Category Archives: Movies and Television

Quick Review: Risen

I had no idea the movie Risen was being released, but saw it in the Philippines and the way movies are here – if you want to see a movie you better go because they don’t last long.  This movie was in the theater less than a week, but maybe it will come back closer to Easter. I’ll share some things I liked about it and some things I didn’t.

I liked the premise of the movie. Looking at Easter and the aftermath through the lens of an unbelieving, Gentile, Roman solider was really enjoyable to me.  The lead actor was great and this was the strength of the movie – looking at his experience trying to reconcile his background and what he was experiencing and seeing with his own eyes.  It brings a new dimension to thinking about the events after Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

There were several scenes I really found moving.  First, there was a scene where an old lady was being interrogated by the Roman soldier.  She spoke of Jesus in a way that was very moving, repeating “He loved me.”  I loved the way that the movie conveyed how the people around him were transformed through an intimate experience of being loved in a perfect way.  There was another scene towards the end of the movie where Jesus heals a leper, which similarly conveyed Jesus’ intimate life-changing love.  The movie has some fantastic scenes and the arc of the main character is very compelling and well done.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like.  The main flaw in the movie was that the disciples seemed to me to act almost giddy and goofy or even “high.”  I remember thinking that the only thing missing from the upper room when Thomas encounters Jesus for the first time was a Doritos bag and incense.  The disciples were portrayed as almost like a hippy love commune and I think they and Jesus himself lacked the appropriate gravitas that they must have had to have fruitful and powerful ministries.  Jesus and the disciples seemed like airheads and Jesus at times seems so disconnected and detached, but in a goofy way.  I never felt drawn to the Jesus figure in the movie.

But maybe it’s because I kept thinking it was the same guy who played the bossy former military juror in Runaway Jury.

Anyway – there were flaws in the movie, but I still loved the experience of watching the Easter and post-Resurrection experiences through the lens of the Roman soldier assigned to find Jesus’ body.  If you get a chance – I recommend it because there’s enough in there that is will be worthwhile.

The Right Stuff

Who are the right people to build around?

What potential leaders have “the right stuff” and what informs your assessment of what makes for “right stuff” in the first place?

The world I serve in has had a nice strategic sounding phrase that has succinctly defined much of the leadership selection mindset as well as some of the general ministry philosophy in the history of our ministry.  That phrase is “Move with the movers.”

Move with the movers. Influence the influencers. Win the winners. Align the aligners. Lead the leaders…and you get the picture.

I don’t think such a commitment to the movers and influencers is a bad thing because everyone needs Jesus and it is important to be strategic about mobilizing people with capacity to shape culture.  But doing college ministry (or any other kind) where you primarily relate to a certain class of people with certain capacities can impact whether or not we see the broader formational consequences of putting so much emphasis on who we see as the movers and shakers. Strategic thinking is important and well…strategic, but what happens when one day we wake up and realize that we’ve built our entire philosophy of leadership or ministry around who we see as the beautiful people?

I’ve done college ministry at a church, I’ve served at an Ivy League level university, and I’ve worked in organizational leadership capacities in different ways.  I know what it’s like to want to build Sunday morning or a weekly meeting or a conference around people who will draw people in, who will impress, and essentially who are….”cool.”  Conventional wisdom is to get the coolest, most popular, and most impressive people to draw in others  “strategically” all the while subconsciously communicating in some way that this is the picture of who we think we are or who what we want to be like.

Athletes? Fraternity men? Sorority women? Wealthy? Charismatic? Funny? Tall? Well Dressed? Powerful?  All can represent “Above” and tap into people’s subconscious desires to elevate their own sense of worth and significance through association.   Is it wrong to “target” or focus on such people?  Not necessarily. But how often do we even think about it? Has it ever crossed our minds that “coolness” is a power and status endorsed label for what’s desirable and ideal?  It comes back to the question of how do we assess who has the “right stuff” to build around and platform as representative of who you’re called to be as a community and what you’re called to as a community.

I liked this tongue in cheek thought from Pastor Jonathan Martin in his recently published book Prototype:

“I wish Jesus had read Jim Collins’s Good to Great so He could have gotten the right people on the bus and then the right people in the right seats on the bus. At the very least, He should have run the Myers-Briggs profile on them to ensure that everyone had the right gift mix and He wasn’t accidentally putting an ESTJ together with an INFP and causing a personality conflict.”

I have a strategic orientation. It’s one of my strengthfinders themes so I can get with the right people on the bus philosophy.  I still think it holds.  It may be more of a question of what kind of bus we’re all on so we understand who the right people really are.  Though the bus analogy may get old, think about this.  If all the “right people on the bus” look a certain way, are impressive in the same ways, or are at a certain “status” or “above” then one of the realities will be that in no time at all there’s going to be a lot of people who look at the bus and realize that there’s either no room on that bus for them or worse, believe that they aren’t enough in who they are to be on the bus in the first place.  And maybe the “right people in the right seats” is more a reflection of what’s most comfortable for leaders and those with power than a true reflection of who should be sitting where (Luke 12:12-14).

So winning winners and moving with movers ends up reproducing winners and movers who in turn move with more movers and win more winners.  Sounds strategic right?  What’s the problem?

