Friday, November 28, 2008

We've Been Tagged

Among the many examples of my childhood naivete stands the first time I encountered the game "Marco Polo." I was swimming in a community pool and kept hearing kids gleefully shouting out what sounded suspiciously like my last name. Other kids seemed to be holding their eyes shut as they splashed around, yelling something like "Pow-Oh!" Several minutes passed before I was able to decipher that they weren't talking about me.

My eight-year-old daughter enjoys this recollection very much. The other day she and I were playing the game in a giant field near the woods. When it was my turn to yell "Marco" with my eyes tightly shut, I stumbled around for at least 20 minutes trying to tag her. Since I refused to cheat, I had no chance at all. Speed and savvy were on her side, as I continued to offer a version of my last name into the air.

There are times when God seems to whisper our name, subtly striving to gain our attention. Sometimes our eyes are open but focused on the concerns of the day and our ambitions, and we do not hear his voice.

Other times our eyes are shut and we are offering our own name up to God, seeking his listening disposition. At times it feels our petitions merge with the whistling of the wind, and we remain in perceived darkness as we stumble around, hoping to tag the divine with our pleas.

The truth is, we've already been tagged. The grace that permeates our games, our work, our relationships, is as much a precursor to our awareness of God as the name that was on his lips long before those some lips breathed life into the one who received the name. If we continue to listen, and continue to call out, we receive deepening confirmation that God not only knows our name but knows what we need before we know it.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Prayer is not a matter of pouring out the human heart once and for all in need or joy, but of an unbroken, constant learning, accepting, and impressing upon the mind of God’s will in Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spiritual Formation, Leadership and the Arts

My life as a writer at times is a journey of clarifying moments, threads coming together and epiphanies trickling forth in the midst of events, relationships and worthwhile work. During the past several days I have tasted deeper confirmation that my key passions have centered around three spheres that, in my opinion, intersect in many ways: Spiritual Formation, Leadership and the Arts.

Spiritual Formation

For the past decade I have been drawn to the deep, spiritual thinkers from across the ages and their hunger to become more like God in thought, word and deed. I am intrigued by the intention of tapping into that “hidden life” of the spirit while simultaneously tackling whatever day to day tasks or challenges must be attended to.

The great Christian mystics and devotionalists have equipped me with a foundation for my own journey with Christ. Augustine and his assertion that “our hearts cannot rest until they rest in God,” speaks to the ubiquitous discontent of this age. St. John of the Cross, describing the “dark night of the soul” in which I have frequently found myself, reframed this experience as an opportunity for “sheer grace.” Catherine of Genoa exclaimed, “It is as if I have given the keys of my house to Love with permission to do all that is necessary.” Methodism founder John Wesley viewed prayer in particular as the “spiritual breathing” that sustains our life in Christ. There are countless other voices I am not listing here, an abundance of volumes readily available for consumption.

From the 20th Century, I am blown away by Thomas Kelly, who reflected that the urge to pray sometimes “rolls through us like a mighty tide…when the inner life becomes complete and we are joyfully prayed through, by a seeking Life that flows through us into the world of men.” Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eventually martyred by the Nazis, said that participation in the Lord’s Supper is “the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship,” where “the community has reached its goal.” Contemporary spiritual formation giants such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have taught me much about simplicity and discipleship..

I also appreciate—as I have cited in this blog on occasions—the contributions of thinkers from other religions or those who do not necessarily subscribe to a particular religion. The late mythologist Joseph Campbell’s “Journey of the Hero” motif and other observations have helped me to increase my wonder at the reach of God into all cultures, and the similar yearnings of the human soul. The writings of Ghandi have shown me examples of a life as close to the teachings and practices of Christ as you will find in the last century. Recent contributors such as Elizabeth Gilbert (who sports an amazing hunger for God) and Eckhart Tolle (calling for us to seize the present moment in its power and possibilities), controversial or labeled as they might be, nevertheless stretch our minds and have helped me to look at my faith with fresh eyes. I find this faith completed in Christ, but these luminaries help me accept that there is far more to God than I can categorize or classify—which only serves to amplify this same faith.


