Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I rode the ‘L’ today. It’s been awhile. For those of you reading this who are outside the Chicago area the ‘L’ is The Windy City’s elevated railway, linking neighborhoods to each other and to downtown. It’s part of the mass transit system in Chicago.

For a number of years a branch of the ‘L’ was directly across from my home in Evanston. It linked the Howard St. stop with one in suburban Skokie. Now, living in the western burbs, the nearest ‘L’ stop is several miles from my home.

Today, an acquaintance and I got on the ‘L’ in East Garfield Park heading in for a lunch and meeting in downtown Chicago. It brought back memories.

My first ‘L’ ride came within days of moving to the Chicago area. I walked a few blocks from my home to Howard Street, bought a ticket, and headed south for a meeting near Cabrini Green. I knew nothing about the system. And if it weren’t for the willingness of complete strangers to help the ‘man from Nevada’ navigate the system I might still be on board that original train.

Every trip to Wrigley Field was on the ‘L’. I have favorite memories of taking my kids to games. The ‘L’ would pick up more and more people as we headed south towards Clark and Addison. And when we arrived there was nary a soul left on board except, perhaps, only an occasional Sox fan who had wandered north looking for the promised land. When I went to grad school at Loyola University I’d take the train whenever the weather didn’t favor biking. It was a short trip through deliciously diverse neighborhoods.

I was reminded today why I think everyone should ride the ‘L’ whenever they get the chance. It’s a great equalizer. Crammed onto trains are both wealthy and poor, scam artists, and opportunists. There are executives, factory workers, waitresses, cooks and students all trying to get some place as fast and as cheaply as they can. You see the well dressed and the disheveled squeezed together in seats or holding onto the same pole when no seats are to be had. It’s white and black and brown and yellow all sharing the same place, heading in the same direction. If you’re a fan of segregation the ‘L’ is not within your comfort zone.

Riding the ‘L’ makes me feel a little bit more alive. Riding through Chicago neighborhoods gives me an up close and personal look at this broad shouldered city. Watching who gets off and on at various stops helps you to understand the makeup of the various neighborhoods. It’s a point of view you don’t get from the crowded freeways.

I know people who won’t ride the ‘L’. “ Too noisy”, they’ll say. “Too crowded.” Others lament. Some even say it’s “too unsafe”. For many, it takes them out of their comfort zone. They’d have to rub shoulders with people they’ve tried to avoid. I think they’re missing out.

‘Twas a good day. Rediscovering the ‘L’ and in the process rediscovering the richness of the diversity of Chicago. Then, I had a nice lunch and a productive meeting with two people I’m growing to admire and hope will become friends. To top it all off there was a chance encounter with someone I ‘justice journeyed’ with two years ago. All in all, quite nice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Got to

I inhabit a land that I don’t like. It’s bordered by both an attitude and behaviors that don’t serve me well. It’s a land called ‘Got to’. You hear me refer to it when I say things like “I’ve got to go to this meeting” or “I’ve got to write this sermon” or “I’ve got to call this person.”

Nothing wrecks a day than having to face a to do list that’s become a ‘got to do’ list. All of a sudden a world filled with opportunity becomes a world of obligation. There are no longer possibilities only responsibilities.

When I’ve ‘got to’ do something it shows in my behavior and attitudes. I go to a meeting feeling my time is being wasted. That attitude will reflect itself in my behavior. Even if I’m adept at disguising it …well, it leaks out.

When I feel I have to do something I’m convinced that I no longer live with a sense of expectancy. There’s no room for the spontaneous or the miraculous. There’s only room for the drudgery of duty.

It’s not the way to live.

Oh, for sure life is filled with ‘must do’ events. How much worse have I made such things by not having the right attitude about them? And by not having the right attitude have I missed out on opportunities to be used by God in redemptive ways?

My default when I think that I’m being forced to do something is to become cynical and sarcastic. I’m really good at those things. The problem is that my cynicism and sarcasm can drag other people into a bad place and impacts my own perspective.