Most of us aren’t winners.  Not that most people are losers.  But most of us aren’t winners in the sense that we can’t be the package of charisma, ideal physical presence, looks, and whatever other status builders exist today.  Sometimes it’s social limitations, sometimes it’s marginalization based on gender, sometimes it’s marginalization based on ethnicity, sometimes it’s financial, and sometimes it’s character or life capacity – frankly few people can consistently claim they aren’t a mess in one way or another.

Jonathan Martin finishes his “Good to Great” thought saying,

Yet is seems as if everywhere Jesus went, the same people show up: those who had nowhere else to go and nothing better to do. In the Gospels, Jesus is called to be the light of the world. Apparently, whores and thieves and the sick and demon-possessed are the moths He attracts.”

Prototype, page 69

Why did these people flock to Jesus? The Scriptures are clear that there wasn’t “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  The light of the world evoked this response from Simon Peter when asked if he would leave others after a hard teaching, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

They didn’t follow Jesus because he had “the right stuff” but because they saw the source of life, the power of God, and the fulfillment of Scripture clearly in Jesus and the community He was mobilizing and shaping.   When I think about the calling of the disciples I think of the great line from the movie Armaggedon when the trained and polished Astronaught played by William Fichtner sees Bruce Willis and his rag tag group of oil drillers and says condescendingly, “Talk about the wrong the stuff!”

I wonder how frequently we make “wrong stuff” assessments or the thoughts come across our minds.  I know I’ve been more than guilty over the course of my ministry years. My criteria, while strategic, has often primarily been about what it  takes to “grow” and I’ve been slow at points to realize that I’m skipping the questions about what it takes to “be” the type of place where people when asked if they would leave would say, “To whom shall we go?”

The thing about building things around “buzz” and entertainment or beautiful people or “coolness” is that it’s hard to sustain. Do our ministries reflect older celebrities or the many older women I see in this wonderful land of Orange County, California fighting what’s real and what’s authentic in favor of sustaining image and youth through botox and God knows what else in the effort of maintaining status as one of the “beautiful” people?  Some ministries and church services seem to be relying on “botox” metaphorically to keep drawing people and “growing” while failing to move deeper into what type of place and community reflects “the light of the world” and “the words of life.” That’s not a call towards just “right doctrine” though it helps to be theologically sound!  It’s a call to make sure that the words of Jesus and ministry of the Holy Spirit are concretely displayed in and through community.

It’s a “wrong stuff” judgment of condescension to believe that if you just focus on the cool and beautiful people then “everybody else” will just fall in line. It betrays the fundamental assumption, “Don’t you know that influence is all about power and status?” “Don’t you know that influence is earned through having superficial beauty and majesty to attract people to us?”

If you’ve read this and your thought at this point is, “Well then who am I supposed to have as my emcee at my weekly meeting or youth group?” or “Then how are we going to make our community the place to be?” then you haven’t connected with what I’m getting at.  Meetings need capable people to make them work and I’m a fan of gifted people serving out of their gifts and this is a way.  The question is about our assumptions about how we see power as a vehicle for achieving ministry results and the impact of that on who we reach and who we don’t reach with our message.  It affects who feels welcome and who feels unwelcome…or worse, invisible.  Power and status are only assets for the Kingdom through God’s sovereignty and when they are being used in “power-giving” types of ways. Yet we find a lot of ways to justify “strategic” ways to grow our ministries or even “brands” without taking hard and consistent inventory about what we are growing and who we are including or excluding in that process.

Visible and platformed individuals in community contexts can be quite charismatic, but Jesus himself and His mission calls us to at least think about how to ensure that Jesus’ accessibility and significance to the marginalized and powerless is platformed somehow even more so that people experience the light of the world…and also grow in their ability to recognize just what the “right stuff” for the Kingdom really is.

There’s times, because I work almost exclusively with college graduates and highly capable people – leaders, all the time, that when I find myself in other environments I end up with a wake up call that I’ve slowly developed an elitist paradigm of “the right stuff” because I’ve worked so often with “the best of the best” as it relates to skills and motivation. And even within that “class” there is often a more narrow class that is more closely associated with the “ideal.”   Those wake up calls are important for me to stay in reality of what it means to be part of a larger, global Church.  Kingdom leadership doesn’t get to be defined just by the best and the brightest. That’s what happens time and time again, yet the words and example of Jesus subvert that system every time.

In God’s economy He can make winners losers, and losers winners. So as I dream and envision the future, if there is to be a thriving future of any ministry and especially my own, I believe there will necessarily be greater focus on being people and movements that are both accessible to and powerful sources of life through Christ for those whom power and status has passed by in this world.

Frankly, we’ll have to become a movement that is known for that accessibility and the honoring of those that “coolness” labels the wrong stuff.  And maybe we’ll discover what the first century Christians discovered – that maybe the rejects of society, the low status and low “buzz” people can be the ones with “the right stuff” after all when transformed by and infused with the power and love of Christ.

So whether you’ve been viewed as “the wrong stuff” or “the right stuff” in your life (or both!), what are you reproducing in your own leadership and ministry?  Are you on a trajectory to only honor and include the beautiful people because it’s the fastest way to relevance and ‘growth?’ Are average men and women, or who you may see as “below average”, afterthoughts in your “strategy?”  How do you keep the vision and ethics of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus central to your community when the temptations are there to primarily build around “cool?”

