Sunday, January 31, 2010

leading from within: learning again from parker palmer

In a nine year period beginning in the 1980s I was blessed to live in a community (Greensboro, North Carolina) that led me into a collection of experiences that, in hindsight, were generative. In each instance a lay member of the congregation that I served nudged me into an initiative or an experience: interfaith retreats for youth (Anytown) and interfaith/interracial missions to Israel through the National Conference of Christians and Jews; silent retreats and pilgrimages to Dayspring and the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.; an annual workshop at the Center of Creative Leadership on "Leadership and Spirit"; an ecumenical group of pastors who organized a retreat on the Cursillo model; and that same ecumenical group of pastors, in collaboration with visionary lay members of a variety of churches, who formed the Servant Leadership School in Greensboro.

I remembered the Servant Leadership School when I began reading Parker Palmer's Leading From Within recently. I think I picked up the pamphlet at Dayspring, and I know we used it as curriculum in the Servant Leadership School's classes. In those years I also heard Palmer lecture at Duke Divinity School, sharing what would become the content from Let Your Life Speak. In the essay, Palmer defines two complex and essential terms, first spirituality and then leadership.

Drawing on the work of Vaclav Havel, Palmer insists that conciousness precedes being; the inner life is not the victim of the external world, but its "co-creator". Palmer reflects on the reality of projection, our tendency to see the external world through our own lens, and in so doing to change the world for good or for bad, "projecting", in his words, "either a spirit of life or a spirit of shadow on that which is other than us."

Palmer's affirmation of the spiritual life is a critique of both Marxism and capitalism, and in the essay he is making a strong and necessary argument: we have privileged the external world to the exclusion of the internal world, and yet the inner life is always the co-creator of the world outside of us. This co-creation is a function of leadership. "A leader", Palmer insists, "is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow or his or her light." Writing in 1990, prior to the recent wars and the economic collapse, Palmer reflects on our temptation to focus on positive thinking rather than the shadow side of leadership. This delusion prevents us from taking responsibility for the harm that leaders do, and leads to the avoidance of necessary inner work. That inner work is a deep immersion in our fears and failures (I would also say our sin), on the way to the discovery of a profound life together (and here I was reminded of another brilliant Palmer essay, "On Staying at The Table").

Palmer concludes Leading from Within by noting five shadows of leadership: our identify differs from our role (an insight found later in Ronald Heifitz's Leadership Without Easy Answers); the universe is good and not necessarily a battleground; we operate out of a functional atheism that leads to workaholic forms of behavior; fear; and denial of death. Struggling with these five shadows (or at least naming them) helps the leader to know his or her effect on a community or a congregation. Our calling is not only about manipulating the external world around us; it must also include attention to what is going on within us, for our sakes and for the good of the mission.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

thinking about haiti

The disaster visited upon Haiti last week has elicited visceral responses from the victims of the earthquake, and those seeking to help, and those commenting on both of the first two parties. My simple plea for the avoidance of "either-or" thinking.

1. Professionals and Volunteers. A catastrophic event inevitably results in a clash between the professionals and the volunteers. The professionals have a knowledge base, access, resources, and a history of involvement. The professionals are essential. There is also, to be sure, a mixed history among some of the professionals (two recent examples would be U.N. peacekeepers in Africa and the Red Cross in New Orleans), and so there is an understandable mistrust of the professionals by some. The volunteers have a passion and a calling. At times the volunteers also have a knowledge base, resources and a history of involvement. Some volunteers were formerly professionals. The ideal outcome, of course, would be a partnership between professionals and volunteers. Obstacles include the human desire for power and control, and questions related to money, which flows toward these events. The most effective professionals know how to utilize the skills and call forth the passions of volunteers. The most effective volunteers also value the role of the professional. In the years to come the resolution of this relationship will be critical in responding to the needs of Haiti.

2. Money and Material Goods. A disaster, natural or man-made, evokes compassion and cries out for justice among people of good will. And so very quickly another question arises: whether to give money or material goods? Institutions will always encourage the giving of money. This allows them to be in control of the mission (and at times this is all to the good); it also prevents them from being the beneficiaries of unnecessary material contributions (anyone involved in disaster relief will recognize what this means---old coats, used shoes, etc.). At some point along the way the money must be converted to material goods---the people of Haiti cannot consume financial resources....they need water, food that is non-perishable and requires little energy to prepare, and medical supplies. And so the question is not really money or material goods, but the wise contribution of material goods, and a sure pathway for those goods to people in need. Some, and I have met more than one in recent days, simply do not entrust their money to agencies and institutions (the debacle of the United Way in 2008-2009 in my own city of Charlotte serves as background for some of this). And it is also true that a person can give money and material goods. One simply needs to make wise decisions about the destination of one's gifts, in order to achieve the greatest good.

