Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Into the Wilderness

Crossing over into Mile 17 of the Livestrong Austin Marathon, we entered a wilderness stretch.  Having run down from the capital, through south austin, tarrytown, west austin, now we crossed onto a 1.5 mile stretch of road bordering Mopac, a wilderness stretch, a long stretch with few fans, no water stops and wind.

This was the beginning of the wall coming down on my running partner and me.  Scott and I felt great at 10 miles, good at the half, strong through the hills of 13-15 miles, but then the wilderness hit, and it hit hard.

I had not intended to run a second marathon.  Having run the Twin Cities in 2008, surviving record warm temps and humidity, and surviving to finish I figured that was good.  I knew the time investment running 26.2 cost.  The hours of training, the time away from family.  But my friend wanted to run, so we ran.  And about 18 miles in we entered the wilderness and the wall started coming down.

How often in leadership, in life, do we start toward a goal feeling strong?  Even halfway in we feel confident we are going the right direction and things feel good, we have ups and downs, we get stressed but survive and think the worst is over, only to hit a wall.

My Dad told us that morning as we set out to "enjoy the journey."  And for about 18 miles we indeed were enjoying the journey, but then it got hard, really really hard.  At that point, what I needed wasn't to enjoy the journey, but clearly understand the goal.  To know how far it was, how each step was bringing us closer to the goal.

Moses knew the goal, the promised land.  In the midst of 40 years in the wilderness he had to keep the people focused on that goal.  While my marathon lasted around 5 hours, Moses' lasted 40 years.  How often did he struggle, did he doubt?  How often did Miriam have to sing a song, or Aaron give an inspiring speech to get them through the day?

While the journey of leadership is good, and has its points of grace, I believe to effectively lead through the inevitable trials we must know what the goal is.  We must set that vision out in front of ourselves.  Be clear on where we are going, what will success be, or else in the midst of the pain of the wilderness, when the wall drops down, we will fail.

So what is your goal?  What is mine?  Scott and I accomplished our goal on Sunday.  We crossed the finish line, received our medals, took the pictures.  But now what?  We better figure that out, because the wilderness is coming.  Lent is coming, temptation is coming.  So what is next?

In the midst of this wilderness, I am reminded yet to give thanks to God, who has accomplished the greatest goal.  While Moses never entered the promised land, the people did.  Perhaps this is some perspective. Our goals are important, yet the greatest goal has been achieved, life eternal has been granted and each week we get that foretaste of the feast to come.  In the midst of mile 18, a council meeting, a master planning session, we need that perspective.  God has come and brings life and hope.  The wilderness is part of the journey, but the end is Christ.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Earlier today I was listening the 1310 AM (The Ticket) as they broadcast live from Edmonton in preparation for the Dallas Stars hockey game against the Oilers tonight.  As I listened they were talking about the teams, interviewing former players and then went into a conversation about the weather.  To understand things, for folks from DFW, Edmonton weather is downright scary.  This is a place where the average high in the warmest month of the year (July) is 73 degrees.  That is our average low 6 months out of the year.

So what is my point?  Well, the funny thing is, the DFW folks were actually pretty sensitive and not stupid about their comments.  They talked about how here we get annoyed with the weather, assuming somehow that our frustration will cause it to warm up while folks up in Edmonton are smart enough to realize that their frustration with the weather, will basically do nothing.

I resonate with this because a 2 weeks ago I was really frustrated with the weather.  Stuck at home with Annika, K off on a trip and snow and ice on the ground here and ultimately frozen pipes to deal with.  My frustration, sense of claustrophobia and ultimately sense of helplessness became very real and I railed against the cold.  It isn't supposed to be that cold here, it is supposed to warm up quickly.  If it didn't why would we put pipes in unheated crawl spaces on our attics?  I took to looking at the weather forecasts every couple minutes, waiting for the sun to come out, wondering when it would finally get warmer.

