Bright Spots

I had a recent conversation about ‘Bright Spots’ in ministry with Russ Long, pastor for 23 years of the Bel Air Church of the Nazarene in Bel Air, Maryland. He is also the chairman of the Eastern Nazarene College trustees and chair of the search committee for a new ENC president. I have been coaching and mentoring Russ for several years now.

He has a ‘Bright Spots’ journal with over 100 pages of notes about what he calls ‘small victories’ that often are unnoticed in the midst of the challenges that go with leading a congregation and a college board. It’s a counter to the temptation to focus on what isn’t happening.

He wrote in a blog that ‘sometimes I don’t record much for a week or so, and then there seems to be season in which there are quite a few things to enter.’  He looks for ‘bright spots,’ he said, in part for his own mental health.

He begins board meetings at the church and with the ENC board by noting these ‘small victories.’ And he asks board members to talk about the ‘bright spots’ they are seeing around the church or the college. His annual reports include a review of ‘bright spots’ from the past year.

And he now begins his sermons with a projected picture of a ‘bright spot.’ He told me it could be members volunteering at a homeless center, or a wedding. He wants people to see the good things they might have otherwise missed.

Russ got the idea from the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath. In one of the chapters they cite the leaders of Kaiser
Health who have made it a high priority to study their own internal ‘bright spots.’

Russ began to do the same within his own ministry. ‘Had I not recorded them, I either would have not noticed or I might have forgotten them.’

He has it right. We may fail to remember or even notice good things and small victories if we are not looking for them and taking time to write them down and talk about them.

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How People Become Leaders

As I think about the leaders I’ve known and served with through the years I still wonder – how did they become leaders?

According to Nancy Koehn, in her recent book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, leaders emerge from and are shaped by their struggles.

As an historian at the Harvard Business School she highlights five iconic leaders remembered for their determination, even sacrifice in the face of personal and public crises.

  • Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton,
  • President Abraham Lincoln,
  • Freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas,
  • Nazi resister and clergy martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Environmental crusader Rachel Carson

Although I knew something about each one of these I learned much more from Koehn’s mini-biographies, especially about their early character development and how they thrived in spite of what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

In their youth, neither they nor those close to them imagined they would become celebrated leaders. They were simply, as Koehn describes them, ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

Yet each one had character traits that sustained them through their crises.

Character was the necessary foundation for their good leadership.

None of Koehn’s five had what she calls ‘specific endowments’ for leadership.   However, she writes, ‘they worked on themselves: intentionally choosing to make something better of who they were, even in the midst of crisis.’

While leadership in and of itself cannot be taught, character can be.   In his 2015 book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes some of the virtues that lead to character development in several of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders.

Crisis was the context in which their leadership skills were formed or forged.

Each of the five she spotlights knew they were in the midst of a ‘profound personal crisis not of his or her own making.’   Recognizing that ‘they couldn’t give up.’ ‘Rather,’ she writes, ‘each resolutely navigated through the storm and was transformed,’ and the people around them were given hope for a better world.

None of Koehn’s leaders would have wished for the crises that disrupted their lives.   Yet none of them would have become the leaders we remember had it not been for the turbulence they and their followers experienced.

Leadership happens when good people do extraordinary things for others during difficult times. It is never easy.

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10 Books That Kept Me Awake in 2017

A suggested remedy for insomnia is to read a book. That may be a better way to fall asleep than watching TV, a computer or other devices with screens that may disrupt sleep.

But I want books that keep me awake. I have no problem nodding off if a book isn’t interesting.   If I start reading a good book in the middle of the night I may lose a lot of sleep.

Years ago while waiting for a flight home I was so caught up reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose that I missed my flight.   Even though I was only a few feet from the gate I was so into the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the American West that I was unaware that the plane was boarding. When I eventually looked around I was alone.   Few books are that engaging, but at least I want them to keep my attention.

So here are 10 page-turners from 2017 that kept me awake.

Non-fiction

Overload: Finding Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, by Bob Schieffer

Recommendations for getting accurate, dependable news in familiar and unfamiliar            places from a veteran journalist.