Great leaders from all eras in all disciplines inspire me. Jesus modeled for the ages an approach to developing and equipping a small group of emerging leaders that is applicable to any industry or effort. John Wesley’s direction for the Methodist movement gave it shape, discipline and depth and unleashed a spiritual awakening in both England and America. Lincoln was a shining example of how to stand firm for something much greater than one’s own political fortunes. Gandhi again, along with Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrated the power of non-violence (drawing from the teachings of Jesus) to elicit powerful change in two very different societies.

Contemporary thinkers such as Peter Drucker (a guru on management in particular), Jack Welch and Warren Bennis have shaped my thinking during the past several years as I have served as a pastor, executive coach, speaker and trainer. I have especially been impacted by The Gallup Organization’s work on coaching and engagement, and firmly believe that the process of individuals learning and applying their strengths has huge ramifications on both performance and leadership. Leadership as an art has evolved from enforcing hierarchical demands to becoming partners in performance with those who serve on the leader’s team, equipping and coaching them to leverage those strengths toward accomplishing shared goals. Peter Block’s works have taught me much about the power of leaders asking the right questions to energize and build community.

There is a hunger these days, in business, government and non-profits of all sorts, for someone, anyone, to lead. Those desiring to pursue motives larger than self-interest or self-preservation, striving to build consensus among disparate groups for the sake of greater goals, will rise to the surface in this fragile age.

The Arts

The creative spirit has meant a great deal to me throughout my life. As a youth I was deeply moved by films such as The Graduate, albums such as The Beatles’ Abby Road, and books such as Catcher in the Rye. I began writing novels around the age of 11, cranking out 15 of them before I was 17, and then produced a huge outpouring of song lyrics in my mid-to-late teens. I have traced the stories behind my creative writing in a spiritual memoir called Chased by the Wind, noticing that “prevenient grace” spoken of by Wesley, seeing through hindsight the hand of God at work in my life long before I joined in the labor.

I am moved by a powerful film, play, or piece of music in extraordinary ways, making it impossible for me to allow artificial silos between the arts and work, arts and faith, arts and politics, arts and relationships. The arts scream the truth to us about the human condition, and God is the source of all truth whatever its packaging. I am in a season of life where I am writing novels once again, seeking to tap into that truth while telling stories about characters who will hopefully touch readers in a manner that both entertains them and drives them to reflection.

We cast aside the relevance and practicality of the arts to our peril. To marginalize their influence is to segment a key aspect of our hearts and minds apart from the experience of being fully alive. There is another hunger in this present age, and that is for meaningful experiences and purposes, for sustainable inspiration amid the tyranny of many urgencies. The arts provide nourishing food that can help to satisfy this aching and deepen our resolve.

Synergy Among the Three

These three spheres interact and play off of each other like a great jazz outfit. Those seeking to constantly develop their spiritual dimensions are naturally more effective in leading others. They have learned to crucify the ego, desiring more the success of others and the group than their own accolades. Similarly, they are more receptive to those divine tributaries that flow forth from the river of the arts, paying attention to the nuances of truth found in creative human expressions.

In like manner, leaders who intentionally develop their spiritual core are bound to build a stronger ethical and moral foundation that makes not just good human sense but good business sense. Those leaders who give themselves permission to be influenced by artistic offerings become more complete individuals and managers, more apt in inspiration and seizing metaphors to help others commit to a goal and refine their abilities.

Artists who are receptive to spiritual growth find a deeper richness to the art they produce. The novel bears truer to the human dilemma, the crescendo of the music that much more inspiring, the three act play a window for the observer to peer into their own soul. They become thought leaders among their peers and among the masses, helping cultivate more critical thinking that is so desperately needed in a world of multi-tasking and distractions.

My personal challenge is to continue to pay attention to the details and seams of these three amazing spheres, growing more intentional across time to how they intersect, inform and strengthen one another. I apply all three to my executive coaching, writing and speaking, using the power of words to equip and inspire, and these efforts often feel more like play than work.

The wonderful bonus in this unfolding vocational journey is how much I receive in the process of seeking to share what makes me tick. I pray to dance even more to the rhythm of what Campbell called “the music of the spheres.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Going Deeper

"Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people."

Richard Foster wrote these words exactly 30 years ago as the opening to the first chapter of his modern classic on spiritual formation, Celebration of Discipline. What's unnerving is how much more superficial western culture has become in the three decades since Foster accurately (in my opinion) captured the essence of the delta between simply existing and living with purpose.

