Sunday, January 20, 2013

Adaptive Leadership and the Gospel

I have followed with at least some interest the United Methodist Church's quadrennial training event, held this past weekend in Nashville. Every four years, lay and clergy leadership comes together to talk about the next four years, to reconnect, to hear from church leaders about where we are going and how we can do better.

That's all great.

This year, the buzzwords are "adaptive leadership." How to take up the "adaptive challenge" and be an "adaptive leader" who follows the "adaptive God." (Okay, I made that last one up).

I don't have much to say about the event itself, because while it went on, I spent the weekend holding my three-week-old child. But I do want to say some things about the way in which the church--particularly the United Methodist Church--sees itself, because these are critical times and we need to analyze the ways in which we do church.

I also do not have much to say about the adaptive challenge itself, as I question a bit how important it is for us to be focused so much on the particular institution. Focus, after all, is not a plural word. That said, of course I recognize that the institution of the UMC needs to change. I've written to that effect for some time now.

My radar always goes up when those we deem to be "leaders" are presented with different language and streams of information than everyone else. I am not saying there is no need for leadership, nor that the millions of members of the UMC need to hear details about board and agency restructuring (though it might help connect them to the work of the general church). I am just always interested to see who the leaders are, how they are talked to, who talks to them.
I do not mean to be down on the institution's efforts to reform itself, and I am not down on leadership. I think deeply about leadership and have what amounts to a minor in leadership studies.  But while leadership is vital, it is a tool for gospel living, not the end all be all of Christian experience. As Leonard sweet so memorably says, perhaps our ultimate calling is to be followers.

Let me put it this way: where did the idea of adaptive leadership come from? Do you think it is more likely that we got this idea, these strategies, from Jesus? Or Jack Welch?

It is not leadership I am down on. It is the syncretic melding of the Gospel with coursework from Business 101. In business, after all, the most important thing is the business. The business provides jobs, it makes a product, it earns money. If it is not in the interest of the business, it is not done.

The focus of the business is the business. The focus of the Church is God.

We can talk about our adaptive challenge all day long, but let us be clear about the subject of our talk. Jesus did not come sharing leadership principles. I dare say that if you follow Jesus's leadership principles--effective though they are--you aren't doing to stave off death. You are going to invite death. It is true, as Buechner says, that the promise of the Resurrection is that the worst thing is never the last thing, but you can't get past the worst thing. You just can't.

I love being a United Methodist. I honestly believe that ours is the best system around. But the system does not exist for its own ends. The system exists in order that we may make disciples for the transformation of the world. The genius of the United Methodist Way, until quite recently, has been that its focus is not on itself (no central power structure, no "head bishop," thank goodness) but on God and community. We have achieved great things, made great strides. It is only when we focus on ourselves--thinking we have the answers and that we must survive at all costs--that we lose focus on our mission and, ultimately, our Savior.

So rather than "adaptive leadership," my motto for the coming years is this:

Be faithful. Be more faithful. Be even more faithful.

If you hear echos of "adaptation" in that refrain, you wouldn't be too far off. You might even hear echos of leadership. But the focus is not on the institution. The focus is on God.

If I know one thing, it is that God rewards faithfulness. Perhaps faithfulness is not rewarded in a way that would show up on a business's quarterly earnings report, but it is the treasures in Heaven we're after anyhow. And I have no doubt that faithfulness, as it is understood by the wide swath of ideologies and theologies present in the United Methodist Church, is deep and wide. But that's the genius, isn't it? Our different understandings of what it means to be faithful propel us forward in a way that covers multiple bases. We grow, in more than one sense.

The good news is that we already know the end of the story. God has promised that the Church will never die. Never. So why are we so preoccupied with death? The only explanation I can come up with is that we are staring at our own navels instead of significantly higher.

Instead, let us do our best to be faithful. Let us stay in relationship with one another, hammer things out the best we know how, and go on to perfection. This, after all, is the United Methodist Way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The journey is far from perfect

Is there such thing as blogger paternity leave? If so, I'm invoking the obscure provision of the Discipline and posting a sermon this week in lieu of a regular post. Back soon.
December 30, 2012
“’Twas the Week After Christmas”
Luke 2:41-52
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. (NRSV)

‘Twas the week after Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even your spouse.
The stockings which hung by the chimney with care
Were dumped out and empty and thrown in a chair.