Grant, by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th President – the most popular man in America at the end of the Civil War – comes alive and in Chernow’s opinion belongs among the first tier of American presidents.

Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

The story of the ultimate Renaissance Man driven by curiosity of all things scientific and artistic.   Isaacson’s final chapter with his ‘eighteen lessons from Leonardo’ should be read first. On art quality paper with the Mona Lisa and other drawings and paintings.

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, by Jeremy L. Sabella

As a companion to the film by Martin Doblmeier about America’s mid-20th century ‘public theologian’ of which there are few if any remaining. 

Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism? edited by Al Truesdale

Following his introduction Truesdale edits an anthology of theological essays with views on how evangelicals can return to their historic roots.

Fiction

A Man Called Ove, by Blackman

A suicidal curmudgeon finally finds the will to live and embrace his neighbors after the love of his life dies in a vehicle accident.

 The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

A clear-eyed view of how slavery affected the lives of whites as well as black slaves in the American South.

 A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

In post revolutionary Russia a former Czarist lives under house arrest in a luxury Moscow hotel.

 The Sheriff of Nottingham, by Richard Kluger

The story of a singular character striving to act honorably in Medieval 13th century England during the days of Robin Hood and the Magna Carta.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

A dystopian future when everything we have done, are doing and will be doing is known and controlled by an unseen information technology network.

What books kept your interest during the year?

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Are Leaders Born, Made – or Neither?

While reading Grant, Ron Chernow’s best selling biography of Ulysses S. Grant, I came across Amy Cunningham’s blog The Leadership Triangle, in which she asks if leaders are made, born or neither.

She suggests that we need to change our paradigm about leaders who, she claims, emerge more by context than either natural ability or training.

Ulysses Grant is an example.   Like Abraham Lincoln, who chose Grant as his senior general to lead the Union army to victory in the Civil War, he came from humble beginnings in frontier Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.   Neither Lincoln nor Grant had the formal education and elite influences of the first Presidents.   Both had their share of young life failures.

Grant, whom Chernow describes as the most popular man in America following the Civil War, was not a natural born leader nor did he have the training required for senior military service or the political experience to become, until then, the youngest President, elected for two terms.   Chernow believes he deserves more credit as a leader for uniting and preserving the Union while implementing the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction.

He seems to have had what Amy Cunningham describes as the Leadership Triangle of “competence, confidence, and commitment” to “ jump in with both feet because there is simply no other choice but to lead.”

Grant didn’t present himself as a war hero and never campaigned for the Presidency.   But he took charge when the times required it.

Near the end of his life, with help from Mark Twain he wrote what is still considered to be one the best presidential memoirs: interestingly enough recounting his war years without mention of his Presidency.

I concluded some years ago that the best leadership lessons are learned from biographies.   This is one of the best. Chernow helps us get acquainted with Grant as a devoted husband and father as well as a soldier and politician with all his flaws and disappointments.

While there is much to be said for talent and training, leadership happens when ordinary people are met with extraordinary circumstances.

 

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A Night of Hope

During its annual Night Of Hope on Thursday, October 12, the Community of Hope in Washington, D.C., raised over $400,000 – celebrating “Hope Across the City.”

Bob Sloan, for 25 years the CEO of Sibley Hospital, pictured here between me and Kelly Sweeney McShane, the C/H director for the past 17 years, received the annual Tom Nees Award for Exceptional Service. Bob was the founding board chairman in 1980 and has remained an engaged supporter in the years since.   He joined with me and others to start this faith-based ministry among the city’s neediest residents.

The Community of Hope has become one of Washington’s most respected full-service charities – during the past year providing transitional housing to over 1,000 homeless families and health care to 10,000 patients at several locations all across the city.

With the right kind of intervention it is possible to break the cycle of poverty for individuals, families and neighborhoods.  But it takes more than money and programs, as important as those are, to bring about personal and social transformation.

Faith communities bring hope without which little changes for the better.   Servant leaders like Bob Sloan, director Kelly Sweeney McShane and the entire Community of Hope family of staff, volunteers and generous contributors are the difference makers.

