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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Power of Experiments

I'm discussing the acronym for organizational change--RIPE.  Let's review.

R--Rationale
I--Input
P--Precedent
E--Experiment

One way to make organization change more palatable for folks is to propose it as a test or an experiment.  You can do this, when practical, by suggesting a pilot project for the change.  When I introduced small group spiritual discernment in a congregation, I could have rolled it out as an organization-wide initiative.  That would have required huge amounts of energy and likely would have failed for that reason alone.

Instead, I recruited a "turbo" or pilot group to have the experience first.  That test accomplished several things.  It required far less energy.  I could handpick the participants who would offer the greatest chance of success for the test.  I could work out the bugs before a larger roll-out.  I could build a cadre of cheerleaders for the initiative.  And as the experiment unfolded, I was training potential leaders for additional groups once the pilot experience was completed.

All of those benefits accrued to the project.  The pilot group spent a year in the experience, and then we were ready to launch a larger effort in the congregation.

Another way to introduce a test or experiment is to suggest a limited time frame for the test.  That time frame needs to be identified up front.  In addition, you need to specify an evaluation procedure and the benchmarks for measuring the success of the experiment.  Finally, you need to announce the time and manner for adopting or abandoning the test initiative as a permanent feature of the organization.

Sometimes congregations need to change their worship schedule.  This is a very big deal for many church folks.  When I have led congregations through that process, I have suggested that we try the alternative schedule for a year and then evaluate it.  In the church, a year is a good testing time for most large scale changes.  Church life has its seasons and its annual cycle.  What works at one time of the year may not work through the whole year.  Other organizations will have different natural test cycles.

In the life of the church, almost anything that becomes the "second annual" installment will become the norm.  We only have to do things a few times in order to believe that we've always done it that way.  On the one hand, this makes test periods very useful for easing into major changes.  On the other hand, make sure the change is something you as a leader really want.  Otherwise you might be stuck with a change that didn't work out so well.

Most organizational experiments are variations on these themes.

Is your group RIPE for a change?  The acronym is a good check list to make sure that you lead your group through the change with less conflict and more appreciation.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Importance of Precedents

An effective change process will begin with a clear and compelling rationale for considering making a change at all.  The process will encourage and create opportunities for input from as many stakeholders as possible.  That input process will be structured in such a way as to encourage and reward positive input.  The process will also tell stories from the organization's history that provide precedent narratives for proposed changes.

An effective leader needs to be the organization's best-informed historian.  Any organization that has been around for a while will have experienced a variety of changes.  With a little effort and imagination, the leader can find precedent narratives for almost any proposed change.  I spend much of my time in the church world, so that's where many of my examples can be found.

Most congregations have experienced changes in worship schedule at some point in history, and those changes are documented somewhere.  Most congregations have moved or built or both.  Congregations have successfully navigated changes in pastoral leadership.  Congregations have adopted new hymnals and constitutions and confirmation programs and fundraising strategies.  Most congregations have survived significant episodes of conflict...otherwise they wouldn't still be here.

With a bit of investigation, we can find precedents for almost any change.  Then as leaders, we can begin to tell precedent stories.  Those stories always begin in this way.  "This is a lot like the time when this congregation (fill in the event or change in question)..."

If you have folks who are the living memory of the organization, they can do this work for you.  Some of my most useful conversations have been with folks who let me prompt them in this way.  "We're considering (Change X, Y, or Z).  Do you remember a time when the congregation did something similar?  How did that go, and how did it turn out?"

We need to look for a couple of things in these precedent narratives.

One is the simple permission to consider a change at all.  We simply forget how many changes we have undergone in our personal and communal lives.  We remember everything through the lens of the present.  Things that seemed like radical innovations at the time are now experienced as always having been that way.  Our memories sort out the bad and keep the good.  So we lose touch with the struggles we experienced to get to this point in our lives.  We exaggerate future risks and minimize past headaches.

We also need to seek what Appreciate Inquiry practitioners call the "root causes of success."  As we think about these precedents, we have the opportunity with the benefit of hindsight to consider why the changes worked (assuming they did).  We can inquire as to whether those root causes continue to exist in the organization.  If they do, then the proposed change will seem much safer.  If they don't, then perhaps we can do something to replicate them--and the success itself.

Input is Important

I'm laying out the way that I think about productive organizational change.  Over the years I have learned and used the acronym, "RIPE," to keep my process and practice straight.  Here are the elements of the acronym.
  • R-Rationale
  • I-Input
  • P-Precedent
  • E-Experiment
In the previous post, I talked about "Rationale."  Now let's think together about "Input."

We know that input creates ownership.  This is true in terms of group process.  It is also true in terms of neuro-psychology.  When we contribute to anything, we are more likely to take ownership of that process or relationship or organization.  Sometimes this is referred to as the "endowment effect."  When we participate in or contribute to something, we endow it with value that it did not have previously.

There is no faster way to build ownership in an organization than to encourage, accept and incorporate input from people.  Think about when you have come to a new job.  When the folks already there begin to accept your input, you become part of the team.  More than that, you feel a genuine relationship and connection.  It's at that moment that the pronouns in your speech change from "you" and "yours" to "we" and "us" and "ours."  

If input is not accepted and incorporated to some recognizable degree, the new person will experience this as rejection.  Ownership will not be an option at that point.  In fact, the likely outcomes will be enmity and sabotage.

Now, is all input equal?  No, in fact you can and should structure input to focus on the positive and appreciative feedback.  This is one of the roots of the process called Appreciative Inquiry.  It is tempting for all of us to give input that is negative and critical.  That input may build ownership. But it won't build the organization.  When new people come to an organization, engage them in conversations that focus on the positive aspects of the group.  When you come to an organization as a change agent, learn how to use an appreciative approach to structure positive input.

Critical input tends to identify problems, affix blame and lower morale.  That input may be accurate, but it won't be productive.  Positive input identifies strengths, looks for solutions and raises enthusiasm.  As you seek input, reward the positive feedback and make it part of the story you tell about the organization.

That is, after all, the real goal of receiving input.  The goal is to hear and then shape a story of the organization or relationship that will lead to better life and greater effectiveness.  People are more likely to own and to celebrate a positive story--especially if they help to tell it.  And a positive story equips people to act with courage and hope.  Courage and hope are absolutely necessary if there is to be constructive and long-term change.

Positive input must be grounded in reality.  Every organization that still exists has in its history times when things were good and change was embraced.  These are the precedents that we seek in shaping a story that helps us to make constructive changes.  We will next look at the importance of precedent in any healthy change process.

