Category Archives: systems

Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.

 

Quick Review: Pursuing Justice

One of the books with the most impact on me this year was Ken Wytsma’s Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger ThingsI read it in the summer, but I re-read it over the past couple of weeks. Wytsma founded Kilns college and started The Justice Conference. I’ve started going through the last couple conferences via what is on the internet and vimeo.

This book is a primer on God’s heart for justice and offers a corrective to both social gospel as well as gnostic, all that matters is the afterlife,  approaches to the gospel. There’s a strong Biblical foundation offered for what the Scriptures really say about justice and where many of us have gone off to one extreme or the other.

There’s a few chapters I loved.  There is a chapter focused on advent, the incarnation, that was exceptional regarding the call to incarnate into people’s lives and realities as fundamental to Christian life and ministry. Given that I re-read it prior to Christmas this year, my second reading of this chapter was even more meaningful. Maybe the chapter I appreciated the most though was the chapter entitled “Empathy” that connects are hard-wired human ability to feel what other people feel and experience as a key to God’s heart for justice. Without empathy, there is no justice.  There is a paradigm offered in this chapter regarding empathy and “the other” which may come in handy in my PhD research.

Wytsma covers a lot of ground. In addition to the above, he tackles briefly the gospel and politics, the history of the evangelical phobia of “social justice,” and the range of response to justice such as apathy. This book is a great introduction to thinking Biblically about justice and it’s a convicting one that all believers would benefit from.

One of my big takeaways, while not a new conviction, is a deeper commitment that Christian ministry along with its methodology reflects what the Scriptures really teach about the gospel and justice. That’s neither the social gospel or the spiritual escapism often present in evangelicalism today. When word and deed go together, it’s a powerful thing and I’m thankful for those who are helping lead the church towards a more integrated and restorative vision of what it means to be the Church.

I will come back to this book because it also cites really great sources and work from many historical and contemporary justice practitioners. While I’ve read a decent amount regarding justice, there was much that was new to me in terms of stories and anecdotes, but the resources referenced were just as much of a blessing.

 

Quick Review: The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive

I love Patrick Lencioni and I love his books, wisdom, and style of communicating. He does a great job communicating some complex things in simple modes. The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive is a book I’ve been wanting to get to and I’ve seen summaries of it, but only recently was able to get to.

This book is the intro book more or less to his overall model of organizational health that he unpacks more completely in more recent books. But this provides a good overview.

I’ve been involved in a lot of organizational health and change work lately so this was a helpful resource for me to do some assessment of what I and my team are doing well and where we need to be more intentional with the big picture in mind.

You can get some of the resources free online related to this book and the model included at Lencioni’s site here.

The book demonstrates through fable and a model 4 disciples for executive leaders for the sake of organizational health.

  1.  Build and maintain a Cohesive Leadership Team
  2. Create Organizational Clarity
  3. Over-Communicate Clarity
  4. Reinforce Clarity Through Human Systems

#1 is unpacked further in his well-known book,  Five Dysfunctions of a Team, but I’ve been in a perfect space to reflect on all four of these.  It’s been both affirming for some of what we’ve been able to do and also encouraging me to persevere in some of these areas for further clarity.

But the biggest value for me was Lencioni unpacking more specifically what each of these things involve.  Everyone believes clarity and communication is in important, but Lencioni provides a bit more detail that can help someone get a handle on where to focus their attention.

Quick Review: Strong and Weak

One of the richest and most practically helpful book I’ve read this year is Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak.  It’s the third book I’ve read by Crouch this year and all three form together what I would describe to be a trilogy related to a theology and practice of image bearing. You can see some of my thoughts on the 1st of these books Culture Making here or the more recent Playing God here.

Strong and Weak is roughly an extension of Playing God.  Playing God  is a more in depth look at power and privilege. Strong and Weak continues that, but Crouch introduces a framework for understanding social ethics, relationships, and authority among other things.  This allows for a really clear conceptual understanding of much of what he unpacks in Playing God.

Crouch builds his book around a 2 x 2 chart. The X axis is represented by the concept of vulnerability, while the Y axis is represented by the concept of authority. Crouch draws from the first couple chapters of Genesis these two significant aspects of what it means to be an image bearer. Having the authority and ability to take meaningful action on one hand, and having the posture of vulnerability and risk on the other.

In the chart there are 4 quadrants, which Crouch describes as flourishing (high authority, high vulnerability), suffering or poverty (low authority, high vulnerability), withdrawal or apathy (low authority, low vulnerability) and exploitation (high authority, low vulnerability).  The book is organized around these quadrants and their implications for relationships, community, and even leadership as well.

