01 April 2022

Superheroes, Senior Pastors and the dark side of power

I’m an unashamed superhero fanboy. Sure, I’m never expecting academy award winning performances from these films, but Marvel and DC franchises are welcome reminders that even in alternate universes, Lycra is still hands down, the fabric of choice. But beneath the Lycra and CGI, the superhero story is, I think, a long conversation about  power. As Uncle Ben would say to Peter Parker “with great power comes great responsibility.” And this ancient maxim does convey much of the metanarrative in this genre - the gift of power, the use, the abuse and the fear of power.

And to that end, power is also the subtext beneath much of our lives. To be crafted in the image of God is to be inherently and distinctively powerful. And with that power does come great responsibility – to steward, to subdue, to rule, to reproduce, to name, to cultivate, to co-create. The first chapter of the bible reveals power, at least in principle, is a gift bestowed on all, for the common good. Power rightly conceived, enables all people and all creation to flourish.

And yet like the increasingly conflicted superheroes of Marvel and DC, power has a very dark side. Friedrich Nietzsche, (possibly the original proponent for our first modern superhero Superman), believed that all life is ‘the will to power.’ That to seize and exploit power by whatever means, is to seize life itself. 

And that, sadly, is where we land most of the time in the power conversation – people seizing life from others. Sometimes its blatant and premeditated, like Russian cruise missiles or the Taliban barring Afghan girls from an education. But mostly it’s anonymous, unassuming and quietly coercive. It lives behind closed doors in family homes and at the office, in the social media feeds we scroll and in the tension between races, cultures and gender. Overt or covert, power when abused seizes life, and births great trauma and shame in it's victims. As you read this, I recognise that you, reader, may know and feel this with a clarity and depth that I can not begin to imagine.

Power wears many costumes today. It shape-shifts between charisma, knowledge, gender, celebrity, morality, rank and religiosity. Spotting it is often hard because on first appearance it looks heroic and we are attracted to those who possess it. The legendary Stan Lee says “a superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t. To be a superhero, you need at least one exceptional power and you need to use that power to accomplish good deeds.

According to that definition, we are well accustomed to elevating people to superhero status. We seek out giftedness, and heroism and surrender to their exceptional confidence, eloquence, their abilities and sometimes, their narcissism. It might be a musician, a celebrity, a sportsperson, a spiritual leader or just someone we find particularly successful. We love these superheroes because we love powerful, gifted, beautiful people who use their abilities in messianic ways. If we can’t be them, we can at least follow them and try to emulate them. The influencer trend sweeping our digital landscape is simply another iteration of the superhero phenomena. We actually want to be influenced. We want someone to lead us, to save us. We are simultaneously charmed and harmed by the superheroes of our own making.

Leadership in any form is a massive privilege and burden. The more people look AT you, the more they look TO you. This is especially prevalent in church leaderships. The church leader (be it pastor, priest, or any official leadership role) leads not only from their charisma and capabilities, but through character. A leader must not only do their job well but do their life well. The stakes are so incredibly high. You may wow everyone with your superpowers, but if your life doesn’t essentially match your message, all that power eventually turns to poison and people get terribly hurt.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a steady procession of superhero leaders/pastors (I think all male) failing in their personal lives.  Most recently its been Pastor Brian Houston from Hillsong, though he is one of many well known leaders who have been dismissed due to some form of misconduct. Personally, I’ve also witnessed gross misconduct in the church up close and felt its devastating effects. And when this happens there are heartbreaking and dehumanising consequences for their victims. Many never recover from this kind of betrayal. They leave the church, they leave the faith. In truth, everyone loses - the  families, the friends, the church, the reputation of the gospel and of course, the perpetrator.  

I am struck by how many ‘heroic’ leaders finish poorly in ministry and I take every new case as a sobering reminder of my own fragility and need to tread so very carefully. That old Phil Keaggy song plays in my head each time...

 “But It could have been me, I could be the one to lose my grip and fall, it could be me the one who’s always standing tall…for unless you hold me tightly Lord and I can hold on too, then tomorrow in the news it could be me(link here for full lyrics).

I kinda understand why the next generation of young Christian leaders say they are reluctant to become senior leaders/pastors. Who would want either the complexity, the burden or the risk? But perhaps the type of men and women we need are the ones that don’t want to be alpha leaders? A leadership based not in the right-handed sense of power as Nietzsche described but in that left-handed kind of power we see in Jesus. A power borne in selflessness, humility and sacrifice. That a true seizing of life, is to surrender power, not attain it. 

