weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
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blessed are les miserables (and other lessons from song lyrics)

As you may know, if you’ve been reading my blog for long, I tend to listen to a lot of music that doesn’t have lyrics, particularly my workday quadrivium of classic, ambient, post-rock, and movie scores.  So when I do listen to music with lyrics, I make sure they’re good lyrics.  Here are some observations I’ve made recently on some great song lyrics.

  1. 2009 was the year I fell in love with both the Harry Potter series and Coldplay’s album (which I still maintain is their greatest) Viva La Vida.  I got really invested in Snape during my first reading of the series, so I often thought of him–and still do–when I hear these lyrics from the last song on Viva La Vida: “No, I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends.”  In those lyrics, I see Snape making the hard choice not to take revenge on James Potter’s child, and I see him turning his back on Voldemort and all of his Death-eaters.  Whatever you think about Snape, you have to admit those were brave things to do.
  2. Recently I’ve been listening to the song that goes “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.”  (Someone help me out here–is the artist I Am They or Bethel Music, or are those essentially the same thing?  I’m not hip enough to understand what’s going on with these “worship collectives” that are so popular these days.)  It’s the sort of song that I would generally say is a little too “on the nose.”  I admit it; I’m kind of a music snob, so I prefer subtlety in my lyrics.  But I’ve realized recently that sometimes a song that’s “on the nose” is exactly what I need.  Sometimes I just need someone to tell me that I’m a child of God.  I’m thankful for this song.
  3. And now, a thought for this Ash Wednesday from my favorite musical, Les Miserables.  I’ve been thinking about the title (which is also the title of Victor Hugo’s novel, the musical’s source text) and how we never translate it into English.  I think that’s because we don’t have a word in English that exactly captures the meaning.  “The Miserable (People”) isn’t quite right because we’re talking about a specific kind of misery.  There’s a phrase in one of the songs that captures the idea well: “the wretched of the earth.”  Les Miserables is mostly about the poor, prisoners, and prostitutes–the rejects of society.  But it gets really interesting if you think of every character in the story as les miserables, including the supposed antagonist, Javert, who is a tragic character because he can’t accept forgiveness or even his own life as a gift.  “Les miserables” are similar to the people Jesus was talking about when he said “blessed are the poor in spirit”–the people who don’t have it all together, to put it mildly.  These people are blessed if, like Jean Valjean, they acknowledge their poverty of spirit; they are doomed if, like Javert, they try to deny it.  And, if we’re honest, these people are all of us.  So take that thought into Lent with you.

the humility of Jesus

Yesterday morning, I wasn’t planning to go to church; I was going to donate platelets instead.  (My prioritization of church, or lack thereof, is a topic for another post.)  But my hemoglobin was a little too low to donate, so I ended up walking into the 11:00 church service about 15 minutes in, toward the end of the singing.  Normally I carry a big, black leather-bound ESV study Bible to church, as well as a hardcover journal for taking notes.  (Never mind that I take notes mostly in order to stay awake in my church’s soft-seated, dimly-lit sanctuary and rarely go back and look at my notes.  Having the journal makes me look serious.)  But yesterday, because I didn’t think I was going to church, I didn’t have my Bible and journal.  So I walked in late, with no Bible (in a church where most people still carry bound Bibles) and with a new short, somewhat asymmetrical haircut that could, I suppose, be interpreted as countercultural.  And, because I don’t know the words very well yet, I didn’t sing most of the song that had just started when I walked in.  Taking together all of these factors, I was worried that the people next to me were going to assume I was a visitor, probably an “unchurched” one.

When my pastor began preaching on Matthew 12:15-21 (at least I had the YouVersion Bible app on my phone and could follow along), I quickly realized how silly my worries were–even if the people next to me were actually thinking about me, which is unlikely.  In that passage, Jesus heals a lot of people and then forbids them to tell anyone.  My pastor pointed to this action as a demonstration of Jesus’ humility: Jesus’ goal on earth was to do his Father’s will, not to “make his own name famous” (a phrase that is popular today in some church circles but is inconsistent with Jesus’ whole way of operating).  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people hearing his message; he just didn’t want fame, which is shallow and temporary.  We as Christians, my pastor said, spend too much time doing image control, worrying about whether we’re giving a good impression of Christianity.  Even when we say that we don’t care what people think, we’re showing that we care what people think.  My pastor said that all we are called to do is to live in obedience (which sometimes means proclaiming a message verbally–that’s not what is being forbidden here); it is not our job to control how we’re perceived.

It made me think of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (okay, I haven’t read the book, but the movie absolutely wrecked me), which is about a man who has an intensely personal faith in God of which he cannot speak, but which, we understand in retrospect, has driven his actions all through his life.  This character doesn’t have the luxury of branding himself as a Christian, as so many of us do in America today, but all that matters to him is that he knows that God knows of his faithfulness.