3. Mission and Administration. I have heard more than once recently, and have found myself saying this as well, that funds are going to mission and not administration. I want to say a good word for administration. Sam Dixon and Clint Rabb (General Board of Global Ministries staff who died in the earthquake) in my own denomination were involved in administration, and for the common good. The question is not whether to have administration, but the quality of administration, and the scale of it within the big picture. There simply must be knowledgeable, trustworthy and compassionate people serving in professional roles, in order to insure the right use of charitable gifts and the effective deployment of volunteer labor. Administration makes mission possible.

4. The Quick Fix and The Long Haul. In this world there are, to borrow Ken Callahan's language, "sprinters" and "marathon runners". Both are needed. Some are inspired to make an immediate response, and perhaps a spontaneous gift. Others are more deliberative and rational, and are more comfortable settling in over time. Some are pioneers, wanting to find the quickest pathway to the place of need. Others are settlers; they will enter into the situation once they know it is safe. There are some needs that are met with a quick fix (the medical images here are obvious); there are other needs that can only be met over time.

Much of our thinking about a tragedy like Haiti suffers from flawed thinking. It is does not have to be "either-or"; it might be "both-and".

I welcome your thoughts, as we move into a new and different future with our brothers and sisters in Haiti.

Friday, January 15, 2010

haiti and mountains beyond mountains

My assignment to Providence UMC seven years ago brought me into a relationship with a thirty year mission in that country; at that time it was focused on health care, and it has since encompassed education and micocredit. I have traveled to Haiti once a year since, and increasingly my wife has made the journey two, three and four times a year, especially in the founding of the Haiti School of Mercy (in Carmilot). That relationship included Jacques Lamour's coming to the U.S. to attend first Central Piedmont Community College and now Huntingdon College. And most recently it involved Pam's participation on Tuesday in a gathering of U.S. leaders who are doing work in Haiti.

Pam was in Port au Prince during the earthquake. I just learned early Friday morning (today) that she is in the U.S., on the way home. She has written about her experience daily in the Charlotte Observer. It will be wonderful to have her home!

The work in Haiti will continue. For some it will begin; for others it will continue. There is a role for all of us, and it provides a challenge for collaboration among denominations and congregations, governments and NGOs.

In the near term, I encourage financial donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Stop Hunger Now (both linked to the right, under the heading "Repairing The World"). UMCOR is sustained by the United Methodist Church, with all administrative costs covered; 100% of your gift goes to the need. I also know that other denominations have equivalent organizations, such as Episcopal Relief and Development. Stop Hunger Now delivers food packets (our congregation has put together 10,000 at a time). UMCOR and SHN are highly effective in their delivery of servicea and they are also financially transparent.

In addition, our church will be working with Stop Hunger Now to send materials, especially water, food and medical supplies to Haiti, via Norfolk, Virginia and, amazingly, in partnership with the U.S. Navy.

I saw Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, interviewed last night on CNN by Campbell Brown. He is a hero; I participated in a panel discussion with him three years ago at Wofford College. If you want to learn more about Haiti, the best place to begin is Tracy Kidder's biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. And if you want to dive in more deeply, I suggest Farmer's The Uses of Haiti. It will dispel any judgments you have made about Haiti, its history or its politics.

The mission work in Haiti will continue now, only with an added layer of massive complexity. Haiti is two hours and forty minutes, by air, from the United States. Pat Robertson's unfortunate comments aside (and I am being charitable here), Haiti is filled with dedicated Christian people, and, we are learning, many of them are also U.S. citizens who have felt led, as my family has, to make that journey.

Kidder's book title comes from a Haitian proverb, "beyond mountains there are mountains", meaning, you solve one problem and another appears. We thought we were doing really good work: seeing 1500 patients a week, educating 200 students each year, providing loans for 49 women. These have been the mountains we have been climbing. Now we discover that there are mountains beyond mountains. This week, after the earthquake, the biggest mountain is before us, and it represents a challenge that will call forth everything we have.

