Tag Archives: Leadership

Politics, Violence & Blame: is Trump responsible for the violence?

Donald Trump.pngI was recently listening to the radio (yep, I’m that old) and heard about the violence outbreak at the canceled Trump rally in Chicago.  I also then saw news headlines and commentators saying Donald Trump was responsible for the violence.

This got me thinking.  A dangerous thing to do in the midst of our current political climate.  But still, it got me thinking.  And in my thinking I began to wonder to what degree is Trump responsible, or not responsible, for the violence associated with his campaign and at the rallies.

As a teacher I remember some students who had stolen money from a kid who was selling candy bars. “It wasn’t my fault!” they said. “He left the money out where I could see it.”  Huh?

As a leader, I am responsible for my actions.  And my words are a part of my actions.  I am able to use my words to build people up. Encourage others and challenge them to live out the Gospel.  Love, the kind of love Jesus calls us to, compels me to use my words and my actions in a way that creates helpful urgency and still lowers anxiety.

In an election year, all the candidates have a choice to make about how they will use their words.  And Donald Trump has been a master, all along, of using language to his advantage. He is a master at communication. His sentences are simple. They provoke strong emotions. He speaks from an assumption of agreement. And he almost always stays on message.

However, and you knew this was coming, right?  However, one of the roles of differentiated leader is the ability to remain less anxious in the midst of anxiety.  And as a less anxious leader, the system you are part of becomes less anxious through your less anxious presence.  

Through his masterful use of language, Trump has created a compelling case for urgency.  He has also, through his masterful use of language, added to the anxiety that is already present in our culture today.

In fact, I believe Trump has been irresponsible with his language.

But that doesn’t answer the question.  Even as just a candidate at this point, Donal Trump has a responsibility to use language well – in a way that builds, challenges, exhorts and encourages.  But does irresponsibly adding to anxiety make him culpable for the violence?

Unless there is a gun to my head, nobody makes me do anything.  Not even the devil.  I choose to speed when I go over the speed limit.  I choose to gossip when I share juicy news.  I choose to be selfish when I am not generous.  Nobody makes me.

In other words, nobody makes me act violently.  Or, do they…?

When a system (think family, congregation, city or nation) is already highly anxious, and a leader intentionally sabotages that system by intentionally increasing emotional anxiety, that leader is culpable.  There has to be a level of responsibility assigned.

And yet, nobody makes anybody act violently.  Each violent act perpetrated by an individual capable of personal agency, is personally responsible for his/her own actions. When those actions are not rooted in Love – love for God and love for others – in a way in which we will and act for the good of others – those actions are then self seeking and are initiated in order to assert our will over others.

Violence.

So, is Trump responsible for the violence?  Yes.  And no.  Donald Trump is responsible for how he has led in this election year, for the way he has conducted himself and for how he has added to the anxiety in our already highly anxious country.

But.  So are we.  We each make choices.  We each live our lives.  And today we live in an election year where we are making deep lines in the sand.  We are defining ourselves as either for Trump or against Trump. And when we do so, we also add to the anxiety.

I wonder… What if we choose to define ourselves differently?  What if, like the angel who appeared to Joshua, we were neither for nor against Trump.  What if we defined ourselves by something bigger, more important than politics or personalities.

What if we chose to define ourselves by love.  What if we defined ourselves by the Gospel this election year.  What if we defined ourselves as being for the “other” in our midst.

In the Fall we will cast our votes and we will elect a new president.  But more than voting, we have an opportunity to rise above the fray of campaigns and live lives of love.  We don’t need to let the anxiety of the candidates determine our behavior.

We can love. 


Pastor! Do You Love Your City?

kalamazooCityBkgThe above is a picture of my city.  Kalamazoo.  The place we have been called to and have chosen to live.  As a friend of mine would say, it is beautifully flawed.

Our community, the Kalamazoo community, is still reeling from the violence which has recently shaken us.  It has shaken our faith, our ability to trust – not only God but others. It has shaken our sense of security.

In the midst of this aftermath, there is something that has not been shaken in me.  In fact, I believe it has deepened. My love.