It seems truly a counter cultural perspective that a sign that we are on the right track is perhaps reaching the point that we can celebrate as a community that fact that we “have no beauty or majesty to attract” others to us.  But is that too hard too stomach for us?  Maybe “dying to self” means dying to “cool” or “image” in ways we are too afraid to face.  Because at the end of the day, in our first world church context we seem to rely heavily on power and status for legitimacy – and maybe that’s why some ministries still fail to include others outside their “status” and thus fail to give proper and powerful witness to the One who sent them.

At the end of the day if we’re thinking we need to build around and focus on people with status and power for “growth” then maybe we have to face the hard truth that maybe we ourselves are not the right people to have Kingdom ministry built around.

Quick Thoughts on Wicked

Just finished the novel Wicked: The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the inspiration for the musical/broadway play of the same name which is no doubt more popular or more recognized in pop culture.

I’ll be honest – I like the narrative of the play far better, but there was much here that was interesting.  I did not really “like” the book as a whole maybe because I already had been exposed to the play’s narrative which is substantially different.  The book comes off a bit fatalistic and is a little too crass at some points.  But I do love the premise of the book – that what we judge and blame in society or as communities may be more a product of systemic dynamics, power, and anxiety in some cases than true evil, sin, or wickedness.  The novel turns the Wizard of Oz narrative on its head and in the premise alone forces you to rethink the question of narrative authority – who gets to determine what narrative is real?

Can we trust the historical narrative when there are so many influences that affect what story gets told after a conflict of values?

So I enjoyed those questions that were throughout the novel as well as the many ways in which the origins of evil were explored.  The origins or source of “wickedness” is the dominant theme throughout and covers a variety of influences and ways in which mankind becomes, is labeled, or acts wicked. So the nature versus nurture debate, power dynamics, systemic injustice, and other phenomenon are explored through the narrative.

I found it engaging and I’ve started a project with a friend related to Wicked that hopefully we’ll get to in the coming months because I find it to illustrate how emotional systems function really well.  There’s a more happy ending in the play so I enjoy that one a bit better, but the novel goes deeper into some of the bigger questions of sin in society and questions of evil.

So the novel by in large was ok, but I really did enjoy the questions raised and the premise of the book despite being somewhat disappointed by some of the directions it took – maybe that was part of the point though.

You can check out some of the thoughts from when I saw the play a few years ago in L.A.

Green Zone Leadership: Breaking Rules to Serve

This is a much delayed post in the series I’ve entitled “Green Zone Leadership,” which is a compilation of reflections and insights from reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City – the account of the U.S. led rebuilding effort after the second gulf war.  I routinely reflect on this book as the account mirrors a lot of what happens when powerful organizational entities seek to help and empower others. I aimed to write this post last summer, but alas – life happens.

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Bureaucracy

This was the easiest phenomenon to observe in this massive case study of leadership and an effort to empower.  For bureaucracy is all over the book. Bureaucracy isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary thing to some degree.  Michael Malone’s The Future Arrived Yesterday and Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball both illustrate that organizations all require some measure of centralization that keeps them from losing all form and sense of corporate purpose.

But what was quite evident in the book and what most of has have experienced in one place or another is the soul sucking culture shaped by structures whose original purposes of serving have been overwhelmed by the instincts of self-preservation and the elevation of order as the highest virtue.

Servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf wrote the following:

“Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, and formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness – a pretty bad state of affairs.  It is the feet of clay that seem to encumber everything that is organized.  As I see it, this is the way all institutions tend to become as they grow old, large, or respectable……..They may do some good in the world; in fact, they are all we have.  But they still tend to become bureaucracies–given size, age, and respectability.  Because we need the good they do, we tend to overlook the harm done because they are bureaucracies.” (294)

The “Green Zone” was almost synonymous with bureaucracy. The book outlines time after time in which efforts to serve were delayed, corrupted, or silenced under the power of the bureaucracy. But there is a fantastic section of the book called “Breaking the Rules” that captured how one leadership defied the bureaucracy and truly served the Iraqis and left them empowered to lead their own in that respective domain.

But he had to completely break the rules and step out of the bureaucracy to do it.  One man, Alex Deghan went to extraordinary lengths to do the job he was asked to do, yet if he went “by the book” even remotely it would have never happened – more money would have been wasted, the end product would be lower quality, and leaders would not have been set up to succeed in leading their own people.

One example – he wanted to train Iraqis to guard the science center he was developing and needed them equipped to look for car bombs and other things.  No one would help him out.  He tried to get some U.S. security guards to help. Finally he found a guy that said he would do it if he could get a full length mirror so he could enhance his sex life while in Iraq. Deghan immediately went to the market and made it happen. Now obviously – that’s a racy example, but it illustrates the kind of foolishness that can get in the way of good being done and sometimes what is required to remove unnecessary barriers to serving.

Deghan had to resort to desperate measures just to access the money allocated to his project and assignment. The Green Zone bureaucracy created insane delays and stonewalled legitimate requests because of black and white rigidity. Deghan came up with a solution that took incredible initiative and effort, but was so outside the box that an accountant told him he was actually probably breaking Federal Law. Yet later, when the rebuilding effort ran into problems financially of how to distribute money they came back to Deghan and began implementing his strategy of getting funds from the U.S. to the actual projects they were earmarked for.