Thirty years ago, the microwave was just getting warmed up; instant food was not yet an everyday luxury. The Internet was only available to a scholarly few; instant research, messaging and knowledge were not yet an everyday practice or assumption. The technology that has empowered a culture of multi-taskers, doing many things but not necessarily engaging critical thinking in order to do meaningful things, was in its embryonic stages. In short, the "desperate need" expressed by Foster 30 years ago has amplified in its desperation.

I'm re-reading Foster's book this week, and found his first several chapters to be an enriching preparation for an hour-long walk, sans iPod, I took around my surrounding neighborhoods this morning in the chilly air. The trees have shed much of their beauty, yet were still glorious. The hills and smallish mountains were picturesque against the sunshine. My pace was brisk, but my heart and mind were set on silent conversation with God. I was going deeper, trying to rage against the curse of this age that is my curse as much as anyone else's, the temptation for shallow living amid the lust for immediate gratification.

As my walk neared its conclusion I had an insight that most of my brokenness centers around two pervasive needs that are particular to me but probably resonate with many: a lifelong sense of not fully measuring up, and a perception of not being able to fulfill my creative potential. The former is bound in the emotional scar tissue of memories from long ago, of being awkward in appearance and stuttering in speech. The latter echoes with the words of my 10th grade English teacher from 25 years ago, who encouraged me to keep writing books and warned me of "how fast the years go by."

I stepped on some leaves. I tugged on the hat that was covering my ears from the cold. And I invited Christ to once again touch his own (now glorified) scars upon these two stubborn scar patterns that have haunted my heart and mind, that have led me to elicit just enough distraction and relief towards whatever disappointment or uncertainty I've stubbornly refused to hand over to the love of Christ.

When I arrived home, I felt like I had waded further into the waters of grace. I'm grateful to Foster and my other teachers and mentors, the ones I have encountered both in books or in person, for the ongoing reminder that whatever the distractions of any age might be, God remains relevant, powerful and eager to finish his deep work inside each of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Steinbeck and Christian Perfection

If you can get through it, John Steinbeck's East of Eden is a massive dive into the human condition and the need for grace amid our seemingly unlimited appetite for depravity. His story of Aaron and Caleb Trask and the characters they encounter is so profound that one of my homiletics professors in seminary, a giant man by the name of Ellsworth Kalas, assigned it as required reading as preparation for our work in the pulpit.

There's a powerful exchange deep in the heart of the book in which Adam Trask, the brothers' father, is reflecting on the passage in Gen. 4:7, where the Lord God is counseling Cain--moments away from slaying his brother--on his jealousy. The elder Trask has come across a different translation on the verse commonly expressed as, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

The different take on the scripture expressed by Steinbeck's character, based on a particular exegesis of the word "timshel" in the original Hebrew language, is you may master it. (Steinbeck, writing in the era of the King James Version's enduring popularity, actually uses the phrase 'thou mayest.") This implies a stronger sense of power made available to human beings when compared with the admonition, "you must." Human beings, Adam Trask asserts, have free will in their choice to be liberated from brokenness and separation from God and one another.

This changes everything, the father declares to his son Cal, and gives a new wellspring of hope to those conscientious enough to feel the weight of their disconnect. Struggle as we might against that sin nature, we can be confident that, if we persevere, we will have the shattered image of God within us restored once again.

I'll leave it to biblical scholars to debate the translation of Gen. 4:7 and Steinbeck's hermeneutical credentials. But one particular figure in Christianity, Methodism founder John Wesley, also had a very positive bent toward the ability of people to be fully transformed and no longer encumbered by sin. Wesley, author of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, was a strong proponent of "entire sanctification," the God-initiated, grace-driven process whereby a person becomes fully free of what Wesley called the "body of sin."

This was the highest level of the Holy Spirit's work in a person's life, according to Wesley. The bottom rung of activity centered around what he called "prevenient grace," unmerited favor that is at work before a person even responds to God, the "wooing" of the Spirit in desiring a relationship. As the heart's soil becomes more fully cultivated by this grace, a deeper measure of conviction flows forth known as "justifying grace." This is the window of time where a person becomes convicted of their brokenness, and makes a decision that Christians in western culture typically refer to as "born again" or "gettin' saved." They surrender to the love of Christ and enter into a relationship, becoming cleansed of the guilt of sin as well as its nefarious power.