Ripe for Change?

Organizational leaders are always agents of change.  We can make changes with intention and skill.  Or we can stumble into changes and find ourselves in a struggle.  Over the years I have found a simple acronym very helpful in thinking through change.  Healthy and effective change happens when the time is RIPE.

Have you ever bitten into a tomato that hadn't fully ripened?  We planted grape tomatoes in our little garden this summer.  I am color deficient in the red and green parts of the spectrum.  So as the tomatoes got close to ripe, I sometimes picked them too soon.  My eyes may have deceived me, but my taste buds were spot on.  Fruit picked too soon is bitter.  It needs to be fully ripe.  Fortunately it didn't take long for the really red tomatoes to hang next to the less ripe ones.  I can discern the difference when the options are side by side.

Ripe is always better (not much gets past me, does it?).  Here are the elements of the acronym.

  • R-Rationale
  • I-Input
  • P-Precedent
  • E-Experiment

R-Rationale: are there good and sufficient reasons for making a change?  

First, is it obvious to the stakeholders that things are not as they should be?  We who live inside the organization don't always do a good job of communicating to others how broken something might really be.  We don't like, for the most part, to deliver bad news.  We might understate the problem and then wonder why no one else is up in arms.  

So, take sufficient time to communicate that things are not as they should be.  The organization will resist this news.  Be prepared for that.  Try to communicate the bad news with a positive affect.  This is the beginning of the change conversation, not the end.  As you deliver the bad news, always assure folks that there is a way out of this situation.  There will be solutions to the problems.  This is not about about blame but rather about resolution.

Wait for the bad news to come back to you on the lips of leaders in some fashion.  If the organization does not own the bad news, there will be little openness to embracing possible changes.

Second, we also need to persuade people that a change can actually make things better.  We are a risk-averse species.  We believe that bad breath is better than no breath at all.  We will live with bad solutions unless we can see that something better might be on the horizon.  We live with the fear that we might make things worse in our efforts to improve things.

This brings us to the second letter of the acronym--Input.  In the process of Input, people can begin to develop possible solutions that will be better than the status quo.

More on that next time.

On to the Next Thing

On November 1, I begin my next interim assignment.  I will be interim pastor at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  The drive is about twenty-five minutes from our home at the edge of the Enchanted Forest here in Bellevue.  In the seventeen miles of that trip, I travel in three counties, two states and two synods!  Such is life on the edge (of the map).  We are looking forward to our time with the saints at Emanuel.  We are grateful for the welcome we have received from our new parishioners and from the Western Iowa Synod staff.  Special thanks go to Pastor Lorna Halaas, Assistant to the Bishop, for her prayers and support.

Here is the web page for Emanuel.  Worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. on Sundays.  Please come and share time with us.

We will remain in our home in Bellevue, enjoying our life and our neighbors (one of whom is pictured here).

October 31 will be our last day with the fine folks at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Syracuse, Nebraska.  It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in interim ministry with the saints at LMC.  We are grateful for the care and kindness we have received over these past fourteen months of mutual ministry.  

We will remember with special fondness the Bible studies and adult classes, the summer mission trip, confirmation classes and camp, and the chance to walk with this year's confirmands through their faith statement projects and confirmation.  We won't miss that one hundred mile round trip up and down Highway 50.  We wish our friends God's richest blessings in the months and years ahead.

LMC isn't quite finished with its interim journey.  The congregation is well-served by our fine Nebraska synod staff and will be in very good hands.  The congregation will not miss a beat, and the handover of pastoral care will be seamless.  I want to thank the Nebraska Synod staff for their care and support over these past few years.  Special thanks go to Connie Stover, Assistant to the Bishop, for her friendship, care and tireless work.  

For a while at least, we will live in one synod and serve in another.  Life never ceases to present new experiences.  So, on we go.  "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Can Anybody Govern?

Now that we have once again stepped back from the Federal Apocalypse, perhaps we can reflect a bit on "Conflict Resolution 101."

1.  Every position makes sense from the "inside" of that position.  People who hold positions on issues are doing so because such actions further their self interests.  We might attribute mental illness or instability to the other party, but unless there is an actual diagnosis, that sort of thinking is counterproductive.  I am more likely to make headway with my opponent if I assume that my opponent has a reasonable amount of rationality.  Then I might be able to understand the other position and make some progress toward a solution.

2.  Positions are not the same as interests.  Positions must be defended at all costs, and a change in position is very difficult to accomplish.  Interests are often hidden beneath the public positions.  For example, the opposing sides have positions on health care, debt ceilings, etc.  The real interest of many of the politicians was simply to send a message to constituents who really pay the bills come election time.  When the pain of the unresolved conflict began to outweigh the advantages of pursuing self-interest, then a solution was achieved.

3.  The spotlight makes deal-making nearly impossible.  We are suspicious--with good reason--of "back room" deals.  But very few real deals get made in the "front room."  Most deals are like sausage.  We might like most of the final product.  But it is not nearly as tasty if we know what actually goes into it.  When we insist that deals are made in the full glare of the public limelight, we will get bad deals.  When politicians are making such deals in the full public view, they are not interested in good deals.  They are interested in pleasing specific interest groups.

4.  When common ground does not exist, then it is time to seek higher ground.  Mediation is often described as the process of finding common ground--mutual self-interests that can lead to resolution of the dispute.  Often such common ground does not exist.  Then the disputants must find some higher principle or larger framework in order to resolve the issue.  In some of my mediation work that higher ground is "the best interests of the children" or "the mission of the gospel."  In the recent federal crisis, no higher ground was ever sought, much less found.  Thus our leaders continue in their inability to govern.

5.  You can be right or you can be happy.  In real life, you can rarely be both.  We finite humans do not have access to the one perspective on life that solves every issue.  We are not divine, no matter how often we act that way.  The sooner our leaders abandon their ideological idolatry and focus on the practical business of governing, the better off we will all be.  Government is indeed the art of the possible.  We who select our leaders need to demand productivity rather than purity.

6.  Winning is for suckers.  Winning may make a difference in games or in warfare.  I hope that most of life is neither.  Real life is lived in the middle, where compromise is the only real victory.  Making concessions to one another is the definition of progress in conflict resolution.  It is not the description of failure.

This is a democracy.  We get the government we demand.  Will we demand better?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Frame and Focus

I am reminded that gratitude is a function of focus.  Do I focus on what I have or what I have lost?  Do I focus on what I have received or what is missing?  For the most part, I don't get to choose what I have or don't have.  I do, however, get to choose where I focus.  Whatever gets my focused attention gets bigger.  What I choose to ignore gets smaller.

