What if we fail to make America great again?

I am deeply saddened for my three sons as they launch into adulthood. When I was their age, we still had numerous politicians—including presidential candidates—who engaged their tasks with a solid sense of genuine greatness. They were in no way perfect, but they sincerely viewed themselves as public servants. Theirs was greatness born of common grace goodness, including core character competencies essential to lead well. Alas today, I am increasingly vexed over the lack of such leaders. Too few possess those qualities necessary for a nation’s greater good and that nation’s ripple of good influence. I long for such leaders for my sons and future generations. Before you label me nostalgic or grumpy, please indulge my musing.

Disgrace of impeachment proceedings

Disturbing. Disgraceful. Discouraging. Amid blasts of mounting accusations and fuming vitriol from either side, I find myself using all three words to describe the current landscape of US politics and public sentiment. This past weekend, major rallies and policy-sharing events were held by both Republicans and Democrats. Those events revealed extremely troubling views, misguided agendas, and more all-out ugliness.

Gene Edward Veith urges us: “The Christian’s involvement with and responsibility to the culture in which God has placed him is part of his calling. Human societies also require governments, formal laws, and governing authorities. Filling these offices of earthly authority is indeed a worthy vocation for the Christian . . . ”[1] Now more than ever, we need people who genuinely show up, pray up, speak up, and step up. But how might we engage in a way that brings something different to the already disruptive equation?

Amidst today’s political turmoil, we all feel dissed. But there’s a much bigger brand of dis to blame. Pelosi and her peeps are guilty of it. Trump is egregiously guilty, including his evangelical leader cronies. In reality, we are all outrageously guilty of this particular ugly one.

It’s called dis-integration.

And it’s especially tricky. Here’s what happens when people say, “My faith is important, but I don’t need to mix that too much with political work. I can and should keep my church life and spirituality separate from my political views and actions.” Many people today bring this attitude: “It’s not spiritual; it’s just political.” Such outlook is a kissing cousin to “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”

Can integration really happen?

Overcoming dis-integration is not only a Red vs. Blue issue. It runs much deeper. At the core, it is about reclaiming the grace of serving fellow humans, both nearby and round the globe. Its roots are found in Genesis 2:15, where God purposed for humans to work in his Garden. In other places in Scripture, this ancient word for work is also translated as serve. God’s unfolding biblical story reveals a handful of characters who served in government in amazingly integrated, service-oriented ways. The likes of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel demonstrate how God’s people can be vibrantly involved in the work of politics and public service.[2]

One party trumpets the MAGA slogan, but both the Elephant and the Donkey want to see America great again. They just seriously disagree about what the nuanced outcomes entail. Sadly, for both parties, greatness means some version of sassy rhetoric, fat-cat wealth, savvy power bases, and the firepower to successfully obliterate whomever they deem the enemy. Precise applications of such supposed greatness are what’s up for debate. This prescriptive understanding of greatness—both greatness of individual leaders and what greatness should look like for a collective people—is painfully flawed. It’s true on either side of the aisle. I feel sickened and saddened by such a despicable description of greatness.

Jesus supplied a deeply different understanding. He taught his disciples that true greatness means learning to humbly serve others (Mark 9:33-35) based on holistic, integrated love (Matthew 22:34-40). I know, this probably sounds like a pie-in-the-sky platitude, a hearkening back to Mayberry or Walton’s Mountain. But Jesus said it. Greatness is born of humble service. Will we believe him and work like that’s true in our own everyday vocations—including political and governmental responsibilities? In his book The Integrated Life, Ken Eldred argues for people to live all of life—especially their everyday work—fully informed and integrated with their faith. That means great leaders humbly serve others.[3]

Greater guiding questions

Aiming to pull out of my sadness, I try to envision what true greatness might look like for my sons and so many others for future years. True greatness would look like a fuller integration of our faith in the public sphere, an integration that impacts not just our nation but the globe. Such integration must involve once again the twin concepts of character and service. Too many good people are allowing their own hunger for political power and economic comfort to control their allegiances, their choices, and their votes.