The kids all slept late, they’d stayed out ‘til two thirty,
Which was fine, since that girl that your son thinks is flirty
Surprised you by coming to your Christmas dinner
and said that you cooked well for a beginner.

And your daughter, who’d just left for college last fall,
Decided that she wouldn’t come home at all.
But then, in a miracle, changed her decision,
When you told her she could pay her own tuition.

When out in the living room rose such a clatter
You sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
That’s not quite true, of course, for you’re slightly less springy
Than a mangy old dog or a deflated dinghy.

But surprise! For it had been that mangy old mutt
Who had clattered and clamored and shaken and strut
And who, in the interest of lending a hand
Had just knocked the Christmas tree clean off its stand

And just as your frustration started to taper
you tripped over a pile of torn-apart paper
the good stuff—you’d bought it from old Sally Foster
but now it seems clear she was just an imposter

for the paper lay shredded all over the floor
from presents already returned to the store
and your once-gorgeous home now looked like it could be
Norman Rockwell’s, if Rockwell were on LSD

The Christmas for which you’d been working so hard
Was chewed up, and broken, left battered and charred.
But ah! What is this? Your son is awake!
Perhaps he will share some leftover pound cake!

Or some ham, or a story, or anything, really,
But you ask, and he acts like you’re speaking Swahili
and keeps walking, but before he gets too far
turns and says, “Merry Christmas. Can I have the car?”

