Monthly Archives: August 2011

Shift Happens… at Tiny Church

The lectionary texts for the early fall come from Exodus, so we’re sticking with that story for several weeks and making a series out of it: Shift Happens: Faith at the Speed of Change. Our church’s transformation team thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce some of the stuff that they’ve been learning in their training. The goal is also pastoral: life is always changing. Some changes are positive, some are negative; some are sought after, some are foisted upon us. All can be stressful. All can knock us off balance.

And when it comes to change, Exodus has got it all: radical change (leave Egypt tonight!), gradual change (now wander for forty years), anxiety and resistance (there’s no food! and the food’s no good!), a desire to go back to the familiar (we were better off as slaves), and the need for mature leaders and companions in the midst of it all (Moses… well, he does the best he can. And Aaron kinda screws the pooch with that golden calf thing).

One of the members of our team says that our greatest challenge as a congregation is our tendency to be complacent. The church was blessed with a long-time pastor before I arrived—almost 30 years. That relationship brings with it incredible gifts. And a challenge: it’s really easy to get nice and comfortable. Relationships are vital in ministry, but the cultural landscape is changing too fast for that kind of cozy comfort. Complacency is a luxury we can’t afford if we want to be faithful to the gospel. Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff (and current Secretary of the VA) Eric Shinseki has said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevancy even less.” The Christian faith is headed to that point. (Others might say: look behind you.)

So this week it’s the story of the first passover. When I got together with a group of folks at Tiny Church to study the scripture and plan the series, they were befuddled by the instructions God gives here: Hey, I’m going to free you tonight, but it’s going to involve the slaughter of a whole lot of Egyptian people. Now, here’s a recipe for roast lamb. Best not to improvise on it.

What is God up to here? I’ve got a few ideas that I’m kicking around for Sunday.

Should be a fun series. Of course when you start working on something, you start seeing related stuff all over the place. This post from Seth Godin was on point:

The warning signs of defending the status quo

When confronted with a new idea, do you:

  • Consider the cost of switching before you consider the benefits?
  • Highlight the pain to a few instead of the benefits for the many?
  • Exaggerate how good things are now in order to reduce your fear of change?
  • Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people behind the change?
  • Grab onto the rare thing that could go wrong instead of amplifying the likely thing that will go right?
  • Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits, because the short-term is more vivid for you?
  • Fight to retain benefits and status earned only through tenure and longevity?
  • Embrace an instinct to accept consistent ongoing costs instead of swallowing a one-time expense?
  • Slow implementation and decision making down instead of speeding it up?
  • Embrace sunk costs?
  • Imagine that your competition is going to be as afraid of change as you are? Even the competition that hasn’t entered the market yet and has nothing to lose…
  • Emphasize emergency preparation at the expense of a chronic and degenerative condition?
  • Compare the best of what you have now with the possible worst of what a change might bring?

Calling it out when you see it might give your team the strength to make a leap.

And away we go.

Video: How to Move a 100 Year Old Church. I don’t love the aesthetic or the message of the rock/choir piece midway through, but there is something poignant about the people leading the way. 

Say Something Nice

I love Improv Everywhere, the New York-based “prank collective” that stages interesting things all over the city.

Here’s a link to a mission with a simple premise: two actors placed a megaphone and lectern in Union Square. Mounted on the lectern was a plaque that said: Say Something Nice.

Almost everyone who picked up the megaphone complied with that simple instruction. You can read about the mision at the link, but here’s a sampling of responses:

Say something nice today, folks.

Could You Pass as Your Ideological Opponent?

I read with dismay this story about town hall meetings, which have gotten more contentious in recent years.

So what happened to the town hall?

…[T]he tools of citizenship and activism have changed with the advent of YouTube and new, more aggressive strategies from activist groups on both sides. Somehow, an event that was once all about listening has become all about shouting. It now counts as a defeat if one’s opponent is allowed to make a point in peace.