I could talk about my call to this community, but I believe you can experience a call to a particular place you do not love – think Jonah.

But love.  Several times I have been asked how the recent shootings in Kalamazoo have personally impacted me.  And at first I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Over the last two weeks, in the midst of a life-giving learning community, I began to realize the deepest impact has been love.

As a pastor my call is to a particular congregation (Haven) within a particular denomination (the RCA); but my call has always been to much more.  It has always been a call to the larger Church and to the broader community.  Always.

The call to pastor in the context of a city, or a community, is a call to love that city with the love of Jesus.  And the events of the past few weeks have clarified and deepened my love for Kalamazoo and the community surrounding it. I love the congregation with whom I serve, I love the larger Church of Kalamazoo and I believe I cannot truly seek the Shalom of God for the Kalamazoo area if I do not love Kalamazoo.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to seek the welfare of the city we are in, to pray for it to prosper.

In the last two weeks I have had several interactions which have caused me to ask this question:

Pastor, do you love the city you are in?

I’m not asking if you love what you do.  I’m not asking if you love your congregation or denomination.  I am asking if you love the city you have been placed by God in to partner with Him in reconciling and restoring all things.

Do you love your city?

Your city knows.  It experiences you.  The city you are in has a heart beat and knows.  Would you wonder with me if your city experiences you as a Jonah who didn’t want to be in Ninevah or if your city experiences you weeping along with Jesus over it?

Pastor, do you love your city?


Sometimes Being Stuck Is Good

stuck in mudMany years ago.  Many.  Six of us took a guys trip to the national forest in Colorado camping.  It was a father-son trip.  Two dads a little older than me each brought their sons and I brought my dad.  We drove to Colorado in an old van that didn’t have all its seats.

In Colorado we rented a Jeep Wrangler to play with in the wilderness.  We were set. 1 big expedition style tent, cots, bags, food, fishing poles, the jeep and more food.  The weather was amazing, the sky so clear at night.  I had a pile of books I read sitting in the mountains.  It was an amazing trip.

On the trip we took the jeep everywhere.  There were six of us and the jeep held 4.  We didn’t care, we doubled up and put all of us in the jeep.  

One evening we went out on some 2 track trails through the forested mountainside.  Several times we had to gun it to get through some deep, slushy mud.  It was muddy and it was fun!

Cruising down a hill and a quick turn to the left brought us to a stop, however.  Before us was a good 40 – 50 yards of deep, wet, fun looking mud!

John is driving and my dad is in the front seat next to him.  “Do we go?” John asks looking at me with a grin on his face.  His son Daniel is on my lap and Mike, sitting next to me, has his son on his, “I’m not sure we can make it” he says.  My dad is quiet.

“Yes, let’s do it!” I exclaim.  My dad turns and looks at me, “I thought I raised you smarter than that,” he says with a smile.  “I’m just like you, dad!  Let’s go!”

We make it half way.  Not even close before we spin to a stop.  Mud is up to the floor boards and the wheels have nothing to grip.

Climbing out we are all over our knees in mud.  It’s glorious.  Driven by our anxiety, immediately a flurry of talking erupts about how we are going to get unstuck – Nobody is excited about walking miles back through the wilderness to a real road to find help.  Prospects of getting unstuck on our own looks slim.

Pushing forward and backward and forward and backward. Back and forth and back and forth with mud flying everywhere. No progress except to be covered in mud!  “Let’s stop trying,” I say.  “When else can we just enjoy being stuck in the mud in the middle of something so beautiful, look around us!”

And it was beautiful.  Gorgeous.  But we were so hopelessly focused on getting unstuck we couldn’t see it.  The beauty in the mud.

We caught our breath.  We breathed.  We laughed at our mess.

Whenever we get stuck – spiritually, in life, in doubt, in messes – we tend to work really hard to get unstuck.  Being stuck can be scary.  Its uncertain how things might turn out.  We have doubts and our doubts scare us.

Does God care?  What if I don’t survive?  I don’t think even God can fix this.  I don’t think God even loves me enough to care!

Our stuckness and doubts can be really uncomfortable and we want to get out as soon as we can.  We want to feel safe, be secure and know everything is always going to be ok.

