30 April 2018

Becoming Great (Again?)

"I am the greatest." - Muhammed Ali

"As human beings, greatness is not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves." ~ Ghandi

"Greatness" is trendy today. In fact, it is possibly the most recognizable slogan in the United States nowadays. I find this puzzling at best.

In the year 2000, I became pastor of a church in Amsterdam. It just so happened that the church had recently won the coveted "Helix Award" given by the Dutch Evangelical Alliance for the "most successful church in The Netherlands." I was encouraged to attend a ceremony in which I would be given the award, which was in the form of a small trophy.

This accolade never set well with me. Was my church really the most successful in the country? How was that measured and what does it truly mean to be successful, or to be "great"?

Some years later I served as executive pastor in a church outside Denver. It drew people from a 50-mile radius every Sunday to hear the senior pastor preach (he was very good). The church had constructed a large building a few years earlier to accommodate the growing number of people attending on Sundays. The church was becoming "great."

Until it was no longer great, when the pastor was dismissed for alleged theological error (that is an entire other story, which I won't go into here).

I see several significant dangers in being the most successful, or in being great.
  1. I call it the "Muhammed Ali Syndrome." Ali is famous for boasting that he was the greatest, presumably in boxing. His greatest was fleeting at best, as his health seriously deteriorated and he died a slow and painful death;
  2. We can believe our own press and become complacent. We can coast, because the only direction is down and to lesser greatness;
  3. We can become prideful and arrogant. Somehow greatness becomes equated with being better than others, or dominating them, and can lead to denigrating those who are not great.
What if we understood greatness in a fundamentally different way?
What if we framed our understanding and "striving" for greatness based on a completely other set of criteria?
  1. The central, overarching criteria is the words of Jesus: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26-27). The following criteria provides explanation to Jesus' words;
  2.  Greatness is always about the empowerment of the other, it is about giving power to another for the greater good of a cause or community;
  3.  Greatness and humility are inseparable. One cannot be great and lack humility. If "pride comes before the fall" (which it does),  humility causes other people to be lifted up; 
  4. Greatness deflects the spotlight and does not call attend to a person or organization that does genuinely great things. I know a foundation that is incredibly generous toward many good causes. Each and every time they issue a financial grant they insist that the recipient sign an agreement that the source of funds will not be made known to anyone. This is am aspect of greatness; 
  5. Greatness and serving are inseparable. Often times, some form of suffering comes along with serving. The example that comes to mind is John McCain, who was a POW in Vietnam for 5 years after being injured when his plane was shot down. McCain was serving his country and he suffered greatly for it; 
  6. Greatness requires fidelity.  Fidelity is about faithfulness and steadfastness. No one is great without fidelity. 
  7. Greatness requires a Source other than self. A self-centered person (or Narcissistic person) can never be great. There must be a True North to which a person affixes his or her eyes to determine direction and how they will live and serve. For me, that True North is God most especially seen in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe he is the greatest expression of True North.
We live at a time when many public figures see themselves as "great men" (yes, the most high-profile of these people tend to be MEN). They are not great - at best they are shadows of greatness. The truly great ones don't see the spotlight; they serve behind the scenes in faithful ways, not calling attention to themselves.

Our communities need truly great ones now more than ever.


30 November 2017

Tikkun Olam

You might remember the final scene of Schindler's List when the prisoners present a gold ring to Schindler to express their gratitude for him saving their lives.
       Schindler's response is one of agony and regret, "I could have done more," he tells his friend. "I could have gotten more out." Here is the clip: Schindler's List

Nobody in their right mind would doubt that Oskar Schindler heroically saved more than 1,000 people. In Hebrew this is called, "Tikkun Olam," which is the idea that we do acts of kindness or mercy and in so doing we repair the world. It is a concept from the Mishnah, which are rabbinic teachings.

I like the idea of "tikkun olam." I grew up with it and appreciate the humanitarian heart behind it. But I have several caveats about it as well.

First and foremost, we do not "earn" anything by our good deeds, whether that be favor with God, salvation, or honor from others. In my faith tradition (which has its roots in Judaism and is shaped now by following Jesus), we cannot earn our way into relationship with God. That relationship is a gift of grace, given through Jesus Christ.

