Monday, July 25, 2016

What About An Interim President?

As the second week of National Presidential Party conventions begins this week (the Republican Presidential Convention last week and the Democratic Presidential Convention this week), I have a semi-serious question to ask:

What About An Interim President?

This is not a commentary on either of the two top final Presidential candidates (Clinton or Trump) or their party platforms, or their political makeup.  As a pastor, I have always believed that it was important for churches and pastors to remain neutral in most political debates - the church should be apolitical whenever possible.  The question I am asking is really about process.  Do we really know which direction to go in this country right now?  With all of the craziness around the world today involving terrorism, immigration, and extreme poverty, disease, and economic uncertainty (just to name a few issues) do we really understand as a country which person is best positioned to lead?  Do we even know enough about the issues to make an informed decision about leadership?  What about taking a six month pause in between US Presidents and reflecting, praying and discerning as a country which direction is the best direction to proceed in?

What About An Interim President?

In my own professional field (the ministry), I have learned the benefit for churches when they are transitioning from one pastor to another, of having a time when an Interim pastor can come in and lead the congregation through a period of discernment.  Let me lift up some of the potential benefits of an Interim Pastor and let you apply them to the Presidency where they are helpful.  Interim pastors can help to:

Clean Up the Messes Of The Previous Pastor
Every pastor (check that - every leader), no matter how qualified or competent or gifted, has blind spots.  Every leader has areas that they are really capable in, and areas that they are not expert about.  Take one of our most famous and capable US Presidents for example - George Washington.  Washington was a great leader in the midst of a long drawn out war.  Washington was an expert at persevering, at holding together a group of people through thick and thin.  However, Washington was not particularly that capable at organizational leadership.  He wasn't great at setting-up leadership systems.  Political organization was Washington's blind spot.

Avoid The Pendulum Effect
In every system there is a tendency, when there is a transition between one leader and another, for the system to lurch to an extreme (or as the analogy indicates - to swing like a pendulum in the opposite direction).  The most classic example in modern politics is Jimmy Carter's Presidency followed by Ronald Reagan's presidency.  Nothing could be more different than the leadership styles of these two men.  Carter wore button down cardigan sweaters, Reagan wore pocket squares and tailored suits.  Carter tended to give long meandering answers to questions, Reagan tended to crisp one liners that he had rehearsed.  Many political theorists have suggested that Reagan, though a good president in his own right, was also a pendulum effect from Jimmy Carter.

The same tendency towards a "pendulum effect" exists in churches.  I know of one church where the previous pastor, a great leader, tended towards a very strong, almost heavy-handed approach to leadership.  That pastor's decisions were highly regarded and taken very seriously and carried out with exactness.  Then, the church decided when that pastor retired, to not have an Interim Pastor in-between.  So, not having had an interim, the church replaced that pastor with another pastor who had a totally different leadership style.  The new pastor was extremely passive, loose, random and even flighty in his leadership style.  It was an example of the pendulum effect.  An Interim Pastor breaks up the pendulum effect.

Assist The Congregation To Reflect Upon Their Core Identity
In the midst of the stress of day to day details, it can sometimes be hard to remember who you are as a person, or a group.  After World War II, and the German Reich led by Adolf Hitler, one of the most difficult things for the Germans to wrap their minds around was the question of who they were as a people.  What did it mean to be German?  What did it not mean to be German?  The Marshall Plan, assisting Germany with debt relief and economic recovery was a kind of Interim Leader dynamic that helped the German people begin to understand core identity issues about themselves.

Prepare The Way For The Next Pastor
Every great leader requires a person or persons who precede them to prepare the way for that person's leadership.  The best example from the Bible is that of John the Baptist and Jesus.  For years ahead of the start of Jesus' ministry, John prepared the way.  John preached and taught and prophesied - and in turn brought thousands of people to repentance and Baptism before Jesus' ministry.  Many of the people who listened to, and were healed by Jesus had actually been Baptized by John before Jesus' ministry began.  It could be argued that Jesus ministry (remembering that Jesus is fully human and fully God) would it not have been as successful had it not been for John's preparation.

Take Care of Necessary Details
I know of one Interim Pastor of a well established church in Southern California that has helped that church to balance their budget before the next pastor comes in.  When the Interim began there was a budget deficit of around $300,000.  Now, after just a short time, the budget is almost balanced.  The new pastor coming in will now, fortunately, not have to deal with the budget on day one.