The simple 2 x 2 chart provides a really helpful framework to understand some really complex dynamics as well as the powerful and countercultural implications of gospel action through people in different quadrants.  It provides a helpful way of understanding servant leadership, empowerment, social responsibility, and community development all in one.

This book is about 150 pages or so, very readable. I highly recommend you read this – it has something for everyone and it serves as an incredible teaching tool to help people understand how to look at the importance of both authority and vulnerability – which cover a surprising amount of the issues leaders have in negotiating the social realities of their contexts.

This is an important and helpful resource that should help people think more theologically and responsibly about the dynamic relationship between authority and human relationships.  I really encourage you to find time to read it.

 

Quick Review: Playing God

This month I worked my way through Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  Really this year I’ve worked through what is a trilogy essentially from Andy Crouch with three books that all revolve around the central theme of what it means to be human as God intended, as God’s image bearer. The first book in this thematic series is Culture Making, which I reviewed a few months back and I’ll review the third book Strong and Weak, which was released this year, sometime next week.

All three of these books are highly worth reading and I recommend reading them sequentially and together because of the continuity of ideas, language, and frameworks offered.

While Culture Making focused on the themes of creating and cultivating as image bearers, Playing God focuses more specifically on the theme of power and authority – related to its original design and intentions and to its abuse.

In a refreshing statement, Crouch begins the book with a clear thesis that power is a gift. It has purposes for people and communities that glorify God and that are meant to serve and honor other people.  But we all know the world is full of people who use power for their own gains, so the gift of power gets corrupted into something much worse. Actually we all use power for our own gain – that’s the power of sin in our lives. We all need to learn how God wants to redeem power for his purposes.

Crouch makes mention in several books of the importance of developing a theology of image bearing around the whole of Scripture – with special attention to Gen 1-2 and Rev 21-22. He argues that these 4 chapters guard against the dualistic theology prevalent for so many generations – where the only concern is trying to save souls from sin (Gen 3 – Rev).  I think it’s a helpful reminder to really think deeply about the whole Biblical narrative and its implications for all of life.  That’s the power of developing a theology of image bearing, whether it involves creativity or power. A solid theology of image bearing should inform all of life – relationships, power and authority, calling, and community.  This is what I appreciate about what Crouch attempts to do in his books.

Some of the sections that I think Crouch really did a great job with are his treatment of the themes of idolatry related to power. The chapters on idolatry and icons are really helpful and I’ve already gone back to a couple of those chapters.  There are some very helpful sections that help someone evaluate their hearts as the source of their behavior and what they worship in practice.

Another strength of the book is a framing and his effort to articulate the dynamics and even provide some measure of a theology of privilege. Privilege is often used pejoratively as a label. I’ve seen it misused more often than not, which is why Crouch’s efforts are really valuable.  While there are problems and limitations with the word “privilege,” no one can deny that this points to a reality which is very much true. It’s not an American thing either. Privilege exists as a social reality across the world that impacts identity and communities. Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and

Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and the dark side of privilege in its impact on relationships and society. These are realities we must help people understand through a more complete theological lens – not just through the lenses of social activism and social justice. These issues point us back to a more comprehensive vision of shalom, of what human life and community is meant to be.   For much of the last century and beyond, t

For much of the last century and beyond, there has been a theological gap in bias and practice between social justice and evangelistic mission.  There continues to be a divide today, albeit with different influences and forces driving some of those divides and reactions. Crouch attempts to bridge some of this gap through a theology of image bearing and power.  It is not the focus of the book to provide a comprehensive theology of the church as it relates to social action, but nonetheless there are very helpful sections to help inform how we think about the church’s role in society as part of a Great Commission vision.

Much of his work in Playing God gets elaborated on in Strong and Weak, in which he provides a helpful conceptual framework to illustrate how image bearing and power in community goes wrong….and right sometimes.

This book has very wide relevance and application so if you have not read it, I recommend getting all three of these books onto your reading list soon.

 

 

 

Quick Review: Community – The Structure of Belonging

I finished Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging last week and want to share some of his thoughts if it interests you. This book essentially is about community development and transformation. Block’s style is often theoretical and heady in its content and tone, yet there is a real commitment to organizing work and life around the dignity of human beings and the impact of relationships and organizing efforts on that dignity. This is one of the things I like about Block in his books.