Second, tikkun olam at its very best is an overflow of God's goodness in our lives. We do acts of kindness as an expression of God's kindness in our lives in the first place.

Third, I believe there are degrees of tikkun olam. When a Jew helps a Jew that is one type of kind act. But when a Jew helps someone whose culture or religion is opposed to Jews that is on another level of tikkun olam. That is what Jesus was getting at when he told his followers to "love your enemies."

There is no doubt that the world needs Tikkun Olam, now more than ever. I hope, and pray, that it flows from the right motivations in our hearts.

07 December 2015

To My Friends Who Are NOT "Christian" - Please Read

o My Friends Who are Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Secular, Agnostic, and anything else besides Christian!

I feel really stupid! REALLY stupid! There, I said it. I feel a bit better!
          I wish I could sit with each of you one-on-one over a good cup of coffee and offer my sincere apology for people of the "Christian persuasion" who have acted and re-acted to event so poorly in recent days and weeks.
         Rather than wasting your time recounting what they said or did (because I am quite sure you know ALL about it), I would like to share with you how I hope we can build friendships and be community in the face of rising fear in our culture.
         Most important, I so value your perspective and input regarding these situations. I have a certain vantage point as I try to follow Jesus. And you have a vantage point from your context and I want to understand it and will seek to respect it. We may not agree in some areas, but that must not stop us from seeking to understand one another and to respect one another.
        I also hope we can bring the very best from our belief systems and worldviews to the real-life situations of terrorism and street violence in our world. If you know me at all you know that Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7) has blown my heart and mind in the very best way possible. I desire to align myself with the ethic he lays out in these words. I believe that every one of us brings ideas and practices to the table that should be considered as we move forward together.
         Last, I hope we will all resist painting each other's belief systems with a broad brush. All Muslims do not believe the same thing, all Jews do not believe the same thing. And I dare say that all Christians do not hold the same beliefs or practices. I am asking that we extend grace to one another and not typecast based on "a few bad apples."
          Thank you for your friendship. I so appreciate you for who you are and how you enrich my life. Peace be upon you.

02 December 2015

The Presence of Greatness at the Prayer Breakfast

I attended the European Prayer Breakfast in Brussels for the past two days. It was poignant that the event took place only 3 weeks after the Paris terrorist attacks.
       Clearly we were in the presence of greatness at the breakfast - a member of the Belgian monarchy led a prayer, the former President of the European Commission spoke. There were others with significant titles and they are godly, wonderful people.
       But two people stood out to me as truly "great" in an upside down sort of way. While many people at the breakfast were well dressed in suits and dresses, these two were a bit different. One wore a suit but it was wrinkled and his tie was not straight. The other was not so well dressed.
          The first man is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and he spoke at the dinner the night before the breakfast. He shared about being part of the political opposition in Ukraine for many years and how his life was threatened during the revolution. He was not your typical politician - he was more "gritty" and perhaps war weary.
          You could tell that the man has great resolve and focus for his country while possessing a deep humility. I could tell he is a servant-leader, in that order.
          The second man is Syrian and he is a refugee living in Brussels. He was part of an 8-person panel in which he was the 7th person to speak (fourth from left in the picture).
          He spoke in Arabic and was translated by someone. He talked about how his village was completely destroyed and how he fled for his life. Then he recounted how his father was killed in a bombing and that this man risked his life to go back to his hometown to give his father a proper burial.
The Syrian refugee is fourth from left.
        The man sat beside a former U.S. Ambassador. The refugee seemed unfazed by the Ambassador, although he was respectful toward him. Power, in the traditional sense of the word, did not equate with this man's inner strength.