What is the difference between the Samaritan leper and the other nine?  Perhaps the other nine simply viewed their healing as the restoration of what was originally theirs.  As a species, we are loss-averse. We are highly sensitive to what has been taken from us.  We are far more sensitive to the threats of loss than we are to the possibilities of gain.

So we are more likely to see our blessings as simple restoration rather than positive addition.  We are more likely to see our blessings as a return to "zero" (the previous status quo) rather than as some positive addition to our lives.  When we see our blessings as restoration, we react with the attitude of entitlement.  Gratitude will not follow.  I think that may describe the responses (or the lack thereof) of the nine Jewish lepers.  They had been given back what was their property at some previous point in time.

It may be that the Samaritan felt no such sense of privileged entitlement.  So he was more likely to experience and express gratitude.  Where we focus makes a difference.  Deficits are not actionable. Deficits can only be grieved.  Assets can lead to action, to growth, to health and happiness.

How we frame our gifts is another factor in grateful living.  Most of us come to our blessings with a "Yes, but..." response.  Yes, that's all well and good that it's a wonderful day, but I have such significant losses and troubles in my life that I can't enjoy the day.  Yes, my life is pretty awesome in a lot of ways right now, but it's not what it was a year ago or five or ten--that time when things were just the way I wanted them to be (we can talk about memory as revisionist history another time).

Again, we are choosing both focus and frame.  If we frame everything in terms of previous losses, nothing will ever be good again.  If we expand our focus to include all the bad things as the borders of a good picture, then the picture becomes dark and sad.  None of this negative focus is written into the fabric of "Objective" experience.  We choose our frame and our focus moment by moment.

Will we make those choices consciously?  Will we choose a positive framework and a constructive focus?  Our happiness hinges in part on such moment by moment choices.  And this is not merely a construct of, for example, white male privilege.  Some of the happiest people I know from around the world are among the most impoverished.  They have learned to choose a positive frame and focus as a means of survival.

One thing that I have learned is that I must carefully choose the "size" of my frame as well as the direction of my focus.  When I am overwhelmed by the struggles of this life (a daily and sometimes hourly occurrence), I practice frame-narrowing.  What is the joy, the meaning, the purpose I can find in what I am doing right at this moment?  When I narrow the frame, I can find the hope I need to go on with the day.

As our AA friends might remind us, I strive to be where my hands are and not somewhere else.  There is plenty of time to reflect on bigger frames of reference when I am in a better frame of mind.  I can choose how big to make the picture and where to put my gaze.

Somehow, our Samaritan colleague in faith made those choices and found himself kneeling in gratitude at Jesus' feet.  I pray for the wisdom to do the same today.

Living Grateful

Gratitude is faith's first fruit.  Spoiler alert--that will be my theme for the weekend message!  And it is my theme for today.

The leper was the only one in Luke 17 who is commended for his faith.  That is because he is the only one who expresses gratitude.  This is, as Martin Luther might say, the First Commandment in action. Faith is more than the acknowledgment of God's existence.  It is the willingness to rely on God alone for all good things.  And the only healthy response to such goodness is gratitude.  As Luther says in his explanation of the Creed, therefore we ought to thank and praise, serve and obey God.  This is most certainly true.

When the leper returns to Jesus to give thanks, he acknowledges Jesus as the source of the good that has befallen him.  In a deeper sense than he may have known, he treats Jesus as God.  So Jesus commends his faith and sends him on his way.

Gratitude is a feeling put into action.  Today, I have the chance to live gratefully in a significant way.  I have been asked to be part of a re-accreditation conversation for the Bryan School of Nursing in Lincoln, Nebraska.  When my late first wife, Anne, was hospitalized at Bryan LGH East hospital, we were served in part by four student nurses from the Bryan School.  

All of the nursing staff, therapists and physicians were wonderful to us in a variety of ways.  But the nursing students were special to us.  Anne was their only patient, so they spent hours with us at her bedside.  We became acquainted with them quickly and deeply.  They told us that they learned a great deal from our care for Anne.  More than that, they told us that they learned a great deal from Anne as a courageous and determined participant in life.

When we prepared to take Anne home to die, the student nurses came to us one by one.  Each of them had tears in their eyes.  We had known them just ten days, but all of our lives were changed.  I think they are better nurses as a result of our time together.  And we are better people because of their care.

So I am honored to give thanks and to give back to the Bryan School.  We have been able to fund the education of some student nurses and future nurse educators with Anne's memorial money.  In fact, I was also honored to officiate at the wedding of one of those students not so long ago.  So the relationships have continued to some degree.  And gratitude is one of the ways that I am privileged to join the chapters of my life.  Brenda will be part of that conversation as well today.  Of all the people on earth, I often feel that I am the most fortunate.

Speaking our thanks is the beginning of gratitude.  Then living out our thanks in concrete ways is the real fullness of that gratitude.  In our readings this morning, we met the summary of this from Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."  This is most certainly true.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Wisdom of the Foreigner

"Was none found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:18).  Jesus comes upon ten lepers and heals them all.  Nine of the ten are Jews.  One is a Samaritan--a "foreigner" by Jewish standards.  The Samaritan is the only one who "returns" from his excited path toward the priest, kneels at Jesus' feet and offers words of thanks.

Jesus wonders at this behavior.  The one who is least likely to "get it" is the one who is grateful.  How can this be?

Could it be that the other nine felt entitled in some way to the healing they received?  It may not be that they were so sure of their own righteousness.  After all, they likely assumed that their leprosy was punishment for some kind of sin.  On the other hand, they certainly saw themselves as more deserving of healing than the Samaritan outcast.  In all likelihood, he was a leper among lepers, standing on the outside of the outsiders.  He knew that he was entitled to precisely...nothing.

What goes into the experience of gratitude?  A sense of entitlement to any degree will reduce the possibility of gratitude.  The more entitled we feel in this life, the more miserable we will be.  We can think our way through this.  Let's assume that we really are entitled to something--a good life and a decent living, for example.  Any drop off from that standard will be experienced as a loss.  Maintaining that standard will increase the levels of expectation and entitlement.  Then the potential for disappointment and grievance will increase even more.

When we think we deserve the good things of life, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness.  We are a loss-averse species and experience even imagined loss with great grief.

We should probably read this story from Luke in conjunction with the previous verses.  It is easy to read those verses about "worthless slaves" as bad news.  In fact, those verses are the counsel of gratitude.  Don't assume that you are deserving of any of the good things in this life.  All that we have is a gift in one way or another.  No one is really a "self-made" person.  Everything good comes from God alone.

Choosing that view of life is the express highway to happiness and contentment.  That view means choosing serving over self.  It means choosing humility over entitlement.  It means choosing gratitude over grievance.  That view of life entails "returning" to Jesus (another way to describe repentance).

How can the foreigner get this?  He is the only one in the bunch without any basis for feeling entitled, even if merely by comparison. That dawns on him and he returns to express his gratitude.  So he leaves blessed and healed in ways the others did not experience.  He leaves the happiest of them all.

Gratitude is always a choice.  It is a choice that produces real happiness every time.  Where do you anchor your entitlements?  How does life change for you if you see them as gifts today?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Forgiving God

Recently I overheard a question.  "How can I forgive God for this terrible thing that has happened to me?"  I have heard that question before, and I find it always puzzling.  I have wondered about forgiving lots of folks during a time of traumatic loss.  I have struggled with meaning and purpose and direction. But I must say that I did not find my way down the path of blaming God for my calamities.

Miroslav Volf reminds us that to forgive is first of all to accuse.  So to have the need to forgive God for my misfortunes means that I accuse God of wrongdoing.  We can try to explain our way around that one, but there is no other way to resolve it.  If God needs my forgiving, then God has done something wrong that needs my forgiveness.

I have no idea how the Divine Plan works.  I am routinely puzzled and even flummoxed by how things transpire.  That is true in terms of tragedy.  It is also true in terms of blessing (more on that later).  But if I thought that God at some points intended evil for me, then I would sigh and return in resignation to my days long ago of foolish atheism.

Martin Luther reminds us in his Large Catechism that to believe in God is to believe that God is good. That trust includes believing that all good comes from God and nothing evil comes from God.  If I believe that God exists and also believe that God is the author of my troubles, then why in the world would I have anything to do with such a god?  Such a god would be fully and finally unreliable.  Such a god would be the opposite of the God described in the Bible--the God of steadfast love.

I love the scene in the fine movie, Bruce Almighty.  Bruce Nolan has had enough setbacks (never mind his role in them).  Now he wants to have a less than cordial conversation with The Management. "Fine! The gloves are off, pal!" he shouts to the heavens.  "Come on! Let me see a little wrath.  Smite me, O mighty smiter!  You're the one who should be fired!  The only one around here not doing his job is you!"  Here is that clip, but I recommend buying the movie:


Later Bruce comes to understand that God and life don't really work that way.  I have struggled to accept what has happened to me at various points in my life.  I have longed to hold someone else responsible.  I have believed that blaming someone--even God--might be preferable to the damnable randomness that sin introduces into Creation.  But in the end, God doesn't need my forgiveness.  If God needs my forgiveness, that's a god not worthy my time or trust.

So I pray always for the gift of acceptance.  I pray that I may accept what comes my way.  That is as true of the blessings as it is of the tragedies.  But how many people ever wonder why good things happen to us?  That stuff we simply take for granted, and God rarely gets "extra credit" from us.  And then I pray for the gift of perspective.  I can't do anything with the deficits in my life--the losses, the tragedies, the setbacks--except to learn from them.  

I can, however, focus on the assets, the strengths, the blessings, the opportunities, that come my way. Reality is inscrutable.  I cannot change it very much.  But I can have all sorts of impact on how I see my life and what I do with it.

God is God.  God is good.  I am the one who needs forgiving.  And God never wonders about whether to forgive me or not.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Price of Indifference

Just as attentiveness requires effort, energy and investment, so does indifference to the plight of the poor.  The rich man in Luke 16 built a wall around his compound and secured it with an entrance gate. Perhaps he hired security to make sure that Lazarus remained at a healthy distance from the gate or even was restricted to begging at the back door of the big house.

It takes time and money to have sufficient distractions if one is to maintain indifference.  The rich man was too busy to be bothered by the suffering just outside his door.  He had parties to give and to attend. He was involved in important matters in the community.  He was likely a booster of the local economy and a respected member of the social establishment.  Who knows, he may have been a benefactor for any number of local charities.

Where we focus is what we see.  That is not merely a moral description.  It is a psychological reality. Remember the "invisible gorilla" experiment celebrated in the warrens of cognitive psychology.  If not, watch the original little video at http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html.  Who pays the price for my intentional indifference?

I am not a widely traveled person.  But I have been enough places here and abroad to know that poverty is not an invisible reality.  In every city on the planet, it is easy enough to come face to face with those who are hungry, homeless and hopeless.  It takes effort, intention, and money to live and work in areas where the impoverished are not permitted.  In most parts of the world it still takes a wall, a gate and armed guards to manage a safe and serene compound in a sea of human misery.

The rich man would have had little trouble becoming aware of the want around him.  That is even more the case for us.  We are inundated with information about the impoverished in our midst and on the other side of the planet.  We may even plead "compassion fatigue" as a reason that we don't respond out of our wealth.  I hear this routinely.  "I get ten requests a day for financial assistance," people may say.  "How in the world can I decide what to do?  Most of the time I simply choose to do nothing."

I won't launch into the parable of the starfish here.  But it is true that each one can serve at least one other.  That is a wonderful start.

We have the resources to spend time with those less well off than we are.  It is one thing to give money, and that is so very important.  It is another thing to develop relationships and, dare I say, friendships across the boundaries of economic class.  That is where the rich man failed so completely.  He paid to have himself set apart in splendid isolation in this life. And that was the destiny he purchased for eternity.

Of course, I preach first of all to myself.  How much shall I do to serve the impoverished?  How much shall I do to identify my own spiritual poverty and to stand with those who have so little for their bodies?  How much shall I give?

As always, Jesus' standard is so simple.  Do it until it starts to feel good.

What Else Have I Missed?

Now we preachers go from the Corrupt Manager to the Indifferent Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31).  Finding something to say about this text is easy.  Finding some good news in this can be difficult--especially for those of us who are among the richest people on the planet.
"And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table..." (Luke 16:20b-21a).
How did the Rich Man miss the poor wretch at his doorstep, day in and day out, year in and year out? We ignore and/or miss remarkable events and people all the time.  It is worth recalling the wonderful little experiment organized by the Washington Post in 2007.

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousand of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. You can see a video of this event at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM21gPmkDpI.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. 

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100. 

How could people pass such a performance with such indifference?  We can suggest a number of reasons.  First, they were simply too hurried to take the time and energy to notice.  Their cognitive dance cards were filled the tasks of the day.  Many of the passersby clearly did not even see the violinist.

Of course, he was also out of context.  Our appreciation of many things depends on context.  He was not dressed in a tie and tails.  He wasn't in a huge concert hall.  He wasn't in front of a two hundred piece orchestra.  People had not already invested hundreds of dollars in the opportunity to see and hear him.  It was free.  How much could it really be worth?

And he blended into the background of familiarity.  How many times had some street musician opened his/her case, started playing and hoped for some donations?  Several times a week!  So this was likely one more would-be star, plying his trade for coffee money because no one would give him a "real" job. He disappeared into the woodwork and became a piece of furniture, no more noticeable than the trash cans.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25:37b-39)
It takes training, energy and effort to see what is right in front of us.  The Rich Man was busy with important things and had no room left to see Lazarus.  The Rich Man didn't see him in a context that attributed worth to Lazarus.  The Rich Man stepped over him often enough that Lazarus became part of the furniture, perhaps like the trash can outside his door.  The more often the Rich Man ignored Lazarus, the more that ignorance became part of his character.  In the end, it was the one feature of his character that survived the grave.

What must I do today to open my eyes and train my vision to see what God sees in my life?  What must I give up so that I have the room in my brain, my heart and my spirit to pay attention?  Here is the good news.  I know that when I allow Jesus to form my vision, I see what I need to see (and do what I need to do).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

People of Means or of Meaning?

More on the Corrupt Steward in Luke 16:1-13...

The Steward acts like there will always be a tomorrow.  He acts like there will never be a final reckoning.  So he goes merrily along, getting all he can while he can.  Then the reckoning comes.  This is part of the good news in the parable.  There will be a time when God sets all wrongs right.  There will be a time when all the accounts are balanced.  We Christians know this because Jesus Christ is risen, and the reckoning has already begun

We must keep our own accounts with an eye toward eternity.  Nothing good will be lost.  Everything bad will be left behind.  All accounts will be settled.  And the house never loses.

What is the purpose of wealth, in Luke's framework?  Wealth is for welcoming, not for wasting.  If stewardship is using God's gifts for God's goals, then welcoming is high on that list of goals.

Sarah Dylan Breuer notes that this parable is at the center of an "urgency sandwich."  It is surrounded by the language, she says, of a limited time offer.  Acting "shrewdly" in the parable means that we know what time it is in our lives and in the world.  Tomorrow is going to come.  In fact, in Jesus tomorrow is already here.  After all, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them!

So money is to be used, not worshiped.  It is to be used for God's purposes, or it will control us.  Either our money will serve our faith or our faith will serve our money.  Money is not bad.  Like all other parts of creation, it is good when used for God's purposes.  Money allows us to live well, but it is temporary in its value.  Tomorrow is coming.  Money creates opportunities to love our neighbors well, but it can also blind us to them (more on that in the next parable).  Money can build bridges to others or destroy those bridges.

So we don't have to make the same choices as the Corrupt Steward.  We can, however, follow his example.  We can realize what time it is.  We can begin to act like the Master matters.  We can begin to act like tomorrow is coming.  We can become people of meaning and not just people of means.

This parable is not about salvation by works.  It is about our response to God's generosity.  Will we swim with the current of God's purposes or against it.  How we use our possessions will demonstrate our priorities and shape them for the future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dishonest Managers

What a deliciously complicated parable we preachers confront this coming weekend (Luke 16:1-3)! The dishonest managers (the Jerusalem religious/political establishment) have cooperated with the unrighteous Romans for nearly a century when Jesus speaks this parable.  The local managers have profited handsomely as a result.  They have avoided the disastrous military confrontation that would certainly have resulted from non-cooperation.  Of course we can see in hindsight that this would be the result, since that is precisely what happened in the various Jewish revolts of the two centuries around Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.

In the meantime, however, they have rejected the Prodigal Son.  They have ignored Lazarus at their gates.  They could have used their wisdom to serve the people of the land, the tax collectors and sinners.  Instead, they used their gifts of position and power to enrich themselves.  Money and power can be wonderful tools if we use them for God’s purposes.  They can be terrible weapons if we use them purely for our own benefit and enrichment.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, we hear three stories of the mismanagement and misuse of God’s gifts. No one can be a disciple unless we release all that we hold tightly to ourselves (see Luke 14:33).  The Prodigal Son sprayed money from the fire hose of foolishness.  The Corrupt Steward stole and mismanaged until he was caught short.  The Rich Man purchased the splendid isolation of ignorant entitlement.  That ended up as his “eternal home” (such as it was).

The Prodigal Son thought the solution was to get a real job.  The Corrupt Steward thought the solution was to create a personal safety net.  The rich man thought there wasn’t any problem at all—until it was far too late.

Stewardship is using God’s gifts for God’s purposes.

So, God had given the Jewish establishment a way to fulfill Abraham’s call to bless all the families of the earth.  That tool was called the Roman Empire—peace, roads, mail and a secure financial system. Instead, they stole from the Master for their own purposes.  Those purposes were national identity, political independence and personal enrichment.

So those managers were about to be sacked.  The Christian movement would take advantage of the Roman resources to become a worldwide movement of blessing.  In the process they proclaimed Jesus as Master and Lord, not Caesar.

A steward is a channel of God’s grace.

We North Americans are the wealthiest Christians in history.  And yet we use these gifts mostly to make ourselves feel better.  God will not bless such behavior.  So where is the good news in this text? God can and will use even my most selfish behavior to bring about good results.  And if I choose to cooperate, there is no limit to the good that can be done.  We will be used, whether we cooperate or not.  The question is only whether we will agree to participate and thus to benefit from God’s project.

If God can use that Corrupt Steward, there may be hope for me as well.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A New Skill Set

I work with a variety of people in conflicted situations.  Many of them come to mediation with some well-developed skills.  Unfortunately these are typically the wrong skills for dealing constructively with conflict.  Here is a partial list of those skills.

  1. Winning matters more than anything else.
  2. It is more important to be right than to be in relationship.
  3. Shouting and name-calling are workable strategies for communication.
  4. Texting and emailing are effective ways to deal with complicated topics.
  5. Giving orders is much more fun than compromising.
  6. Revenge is more effective than forgiveness.
  7. All past wrongs and hurts will be addressed before anything else can happen.
  8. Intimidation is preferable to diplomacy.
  9. I am more important than anyone else.
  10. Why can't you all realize that I am right and nothing else matters?
When in doubt, stop talking and start fighting.

I am no longer surprised to hear and see such perspectives.  On the other hand, it saddens me always to be part of such interchanges.  It especially saddens me when people in their twenties interact in this way and victimize their young children as they express their disgust and contempt toward one another.

It is clear that most of our young people are learning fully dysfunctional skills.  Our children are learning how to dribble a soccer ball, turn a perfect somersault, dribble a basketball between their legs, build a smartphone app, and create youtube videos.

Perhaps we need to spend more time educating young people on how to be decent with one another. Perhaps we can help them to see that being right is over-rated.  Perhaps we can help them to see that being kind and decent are real paths to long-term success.  Perhaps we can help them to see that community is more important than individual rights.  Perhaps we can help them to see that humility is a positive life skill and not a way to be a doormat.  Perhaps we can resist the inveterate narcissism that is regarded in this perverse culture as a positive good.

Will the next generation learn something about building peace rather than creating conflict?  I wonder. But I'm honored to help with the effort. 

Shells and Wings

We came out the door yesterday to witness a cicada shedding it's old carapace.  The process took several hours, we got in on only the last hour or so of this rebirth.  The cicada adopted the top of our herb garden pyramid as the location for the struggle.  We watched with fascination and took a number of photos.

I was struck by the utter vulnerability of the bug during this process.  After the cicada ruptured the old shell, it hung there for several hours, completely exposed and clearly unable to move much at all.

I thought about how vulnerable we must be as we embrace change.  At first we are subject to all sorts of threats.  The temptation to go back into our shells is profound.  The cicada is fortunate to be unable to consider this option.  Once it has left the carapace behind, there is no return.  It is go forward or die. That is perhaps a description of our life as followers of Jesus as well.  We can embrace the changes Jesus calls from us, live into our new and enlarged lives and get on with the newness.  Or we can die.

I thought about the church, and especially local congregations, as I watched this drama.  We think that the local church is in trouble because we aren't big enough, doing enough, fast enough.  I think we are in trouble because we are unwilling to let the new life burst out of the old boundaries.  We have opportunities for serving, loving and witnessing like we have never had before.  It's not that our mission is too small to engage us.  It is that our vision of ourselves is too small to sustain us.  Most churches long to crawl back into the shell of some past golden age.  And that is the path of death.

For the cicada, the carapace has one remaining function.  Predators may mistake that old shell for a cicada and be thrown off the hunting trail.  You can see that the old shell does a pretty good imitation of a live bug.

Once more I thought about churches.  Too many Christian churches in North America look just like that shell.  They are just good enough imitations of a church on the outside to fool people into thinking that there might be a church on the inside as well.  Many visitors and seekers discover that they have been thrown off the path by an empty shell.  And they move on to look elsewhere.

Of course, this same set of photo-metaphors can be used for an individual life and the choices we face. We can become as big as our God has made us to be and fly away free.  Or we can stay inside the old shell and be nothing more than imitation disciples.
"...We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (Romans 6:6-11)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hummingbirds and Shower Drains

What is a secret to contentment?  One secret is to engage life with gratitude, grace and grit.  When the larger concerns of life threaten to overwhelm us, we can narrow our focus for a time and throw ourselves fully into whatever may be in front of us.

Gratitude
We spent half an hour watching the hummingbirds compete for dominance around our Oriole feeder. Here is the the new owner of that property.  This little one defends its territory with zeal, conviction and aggression.  The bird fears nothing of any size.

It was wonderful to give ourselves to that experience for a while and simply let the impact of the moments take us away.  We engaged with gratitude. 

Then I got curious.  Eastern Nebraska is on the western edge of the migratory routes for Ruby-throated hummingbirds.  It would appear that we have either an adult female or a juvenile male as our temporary guest.  And the stay will indeed be temporary, since our new tenants are headed for their winter digs on Mexico.  During our morning excursion to the local hardware store (see below), we got some hummingbird juice to dress up the oriole feeder and reward our new friends for their entertainment.

Grace and Grit
The shower drain in our basement apartment was clogged.  Before we called in a professional plumber, we explored the options for a DIY solution.  I don't like plumbing.  Never have.  Never will. The mess, the moisture, the slinking and the stinking are for people made of sterner stuff.  I don't begrudge plumbers the rates they charge.  They truly have a dirty job, and I am so grateful they do it.

On the other hand, this was perhaps a solvable problem.  I may not know much about plumbing.  I am not excited about it as a life path.  But I can learn.  I am teachable.  And the worst that could happen is that we had things opened up for the plumber to step in and take the credit.  I extended some grace to myself and got on with this part of life.  

I researched drain snakes for a bit.  I didn't know the difference between a toilet auger, a top snake and a mini-rooter.  Now I do.  The top snake was the right tool for the job.  We love our local Ace Hardware folks down around the corner.  They have a Cobra Power Snake for $15.00.  Off we went and got the newest weapon in our home-owning arsenal (http://www.acehardware.com/product/index.jsp?productId=1280069).  We hooked the snake to our cordless drill and started pulling chunks of liquifaceous hell out of that little hole.

It was good that we have fifteen feet of Cobra because we needed every inch.  I am happy to report that the drain now drains as a good drain should.  While we were at it, we cleaned the sink trap as well. Now we get that satisfying sucking sound as the water descends into the trap.

In Philippians four, verses eleven through thirteen, Paul describes this approach to life in Christian terms:
"Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
I am not sure about the precise role of Jesus in snaking a shower drain, but today I'm not worried about that.  I'm just waiting for the hummingbirds to come back. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Humble Negotiating

The text for lectionary preachers this week is a continuation of last week's discussion in Luke 14.  "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted"  (Luke 14:11).  This seems to be an invitation to sign up for the "Doormat Brigade" and to allow the bullies of the world to walk all over us.

Surely this cannot be what Jesus intends!

In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant may offer some behavioral insight into the text.  You may recall that Grant distinguishes between takers, matchers and givers.  He argues that in the long run givers come out ahead in every measure that matters in this life.  However, being a giver (one who "humbles oneself"?) can create real issues when that giver is trying, for example, to negotiate for a raise or a compensation package.

Does Jesus expect his disciples to always lose in business negotiations?

Givers might tend to give too much in such negotiations rather than seeking the best deal for themselves. This may be the case as well in negotiations about strategies, priorities, and any other conversation where the perspectives of others will be considered.  Grant writes of givers,
Because they value the perspectives and interests of others, givers are more inclined toward asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others. (Kindle Location 2214).
Can givers get what they need without becoming thoughtless takers or mercenary matchers?  Grant has several suggestions in this regard.  Givers can express a combination of vulnerability and competence. People find that combination naturally winsome.  Givers can use their listening and openness to great advantage in building long-lasting relationships.  When we speak provisionally of our ideas, we are less likely to intimidate our audience and more likely to engage them in real work and creativity. Givers tend to seek advice rather than to give it.  This encourages people to advocate for them.

All of this sounds a lot like genuine humility.  Grant's point is that humility works for the giver rather than against the giver.

But what about those situations where we really have to go toe to toe with takers and matchers to get what we need?  Here we find Grant's best advice.  When I am in such a situation, I struggle as an introvert and a giver.  So I must convince myself of one thing.  This negotiation is not for me.  It is for the benefit of people I love--my spouse, other family members, friends, clients, etc.  

I'm not very good at advocating for myself.  I don't really care for it.  But don't mess with the people I love.  If you do, you'll have a fight on your hands in seconds.  If I can remember that I am advocating for other people and not just for me, then I can do what is in all of our best interests.  When I adopt that perspective I experience two things.  First, I have much more backbone and much better boundaries in the conversation.  Second, I feel much less emotion because it is not about me.  I know how to advocate for others.  I have done it for years and it comes naturally.

Acting from a position of vulnerability, seeking the best interests of all involved, and advocating for those people important to me--do these sound like elements of the real humility Jesus advocates in Luke 14?  I think so. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I Love My Office. Drat!

I have an office in Bellevue.  It measures eight feet by twelve feet.  It has no windows.  It has no external light source.  It is lit by three lamps.  The carpet is minimal.  The furniture is used.  It has a pocket door to save space and a white board to save paper.  It's really not much of an office.  And I love that nine hundred and sixty cubic feet like no other office I've had in thirty years.  Why?

Because I built it with my own two hands.  Brenda painted it.  We decorated it together.  I love to just sit in there and look at what we did.

I am subject to the Endowment Effect.  This psychological reality has lots of dimensions, but one of them is pertinent to preachers this week.  The more we put into something, the more ownership we feel for that something.  That's true of my office.  That's true of our marriage.  That's true of a congregation or a farm or a business or a community.

Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also."  That's not a prescription.  That's a description.  Our investments will, in large part, determine our commitments.  Dan Ariely calls this "the Ikea effect."  He says that the more time we invest assembling furniture for example, the better that furniture looks to us.  When it's a whole office, the Ikea effect becomes something of an obsession.

Ownership creates several psychological "quirks," as Ariely describes them.  One is that we fall in love with whatever we already own.  A second quirk is that when it comes to parting with what we own, we focus far more on what we will lose than on what we will gain.  The third quirk is that we believe other people will see our stuff as just as valuable as we see our stuff.  You can read Ariely's analysis in Predictably Irrational (http://www.amazon.com/Predictably-Irrational-Revised-Expanded-Edition/dp/0061353248).

These quirks often make selling a home, for example, an experience of sheer misery.  We have invested in our homes in numerous ways.  We love our homes, warts and all.  We hate to leave behind that wonderful pumpkin color of the walls in the living room.  Who knows what we will encounter in a new space (even though we were the ones who painted the old space and could do so yet again)?  And we cannot understand how in the world someone could make such a low-ball offer for such a beautiful home.  More than that, how dare they suggest that we might need to make some improvements on perfection?

Perhaps this is yet another argument against having preachers live in parsonages.  Do you really want someone who is not fully invested in your community for the long run?  Well, just a thought...

In Luke 14, Jesus may be suggesting that we have to get some distance from all the things we "own" in this life.  That may even extend to our most cherished relationships, our deepest personal priorities, and all our plans for the future.  He uses the Middle Eastern hyperbole of "hating" those things we most love in order to help us see just how invested we are in things that are really temporary.

After all, in the long run we all really end up dead.

It's one of my favorite G. K. Chesterton quotes: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."  I'm not sure, however, about that quote.  I'm sure he's right about the first half. Most people who populate our churches are for all intents and purposes functional atheists.  I don't believe, however, that they've taken a good hard look and then decided against the Christian path.  I think the quote ought to end this way: Christianity "has not been tried and therefore has been assumed to be too difficult."

I think we try to talk people into following Jesus, and for the most part that doesn't work.  I find that engaging people in constructive action is a more effective first step.  Please, come on in.  You don't have to believe in anything to gain admission.  But you might want to try to live like Jesus--love your enemy, be fanatically generous, stand up nonviolently to all sorts of bullies, live with intense gratitude and trust. Live that way and you might find yourself following Jesus with great passion and conviction.

The cue comes from AA.  You don't have to believe anything to get in the door.  You just have to do certain things and "wait for the miracle to happen."

"So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Luke 14:33).

Is It Worth It?

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26-27)
I really dislike this text...I know, so do you.   So, we preachers can just suck it up and deal with it, eh? The question is not whether we will make sacrifices for something or someone.  We will.  We will give our lives for loved ones, friends, work, community, politics, charitable causes, sports teams, chemicals, gambling...or something.  Keeping our lives to ourselves is not one of the options.  So let's stop worrying about that question.

The real question is whether we will sacrifice for something that is worthy of the price we will pay. Sometimes making sacrifices makes us happier.  Sometimes making sacrifices makes us miserable. What factors account for the differences?

Some psychologists point the difference between approach-motivated sacrifice and avoidance-motivated sacrifice.  Check out, for example, the information at http://psych-your-mind.blogspot.com/2011/04/approaching-happiness-importance-of.html.  Approach-motivated sacrifice makes sense because we used the self-denial to build deeper relationships, to create more personal and social value, and (in rough terms) to make the world a better place.  Approach-motivated goals will cohere with the meaning and significance we make in this life.  We dare not make sacrifices in order to get something.  But often the fringe benefits of approach-motivated sacrifice are, in hindsight, worth the pain and effort.

Avoidance-motivated sacrifice is intended to minimize conflict and risk.  It may sometimes be useful in the short run.  However, if that is the primary mode of one's sacrifices, then the long-term results will be frustration and even misery.

I can sacrifice to make you happy because I love you and want the best for you.  That is approach-motivated.  Or I can sacrifice to make you happy because I am afraid you will abandon me if I don't keep you happy.  That is avoidance-motivated.  Life is not always quite so clear cut as this distinction makes it sound, but we all know when we are doing the one or the other.

I am not for a moment suggesting that this sort of psychological analysis can be directly applied to Jesus' words.  That sort of anachronistic eisegesis (ask your preacher friends if that sounds like gobbledy-gook) tells you little about Jesus the speaker and a great deal about me the listener.  On the other hand, this analysis can help us to sort our way through some of our responses to this challenging text.

