Archive for February, 2011

Bowling: Alone and Segregated

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone was published in 2000.  In it he documented how Americans were increasingly becoming an isolated people, disconnecting themselves from friends, family, civic groups, religious affiliations etc.  It would seem that if Americans value choice among all other values and we equate choice with true freedom, then we are not only the freest people on the planet but we are choosing to be alone.  If you have developed a habit of eating cold pizza while standing over your sink pondering what to do with the rest of your life you’re validating Putnam’s research.

Then again there is the recent work done by Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, and Dante Chinni and James Gimpel, Our Patchwork Nation.  These two books suggest that we are not becoming Lone Rangers, we are becoming Segregated Rangers.  According to these authors Americans are becoming more isolated but they are doing so in communities. We are intentionally creating sub-cultures identified by specific socio-economic, political and religious distinctives.  We want to live, work, play and worship with people just like us and do so in communities where our contact with those “other people”, variously defined, is reduced to a minimum.

So what’s the point?  Well, I have recently had more alone time than normal while also being among some people who are not part of my normal everyday interaction and I have thought about how other people play such a critical role in helping us interpret our life’s story.  Left to interpret my life by myself I am often puzzled and bewildered by the disconnected and seemingly chaotic nature of what life brings to me each day.  Sometimes life seems to make sense and then circumstances change, people change, change happens and I am forced to re-calculate and re-evaluate my sense of things.  I confess that this can become a very tedious and tiring exercise…if I am the only person in the story.

I realize that when it comes to interpreting my life and finding the meaning in it, neither of the two options I listed above are healthy options.  Using myself as the only reference point for understanding my life is the path to a solipsistic existence where I don’t just have a story but I become the story where everyone else becomes a minor player just waiting for me to give them their que to enter the scene.  When I join a segregated community of people whose only real value is that they look and think just like me is to make exactly the same mistake with the only difference being that I have helped to form a self-centered community that reinforces my own biases.

In both cases I have successfully protected myself from the one thing that makes interpreting life possible, personal transformation.  If  I want to know how and where my life has meaning I will need to look for those places where I am being transformed, not where life is changing around me but where I am being changed.  The places where that happens is most often the places where I risk opening myself up to life and to others, others not like me, others who are allowed to speak into my life.

What I have tried to describe is the life I think Jesus has called me to live and I hope I have described the nature of what the church is supposed to be as well.  Following Jesus is an challenging life of trust, faith and hope where we continually open ourselves up to the places and the people where God places us.  That’s where the transformation happens, that’s where the meaning is found.  If you want to know what your life means you can’t spend it protecting yourself.

Dietrich Bonhoffer said it this way, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Leadership Secrets

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

At the seminary where I am teaching we just spent a week with three representatives from Chick-Fil-A.  You know, the commercials where the cows tell you to “eat more chicken!”; the company that closes on Sunday and still kills their competition who insist on staying open 7 days a week; the business that malls will allow to close on Sunday in spite of mall rules to the contrary (because they make a profit anyway); the 3 billion dollar corporation that makes the greatest chicken sandwich in the universe.  Yeah, those guys.

Well, we spent a week talking about leadership because leadership is what matters.  You can make a great chicken sandwich but without great leadership, well, you just have a great chicken sandwich.  So we talked about the 5 secrets of great leadership that are not so secret.  It just seems to be true that the qualities of a great leader are never secrets, they just require more of most leaders than they are willing to be or do.

For the week we used the book, The Secret:  What Great Leaders Know-And Do co-authored by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller.


So, I am going to spoil the book by telling you the secrets.  Here they are.  If you don’t want to know so you can read the book, stop reading right now.  And there are actually 6 secrets not 5.

Great Leadership is 80% character and 20% skills.  You can teach new skills but character is character.

Great Leaders see and shape the future.  They can create and communicate a compelling vision of what can be and lead others toward it.

Great Leaders engage and develop others.  The future is not about the leader, it is about the leader’s ability to recruit and select the right people for the right jobs while creating an environment for those people to grow and reach their potential.

Great Leaders reinvent continually.  Status qou is not a path to the future.  Change must be anticipated and embraced as an opportunity for improvement and growth personally and professionally.

Great Leaders value results and relationships.  The trick is knowing which of these two you are more inclined to focus on and then find ways to intentionally compensate for your natural bias.

Great Leaders embody the values.  They live what they value, they walk the talk, the proofs in the pudding, you know.

Like I said, these are not secrets.  They are just characteristics of great leaders.  So why do you think we always have a shortage of great leaders?  You can’t fake leadership because it’s who you are, not the person you want people to think you are.