Why do we continue to defend leaders whose words are persistently malicious, whose moral choices are corrupt, and whose practices are ripe with deception? How long will we ridiculously look the other way when leaders are obviously corrupt through and through? Why do we continue coddling all sorts of vices just because a candidate supports our own favorite view related to abortion, or race, or healthcare, or immigration, or some other singular, deeply held issue? Too many of us pledge our allegiance based on myopic tunnel vision.

Character matters. Good character means being trustworthy, full of integrity. Good character matters because telling the truth matters. Leaders must be willing to tell the truth, first to themselves about themselves. Truth be told, we are not always good leaders, both at our core and in our actions. During a political campaign early in his career, Abraham Lincoln noted:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.[4]

Note Lincoln’s great ambition. He realized that in order to be truly esteemed by fellow men, he needed to render himself worthy of that esteem. There was no sense of entitlement. In Lincoln’s leadership framework, self-rendering was essential to a sincerely great ambition.

O that we had more leaders today willing to tell themselves the truth and “render” themselves. Lincoln was relentless in self-examination, working on personal change—even altering his viewpoints and platforms when necessary. Then he avidly pursued active, hands-on service to others. Being a deeply, truly kind leader truly matters. I long for such leaders in public service today.

I wonder what would happen if more of our politicians—and especially the ones aspiring to be President—would ask this two-part, formative question every day when they wake up:

What sort of person should I be—in light of King Jesus—and what actions should I take in order to actually bless the people I serve, to intentionally create greater flourishing?

I hope we fail. I hope we fail miserably at the current crazed attempts to make and keep America great again. And may that failure open the way for us to understand a truer, kinder, stronger greatness. O that such greatness would be born of good character and genuine service on behalf of others.

 

[1]Gene Edward Veith Jr. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, 101.

[2]For a winsome analysis of Joseph’s integration, see Albert M. Erisman’s book The Accidental Executive.

[3]Ken Eldred, The Integrated Life.

[4]Doris Kearns Goodwin. Leadership in Turbulent Times, 1-20.

Amidst suicidal thoughts, one of Tolkien’s darkest tales delivers hope!

They were so skilled, such stunning characters. We were deeply saddened. What more could be said?

Our collective emotion was rocked last year as amazingly talented creators Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade chose their own exits. And we recently paused in remembrance: Robin Williams has now been gone five years.

What more should be said? My reading and training on grief have coached me to say nothing. Less is more. Remain silent. Do not preach or dispense advice. Simply grieve with the grieving.

And under almost every circumstance, I concur. Indeed, we pray for comfort and divine hope to descend in hearts of family and friends. We live ever-cognizant of the heartache of mental illness and the struggle of addiction. Ours is a pulsing grief, oft best unspoken. Together, our hearts ache.

Albeit for a moment, indulge me. Perhaps we should lean into a shade more reflection. I am compelled to break from the normal silence of our society’s prescribed, safe decorum. When we witness such a sad avalanche of remarkable people, it seems that further commentary might be appropriate. Perhaps, a few next level thoughts might prove helpful to someone. And we join together in confessing, there are still parts both known and unknown.

I shall not engage in diatribe against the supposed emptiness of the splendidly wealthy and the wickedly successful movers and shakers of current culture. Over my years, I have witnessed too much. Suicide regularly claims the upper crust as well as the best of us lower crumbs. She plays no favorites in her deceptive malice. Life’s pressure, pain, and resulting hopelessness are no respecter of persons.

In the wake of Anthony and Kate’s self-determined exits, my mind was moved with sadness. And I was drawn into a Tolkien scene in The Lord of the Rings plus several correlating truths. Beware. This scene happens far from the Shire but not yet Mordor. We find Gandalf and Pippin in one of the dreadful, messy middle places of Middle-earth, the Citadel of Gondor during the apex of the Battle.

He was so skilled, such a stunning character. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had served many years as the ruler of the city and surrounding parts, both known and unknown. Overwhelmed by the Shadow and Sauron’s dark influence, this long-time leader chose to do the unthinkable.

With great haste, Pippin desperately explained to Gandalf: ‘Denethor has gone to the Tombs, and he has taken Faramir, and he says we are all to burn, and he will not wait, and they are to make a pyre and burn him on it, and Faramir as well. And he has sent me to fetch wood and oil.’

