29 November 2012

America's Favorite Cities 2012

Travel + Leisure magazine publishes an annual survey of America's Favorite Cities. They list three categories: the Heavyweights, The Surprise Contenders, and The Rising Stars. Herewith is their list for this year:

#1 New Orleans
#2 New York
#3 San Francisco

Nashville, Tennessee
Sante Fe, New Mexico
Charleston, South Carolina

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Savannah, Georgia
Portland, Oregon

28 November 2012

Republicans are moving, time for the Democrats to do the same

Republican congressmen are beginning to break away from Grover Norquist's arm-twisting tactics to get lawmakers to sign a pledge to never raise tax rates.
       I applaud Sen Lindsay Graham and Rep. Peter King for moving away from Norquist's pledge.
       Now it is time for the Democratic Party to move away from its ideological pigheaded-ness. That means Democrats must be willing to radically reform entitlement programs (especially Medicare and Medicaid) and to dramatically cut spending.
       It's time for Republicans and Democrats to "man up" - we need a "pathway to YES" (David Broder's statement) and it's time for everyone on both sides of the aisle to sacrifice the ideological sacred cows.

27 November 2012

"I want to be like him (or her)

Someone asked me recently which leaders I wish I could be like. It was a broad question, and I was not exactly sure what the person meant by the question.
Nonetheless, some people came to mind:

Darwin Smith, former CEO of Kimberly-Clark Corp. 

John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Henri Nouwen

26 November 2012

"What are your credentials?"

In my years of leadership I have never had someone on my team ask for my credentials. In other words, they did not want to know what degrees I have earned or what diplomas I have on my wall.
       They wanted to know if I lead well. The only way they figured that out was to observe my actions.
       I am all for learning and for leaders to be life-long learners. Surely there is a place for formal, classroom learning as well as informal and non-formal contexts.
       At the same time, I am not an "expert" and do not list my "many credits and accomplishments," as one leader lists on his website.
       I cringe when people "endorse" me on LinkedIn.
       Why all the fuss? Because I am called first and foremost to serve others, which by definition demands that I NOT call attention to my resume. Honestly, I know Christian leaders who have some sort of "entitlement" mentality because they are the expert in theology, or because they have advanced degrees, or because they write books, or because their church or ministry is large.
       The Apostle Paul spoke directly to the opposite attitude: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4)
       What does Philippians 2:3-4 actually look like in practice, in the fine details of Christian ministry (local church, sending agency, training group)?
       * It looks like the senior leader who goes out of his way (thousands of miles and several countries out of his way) at his own expense to visit a staff couple who is struggling;
       * It looks like the senior pastor who takes the first pay cut when the church budget needs to shrink;
       * It looks like the senior leader saying, "I don't know" when he or she does not know.
       * It looks like the preacher consistently asking, "how are these people needing to encounter Christ" rather than asking, "what do I have to say about encountering Christ."
       * It looks like the leader who "rolls up his sleeves" with people in his ministry or church to do "grunt work" - setting up chairs, shoveling snow, washing dishes. Show me a leader with an aching back from pushing snow and I will likely show you a servant.
       We who are called to senior leadership positions need to repent. Repent? Really? We are proud and hold onto power through knowledge, position, sometimes manipulating circumstances. We need to repent of this, and we need to ask God to make us into servant leaders.
       And we will find ourselves looking more and more like another Servant - Jesus.

25 November 2012

Is Civil Discourse Possible?

Many of us have been left wondering if civil discourse is possible in the United States and in the West in general. Are there models or examples of people who are in very different places politically, socially, and spiritually who are able to enter into genuine discourse? Can one hold firmly to his or her beliefs and also listen to another with different views? Here is one example that it IS possible:

22 November 2012

Thanks + Giving

The word Thanksgiving is made up of two other words:
Thanks + Giving
Have you noticed that before? Somehow I missed it.
       I love Thanksgiving holiday in America. It helps to bring us back to core values of life and faith and relationships - especially these two foundations:
       GRATITUDE: Each year at Thanksgiving our family asks each other what we are grateful for. We go around the table and there is sometimes an awkward moment or two when someone is at a loss for how they are grateful. I have discovered that having a heart which is grateful is a matter of discipline. I must form a habit around regularly being thankful, that the cup is half full when I would otherwise see it as half empty.
       GIVING: I know that the "giving" part of "thanksgiving" refers to "giving thanks." But allow me to stretch it beyond that immediate meaning. Is not a holiday such as Thanksgiving as much about generosity as it is about gratitude? I think so.
       A natural overflow of gratitude is generosity. I believe that is how God created the universe. He blessed it and endowed it with beauty and abundance for His people to enjoy. And to share and to bless others. It is part of the "divine design" of the cosmos. We celebrate this design at Thanksgiving.
       My prayer is that we would be a Grateful and Generous people on this Thanksgiving.

21 November 2012

A Word from "Salaam in the Holy Land"

This is a brief one-minute message from Rani Espanioly of Salaam in the Holy Land. Wise words from someone who knows Israel and Palestine intimately and has a great love for the People of God in that place.

