Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Picking the Blanket Back Up

The congregation I serve, Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth, sits at the intersection of three major roads in western downtown. Around the circle of this intersection are world class art museums, performance spaces, a medical center, CVS drug store, a McDonald's, and our mid-century modern church building. Everyday tens of thousands of cars drive by, hundreds of cars sit in the drive thru lane at McDonalds, and there is rarely quiet and certainly little or no silence.

This location impacts our ministry and has impacted me as a minister. In fact, it has resulted in creating my favorite 15 minutes of the ministry year, the 15 minutes after the last parishioner has left from our final Christmas Eve service.

I make sure, on Christmas Eve, to be the last person (with perhaps the exception of one of our homeless neighbors seeking shelter in our courtyard) to leave the church campus. I do this because in that time, that 15 minutes, close to midnight, there is silence in our busy intersection. There are few to no cars, the museums and medical center are closed, even the CVS and McDonalds are closed. In that blessed quiet, for 15 minutes, the last word on this intersection is the word that Christ has been born, the savior has come, peace between God and humanity, the angels have proclaimed it, fear not.

These 15 minutes came to mind yesterday when I read Jason Soroski's succinct and thoughtful blog post "Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas." He hits a chord with people, including myself, by finding a moment in a well loved classic that can, even after 50 years, proclaim anew the good news to us. The jist of it is, when Linus speaks those famous words from the angels, "Fear not," he drops his blue security blanket for the first time. In like regard then, Soroski encourages us to see that "The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead."

The response to this post has been strong and largely positive in the 48 hours since he uploaded it and for good reason. We need to be encouraged, to be taught again, as we teach the TLCC children in chapel that when angels come they say "Don't be afraid!" God is coming, you don't have to fear. In fact, we are doing such a good job of that just this week our school director received this email from a parent. "Our daughter told my husband and me yesterday that angels watch over us and protect us.  Thank you for teaching the kids such wonderful things that positively impact their lives!"             

When we recognize God has come for us, that we need not be afraid, indeed we can, as Soroski encourages us, drop the blanket of temporal security and live in God's peace. This sense of peace is why I love that 15 minutes after the last Christmas Eve service. The liturgy (the work of the people praising God) has been done. Good news has been proclaimed. My family is home safely in their beds. There is quiet on our busy intersection. Do not be afraid. I drop my security blanket and can almost hear the angels over Fort Worth.

But here is the problem with building a theology around that image and that moment, it doesn't last.

Linus completes his speech, walks over to Charlie Brown, and says "That is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown," and immediately picks up his blanket and sticks his thumb (like my 3 year old) back into his mouth. The inbreaking of that peaceful moment, the dropping of the blanket, is not permanent in Linus' life just as the peace of that 15 minutes on Christmas Eve isn't permanent for me.

We live in the now, we wait upon the "not yet." In this now we get experiences of the "not yet," inbreakings of God's kingdom. These can come on Christmas Eve, or when we receive the Holy Eucharist and hear once again "given and shed FOR you," or it can happen in a particularly grace filled conversation with a friend, etc...

These experiences of the "not yet" like Linus had on that cartoon stage 50 years ago help sustain us and encourage us through life. But Charles Shultz was too good a theologian, I believe, to have Linus cast his blanket aside in that moment for all time. That sort of conversion moment would be good TV but it wouldn't be real life.

If we as teachers and preachers encourage our communities to expect that peaceful moment, that experience of the "not yet," to transcend the realities of life we risk turning gospel into law. We risk being one more voice that tells folks that if they just get Christmas right this year all will be well. The pain and grief and loss, the illness and broken relationships, the addictions and mistrust, the self-doubt, etc... will just go away. That with enough faith we can just drop that blanket and trust Christ who will replace it all and in so doing we once again make ourselves the actors in receiving God's peace.

To be fair, I don't think Soroski is that simplistic in his theology. His blog post is about a third the length of this. He was going for, and achieved, impact. Yet, I think perhaps he misunderstands what Linus' blanket is for. Is it a burden? In his formulation it is. However, one could also see this blanket as a tool to survive this challenging world. To do ministry and walk with, as Linus so often does, the Charlie Browns in our lives.

When we as leaders talk to people about theology and life we must be careful. Nuance is important and making sure God, not us, is the actor is of primary importance. To be sure we don't separate those moments of inbreaking peace from "the real world" in which we cling to temporal security, and for good reason. Life in this world is hard, sometimes I need a security blanket, I need that temporal reminder of God's grace to get through ministry and carry on.

We live in the reality of the now, waiting on the "not yet." As the wonderful hymn "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service" reminds us...
                                          Still your children wander homeless;
                                          still the hungry cry for bread;
                                          still the captives long for freedom;
                                          still in grief we mourn our dead.

In those 15 minutes after Christmas Eve I sense the inbreaking of God's peace in my life. For a moment God takes that need for a temporal blanket of security away and gives me a sense of true security and peace. Yet I also know that within a couple hundred yards of me there is probably a homeless neighbor sleeping and I have a responsibility to know if he/she has a blanket, that the broken relationships my parishioners suffer won't just be healed in the morning, that even in the place of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem, there is little peace. The inbreaking comes, I experience peace, but then I pick back up my blanket and like Linus, to sooth myself, stick my proverbial thumb in my mouth so I can sleep in the midst of all these temporal realities.

