Archive for July, 2009

Getting naked with the stakes never higher.

How’s that for a title? 🙂

News flash – the entry is just slightly more boring than the title…I’m just prepping to preach at my church this Sunday.

I’m procrastinating by blogging.

Can you relate?

I speak in front of students pretty regularly, but it is different speaking in front of my church. Students I can be a little more off the cuff and informal.

Not at my church.

It was nearly 20 months ago when I last preached at my church. The experience was memorable to say the least.

Imagine the leader and figure that meant the most to a church for 26 years leaving the congregation after things didn’t end as everyone dreamed. The one person who was the constant; the person who was there for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and most every Sunday preaching from the pulpit.

Imagine the departure – the final sermon, the tears, the good-byes, the hugs, the kind words.

Now imagine being the guy preaching the next week after he leaves.

I was that guy.

Big shoes to fill? That’s an understatement.

I chose to bring my students with me to share about our experience living in a garbage village in Cairo, and how God met us in the midst of what many would consider the one of the most hopeless places on earth.

Hope was what we needed that day. I tried my best to share hope through the gospel that rainy November day. With tears, the pastors wife greeted me afterwards and thanked me. Even if it was just for her, it was a good day.

This week, 20 months later, I find myself in a very different place in the life of my church. I’m an elder. I’m helping search for our new pastor. I’m having conversations about diversity and missional church and everywhere I go I feel like something is on the brink of exploding – either as an outpouring of love or an imploding of frustration.

They don’t write dramas this good on TV. Except LOST. And 24.

(P.S. I am Jack Bauer)

Twenty months ago, I was on the fringe of the church. Now I feel like I’m in the center of a tornado. Now I’m about to speak about it.

Whenever a preacher steps up to the pulpit, the stakes are high. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Beuchner, says it this way:

So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick runthrough of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to his pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe up at the knee so he will not trip over it on his way up. His mouth is a little dray. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.

In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president  of a bank who twice that week seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee…

…and Henry Ward Beecher is there. It is a busman’s holiday for him. The vestry has urged him to take a week off for a badly needed rest, and he has come to hear how someone else does it for a change. It is not that he doesn’t love his wife, but just that, pushing sixty, he has been caught preposterously off-guard by someone who lets him open his heart to her, someone willing in her beauty to hear out the old spell binder, who as a minister has never had anybody much to minister to him…

…The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a river boat gambler. The stakes have never been higher.

I wonder sometimes why in the world anyone would ever have the audacity to step into a pulpit and preach. Seriously.  I talked with one of my professors in this, and here’s how he described preaching:

“Next to love-making with one’s spouse, preaching is the most self-revealing activity you do.  It leaves you naked.”

Doesn’t that sound exciting?  Getting naked with the stakes never higher.

Why do I do this again?


The Enigma of Failure: Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall – 1

I enjoy business books.

Even though I’ve been in campus ministry and out of the for profit sector for six years now, I still think much about my time spent at Intergrated Project Management Company as hugely formative, and realized the power a great company can have on both individuals and communities. The Wall Street Journal seems to agree as well, naming IPM as one of the top 15 small workplaces in the country last year.

It was there when I was first introduced to Jim Collins, and his two business classics: Built to Last, a book primarily based on how enduring companies are built, and Good to Great, a response born out of a question from Collins’ friend who didn’t know how to take his good company and help it become great.  Jim Collins has spent a lot of time talking about success.

Until now.  In How the Mighty Fall, Collins turns to the dark side and analyzes how those companies that had all the advantages fell from the top.  And it isn’t pretty – it’s like analyzing a train wreck.

How the Mighty Fall is going to be criticized pretty heavily by several folks. People will likely talk about how it doesn’t have the same rigor as the other books, and they may be right.  They’ll probably say that Collins had an idea and sought to prooftext under the guise of research in order to align with his works in Good to Great and Built to Last.

Whatever.  They may be right, but I think there is something else that is deeper than people’s criticism that underlies their motivation: America has an aversion to failure.

We are scared of it.  We love winners – when the US Olympic Basketball Team lost for the first time, which was inevitable, the players felt like they let the country down.

How the Mighty Fall is an analysis of tragedy. Perhaps it’s just the dark side of me, but I kinda like looking and analyzing failure.  I remember my freshman year of college having dinner with one of the lead engineers in the Challenger Shuttle explosion, and hearing his seething anger combined with intense sorrow over what had happened. It shook him to the core. It shook me, a 17 year old freshman, in a way that I’m still not sure if I understand.

Even (and especially) in my own life, I’ve learned more from my failures than any of my successes. An old high school friend that I’d lost track of long ago facebook messaged me and asked me about being successful. I laughed out loud when I read the message.

I think several people can look at me on the outside and think I’m successful – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted to be considered successful. But I truly think I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. I hide failure well – but I can point to at least one epic fail I’ve had in school, in business, in ministry, in relationships, in family, in church, etc.

It’s so much so that when I speak openly about failure, people have this strong need to correct me that I didn’t fail because I learned from it. That’s true – but it’s like saying that you prefer to buy a pre-owned car rather than a used car.  A subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that someone else used the car before you. Similarly, a subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that I really screwed up.

Failure used to scare me – a lot. I still don’t like it, but more than ever I believe failure has been the genesis of my growth. Why? To quote Rich Lamb, “Grace is only possible past the limits of our success.”  And our limits of success are discovered only through experience. Experiencing failure. We can only experience epic grace when we’ve epically failed – or, as Jesus said, “she has loved much because she has been forgiven much.”

I only really understand grace through entering failure.

The biblical characters who haunt me most are Saul (the tragic Old Testament King) and Judas (the disciple who betrayed Jesus). Both were filled with the presence of God, either being filled with the Holy Spirit or being with Jesus. Why did they fail? They were more preoccupied with the perception of others view of their success and managing their images than true obedience to what God called them.

I’m going to be looking at each of Jim Collins stages of destruction of a company – both looking at what Collins says regarding business, but apply it to other areas – in ministry, and in our own lives with God.

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

Why? Because the exposing the dark side for what it truly is allows for us to strip it of it’s power. Evil that presents itself clearly as evil is so easy to detect. We watch films and hear the darker musical score and know evil’s coming. Life isn’t the movies – real evil doesn’t have a soundtrack.

The power of evil comes through masquerading as goodness. The best lies aren’t the bold face ones – it’s subtle deceit that twists the truth and leaves us in a place that we never wanted to be, wondering how we got there.

We are afraid of failure because we’re afraid of being exposed – that what we be seen for what we really are.  Shame and failure are linked. Fear of failure is a lie that keeps us from really knowing that we can be loved unconditionally. Exposing failure for what it is allows us to see more than we could ever dream – but it requires a rigorous assessment of what’s really there without dressing it up.

So, let the failure stripshow begin.

July 2009
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