20 November 2012

A Follow Up to "What I Wish My Congregation Knew"

I got a lot of feedback from people on my post of yesterday about "What I wish my congregation knew about me." Thank you to everyone who wrote.
       As I read the comments from some very dear people in Amsterdam who were part of Crossroads when I pastored, I remembered something akin to the book, "It Takes a Village" to raise a child.
       That is, "It Takes a Community" to raise a pastor! When I became a senior pastor in late 2000 I was thoroughly inexperienced in doing so. In my first months pastoring the church I used to "hide" under the staircase at the school between services because I did not want to relate to people. I just wanted to lead and teach, but not relate!
       Then one day one of my elders came to me and said something like, "Brian, you have to come out from under the stairs! You have to relate to people, you are their pastor!" That just freaked me out!
       My point is that communities of faith shape their leaders as much as leaders shape the communities. (And slowly, I learned to relate to people on Sunday mornings between services.)
       One of the things that dramatically shaped my thinking about being a pastor in Amsterdam was the incredibly dedicated people who SERVE in quiet ways. We moved into another school building after a couple of years and we had to set up chairs and children's classrooms every week. Once every 6 weeks we could not set up on Saturday evening so a bunch of people came in at 6am on Sunday to set up! Yes, 6am!
       You know what my first thought was when I realized that we would have to do that? These people are sacrificing this much and I am thinking about quitting??? Grow up, Brian!
       The second thing I thought was that I wanted to help them set up the church, or cook breakfast for them. Or something!
       Much has been made by people about me coming to the church early to help set up. Let me clarify my motivation around that. I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to be part of a community of people who actually serve sacrificially and do it joyfully. The folks who set up Crossroads Church taught me a TON about humility and servanthood.
       Second, I did not want to think of myself more highly than I should (as the apostle Paul says). It is far too easy as a pastor to believe the applause and accolades that people give to you. Working with people who serve at 6am helped me keep a good perspective on myself and on the community I was part of.
       To those men and women - Szabolcs, Maarten, Johan, Sonya, Harold and others whose names slip my mind now - thank you for helping to shape a leader into pastor, and hopefully into a servant.

19 November 2012

What I wish my congregation knew

I have pastored in a number of contexts over the years - Geneva, Amsterdam, Denver. Most of the people in my congregation - especially in Amsterdam where I was senior pastor of a larger congregation - really did not know me all that well. They might have thought they knew me because they listened to me preach. But what you see of a person in front of hundreds of people is not what you get one-on-one.
       I wish the congregations that I pastored knew a few things about me (and about a lot of pastors if they would be totally honest with themselves). Here are some of the big ones:
       1. Leading a congregation (aka shepherding a flock) is exceptionally difficult, more difficult than most jobs. I remember the time that someone in my congregation joked to me that I have it easy - I only have to work one day per week and I get a full-time paycheck! Ya, right!
       2. I frequently did not know how to lead the congregation. Phew, I said it! (I feel better already). Strategic direction, spiritual formation are each difficult by themselves. Putting them together in a church is way more tricky than most people know.
       3. I wish that people did not see me as greater than I am and that people would not criticize so brutally. Some people in a congregation idealize the pastor. They think that what they hear in a sermon is the totality of who the person is. I wish that people realized that my poop stinks just as much as yours! I also wish that people would not lob grenades so fiercely because they did not like something in the church (usually the music!).
       4. Pastors (including myself) feel weird and awkward that we get paid for being Christian. Our paychecks are tied directly to the growth or development or happiness or whatever of the congregation. We feel embarrassed because we either make too much money or not enough money. Someone once said to me, "If you want a raise next year you better preach a lot of good sermons." I felt sick to my stomach.
       5. I wish that people knew I wanted to quit many times. I used to joke that when I left the ministry I would become a trash collector in Los Angeles. Why? Because I would deal with inanimate objects (trash) rather than people, I would get to ride on the back of the truck, and because the weather is always good in L.A.
       What I was really saying in a sarcastic way was that I wanted OUT a lot of the time. Why? Because I felt that the spiritual well-being of a community was on my shoulders. Because people's struggles and suffering gets to you. Because there are always people in the church who do not like what I am doing or how I am doing it.
       These are some of the things I wish my congregations knew. A handful of people with whom I have been close in those congregations knew that I was thinking and feeling these things. And I am deeply grateful for these friends, who cheered and consoled and encouraged and prayed. They are one of the primary reasons I did not quit.