          Both men - The Ukrainian Parliament Member and the Syrian refugee - demonstrated three qualities:
          First, they were unafraid. Both of their lives had been threatened and they have been spared. I am sure previously they feared. But their lives have transcended fear for their security, fear of the unknown, and fear of "powerful bad guys." Earlier during the Prayer Breakfast, a former Danish Parliament member reminded everyone that there are 300+ instances in the Bible where we are admonished to "fear not." These two men demonstrate that.
          Second, their influence comes from powerlessness rather than control. In an odd sort of way, I had the sense that both of these men were exercising much influence on the 350+ people at the prayer breakfast. But it came from their humility, their calm rather than using persuasive words or promises.
          Third, God is in their midst. The Syrian man is Muslim and the Ukrainian man is Christian. It appeared to me that for both of these men God is near. Of course this is a core tenant of Christianity (Immanuel - God with us), but it surely is not for the Muslim. In Islam, Allah is transcendent and "other." Nonetheless, both men expressed how God is connected to their circumstances, and how He has been intimately involved in their lives.
          At the close of the panel discussion, attendees came up to panelists to greet them. Many came to shake the hand of the refugee man, many more stood in line waiting to have a longer conversation with the U.S. Ambassador. I just wanted to go up and hug the Syrian man and spent the rest of the day with him.


26 August 2015

24 August 2015

Boom! Coming tomorrow!

Tomorrow I will publish one of the most personal close-to-my-heart articles I have ever written. It also crystalizes my thinking around three audience I speak to regularly - the Jewish community, Christians who are pro-Israel, and others who oppose Israel.
      This is likely to be controversial and I hope it will challenge many people's thinking about the Middle East, about Jewish people, and about other religious folks.

06 July 2015

Time Has Come ... for New Understanding

We are excited to announce that The Isaac Ishmael Initiative is hosting a new seminar aptly called, "A Jew, a Muslim, and a Racist walk into a church..."

       Confirmed dates for 2015 are:
  • Sept. 11th, Denver. Register here for the Denver evening.
  • Oct. 16th, Milwaukee
  • Nov. 15th, Peoria

24 June 2015

Measuring "Greatness"

One of the "bizarre" paradoxes in the world is how greatness is measured. We often measure it by whoever finishes first, whoever has the most money, or who is the most powerful. 
       "The first shall be last and the last first," said Jesus to his followers who were elbowing each other out of the way for positions of power. Now THAT is different!
       Today we measure success, influence, and "greatness" by new and unique measures:
   ~ Number of "followers" on Twitter;
   ~ Number of "friends" on Facebook;
   ~ Number of hits on your  website;
   ~ Number of readers of your blog;
   ~ Number of books sold;
   ~ Number of people who attend your seminar or training;
   ~ Number of people who regularly attend your church.
       This is about popularity, and exposure, getting known and staying known, and it is about economic survival because you need a following to raise money or sell tickets or books or seminars.
       And yet ... the truly GREAT ONES, the men and women whose lives and leadership are enduring and full of legacy are so fundamentally different than all of that.
       They are characterized by another set of qualities, far more subtle and nuanced than the list above:
     * Faith and Faithfulness: They do not simply BELIEVE in God and faith, they LIVE faith. And because of this, they are rock solid and dependable. When they say "yes" they always mean "yes," When they say "no" they always mean "no." With these great ones, what you see is what you get. There is no duplicity in them.
     * Service to Others: Life and work and service is not about THEM, but always about others. In a world of leaders who are self-centered and often narcissistic, the truly great ones do not call attention to themselves. Ever.
     * Shunning the Spotlight: The truly great ones "share all the credit and take all the blame." What matters to them is the MISSION and getting the job done. They do not need or even want the credit publicly. In fact, if the people pictured below were alive today they would each say something like this about this blog post: "Quit writing that nonsense and get on with life, Brian!"
     * Honoring their Commitments: The men below were married for 57, 59, and 66 years respectively. Each was married only once, each stayed with their wife "til death do us part." When they started something they finished it.
      * Generous Spirits. They are givers - regardless of how much material wealth they have. They give time, they give attention, they give their gifts and abilities for the good of others, and they give materially.
     * "It's Not About Me." In the 21st century we are a self-obsessed culture. We take "selfies," which is a word that did not even exist 10 years ago! The truly great ones NEVER want it to be about them. They deflect praise and shine light on other people and their accomplishments.
       Over an 8-month period beginning last September I said good-bye to three of these truly GREAT ONES - Frank Banner, my dad (Marty Newman), and Nate Lindsay. Yes, I am sad not to be able to relate to them any more. More than that, I am humbled and honored to have known them and walked this journey with each in different ways. When I grow up I want to be like them.