But sometimes our doubts – our places of stuckness – are exactly where God wants us to be.  More often than not, those are the most beautiful places.  And the mud isn’t dirty, it glorious. Messy and glorious go together. 

Putting the jeep in 1st gear, we slowly drove ourselves out of the mud.  We were unstuck but the adventure was over.

It isn’t until we stop striving against our circumstances that Jesus shows up and lifts us out.  The same Jesus who cried out, “My God! My God! Why have your forsaken me!” is the one who loves you enough.

Do you have doubts?  That’s ok – so do I.  Are you stuck?  Me too.  Let’s be stuck together.


The Pain of Church Shopping

shoppingcart

Not long ago a new family showed up at Haven.  I was really excited to meet them.  They were at Haven because they didn’t like the direction of their former church.  I sent them packing.  I asked them to clean up any messes at their former church before settling on a new church home.  I haven’t seen them since.

Recently a family left our church. One of their members was hurt by another in the congregation. It wasn’t a superficial bumping against one another, but a deep hurt. The kind of wound that creates shame and the distance that accompanies it.

After several weeks I noticed their absence and reached out to them. I was told, “We’re church shopping. It isn’t you, we love Haven. But we believe we need to find another church home.” And quietly they slipped away.

I would be lying if I said the conversation didn’t hurt. It did. In some ways, it still does. Sometimes church people can be really mean to each other and that hurts my heart. More so, however, it hurts because I miss people I love.

I pastor a congregation that often sees many people come and go. There are valid reasons for leaving a congregation; and there are some pretty superficial ones. But we’ve all done it. Even pastors do it.

It’s called Church Shopping.

Fast forward. Several months. Almost a year. I am approached by a dedicated servant in the congregation, “Hey, have you seen so-and-so? I haven’t seen them recently and we were supposed to lead this ministry together.”

Feeling a little defensive, but not wanting to gossip, I am left with, “they have been looking for another church” as my response. The person I am talking to experiences some shock which transitions into sadness as well.

And here is where leaving where you are planted and shopping for a new church hurts so many.

We tend to do life from a perspective that puts us in the middle of the universe. Our comfort and/or desires become the end goal. So when we leave one church for another, we are usually only thinking about ourselves and not the people who will be hurt. Usually. There are always the exceptions.

Most of us think about our relationships with a congregation as a one-on-one relationship: me-to-church (the staff and attenders are all put into the church category) and the church-to-me. And when we leave, we typically think only about what we experience – which is valid to be sure! But, it isn’t the whole.

Our relationships within a congregation are not merely one-on-one, but they are multiplicative (a new word I learned from our children’s pastor).

Let’s say a family of 4 (and a dog) leaves a congregation. It isn’t just four people leaving a church. It is four people leaving a number of relationships. Let’s say the family knows another 40 families of 4. But that’s too big a number for me to work with – I don’t do math!

Let’s say each member of the family is close with 20 different individuals. According to my old math, that represents 80 direct relationships. That’s a lot! But let’s keep going. Let’s assume that each of those relationships takes place within a sub-system of other relationships.

To keep our math simple, let’s say there are 6 people in each subsystem and that there is an overlap of 50% in each subsystem. That means each individual relationship with one other person is actually a relationship with 4 people. In simple math that means each relationship is like this (1 + 1) x 3 = 6. Six relationships are changed or broken when one person leaves. So if each member of a family of 4 is close to 20 other individuals and that family leaves a congregation, the math looks like this (1 + 20) x 3 x 4 = 252.

252 significant relationships severed, broken or damaged when one family of 4 leaves a congregation.

Last year a woman came to me in tears following an exchange from another woman in the congregation who is in a leadership role. She wanted to let me know she would be leaving Haven. I encouraged her to stay. To work through it.

Both of them took on the difficult work of reconciliation and repaired the relationship. Both of them shared with me they grew more spiritually in that time than they can ever remember. The whole church, without knowing it, has been blessed by their growing love.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?