Well, the church calls today the Feast of the Holy Family, a name which I find to be absolutely hilarious, because you come to the Bible expecting an idyllic scene of Jesus and Mary and Joseph loving one another and serving one another and staring adoringly at each other, and instead, we are presented with Mary telling Jesus, “Why have you treated us like this?” and Jesus responding, with more than a little lip, “Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” as if you could argue with that particular response.
After the Christmas story, it is a little jarring to be presented with a disagreement. Surely, this is not what Mary expected when the angel came to her and proclaimed good news of great joy. Look, Stacey and I may be new this child-raising thing, but believe me: it is not the arguments I am looking forward to.  I am looking forward to the quiet moments, the holy moments, the kind of moments you’d expect to hear about on the day we call the Feast of the Holy Family. I am looking forward to the kind of moments you prepare for, that you long for at Christmas.
But this is life, isn’t it? You wrap the gifts, you take the kids to see Santa and cook a huge meal, and just before the end of the movie, your son breaks his glasses and thinks he’s shot his eye out, the neighbor’s dogs come and vanquish the turkey you’ve spent all day cooking, and before you know it, the whole family is in a Chinese restaurant with the Christmas Peking duck.
I don’t know if it’s enough, as in the movie The Christmas Story, to make you want to say THE word, the dash dash dash word, but it’s not easy.
And so I am glad to see that you have successfully made it out from underneath the reams of wrapping paper that littered the living room. I remember being a kid and waking up on December 26, disappointed to discover that though Christmas had been wonderful, the 26th was just another day, and maybe there was some candy left, but it would eventually get eaten, and the new clothes would be worn and the toys would become old, and soon enough, Christmas would give way to a certain ordinariness, a reminder that while holidays are wonderful, life is lived in the everyday, faith is lived not in perfect moments, but in everyday life.
I think about that first Christmas, that silent night when glories streamed from heaven afar and heavenly hosts sang alleluia, and what it must have been like the morning after, when the shepherds had gone home, when Mary, exhausted from giving birth, awoke and remembered that yes, she was in fact in a barn of all places, that the whole night before had not been a dream. And the baby starts to cry, believe me, I am newly familiar with this phenomenon, and the baby won’t stop crying, and suddenly it’s twelve years later, and Jesus still has a little attitude. You can just about hear the desperation in his mother’s voice. Why did you do this to us? Why did you do this to me? Do you not remember the story of just how I came to be pregnant with you, of how I narrowly escaped being stoned for giving birth to you, of how difficult it is for me to be your mother?
It had all started out well enough. Being good Jews, Mary and Joseph and their family traveled to Jerusalem three times a year for the high holy days, the most important holidays of the year. It is a nice ritual, I think, to return to the temple on these big days. If you have been here at the church on Christmas Eve, you can imagine the hubbub at the temple. People selling things, reunions with friends and family, a chance to catch up with people you had not seen in a long time. It was chaotic, but it was lovely. It gave a people who were scattered a chance to be together.
Mary and Joseph made this trip every year, and if you think navigating the parking lot here at Johns Creek on Christmas Eve is bad news, just think about what it was like for Jesus’s family to travel for days, fifteen miles a day, in order to be at the temple by Passover.
Fifteen miles on foot! Every day, for days! I tell you what, I get tired just thinking about that. That kind of hike makes me think back to being at camp. Did you ever go on one of those hikes that never seemed to end? I was a camp counselor for ten years at a camp in Arkansas, and I used to be the one to lead those never-ending hikes.
I just loved working at camp, even though I always got stuck teaching the same three classes: archery, riflery, and Outdoor Living Skills. I guess I’m sort of a closet redneck, which may explain why I love the show Duck Dynasty so much. These are my people.
Anyway, each summer, the crowning achievement of the Outdoor Living Skills class was to take the campers on a campout at the base of the mountain where the camp was situated. We’d cleared a little campsite there, and so we took the kids down every couple of weeks to set up tents and make foil pack dinners and roast marshmallows for s’mores.
And so one Sunday night a couple of counselors and I took about ten or twelve kids down the mountain, and as soon as we got far enough down the mountain to make a trip back impractical, it started to rain. Now, if it had really begun to pour before we left, we’d have rescheduled the campout. But it waited until we’d already left, so we trudged down the mountain in the rain, with twelve seven-to-fifteen-year-olds, and it’s almost enough to make you understand how Jesus’s parents must have felt on the way to Jerusalem. We’d walk a few feet, somebody would slip in the mud, and then we’d pick them up and keep going until it happened again, which it inevitably did. Somehow, we eventually made it down the mountain, mostly by sliding I think, and we started to set up the tents. Everything was going fine—even the rain had stopped—and I thought to myself, this is not so bad. I’ve led plenty of campouts before. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, let me give you a piece of advice. When shepherding twelve seven-to-fifteen-year-olds through the woods, never say to yourself, “what could possibly go wrong?” The campfire wouldn’t light, of course, so we had peanut butter crackers for dinner. I think we roasted marshmallows over my lighter. To crown it all, I’d forgotten my sleeping bag, so once it came time for bed I took the change of clothes I’d brought with me and arranged them over myself in order to try and keep warm.
And after we went to bed, about two in the morning, as it started to rain, I gave thanks that at least my camping hammock had a rain fly, you know, sort of a waterproof tarp to sleep under. The tents the kids were sleeping in had rain flies, too, so at least we’d all stay dry. And just as I thought that thought—just as I thought it—I felt a tug on the side of my hammock. I unzipped the top of the hammock and stuck out my head, only to find a shivering, soaking wet seven –year-old boy who proceeded to inform me that his rain fly had a hole in it, and he and his tent-mates were getting soaked.
I thought about lecturing him up and down and using this opportunity to learn a lesson about checking your tent before you left for the campsite, but then I looked at this poor, freezing child at two in the morning, and I remembered that I am not, in fact, a monster, so I did what you do and took down the rain fly that covered my hammock to cover the hole in his. And as I got ready to set up the rain fly and stepped out of the hammock into my shoes, I remembered with a crunch just where I’d left my glasses the night before.