But Deghan, in his relentless effort to serve – do a quality job that empowered the Iraqis and stewarded the resources, drew incredible backlash from other Americans in the Green Zone. He was threatened, stonewalled, and given the run around because he was viewed to have no respect for the system.  The author captured his reality and the fruit of his leadership well writing,

“He was the only guy in the Emerald City who feared his fellow Americans more than he did Iraqi insurgents.

Because he didn’t do business the Green Zone way, Dehgan not only managed to open the science center before the handover of sovereignty, but he also created an institution that was immediately successful.” (255)

Every organization has great people whose duty is to keep things working smoothly and staying within a reasonable measure of order.  Most systems are initially designed to serve. Yet bureaucracy sneaks up on the best of us sometimes. Sometimes change just takes a long time. Sometimes organizations are “blessed” with people who have managed to make themselves indispensable because they have held onto all the knowledge in their domain so that they feel secure and safe. Some cultures just value order and control more than others.  Whatever the reason, bureaucracy happens.  And when it does, it doesn’t serve.

The reality is, whether it’s Malone’s “core” or Mackenzie’s “hairball” or Greenleaf’s “bureaucracy”, to truly serve people that lie outside of those initial domains, a measure of freedom and flexibility is required.  Using Mackenzie’s language, we have to “orbit” to serve.  We cannot truly serve if we are solely functioning either within or for the hairball.  We have to have some separation, some freedom of identity to think and create and adapt, if we are truly going to serve specific people in specific contexts.

What this means is that if you aren’t sometimes willing to break the rules, get outside the system sometimes, or think more flexibility than the organizational structures (or those structures’ guardians) encourage or allow, then YOU ARE NOT TRULY SERVING.  You can’t serve both masters. You either are going to serve people or you are going to serve structures. We usually start with people and always drift towards structures. These structures show up in policies, curriculums, schedules, and processes that are embedded in our organizations (HR not the least of which, which is the arena in which I often work!)

I believe we are all vulnerable to bureaucracy, some more than others. But that’s what makes great leadership to me. Great servant leaders are those that reverse the direction of energy and leadership activity away from structures and back towards people.  At the heart, bureaucrats become what they are because they forget what truly serving even means. They begin to confuse order and lack of chaos for just and serving environments. Order gives the illusion that everything is ok, when the reality is that order often becomes an instrument of repression, conformity, and punitive judgment rather than a tool to be submitted for the sake of human functioning and expression, creativity, and freedom.

Structures are part of what it means to serve people, as long as they remain submitted to that purpose. But we all face decisions about whether we are going to serve people or serve order.  When faced with that moral and ethical tension – I hope you and I consistently choose to serve people.   Authentic servanthood tends to create its own “order” that usually does a better job than structurally imposed order anyway. And if we don’t know if we’re serving, I hope we all have the humility to find out!

Alex Deghan is a hero of mine and an example to be followed. He was not rebelling or “sticking it to the man.” He was navigating a giant hairball with the complete goal to serve the Iraqis and empower them for the future.  He chose to serve people, not the bureaucracy and he went to great lengths to do it.

The author made a note about Deghan and one other similar character in the Baghdad narrative. He wrote,  “Their resumes didn’t suggest them for their jobs, but they had plenty of chutzpah and, more importantly, they weren’t political hacks.” (253) These two men who had uncommon effectiveness in both explicit objectives as well as subjective measures of authentic empowerment had these two things in common – they were creatively courageous and they were able to think and function outside of the bureaucracy for the sake of the people they were there for in the first place.

I’m not advocating “sticking it to the man” or going rogue. That’s not what this discussion is about. I’m only talking about being independent of thought enough to be able to identify what serves and courageous enough to lead towards that without settling for the convenient excuses or losing heart at the silly, but formidable obstacles often faced. Maybe there are times that are extreme enough to merit some measure of rogueness like Deghan. But like Deghan’s example of funding, some measures of rogueness that result in transformational serving are frequently copied by “the man” who simply had never been able to think outside of the box and take the required risks. So sometimes being labeled “rogue” is just a matter of being the first one to try to solve a problem by those that have refused to see and solve that problem prior.

Deghan is worth listening to as he speaks to the paternalistic and controlling tendencies of bureaucracy along with a perspective that might help free us to serve….

“One of the biggest problems of Iraq was that we weren’t listening to the Iraqis, and that our presence in the room, just like perhaps Saddam’s presence in the room, was preventing people from thinking independently and taking the initiative,” Deghan said later. “The key was not for us to be more involved, but for us to be less involved.”  (255)

If you get a chance to read this book, it’s well worth it. It’s a tragedy really that sometimes masquerades as a comedy of errors. Even if you don’t, remember that the only way to serve the Emerald City is to stay free enough from the Green Zone.

Interruptions of Progress

I had a chance to see “The Gangster Squad” and there was a great line that has stayed with me.  First, I enjoyed the movie. It was like L.A. Confidential meets the Untouchables.  As an L.A. guy it was a fun movie to watch.