Starbucks, The President & The Stories We Tell Ourselves

nonresponsibilityI think we (the Church) wish it were true – that Starbucks was taking aim at all Christians everywhere and at the Church in North America in particular.  But, I don’t think it is.  Somewhere along the line, we took a non-issue and made it an issue. And gave Starbucks all kinds of free advertising along the way!

I think Starbucks is focused – on making money.  A lot of money.  They do this by selling coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Served in cups.  This year they are red cups, with their green logo on them.  Red and Green.  Ever since I was little, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, red and green have been the colors of Christmas.  But, I don’t think Starbucks cares so much about that as they do about making money.  

They are a business.  And as long as they are in business someone’s prayer, “Give us today, our daily bread” is being answered – all over the world, literally.

But as a Church, I think we wish it was true. The story that they are out to destroy Christmas.  I think we want it to be true because it feeds two postures we’ve grown fond of lately.

First, it allows us to tell ourselves that we are victims.  Victims of persecution.  Victims because Christmas is being taken away from us. If the US Post Office and Starbucks don’t say “Merry Christmas” when we are shipping gifts or buying coffee, then it isn’t really Christmas is it? Being victims allows us to piss and moan about how bad the world is – and how good we are in comparison, of course.

Ultimately, though, I think we like to take the posture of being victims because then we don’t have to confront the consumerism in our Christmas.  If we complain about how bad Starbucks is, the government is, somebody else is, we don’t have to face the reality that we are spending $4.00 or more on a cup of coffee when the rest of the world makes less than that a day.  We don’t have to confront the huge amounts of money we spend buying, wrapping, shipping and throwing away presents all in the name of Jesus.

But that moves me to reason number two.  I think we want to believe it is true, and take on the posture of victim, so we can also take on a posture of non-responsibility.

Yes, you read that right.  We, as The Church, actually prefer non-responsibility (not irresponsibility) over responsibility. If we are the victims, then someone, in this case Starbucks, HAS to be responsible for this mess.  Someone, or something, we can blame for the whole mess.  If it is up to someone else to make sure Christmas is celebrated, then I don’t have to take responsibility for living out the Gospel in my own life.  Our thinking is something like this: Well, if President Obama hadn’t declared December to be National Muslim Awareness Month, then I would share the Gospel with my friends, family and co-workers. But, now I can’t. Why bother… 

Our posture of non-responsibility allows us to blame and shift responsibility. In this posture we don’t have to confront our selfishness, the ways we’ve tied consumerism to the Gospel, our lack of love for others, our in ability to get along, how we haven’t raised our kids to love Jesus, etc.

I think we, the church, have grown to love controversy and our pseudo-persecution in the U.S. because it allows us to divert our attention away from the transformation needed within ourselves and the Church.  I think we have grown to love controversy because it allows us to be victims without responsibility and that lets us be lazy.

But I also think that we, the church, don’t have to be this way.  That in reality, deep down inside, we don’t want to be this way.  We want to live into the kind of life Paul ascribes to Timothy.  We want to have an enormous impact on our cities, culture and world.  We want to see Jesus do some really cool things in and through us.

But we can’t, not when we take on the postures of victim and non-responsibility.


A Gift of Shalom

Craig and I sharing an Astro's game together - they lost...

Craig and I sharing an Astro’s game together – they lost…

It was just a little past noon when I pulled up in front of their home. Graciously, Craig and Trisha were going to allow me to mooch off of them for no less than NINE days. Nine days of sitting in the dinning area at meal times. Nine days of sprawling out on the living room sofa. Nine days shuffling the order of cars in the driveway, showers, coffee, meals, conversation and life. Nine days of letting someone you don’t really know that well, and have never lived with before, move in and live with you.

But they did much more than LET. And while I was technically a guest in their home, I was never really a guest. It was more than that. It was richer, and deeper. It was shared fellowship that blessed me greatly.
I was going to be in Texas for nearly two weeks. Away from family soon after dropping my oldest off at Hope College. Most of that time would be spent getting training in some marriage therapy before participating in a Faithwalking Retreat with other pastors from the RCA and CRC. Rather than spend those first nine days in a hotel, I did what I do – I invited myself over to the to someone’s house! In this case, the home of Craig and Trisha Taylor.

