Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Redemptive Empowerment

One of the most rewarding parts of working with youth is watching them make those awkward steps from adolescence to adulthood.  Nearly thirty years of working with tweens and teens has shown me the best and fastest acting tool for moving that process along is empowerment.  

Even seemingly trivial forms of empowerment can actually transform how a person – especially an adolescent – sees themselves.    Adolescence is a tough time and youth experience its passage in fits and starts.  One of the gauges I use to tell where a youth’s sense of self is at any given moment is the ease (or disease) with which they make eye contact with me.

For several years, my wife, Leila, and I led  a youth group which adopted the habit of meeting once a month in one of the members’ homes as a break from meeting in the church. There was one young woman in our group who had been going through a difficult patch.  She was not sure who she was.  She knew who she wasn’t…she wasn’t her older sister, to whom life and its opportunities seemed to come much more easily.  In what she was probably experiencing as a sea of inadequacy, there was one beacon of good news: she’d passed her tests for a driver’s license. 

Shortly after she’d received her license, our youth group was meeting at her house.  At one point in the evening, her father needed to leave and my car was parked behind his.  He had his daughter find me (probably getting creamed in a video game by some of the guys in the youth group) and ask me to move my car.  I could tell by the look on her face that it pained her to have to ask her pastor to do such a thing.  I handed her the keys and said, “Could you move it for me?”

The room fell silent.  “You want me to move your car?”

“Yes…you have your license, don’t you?  You do know how to drive?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Just back it out and park it on the street.”  Out of the corner of my eye I saw her mother, her jaw dropped nearly as much as her daughters.

About 5 minutes later she came back in the room, smiling, and making eye contact.  She tossed me the keys from several feet away and gave me the old line I first learned from my dad for those situations: “It pulls a little to the left when it hits 80.” 

Here’s the point: there are people all around us – not just youth – who have never felt they’ve been trusted enough to be empowered.  But, when they are, they are changed…transformed…redeemed.  If you want to start a revolution of transformation in your church, community or workplace, look for someone who seems to be avoiding eye contact and has never been empowered…and toss them the keys.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

Regional Weirdness

I’ve had the privilege of living in three very different regions of the United States and have discovered with each region comes its own form of human behavioral “weirdness” (for lack of a better term).  The striking thing about this “regional  weirdness” is that it is nearly invisible to those who have lived within a region for some time.

F’rinstnace…I grew up and have spent much of my life in the Midwest (Iowa).  I think it is perfectly natural to stand out in your yard and watch an approaching thunderstorm front.  There are no mountains in the Midwest, but I’ll stack a 50,000 ft. storm cloud lit by the red rays of a setting sun up against a view of Denali from the Parks Highway any day.  And, when it’s 90 degrees with 90% humidity, that initial fresh blast from the cold front producing the storm is something no form of air conditioning can replicate.  Sure, there’s some lightning…but it’s all in the risk/reward ratio.  To outsiders and new Midwest residents, it’s just plain weird.

When I went to graduate school, we had the unique opportunity to live on Cape Cod for four years.  One form of regional weirdness practiced by long-term Cape Codders was to scoop up and taste the ocean water when going to the beach for the first time after a long New England winter.  One woman who was a member of the church I served described the practice as a form of blessing for the coming summer season.  This same woman later learned that regional weirdness doesn’t translate well into other regions.  My wife, Leila, and I hosted a tour of the Holy Lands and, when visiting the Dead Sea, this member of my church walked right down to the water.  In spite of the horrible tar-like stench, she scooped up two hands full of water and proceeded to drink it.  In a matter of milliseconds she was doing a spit-take that would have made any aspiring comedic actor jealous.  What passes for regional weirdness in one place is just plain foolish in another.

Next week, I begin my 5th year in Alaska.  And, yes, Alaska has forms of regional weirdness; an annual example of which begins this week.  As I write this, we are on the eve of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere – the day in which there is the greatest number of daylight hours.  In Anchorage on June 21, the sun will rise a bit after 4 am and set just a few minutes before midnight.  Because the sun only dips a few degrees below the horizon this time of year, it never really reaches what I call “night.”  From early June to late July, as close to dark as we get is about 4 hours of twilight.  Of course, the further north you go in this great state, the shorter this length of twilight.