But there was a great line in the movie that I thought really jumped out to me.  In the climactic scene, I won’t offer any spoilers here, but mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is fighting/boxing with the head of the secret mob task force by the name I think of Sean O’Mara (Josh Brolin).  They are fighting and Cohen yells at him with great condescension,

“You’re an interrupter of progress!”

Cohen can’t understand why this cop, unwilling to be bribed, would go to such great lengths to stand in the way of his own pursuits.  People with a power orientation towards life and leadership always view progress in light of their own goals. They see the progress of their own goals as an inevitability, something that people need to get with or else be left behind.

Servant leaders, moral and ethical people see progress much differently and it’s intimately related to the concepts of justice, ethics, and peace.  Progress is not something that can be defined and co-opted by the powerful.  Progress must be evaluated through the lens of the whole, the many, and not the few.  While the power driven leader can’t understand why someone would stand in the way of the inevitable, of evolution if it were, the serving leader can’t understand why people would not stand up to such a tyrant and abuser of power.

Justice is always “in the way” of people who are consumed with pragmatic and quantitative gain – even for non-profits and the ministry.  We instinctively want to reach our goals in the most expedited and easiest ways possible. We have “our eyes on the prize” and forget what else our eyes might need to be on too.

Prophetic voices and agents of justice are “interruptions” in that they force people to stop and think twice. They slow things down. They provide moments for change and even for repentance.  What those in power interpret as progress sometimes ends up being only “progress for people like those already in power.” I believe God, as he always has done, consistently raises up “interruptions” for leaders to reconsider their course and “justness” of their actions.  Yet we aren’t always responsive.

A test for leaders who would truly serve versus merely executing their own agendas and progress “in their own eyes” is how do you handle the “interruptions” brought to the table that raise concerns about justice and progress “for all?” 

Do you respond like mob boss Mickey Cohen and try to stamp out these valuable interruptions with power and force?

Do you try one of his alternative tactics and use fear and intimidation to silence needed interruptions?

Do you just ignore them?

Or do you stop?  Do you allow yourself the space to have your vision of progress to expand to include the whole of your community or society?

How we respond to those courageous voices that are serving as needed “interruptions of progress” reflects our heart and our vision of what we kind of future we envision creating.  The people I want to follow are those that can handle such interruptions with humility and grace and a commitment to serving all.


** Hate to admit it, but it writing this post the immortal words of Vanilla Ice came into my head as a good solution for when valuable interruptions to your progress come your way: “Stop! Collaborate and Listen!…”  There.  Now I’ve undermined this entire post 🙂

Dangers for Discerners: Elementary

The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the Sherlock Holmes narrative, originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  There have been two feature films released recently with the lead played by Robert Downey Jr. and two television shows as well.  The BBC is approaching its third season of Sherlock, while Elementary is in its first season on CBS.

I’m not an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, but I’ve seen some of these shows and I’m fascinated by some of what all three of these portrayals of this iconic character have in common.  Holmes is portrayed as unequivocal genius….yet relationally estranged and essentially anti-social in nature.  To differing degrees they all explore questions about the role and value of discernment, of exceptional perception of details, facts, or behavior.  Despite the quirks and great dysfunction illustrated, Sherlock Holmes in contemporary portrayals is a seer, a discerning observer, one with vision that others do not have access too.

Sherlock Holmes is discerning. And yes – it depends on the nature of what he is looking for. The fun of the recent adaptations of Holmes is that the lead character is portrayed as completely superior in intellect and perception as it relates to facts and the meaning of various sets of information, yet he stands clueless and unaware of the emotional systems and contexts he finds himself.  The Holmes characters in these versions are great illustrations of what can happen when sight and perception outpaces relational presence and emotional capacity.

This narrative is lived out in many places – pretty much in any area where one begins to develop an expertise as it relates to perceiving the why’s behind human behavior.  Counselors, Psychologists, and even Human Resource specialists all can find themselves in situations where they have accumulated so many tools, so many ways of seeing and making sense of what people do and why compared to the average person.  This is not bad – this is why people pay them to do their jobs, because people need help seeing and the blind cannot lead the blind more often than not. Yet it can be, and sometimes is for there is an ethics of discernment that not all have engaged.

Discernment is a function of, as well as a test of, one’s gifts of perception and ability to navigate relational and social pressures.  And as in any social reality, there are two primary directions that discerners can take in reaction to crisis, demands, stresses, and anxiety. One can create distance between themselves and others, cutting off in order to experience more objectivity along with a more defined individuality.  On the other hand, one can surrender to a minimalist vantage point in the interest of the status quo and develop great confidence that they are seeing the whole picture – all the whole their powers of observation are in bondage to their emotional interests and fears.

Sherlock Holmes, in recent portrayal, is the former.  His genius is unquestioned, yet he’s alone.  But alone does not quite capture it.  It’s more of an estrangement, an isolation which his great knowledge likely has both resulted from as well as created.  He places knowing above all else.  And that leads to some awkward god complex fantasies of omniscience.

In Episode 3 titled “The Rat Race” in Season 1 of Elementary (perhaps you can catch it online still), there was a fascinating exchange between Sherlock Holmes and his counterpart Dr. Watson (in this version played by Lucy Liu).

Holmes:  It has its costs.

Watson:  What does?

Holmes:  Learning to see the puzzle in everything. They’re everywhere. Once you start looking it’s impossible to stop.