Wesley noted that a person might still stumble into sin from time to time after this point, but that such backsliding is to be the exception rather than the norm. The journey, he said, is now one of going deeper into the things of God, more fully allowing grace to "sanctify" thought patterns, behaviors, habits, motives and the like, the fruit of the Holy Spirit as described in Gal. 5:22 blooming more and more as the character of Jesus Christ gradually interwines with the strengths, gifts and unique contributions of the individual.

In today's churches and popular Christian discourse it is rare to hear of Wesley's emphasis on entire sanctification, as my friend Andy Miller of Providence Publishing Corp. recently noted in a conversation with me. I think he is right. We have a plethora of wonderful study materials, programs, books and other endeavors that do tremendous good in the life of congregations and in the service to the poor and hurting. There are great sermons being preached every Sunday in pulpits across the west that help people change for the better.

But I wonder if we are ever to reach our full potential as Christ-followers if we do not have a mindset that we can not only do great things because of our faith, but that we can become completely Christ-like. As Paul wrote in Col. 1:28, his aim was to "present everyone perfect in Christ." As the disciple John wrote in John 14, those who receive and believe in Christ are given power to become children of God.

I find that I need to re-read Wesley on a frequent basis to be reminded of the core of what my denomination in which I am ordained, United Methodism, was originally all about. The Methodist revival was a spiritual, social and economic earthquake for 18th century England. It stoked the fires of the "Second Great Awakening" when it spread to America. It made the church relevant to contemporary needs.

Furthermore, in moments when I recognize the stark reality that "sin crouches at my own door" or despair over poor choices I have made, the promise of "you may" gives me hope and healing and helps me to continue on the journey toward the promise of perfection in Christ.

Which is the ultimate authenticity I am after.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Walt Disney and the Cooking Cycle

I grew up in Central Florida amid the shadow of Walt Disney World, that sprawling multi-park fantasyland where the fries aren't cheap but the good memories linger for a lifetime. For a short season of my post-college life I even wore the mouse badge, serving as a behind-the-scenes-tech-guy at the "movie studios" where NBC once briefly filmed a revived Let's Make a Deal broadcast.

A T-Mobile colleague recently reminded a few of us of one of the key strategies behind Disney's incomparable success. Disney--who died before the Florida theme park that bears his name even came close to opening its doors--created three separate groups of advisers who helped him take ideas from vague concepts to money-making fruition. The groups included Dreamers, Realists and Critics.

The job of the Dreamers was to cook the ideas, piling in as many ingredients as possible, stirring up the mix and seeing what emerged from the ovens of incubation. The Realists, then, were assigned to operationalize the ideas, to develop the "how" for implementing the "what" spun together by the Dreamers.

Of course, the process would not be complete with out the perilous task of the Critics, who served in an entirely different kitchen called the "hot box," where the ideas often were cooked at such extreme temperatures that some ingredients could not survive and the recipe often changed taste, scent and appearance. They were assigned to punch holes in the concepts, to figure out what would not work, to burn off the dross and leave the best for what would inevitably be a quality serving of family entertainment. By the time an idea had passed through Disney's process twice, you knew it was bound to be a hit.

Present-day companies, institutions, denominations, schools and non-profits of every angle could learn much from Disney's Dreamer-Realist-Critic cycle. Many entities get stuck in one of the three phases, rather than having the discipline to embrace all three. Too many stay grounded in Dreamer mode, uncertain how to give hands and feet and funding to their ideas. Some go through the Realist cycle and believe the job is finished, only to see the product or company flounder after bursting through the gates. And yet some organizations major too fully in the Critic perspective, not giving ideas a chance to cook. They fall into the trap of what Peter Block warns about in his book The Answer To How Is Yes, reacting all too quickly with reasons for how and why something will not work.

People can be microcosms of the organizations and companies they represent or keep afloat through membership or consumption. As individuals, we often struggle to balance the three Disney phases. Challenging economic times like these we face at the moment leave our souls parched in Critic Land, while seasons of abundance lead to the sloppiness that undermines both the Realist and Critic pieces. Pushing ourselves too hard with endless options and little fear of the long-term implications of stress, we take Dreamer mode for granted and assume that when we finally grow up we can be young again.

