Manna

Talking with high schoolers about the manna story in Exodus, I asked, “Have you ever received help right on time and out of the blue?” Immediately, two hands went up. The first student told a story about trying to pay for cookies with cash at a place that only took cards; a stranger used their card and took the students’ cash. The second hand told the same story, but at a different place, and with a stranger who outright paid for the food.

I know, there’s a lot of privileged real estate between freed slaves on the run in the desert and American teenagers trying to buy junk food with $20 bills. But why blame the teenagers for that? They are where they are. Also, privilege is relative; getting turned away by an adult when you’re trying to buy food for yourself as a minor is an acute experience of economic and social distress. Materially well-off though they may be, God knows American teenagers don’t have a lot of power or agency over the adult environments they inhabit.

Your next interaction with a teenager may be, for you as well as for them, manna from heaven.

Urgency And Context

If you are trying to do meaningful work, you will find that there is always an urgent task needing completed. A grant application needs submitting, a proposal needs writing, a meeting needs scheduling. Even otherwise leisurely pursuits, like reading, become critical.

This is what people call “the tyranny of the urgent.”

The problem with the tyranny of the urgent, of course, is that it shrinks our view of what we’re doing only to what is directly in front of us, which both diminishes our impact and burns us out. What’s more, you’re probably facing multiple urgencies at once: work, school, family, the citizenry. And there isn’t an easy fix; the things in the window really are urgent.

Context helps, though, chronologically and situationally. The context questions are: how is this urgent thing related to the things that came before it and that will follow it? And how is it related to the urgent things in adjacent areas of my life? The answer might prompt us to take a deep breath and focus instead on one of those adjacent urgencies for a minute. It might prompt us to drop one of them.

Busy-ness is not totally a choice, but we can make choices within it.

Harm

“The night is dark and full of terrors.”

There is plenty to fear in the day as in the night. For people trying to do meaningful work, to combat the evils of the world and score points for kindness and compassion, the limitations of our understanding and the complexities of our motivations are persistent fears that can keep us from making an impact.

We are wise to think critically before we act, especially before we act on behalf of others. The “iron rule” of community organizing–never do for others what they can do for themselves–is a concrete standard we can apply to whatever help we are considering, but it need not prevent us from doing good. Fear of causing harm when we seek to help is instructive, but not if it freezes us.

We are not as good as we hope. But neither are we as bad as we fear.

Trust Your Decisions

“Being unequivocal is easier.”

Seth Godin

This fall feels very different from last fall, which was unlike any fall any of us had ever experienced. The constraints and collateral damage of last year’s conditions were terrible, yet one thing I now appreciate about them was that they were clear and non-negotiable. We simply could not gather in person. We had to up our remote game, and we did.

Things aren’t so unequivocal now. Now we’re making choices from among options, and that feels a lot more fraught. Choices have to be carefully considered, then clearly explained, and then defended with conviction–until circumstances change and new choices are called for. It’s exhausting.

But I wonder what living and leading like this is teaching us about what we’re really capable of. I hope we’re learning that we can trust ourselves and the people we work and worship with to make good decisions. I hope so. If we don’t trust our own decision making we’re stuck.

We vs. They

There is a huge difference between “we” and “they” when it comes to collaborating and leading. If I get to be part of the staff or the committee or the team, I must identify with the work it produces. That means all the work, not only the outcomes I agree with and advocate for.

If an action is under consideration that I oppose, it’s on me to state my opposition and use whatever influence I have to amend it. In the end I have to identify with the action, even though it doesn’t go my way. When I’m asked “Who did this?” I can only answer “We did.”

“They did” is not an option for integral leadership.

Know

We’re going back in person for youth ministry programs this morning for the first time since March 2020. It’s two years now since we hosted a kick off Sunday in our church building. I know less and have less informed expectations about who will be there and how it will feel than I ever have had, perhaps in my entire ministry, including a year ago when we launched what we knew would be a full year of entirely online ministry. I just don’t know.

This experience of not knowing is an important part of what being a person of faith has always been about, especially during times of tumult and change. My entire vocation has been characterized by the repetition of a mantra about the constancy of change, but that mantra had some things wrong. It overlooked events and seasons that accelerate change. I feel like the last year and a half have poured gasoline on a change fire. None of us has a clear view of what’s happening, and there is constant temptation to either hide behind that uncertainty to stay put or to declare over-confidently what needs to be done, and now.

This is the mode of existence the church was born into and the mode that has stimulated its greatest faith. in this mode we are forced to rely on the promise of God’s presence with us, God’s constancy, faithfulness, and purpose for all creation. We don’t know what will happen next—or really what’s happening now—but we don’t know nothing. The things God’s people really need to know we know.

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

We know.

The Night Before

On the evening of September 10th, 2001, I gathered with some seminary classmates in the basement of our dorm to watch two things on television: The Weakest Link and Monday Night Football.

Our classmate Matt was on The Weakest Link. Sometime in the middle of our summer session he had flown to Los Angeles for the taping, and the only thing he could tell us about it when he came back was the date it would air. We’d been looking forward to it for weeks. Matt wasn’t there when it aired, though. He’d gone home to Michigan for the week-long break between the summer session and the start of the fall term.

He got in some zingers on the famously abusive English host. Reading bits of his bio off a cue card she noted that he had met Margaret Thatcher. “How was that?” she asked, but then continued before he could answer: “for her?” The studio audience “Ooh’d” in anticipation of his reply, which was swift and decisive: “Let’s just say she’s the smartest British woman I’ve ever met.” Point Matt. The audience erupted.

Matt didn’t win. A Rabbi from Denver won.

Monday Night Football was the Broncos vs. The Giants, which was why I watched. I don’t remember who won, but I vividly remember that Broncos’ Wide Receiver Ed McCaffrey had his leg broken on a hit over the middle.

I would probably retain some memory of these events had they happened on any other date, but I certainly would not remember the actual date of their occurrence. It’s a weird feature of memory that it not only retains the details of major emotional events but also the details of what came right before.

Interlude

I left the apartment in time to drop Laura at school and then either double back to the Brown Line stop closer to our apartment or walk the extra block further down the line to Western stop. For over 30 minutes on two trains, then, I would listen to music or podcasts, text a friend. I’d spend “business hours” alternating between meetings and focused work on tasks, answering emails and socializing–each mode distinguished by corresponding physical cues: the colleagues seated on my left and right, the closed office door, the easy lean on a cubicle divider.

I’d leave there in time to ride those trains back to the school for pickup. After a brief interlude at home, I’d make sure dinner was prepared and then get Laura to cheer practice, then go do work or read at Starbucks til she finished. We’d get home after 9:00, then start getting ready to do it all over again the next day.

I appreciate what it’s going to take to go back to that. Long months now of doing a lot but in the same space and posture has trained the get-up-and-go out of me. I don’t check my watch so often anymore. As desperate as we all are to emerge from this long, miserable interlude, it’s probably time to start accounting for what we’ll need to exit it well.

Two Masters

In the same way that an institution attracted to a leader with a crowd is prone to overestimate it’s capacity to control that leader, a leader with a crowd overestimates their ability to control it, too.

We should ask: who or what does this crowd or this leader that we are so drawn to ultimately serve?

Telephone

I’ve had three good phone calls this week–informative, illuminating, entertaining, even difficult phone calls. They have been the best discretionary uses of my time since Sunday.

For my money, the phone is the most important modern tool for human-to-human communication we have. The subsequent inventions of email, text, and video chat have not improved on it.

Fight me about it.