How often do we spend pointless energy worrying about those things we cannot change?  I know I do and I certainly know others do as well.  Although my looking at the grey sky and demanding it turn blue, the sun to come out, doesn't make a difference, I still did it.  How often do we gather in a committee or team meeting, look at the reality of the situation (financial, individual support, attendance, etc...) and instead of facing up to the reality simply demand something change?  Far too often I presume.

As leaders, I think a little Edmonton wisdom would help us out.  There are realities we cannot change and to be successful we shouldn't waste energy demanding they change, instead we should recognize those realities, learn from them, change and adapt.  Otherwise, how could anyone ever live in Canada?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Viva Las Vegas

Greetings to you from sunny Las Vegas.  After all the events of the past month or so (including last week that included 4 snow days, frozen pipes and driving to the airport on ice-slick roads surrounded by idiots) Kendra and I are having a mental health break made possible mostly by her folks and aunt and uncle.  It is head clearing to get away, we are grateful.

Had a lot of time to think and ponder this morning as I completed by final long run before the marathon I have foolishly signed up for on the 20th of February.  Nice thing about Vegas running, not many hills, tough thing, wind and extremely dry temps.  You don’t realize you are dehydrated until it is too late.

In the course of my 20 miles today I covered a dramatic cross-section of the reality of America.  From the intensity and wealth of the Vegas Strip to the grittier, more old-school Vegas of the Fremont area, over to the low slung buildings of UNLV (home of the runnin’ rebels) and past at least 5 wedding chapels, I encountered the highest of high rent districts and the lowest of low.  From my comfortable (but by no means opulent) room, I ran by rooms that go for thousands a night, older run down motels (some no doubt available “by the hour”) and even the cardboard and blanket hovels of the homeless shoved into the doorway of deserted buildings.  In addition I saw signs in at least 4 different languages and heard probably 5 or more languages spoken.

What a picture of America with all of its wealth, diversity, power and yet tremendous inequality!!!  This is a town built on rampant and massive consumption, yet now over a million folks call it home and it has become not just a big theme park in the desert, but an actual city with needs and realities. 

So as I ran, I thought about that.  What does so much inequality and diversity in so small a space say about our nation and about our historic leadership?  In thinking I came up with three thoughts….

1)      The mob would have run the homeless farther away from the strip than the corporations do.  Although we can lambast the multi-national corporations that have built these monstrosities along the strip, driving out any small businesses, making the entire town a high end Disneyland for adults…they can’t legally kick out the homeless and ensure we don’t see them.   You come to Vegas today and you know there are hurting people, that is isn’t all beautiful fluorescent lights. The mob, via intimidation, incentives and brutal force would not allow the couple I saw today, huddled together, begging for money (and they were just a few) on the pedestrian overpass between the Bellagio and Bally’s.  Those folks woulda been outta here.  That is not the image of Vegas, but it is an important reality that visitors need to see.
2)      That said, it is clear that social services in Vegas are challenged and lacking.  Despite the incredible wealth flowing through this town, you go more than two blocks off the strip and you see dilapidated housing, cheap weekly rental hotels and boarded up businesses.  Although the federal courthouse was impressive, it is clear that there is a lack of emphasis from the political leadership here on public parks, community gathering places, local police sub-stations and other basic social services.  And lest you think I only saw a bit of Vegas, remember, I ran 20 miles, up the strip, into downtown, through north Vegas and down to the University.  Certainly not the whole town, but a big part of it.
3)      Being a political leader in a town like this must take an incredible ability to balance interests, read the political and economic winds, relate to people of incredible diversity and be wise in leadership.  How do you balance the needs of the strip and the people who make the strip come to life?  How do you negotiate the incredible drop in real estate values, provide those basic services and schools when a large portion of those who move here are coming to escape taxes and have little interest in providing for schools they (as retired folks) will never send children too.  The temptation would be to fall into a ditch, either be a demagogue (man of the people) and rail against the corporations and their waste and extravagance, or be a stooge for those same corporations.  Going along a middle way there must be an incredible challenge, I wonder if anyone has really done it well.