It just so happens that people with all the deceits and delusions that inform everything that they do tend to be the most fascinating puzzles of all. Of course they don’t always appreciate being seen as such.

Watson:  That seems like a lonely way to live.

Holmes: As I said. It has its costs.

People who have a talent for discernment, people who are seers – not in a mystical sense, but in the quest for perceiving the truth in community, have to negotiate the cost of seeing as well as the temptations that come with it.  I hope to in future posts explore that more. But there’s a cost to seeing the puzzles – the dynamics that drive different individuals or contexts.  But Holmes’ “cost” does not come from his ability to see as much as it does from his drive to “master” individuals.  And perhaps this is where counselors, pastors, leaders, and educators can perhaps relate in some way.  The insight, wisdom, and perception of behavior can take on a life of its own, tempting the seer to shift their focus from serving to something altogether darker  in nature.  Seeing is a form of power.  And with that, there’s a wide difference between seeing to serve versus seeing to master.

Holmes’ motivation for solving the puzzles often comes from a desire to have a sense of knowing about another, rather than simply knowing another.  His pride leads him to gain information to set himself above another, to reduce others to equations to be figured out and solved.  His quest for mastery over the human puzzles in his life creates an estrangement that perpetuates the dysfunction. This would seem to be a clear example of what the Apostle Paul was pointing to when he wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” People in the helping professions and ministry are vulnerable to this temptation because they in some ways all must be “people experts.”

Mastery of insight, of the truth of a person or situation can become a false substitute for connection.  Perhaps this is part of why some who have developed such expertise in the interest of “helping others” end up frequently repelling others away because it’s quite evident to most of us as people when we have become a problem to be fixed or an equation to be solved. I like that the movies and television shows all show Holmes’ frustrating and maddening and painfully slow journey towards human connection.

Sherlock Holmes illustrates that seeing can in some ways become an addiction, yet at the same time it can be something one cannot simply shut off.   He himself is a puzzle. And like many discerners, it’s easier to give into the temptation to figure out other people rather than face hard truths about one’s own self.  Knowledge is a danger to the discerner, because instead of a tool for something greater it can become the object itself.  And thus, knowledge becomes a form of idolatry in and of itself.

Most of us, if we have gifts or an aptitude for discerning are not in Sherolock Holmes’ category – in either his genius or his narcissistic and anti-social tendencies.  But we share the same temptations – that as we gain knowledge and insight about people, about community, are we maintaining clarity about the end of such knowledge and insight?  Will our knowledge become an opportunity for arrogance and control in relationships and to objectify people?  Or will it lead us to serve?


Quick Review: Lincoln (The Movie)

After my review yesterday on the book Lincoln’s Melancholy and mentioning that I had read that prior to seeing the movie, I wanted to share some of my reflections from my experience in the movie.

First, the movie wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was a more biographical movie, but was surprised to find out that the movie really only covered the last 4 months of Lincoln’s life, corresponding also to the ending of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment. This made me even more thankful I had read Lincoln’s Melancholy first and that I had previously read the well known and long Team of Rivals which the movie is partly based on.

The movie is pretty accurate in its portrayal of Lincoln. I’ve read a lot on him – thousands of pages worth, and it’s a great illustration of strong and secure leadership in the midst of untold horrors and pressures and pain. The politics of it was enjoyable too as was Tommy Lee Jones’ performance.  It captured well the imperfect and flawed motivations of many on both sides of the 13th amendment debate and the entrenched racism of the time.  As an illustration of high level leadership and leadership in anxious times, it was phenomenal and fairly honest and accurate.

It’s been interesting seeing some of the critiques of the movie, particular from some in the African-American community.  There’s been some critique that this movie is a white guilt alleviation tool and another example of the white man celebrating itself while the true story of slavery is once again minimized and glossed over.  I think there is some truth in this, though I think the criticism has to be viewed in context of expectations of what one would want the movie to be.  But given the central theme of slavery, it was pretty glaring that Frederick Douglas was nowhere to be found. That alone is enough to alert folks to maybe some limited storytelling.

However, the movie is about Lincoln. And in doing so I think it does a great job even illustrating the politics around slavery.  It does not attempt to tell the story through the African American perspective.  I think that would have enriched the film and brought a greater weight and truth to its content and ethos.  But it would have been a very different movie. I’d be equally interested in watching one that was focused on slavery and the 13th amendment from the African American perspective. But I also enjoyed the movie for what it was and that was a treatment of Lincoln’s political genius in very complicated times – and in this view, the movie was exceptional.

I think there’s things the movie could have done better to honor the African-American experience and perspective.  I think there’s a kernel of truth in the criticism and I’m no one to say that people shouldn’t feel that way about the movie.  I do think it’s unfortunate and unfair to judge the movie as a white feel good movie. I don’t think anyone in the movie except Lincoln comes off anything less than racist – and we all know Lincoln had his moments too in reality.  The movie I think gives a pretty sober and unflattering portrayal of how the 13th amendment came to be and just how racist and dark those times were in how our country engaged diversity.

