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.

Be A Good Partisan

Partisanship isn’t the problem. Partisanship just means you have your side and I have mine. I’m not mad about the way that you identify with your side, though you’re welcome to join mine, because, of course, I think mine is better. But I won’t begrudge you your loyalty to your side. It’s probably healthier when a collective is divided into competing sides.

But there are better and worse ways to be a partisan, and the difference between being a good or bad partisan is more than manners–it’s consequential for the aims of your side. Bad partisans isolate themselves from their opponents and refuse to listen, much less negotiate. This necessarily diminishes the information bad partisans have to work with and leads to a cycle of short-sighted decision making.

Good partisans recognize when the other side is bringing something of value to the table. They are willing to converse in good faith, because they know the power of relationships outside their tribe.

Here’s the thing about this for leaders: it seems to me that most of the pressure we face to be a bad partisan comes from our own side. This past week I’ve been recollecting my brief time in Northern Ireland in the months following the Good Friday Agreement. The pressure each community’s leaders were under to fight for their own side was crushing, and leaders were under constant threat from their co-partisans should they get to cozy with the enemy. It was a serious impediment to peace.

I’m learning a lot these days from leaders who are speaking hard truths to their own side (which is not my side). Going forward, they’re the ones I want to imitate.

Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics (And Activating Lies And Enabling Lies)

Yesterday I wrote that love requires that we tell those we love when they’re being lied to. Minutes after posting, I read David French’s Sunday newsletter, which offered a very helpful delineation between the kinds of lies presently seizing our civitas, enabling lies and activating lies.

“The Democrat party systematically attacked the Constitution and our election system” is an activating lie, a made-up charge that someone has done something they haven’t done, a lie which, if believed, calls for a response.

But the activating lie sprouts from the soil of enabling lies. French:

Here’s an enabling lie: America will end if Trump loses. That was the essence of the Flight 93 essay in 2016. That was the core of Eric Metaxas’s argument in our debates this spring and fall.

Here’s another enabling lie: The fate of the church is at stake if Joe Biden wins.

And here’s yet another: The left hates you (this sentence sometimes concludes with the phrase “and wants you dead.”)

I’ll add my own, a meme shared on Facebook by a family member just weeks ago: a picture of Nancy Pelosi covered with the text “100% Pure Evil.”

And what did I do with that meme? I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders but said nothing to the poster. What’s the point? Agree to disagree and all the rest.

We can do more than nothing. We must do more than nothing. Sadly, leaving comments feels like next to nothing. So does pasting links to fact checks. Enabling lies don’t exist because otherwise clear-minded people have weighed the facts and made a mistaken determination. On the left and the right, enabling lies nest in hearts and minds that want them. We participate in our own deception.

Maybe curiosity needs to replace assertion in the fight against the kinds of enabling lies that produced the siege of the Capitol last week. I mean curiosity about the people in our lives who are open to them. We probably all know someone who believes “The left hates you,” so I wonder what might change if we started to inquire, one at a time, “I wonder why you think that?” It’s Pollyanish, I know. It won’t solve the problem by itself. But what we’re doing now sure isn’t working.