Hit the Pause Button And Catch Their Breath
As I watched the Republican Presidential Convention and as I begin to watch the Democratic Presidential Convention, I am struck by one glaring reality - Americans seem exhausted! Americans seem totally tired and absolutely enervated.  The aggression that I observed at last week's convention and am sure to observe at this week's convention (both inside the hall and outside) seems less to do with deep down hatred or anger as it seems to point to an inner fatigue and depletion of people's bodies, minds and souls.  An Interim might help to calm people's nerves and offer a moment of thoughtfulness.

What About An Interim President?

What harm can it do?  More to the point, after a time of prayer, discernment and reflection, won't America be in a better position do know exactly what direction in which to move?  Just sayin...

All For Now,


Monday, July 18, 2016


Yesterday, my eldest daughter, Haley (8), celebrated her first communion.  It was not a planned event, or a celebration that was taken up with much fanfare or preparation.  There were no communicants classes beforehand, or elementary school "communion curriculum".   It happened in an art studio (Sessions @ the Loft), where Mission Street Church is currently meeting for our afternoon worship service in Camarillo.  The congregation was a smaller crowd because of summer vacation.  Uncharacteristically, I was standing next to my daughter, rather than sitting up front, on a dias or a stage.  As our row got up to walk to the front to take communion, Haley looked at me like, "Can I go too?"  "Do you want to take communion?" I asked, "You can!"  Sheepishly, Haley ripped off a big chunk of bread from the common loaf, and gingerly she dipped it into the cup of grape juice.  "Congratulations," I said to Haley, "this is a special moment!"

All the way home from church, Haley asked me deep questions about her maiden communion experience.  "So, why did Jesus have to die?"  "Did it hurt?"  "So, when you take communion, you actually eat the body and the blood of Jesus?"  "No, not actually," I explained, "It's just a symbol, a sign of that.  It's a memory of what Jesus did for us on the cross, by dying for us."  Silence and contemplation ensued all the rest of the way home.  I was contemplating communion even more deeply too!

Communion, or Communio (from "communis" - common) - from the Latin - "with oneness" and "with coming together", is a deeply mysterious and inexplicable experience.  Even though Christians around the world celebrate communion every weekend, and some people take communion every single day (when I visited Poland as an exchange student in college, I remember some Poles taking communion three times a day), it still defies explanation or total and true understanding.  In short, communion really the closest connection that Christ followers have, in physical and spiritual form, to Christ, this side of heaven: "He who abides in me and I in him, will bear much fruit.  But cut off from me, and you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

If you look up the dictionary definition of "communion" there are three main answers: (1) the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, (2) common participation in a mental or emotional experience, (3) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared.  All three definitions connote a very close coming together, unity, and intimacy.  If some of the disciples were a little bit abashed to wash Jesus' feet at the invitation to do so, because it seemed "out of place", then celebrating the first communion with Jesus on the Passover before Jesus' death must have felt extra jarring and strange.

The Roman community that lived around the early Christians thought that this new "Christ-following" group were a kind of death-cult because they, "ate the flesh and drank the blood of their God".  Early Christians, for fear of reprisals and shunning by their neighbors celebrated communion in secret places, often beneath the cities where they lived, in catacombs and burial caves.  This association with the dead further stigmatized the practice of communion.  When Christians tried to counteract the outside perceptions about communion by calling it a, "Love feast", further confusion and disambiguation occurred.  "What is really going on with these Chrsitians?"

I was recently told a very touching story about the celebration of communion in Scotland.  Most of the churches (or kirks) in Scotland are accompanied by grave yards which flank the perimeter of the church.  On Sundays where communion is celebrated, and as a way of commemorating the "Communion of Saints", after the meal is served in church during the worship service, the extra wine and bread are spread upon the gravestones outside the church, as a way of including past loved ones in the feast.

One of the tendencies of North American Protestant Christians is the desire to explain away every mystery and conundrum of the faith.  Every aspect of faith, it is thought, can be logically and critically understood (the Trinity, Baptism, Prayer, Healing) - and this includes holy communion.  But I have always found that the mystery of the experience is why it is also powerful.  As the Christian thinker (and novelist) Dorothy Sayers said, "The magic is the mystery" and the "dogma is the drama".