And so, the Disney challenge: Meditate on a creative idea or heartfelt aspiration that has been gnawing at you for some time. Dare to bring it into the kitchen and let it marinate for a while before submitting it to some heat. Be willing to persevere as you see what it might become, and have the courage from the start to be prepared to toss most of it into the garbage can under the sink and leave only what is the very best on your plate.

A well-baked, satisfying idea that you had the tenacity to put through the test could very well taste like the granting of a wish once placed upon a star. The heart must first dare to desire.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

One-Year Anniversary in Nashville

A year ago this coming week I hopped on a plane in Florida to fly into Nashville, with enough luggage for three days, in order to start my new leadership position with T-Mobile USA. I stayed in a very nice hotel suite in the Cool Springs area of Franklin, Tenn., on the company's dime, and spent what little free time I had in the chilly, drizzling and often dark weather looking for a place to rent. I drank out of a fire hose at work for three days, signed a lease for a little 3/2 house, and flew back to Florida that Wednesday night in time for a Thanksgiving weekend with my family before hopping in my car the following Sunday and driving back to Tennessee with enough stuff to last me a week at a time.

I am amazed that a year has passed since this odyssey began, this massive life and job change that was inspired in part by months of studying Joseph Campbell's "Journey of the Hero' motif. The hero responds to the call to adventure. The hero finds that, when he takes the risk out of his comfort zone, mentors and tools and supernatural aid shows up to assist him. The hero encounters trials and tribulations, but is equipped to endure if he keeps his eyes on the prize.

In the aftermath of that first day of work at T-Mobile, driving in the dark and drizzle down to my hotel, I felt more like a zero than a hero.

"I think I've made a mistake," I said to my wife Jenna, who would remain in Florida with my kids until Christmas, on my cell phone as I drove on a crowded Interstate 65. "I think I've made a mistake," I said to my now-former boss Mary, with whom I'd had a wonderful two years of experiences, on the next call. Both were empathetic, and both encouraged me to hang in there and give Day Two a try.

Change is always difficult, especially on the magnitude I was experiencing--even when it is change for the better, as the past year has clearly demonstrated. Certainly being without my family for so long was emotionally draining, and created the perception that the choice wasn't worth it. The sun going away by 5 p.m. and the constant cold made me realize just how much I was used to Florida's almost year-round paradise. And you don't grasp how much you value the close proximity of family and friends until you put several hundred miles of real estate in between you and them.

The hardest stretch of time was the first 12 days after Thanksgiving weekend, when I was staying in a little efficiency motel on my dime sans amenities, akin to a college dorm without any friends down the hall. I microwaved frozen dinners in the little kitchen that was part of the single room, watched way too much TV and spent the evenings on the laptop trying to figure out my job. I spoke to my wife and kids every night, wondering why in the hell I was so far away from them. When I flew home for a precious three-day weekend it was amazing to hold them all in my arms. I wondered how soldiers did it, making sacrifices so much greater than mine, given the anguish the entire experience was causing my heart and mind.

After enjoying the sun and warmth and getting to take the family to see Santa Claus, I flew out again for what would be a 10-day-time-zone-world-tour, starting off with a visit to Boise, Idaho, of all places, for work. I ate some great steak there while observing a three-day leadership workshop with a few of my colleagues who were based in the Northwest, and it was a nice break from my little dungeon of a motel room. After a few days back in Nashville I was off to Kansas City for another training, another excellent diversion, before gratefully boarding a plane to Orlando for a permanent reunion with my family just in time for Christmas. There was little time to celebrate as we packed up our entire Florida house in less than 24 hours and began a caravan that would lead us back to Franklin and our little rental house with the naked little Christmas tree I had purchased before I left.

Even though our family was re-united, the next several months did not erase many doubts about whether embarking on this "hero's journey" was the right destiny. It stayed cold and on the dark side well into the beginning of spring. We missed friends and our parents terribly. The rental house had its issues. The sense of being transient, and trying to find our way in the midst of the "affluenza" that infected our county of choice as wonderful a place as it was...all of it had us going back and forth, weighing the pros and cons. I tried my best to pour myself into work, wondering when we would feel settled enough so I could begin networking and establishing deeper friendships, things that make for a more-rounded quality of life and vocation.

