November 25, 2015

There is much conversation in many circles these days about “leadership.” I don’t know how much you have thought about it, but allow me to mention just a few things that I believe. (With that in mind… these are my opinions and might be altered if you have a compelling argument.)

I have read several books over the years on “leadership” and they all have a similar first chapter, i.e., “Let’s define ‘leadership’.” Many of the definitions are similar but the one I like the best because of its simplicity is this, “A leader is someone with followers.” Get it? If there is no one following behind you… well then, you are not a leader. I would however add this caveat, “Or you are not a leader in that area of your life.” Do you know what I mean? It’s possible, I think, to be a leader in some areas of our lives but not in other areas. For example, I know some men who are great leaders in the work place but sadly are AWOL at home. No one would question their ability to lead co-workers, but to lead their children or their wives… well… need I say more?

We had a conversation recently at our Session meeting about family traditions. In particular “Where do you spend the holidays? Who hosts your families’ holiday events?” I was sharing that in my memory of childhood it seemed that every major holiday (Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas…) was spent at my house. I certainly remember the frantic day before “cleaning” so that the place was somewhat presentable. Our house and my mother as the host were both central in celebrating major events throughout the year. When my mother died in 1968 that ended as quickly as her last heart beat. One moment it was there and the next moment it was finished, gone, never to return. For a variety of reasons no one stepped in the gap. No one took upon themselves that responsibility. It just ended. My mother was the leader (maybe by default) and that leadership in my extended family came to an end in August of that year.

I think few people would have called my mother a “leader.” And yet, in that set of circumstances, she was. I do not believe that “leaders” are “leaders” in all places and at all times, nor should they be. I also believe that “leadership” is an innate gift. Can it be refined and strengthened? Of course! Does everyone have the gift of “leadership”? I think not. Sadly, sometimes folks are thrust into situations where they are called to be “leaders” and they simply don’t have the ability or gifts to do it. Usually that ends in disaster. It’s especially difficult and sad when folks think they are leaders and blame others for not following them.

Please understand that what I am about to say is said with all humility and the admission that I have messed up too many things over the years but, I have known too many pastors who have gone from one church to another leaving a wake of anger, distress and frustration behind them because they are simply not able to do what is required of them. Often they only stay for a year, two, maybe even three. (Keep in mind that there are also churches filled with dragons that devour one pastor after another!) Sadly, the church-hopping pastors are not told nor do they figure out that maybe they are lacking in some abilities (in particular the “leadership” ability) and that might have something to do with their plight. There are many other potential hazards as well. What too often happens is churches are simply blamed by these “leaderless” pastors for their own ineptitude. And of course this is not only a church problem. Most walks of life have these same issues.

Maybe one of the things we need to ask on a regular basis is this, “Am I called and gifted to be a leader in ‘_______’ situation?” We in the church too often appoint people to positions of leadership who have not asked that question of themselves and if they did, the answer would be a definitive “NO!”

We are in such need of leadership in the church these days! Godly people who desire to fervently seek after Jesus Christ; passionate people of integrity who want to rally others to the things of God; people with gifts of “leadership” who have been sitting on the sidelines for too long. Sadly we have allowed “players on the field” who should be participating in a different game. Or we have chosen some to be quarterbacks who in fact ought to play offensive guard.

Maybe you don’t see yourself as a leader or potential leader in the church. You could be right… and then again… Do you think this guy saw himself as a leader?

Peter Disowns Jesus

Mark 14:66-72

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

69 When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” 70 Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

71 He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

72 Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

I’m pretty sure Peter would not have described himself as a leader and yet Jesus later said of him:

Matthew 16:18

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

I don’t know if you, the reader, have the gift of “leadership.” If you do, I don’t know where you are called to use it. But I do know this: If you are a leader and you choose to sit on the sidelines, you are wasting the gifts and abilities God has given you and you might even be wasting a large portion of your life. We don’t get a second go around at this. GET IN THE GAME!


Responding to crises

November 20, 2015

Years ago I had a conversation with a dear friend whose marriage was falling apart under the most dreadful of circumstances. He had been a giant in the faith to me but the pain of betrayal had caused him to question his beliefs and to abandon the Church. I remember talking to him and asking if he had spoken to his pastor. He said “No. All he’s going to do is point me to Ephesians 5.” These are the verses he was referring to:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

My friend went on to say “He (his pastor) doesn’t understand that it’s not that easy.” I can’t remember many wise things I have said in my life but I think this might have been one of them. I responded, “Who EVER said that marriage as described in Ephesians 5 was ‘easy’?!?!?!” Keep the notion that things are never as “easy” as we would like them to be as you read on.