Monday, January 11, 2010

rosanne cash, "the list" and baptism

I went to visit my mother after Christmas. She lives in Georgia, below Atlanta. It was good to be there, to see relatives, to watch football, to eat barbecue, to open presents. It’s a six hour drive, and while I was there I tried to find some music to listen to on the way back. I listen to Christmas music for the six weeks leading to Christmas Eve and after, so I was searching for something different.

I chose a compact disc by Rosanne Cash entitled “The List”. Rosanne Cash is the daughter of Johnny Cash, she has been a well-known artist in her own right for a number of years. I once saw her in concert in Charlotte. I had heard about “The List”, and it intrigued me. In the summer of 1973, Rosanne Cash had graduated from high school, and the next day she was on a tour bus with her father. She and her father started talking about music, and it became clear that there was a generation gap. Johnny Cash would mention a song, and Rosanne would say, “I don’t know that one”. He would mention another song, and another, and she would respond with the same words. He became alarmed, she said; she was so steeped in rock and pop music that she didn’t grasp the importance of her “musical genealogy”, the songs that had shaped his life, the songs would shape her life.

And so Johnny Cash spent that afternoon with a pencil and a legal pad, making a list of the essential songs, the essential country songs, but really the essential American songs, because they are also out of the heritage of the delta and gospel, history and protest, Texas swing and folk.

When he had finished he gave her the sheet of paper. Roseanne Cash held onto the list for thirty-five years.

I thought about all of this when I began to reflect on today’s scriptures, and our purpose for gathering this morning, because we also are about tracing our own genealogy, our spiritual genealogy. Whenever we celebrate a baptism, we go way back in time, to chaos and creation, slavery and freedom, promise and fulfillment, the baptism of Jesus and his command to lead future generations into these same life-giving waters, and finally to his death and resurrection and the gift of the spirit. The water is a sign for all of this---the water of a womb through which we enter this life, the water that washes away the stain of our imperfections, the water that refreshes us for the journey, the water upon which we sail or over which we cross from a place of bondage to one of opportunity. Water and baptism have always symbolized the journey from the old life to the new, from despair to hope, from salvation to sin. Each generation has to experience the waters of baptism for themselves. It is literally our re-generation.

And of course it’s true that this is not necessarily a linear journey. We go back and forth with all of this, to use an old word, we “back-slide!”. Israel was tempted to return to slavery, even when they were living in the Promised Land. The followers of Jesus had walked into the light, but at times they preferred the darkness.

It helped to be reminded of what all this meant. And so they told the story whenever they baptized someone: “This is important, this is worth remembering, this is what saves us.” And we tell the same story as we give thanks over the waters of baptism:

crossing the Jordan river…the promised land
Mary’s womb…Jesus’ birth
his baptism by John…his anointing in the spirit…his great commission.

As the old hymn summarizes it, “This is my story, this is my song”.

Every time we baptize a child, or an adult, it’s as if we are saying “this is our genealogy, our family story, our spiritual path”. This is the river of life that carries us along, and this river contains the parables and prayers, the people, the songs, the experiences, and now, it all belongs to you, and you belong to it. It is your fundamental identity. Claim it!

I listened to the music of Rosanne Cash on the drive back from Georgia--my home for the first twenty of so years of my life…to North Carolina--my home for the next thirty years of my life. Most of the songs were familiar to me: “I’m Moving On”, “Motherless Children”, “Heartaches By The Number”, “Take These Chains From My Heart and Set Me Free”; they were songs I grew up hearing when my parents controlled the radio dial (and I know that sounds ancient, to talk about a radio dial). They were songs I abandoned as quickly as I could when I was a teenager and young adult, but they are a part of my musical genealogy.

I heard Rosanne Cash reflect on the making of “The List” recently. She said, “I held onto “The List” for thirty five years. [I had a need to] choose and reinterpret these songs carefully….This record is about history, respect, family, love and legacy. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I have arrived where I started, and I have known it for the first time.

To be a Christian is to receive a legacy---the scriptures, the worship, the community, the saints and the prophets, those who taught us and inspired us and guided us and encouraged us and prayed for us…very literally, in the words of one of the later New Testament letters, it is the experience Paul sees in Timothy, when he writes to him: “I am aware of the strong faith that lived in your grandmother Lois, and in your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you. “

We receive the faith, but we have to make it our own. The church is not a museum, it is a work in progress, a work of art, it is a child in development, a young boy learning to trust, a young woman discovering a calling in life, it is the middle of adulthood and challenges of transition, it is the limitations of older age but also the blessings of passing something, maybe wisdom, to those who follow.