I am honored for this annual Exceptional Service award to be offered in my name.   May this legacy continue to give hope to the needy and inspire others to serve where needed.

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‘The Pastoral Role’

There came a moment when reading “When Breathe Becomes Air” (66 weeks now on the NY Times best seller list) that I put the book aside to reflect.   It wasn’t just that it is a heartbreaking memoir of a physician who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer and died at age 37.   I knew the ending before I started

I was struck by why Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon.   It was, he wrote: ‘to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.’

And then the sentence that gave me pause –

‘Had I been more religious in my youth, I might have become a pastor, for it was the pastoral role I’d sought.’

He anticipated a ‘pastoral role,’ to ‘forge relationships with the suffering,’ doing more than simply treating physical problems. He sought for compassionate relationships with his patients.

For over a year now since I first read the book I’ve been wondering: do most parish pastors, priests, and rabbis understand the ‘pastoral role’ this way?

Or are they expected to pay more attention to metrics of attendance, membership and money, than forging ‘relationships with the suffering.’ As rewarding as it may be, congregational leadership can be a painstaking, frustrating job unless motivated by a calling to stand with those who suffer.

Dr Paul Kalanithi knew that that at the end of life, if not sooner, we all will endure suffering and will need a ‘pastoral figure.’

He wrote his brief memoir knowing that he did not have long to live.   Shortly before the end he lamented:

‘One chapter of my life seemed to have ended: perhaps the whole book was closing. Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding in life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering.’

Fortunately, the doctor during his final days became the ‘pastoral figure’ he needed and wanted to be.  I think he wrote so that any of us may be that for someone, sometime.

 

 

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Is America Racist?

A friend sent me a WSJ article by Shelby Steele: “Why The Left Can’t Let Go of Racism.” It begins with a question, “Is America racist?’’

In the wake of Charlottesville he wanted to know what I think of the article and question.

I responded that even though racism exists in structures as well as individuals I wouldn’t describe America as racist. That is not a helpful generalization.

I prefer the word “racialized,’ used by Emerson and Smith in their book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.” They describe America as a “racialized society” since “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.”

Given our history of slavery, segregation and discrimination they argue that our culture continues to “allocate economic, political and social rewards to individuals and groups along racial lines.”  

We form opinions, often unconsciously, about people by racial categories before we know them.   Thus there remains among us a tendency to pre-judge people by racial stereotypes regardless of their character or abilities.   That leads to prejudice, racism and injustice.

People of color, by internalizing these stereotypes may be as much influenced by these categories as the dominant white population.

None of us can escape the influence of our racialized culture.   The best we can do is recognize and resist its effects in ourselves as well as in the public square.

I don’t care for Shelby Steele’s stereotyping people as being left or right, liberal or conservative on racial issues.   Labeling one another with a single political identity ignores the complexity of each individual.

I have ideas that some would consider liberal, others that might be characterized as conservative.   This is true with almost everyone.   Few of us are single-minded ideologues.

In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Jonathan Haidt cites research demonstrating that we all want one thing: to be treated fairly.

Working for racial fairness is neither liberal nor conservative, or perhaps it is both.

 

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Charlottesville

If you are Jewish, African American or Native American you may not be that surprised at the rally and protests in Charlottesville this past weekend. You are not surprised when white supremacists spew out their racism and anti-Semitism.

If you are Hispanic, Asian or of some other ethnicity you too know what it’s like to be denigrated by a segment of the American population.   If it hasn’t happened to you, you probably know someone who has been rejected for being non-white (a term of derision itself).  photo from yorkdispatch.com

If you are white and not Jewish, and have never, as far as you know, harbored or expressed white supremacist ideology, you may be somewhat surprised, even shocked that Klu Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to, in their rhetoric, “take America back.” The removal by the city of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was simply the trigger to rally for their larger cause.

Being white protects one from attack by white supremacists so we don’t think about it that much.   It hasn’t touched us personally.

We know there are some crazies out there but we may not be aware of the extent to which their ideology has taken root and is growing in the current political soil.   They have claimed common cause with Trumpism.