I ended up putting away my phone and just listening to the sermon.  My church follows the current trend of putting the words of Scripture on the screens at the front, so I didn’t really need to follow along in my app anyway (unless I wanted to look at the context, which using the screens can’t really replace).  I tried to think of myself not as an individual sticking out like a sore thumb, but as another member of Christ’s body, just like the people next to me.  It helped.  I listened.  I worshiped.  And, wonderfully, I didn’t fall asleep!

 

People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

In the Bleak Mid-winter

I graded a paper about Christina Rossetti this weekend, so I’ve been thinking about her poem “A Christmas Carol” and the various ways it’s been set to music, usually under the name “In the Bleak Mid-winter.”  Take a minute to read it, and I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready.

So, obviously, we don’t know if Jesus was born in the winter, and even if he was, there probably weren’t copious snowdrifts on the Middle Eastern hills.  But Rossetti’s poem doesn’t actually imply that the first stanza, which describes a winter scene, is the setting for the next three stanzas, which describe Jesus’ nativity.  The “long ago” of stanza 1 could refer to Rossetti’s childhood when she first learned what Christmas means.  (This would explain the childlike tone of the famous final stanza.)  In general, I think stanza 1 is best read not as a literal description of the setting of Jesus’ birth but as an impression of the dark (literally and figuratively), seemingly hopeless world into which he was born and in which we still live.

Think about winter.  It’s a difficult season for many people simply because of where the earth is positioned in relation to the sun, let alone because of the painful associations that the winter holidays have for many people.  I am fortunate enough to have virtually no memories but happy ones of the Christmas season, but I really struggle with winter.  I find the cold exhausting and the darkness depressing and disorienting.  Of course, winter has a beauty of its own–think of a cardinal against a backdrop of snow or the dark outlines of bare trees at twilight.  And winter has a few pinpricks of warmth (Christmas), hope (New Years), and pure fun (the February holidays: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars).  But these glimpses are scant compensation for a grueling three or four months (or longer, depending on where you live) of huddling against the “frosty wind” and facing a seemingly endless night.

When I think about long periods of darkness, the 400-year silence between the last Old Testament prophets and the birth of Jesus comes to mind.  Isaiah was prophesying about the breaking of this silence when he wrote these words, which Handel later incorporated into The Messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).  We, too, live in a time when we want God to speak up and explain why life is so hard and what he’s going to do about it.  But we, unlike those inter-testamental Jewish people, can look both backward at the moment where God came to be with us–Immanuel–and forward at the time when the Prince of Peace will “establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever” (Isaiah 9:7).  When he comes to set things right, winter will no longer be bleak.

 

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

Advent week 4: What Christmas hymns teach us about Jesus

Something that always kind of shocks me is the number of straight-up hymns (multiple verses!) that get played on the radio during the Christmas season–and I’m talking on your average pop/soft rock “mix” station.  I’m happy that Jesus’ name is getting so broadly proclaimed during this time, even if it’s confusingly thrown in with a lot of really stupid songs (which I plan to post about next week), but I wonder how many people understand the sometimes complex theology they’re hearing.  Today I want to write about just a few of the things we learn about Jesus from some of the great Christmas hymns.

  1. Jesus is God, and he didn’t stop being God when he was born as a human.  Appropriately, Christmas hymns are packed with statements of the divinity of Christ.  Some go a little too far in asserting this, like “Away in a Manger” (“no crying he makes”?  He was a baby; pretty sure he was crying), but others hit the mark in beautiful statements like “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity” (from my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) or simply “the Word made flesh” (a direct quote from the gospel of John, found in a later verse of “What Child Is This”).
  2. Jesus knows what it’s like to be us.  Also appropriately, many Christmas hymns are about God the Son’s humbling himself to dwell with us (any song with “Emmanuel” in it counts here) and his sympathy with our pain and frailty.  “O Holy Night” says that Jesus was “born to be our friend” and then goes on to say that “he knows our need / to our weakness is no stranger.”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is, again, a little more complex: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  All the songs that talk about Jesus’ humble surroundings at his birth also fit in here; one of my favorite descriptions is from the beautiful Appalachian song “I Wonder As I Wander”: “When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow stall / With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.”  Farmers–that word choice brings the story close to home for a lot of people.  Jesus could have been born down the road from here.
  3. Jesus is coming back to rule the world.  As my pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one of the best-loved hymns of Christmas, “Joy to the World,” is actually, for the most part, about Jesus’ future second coming.  We see this especially in the last verse, which begins, “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”  Of course, this is also what Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus is about.  The other day, it occurred to me that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there probably were some lords and at least one king in the audience, which makes the repeated line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” all the more impressive.  In fact, according to legend, it was a king who started the tradition of standing up during the chorus.  Wikipedia says this story probably isn’t true, but what’s not in doubt is that Jesus is superior to all “principalities and powers” as the New Testament says.

I hope that over the next few days, you hear some of these songs (maybe on one of those normally lightweight radio stations) and maybe even get to join a congregation in singing them.  As you sing, think about the words and what they tell us about Jesus, our God, friend, and king.