Gradually, the pieces of our new life began to come together. The sun did come out tomorrow. We settled in at a downtown church with an awesome Sunday school group of fellow parents of young children. As the summer heat kicked in we spent quality chunks of time at our local rec center pool, and I recaptured my Florida tan. We finally felt brave enough to go on a serious house-hunt, and bought a home we love back in August with a backyard large enough for a soccer field and lots of surrounding trees. Today I am networking and building vital friendships and Jenna is thriving in graduate school. We have some wonderful neighbors. This is our home.

We still miss the parents and some of our close friends in Florida an awful lot. We haven't figured out how to fix that problem. I miss many of my former colleagues at Health First Inc. in Melbourne, Fla.

But there are many blessings abounding here, and I now cannot imagine living anywhere else. The hills and mountains, the changing of the leaves, the kindness of the people, the diversity of the economy, the publishing industry, the arts, the ubiquity of Vanderbilt University, the nerve center of United Methodism--it's all great stuff to be around, and a strong fit for us as a family and as career people. The kids have adjusted well. Somehow, we are Middle Tennesseans.

Campbell has been proven right again. When you answer the call to adventure, the doors of opportunity and assistance do spring open. Sometimes, because the trials and tribulations also come along for the ride, the doors seem to lead into dark, murky hallways. You're not sure if you can find your way toward some light.

But the bright seasons arrive for those who stay on the journey and mitigate ambiguity, who find just enough slivers of faith to push against the uncertainty. I can look back at my life and see multiple calls to adventure that I have pursued. Each began with a leap of faith followed by stutter-steps of doubt, but eventually the light bathed the choice and I couldn't have imagined not responding to the call.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Telling Stories vs. Writing Books

As I've blogged about before, I'm immersed in developing something I have not attempted in many years: a work of fiction. I'm aspiring for it to be "literature," but that sounds presumptuous to say so I've told just a few friends and colleagues that I am writing a novel. Actually, since I mention it on my Web site, I guess I've told everyone who drops by.

What has been fun about the journey so far is the pre-writing process. It all began with some quality time in a coffee shop several months ago, when the seed of an idea was planted and slowly began to germinate. It was an impression, an ache, a desire to explore a specific theme. I did not go back and cultivate the soil for quite some time, but when I did things began to bloom. Themes from ancient myths I have explored and key books, films and works of art I have enjoyed came to mind as characters took shape in my head.

As I continue to flesh out the mini-biographies of these characters--where they live, what they do for hobbies, what events have shaped them, what they long for--I find that I'm weaving in (not to quote Maria from The Sound of Music) more than a few of my favorite things. Ideas that have inspired me intrigue one or more of my characters. Struggles I have faced come alive, in some small aspect at least, in the thoughts and actions of these persons who have become real to me despite their status as Microsoft Word text.

As I have detailed the characters, I also have chronicled a likely flow of action, with numerous bullet points describing key events that will take place across a three-part structure.

My hope is that the more I know these characters and the potential flow of action, the more I will find myself simply telling a story rather than "writing a book." The former feels much more effortless and natural, and likely more enjoyable. Writing a book resonates with 'work," telling stories is about streams flowing passionately from the heart that might satisfy another's inner thirst.

I think this distinction is a mental key for me as I slowly gear myself up to crank out those opening chapters. I'm simply talking about people I know rather than trying to produce a product that I hope can be marketed to the masses. By keeping it simple I hope to reach some depths, digging with delight into the soil where the seed first came to life.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Antonioni and Reality

There's a cool Antonioni film called Blow Up that released during the mid-1960s and explores how we understand and grasp reality. I saw it in a class I took in college 20 years ago. The story takes place in Britain and concerns a young photographer who may or may not have accidentally taken a photo bearing evidence of a murder. He continues to enlarge (or blow up) the developed film, seeking to clarify what he sees or doesn't see (as in, a dead body).

