When the Bible Meets Life

As I was reading Proverbs 28 this morning, two verses stood out.

When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
    but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.

Proverbs 28:12 ESV

Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

Proverbs 28:15 ESV

When I read these verses my mind could not avoid the connection to this weekend’s news of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… when the wicked rise, people hide themselves,” is a perfect description of the conditions within the areas overtaken by ISIS. In an effort to survive under the rule of ISIS, thousands of people submitted and did their best to simply keep out of sight. Through the years of ISIS domination of the area reports would leak, describing the underground market for cigarettes, which were forbidden by ISIS. There were also reports of an underground communication network that was used to warn of the location of ISIS monitors moving about looking for those who might not be living according to ISIS standards. The people truly hid themselves to survive.

A roaring lion and charging bear are images of power and force. In verse 15, these images describe what it is like when a wicked person rules over a poor people. The rule of Abu Bakr Al-Badhdadi and ISIS could not be described more clearly than power and force. Whether that be demonstrated by the piles of severed heads of their victims put on display. As if to say, “this could happen to you.” Or, the infamous execution videos of their victims dressed in orange jumpsuits published by ISIS propaganda forces. Or, the brutal treatment of women, including kidnapping, rape, and murder, by ISIS soldiers from the lowest rank all the way to the top.

The Bible should not be regarded as an old book for a past generation. It’s a living book as relevant as today’s news. More relevant, actually.

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s Coming

The title of this post is a spin-off of S. M. Lockridge’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” In that sermon, Pastor Lockridge is encouraging those who are discouraged by the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion to look forward to Sunday. Because on Sunday, everything is different. In this post, I also want to challenge you to look toward Sunday, but for a different reason. But, before looking forward, let’s look backward.

How was church yesterday? is a common Monday morning question among Christian friends who attend different churches. Typically, what is meant by this question relates to how much that particular individual enjoyed his or her morning at church. It may solicit an evaluation of the sermon, the music, the crowd size, the fellowship, or even the temperature in the building.

I want to look at the question from a different angle. How was church yesterday (or last Sunday) for the visitor who didn’t know anybody there? The new person in town who was invited by the highway billboard that promised “A welcoming and friendly atmosphere.” The lonely person who responded to the 30-second television advertisement with b-roll clips of people happily engaged with others as the soothing voice described the warm fellowship that happens at your church. The one who found your church on a Google search. A Google search done not so much out of interest, but desperation because of his/her life is caving in?

Regarding the experience of visitors many church consultants think in terms of convenience. Here’s a list of focus points provided by Jayson D. Bradley (sponsored by Pushpay):

  1. Signage
  2. Presentation software
  3. Giving software
  4. Service planning software
  5. A plan for capturing visitor’s contact information.

All of those certainly have value. However, that list has a glaring deficiency. What is missing? The personal touch from real people. And here, I don’t mean the happy people dressed in logo shirts standing next to the entrance. I mean regular members … the people who show up week after week, but aren’t on the Impressions Team. The regular people.

Let’s go back to that visitor’s experience at your church. Did that person feel the warmth that others describe as the normal experience at church? Did anyone express a genuine interest in that person? Or, did you pass them in the hallway as you raced to see your friends? This scene is all too common in churches today. Friends huddled together, fellowshipping with each other as visitors try to find their way in this new environment. Sometimes those visitors are committed Christians who are seeking a new church and basically know the lay of the land. In other cases, the new person may be uninitiated in all things church and are simply looking for God. If that person wanders into your church, what will they experience? Will they walk away saying, “No one was interested in me.”

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s coming. Looking toward Sunday: How can you help visitors experience what the advertisements say they will find at church? People – even “uninteresting” people – are interesting … if you slow down and talk with them. Everybody has a story. Who – that you didn’t already know – did you initiate a meaningful conversation with in the last month?

This Sunday, will you commit to finding someone you don’t know and start a conversation with them? I don’t mean the “Hi! My name is Craig, it’s nice to have you today” then spin on my heels and walk-away conversation. I mean the conversation that attempts to know them in some meaningful way. The conversation that recognizes them as people, not as a cog in the evangelical church wheel.