The Lord had created Israel, just a potter shapes clay, just as a parent forms a child. The river of life is not always tranquil; sometimes the waters are turbulent. And so we cling to the word of grace in Isaiah’s prophecy as if our hands were gripping the side of a raft: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you”. God’s people, Isaiah says, have seen fire and rain, they have the promise:

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine.

As I listen to the songs on “The List”, there is an enormous amount of pain there, and confession, and loss, and that is life, whether you lived in sixth century Jerusalem or twenty-first century Charlotte. It can be, in the words of one of the songs, a “sea of heartbreak”. The music endures---and really the style is less important than the truthfulness and honesty of it--but we have to make it our own, integrate it with our experience, hear the Lord saying “I have called you by name” and know that it is you and me, hear the voice as we stand near the waters of baptism saying “you are my son, you are my daughter” and know that it is for you and me, that this is our story, this is our song.

And so Rosanne Cash takes these songs of her father and makes them her own. She is singing with a new generation, to be sure---Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Wilco--- but all of a sudden, it’s as if these are her songs. And they are.

When Johnny Cash took out a pencil and a legal pad and came up with “The List”, he must have known that his daughter was not ready to receive the gift, at that time. This is the experience for many of us: we experience grace and only later do we know the full extent of what it has meant. An infant does not know what she is receiving in baptism. A confirmand does not fully grasp the fullness of faith at 13 years old. A couple standing at the altar have a glimpse, maybe of what the words they are speaking will come to mean across a lifetime. An adult makes a profession of faith, and yet we grow in the grace. Even the disciples who had been with Jesus understood what he had been saying as they reflected back on it years later.

And so Rosanne Cash kept the list for thirty five years, and at the right time, I suppose, she had come to the place where she could claim it, know it, live it, make it her own.

We often baptize children and sometimes adults throughout the year, but on this Sunday we set aside some time to remember the baptism of Jesus. This comes after we’ve celebrated his birth, and prior to the challenges and temptations he will face during Lent, on the way to a garden and a cross. We remember his baptism as a historical event, knowing that he has passed through these waters, God with us and for us, and we connect it with our own baptisms.

As the artist noted, it is about “history, respect, family, love and legacy”, and it is, perhaps for some of us also expressed in the words of the poet, “to arrive at the place where we began, and to know it for the first time”. As we make our way through fear and failure, loss and loneliness, chaos and change, testing and turbulence, we know that the rivers will not overwhelm us. The voice is clear across the generations:

I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.

This is our story, this is our song.


Sources: Rosanne Cash, The List (

Saturday, January 09, 2010

in praise of the public option

Reflect with me for a moment on the qualities of life that are at the very core: food, health, education. In most civil societies there is a sense that these are not privileges for the few, but rights for all. Governments often intervene in these spheres of life: they subsidize farmers (or agribusinesses), construct hospitals and eradicate diseases, build schools and support the training of educators. The church (and much missionary work) often occurs in these spheres of life; I have traveled in a number of countries where there was no consensus about these core qualities as rights, or, instead, a lack of resources to make them possible. The lack of resources might be the result of a sharp division between the rich and the poor (in which everything is privatized), or the absence of the rich (who actually reside in other countries, having gained their wealth and departed).

Most of us would agree that food, health and education are core qualities of life; if we have access to these qualities (and we might add shelter to the list, but for the sake of simplicity let's stay with the three), we know that we are blessed by God, or we take them for granted, or see them as the fruit of our labors. When we see others who do not have access to food, health and education, we might intervene personally, as an act of compassion, or politically, as an act of justice. Both interventions are important; they are not mutually exclusive, and one does not need to be the enemy of the other.

I do not naturally fuse my identity as a Christian (a follower of Jesus, and yes not always consistent in this) with my identity as a citizen of the U.S. At times, however, there is a confluence, and for me this comes, in my experience, in what i would call the public option. We have had a public option for food: we have subsidized the labors of farmers, and many have access to cheap food. We had had a public option to health: we have subsidized the education of physicians and nurses, and built public hospitals. We have had a public option for education: there is a right, even an obligation for parents to send their children, for a certain number of years, to school.