We love our screen heroes in all their farfetched glory. And back in the real world, I doubt we will ever stop exalting certain gifted individuals, for that is just human nature. Nor do I think individuals will ever stop blowing up their lives and hurting others, for that too is human nature. But I do hope we can wise up to power and its potentialities. For starters...

Stop thinking you don’t have power –  My natural bias is to downplay the significance of power in my leadership, but I've learnt thats a perilous mindset. Your positional or personal power is real and it’s either naivety or false humility thinking you don’t possess it. Know which 'superpowers' you possess as a leader and how they affect and influence those around you in positive and negative ways. Your strengths and abilities taken to their limit often become your weaknesses and blindspots. 

Handle power responsibly – now that you know you have power, be careful how you steward it, especially with those who are vulnerable or who will want to please you or get close to you. How do you lead those around you in non-manipulative or non-exploitative ways? What are the  conflicts of interest you need to manage? What guardrails and accountabilities do you have in place for yourself and those you lead? Identify structures in your organisation that elevate some and disempower others? What is in your organisations culture that could make people vulnerable to the abuse of power? 
Are you listening to people who don't have the same power? How do you empower people in your setting to give feedback or commentary on your leadership?  If you don't regularly get push back or 'constructive' feedback as a leader, then maybe it's because those you lead don't really think they have permission to give it, or they are afraid of how you will receive it? If so, you have a power issue.

Give power away –the best thing you can do with your power is progressively give it away, especially to those who are systemically disempowered by gender, culture or circumstance. Include people not like you in your decision making. If you are male, ensure you have a large representation of women in your team and decision making processes. Share your knowledge, share your contacts, delegate authority, not just tasks. Learn to get out of the way more often. Your job is to do yourself out of a job by giving others more of it.

Cool that charisma – we don’t really need mythical superhero leaders through whom we vicariously live. We need leaders who are confident yet humble, authentic, accountable and consultative. Organisations built on a charismatic individual often flounder after that leader is gone.

Build the right brand - there is a place for social media and great communication to a wider audience. But be careful that the brand or platform you are building doesn’t have you as the ultimate destination. It’s really not all about what you can do for Jesus. It’s simply all about Jesus. His glory not yours.

And finally, don’t be too enamoured with anyone, including yourself. Partly because people are never as good as they look - I'm not, you're not. But mostly because in the end, there is only one real superhero worth our adoration – Jesus.

20 February 2022

Stories that Rewrite Us

Dylan Alcott's Australian of the Year acceptance speech was brilliant and moving and I was so delighted to see him be honoured that way amongst a cohort of equally deserving candidates. In subsequent interviews I heard Dylan speak about his self hatred growing up, the power of family and a journey to the man he is today. Dylan helps me catch a better glimpse into the world of those living with a disability. Dylan's story also reminds me of one of the most profoundly moving stories in the bible. Its the story of a man with a name thats hard to pronounce - Mephibosheth. You can read his story here in 2 Samuel 9

So this week I attempted an ancient practice called Midrash. This is the Jewish practice of reading between the lines of the Torah. Between the lines of what is said to imagine what is unsaid. In this process you place yourself into the story, become the character and allow your imagination to lead as you just write. As Alecia Ostriker writes,  "Midrash is a kind of diving deep and surfacing. You move from your ordinary analytical, rational mind into a more meditative state, then into the flow of creativity, and finally back to your ordinary consciousness."

The pastor in me gets nervous at this point. What biases am I adding? How am I corrupting the passage with this paraphrase? Crikey I need to loosen up. I think you can keep to the text and still have an imagination. So here is my inhabitation of Mephibosheth. Turn off your analytical brain for a moment. Get comfortable and let the story preach to you as you read slowly and imaginatively. 

Be blessed.

The Lame one. 
That’s how I’m known. 
That’s all I've ever known. 
My feet twisted, gnarled, 
crusted like sun baked bricks. 
I was just a child, only 5 years old. 
Broken they were, my feet, shattered in that fall. Dropped by my nurse in the mad scramble on that day, when my life changed, when the wonder and joy of my childhood just vanished like a morning dew.

That day. 
I still remember.
The anxious voices.
The servants, agitated, panicked.
People rushing, packing, crashing, scattering like hunted lambs.

I recall the snap, the crackle of bones, the cobble stones beetroot red with my blood. 
That was the moment I met fear, day one of every stinking day since. 