I think it’s fair to criticize the movie with what was desired to be reflected about the reality of slavery at the times and its aftermath.  I think criticism must also be tempered in considering that the movie was about Lincoln and his political genius as the centerpiece, which is the centerpiece of Team of Rivals on which it’s based.  And I don’t believe a movie that chooses to portray the life and politics of a significant figure in such a way should be automatically judged as racist or ignorant. Though I concede – it’s tricky business to do a biographical treatment of a white hero in the context where slavery is the center of the story’s conflict. And I will say that maybe such reactions show that we’re not able to celebrate some of these “political victories” together when there have been so many failures and painful ripples from the story of slavery. There is so much more work done for the sake of reconciliation that is still needed.

I want to say that I walked away more convicted as a white person as opposed to having my guilt about slavery alleviated. Maybe that’s because I’ve worked for a while in ethnic minority contexts – that I’m more attuned to how deep racism and power dynamics go. But I’m still white and my understanding only goes so far.  Some of what impacted me though was the movie itself – whites were not the “heroes” (though Lincoln is portrayed that way, though with flaws).  Whites were in two categories. Good racist and bad racist. There were courageous racists and jackass racists.  It’s remarkable to me that the 13th amendment passed at that time. I think it should be celebrated – but it’s not the white establishment that is to be celebrated, and I don’t think the movie goes there. If anything, the movie shows just how toxic racism and discrimination is and how hard it is for people who benefit from power to consider an alternative reality that is inclusive of all people.

So if you find the movie to be a celebration of white, paternal leadership – I can live with that. I can see some of why one might see it that way despite my own perspective being much different.  But I do think it’s a great movie that provides a remarkable window to the flawed, yet genius man and politician that God used in unbelievable ways at a crossroads in American history.

Feel free to share your own perspective if you’ve seen it. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Stats Lie Pt. 10 -Quick Thots From The Movie Moneyball

I am re-posting this blog in preparation for my next few posts that will relate to the book Moneyball and because I think this post and those to come belong in my “Stats Lie” series. This was originally posted on October 8th, 2011.


My wife and I pulled off a miracle and actually went to a movie together this weekend. We hit Moneyball which came on the recommendation of several folks.

I really enjoyed the movie.  I’m a baseball fan and I lived in the Bay Area during the time frame in which this movie covers so I saw some games and first hand lived through a lot of the media coverage of the events.  One of the best part of the movie was seeing its portrayal of the dramatic 20th win in the record breaking win streak.  I watched that game and Hatteberg’s game winning home run after blowing a monstrous lead was one of my more memorable sports moments to watch or live through.

But here’s some systems insights that I thought the movie illustrates through the baseball context so as to connect the movie to the themes I often post on..

First, cultures adapt certain ways of measuring greatness or effectiveness.  It doesn’t mean that people who don’t fit that grid or standard aren’t effective or successful.  It means there’s an accepted criteria for what’s successful and to go outside of that threatens the establishment and generates a lot of anxiety for folks in the “system” whatever type of system it might be. People want the “sure thing” when evaluating talent and doing leadership or talent selection, but often they settle for what feels safest to them – which leans often on tradition and cultural norms.

Second, if you do step outside the criteria endorsed by the establishment and manage to endure the ridicule, resistance, or even hostility, and actually succeed….then many of those people who made life hard for you when you were trying to be original and think differently and meet the demands of reality will come full circle and want your help or start copying what you are doing.  Beane started a revolution in the baseball world and changed the landscape of his profession, but it took a lot of nerve and passion and maybe some desperation too in order to do it.

But this is a cycle that comes with creativity and cutting edge leadership efforts. You either get honored in the end, or people indirectly affirm what you’ve done by hijacking your stuff and copy you with or without giving you credit, or you fail and you get hung out to dry.  Not a lot of middle ground here when trying to boldly lead outside of the norm.   No matter what happens – it’s still worth leading towards reality in new and innovative ways.

Third, as one of the key lines of the movie illustrates, “It’s gotta mean something.” I think the movie captures one of the tensions often experienced.  Do you keep chasing numbers and goals?  That’s a bottomless pit, even when one considers a ministry context.  What we do and how we go about it reflects a lot about who we are and who we want to be.  Meaning is often assumed in leadership and in ministry, but something that we continually have to enter into and not just assume that because our goals and objectives are significant that meaning will be embedded in our experience of what we’re doing.

On a personal note, my wife paid me a compliment after the movie. She said the main character reminded her of me.  I appreciated that because I value courage in leadership and honest assessments of reality and bold efforts to go to the heart of the issue. What I do has to be meaningful in terms of its impact on people and not just in the cliche or standards that are reflected in traditional metrics.  But if I’m honest I personally relate more to the assistant GM in the movie who is the awkward and insecure, yet smart and innovative guy behind the scenes who people don’t always listen to.  He sees the landscape with different eyes, but the landscape doesn’t see him.  I enjoyed watching his story illustrated in the movie. It doesn’t mean that’s who in fact I am in reality, it’s just that there are elements to his experience I relate to at times (but without the genius piece).

One of my values has been to try to identify folks who I think see the landscape they are in for what it is and not for what people want it to be.  Those are the people I want to platform and invest my time in as a leader.  Moneyball is a lot about metrics, but what got the ball rolling was one leader finding the right person to listen to and partner with in a time where radical change was needed.

If you saw it – what did you think? About the movie in general? About leading innovative change?