That "public options" have existed has been a great blessing in my life. My mother was a school teacher for her entire adult life. I attended public schools and a state university as an undergraduate. I am unsure that I would have had an access to education were these opportunities not present, although it is possible. Most of my relatives attended public schools and universities, even if they can be quite critical of the government. I do not blame them. I simply note that we have been the beneficiaries of a public option. Our older daughter went to an excellent public undergraduate school (UNC). I could go on...Our daughters were born in public hospitals. There were excellent private hospitals located in these same communities; one, a teaching hospital, is also the beneficiary of substantial grants that come from the government, again, for the purpose of improving the quality of health.

I write simply and yes personally for a singular purpose: if you find yourself in a conversation and the "public option" is cited as an impending evil, pause for a moment and consider the ways your own life, or the lives of persons in your family have benefitted from public interventions in the core qualities of life. As our country moves forward, we will certainly be a more just and compassionate people if we enlarge our responses to these basic human needs. There is certainly a role for the church in these areas, but not to the exclusion of a partnership with all citizens, in the pursuit of a common good.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

in our end is our beginning

The season of Advent moved surely and steadily into Christmas; for us that included the Service of Lessons and Carols (and a highlight for me there was "Salvation is Created") and then the Christmas Eve services. This was my seventh Christmas Eve at Providence; we have come to a good place where Tara shapes one of the services (children and family), Bill another (communion in the chapel) and I shape the other two (carols and candlelight; communion, carols and candlelight). The sermon is posted on this blog ("This Will Be A Sign For You"). My friend George, our district superintendent, helped in serving communion at the 11:00 service and that added to the fullness of the day's meaning.

The next day our family slept in and later had lunch at the Shun Lee Palace. We were not quite imitating "A Christmas Story"; instead, we took pictures and sent them to our older daughter, who actually lives in Beijing (we spoke with her on Skype). It was a nice and quiet day. The next day we saw the movie "The Blind Side". It is a terrific film, and succeeds on a number of levels: it is about compassion, and sports, and perseverance, and sports. It weaves together so many of the issues that have been a part of my own journey: race, religion, sports, economic inequality, the south, family estrangement. My wife had given me the book upon which it is based as a gift, and so I then began to read it. The book and film are very closely aligned, although the subjects of race and football strategy are more deeply explored in the book by Michael Lewis.

The following morning I drove down to Georgia to spend time with my mother. I had listened to Christmas music exclusively from Advent through December 25, and so I got back into alot of the music I really love, which is mostly roots music: the Band, Lyle Lovett, Buddy and Julie Miller, Darrell Scott and others. The six hour drive passed rather quickly. In Columbus it was good to see family; we talked, I slept, we ate barbecue (Country's...I recommend it), I watched football, I began reading Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior", which is a biography and environmental history of Theodore Roosevelt's life and legacy. It is extraordinary, even if it is 800+ pages. I thought Brinkley's reporting of Katrina ("The Great Deluge") was absolutely stunning, the implications for me being that the Mayor of New Orleans should have been fired and the President of the United States should have been impeached. This is all the more remarkable in that Brinkley is a non-partisan historian (he has also worked with Reagan's presidency). The most moving parts of "The Wilderness Warrior" for me were his discussion of Roosevelt's preservation of the Grand Canyon and his reporting of TR's three day visit/hike with John Muir at Yosemite. I mentioned reading this on Facebook, and a friend and Providence UMC member (who is actually a grad student at Harvard) suggested that I read Muir's essay " A Wind-Storm in the Forest". I did. I can only say that reading Muir is a religious experience.

I returned to Charlotte on Tuesday afternoon. For the return trip I had purchased two new cds (and I know, I must be the only human being on the planet who is still buying cds): Steve Earle's Townes, his renditions of Townes Van Zandt's catalog, and Roseanne Cash's The List, which is again a collection of songs that her father insisted she know and learn. I was most taken by The List; it is a model of how an artist inherits a tradition, breathes life into it and makes it her own. The preachers and church leaders among us can learn a great deal from her.

I must also mention a number of football games (and the SEC is doing quite well, thus far), a couple of meals with good friends, a few naps, a more leisurely pace, a memorial service for a good friend's sister, and the end of the calendar year, which my wife and I celebrated by going (early) to our favorite Mexican restaurant.

Now, I sense a return to the schedule; tomorrow is Epiphany Sunday, and then Baptism of the Lord, and we are on our way to Ash Wednesday. The holidays have passed, it seems. Now on to a new year, ready or not.