That was the day my father Jonathan went away. Never to see him again.
As a boy I used to draw pictures of his face in the earth till one day I realised all I had was a featureless outline, no detail, nothing really at all to hold onto. I guess, all I ever had was an outline of a father. Not someone to feel safe with, someone to trust.
And his father Saul, a mad king they say, died that day too.

"The king is dead," people cried, and I had no idea that meant I was dead too. A dead dog, waiting to die, hunted, a threat they say to the new king. "No heirs to the old throne allowed!"  King David, hunted by Saul is now the hunter – and that’s why I’m the lame one. 
I escaped but not without this permanent reminder of my fall from grace. How surprising, that’s what my name Mephibosheth means after all. 

Mephibosheth. ‘From out of the mouth of shame’…. 

Names are prophetic. No parent would call their child this name, but that’s who I became. Shame. I wonder what my first name was? I guess it doesn’t matter because now I’m cursed, lame, unclean, orphaned, fatherless, alone in this house of refuge far from the palace of my childhood. Exiled in Gilead, in a backwater of barrenness, a wasteland called Lo-de-bar. 

Loo - deee - barrr.

No one goes to lo-de-bar. Or as we call it, N
o de bar. 
It's only good for one thing, disappearing, being a nobody, laying low and that’s been my life. Laying low, literally dragging my useless feet along the ground and laying low, just in case that king David comes looking for me. Not that I can imagine why I’d be any threat to him. 
A dead dog waiting to die. 
Useless. A life worth nothing to no one….


Years pass in obscurity. 


Then one day, horses, uniformed men came over the horizon, unannounced “we are looking for the son of Jonathan, the lame man.” My cover was blown, by an old servant of Saul’s, Ziba that snitch! I bet he got well paid for his information. It’s not like I could run away, lame dogs don’t run, they just cower with their tail between their legs and awaiting their fate.

So out of no-debar they carried me, the long dusty journey back to Jerusalem, to a sight I could hardly comprehend, a city, a palace, that seemed as radiant as the very sun over my head. The larger the buildings grew the smaller I felt and by the time I was in the courtyard of the king’s palace I’ve never felt so small, so humiliated.

My thoughts raced. What a way to meet your executioner, why not just kill me back in lo debar and save the baggage? Why bring me all the way back here? If I meet the king, what do I do, what do I say, "sorry for being alive king", "sorry for being born to that king who hated you." 

 Suddenly this kingly figure came to me, his hand rested softly on my shoulder, "Mephibosheth" he said. I turned and fell prostrate before him, stuttering a few terrified words “at at your service l..lord”. I’ve lived in fear and humiliation but I’ve never felt so terrified and so unworthy in that moment, sure that my time was done, time to be put down.

Then I heard three small words that would change my life…. Don’t be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid!” I don’t know how not to be anything but afraid, I'm afraid!

“For I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

Was this some sick joke, some new form of torture, "show me kindness", yeah right. “For the sake of your father”….what has my father, that man I never knew, got to do with it anyway? How can he help me from the grave, isn’t he and that madman Saul the reason why my life is such a mess? 

“What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” Stinking, worthless, pest – everyone knows, the only good dog in Israel is a dead one.

“A seat at the king's table”, “all the land of my grandfather.”
I did not believe it, refused to believe it.
I was so blind to the backstory.
This story of two beloved friends.
This King David, who once was my father’s greatest friend!

And the promise. The pledge David made to my father Jonathan in that field so long ago. That no matter what, David would always show kindness to my father’s family. And this was no passing comment, this pledge of kindness is as powerful as a whirlwind. It’s not nice words and glad tidings, it's a promise as solid as the great stones of the temple, as sweet as honey dripping from the comb. It’s so faithful, so unwavering, so determined even if it means untold acts of compassion or mercy or grace no matter the cost.

David made that promise to my Father to show that kind of kindness to anyone in his family….. and I was finding out, that included me. Me? A dead dog somehow included in this mercy, all because of a promise made on my behalf to a man I never knew. I’ve heard words like grace and mercy before, but they were just as alien to me as the furnishings of the palace. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing real was the nagging ache in my gut. I’d vomited in fear so many times that day there was nothing left in the pit of my stomach but disbelief….

And then I heard the clamour of a crowd echo down the halls, and arms under my shoulders carrying me toward the throng, toward a hall and a table, oh a table fit for a king. My ashen face scanned the room in anxious haste. Braided hair, flowing gowns of rich colour, jewelled adornments and a sweet fragrance of jasmine. And look, there are David’s mighty men, looking so fierce so athletic, so….whole. I was feeling pathetic in their presence.