Incidentally, the comments prove the article’s point.

By contrast, consider the Ideological Turing Test. A group of atheists and a group of Christians were asked to answer questions anonymously (e.g. what’s your best reason for being a Christian/an atheist?). The goal was to pass themselves off as members of the other group. Through open voting, readers tried to discern whether “person #6” was an atheist posing as a Christian or a Christian speaking as herself, and vice versa for the atheist questions.

The responses and results are fascinating and fun. I haven’t crunched all the numbers or read everything on the site, which is not scientific, it should be said. But I did note that in the atheist contest, the top three people identified as atheists were actually Christians. In other words, the Christians were able to represent the atheist point of view well enough to fool the audience.

I’m not sure what to make of that. My initial thought is that doubt in God is actually a component of religious faith, not the antithesis to it, so it’s not hard for a self-reflective Christian to put on that point of view. Or maybe we just fake sincerity really well? (It’s a joke. No pile-ons.) There were also atheists that were able to “pass” as Christian, but not as many as the other way around. But numbers aside… what a cool experiment.

Adam Hamilton, a pastor whom I admire greatly, did a sermon series several years ago on world religions. The purpose was to build respect and see what Christians could learn from other forms of religious piety. He interviewed interfaith leaders in his community and even included video of these leaders in the service. He said his goal was not to build a straw man to knock down, but to represent the other religion’s point of view so accurately that those religious leaders could sit in the front row of his church and say, Yes, that is who we are.

It’s the Atticus Finch thing: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I do that sometimes as an intellectual exercise, when I hear something on the news that really ticks me off: What might lead a person to come to that conclusion? But it’s hard work, and I don’t do it enough.

We don’t do it enough.

But we could. And the world would be a thousand times better place.

Fewer Angry McShoutertons, please.

More Adam Hamiltons and Ideological Turing Tests.

– – – –

footnote: the original turing test

Friday Link Love

Tonight we celebrate Robert’s birthday with a trip to the Arlington Drafthouse to see this guy:

Wyatt Cenac

We’re pretty psyched.

In the meantime, here are some links to keep you busy:

Don’t Give Up: The Inspirational Letters Project

The eternal truth of a lot of creative work: 3% of the time you are on fire, and 97% of the time is a messy slog. The key: persist, despite all the difficulties…

These are letters from animators at Pixar and elsewhere to an aspiring animator… the response prompted him to start a spinoff called the Inspirational Letters Project. As you would expect, they are visually interesting.


King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King denied the ontological divinity of Jesus, didn’t think heaven/hell were literal places, saw the Bible as myth, rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus (beginning at the age of 13), rejected original sin, and more. In other words, a liberal theologian.

On that topic, I’m sympathetic with James McGrath, who laments that many of the “new atheists” are putting forth criticisms of Christianity and the Bible as if they are new and original, when in fact many theologians have been saying similar stuff for centuries, including MLK, it would seem. (I also note that the comments on McGrath’s post are largely substantive and respectful. Kudos to him.)


Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There


Numerous writers, artists, poets and musicians have testified to the virtues of such idleness in their own creative lives. It was when he was completely alone, Mozart wrote in a letter, “say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when [he] could not sleep,” that his ideas flowed best and most abundantly…

Such testimony is not just plain good sense; it is good science too. In a recent article in Discover magazine, the journalist Stephen Johnson reported on a conversation with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. The cognitive part of our brain works very fast, Damasio explained. “So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names in just a few hundredths of a second.” But the emotional part of our brains works very differently, and there is precious little evidence that this is going to change. Tasks that have to do with empathy and imagination, with slow-growing qualities like love and fidelity and ethics, will continue to develop in their own sweet time.


Kurt Andersen: Our Politics Are Sick

I love Kurt Andersen’s Studio 360; it’s one of my favorite podcasts. “Creativity, pop culture and the arts”: what’s not to love?