Denethor’s son, Faramir, had been wounded in battle, a wound the father assumed to be fatal. Gandalf and Pippin raced to the house of the dead in an attempt to rescue both father and son. They rushed in, and we read: “Denethor stepped backward before Gandalf as one amazed.”

Gandalf and Denethor engaged in a volley of heated argument. Denethor declared: ‘Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?’ The old wise guide responded, attempting with all his might to clear the crazed perspective. O if he might talk even an ounce of sense into the frazzled leader.

‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death…only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.’

Here is one powerfully germane, highly potent statement from the Wizard’s lips. Before we quickly shrug, shake our heads, and dub this as insensitive, provincial, or even judgmental, let us ponder the depth of Tolkien’s analysis.

Gandalf was drawing from the recesses of his memory, reaching back to ancient times in earlier ages when rulers chose to exit life of their own accord. His analysis was profound. The root cause was a dark blend of pride and despair. They allowed Dark Power to get the best of them. (Catch the rest of the story in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chapter 7.)

But notice this standout statement: Authority is not given to you…to order the hour of your death. Tolkien was very deliberately conveying through the wise lips of Gandalf his own world and life view. Humans are ultimately accountable to their Creator. From Tolkien’s perspective, to think otherwise is a misguided, under-the-Shadow, yes even arrogant perspective. When the leading persons of a culture arrive at believing they hold the authority to decide when they shall depart, they are beguiled by “pride and despair.” But Tolkien does not end with diagnosis. In typical Tolkien style, there is hope and wonderful good news.

Gandalf’s next words to Denethor conveyed so much: ‘Come! We are needed. There is much that you can yet do.’ He called the Steward of Gondor to recognize his important stewardship. He called him to humbly recognize his sacred calling and how much he was needed.

We must all remember, even in our darkest moments:

The choice is not our own. Yes, this runs contra popular, pervasive perspective, the groundswell of societal opinion. Misguided, we think we should rule our own entrance and exit. Sadly, we are now slogging through the Shadows of such dark thinking.

We are needed. There are still friends, coworkers, clients, precious children and spouses who do indeed need you to stay in the battle. Choose to stay. Please choose to stay!

There is much we can still do. There are new parts and places to go—both known and unknown. There are fresh meals to create and taste. New people to meet and bless. There are fashions to still make, meetings to lead, and products to create. There is Good News to share, bad news to battle through, and love to spread profusely.

We all battle with our own blend of pride and despair. We all have demons, addictions, and old enemies. Amidst the voices of dark despair, may we listen instead to the voice of Gandalf and ultimately our Creator. Hear him say: You are not your own. You are loved.  You are not alone. COME! You are needed.  There is much that you can yet do. There is hope!

 

 

The Bigger Deal About the Bill Hybels Accusations

Stunned. Saddened. Angered. Grieved. Determined. Questioning.

I have this jumbled mix of emotions upon reading the Chicago Tribune article. How can this be? Who is really telling the truth? I know there are no absolutely perfect professions that get a pass on scandal. No perfect families, no impeccable churches, no spotless tribes of churches, and there are certainly no perfect pastors. (I know that first-hand.) But I find myself scratching my head and proclaiming:

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

I am very aware that Bill adamantly denies the accusations. (I so hope he’s telling the truth!) What should I think, since the likes of Ortberg, Jimmy, and Nancy have joined their voices purporting that the accusations may carry some validity. They have been trustworthy friends of Willow Creek (and it feels like friends to so many of us as readers and listeners over the years). Whom to believe?

In the wild wake of #MeToo, the raucous flood of high-profile Hollywood accusations, as well as the skeletons in the closets of a much-too-muddy White House, we have settled into a ridiculous new normal. What we might have known a year ago as a healthy sense of disgust when hearing blasts of smutty news now gives way to a cold case of calloused numbness, a grogginess that’s settled over our collective conscience.

The Hybels accusations serve as a fresh slap to my sleepy soul. I cannot help but wake up and ask: “How can so many mature people who claim to know better act this way? Really? No! Enough is enough!”

“Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill.”

Sadly, such sickening scenarios are lose-lose-lose. Someone is lying while someone is truth telling. In the process, they each lose big-time. But there is another bigger, even sadder set of losers. No matter which side is right, the “skeptics, moralists, and long-time seekers” just grew less trusting and took another step away from the kingdom. I grieve and say to my skeptical and seeking friends, “Please, O please, I beg you to believe that there are still some good and reliable Christians left in the world. I so hope and pray at the end of the day, you remember how much we all need God’s loving grace. That includes Bill—and you and me—and every person pulsing on the planet.”

For many of us, “Me too” is no longer something that remains in the safe distance of a far-off scandal traipsed as tabloid in the Tribune, splashed across Christianity Today’s weekend headline, or blasted across a CNN banner. It hits way too close to home for that friend or family member who suddenly has to leave their job due to a previous season of sinful indiscretion. Many of us know someone not in the presidential, Hollywood, or mega-pastor limelight experiencing something that feels like collateral damage during this dreadfully punitive season. The self-centered choices and slippery compromise finally came home to roost. The pain is real.

In actuality, accusations of infidelity and sexual misconduct are as old as some of humanity’s famous families. The stunning story of Joseph in Egypt features a season when he was rising in influence, second in charge to a powerful man’s household. Joseph was relentlessly tempted; he remarkably resisted but was framed by his seductress. (See the Hebrew Scripture’s account, Genesis, chapter 39 for more of the story.)

Sage workplace author Tom Nelson elaborates: “When it comes to sexual temptation in the workplace, we don’t have to go out of our way to look for it; it often finds us. Joseph’s wise response to sexual temptation in the workplace is a model for us to emulate. Joseph didn’t cozy up to sexual temptation, he fled from it.”[1]

What’s the big deal? Our core struggle with workplace temptation lies deep inside. Jesus’ wisdom shines his probing searchlight on our eyes and hearts (Matthew 5:27-30). Lust is sparked when we indulgently imagine how people can be used for our self-serving interests instead of genuinely loved. God’s style of selfless love aims at practically caring for others’ best interests, not using or abusing them from our own places of power and control.

How do we develop a strategy to stand strong against workplace temptation, or as in Joseph’s case, to decisively run away? In Taking Your Soul to Work, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung urge these five strategy steps:

(1) Know that your heart’s desires are for God. Hunger and passion for God put all lesser desires into perspective. (2) Reduce exposure to erotic stimulation in your choice of movies, novels, and Internet sites. Put a plan in place that will help you avoid temptation on business trips. (3) Pray for a colleague, a customer, or a supervisor whom you find attractive. Choose God’s perspective on the person instead of treating her/him as “just a body” to be visually consumed. (4) Seek accountability partners; commit to transparently answering tough questions. (5) Identify the early beginnings of lustful thoughts. Heightened vigilance in advance allows you to be more responsive to the Spirit’s guidance.[2]

Instead of being trapped in daily rituals of workplace lust and other sexual sins, we can stand strong. We can run away, stay pure, and truly honor Christ. With such choices, we will honor others with more wholesome love at work.

What is the truly bigger deal about the Bill Hybels accusations? Upon deeper reflection, I am struck with this reality. Instead of saying: “Not Bill. O Lord, not Bill,” I need to be saying, “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

Rather than shaking our heads in dismay over such scandals, jumping on judgment bandwagons, or allowing ourselves to be further numbed by the relentless shock to any remaining thread of moral leadership compass, we must realize we are called to genuine love. After all, virtues like decency, purity, and loving respect for others are God’s high calling for all of us—not just the mega-leaders of today’s world.

New levels of loving respect must start with everyday leaders—like you and me—making those solid, everyday choices. I want to stand strong. I want to stay holy and true to my wife and children, committed through and through as a truly good leader.

Will you join me in making fresh commitments to wholesome and holy love, the kind of love that is relentlessly loyal to those with whom we live and work each day?

May we all join our determined voices: “Not me. O Lord, not me!”

[1]Tom Nelson. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 173.

[2]R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung. Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 26-31.