written primarily for business people.  Harkavy has built his consulting business around training leaders to coach their team members to become high performing people.  The book is an overview of the system of training he has developed and taught for over a decade.

For the past several months, I have worked through this book with a group of ministers who serve small to medium-sized churches.  We began with the understanding that we would have to adapt this to a church context.  In all honesty, this was a bit difficult.  Participants struggled with how to implement Harkavy’s strategy in the often chaotic life of a local congregation.  Doing so is difficult but not impossible.  I wish I could say that we had been more successful in the attempt!  Every minister would be more effective if he or she could follow the practices and processes that Harkavy presents.

For example, every one of us can benefit from working through the author’s Core Four Success Puzzle® that includes the development of a Life Plan, a Business Vision, a Business Plan, and Priority Management.  A Life Plan involves identifying the “accounts” (God, spouse, family, finances, etc.)  in your life that are important, your desired outcomes in each area, and strategies to pursue those outcomes.  Your Business Vision is what you want your organization to look like in 20 years based on convictions, purpose, and “Mount Everest Goals.”  Your Business Plan is the what, where, how and when of the Business Vision.  Priority Management is how you put all of this together in your work and life. 

The final step is the most difficult for clergy to handle because we are always dealing with the “tyranny of the urgent.”  Most of the things that take up our time are urgent but not really important!  The challenge is to be willing to name those things that are important and make time for them.  This is where a good coach can help a person pursuing life balance.  A coach can help a person develop clarity, set goals, and encourage accountability.

Some of Harkavy’s best insights are in the chapters that deal with the knowledge, skills, disciplines, and systems that a person needs to become a coaching leader.  This is the primary idea of the book—to challenge every leader to become a coach to those with whom he or she works.  In so doing, the coaching leader brings out the best in the team member, providing job satisfaction for the person and a stronger, more effective organization.

The most positive thing that I can say about Harkavy is that he takes stewardship seriously, whether it is using time wisely, recognizing and encouraging potential, or investing oneself in family, associates, and friends.   The book is meant as a standalone product, but additional resources are available at www.becomingacoachingleader.com and participation in one of his training programs would certainly help in developing the lifestyle proposed in the book.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Guilty of Good Intentions

As Assistant Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration, Diane Ravitch was an early advocate of No Child Left Behind, school vouchers and charter schools.  In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air recently, Ravitch explained that her attitude has changed.  She now sees these strategies as a threat to the future of public education.  In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch criticizes the emphasis on standardized testing and closing schools as well as the practice to replace public schools with charter schools.

The No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs have put too much emphasis on standardized testing and made teachers the scapegoat.  Student academic achievement is a complex process that is not limited to what happens in the classroom.  It is dependent on the home environment, parental support, student health, family structure, economics, and so many other factors.  Ravitch points out that “dysfunctional” schools exist in “dysfunctional” communities.  Should we expect anything different given the circumstances?

I once heard Bob Keeshan (TV’s Captain Kangaroo) say, “For every complex problem there is a simple answer-- and it is always wrong.”  The state of education in our country is the result of complex circumstances.  Rather than blame teachers, we should thank them that the situation is not worse that it already is.  Considering the support, resources, and cooperation they have been given, they have done a rather remarkable job.