Marty Newman: 1925 - 2015

Nate Lindsay: 1936 - 2015
Frank Banner: 1927 - 2014

04 May 2015

The Season Called "Fallow Ground"

I tried to find an interesting or exciting photo of a field lying fallow, i.e. fallow ground as it is called.
       I could not find one. I guess that's the point really!
       Some people will struggle with the idea that there is a season for a person "to lie fallow," just as the soil does. I was meeting with someone recently who challenged me and said, "I think you are in a season of fallow ground, Brian."
       He went on to say that the sooner I embrace this season the better I can live in it. I did not like the guy much at that moment, but only because he was right!
       I am indeed in a season in my life of fallow ground, at least inwardly. Before you begin to feel sorry for me, or try to help me "snap out of it," please consider that fallow seasons are necessary and good for growth over the longer term.
       Our example comes from agriculture, about which I know virtually nothing. So I have needed to do some research and speak with people who know about land and cultivating crops.
       Here are some helpful and hopeful ideas for me about this fallow season:
  1. Land uses nutrients to help crops grow, and sometimes it takes A LOT of nutrients to get good crops. These seasons of plenty and abundance come with a cost to the soil.
  2. When you look at a field that is lying fallow it can appear as if nothing is happening. No crops are growing, no seedlings. Nothing. The field appears unproductive.
  3. What is happening on fallow ground is renewal of the soil. Rest. Shabbat. Silence, Quiet. Rebirth.
  4. Fallow ground is rarely beautiful or pretty. It's boring, blah, and ugly. Staring at fallow ground in Kansas is good for nothing - except if you have insomnia!
  5. Fallow ground still needs tending from the farmer. You have to make sure there are no infestations, no critters burrowing holes in the ground, no damage from severe weather. The farmer is not absent, he is mindful and watching the field;
  6. Fields do not lie fallow forever, or that is just a waste of the land. There is a SEASON for this, and the season eventually comes to an end and the land is restored and able to produce a bounty again.
So this is my season. I am sure you can draw the analogies to life from the image of the field. It has been strangely encouraging for me.

30 April 2015

Responding to Every Request for a Donation

I am both a giver and receiver of donations. This is as it should be, in my estimation.
       Some of us who raise funds for worthy causes believe that we need to look and sound "poor" or "needy," and being generous does not lend to that. The conventional wisdom is that if people see that we donate to other causes they will not give to ours.
       Well if that is the case I would prefer that people not donate to my causes and I can continue to give generously.
       The fact is that I actually LIKE asking people to give money to causes that I believe in, those that are seeking to make a positive impact in the world. I even like asking people to give for my personal support. Yes, I'm weird!
       We who are able also NEED to give generously, for many reasons. Among them is that we have the tendency to create idols out of possessions and pay checks and our stuff!
       Well, as someone who raises funds for a couple different causes, I have to deal with a lot of non-responses. I send out an email or letter and hear nothing from people. The silence is deafening!
       The only thing worse than silence is when someone says they will give and they don't. Then I send a reminder, and another one. Then I feel like I am stalking them. Ugh!
       So let me put on my "donor" hat again and seek to "be the change that I want to see happen!" (as Ghandi said) As much as possible, I try to respond to every personal request for a donation. Even if I have to say no to the person or organization, I want to encourage them in some way. I say things like this:
"Thank you for asking me to contribute to your cause. I won't be able to this time, but I think your work is important. Press on in doing good."
       I know that it can sound or feel patronizing to the person, but I would prefer that risk to simply saying nothing to them and leaving them in a fog.
       We in the West have an epidemic of fear and obsession with personal security. The way we deal with this fear and security "need" is to hold onto money, homes, comforts. They make us feel (falsely) more safe and secure. I do it, you do it. Most people do it.
       We need to become more obsessed with giving and generosity and less obsessed with security.
       It needs to start with me.
       It needs to start today.