God has given me opportunity. For every opportunity there is a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to abandon the world of ‘got to’ for something better. What if I really believed that everything I’ve ‘got to’ do is actually part of God’s plan? What if this meeting, this gig, this conversation, this thing I really don’t want to be present for …what if I viewed it as a divinely appointed time? Maybe it’s to work on my patience which is truly impaired. Or what if I’m there for one conversation or one point of encouragement or to honor the person who called the meeting and who doesn’t view it as a ‘got to’ event but rather as something vital and life giving. What if I really tried to be fully present? What could God do with that?

I’m a busy person. Too busy. I was driven to the land of ‘got to’ by stupidly saying yes to do many things and not bothering to discern how best to use my time and energy. So, there are some boundary issues I need to deal with but until I do how can I better be present, inhabiting a land called ‘want to’ and distancing myself from that place of exile called ‘got to’?

In the land of ‘got to’ I sin. My attitude is bad. It drags others down with it. I’m mad and angry about being too busy.

“Got to” is not a lonely place. I have plenty of company. There’s other cynical, sarcastic, angry people living right next door to me. What a neighborhood. I even see some of you there. We gotta find a different place to live.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Different Worlds

Today I was in Lake Forest, IL. I wasn’t far from Halas Hall, home of the Bears. Our church staff was visiting another church staff on their turf. Lake Forest is a beautiful place, the church warm and inviting. The staff we visited with was smart and informative. A good day.

Yesterday, I was in East Garfield Park, a west side Chicago neighborhood. It’s about as far away from Lake Forest as you can get. I spent an hour in a bible study with homeless men. I wasn’t leading, just watching. The conversation was smooth, the observations were poignant. A good day.

I write this from my home in Villa Park, IL. It’s not the inner city. It’s also not an upscale suburb. The town I live is filled with smaller homes and blue collar people. It’s comfortable but not pretentious. I’m blessed to live here.

Lake Forest is pristine. Nestled against Lake Michigan it just smells of both new and old, old money. It’s got the best of education. The best shoppes. The best of everything that money can buy. And it’s clean. Really clean.

On the west side of Chicago one of the first things you notice is the litter. The schools aren’t good. The best restaurant is called Subway. There is no smell of new or old money. This is a neighborhood living on the margins.

In Villa Park, there is a growing Muslim community. The high school finally passed a referendum to beef up its campus. There’s major strip malls on the main thoroughfares that border the community.

In each community good people live. In each there are families in desperate straits. There’s an addiction problem in East Garfield Park as there is in both Lake Forest and in Villa Park. In rough times people cling to their faith. In East Garfield Park it’s always a rough time.

In each community people live in isolation, not knowing the meaning or experience of community. In many respects, each community needs each other. But time and distance and economics and skin color separate them.

I struggle this week to make sense of these different worlds. As I stood, standing in line in a store on the west side, I realized that I was the only white man in the building. I’m not very conscious of race when I walk through a Lake Forest and only mildly so in my own home community. When I drive through East Garfield Park I am struck by the enormous monetary poverty. And when I drive through Lake Forest I see what the super rich do with their excess.

In each, there are people. Smart people. Hurting people. People who lack faith. Some who are discovering faith for the first time. And in each there are people who are far from God.

I’m struck by our tendency (those of us who have more) to use our mobility to spend our time with people who think, act and look like us. We choose to congregate with those who don’t disturb our comfort level.

I’ve lived in places where rich and poor, black,white, brown and yellow live in closer proximity. It’s both easy and hard to live in such places. It's easy because there are so many people to like and so many interesting cultures to rub against. It's hard because no issue is easy to resolve because everything is discussed against the backdrop of race, privilege and class. It can be nerve-wracking.

In all honesty, I often wonder how I can get the different worlds I experience to collide so that God can do wondrous things. Listening to the homeless guys discuss the bible has me yearning to invite the well-to-do to participate in the learning. I want my Christian friends to dialogue with the men and women at the mosque down the street from me. I want the people of Lake Forest to walk the streets of the west side of Chicago to discover the heart beat of the people who live there. And for those who carry negative stereotypes of rich suburbanites I want them to meet and know suburban folk who walk their talk, using both power and position for good not for personal gain.