I know Trisha well through Ridder Church Renewal (an RCA/CRC initiative) and had met Craig once. As soon as I stepped into the house, I was not only given a key and full access to the kitchen, where I taught them how to make double crust stuffed pizza, but I was also given the gift of shalom.

It was shalom in the sense that while I was away from my family, I was given much more than “guest privileges.” At no time did I sense I was tolerated, but was made to feel that my presence in their home mattered.

What was on my heart, mattered to them. And as they would share, it was done in such a way that what was on their hearts mattered to me. I had access to who they were and they had access to who I am. When Craig and I were told we were on our own for dinner, we spent hours sitting at the table sharing long after the pulled-pork sandwiches, and although my backside was sore from sitting, the experience of shalom kept us glued to where we were. Shalom.

Throughout the following days we would laugh, watch sports, talk music and movies, go to the coast and eat out; but there was always more. There was a shared sense of meaning and the work of God in our lives.
The gift of hospitality is much more than a bed or some food. The gift of hospitality creates space where lives intersect, can be accessed by others and shared in such a way that shalom develops.

Depending on the version you read, the Bible calls this “entertaining” one another (Hebrews 13). But our culture today has hijacked that to mean something trivial – having a “good time.” Not that having a good time is bad, I’m all about that! But to be hospitable, entertaining one another, is so much more. In Romans 12:10 we are told to be devoted to one another, prefer one another; and, when the occasion arises, entertain one another.

I wonder what it would look like if the CHURCH were more entertaining. Not with light, music, programs and parking lot greeters; but in the deeper sense of the word. What if the church was about the business of creating the safe places necessary for others to experience the Shalom of God?

I wonder what our world would look like…


Awkward…!

imageThe half dozen or so people were spread throughout the fitness center. Each one doing her, or his, own thing.  Most were on some sort of cardio machine and only one other was over by the free weights of this Houston area Planet Fitness.  I followed the unwritten rules of gym ettiquette (mostly because it wasn’t my regular gym) and worked out without engaging anybody in conversation.

It’s an interesting phenomenom, belonging to large nationwide gym.  And with Planet Fitness’ “no gymtimidation” policy, most people work out in silence, with headphones on and only on occassion even making eye contact.  Even then the eye contact is usually some sort of non-verbal communication around the use of a piece of equipment – not relationship…

Not here. Not Houston’s little PF on Fondren.  Not with LeRoy.

Let’s face it, public locker rooms are always a bit awkward; and when you are leaving the shower area with your towel wrapped around your waist, you feel particularly vulnerable!  Just saying… That’s how it was for me when I met LeRoy. Still sweating from my workout, but freshly showered before heading to the couple’s therapy training I’m in Houston for, I had my towel around my waist when I hear a southern accent say, “I don’ think I’ve seen you ‘roun’ here before?”

I look to my right and there before me is a tall, thin African American of about 60 years of age. He had a huge smile and held out his hand, “LeRoy.”

“Brian.”  And inside my head there is only one word sreaming loudly, AWKWARD!!!

LeRoy asks when I moved to the area and I explained to him that I was here on sabbatical getting some training on couple’s therapy. LeRoy’s smile immediately is replaced with a look of deep regret.

While we both got ready for the day before us, LeRoy told me about his failed marriage, that he moved to Houston to try and rebuild relationships with his kids and grandchildren, and how much he regretted not working hard to make his marriage work.  He was going to meet his two year old grandson for the first time later that day.

As I was getting ready to leave, he told me to learn a lot. Then he paused and asked, “Would you pray for me today? Maybe you have more pull with the Big Guy than I do.”

I’ve never prayed for anyone in a locker room before, at least I don’t think so, but I’m glad I did.  I will probably never see LeRoy again. But I think our world is full of LeRoy’s. People, like you and me, going through life with its struggles and joys, hurts and pleasures, successes and failures.

And all of us longing to connect more deeply with one another and with God.  Only very few of us will find the courage to step out of the unwritten rules of culture and become vulnerable enough to reach out and connect with others. 

I’m really glad LeRoy had the courage to start a conversation in a locker room – even if it was awkward.