Green Zone Leadership: Self-Serving Allocation

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.   The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Party-based Allocation 

One of the themes that repeatedly showed itself during Imperial Life in the Emerald City was careless and ineffective allocation of resources.  In some ways this is a continuation of the last post on “Throwing Resources,” but this will focus more on human resource and leadership allocation. 

The crazy-making phenomena reading the account of post-war Iraq was the example time and time again of people being entrusted significant leadership with the primary criteria being party affiliation.  If you were Republican and on “the right side” and supporting the political agenda, then you were in – these were people asked to lead and oversee people, massive initiatives, and manage the budgets.  If you were the best person for the job, but politically questionable by the regime, then you were out of luck.  Such talented and experienced people were either rejected out of hand or sidelined through positions deep within the bureaucracy so as to be be “contained.” Sadly – I think this is all too common.

Allocation & The Inner-Ring
No doubt this system of allocation is part of what’s wrong with the whole political system in general, but for broader purposes I want to narrow down the core value driving such an approach to allocation.  I see that as being Loyalty is this case. People in power, to ensure they stay in power and to ensure that they can have as much as possible under their influence and preferences, want to allocate people loyal to them and their ideals.  On some level, I think this is appropriate given the importance of having people you can trust in key positions.  On another level, when the loyalty value really is in the service of things like control and power I think allocation starts to confuse trust with control.  Trust is a higher virtue than loyalty and they are not the same thing.

Loyalty can do a lot of damage.  This is one reason why a person I know not too long ago commented –

“You know there really is no safe place to take grievances in my organization – because given the web of relationships and who knows who, people always will side with who they know over who they don’t know if there is a question of impropriety. It’s not worth the risk of being labeled and alienated further from those in power by speaking up.”

I agree with these concerns in a lot of situations. We often let our social networks of who we “trust” an know shape how we relate to others we don’t know. Serving then becomes a really cloudy concept.

I can’t help but think about the essay/lecture by C.S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring” which can be found in the book The Weight of Glory. The “in” versus “out” dynamic that drives many decisions and dynamics betrays a lot of leadership decisions that on the face are said to be about “trust” to really be about “loyalty” – and a personal loyalty at that.  There’s an inability to recognize when someone might be the best person to serve in a given situation even though there might be some disagreements or no real mechanism for control or loyalty.  Maybe this is as simple as trying to mobilize “yes men” to your service.  That again though reveals that the object of who is being served is at the top of the hierarchy and it is certainly not those at the bottom.

Allocation & Dumb Luck

This is an insight confirmed both by the green zone case study as well as through some conversations and contributions people have emailed me since posting on “Throwing Resources.” Sometimes people can be allocating for all the wrong reasons and still do a great job.  Sometimes organizations just luck out with an extraordinary leader or circumstance that can make the needed adjustments with serving results and be part of the “status quo” system.  But the problem is when such decisions are made from centralized brain trusts, you’re likely more dependent on luck for success than you would like to admit.  There seems to be a higher correlation with decentralized allocation of funding and decisions about resources with long term success and the fruit of serving leadership.

Allocation & Spiritualization

In ministry we also can get really spiritually about our hierarchy and how all the pieces of that hierarchy came into being – the end result being that somehow every person in every position was divinely ordained to be in that position.  On one hand this is true – for every person is in a particular role and under various authorities.  On the other hand, this can be a dangerous rationalization for our own decisions in who we ask to do what.

I actually don’t think there’s much of a different mentality in many ministries from the military.  You’ve got the chain of command along with a strong system of belief to support that chain at all costs. I find the parallels between spiritual organizations and the military fascinating – and it’s because many spiritual organizations or ministries have a view of authority that can be very similar to what is found in the military.

But one of the main symptoms of this is the dynamic that just because someone has a title or organizational authority, then they can and somehow are gifted in every situation that those below them on the hierarchy might face themselves.  A key example here is mediation or other specialty skill sets.  The people who are “allocated” into some situations are often those with titles, not gifts and oftten without a paradigm of serving. Most of the time, people just allocate themselves as the person “in charge.”  Yet the question of serving doesn’t ever get asked.  It’s assumed that since you have the title – then you are the best person for the job.  Not true.  And I think this assumption wastes millions of dollars every year and often makes things worse through finding short-term fixes not sustainable for the long haul. Allocation is meant to serve – whether it’s a leader of a local team that is being placed or whether it’s someone more higher up being tasked to serve in a specific way in a specific situation.

The constant allocation of one’s self to handle all the business under you instead of people who have potentially a better gift mix than you to do those things is really just a mechanism of control.

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

Don’t allocate as a means to control what happens, micro-manage, or ensure your way.

Cultivate trust with people with unique skill sets and giftings regardless of ideology or leadership philosophy so that you can put the right people in the right places at timely moments.  Don’t write them off or quarantine them just because they aren’t “on your side” on all matters.  Leaders and ministers need to practice bi-partisanship too. Ever noticed that hardly anything that happens politically ever happens that’s truly good that is not the result of significant bi-partisan efforts?

Leaders need to cultivate trust and not loyalty. The loyalty should be towards those we are called to serve and towards our highest authority – not to political and personal agendas. And agendas as we discussed in the first post are everywhere.


How do you work towards bi-partisan trusting relationships to ensure people on the ground are ultimately served in timely and important ways?