And so, this week was a learning experience for me. Nothing new really. But I had a heightened awareness about a whole lot of things. One realization is that I’m in a position, working in both in an upscale suburb and an underresourced urban community, to bring worlds and people together with some degree of intentionality. And I’m realizing that this is, indeed, a good and needed thing. In all my worlds there are good people, with God-given giftedness, who need each other. They just don’t realize it. Yet.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ft. Hood

I watched the President tonight on the news. He was at Ft. Hood. Very moving. His words were wise, the emotion of the families and friends of those killed and wounded was very touching.

I don’t know what happened at Ft. Hood beyond just the obvious facts. I don’t think any of us have the full story yet but there’s growing evidence that extremism lashed out and claimed even more victims. The thought of that both saddens and angers me.

Terrorism. I don’t know about you but it makes me very uneasy. There’s no easy way to combat it. The most normal looking, best educated person we know might be on the edge of doing some horrible act.

I’ve stayed away from talk radio on this one. My guess is that fingers are being pointed and blame assigned. It’s either Obamas’s fault or the end result of the failed policies of Bush. Both presidents are easy targets.

I think there’s a harder target to hit. It’s us. My guess is that no one reading this is a terrorist. Maybe, but I doubt it. For the most part the readers of this blog are beyond their teenage years. Some are in their twenties and thirties but the vast majority are 40+. For the most part all of us are good people, leading good lives, and making whatever good impact we can in the world around us.

We’re appalled when we hear about Ft. Hood. We want an easy answer. We want someone to blame, someone we can point a finger at, shaking our head in disgust. We want justice to be served. And justice should be served. No doubt.

I wonder, though, if we’ll pause long enough to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame and getting serious, really serious about how we make this world a better place. Again, my 60’s idealism informs my thoughts as well as the Christ who lives in me.

I try to make a difference. So do many of you. We do make a difference. But maybe, just maybe, we’re being called to up the ante a bit. Maybe there’s another step we need to take.

To be honest, most of what I do doesn’t require much sacrifice. I’m in my comfort zone most of the time. I’m wondering if the state of the world doesn’t require me to start sacrificing in order to make the difference I really want to make.

Let’s face it. Hate, extremism, and indifference are making their mark. It’s easy to hate, extremists hardly have to think about what they’re doing (just following their basic instinct), and indifference is second nature for many of us.

Maybe, what’s going to be required is that those of us who are living good lives decide to go beyond good and tap into God’s best for us. Maybe the way we live, without sacrifice, without thoughtfulness at times creates the environment in which extremism and hate thrives.

This guy who killed everyone at Ft. Hood was probably influenced by people who were willing to do whatever it took to shape other people’s lives. How willing am I to step up, living into my God given potential to help shape lives for good and not for evil? How willing am I? Are you?

I’m not stupid. The world is in a mess. But I wonder if this ‘Jesus’ stuff many of us talk about goes beyond what’s easy and comfortable and it stretches us a little. Actually, maybe it stretches us a lot.

People died at Ft. Hood. That saddens me. A lot.

But I ask myself ‘what can I do to prevent something like that happening again?” And I have no easy easy answers. The only thing that comes to mind is that I need to step up my game. Wherever there’s hate I can sow love. Where extremists spray their venom I could step up and bravely stand for healing and reconciliation. And I could easily choose to not be indifferent or bask in the light of ‘my good deeds’. There’s a ‘next step’ I could take. So could you.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Leadership Jottings

Have you ever heard someone say “Nope, it’s not going to happen on my watch?” I think every leader I’ve ever served with has found that non-negotiable place where they’ve had to use whatever leadership capital was available and put it on the line. They do it because their sense of ownership of a mission, an ideal, or an organization is high and the cost of failure is unacceptable. Good leaders don’t cash in their chips all that often but when the appropriate push comes to shove they’re not afraid to do what’s necessary.

I’ve found myself in places where I’ve caved in when I should have said ‘not on my watch’. There’s a fine line, at times, between being a determined leader or a reluctant doormat. I like being a determined leader. But I have a doormat default mechanism that kicks in at the most inopportune times.

Leadership is hard these days. We want someone to lead us but we’ve lost the art of being followers. Instead of following we critique. And as a result movements stall, initiatives never get off the ground, and morale dips. Leadership has never been for the faint of heart. It’s even more so these days.