27 April 2015

Eulogy: Words to Remember My Father

We had a beautiful memorial service for my dad at Beth Yeshua Congregation in Plainview, New York yesterday. These were the words I shared with everyone there:

My father was what I call the unlikely believer in God.
… the unlikely survivor – of a bad childhood
… the unlikely survivor of World War II
He was also the unlikely leader …
the unlikely person to help others…
And mostly, the unlikely follower of God.
For a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, that is quite the unlikely journey!
Mom and dad visited my family when we lived in Holland for a decade. They visited many times actually, often around Thanksgiving.
Frequently we invited dad to come along to activities with our community – a Christian church community. In the early years dad politely declined.
You see, dad wrestled with faith, and God,  and belief - as most of us do at times. He did not want to be a hypocrite, which I respected.
“I was born a Jew, I’m going to die a Jew,” dad would tell me, believing at the time that he would have to abandon being Jewish to believe in Jesus.
Two events in Holland when they visited began to show me a shift in dad’s heart and mind. The first was when our church needed to move locations, from one school to another. There was dad at 77 years old helping the sound techs and custodians schlep chairs, sound equipment, and children’s toys onto the moving truck! All of these 25-year-old strong Dutch guys marveled at dad’s energy!
The next day I was heading to church early in the morning and there was dad ready to go with me – a very new thing for him! I asked why and he said that the sound guys and custodians were his new-found friends. Dad walked into the new school where we had just moved as if he owned the place.
            The second event was when Susy and I had the privilege of baptizing mom at our church in Amsterdam. Here we were with 500 mostly young Dutch people watching as mom is baptized. Everyone cheers wildly as she comes out of the water. And there is dad right at the edge of the tub to help mom get out, hand her a towel, and carefully help her to walk back stage.
            Dad was unconvinced about faith at the time, but he was open and searching. And he leaned into seeking God.
            Dad had a lot to overcome to believe in a God who is good and gracious and forgives sins. It took him most of his 90 years.
            He was like the man who meets Jesus one day and exclaims, “I do belief! Help me in my unbelief!”
            Today we celebrate this unlikely follower of the Messiah, Y’shua.

15 April 2015

Why I Am Not "Sitting Shiva"

My father, Marty Newman, died three days ago on April 12, 2015. He was 90 years old when he breathed his final breath.
       I am not "sitting shiva" this week, even though our family is Jewish and we want to be respectful of our traditions and customs.
       Jews "observe shiva" for the 7 days after a loved one dies. The purpose is to grieve and mourn the loss of the person, and is marked by several acts:
the mourners do not work during the week, all mirrors in the house are covered, mourners sit on low chairs below visitors (to show their lowly position and grief), a candle is lit in memory of the person, a black cloth which is ripped is customarily worn, and there is a daily prayer service in which the Mourner's Kaddish is said.
       All in all, "sitting shiva" is a somber, sullen experience. I remember going to my aunt and uncle's co-op apartment when my grandfather died and we all sat around speaking softly and "looking a bit like death warmed over," as my dad put it at the time.
       I am not sitting shiva because I do not feel somber and sullen about my father's death. Please allow me to explain! I am sad that I will never be able to pick up the phone and call my dad. We won't be able to talk about cars anymore, and I won't laugh at his hysterical stories about life. But all of that is about ME and not about him. This is my grief and loss, and I hope I can lean into this mourning process in the coming weeks and months.
       There is also a big part of me that smiles at my dad being free of pain and suffering (no more shortness of breath, no more losing his dentures!). Even more than that, I want to shout for joy at my dad being in the very presence of God and the Messiah, Y'shua. If you are Jewish reading this post you might think, "Uh-oh, Brian is being delusional! He's lost his mind!"
       But I haven't. I know that we Jews have resisted and rejected the idea that the Messiah has already come, and we have generally rejected that Jesus (Y'shua) is that Messiah. If my dad could say anything to us right now it would be, Believe it! Believe it that Jesus really was and is the promised Messiah of Israel! My dad knows it first hand now.
       So there is no compelling reason to sit shiva for me. I do not need to be in a state of somber depression over my dad's death.
       There is one aspect of the mourning process that I simply love. That is, saying the Mourner's Kaddish. Shortly after my mom called us on Sunday morning to say that dad had passed, I found myself reciting the prayer in Hebrew under my breath. For all of my years going to synagogue on Long Island, I did not know what that prayer meant in English. Now I do. It is all about God's greatness and goodness, which my father knows now to the full!

Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.
        May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
       May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
       Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
       May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.