He nails this metaphor in my opinion:

The American body politic suffers from autoimmune disorders.

It’s a metaphor, but it’s not a joke. I’ve read a lot about autoimmune diseases — the literal, medical kinds, also disconcertingly on the rise — because several members of my family have them. At some point, our bodies’ own immune systems went nuts, mistaking healthy pieces of our anatomies — a pancreas, a thyroid, a joint — for foreign tissue, dangerous enemies within, and proceeded to attack and try to destroy them. It’s as close to tragedy as biology gets.

Which is pretty much exactly what’s been happening the last decade in our politics. The Truthers decided the U.S. government was behind 9/11. Others decided our black president is definitely foreign-born and Muslim. Tea Party Republicans are convinced his administration is crypto-socialist and/or proto-fascist. The anti-Shariah people are terrified of the nonexistent threat of Islamic law infecting American jurisprudence. It’s now considered reasonable to regard organs and limbs of the federal government — the E.P.A., the education department, the Federal Reserve — as tumors that must be removed. Taxation itself is now considered a parasitic pathogen rather than a crucial part of our social organism.



The Procrastination Flowchart

I resemble that.


And finally, Steve Job’s 2005 Commencement Speech to Stanford. Wise and touching. I wish him well.





Will Apple Go Downhill? Maybe.

In his early years at Apple, before he was forced out in 1985, Mr. Jobs was notoriously hands-on, meddling with details and berating colleagues. But later, first at Pixar, the computer-animation studio he co-founded, and in his second stint at Apple, he relied more on others, listening more and trusting members of his design and business teams.

In recent years, Mr. Jobs’s role at Apple has been more the corporate equivalent of “an unusually gifted and brilliant orchestra conductor,” said Michael Hawley, a professional pianist and computer scientist who worked for Mr. Jobs and has known him for years. “Steve has done a great job of recruiting a broad and deep talent base.”

…[But] it is by no means certain, analysts say, that things will go that smoothly for Apple.


One of the things pastors say to one another is that if the church falls apart after you leave, you haven’t done your job. I believe this. After all, our only job description according to scripture is to “equip the saints for ministry.” A pastor who is driven by ego or insecurity can set herself up as the savior for the congregation, and when she leaves, the congregation becomes lost.

And yet taking this view too far is not helpful. We bring unique gifts and experiences to the work we do. If, after we depart, our church hums along as if we’d never been there in the first place, does that mean we did a really good job of equipping? Or does it mean that we withheld some of our authentic selves from the people with whom we served?

After I left a previous call, there were programs I initiated that did not continue. I’ve felt guilty about that at times: maybe I didn’t do enough to share the ministry. Such self-reflection is healthy. But it’s also possible that God called me, with a specific set of unique gifts and talents, to make an impact for however long I was there, and that some of those things were dependent on what I uniquely brought to the table. It is not vain to acknowledge this.

Now the leadership looks different, so there are different things happening. Good.

The more I read and understand of leadership, the more I understand that it really is the pastor who sets the course, who risks articulating a vision, and who puts her own creativity and abilities on the line for the sake of what needs to be done. We don’t do it alone, and sometimes we do it badly. Or we don’t do it at all and end up plodding along. But that is our job. And our gifts and talents and personality are inevitably tied up in this. We talk a lot about the “pastoral role” as this thing that exists. And it does. But we are not interchangeable appliances that can be swapped out. (Maybe we should stop calling the service that welcomes us into the congregation “installations”…)

The above article says Jobs matured as a leader and learned how to find good people and call forth their gifts. So the company is likely to be fine. But let’s not pretend that CEO Jobs was simply a midwife for others’ creativity. He was the creative force behind much of Apple’s success.

Nor will it be the same company in his absence. And that’s OK.

If Apple loses some of its mojo, it doesn’t necessarily mean Steve Jobs didn’t do his job. It means that there is nobody quite like Steve Jobs.