What is helpful about this book is that it steers conversations in the process of community building away from victimization and learned helplessness and paternalism.  His focus is on building what he calls the social fabric – the quality of relating within a community.  He unpacks the ideas and patterns of modern society that are undermining true empowerment in society at large and argues for methods and community processes that both lead to the goal while also being the goal themselves.

Many want to build communities and build the social fabric, but they focus on the end result and meanwhile their methods and processes undermine the very relating and social fabric they want to achieve.  Block proposes a set of commitments and processes to help communities begin relating in empowering and accountable ways that increase the consistency and quality of the social fabric. He argues that the small group is the unit of transformation.

There’s a lot here – and it’s a big that needs a lot of reflection to make connections for the sake of integration and application. But Block does a great job building a process around question asking and safe spaces.  He argues that community transformation is driven by well-crafted questions that create the kind of anxiety and tension that drives people to get involved and commit.  He offers sets of questions for key conversations around ownership, dissent, gifts, and other key areas.  What is unique about Block is the methodology that seeks to bring the goal into the process.  This is some of how I’ve tried to teach strategic planning – that leaders don’t lead towards a goal or vision, but they must live out that vision through the whole process from day one. That affects actions and relationships.

He offers sets of questions for key conversations around ownership, dissent, gifts, and other key areas.  What is unique about Block is the methodology that seeks to bring the goal into the process.  This is some of how I’ve tried to teach strategic planning – that leaders don’t lead towards a goal or vision, but they must live out that vision through the whole process from day one. That affects actions and relationships.

In today’s society, you have many groups in many places blaming other groups for their situation and looking externally for solutions.  Block offers a methodology and community building approach that challenges all of us to take ownership of our communities and commit to something new together instead of engaging in the toxic cycles of blame and dependence.  It’s easier said than done, but there’s a lot here to inform how we try to bridge differences today in a culture that is often very divided.

 

Quick Review: Smiling Tiger Hidden Dragon

I’ve read Dr. John Ng’s book on conflict management Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the past month and want to share some thoughts on it.  I also had the opportunity to do a couple day training with Dr. Ng covering the ideas in the book.

Over the last decade, as I’ve been in mostly Asian ministry contexts, the topic of conflict resolution for Asians has been a very challenging and difficult one  – in part because of honor/shame dynamics, saving face, and indirect communication preferences.  Most Asian believers I know readily admit that this is a difficult area of discipleship and skill for them because of the ways conflict can challenge cultural norms and behaviors. It’s also readily clear that many approaches to conflict resolution are blatantly western in assumptions and prescriptions, thus creating significant tension for Asian believers when so much out there on this topic challenges culture (which is not always a bad thing either).

Dr. Ng was educated in the West (Northwestern) and is currently in Singapore and works as a mediator and consultant throughout Asia. This book primarily focuses on describing the things that undermine healthy relationships in the Asian context and provides ideas and strategies for managing that conflict. So he dives into themes like saving face among other things to illustrate how conflict can start and escalate. The book is full of Asian anecdotes and examples which is helpful as a Westerner to just get a feel on a broad level how conflict escalates among Asians in different ways and for different reasons contextually.

He provides a lot of strategies for managing conflict, some based on a conflict style assessment tool he developed for Asia. He highlights about 12 different conflict styles that can lead to escalating conflict including the title, “smiling tiger, hidden dragon.” This was helpful just to really look at a wide range of conflict approaches (negative ones) that do not always get treatment in other books or resources on conflict.

He also highlights a lot of ideas for just managing conflict and keeping yourself in a good emotional space to have a constructive conversation.  He draws from the HeartMath institute. I read The Heartmath Solution as part of a book club way back in the day and you see a brief review here, but he gives a lot of attention to breathing exercises and efforts to keep the heart rate under 100. That’s helpful and in the past I’ve utilized that in some mediation situations and it has helped me maintain mental sharpness.  Dr. Ng also is passionate about the dynamics of the brain and the amygdala as I have often written about from the family and congregational systems theorists and practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. The big takeaway – we have to be mindful of what’s going on in our bodies or else we may lost control of the situation and start escalating and reacting.

An additional area is the area of bidding.  Dr. Ng studied under John Gottman who introduced the notion of relational bidding as a key for understanding the health and future of marriage relationships. Basically – relationships need a 5 to 1 positive to negative bidding ratio or problems and eventual separation are likely to occur. Dr. Ng uses this idea really well in the context of general conflict management to keep the relationship the central focus and not the issues.