My favorite scene is the ending, where the protagonist is watching a couple of mimes "play tennis," sans rackets or tennis balls. At one point the imaginary ball is knocked away from the court, and the mimes gesture passionately for the photographer to go retrieve it. He hesitates at first, for logically he knows there is no ball...but then, unable to withstand the pressure and expectations of the mimes he runs off, reaches into thin air, and throws the ball back. The match continues, the photographer watches.

Sometimes I wonder if we get caught up in tossing tennis balls that aren't really there, in the midst of contests that don't really exist. It is so easy to succumb to reaching for the guise in order to please others and become part of the match, the competition for acceptance. We allow reality to become distorted in order to fulfill what we believe are the proper expectations set by those who supposedly can justify us as competent, worthy, leader-like.

No matter how we try to blow up the photograph, embellish it, airbrush it, rotate it on its head, add clip art to it, etc., we are who we are: authentic beings uniquely wired and equipped to make a contribution.

I once wrote a song that contained the lyric, "It's so hard to see the truth/When all we do is look for proof." The truth is pouring out of our hearts, if we will allow ourselves to feel and be rather than trying to do in order to become what we think others want us to be. That's keeping it real.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama, Christianity and Compassion

The weeks leading up to the presidential election, and the response to President-elect Obama's victory, were particularly interesting to me in observing how people I know of the Christian faith were leaning.

During the past few general elections, and during the past couple of decades in general, I seemed to run into few churchgoers who supported the Democratic nominee or the Democratic Party itself. But this time around there were plenty. The whole notion that the Republican Party and Christian believers were hopelessly intertwined has finally dissipated and--whether one is pleased with the election results or not--that is a good thing because the life and message of Jesus were and are too perfect to ever be fully identified with a party platform or a piece of legislation.

There's no need for me to attempt to articulate the various root causes for Obama's election, as plenty of political writers, pundits and others have given us more than our fill. I am intrigued by the shifting nature of organized Christianity, however, as the rising generations of those who profess the faith get involved in churches and communities and become active in the political process.

Younger believers are less beholden to particular denominations, church hierarchy and institutions in general, embracing more raw, organic faith that attempts to make a pragmatic difference. They are about community rather than division, and I have observed these attributes at play not just in how they function at the workplace (I'm immersed in Gen X and Y at T-Mobile USA) but in how they have engaged the political process.

Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian and the guy viewed as a key champion of what has been called the "emerging" or "emergent" church movement, offers this in his book A Generous Orthodoxy:

"As we've seen, much of the polarization between liberals and conservatives has come from comparing 'our' best with 'their' worst ('our' worst often accurately critiqued by 'them' and 'their' worst by 'us'). But neither of us understood 'their' best very well, and thus both we and they violated Jesus' dictum about not judging."

The truth is, no political party has a lock on WWJD. Observe the life and ministry of Jesus as told in the scriptures, and you see a counter-cultural outpouring of compassion teeming with the spiritual power to transform a life. He didn't let wedge issues get in the way of seeking to relate to people and certainly didn't try to merge ecclesiastical power with political power. He came, he saw, he loved, he died, he rose--and thus gives this spiritual power to all open to receiving him, making them available to serve others under any banner or vocation.

It's time for people of faith--any faith, not just Christianity--of any particular political persuasions, to start trusting in the positive intent of their brothers and sisters. And those who would look at Obama, a professing Christian, and doubt the veracity of his faith because of wedge issues, certain political views or even his late father's religious heritage, would be better-served shifting that energy into figuring out how to make a compassionate difference in a real person's life right now. That's WWJD for you.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Best You Can Deliver

I'm looking forward to January's release of the latest book on strengths from The Gallup Organization, titled Strengths Based Leadership.

Gallup developed the impactful StrengthsFinder tool a number of years ago after decades of research into why people and companies are successful, and books such as Now, Discover Your Strengths and StrengthsFinder 2.0 have unpacked some key strategies on how to develop talents into strengths while honing skills and applying insights from various experiences. Marcus Buckingham, a Gallup alum who co-authored Now, Discover, has continued to contribute to the strengths revolution with books such as Go Put Your Strengths to Work.

For the past three years, as a strengths coach certified by Gallup, I have sought to apply the tools and insights from the StrengthsFinder material with coaching clients I have served. But as I connect with leaders at all levels, I continue to be surprised by how little investment some still place into truly identifying and leveraging their strengths.