Like many of you I have had numerous conversations in the past week regarding terrorism and immigrants from Syria and other parts of the Muslim world. This is a very difficult and complicated time to be living. I have heard many people on television talking about the protection of “American values.” Seriously, I don’t know what “American values” are any more. I really don’t. I mean, I think I used to have some sense of that, but not anymore. And maybe that’s what I find so distressing in all of this. How can we talk about “American values” when we have systematically and deliberately been the melting pot of the world for over 2 centuries? I’m not saying that’s wrong by the way, it just points out a difficult reality. It’s impossible, it seems, to have common principles while at the same time praising and encouraging diversity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not as naïve as one might think. There has never been a time in our country when we ALL agreed on anything. But there was a time, even in my life, when there was some sense of much agreed upon values. (I should add that some of those were wrong and sinful… Racism for example) That time has clearly gone. We are living in a moral and ethical quagmire.

On many college campuses we are reaping what we have sown for 3 generations, i.e., “The world centers around ME… PERIOD. If you do anything to cause me discomfort, I will destroy you.” All of this I might add is being propagated in the name of “tolerance.” How crazy is that? We have gone backwards in the “race wars” against bigotry. We have allowed skin color rather than the character of a person to once again become the focus of our attention. And surprisingly that comes from people of color this time. We have systematically and convincingly shoved The Church and Christian faith onto the rear burner and they will soon be taken off of the stove entirely and forcefully deposited into the back of a cupboard like an old sentimental casserole pan only to be pulled out on Christmas and Easter (if even then). I should add that we in The Church are much to blame for our demise as we have chosen to emulate the Culture rather than speak to it. Thus we become more and more irrelevant every day. When you stand for “everything” you in fact stand for “nothing.”

Paul was writing about the moral atrocities in the 1st Century, but he easily could have said, “Dear Churches in the USA in the 21st century…” Romans 1 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

Because of our lack of leadership in the Christian world, I’m not sure The Church in the USA can or should try to speak for Jesus these days. Me thinks we may have lost our credibility. And in my humble opinion… we’re not getting it back.

So, what to do, what to do? How do we as Christians respond to this most recent crisis? Let me suggest this; meditate and become immersed with

Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. …

Let’s be very clear here… I do not advocate grappling with these verses flippantly. Nor do I think this is simple. And I have to confess I’m not really sure how to do this or how to deal with these verses pragmatically. But I know this… if we are not willing to put Jesus’ words into practice (whatever that means), then we have no right to speak for the faith. Right? I mean, if someone asks you how these words of Jesus work themselves out in your life and faith, what are you prepared to say?

How do we approach seeking after God in prayer? Well, I think the only valid way is to begin by setting aside our agenda (in some cases LONG held agendas) and preparing to hear new, difficult and challenging things.

I suspect demanding times are ahead. What is God saying to you?


November 10, 2015

Today Ellen and I are sitting in a cabin in the middle of the woods in a place called Blackwater Falls, West Virginia. The beauty and solitude is indescribable… so I won’t even try. We decided some months ago that we might need a respite after two weddings and a third reception in the Pittsburgh area. We were right. But enough of that for now… on to current events… sort of.

I was probably in elementary school when I had my first social studies class. That being said, I doubt I had any idea what “social” meant and I’m certain the concept of “study” was quite foreign to me. Like all of us, I had my share of classes over the next several years that on occasion morphed from social studies into history classes. I recall little from those events… and that’s the point. It wasn’t until my freshman year in college when I had a history class where I actually was interested in the information being disseminated. My professor was an escapee from the 1960’s who wanted to be a “cool radical.” That being said, I remember the day he changed my perspective on history and how we learn it. He said something like this, “History is written by the elite, intellectuals and the educated. So we only learn about history from their perspective. Commoners and blue collar workers do not write history so we learn about their lives from people who observed them, not from people who lived like them.” I suspect if someone wrote your biography who didn’t know you well, it might sound very different from what you would write, don’t you think?