The areas that are weaker in the book are those relating to forgiveness and reconciliation. The forgiveness aspect is viewed as important – but follows some of current psychology trends in reinforcing that forgiveness is about us releasing and letting go. There really is not much attention to reconciliation.   The book is written with a secular packaging, yet the treatment of forgiveness and reconciliation was still light if not non-existent at points.  However, if the book is seen and experienced as a focus on the catalysts for conflict in Asian contexts and tools for having the conflict conversations – there’s some great ideas and tools. But there is not much here that will paint a vision or picture of what relationships will look like after conflict management to get a sense of what reconciliation in relationship looks like.

There are several ideas in the books I want to pursue more and explore, concepts that are very Asian, but even so – the book is relevant far beyond the Asian context.  They key thing that feels Asian besides the metaphors, illustrations, and marketing is that the focus is on preserving relationship which is a high value for Asians.  That’s something westerners can really benefit from as they think about conflict.

 

Quick Review: The Tipping Point

A few weeks ago I finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference.   I fully enjoy Gladwell’s books as they often popularize more complex ideas out there. His books are also ideal audiobooks for driving in traffic given how story oriented they tend to be.

More detailed reviews and summaries can be found out there, but I enjoyed the book because of its blatant relevance for leadership, ministry, and the sharing of ideas. Gladwell is focused on the phenomena of what makes some ideas really take off while others do not.

Gladwell is focused on the phenomena of what makes some ideas really take off while others do not. He structures the book around “The Law of the Few”, “The Stickiness Factor”, and “The Power of Context.”

The law of the few suggests that there unique types of people that drive the spreading of ideas. He calls them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.  Some people have unique gifts in connecting other people, some have unique talents and passions to be informed on all of what is going on, and some have the charisma and gifts that can bring alignment to ideas or products effortlessly.  I enjoyed the illustration about Paul Revere being an example of an individual who was a couple of these – why is Revere so remembered in the events of the opening of the Revolutionary War when there was another man who equally shared the same task?

“The Stickiness Factor” is the sense of memorability (if that’s a word) or ease at which people can lock into a concept, product, or idea.  This is what marketing strives for and what much of educational theory is working to master.

“The Power of Context” is looking at the systemic impact of the environment on change phenomena. I was intrigued most by the example of the “Broken windows theory” that was at the heart of change efforts in New York’s dramatic crime reduction over a decade ago. After analyzing a host of variables – the idea that small symbols of neglect can lead to widespread invitations for crime. By quickly cleaning up graffiti and making other quick improvements to fix things and keep things in shape among other minor changes, there was radical changes in crime for the better.

These are quick and hasty summaries, but this book is a great stimulator of ideas and creative energy if you are thinking about how to spread ideas or lead change in a particular context. All such efforts will involve the need to shape thinking, relationships, and behavior. This book touches on all three of these areas and thus, a great resource.

 

Quick Review – Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas

I recently read David Cortright’s Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas  as part of the Peace Studies PhD program I am currently in.  I had not heard of the book prior, but it blends some of the themes of my current area of study with my enjoyment of history as a history major.

The book is a history of the approaches people and groups have taken to take a stand against violence over the course of the past few centuries, especially the past 150 years or so.  There is a helpful overview of the origins of peace movements, nonviolent strategies, as well as the great barriers that have traditionally undermined peace efforts in the course of history which is perhaps the most insightful and interesting portion of the book.

The history of peace efforts in the face of great international challenges such as World War I, World War II, and other wars was incredibly insightful. There is an abundance of histories written on just about all other aspects of these conflicts, but I had not yet come across an analysis of these events through the eyes of peace advocates.  It was fascinating to read about the various groups, philosophies, different methodologies, and key figures like Einstein among others.

Where the book is really strong is in illuminating the forces that undermine the work of peace when it really matters.  One of the key themes that consistently shows up is nationalism functioning as a barrier to peace efforts.  I’ve known the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, but I came away wanting to distinguish these concepts even more clearly. Nationalism is a key theme that exposed the limits of the peace movements from the World Wars all the way to more recent conflicts.  I was amazed at how much was in place prior to the World Wars to support the peace processes and how quickly much of it dissolved in the waves of nationalism that swept over the countries.

There is a great introduction to the historical movements of nonviolence as well general treatments of the dynamics of violence in society and the difference between pacifism and nonviolence. One of the things that struck me is how leaders of nations time and time again have routinely sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives because of certain patterns of thinking that history has shown to be inadequate to the moment they faced. It’s a tragedy and a reminder to advocate for Biblically based reconciliation in society and between nations as the path of hope for peace.