Here’s the weirdness: long-time Alaskans begin mourning the loss of daylight hours beginning about noon on June 21.  To listen to them, it’s as if by the end of the month we will be back to only the few hours of daylight we get in winter.  Some are able to tell you exactly how many minutes of daylight we lose each day.  The weirdness to me, as one new enough to this region to not be blind to it, is this – the days in July that are being mourned for the brevity of sunlight are identical in daylight hours to the days in May that were so celebrated as being refreshingly life-giving in their length of daylight.  What, just a few weeks ago, was seen as blessing will be seen, in a few weeks, as curse.  How weird…but, probably no more weird than standing outside watching an approaching thunderstorm. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Short Selling and Fashionable Cynicism

Prior to answering God’s call to the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, I was an investment/insurance/commodity broker for a major brokerage firm.  One of my co-workers was a very successful broker who specialized in the world of short selling.  In case you’re not familiar with the strategy, here’s how it works. You think a certain stock or commodity is going to go down in price and/or you’re pessimistic about the future of a certain industry.  How do you make money when a certain company or, perhaps, an entire industry is in decline??  By selling short.  Say you’re pessimistic about XYZ, Inc. which is now worth $50/share.  You think it may be dropping down to the $30 range.  But, you remember the cardinal rule of investing: buy low, sell high.  Short selling just reverses the order: sell high (now), buy low (later).  When you sell an investment short, you sell it at today’s price and sign and IOU to buy it back later.  If you’re right and XYZ, Inc. does drop, you profit even when the company is in decline.  However, if XYZ, Inc. and its leaders somehow turn things around, you are, as we used to say, ‘in a world of hurt.’

But, here’s what you learn at the “How-to-be-a-stockbroker-in-90-days” charm school: pessimism is addictive.  For some reason, those who specialize in short selling begin to adopt a pessimistic viewpoint of everything.  Back to my co-worker…in the early 1980’s the stock market, which had been in the doldrums for about 20 years, broke out of its slow decline and exploded to all time highs that were not curtailed until the shock waves of 9/11.  It was painful to watch and listen to my co-worker explain away the optimism of a rising market as well has his clients’ losses.  He was reduced to the rhetoric of “Yeah, but-ery.” “Yeah, but this is just misplaced optimism.”  “Yeah, but even a broken clock is correct twice a day.”  [What this had to do with being wrong about the market I’ve never discerned.] When pessimism has been working for 20 years…when it has been very profitable to be pessimistic…the addiction to seeing everything in decline is tough to beat.  My former co-worker left the business a defeated man.

I firmly believe in what I call the “God’s economy of experience” theory.  It goes like this: there is no experience in life that God will not either redeem and/or use to our benefit at some point in our life, if we’re open to it.  [Note: I always feel compelled to add that I believe God does not cause all experiences, but is able to redeem/use all experiences…it’s the Wesleyan understanding of free will in me, I guess.]  It is God’s economy of my experience of the pessimistic co-worker that keeps me from selling the church – the Body of Christ – short.

I admit that, by and large, selling the church in the U.S. short has been a ‘profitable’ mindset for just over 4 decades.  But, it’s addictive…and can become self-fulfilling.  Worse, it’s become fashionable.  And, when God blesses us with abundance that belies this trendy pessimism, some are reduced to “yeah, but-ery” in order to retain their long-held spiritual investment of selling God short.

So widespread is this pessimism that God’s blessings are interpreted by some as suspect.  My wife and I were co-pastors of a small rural congregation in the poorest part of the state who had the audacity to plan and build an entirely new church building and pay off all debt within a few years.  “Yeah, but someone probably died and left enough for most of the building…”  No.  “Yeah, but…”  I found myself almost apologizing for what God was able to do through that small gathering of folks who hadn’t yet caught on to the trend of fashionable cynicism.

A few years later when I was privileged to be pastor of a growing church who, in one year, accounted for 1 in 3 baptisms in a district of over 80 churches, again I found myself on the defensive at certain gatherings.   “Yeah, but I’ve heard you’ve got some evangelicals in your church.”

Please don’t confuse and dismiss this all as some form of ‘positive thinking.’  I just wonder why it comes so easy for us – and I include myself - to dismiss God’s blessings as “bullish” exceptions in what everyone knows is a “bearish” spiritual market.  I wonder why it’s easier to say, “Yeah, but…” than “Praise God.” 

It may be worth pondering…but, then again, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Christ Is the Metric

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

Many years ago, I was in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at Iowa State University.  As a Midshipman, I was expected to be able to run 5 miles in under X minutes (the number escapes me now; but not being a big fan of running, the number seemed unattainable).  Consequently, I spent many hours on the various indoor and outdoor jogging tracks available at the University.  I also knew, almost down to the second, how long it took to run a lap at each of these facilities (they were all different) in order to stay on pace for an X-minute 5-mile run.