You can’t have a conversation about Jesus unless … you have a conversation. #TalkToSomeoneThisSunday

The Elephant in the Room

I am often asked questions about leadership and leading others. These questions come from students, colleagues, and leaders who are seeking to evaluate their organizations. As an outsider it’s often easier to evaluate a person’s leadership in a given situation because there is no need to clear away the fog that comes with being entrenched in a situation or the inner workings of an organization. Certainly, the details of a situation are rarely understood from afar, which makes it challenging to evaluate specific decisions a leader has made. However, when evaluating leadership, the specific decisions are often less critical than how a leader leads his/her troops through a situation, whether that situation be good or bad.

This series will focus on some of the mechanics of leadership.

The Elephant in the Room

An example of a poor leadership practice that I see more regularly in both small and large organizations is a failure to address the “elephant in the room.” Usually, this is not a simple oversight. Rather, it is an effort to control a negative situation, which usually makes the problem worse. Why leaders don’t recognize the negative effects of ignoring the elephant in the room is beyond me.

With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, examples of this poor strategy are abundant and obvious for everyone to see. Except, perhaps, the executive who is attempting damage control. The results of not addressing a problem that virtually everyone is aware of are often many and usually negative.

Perhaps the most negative outcome is a loss of trust by those who are charged (by contract or choice) to follow the executive’s leadership. Once trust in leadership is lost, the downward spiral begins. A lack of trust in the leader usually results in a decreased commitment by those being led poorly. That is followed by decreasing job performance, regardless of whether the people are employees or volunteers. Poor job performance is followed by poor production/output, which will eventually lead to the stagnation or even death of the organization. This is true in sports. In business. In church life.

When everyone is aware of a major problem, address it … even if all you can say is “we are aware of the problem and this is what we are doing to address it.” The problem can be anything that raises serious concerns among a company’s or organization’s constituents. When an automobile has recurring problems that are causing customer deaths, the worst thing the CEO can do is ignore the problem as if it doesn’t exist. Are you listening, Toyota? When storms hit an area and leave people homeless, citizens want to know that the governor/mayor has his eye on the problem. Even if he/she doesn’t have an immediate solution to the problem. Remember Katrina and Sandy? When production or development plans fail, a CEO should first acknowledge the problem to the stakeholders and then keep them abreast of efforts to solve the problem. Remember Enron?

I found myself in such a situation while leading an organization. One member of the organization was publicly humiliating the organization through social media. Many, perhaps all members of the group were aware of this person’s actions and were waiting to see how I would respond. Clearly an executive doesn’t want to come out with guns blazing unnecessarily, so I had to properly evaluate the situation. Were the reports true? Was this individual hurting the morale of the membership and thus the organization? The answer was clearly yes. Furthermore, his actions were undermining my leadership … the longer I allowed them to go unaddressed the more my ability as a leader came into question among the membership.

Once this became clear, I had to act … and act, I did. I first addressed the situation with the individual, dismissing him from the organization. The next thing I did was speak directly and publicly to the members of the organization about the problem, clarifying why it was a problem for our organization and how I intended to remedy the problem. Finally, I laid out a plan for moving forward that shored up confidence in our organization and me as the leader of that organization. The camaraderie of the members grew and as an organization we were able to accomplish more than we had to date.

In that illustration, the problem was the behavior of an individual, which was pretty easily solved. Unfortunately, not all leadership challenges are so easily managed. Sometimes, the best plans do not succeed. On occasions, an executive is dependent on a series of things falling into place to solve a major problem, … and they don’t fall into place. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world … unless you leave people with their hands in the air, asking what’s going on because you refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. People realize that things don’t always go as planned. So when they don’t, recognize it, explain it, and give confidence that you are working on it. If you do that, your leadership reputation and skills will be enhanced. If you don’t … your leadership will be rightly questioned.

Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day

In honor of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am re-posting this article.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Working with tour groups in Israel is [almost] always a blessing. It’s exciting to see visitors’ faces when, as they say in Hebrew, “the coin falls.” In other words, when “the light comes on” or the connection between a certain event and place happens. I love to see the joy of discovery, especially as it relates to the Bible. But my groups generally have modern cultural and historical interests, too. Every group is different, and I’m regularly on the look out for things out of the ordinary and not on the itinerary that will make my group’s visit to Israel more special than it might already be. For this group, I found that special historical gem in the breakfast line.

As I approached the special-order egg line, I noticed the tattoo on his arm, 137010. Immediately, I knew he was a holocaust survivor because I’ve seen these tattoos in the museum, and probably a dozen times in person. However, I never had the nerve to ask the bearer to share his/her story; I just imagined what it might have been.

This time was different. I took a deep breath and asked the elderly gentleman a) if he spoke Hebrew, and b) if I could ask a question. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. I was hesitant, but I proceeded to ask if he would tell me the story of the numeric tattoo that appeared on his left forearm. I was afraid he would be embarrassed, but he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed pleased that I asked.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Interacting with my inquiry about his tattoo, he said, “My name is Beniko Gihon; in Germany my name was changed to 137010. I am a Jew originally from Greece.” He continued with a moving, two-minute version of his story. His family had been rounded up in Thessaloniki, and he was the only survivor. Over the course of five years, he was systematically transferred to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. He had a variety of jobs, but mainly focused on his work in the crematoria.

I was translating his story for a man from my group and noticed that others had started to lean in closer to listen in on our conversation, which indicated that they found this interesting, too. After a couple minutes, his eggs and mine were ready, so, unfortunately, we had to bring this encounter to a close. I thanked him for sharing his story, we shook hands, and parted ways.

I found a table near my group and sat down by myself. To say that his story was gut wrenching would be an exaggerated understatement. But, his story wasn’t the thing that affected me the most. It was the question he posed: “Why were the Christians so quiet?”

I wanted my group to hear Beniko’s story, but I wondered if that would be asking too much. As I ate my breakfast, I kept an eye on him from across the room and wondered whether I should ask him to speak on the bus. Since he didn’t seem to mind my initial inquiry, I decided to go for it, and the outcome was just what I had hoped.

After my group boarded the bus, I brought them up to speed on what was about to happen, then I introduced Mr. Beniko. He climbed the stairs and stood proudly in the front of the bus and began to share his story.

Beniko, which is the Greek version of Benjamin, started with some details of his family and how the Nazis came to Greece and killed so many. The rest were taken to the labor and death camps in Germany and Poland, which is where he learned to speak German, and where his name was changed to 137010.

His story lasted longer than I had given him, which I knew it would. But, seeing him standing in the front of the bus and hearing his biography was worth every minute.

Some specific details that pierced my heart:

“I saw, with my own eyes, the soldiers toss little children in the air and shoot them like birds.”

“As people were herded off the trains near the crematoria, they pleaded with the soldiers to know where their children or parents were. The soldiers would point to the smoke rising out of the crematoria and say, ‘there they are.’”

“The people were packed so tightly into the ‘showers’ that when the Zyklon B gas was released they all died standing, and only fell to the ground when the doors were opened. As we removed the bodies, we could see the scratches on the walls where those on the outer edges were trying to claw their way out.”

As a worker at the crematoria, “I collected the fat that came from the bodies as they were burned. The Nazis used the fat to make soap for us prisoners, and I bathed with soap that may have been made from the remains of my parents and other family members.”

Beniko’s story, made the horrors of the Holocaust real and personal for us, impacting each in a slightly different way. I tried to give some current perspective to his presentation because the easy thing would be to say, “I wasn’t there” because none of us were. I reminded the group of the words of James 1:27 that pure religion is to care for the widows and orphans, which I understand to mean “take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” I also think that being born again demands that Christians have an active interest in “the least of these” (Mt 25).

1000Words: Texas, A State of Mind

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m guessing this picture doesn’t need any further commentary to reveal the heart and soul of Texas.

texas-stickers500px