All of that to say this… I have had a fascination with Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, since I learned about him and it in elementary school. I know I said I didn’t remember anything… well not much. I do remember learning about the installation of a dumb waiter in his home and his various inventions and the unique design of his residence. This past week I went to Monticello for the first time. It was surreal. Not only was I standing in a place that I have thought about for 50 years but it was the actual, doggone it real-life place, not a replica. The steps I climbed were the same steps Thomas Jefferson climbed. The massive clock in the entrance hall was the very clock that he climbed a ladder every day to wind. Even the ladder was there. The wind direction indicator on the front porch was the exact one that he consulted daily to record his fascination with the weather. The bathrooms with ceramic floors and walls, automatic faucets, hand blow dryers, well, okay those are new. But all in all, it was amazing. Well, for me anyway. But it raised the question of how we teach history.

(Just as an aside. You know the picture we always see of Monticello shows it has a dome on the top. Jefferson installed that dome after visiting Italy and became enraptured by the many domes there. The dome at Monticello is locate on the third floor and is only accessible by climbing one of two VERY NARROW AND STEEP stair cases. I asked our guide what the large magnificent opened space was used for in Jefferson’s time… know what she said? Storage! Also a young man who was part of our tour group proposed to his girlfriend while in that “storage” space.)

I know that we need to be age appropriate with children. I understand why we might not tell them about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, look it up.) And I suppose I understand why we might not tell them that he died massively in arrears owing money to numerous lenders. The estimate is well over $100,000; 2 million by today’s standards. And I suppose I “get” why we don’t tell them that all of his possessions including his home and over 140 slaves (remember he was the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence??? It is estimated that he owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime) had to be sold by his family to settle his debts. Can you see why history can be “complicated” at times? And part of the complication is the fact that we create “supermen and superwomen” out of mere mortals. No question that Thomas Jefferson was brilliant. And that he changed history along with our other Founding Fathers. But the truth (I think) is this: He was broken and sinful like the rest of us. And to some degree, enslaved by his culture. I wonder if it’s not more accurate to teach history from the perspective of “amazing men and women, who, in spite of their weaknesses and fallenness were able to perform deeds that altered the course of human history.” If that is true, well… it gives some hope to the rest of us.

I always find it interesting when we hold up Biblical characters as examples of Godly men and women. Read your Bible again! Not all, of course, were dreadful, but one simple example, Jacob, had to be one of the biggest jerks in all of human history! He was a lying, conniving, selfish, coward. The good news is that God used him anyway… again, hope for the rest of us!

We are in the midst of another Presidential election. I know it’s a year off but… What we will likely do in the end is either brainlessly vote for someone from “our party” (How many just pull the “R” for ridiculous or the “D” for dreadful lever) or we will choose the person that we perceive to be the least “broken.” Know what I mean? As the press (I hesitate to call them reporters… they gave up that distinction a long time ago) continues on its forever quest to find “inconsequential” information about the candidates (inconsequential is in the eye of the beholder), we will be deluged with gossip and mudslinging intended to cast a shadow on the character of the Presidential hopefuls. We then will be in the position of determining who is the least broken in our eyes. Of course we don’t use the term “broken” in our culture. We focus on who is the biggest liar. It’s interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson (good or bad) would likely not be elected today. (Of course, given the fact that he has been dead for almost 2 centuries I guess that makes sense.)

I’m going to take a seemingly random route here… stay with me.

Ellen and I have been married for 41 years now. On occasion we have wondered how we have been fortunate enough to pull that off. The truth is our culture and many of our generation have found long lasting marriages to be a challenge. My family, sadly, does not have a great track record for me to draw on. So how is it possible? Let me suggest an illustration that I thought of some time ago.

Imagine, if you will, a dinner plate. Now throw it on the floor and watch it shatter into two pieces with numerous jagged edges. Then take those two pieces and press them together… notice the pieces fit. Now take another plate and break it as well. Then take one piece from the first plate and one piece from the second plate and press them together… they don’t fit. The jagged pieces of “brokenness” grind against one another and resist “fitting.” Now imagine two broken people coming together… both with jagged edges. They grind and cause friction. But thankfully for some, the brokenness is such that over time their edges begin to “wear together” and “erode”; eventually they fit. Not like new of course, but enough that the grinding and the brokenness becomes negligible and therefore managable. Sadly for some folks the brokenness is so great and diverse that it never allows for the “grinding together.” The point here is not that some couples are just so much better at this… the idea is that we are all broken and in some cases our brokenness is unable/unwilling to grind or erode together.

So whether we talk about great men or women of history, or whether we look at our own personal circumstances, we are all broken. If you want to lift someone onto a pedestal… try Jesus. At least He is worthy.