‘Here comes the dog’, I thought, ‘here to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.’ How humiliating. I looked down, ashamed to look at them, hoping they would politely look anywhere but in my direction.

They carried me to that table, in all my shabbiness, to a place just across from the king even. Those either side made room for me to recline, they saw me, welcomed me. Servants offered me a cup of the finest wine I’ve tasted – deep crimson and rich. Another brought fresh hot bread like I’ve never tasted, as though it had come down from heaven itself. Had I ever known the delight of food before? To be truly nourished. I’ve never seen such a banquet, such abundance, let alone be invited to one. How did I get here? Don’t they know who I am?

As the minutes became hours, a tiny thought, like a gnat began to crawl in the spaces between my fear and loathing. It began to linger. It began to grow.

Wait, they see me, not my brokenness.

The king looks delighted to see me. I was reclining at the table like everyone else. No pitiful stares, or sideways glances.  Not invisible, not hiding in Lo debar I was…. 
included, wanted. 

Not once or twice but always included, a permanent seat. 
My world was unravelling. All the years, the tears, the darkness lifting off as a widow’s veil when her kinsman redeemer finally comes for her.

In time, that table, that seat, that bread and wine silently taught me 
no shame is so great that mercy cannot heal, 
no ugliness that cannot be made beautiful, 
no fear than cannot be comforted, and
no story that cannot be rewritten. 
Oh what joy may greet you
when a king calls your name.

It is still hard to believe it, 
I’m no dead dog anymore, 
that name doesn’t fit anymore.
I’m still lame in the feet, 
but it’s not who I am. 
No longer the Lame one, 
I think, somehow, could it be
I became,
the Loved one.

And the love 
that carried me to the table, 
carries me over and over, 
carries me all the days of my life 
and whispers….

you always 
belong here.

Special thanks to the amazing Lisa Shanahan, my ever wise editor and Yoda in the craft of putting pen to paper.

22 January 2022

At the Table

In a recent post (here) I talked about the power of habits and how they form us as individuals and communities. Well that got me thinking about the habits we’ve grown as a family over the past 27 years of marriage. One enduring habit has to do with food and mealtime. Both my parents are great cooks and dinners were always something to look forward to growing up. Thanks to them, I also love preparing and eating food. My friend from work Karen and I regularly text each other prideful photos of our latest culinary creations (though she always wins hands down). There is something delightful, glorious, spiritual even about the gift of good food. 

In our home, we always eat at the table, we wait till everyone has arrived, we hold hands around the table as one of us thanks God for meal, we eat (it’s always chaotic, noisy and messy with three kids under 17), and when everyone is done we take turns to clean up (usually with some measure of stalling or complaining). Oh, and no screens are allowed, ever.

I you are gen X or older this may not be such a foreign idea but if you are younger, that might sound like a totally weird set of habits, especially given that Australians are increasingly likely to eat on the lounge in front of the TV. Recent Australian studies by social researcher Mark McCrindle have found that over one third of all Australians eat away from a table and in front of a screen. This figure grows to about 50% with people aged 20-40. In his analysis for Freedom Foods, Mark said “an increasing number of families were eating their meals by the television because time poor parents juggling work and domestic commitments, want that time to unwind in the evening”. He continues, “I think that whole process of preparing, cooking and sitting down to a meal together has moved from being the ever day experience to being a special experience.”

The Uber eats phenomena (which I just can’t get my head around) reflects this gradual cultural shift in western nations away from food preparation and shared consumption being central to our daily practice. We order the food on a screen then watch the screen while we eat it. It also highlights how far we’ve moved to outsourcing the basic stuff of life. Sure, we still have a plethora of cooking shows and food documentaries which inspire a particular segment of the public, but I wonder if these shows are more aspirational than anything else?

I don’t think we are going to stop loving good food anytime soon but I do wonder if we need to reclaim its significance and the power in the habits of the table as a central expression of our community with one another and I think, community with God.

The lounge may be more comfortable and the TV more entertaining but what are you missing out on, and at what cost to the people you are doing life with?

(Side note here: This lounge/table contrast is a good analogy of the church too. Do we want 'be fed' as we sit shoulder to shoulder staring at the platform in a mostly anonymous setting, or do we want to eat together, face to face, interacting, sharing with each other?)