One day, at the State Gym track, I was feeling especially good.  My stride seemed effortless, my rhythm consistent.  I wished my high school football coach - who once described my running style as looking "like an empty garbage can rolling down a hill" - could see me now.  In fact, I was so swift, I even was passing some old geezer professors (you know, in their 40's or 50's).  After 5 laps or so, I glanced at the big clock at one end of the track and, if my mental math was correct, I was on pace to run just under a 5-minute mile!  Immediately, my imagination began to run as swiftly as I was.  Heck, if I can run a 5 minute mile without any serious training...who knows what I could do if I really applied myself??  Iowa State may have just found its knew middle distance runner....and the '76 Olympics were just 3 years away...

About that time, I lapped a group of those "old geezer" professors.  As I passed them with dreams of setting collegiate and Olympic running records dancing in my head, I heard one of them say, "I wish they'd fix that stupid clock."  "Yeah," another somewhat winded voice said. "Yesterday I ran a 2-minute mile!"

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What is the system of standards by which you measure yourself?  This system of standards - or metric, to borrow a term from business and industry - provides some of the data by which we begin to imagine that which we are capable of achieving in this world.  Bad metric = bad data.  Bad data = bad understanding of capability.

I am a part of a Christian organization that is in decline...and has been nearly my entire life.  More than just a part of the system, I am an ordained leader within it.  This organization - the United Methodist Church - is searching for two practices of "being church."   First, it is searching for any and all practices that lead to greater vitality in the local church and its ministries that seek to fulfill our common mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The second set of practices for which my Church is searching is a metric that will generate data indicating the extent to which any local church is fulfilling a vital fulfillment of the first practice.

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What is the metric whose generated data can given an honest appraisal as to the faithful fulfillment of a purpose statement like "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world"?  For years the metric was membership.  But, as every church leader knows, membership is a funky category.  There are some (especially in Alaska) who attend weekly and are very active but will never actually join for many reasons.  There are others (especially in small, rural towns) that will never transfer their membership to the larger city in which they live because they believe retaining their membership in that little church will somehow keep it alive just a bit longer.  Membership data is important; but, probably not as an indicator to vitality.

In recent years, worship attendance has become the "be-all-and-end-all" metric for church vitality.  But, some argue, emphasis upon this number as a vitality metric has created a consumerist approach to worship in which the church caters - or, some would say panders - to the tastes of the consumerist society in which we live.  Parishioners are taught, implicitly if not explicity, that the measure of effective worship is what one "gets out of the service" rather than Whom one encounters and by Whom one is then transformed.  Emphasis on the "take away" from the service or "value added" by the service is the ultimate surrender of the church's mission to the consumerist society.

Others now offer that metrics for church vitality can be measured in terms of mission giving (both in money and people/hours), first-time professions of faith and/or baptisms, or any one of several other categories most churches measure annually.

Lest we forget...When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

What if Christ is the metric?  Here is a set of data that cannot be quantified easily.  The process of truly encountering Jesus Christ and being transformed by and through an ongoing relationship with Christ is a process that generates sometimes conflicting data.  The first shall be last...to preserve one's life, one must first give it away.  Do we measure inclusivity or exclusivity??  Yes!  This Kingdom Christ proclaimed is one of absolute, unconditional inclusivity; all (meaning all) are welcome at this banquet feast.  However, the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world; we exclusively stand "over against" this world in which the Christian is understood to be a "resident alien."  What is "success" in this Christ-like, paradoxical system of measurement?

When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

Several years ago, I heard a church leader of some renown say these refreshing words with respect to church vitality: "The United Methodist Church (and, I believe you can fill in any denomination at this point) must simply make Jesus Christ its first love again."  This I have known and have witnessed: when members of a church openly fall in love with Jesus Christ to the extent that it changes who they are, everything else falls in place.  First, this love becomes contagious; others experience it.  Next - in no particular order - worship attendance rises, the number of people willing to serve in hands-on missions skyrockets, giving increases and, yes, even membership begins to rise.

This, too, have I known and witnessed: when this begins to happen, not all will be happy campers and we will be sorely tempted to include their state of discomfort into our vitality metric.  There are many in our midst who have been convinced or trained to understand that categories like risk, transformation or growth have little to do with their concept of "church."  By giving into this temptation we corrupt our metric and the data it generates.

Remember? When you measure anything, your resulting data are only as accurate as the standard by which you measure.

If this statement is true indeed, we have no choice but to pursue Christ-likeness with our entire lives.  Though it is a metric rife with paradox, we ultimately have no other that will free us of our vain, self-centered imaginings and challenge us to encounter a God "whose power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20 NRSV).