We need moments like Linus had on stage. Moments when God breaks in and takes the blanket away. But as pastors and leaders we must always keep in mind the expectations we place on those hearing our words. We must not make gospel into law. We do not drop the blanket, God takes it from it. In the words "For You" God takes away our reliance on the things of this world and reminds us, in the now, of the coming "not yet." We rejoice in those moments, but we do so knowing the day after Christmas will come. The day of St. Stephen, the day of the first martyr, who served those in need, who was murdered before Saul. The next day comes and in this now, still in grief we mourn our dead.

Christmas is a wonderful gift given to us by God to remind us that God is always for us. Our blankets that we cling to in this life do not replace God but often give us the courage to serve God in this world of grief and sin. To sooth ourselves a bit so we can do that which God has called us to do in this life. To serve our neighbor and not lose heart. To know that moment is gospel and not law and that when we pick up the blanket again, we are not failing.

So may you have a blessed Christmas. May you experience that moment of "not yet," may God grant you that blessed peace, and then, pick up that blanket, and go and serve as Stephen did.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Leadership in Crisis: Nimitz on Pearl Harbor

My 3 year old just had a crisis. Her sleeper zipper was stuck. She responded with tears, anger, pulling, refused help initially, said "I CAN DO IT MYSELF," yet ultimately in despair she tore at the sleeper and cried out "Daddy, help me!" as she collapsed on the floor in tears.

How do we handle crisis? Much of leadership is defined by that ability. How does the leader respond when we encounter a crisis we have caused or one brought upon us by outside forces. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, particularly by the seminal author on crisis leadership, Irving Janis. This should be unsurprising given the inevitability of crisis in leadership, yet so many leaders, or aspiring leaders, appear to have paid little attention.

Today is December 7th. The 74th anniversary of the devasting attacks by the empire of Japan against the United States Pacific Navy stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In this devastating surprise attack the Japanese forces rendered the U.S. Pacific fleet basically non-operational and killed almost 4,000 sailers and personnel. It was a day, as President Rooselvelt frankly stated, that "will live in Infamy."

The navy was in crisis. A native Texan, Admiral Chester Nimitz, born in the late 1800's in the small hill country town of Fredricksburg, was the fleet admiral of the Pacific. Chester was raised without a father (he died while Chester was in utero). Instead, his paternal grandfather, who had served in the German Merchant Marine and was later a Texas Ranger, became a guiding influence. He famously told Chester, "the sea – like life itself – is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don't worry – especially about things over which you have no control." This advice would be a good guide, especially for dealing with crises that came from outside the control of the Admiral.

Surveying the damage brought on by the surprise attack Nimitz was asked about his reaction to the devastation. It would have been understandable for him to react in anger. Why were they not more prepared? To find a scapegoat. Who was the blame? Who was manning the radar? Why didn't they discover the convey of Japanese ships and planes? He could have called immediately for major counter attacks, for which his forces were far too depleted. He could have made excuses and tried to cover up the devastating losses. Or he could have even fallen into despair and resign in failure.

Nimitz of course did none of these things. Instead, when asked what he thought he responded with a question, "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"

An adept leader in crisis Nimitz reframed the issue. He asked a question, implying he had an answer, but he pushed his followers to rethink their responses. He adapted the leadership situation. He acknoweldged the tremendous losses but did not dwell in fear and negativity. Instead he reframed the issues, pointed out the tremendous resources still at his disposal, and led his followers to see opportunity in the midst of loss and crisis (his famous 3 mistakes response is summarized below from his 12 page report "Reflections on Pearl Harbor" published in 1985 by the Admiral Nimitz Center).

Out of the disaster of Pearl Harbor came several years of hard fought, sacrificial battle. All was not resolved by this one statement and report. But this moment of leadership in crisis was an essential piece towards moving the community towards healing and future success. Nimitz did not retreat, build walls, find someone to blame, or make himself the issue. Instead he pointed to a future and encouraged followers to find a hopeful future with him.

We live in a time when the focus of too many of our leaders is just the opposite. To point to what we don't have, who to blame, and make audacious claims that they could have and would do better. Like my 3 year old, they refuse to ask for help and then in anger throw a fit blaming everyone but themselves for the situation.

Many of these claims have none of the clarity and backing of Nimitz's short 3 mistake summation in response to crisis. Terror strikes Paris, we want to close our borders and shut out refugees. Another mass shooting, we should ban all guns. Rhetoric without substance pours onto our radios, tv screens, and social media outlets. Self serving echo chambers develop that create a narrative that asks nothing of those who promote it but instead blames others for any problems.

This world needs more leaders like Nimitz who are not seeking after cheap political points. Who see the challenges and take those challenges seriously and offer not sound bite solutions but substantitive conversation that encourages us, the followers, to lead alongside them. This is not easy leadership because frankly, most of us don't want to be led or to sacrifice anything. We want a saviour to come and fix it for us. Nimitz didn't offer that. Instead he pointed to the resources the community had and offered hope that together they could rebuild.

So the next time you hear someone telling you exactly what you want to hear or what you expect to hear, think critically. What are they offering me and why? Are they just fitting into the narrative I already believe to be true? Is this a 3 year old solution? Blaming everyone else but me? Or are they challenging me to see the crisis differently, to reframe the issues, and pointing all of the community to hope? That is leadership.

Nimitz's 3 Mistake Analysis

Mistake one : The attack was on Sunday morning.  Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were on shore leave.  If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk-- 38,000 men would have been lost instead of 3,800.
Mistake two : When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed the dry docks opposite those ships.  If the dry docks had been destroyed, every salvagable ship would have to have been towed to the west coast to be repaired.  As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised.  One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America.  And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.
Mistake number three : Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply.