Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Political or Partisan?

Many of us grew up with the notion that religion and politics are dinner conversations to avoid.  I think I understand why.  Both are deeply personal.  And we want to believe that how we believe is the morally right way to believe.  All of this leaves very little room for discussion and lots of possibility for hurt.  For many the only solution is to remain silent, especially around the dinner table.

We need to find ways to be a people of faith without becoming partisan.  Moreover we must own that faith is always political.  These are inescapable realities.  Too many church leaders have been seduced by partisan politics.  If I were allowed to rewrite Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 for the church, it would go like this (the irony of using a political speech has not been lost on me):

“There are those who are preparing to divide us the church of Jesus Christ.  Well, I say to them, there is not a liberal church and a conservative church; there is only one church, one body.  There's not the black church and the white church and the Latino church and the Asian church; there is only one church.  Yes we argue, we don’t always agree, but when push comes to shove our unity always trumps our divisions.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan a lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  An exchange about the law happens and in the end Jesus tells a story.  It is a story about religious people making bad decisions and one really bad person, the Samaritan, making a good decision.  The Samaritan chose compassion over any possible difference – political, social, religious or economic.  This act was political and even a bit subversive.

When people of faith do justice and demand justice partisan politics become irrelevant and kingdom politics become everything.

When we start with the radical political assumption that all people are created in the image of God everything changes.  People dying in the dessert, the health of your neighbor, education for all, racial profiling, and gun violence are all issues that people of faith should speak to with one voice because our oneness in Jesus trumps all the other possible divisions.

Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

Next week

I did it again.  I have agreed to lead a seminar about privilege.  Two years ago at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburg I led this same seminar – “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race.”  Once again I have been tasked, this time in Phoenix, with leading a discussion on White Privilege, the ultimate “elephant in the room” topic. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world, one in which people are judged only by the content of their character has not yet arrived.  I have the privilege of leading a ministry that is diverse in almost every way diversity can be used.  We are young and old –actually I prefer people with life experience and those without; men and women; American and Immigrant; conservative and liberal; married and single; white and colorful; athletic and couch potatoey; high church and earthy church; straight and gay.

Quite honestly I find this this level of diversity to be prophetic, chaotic, affirming and draining all at the same time.  As the person charged with giving leadership to this organization, I am oddly qualified to talk about privilege, especially at it pertains to being male, white and tall.

Admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color is uncomfortable.  The level of discomfort increases when I think about the people I work with.  I want us to be equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.  In this context privilege is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona, where I will be presenting this seminar, without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born white and will die white, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by white privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for white people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Lose Yourself

“The purpose of life is not to find yourself.  It’s to lose yourself.”  With these words David Books concludes his column bemoaning the advice dispensed at so many of this year’s commencement speeches – “find yourself, find your passion and then pursue your dreams.” Books’ lament is based on a certain reality.  After all, in what world is a young adult mature enough to know who they are? Isn’t life a journey of discovery? To assume that the journey towards self-understanding is over at 21 is naïve at best.  I am 46 and still trying to find myself.  I have developed an inkling of what my passions might be.  As for perusing my dreams, I am still dreaming new dreams!

So, what does it mean to lose yourself?  According to Eminem losing one’s self has something to do with the music. I have two teens and they have developed an uncanny ability to lose themselves in the music.  But I do not think that this is what Brooks was referring to.

Jesus talked about losing life in order to find life.

Could it be that Jesus understood what many of this year’s commencement speakers failed to fully grasp?  Meaning and purpose come when we turn our focus outward.

Servant-hood, discipleship and following Jesus are inextricably linked.  The Kingdom of God has often been described as an upside down kingdom.  Everything gets reversed - purpose, passion and meaning come when service towards others becomes a first priority.

A more helpful commencement speech might better be framed with these words:

Graduates, before you today there is a fork in the road.  One fork will ask you to find yourself, ignite your passions and follow your dreams.  The temptation will be to choose this path, but know that this road ultimately leads to a type of self-centered hell.  The other fork will ask you to ignore yourself focus on the needs and concerns around you.  The cost will seem high but the payoff will be meaning, purpose and life.

The choice is yours.