It is not usually the case that I am deciding whether to sacrifice or not.  Instead, I am usually deciding which sacrifice to embrace at the moment.  Shall I accept a call for less money in a setting that is economically challenged?  I might do that in order to advance the gospel, but I would be asking my family to participate in that financial sacrifice.  Shall I stay put, hunker down, and look for something close by?  I might do that in order care for my family, but will that be best for the church?

People make these sorts of choices all the time.  This isn't just preacher business.  Will I make sacrifices for worthwhile reasons?  Will my loved ones and I give up something in order to advance the gospel and draw closer to Jesus?  Discernment is a daily discipline.

The Bed-Sheet Bulletin

I've been digging in some family history items and updating the family tree.  For those of us who have an Iowegian lineage, the "Old Iowa Press" site is a wonderful resource.  As I searched for some day to day background on one of my great-grandfathers, I came upon a delicious news morsel from the LeMars Globe-Post of August 6, 1925.

The article is entitled, "Bed Sheet Meeting Takes in Some Money."  The article reports on a KKK rally "held on the old city dump grounds, across the street from the tourist park" in greater LeMars.  This was apparently a weekly event of the time, since the writer compared the current week's attendance unfavorably to the previous week's gathering.  Because of the lowered admission fees, revenue was up, "it being found that many of the most violent klan adherents could not raise more than ten dollars."

The article rightly drips with disdain and disgust for the whole affair.  This writer takes no back seat to any current cable news commentator in offering backhanded criticism and bitter critique.  The admission fee was redeemed, for example, by the fact that forty cents of every dollar stayed with the local event organizers, "so most of the money remains in LeMars, after all."

There was fine entertainment at the gathering.  "The bed-sheet parade, participated in by 28 kluckers, was one of the first events.  A newly organized band played and the spectators gave generously.  One LeMars man, who never gave a nickel to the LeMars Municipal band, clanked in with a half dollar."

How I wish I could have met this snarky journalist!  The writer reports that there was singing as well as band music.  A men's quartet sang a catchy little ditty:

"I'm a member of the kluklux klan,
kluklux klan, kluklux klan,
I'm a member of the kluklux klan,
so why should you be too?"

"Or words to that effect," the writer scoffs.  Then came the keynote speaker, a woman who focused on the Catholic menace in the LeMartian metropolis.  There were no people of color to bait or scapegoat, but Catholics abounded.  "She said Columbus never discovered America; only South America, and that the latter country is 90 per cent Catholic, degenerate and illiterate."  That must have gone over well with the folks at St. Joseph and St. James Catholic parishes in town!

The writer notes that the klan could do some good by serving as "a sink...to catch the cranks, radicals, and fanatics.  If the klan is extreme enough then it will be no different from other organizations in LeMars.  It will be harmless, and worth the money in a social way."  Just how many people can a writer offend in two sentences?  I want to know more about this social rebel!

In an unrelated article, I learned that my great-grandfather had been the secretary of a local township board at the time.  I wonder what he thought, if anything, of the events in the county seat?  He was not one of those hated Catholics, but he was a recent immigrant, nonetheless.  Did he connect the dots? 

Less than a hundred years ago in my home town, bed-sheet parades took place with impunity.  Such events could be ridiculed with roistering rants.  But they could not be stopped.  The fear of the stranger, the other, the alien and enemy, runs deep.  Thank God for the truth tellers in every age!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Doggy Smilest

I was in a local big box today, and I noticed one of those dog food ads.  You know, the ones where the dogs have human teeth instead of authentic canines.  Not only do the dogs have anatomically anomalous choppers, but those teeth fill their mouths with a cheesy and exceedingly human grin.

It's all so very silly.  And it's all so very effective.

I giggled in my superiority for a few minutes.  Then I realized that the ads were simply taking a natural pet-owner tendency and extrapolating.  

The logical extension is not even all that far a stretch.  We look at our Viszla as she looks back at us.  She has some extra upper lip which oftentimes gets hung up on her lower teeth.  She then presents a variety of human-looking grins, smirks, and even frowns for our amusement.  She has no idea why we are smiling back at her with love and amusement.  Of course, she doesn't care.  It works for her.

We endow the world around us with characteristics we recognize.  We look in the mirror of reality and expect to see...ourselves.  We put human teeth in dog mouths. We show a family of bears using and terribly concerned about the softest toilet paper.  We attribute human thoughts and speech to our cats, canaries and chameleons.  We want the rest of the world to look like us--to be like us.  And we will stretch our imagination to the limits in order to make that so.

"The point," write Ori and Rom Brafman, "is that similarity, no matter what form it takes, leads to greater likability."  (Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do, Kindle Location 1252).  The brothers Brafman are writing about the elements of what they call "quick-connect intimacy."  Similarity is one of the main elements of such quick connections.

Oddly enough, the nature of the similarities isn't all that important.  It's not the case that we have to be like-minded in deep intellectual or emotional areas.  Having similar names or birth dates can be enough.  People who like the same football team have an immediate and powerful connection.  I think about sitting on the "wrong" side at a high school football game.  There is immediate and mutual animosity, even though I may have no prior relationship with anyone in the stands.  And there is a tremendous relief when I make my way to the "right" side of the stadium and site with people who are like me.

This affection for in-group members operates below the conscious level.  The Brothers Brafman describe a study that connected donation amounts to having the same first name.  The subjects didn't know they were providing information about the psychological impact of similarity.  On the way out from the fictitious experiment, they were solicited for a charitable donation.  This is where the real experiment began.  Some of the subjects were solicited by fundraisers who had (at least on their name tags) their same first name.  When that happened, the subject doubled their contributions, compared to the control group.

We Christians are in the "one-anothering" business.  Welcome one another, we are told.  Do good for one another.  Most of all, love one another.  This is fairly easy to do in response to people who are like us.  Our major call, however, is to do this "one-anothering" for people who are strangers, sojourners and even enemies.  How can we do this?

It is clear that this requires a conscious decision to expand the frame of "similarity."  We know that others are also people for whom Jesus Christ has died.  We know that others are also people created and beloved by God.  We know that others are also our "neighbors" in a way that matters to God.  The "one-anothering" business simply swims against the irresistible current of normal human psychology unless we can discipline ourselves to expand that frame of similarity.

If we can put a human smile on a doggy, we can seek to put a familiar face on a stranger.  This is one of the primary marks of being a real Jesus follower.