And so, with my eight year old daughter who just celebrated her first communion, I, after my 1,000th communion, am sometimes left after the celebration of it with more questions than answers.  And yet at the deepest level, after communion, I am also left more complete, more satiated, more whole.  "So, you are eating Jesus?" asked my dumbfounded daughter.  "No, not really...but...sort of..."  "Then why did they say that it was the blood and body of Jesus?"  "I know," I said, "It's confusing isn't it...."

All For Now,


Monday, July 4, 2016

The Genius Cluster That Made America

On this Fourth of July Monday (the 240th birthday of our nation), I want to reflect for a moment on the handful of geniuses that were assembled during the early parts of our country's founding (the "genius cluster" - as former Presidential speech writer Peggy Noonan would call it).  Most scholars agree that it was not simply the unique global geopolitical circumstances that contributed to America's ability to become independent and form the first Federal Republic in the history of the world, but it was the handful of truly gifted leaders and geniuses of different stripes who were assembled on the American stage at that time.  You know the names as individuals, but stop for a moment to consider them as a group:

Thomas Jefferson - the philosopher genius who was an expert in enlightenment, post-enlightenment, and renaissance thinkers and who penned the first documents in our country.

Benjamin Franklin - the inventor and diplomatic genius who worked assiduously to develop support for thirteen colonies and the would-be United States in Holland and then France.  Without him, America would have remained just a theory and a dream.

John Adams - the political genius who muscled through the idea of an independent America within the United States.  Without Adams' pugnacious persistence, convincing supporters of the American cause to rally, America would have been for not.

Alexander Hamilton - the financial genius who devised one of the first centralized banking systems in the world, which consolidated the power of the government into a more crystalline central core.  Before him, money was held by wealthy land-owners only, and if you borrowed, you borrowed from them.

George Washington - the persevering military genius who kept together a band of rebels and rabble rousers that called themselves soldiers, fighting with almost no supplies or means (or even uniforms) against the greatest military in the world.

Jay and Monroe could be added....and the list goes on.  The question, again, is not that such people would have lived at all, but that such people would have lived at the same time in the same place and rallied for the same cause.  "Genius clusters" - Peggy Noonan argues (in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on July 3) - "happen in history and no one knows why."  Noonan asked a great historian about the phenomenon once.  How did it happen?  "Providence," he guessed.

So it is God who assembles such genius clusters.  I agree with this!

There are countless other examples of genius clusters that have taken place in history.  Some have argued that during World War II - FDR, Churchill, and de Gaulle represented a kind of genius cluster.  There were military genius clusters as well during World War II - Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz, Bull Halsey, and Stilwell.  In the Civil War there was Grant, Lee, Stonewall, Sherman, Sheridan and Lincoln.

As a pastor, I have thought about genius clusters that have occurred in the church throughout history.  Whenever any great innovation or advent came about (the Reformation for example), it was not simply the result of one great thinker or even two - but a cluster of geniuses.

Martin Luther - the courageous genius who developed the idea, for the first time since Paul's epistles, that we are "saved by grace".  Luther's genius was having the tenacity to take the idea to Rome and the corrupt papacy.

John Calvin - the systematic genius and student of the law, who boiled all of the Reformation ideas down into crisp, clear systematized concepts and ideas that people could use.

John Knox the political theologian genius who helped put in place ideas like free public education, checks and balances in government, and a nationalized reformed church.

Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and Zwingli should also go on the list.  Again, not to belabor the point, but why were these people assembled at a particular time in human history for a particular cause?  Noonan observes that, "genius clusters require deep crises, otherwise their gifts are not revealed." And, "members of genius clusters tend to pursue shared goals."

As I think about the radical changes that need to take place in North American Christianity for it to thrive, the way it has in history, I wonder if there are enough geniuses around - "genus clusters" - to move the faith forward in any concerted or focussed way.  Frankly, what we have seen more of in early 21st century is trend towards is "genius fracturing" rather than "genius clustering".  Most of the great Christian thinkers and pastors, seem to be working at cross purposes to bring about more of what they consider important ends.  Perhaps the "fracturing" is a result of personalized ends rather than group causes.

On this fourth of July what we need is - more clustering, less fracturing!

Thank God for our founders - on this 240th - Fourth!

All For Now,