So I pulled the twisted carnage that remained of my glasses out of my shoes, put the rain fly on the camper’s tent, and spent the rest of the night freezing, and soaked, no blanket, no rain protection, no clue why I’d signed up for this particular assignment. That dark night of the soul was only ended at dawn when I heard another one of the campers quickly unzip his tent and make it about three steps before getting sick all over the campsite. So I packed up my things and prepared to take the kid back up the mountain to the infirmary, when I realized that I was going to get sick, myself, if I didn’t find a dry shirt. Being the only male counselor on that campout, the only dry shirt that came close to fitting me belonged to one of the female counselors, a tie-dyed t-shirt with the word “Bahamas” stitched onto the front which was so clearly made for a woman that the slightest skin contact with the back of that stitching would have never passed the Geneva conventions. And did I mention that the woman from whom I borrowed the shirt was about 5 foot 1?
Well, I trekked up the mountain with this poor kid, wearing soaking wet blue jeans and a woman’s t-shirt that would have been tight on a Barbie doll, and by the time we made it up, I was grumbling so successfully that I don’t even remember anybody laughing at me, which I am sure they were. And I went and showered and changed clothes and went about the rest of my day, thoroughly cranky.
I want you to know that I spent the next week in a bad mood, recovering from that campout, and the only thing that shook me out of that funk was hearing some of my campers on the last night of camp talk to their parents. These were kids who had grown up on video games and hot pockets; before coming to camp, outside was just a place between the front door and the school bus. But here were kids going into great detail about how proud they were to have survived a night in the woods, even in the rain! All they had eaten for dinner was peanut butter crackers and raw marshmallows and yet they had not died! I wish you could have seen the pride on their faces as they talked to their parents; it was as if their worlds had split open and birthed new possibility.
The journey is far from perfect, and the results do not always measure up to expectations, but God is there!
Mary and Joseph spent days traveling to the temple for Passover, had survived the chaos of the experience, and now they trudged back down the mountain with their twelve-year-old son. Or so they thought. Jesus was missing. For three days, they panicked, looking everywhere.
They had no idea where he was.
Now, let me stop here briefly and say that it may surprise you to learn that preachers and Biblical scholars struggle with this story a lot, because it does not look like much else in scripture. I love this story because it is the only story in the whole Bible that tells of Jesus as a boy. Everywhere else, it goes from Jesus as a tiny baby to Jesus as a full-grown adult, as if he somehow escaped the curse of being a teenager. But Luke reminds us that Jesus really was fully human, and I just don’t know of any more maddeningly human time than the age of 12 or 13. I don’t know that Jesus would have fully appreciated the experience of being human if he had missed that wonderfully, horrifyingly awkward, holy time of life.
So he is twelve, thoroughly a boy, and he is lost for three days. Now, one reason biblical scholars don’t know what to do with this passage is that it just seems so strange to imagine a situation in which the son of God is lost for three days. It doesn’t really fit with the immortal, invisible, God only wise we sing about sometimes.
So we do all sorts of things to try to make sense of this story. I’ve read all kinds of explanations. Oh, you know, he was lost for three days! And, it says later in Luke, on the third day he rose from the dead! This must be a story about the crucifixion and resurrection. Or, oh! Jesus was sitting with the teachers of the law! This must be a story about Jesus’s authority, that he can hold his own with the teachers! Or, look, of course he is in his father’s house! This is where he belongs, and where you should be too!
Just like we yearn for the perfect Christmas, we want to make this story into something clear and helpful. I mean, it is Jesus, and we are in church. It must all mean something.
Everybody wants this story to be about something, so I was delighted this week to find a video from a preacher in Minnesota who gave this story to a bunch of mothers, some of small children, some of grown, and said, “Tell me what you think.” That’s it. No theological magic tricks, no plucking meaning from thin air. Just tell me what you think. And to a person, they said some version of the same thing: this story is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. Losing track of a child for three days is one of the scariest things I can imagine.
And when you think about it that way, I am not really sure how to sanitize it. The story is terrifying. You can imagine Mary’s exasperation. I have no trouble imagining her tone of voice. I think it is pretty clear. Why have you done this to us? It is a mix of overwhelming relief and white-hot anger. And rather than apologizing, rather than using divine power to assuage her fears and calm her down, Jesus stokes his mother’s fire, saying something that simultaneously makes perfect sense in light of all we know Jesus to be but which, scripture tells us, his parents did not get. They did not understand what he said to them, the writer says.
 And yet, though she did not understand, though she was terrified and furious and exhausted from the search, though this was not what she thought she’d signed up for, Mary treasured these things in her heart. Even in the midst of loss, even in family argument, even after days and days of travel, she found herself, once again, in the presence of God. Even at times when life became almost unbearably difficult--and, for Mary, at times, it did--she treasured all of this in her heart.
This is how God works: not in the perfect moments, because in the final analysis there is no such thing as a perfect moment. In God’s world, children get lost and are found, sons speak insolently to their parents, wizened old teachers learn from a twelve year old boy, our very savior is executed as a traitor. And, of course, God is born in a barn, among animals, among the smells of life, and while this might not be the most pleasant thing you can imagine, the smells of the manger are indeed the smells of life! They remind us that theology is lived, that the Gospel happens when we live it.  God was made flesh at Christmas and God continues to be made flesh through us.

So don’t worry if Christmas was not what you dreamed
For the promise of God is that life is redeemed
not a storybook life, or as told through a poem
nor as something that only can happen at home

but in real life, the real world, for Christ was made flesh.
Remember this next time you put out the crèche
for the smells that he smelled and the miles that he went
are the same smells, the same miles, the same hours we’ve spent.

Oh, the promise of Christmas is not about gifts
It’s that even in long-standing family rifts          
The God who has been at our side since the start
Still is with us. So go treasure THIS in your heart.