I think Jesus knew this too. Jesus seemed to have a thing about food and parties such that he was accused of being a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7.34). Throughout the gospels Jesus is either going to a party, at a party, or having just left a party. And, it was in these contexts, up close with others around a shared meal, that we see some of the most beautiful life changing moments in His ministry. The night before his death Jesus plans a meaning-laden feast to be shared with his closest friends, a meal they would later establish as a centre point of their identity and solidarity. And soon after His resurrection, Jesus shares a breakfast on the beach with Peter, again a meal that changed the course of his life.

Food and feasting is a surprisingly constant theme running through the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation. The first words of God to humans are an invitation to eat and the final vision of the new world is of a massive, joyful banquet. This is no coincidence. There is something deeply spiritual and significant about the table in our humanity.

The table can be a place of the simple human rhythm of eating in shared community.
The table can be a place of learning how to communicate and navigate relationships and mess.
The table can be a place of grace and invitation and inclusion for the lonely.
The table can be a place of continuity and intentionality for scattered, time poor people.
The table can be a place of remembering, a place of restoration and redemption.

May you and those you love skip the lounge, set aside the devices, and rediscover the gift that is the table in your home. And, may that table always have a spare seat for others to join you.

18 January 2022

Habits follow the Heart


Over the summer break I reread James Clear’s best seller, Atomic Habits. A good read for anyone pondering the shape of their lives in 2022. As the title suggests, habits, like atoms are the tiny building blocks of a much larger reality or outcome. Though small they are extremely powerful and over time, shape us into the people we are becoming.

Clear explains that our lives are all deeply influenced by habits driving us in either positive or negative directions. Our habits may leave us feeling productive or stressed, growing in a sense of purpose or languishing, building relationships or becoming isolated. And, Clear argues, our habits are a window into the heart and our sense of identity. That every action you take is a vote for the person you believe you are, or wish to become. Of course, it’s a two-way street and our sense of identity ultimately should shape our behaviours.

But what happens to life when the past two years have torn up many of the habits we’d established over what might be decades? Like say, reading on your daily commute, or dining with friends, or that annual holiday with family, or physically going to church on Sunday. I confess I fell out of bunch of good habits over the past few years, like exercise, like writing.... and healthy eating.

And what about those habits you formed in a pandemic? Maybe it’s a massive daily spike in your Netflix consumption, or caffeine consumption or an obsession with the news feed (ok that’s me). Of course, you may have also established some great new habits, like zooming your extended family regularly, or walking in the mornings or rediscovering an old discipline.

In my context, I’ve seen most people to varying degrees lose the habit of regularly gathering as a faith community. Covid really disrupted the rhythm of gathering and even though we have had a form of gathering continually available, it has been far less gratifying on line or in masks and distancing and an absence of song and lingering. Our lack of physical connection has for some even morphed into a deep lack of belonging in community and an entrenched hesitancy to return. I’m the last person who wants people to gather as church simply because it’s the religious thing to do, but I do think the past few years have robbed people of many of the unspoken delights that come from the good habit of regularly meeting together – like that feeling of belonging, connection, and shared mission.

So, as we all begin to emerge (again and hopefully for the last time) from another wave of the pandemic I think it’s time to ask:

Which habits do you want to keep or recapture, and which should be relegated to the pandemic years?

Perhaps the way to answer that question is by asking 2 other questions:

Who am I, and what kind of person do I want to become?

Ok, that’s a couple of really deep questions which I'm not sure I can even fully answer, but my hunch is that if we could approximately answer these questions we could better figure out which habits, rhythms and behaviours we want to prune from life, and which we want to resurrect.

There may be a sizeable gap between who you are, and the kind of person you want to become. That’s ok, we are all in that club. But nevertheless, what kind of person do you ultimately want to become? What do you want to be known for by your kids if you have them? What are you fundamentally about? At the end of your life, a life well lived looks like?

If we can honestly answer this we can then make choices that grow habits that take us in that direction. The constant danger is that we make a bunch of good things (like fitness, prosperity, career, influence or knowledge or anything apart from God), become the ultimate treasure of our lives. And when they are, you can be sure that our habits will follow the lead of our heart. That’s why our habits are so diagnostic of the heart and identity. They reveal what we treasure, what we believe about ourselves and who we are becoming.

So what is the real treasure your habits are running after in 2022?
And deep down, are you really ok with that?

When I think about what I most treasure in life and the person I want to be, there definitely are some new habits that aren't taking me there, and some older ones that I need to relearn.

How about you?