While being white is an advantage, it may also blind us to the presence of white supremacists among us promoting hatred toward people of color and of Jewish descent.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call.   Public officials have condemned the violence – a car driven into the crowd of anti-supremacists by a 20-year old from Ohio killing one and wounding many others.

But the deeper violence, if not terrorism is within the white supremacist movement itself embedded in the society around us.   People of color, of different ethnicities and Jews are meant to be terrorized, to be afraid and feel unwelcome.

Given our history, the rally in Charlottesville should not surprise us.

Do we have the courage to call out and resist the terror that white supremacists from across the country brought there?

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The Serenity Prayer – and The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

The Serenity Prayer, originally composed in 1943 by the pastor-theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) for the troops in WWII, resonates as much now as ever in our public as well as personal lives.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,  Courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Since adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous thousands of people in recovery recite it daily.   Niebuhr may be relatively unknown but his prayer lives on as a quick guide to sobriety and sanity whatever our situation in life.

His legacy has been renewed in a new documentary film available on PBS:An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story and companion book by Jeremy L. Sabella.

Those of us who studied mid-twentieth century theology remember Niebuhr for among other things appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1948.   We read his major works including – Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics and The Nature and Destiny of Man.

We remember that he was an inner-city pastor in Detroit before he became an ethics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.         .

He is described in the new documentary as a ‘public theologian’ for his observations on social ethics and the role he played as an advisor to public policy leaders particularly on issues of war and peace.

Martin Luther King quoted him in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Billy Graham followed him. In the 2008 presidential campaign both John McCain and Barack Obama cited his influence on their politics.

He is best known and followed for two primary thoughts.

  1. Corporate systemic evil must be restrained by force if necessary.

Having witnessed the carnage of WWI, Niebuhr abandoned early 20th Century utopian visions for the perfectibility of society through education.   While not giving up on social reform he recognized that evil is social as well as personal and must be named and at times restrained with force: making a case for just war.

  1. We must recognize and restrain evil in ourselves as well as the enemy.

Having witnessed the nightmare and future threat of atomic weapons following WWII, he warned U.S. leaders that the capacity for evil must be recognized in ourselves as well as the enemy.

A key petition in the Serenity Prayer is for “the courage to change.”

For Niebuhr this meant that –

  • Since evil is systemic as well as personal we must work for justice.
  • Given our propensity for self-centeredness we all need grace and forgiveness.

Serenity takes courage.

 

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How Well Do We Handle Adversity?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question having recently read Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandburg, CEO of Facebook and Adam Grant, a best-selling author and psychologist at Warton. It may be because of the people I know who have gone through very difficult times.

The book is Sandburg’s conversation with Grant after the sudden death of her husband.   Feeling that she and her young children would never find joy again she began talking, listening, and eventually discovering how she and others could rebound from life-shattering tragedies.

Life seldom works out as planned. Sandburg believes we need options and the agility to change direction.   She and Grant teach us how to develop resilience, to thrive in spite of disappointments, tragedies, and failures, even those of our own making.

Following its publication in April 2017 the Option B website (optionb.org) provides a place to learn from other people’s stories who with resilience have faced down challenges including grief, illness, divorce, hate, violence, and incarceration.

When applied to our behavior patterns resilience is a metaphor drawn from the ability of a substance or object to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching or being compressed.

However, unlike a substance or an object we are not naturally nor necessarily resilient.   It must be learned, practiced and taught.

While at the Community of Hope in Washington, DC, I observed remarkable transformations of people who had given up on themselves.   They were zombies, the walking dead.   And yet with timely intervention it was as if they were resurrected to new life – I call them resurrection stories.

I saw resilience in that deteriorating neighborhood as well.   Buildings became habitable again.   The street was safer.   There were fewer evictions. The police were no longer adversaries. Health care was available. People found jobs and children improved at school.

There were still casualties, but enough resurrections to give us hope.

During those years of urban ministry we experienced our share of adversity.   The financial strain at times left us desperate. But somehow, we found the resilience to bounce back.

As a leader I had to learn emotional resiliency – to not give up, or give in to feelings of failure when a project or plan didn’t work out.   There always had to be an Option B.

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