Theology and Humility

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

I am currently teaching Christian Theology to seminary students and the first topic out of the gate was the Holy Spirit.  Of course it is nigh on impossible to discuss the Holy Spirit without covering the doctrine of the Trinity, and here we go.  Trying to adequately talk about God is tough enough and then you  have to talk about God as 1 and 3, 3 and 1; God existing as Father-Son- Holy Spirit.  First of all the math doesn’t work, at least my pitiful tenth grade algebra math doesn’t work.  I am still looking for X and wondering where X came from in the first place.  X needs a home and I was never, ever, able to find X a home, thus my D in algebra, but I digress.  I am sure that somewhere out there in cyber-land there is a quantum physicists for whom the math of the Trinity is not a problem at all, but it is for me.

That is why I choose not to dwell on the mathematical language of the Trinity.  Instead I focus on the what I think that the math suggests, that God is in fact a mystery.  Not a secret, but a mystery.  I tell my students that trying to explain the nature of God as Trinity is like trying to describe how coffee smells to someone who has never smelled coffee.  Think about that a moment.

My point is that both our language and our ability to use language is limited, especially when faced with a reality like God.  As I said, God is a mystery, not a secret.  We have the record of God uncovering His hiddenness in the Bible, and  His clearest and greatest revelation was when God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. 

That being said, our task, the task of theology, is to use language to communicate God’s revelation of Himself.  Theology happens when limited people using limited language confront the mystery of God revealed and give their best effort to communicate that mystery to others.  That means that Christian theology is the business of everyone who claims to be a Jesus follower.  Every follower of Jesus who claims to have met the God revealed in Jesus Christ is responsible for telling the story of that meeting to others and explaining how God is Father-Son-Holy Spirit.

Some would say that to do theology well a person needs years of theological training and a PhD wouldn’t hurt either.  Yes, theological training should be offered to every follower of Jesus.  The Church should be proactively preparing all Jesus followers to understand and communicate their faith effectively.  I agree with Karl Barth that theology is the business of the Church, not professors.

Having said that I would suggest that the primary characteristic of an authentic theologian is not education, it is humility.  Education is no antidote for arrogance or pride.  Providing an arrogant, self-serving and prideful person the opportunity to communicate the mystery of God is like handing my 5 year-old grandson the keys to my truck and telling him to run some errands for me.  He could probably get it started and drive it down the street but not without causing some major damage to himself, the truck and other people.  An earned PhD does not guarantee wisdom or humility anymore than refusing to be educated on the grounds that you only need the Holy Spirit to be smart.  

Theology is about humility.  It is approaching the mystery of God with an open heart and a willingness for God to teach and transform us even as we attempt to use limted language to explain to others how God can be 3 and 1 at the same time.

A Christian Mind

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

In 1963 Harry Blamires wrote a book titled, The Christian Mind.  Blamires was the Dean of Arts and Sciences at King Alfred’s College, now Winchester University.  He was an Anglican and a theologian of the best sort, not a professional theologian just a practicing Christian who understood that he had a theology and therefore sought to think it and live it in a self-conscious way.  C.S. Lewis was his tutor so I suppose it would have been difficult for him not to take his faith seriously.

Blamires’ book focused on one essential point, the absence of what he referred to as a thorough going Christian mind that actually inhabited the world and engaged it at every level of human existence.  There are Christian ethics, practices and spirituality but where is the Christian mind, alert, sharp and attuned to the pressing cultural issues of the day? 

He was not arguing for Christian politics, the creation of a Christian political party for example, but he was wondering why Christians tend to inhabit a personal and private world of spirituality that encourages them to leave a robust supernatural faith at the door with their hat and coat upon entering the “real world”.  He is also not suggesting the creation of a special category of public discourse labeled ”Christian” so that whatever subject is being discussed someone can offer the alternative ”Christian answer”.  C.S. Lewis touched on this point when he wrote, “What is needed are less books on Christianity and more books by Christians on other subjects.”  Alas, a tour through most Christian book stores would confirm Lewis’ contention that Christians write for Christians and leave others to shape the conversation on most every other topic that the culture cares about.

He is asking why Christians tend to lack both authority and respect when speaking on topics that fall outside the realm of religious issues.  He is wondering, as I do, why there seem to be so few public intellectuals who are professed followers of Christ helping to shape the cultural agenda of our day.  It leaves one with the distinct feeling that in the realm of public discourse Christianity is privately engaging but socially and intellectually irrelevant.

Perhaps it is time for Christians to cease the senseless segregation of religious and secular and start engaging the world not as a secular place but as the world for which Christ died.  For centuries Christians have theologically argued for the full humanity and full divinity of Christ with no separation or division of Jesus’ human and divine natures.  What would it mean if each of us lived the theological implications this understanding of Jesus offers us?  As his followers how would would we address our world and its concerns?  How would speak into the public discourse of our day?  Rather  than offering a ”‘Christian answer” perhaps we should seek to bring the weight of our faith into the conversation and offer a better, more thoughtful and more human answer; an answer that blesses others and honors God.