We are having a good time here, good to be away and clear our heads.  But as with any vacation, if you take some time to look around, you realize that you can never really get away from the challenges of the world.  They are here too, even in Vegas. And what happens here, might stay here, but what has happened in the rest of the world, affects here, and the leadership of Vegas must respond.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transformed for Today and Eternity?

Recently around here a lot of talk has been about Marcus Borg.  For those who don’t know him, he was raised Norwegian Lutheran in the Upper Midwest and has since become a significant scholar and noted author with several best sellers.  His work is part of a significant movement that has gained traction in mainline circles, usually claiming to be a voice for “thinking Christians.” 

Having been exposed to Borg and many of his folks several years ago, I am not quite as enamored with him and frankly, occasionally offended by much of this movement's assumptions and presuppositions.  They claim to know much about what is actually taking place in congregations around the country yet when I examine their affiliations, I argue that many of these folks haven’t been in “regular” mainline churches (I would count Trinity as one of them) for a long time. 

My critique of Borg however, is not the point of this post.  He comes up because of his authorship of an article for Word and World (the Luther Seminary theological journal) for their issue on “Heaven and Hell.” (Winter 2011, Vol. 31:1)  In the article he states his reasons for being “agnostic” (his word, reminded us that it means “not knowing”) on the issue of life after death.  More to the point, he believes that the promise of said life isn’t central for Christianity to have purpose. 

To open the article, he uses an anecdotal story of being asked by a “sincere” pastor that if certainty for the afterlife isn’t the key to the Christian faith, then “what exactly is our product?”  Borg’s ultimate response is that “our product is transformation-the transformation of ourselves as individuals and communities, and the transformation of the world” (W&W, 12)

This I can totally buy into, I am all about transformation, especially transformational leadership.  This is why I am into coaching, I want to assist and walk alongside those who wise to be transformed in their work and also see their communities transformed.  And after the month of January K and I have had, we are resolving to restart 2011 and pray it can be a transformational year in our lives, we need that hope, that God can transform loss and pain into hope and new things.

But here is the rub, I didn’t get much of that in my seminary training.  In fact, I would say from some of my profs downright discouraged us from assuming any sort of transformation (this side of Rev. 21) was a pipe dream.  For them, it was all about the transformation that will occur when the trumpet sounds, that this “wormy” body will take on something better and the sinner will be redeemed etc…

Why can’t we have both?  Why can’t I believe fully in Rev. 21, the transformation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15, and also believe that this life can be a transformative experience.  That Jesus is both the resurrection and the life and that both are possible and that God wants us to have both?

I think this is a real challenge for a Lutheran understanding of leadership and transformation.  We take sin VERY seriously, we understand the Bondage of the Will, we get that.  But I think we also have to take seriously then the transformative power of the Gospel not only for eternal life but also for today.

My concern is that folks like Borg, beginning with valid critiques of a church so often more heaven bound than earthy good, are encouraging people to give up on that eternal promise as well.  Enamored with this life, we forget about the transformation of the life to come.  So then what do we say when a good, hopeful life here is cut short?  Being a “know nothing” may work for college professors who are content to quote Romans 14 in an abstract sense, but this isn’t an option for me as a preacher, a pastor, a disciple of Jesus. 

I believe God has created us and through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is transforming us each day (Phil 2:12-13).  But for me, the gift of eternal life (the promise of baptism) is the presupposition for that purpose today.  It isn't the only transformation God is working in our lives and our world, it is part of God's whole plan for God's people.  That new name allows us freedom to act and live in ways we could never be if this was all there is.  And although it has been distorted and misused, that does not make it useless or something I can, as a pastor claim to know nothing about.

So can there be a middle for “thinking Christians”?  I sure hope so.