Too often individuals just sort of "fall into" careers and long to be doing something else because they have strayed from their key spheres of talent and passion. I not only see this in the business world, but in church ministries as well where people volunteer (or are volun-told) to take on a particular task that is painfully outside of what Scripture calls their spiritual gifts.

Circumstances do call for us to sometimes tackle projects, solve problems or invest in relationships that stretch us beyond our focal points of talent. However, intentional living and working can make these the exception rather than the rule; if we're always struggling to succeed, we are likely in the wrong fit. Even in the right job staying true to strengths can be swimming against the tide, for the intensity around productivity and immediate results that infects nearly all organizations today makes it very tempting to do what is expedient rather than what is best. Fear trumps focus.

I have found I can better navigate complexity and myriads of choices and demands by keeping things simple, attempting to look at all opportunities through the grid of my core strengths and determine how I can leverage them in order to meet any challenge. I've grown more savvy and content with what I can say yes to as well as opportunities I should not pursue.

To know and apply one's strengths is to not be all things to all people, but to offer the best things only you can deliver to those who need your unique contributions the most.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Feed Your Mind

It is apparent that one of my kids was hanging out in my home study sometime this week. All of the books on one of the shelves, once nicely aligned against the front edge, are uniformly shoved to the back of the wood. All the dust I was trying to hide has been exposed. I've seen this game before. And right now, I don't have the energy to realign them like a bunch of cans or boxes at the grocery store.

Most of these same books I've shoved back in a sense. I read them once, but their ideas, suggestions, insights have been relegated to the far back panels of my consciousness. Even beyond this shelf, I'm sure I've read thousands of books across my decades. Some of the content remains active in day-to-day operations, but much of it is a shapeless undercurrent of influence that has molded my thinking or behavior in some fashion but is hard to nail down as a root cause.

I'm shocked that so many people hardly read anything. When I offer a book suggestion to some people, you would think I was asking them to solve trigonometry problems while standing on their head on top of a moving StairMaster inside of a gym whose roof was just blown off by a tornado. They haven't yet discovered the pleasure of a good read, how it strengthens the mind. They shove books away rather than shoving them and their ideas into their awareness.

I think there is some sort of correlation between lack of reading and lack of critical thinking, which leads to a generic, reactionary sort of approach to career, relationships, key decisions. I listen to NPR interviews with people of different political persuasions, and I can tell which ones are readers and which are not. The ones who simply quote sound bites they've heard on the media or cliches they've garnered from their cousin could probably use a good 121 hours or so with James Joyce.

Good books are a gateway to thoughtfulness, and a key to discovering that sweet spot of vocation. I haven't heard him say much about it, but I would love to see President-elect Obama attack the literacy crisis that impacts so many children and adults in our country. Teach a person to read, and you feed his mind for a lifetime. And you probably give him a better chance of getting a better job.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Wanted: Leadership

The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama will be elected president on Tuesday. The jury is, of course, out as to how effectively he will govern. He is mighty in speech, but will he deliver in leadership? Can he live up to be the uniter he positions himself to be, who can tap into the strengths that unite us rather than exploiting the fears that divide us?

A dearth of leadership runs across the board. Politics. Business. Sports. Entertainment. There is a sometimes mumbling, sometimes piercing yearning across the generations, and it is a desperate cry for someone, anyone, to lead.

Mr. Obama, the hour appears set for you to step into this void. Many, including myself, are intrigued by you but are skeptical. Are you up for the challenge?

And Americans--are we up for the daily challenge of being leaders in whatever spheres, small or large, in which we find ourselves? In our homes, our neighborhoods, our places of work? Are we being the change we want to see in others more powerful and influential?

Because we can't fully implicate Obama, McCain, Bush, or anyone else for a lack of leadership until we have stared into the silence of our own failure to speak up. Until we have gazed at the disappointing eyes of those we have let down once again. Until we have taken an unpopular stand, sacrificed much for the sake of something greater than ourselves, loved our neighbor as our self.

In the end, those of us in a position of leadership spawn the communities, workplaces, houses of worship, families or countries that we deserve. We reap what we sow. I pray that we are scattering seeds of character that will blossom into a more compassionate, sustainable world that truly is change we can believe in.