I’m a boomer and not sure if I should apologize for that or not. So I won’t. The truth is that I’m in late middle age (thinking I will live to be about 118). There’s a tendency to want to fade into the sunset, thinking my time has passed. The problem is that I’m not ready to become an old curmudgeon, blaming someone and anyone for anything that goes wrong.

Folks my age have to believe that there’s a real need for us to links arms with a new generation of leaders. I’m realizing, however, that a new generation thinks differently, has different expectations, and has been educated and acculturated quite differently than what I’m used to. With that in mind I still believe that I have leadership capital needing to be invested. And if I can resist my urges towards dogmatism, entrenchment and laziness I can still be a factor within my circles of influence and allow others, often much younger, to impact my life.

What’s dawning on me is that I don’t have deep insights about how to solve problems but I do have some strong convictions about how we talk about solving problems. The ‘how’ is important.

In the midst of this continuing leadership involvement I bring to the table my ‘faith’ which can be scoffed at and labeled as both uninteresting and irrelevant. Being a ‘Christ-follower’ is not for those prone to cowardice these days especially for anyone trying to lead outside the walls of the church. There’s a whole world out there that is quite dismissive of what I value deeply. If I can just keep that world from dismissing me as uninteresting and irrelevant God might be able to use my place at the table for something that has kingdom impact. Without sounding trite my job is to show up authentically in leadership circles and allow God to do his thing in and through and despite of me.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Want to play?

One of the striking features of the persecuted church around the world is that people will do whatever it takes to be together. They will risk life and limb, suffer great inconvenience and adjustments of priority in order to sit in chairs in a quiet place together. To be with other believers. No matter what the cost.

One of the striking features of the western church is that even those who are deeply committed followers of Christ opt not to do ‘church’ all that often. If truth be known a good percentage of folks are part-timers. Maybe attending two out of every four weeks in every month. The church is not central to many lives, only the wallpaper that helps adorn it. If that. Many have told me that they live for Christ but the church just doesn't do it for them. Bottom line is that more and more we see people are unwilling to do whatever it takes to be together. Certainly, we're not risking life and limb (although the lack of charity in our church parking lot makes it a risky venture) or inconveniencing ourselves in order to be with other believers.

And yet when you ask the American church what it longs for – people say ‘community’. It's perpexing. It's as if we want community to happen for us but we don’t want to put effort into creating it.

It makes one wonder if the persecuted church with all its trials and travails is better for the soul than a church that enjoys the possibilities inherent in great freedom.

In the early days of the church we find one common theme …the people who knew Jesus needed each other. Jesus told them to go and wait until the Holy Spirit came. And so they waited …together. And then after the Holy Spirit came that desire intensified until the point where you get this captivating picture of the early church. It's found in Acts 2 and 4

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. ..

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

One in heart and mind. Shared everything. With great power. No needy among them. Testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

From the very first day I read these versed I longed for what it described. I actually chose a college at a monastery because a friend told me ... "The monks will care about you." For a kid from a broken home I was looking for the church to provide me with the family, the sense of community I never really had. I had this inherent belief that church was more than a worship service, more than throwing my dollars into a bucket …there was something about the notion of faith based community that made and makes my heart beat hard.

Often when one goes on a retreat or a mission trip you grow close to others in a way that makes you want to never come off that mountain. The experience of community wrapped in service is a great combination.

I yearn for community. Yet, I lack the get up and go to create it. I like my space. My private time. Yet, every time I take the step to help create and be in community I'm only rarely disappointed. It's well worth the effort.

So, don't know where this is going except to say I'm being challenged to pray and think about this whole 'community' thing. No, that's not the truth. I've thought and prayed long and hard about this over the years. Ever notice that saying 'thinking and praying' is really pretentious. And it usually means 'I don't intend on doing anything'. So here's the truth. I have it hunch God might be looking a whole lot of us in the eyes and saying something like this ..."You know what to do. People are dying out there because they lack meaningful connection. You're a leader. Be in and create community. Be the church. It's part of your spiritual DNA. Have fun. Get back with me if you run into problems."

The ball is officially in my court. Yipes. Anybody else want to play?