18 November 2012

Random Thoughts on Preaching

I studied preaching at Fuller Seminary with Ian Pitt-Watson, who has since died and gone to be with Jesus. Pitt-Watson was this small-in-stature Scottish man, along in years when I entered his class.
      Pitt-Watson vehemently believed that those of us who preach need to do so in 22 minutes. Not a minute longer. He argued that the truly great preacher must discipline himself to be brief, powerful, clear, and then be seated! He said to us that if you cannot say in 22 minutes what you say in 30 or 35 minutes then you should not be a preacher. Ouch!
       I find that most preachers are offended by Pitt-Watson's thinking on this matter. Or they scoff at it.
       One preacher I know takes more than 40 hours of study to prepare his weekly message. He preaches 40 to 50 minutes per message. To cut it to only 22 minutes would feel like a tremendous waste of the previous 40 hours. Maybe that is something to think about! (something else to ponder is why his congregation is in AWE of him for the 40 hours of study - that's for another blog).
       Very gifted communicators can get away with long sermons most of the time. They are entertaining and engaging and most people stay with them. Some of these sermons are life-changing for people. And, many times the relationship between the preacher and his (usually only males) message is dysfunctional in ways - gaining self-worth from preaching, seeking affirmation for the message, agonizing so much over a message that it becomes his obsession.
       22 minutes is a long time for a monologue. When was the last time you were in a conversation when one person spoke for 22 minutes and the other said nothing? My guess is that the conversation was over long before 22 minutes. The problem, of course, is that a sermon is not a conversation. It is a monologue, which means it loses one of the key dimensions of good communication. The back-and-forth of dialog.
       This is all the more reason why preachers should "be brief and be seated." It is so moving to me in some liturgical churches where the sermon is more of a "reflection" or "homily" and is integrated into the whole of the service. The sermon is a part, not the point of the service.
       It is quite a humbling thing for a preacher to make this shift from his work being THE point of the worship service to be A part of the service. 

17 November 2012

Revised Version of "The Making of a Leader"

My mentor, seminar professor, and friend Bobby Clinton has revised his book, The Making of a Leader, first published in 1988. I am looking forward to getting a copy and reading the new edition.

16 November 2012

Two Thoughts on the New Israeli-Arab Hostilities

I have two brief thoughts about the current military conflict between the Israelis and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. One or the other of these comments will irritate or infuriate some.
       First, I do not remember a time when the word "assassinate" was used with supposed legitimacy besides by the Israelis when they killed the Hamas leader some days ago by dropping a bomb on his car. I applaud the Israelis for their candor and forthrightness when they announced they had assassinated the man. But I am deeply disturbed that we accept it;
       Second, nobody in their right mind would stand for anyone shooting hundreds of rockets into their country! Imagine if Canada lobbed a bunch of missiles onto Minneapolis or Seattle (highly unlikely that the Canadians would ever do that to anyone)? Of course the U.S. would retaliate, and most likely with massive amounts of force!
       This sounds utterly juvenile but I will say it anywhere:
Israelis, stop assassinating people! Palestinians (namely Hamas), stop shooting missiles! 

15 November 2012

Good Parenting?

Most of us who are parents often wonder, "Have I been a good parent?" The proof is in the type of adult a child becomes, at least in part.
       I like my kids a lot as young adults. I enjoy hanging out with them when it's possible. And I think they like hanging out with Susy and me. I suppose that's one indicator that we have done OK as parents.
       Perhaps more important to me is the values and worldview that my kids develop as adults. Well, Carly posted this TED talk by a Nigerian woman entitled, "The Danger of a Single Story." It so reflects what is most important to Carly. I watched it and I was one proud parent!
     You go, Carly!
     Change the world!

13 November 2012


There is a bunch of photos of me that Susy collected recently , and they reflect a unique perspective of my life.

       The first one was taken this year in Grasse, France during our Summit on Islam. My friend Rogier took the photo. I have a Palestinian head-wrap over my shoulders, and I am wearing a Nike shirt. I call it, "Pre-modern meets post-modern."
       The next is from Steven's Bar Mitzvah 6 years ago with my dad as I prayed for Steven. It's about as Jewish as it gets! It is a precious memory of three generations of my family.

       This is a shot of me in the Western Sahara last September during a Dialog for Peace between Christians and Muslim leaders. I am returning to this part of the world in a couple of weeks.

Lastly is a photo from a couple of months ago of my friend and colleague Fouad (a Lebanese Arab), Marya (a Persian/Afghan), and myself at our Peace Talks discussion.

     It feels a bit awkward for me to put four photos of myself on this blog. After all, it is NOT all about me and should not be.
     And yet, these photos represent the largeness of God's grace and is something of the picture of the Kingdom of God.
     I was reminded this weekend about a Frederick Buechner quote which I relate to well nowadays: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need.” I hope Buechner's sentiments ring true in my vocation.

12 November 2012

Apartheid Can NEVER be the Answer

     The Israeli newspaper Haaertz recently published a poll of Israelis which found the following:
* 58% of Israelis believe "there is apartheid in Israel" in some ways or most ways;
* 74% support this separation, of which 24% believe separation "is good" and 50% believe "it is necessary."
     As a Jew, I cannot think of any circumstance anywhere in the world in which apartheid is called for and should be supported.
     Certainly the overall narrative of the Old Testament does not support a policy of apartheid. On the contrary, the Old Testament command is to welcome the foreigner, care for those who are otherwise outsiders, and reach out to those who are persecuted. If you believe that modern Israel is in the lineage of the Old Testament people of God, you cannot and must not support apartheid. In fact, you must speak against the opinion of the 74% of Israelis who support separation.

11 November 2012

The Private Lives of Public Figures

David Petraeus, a 4-star Army General and CIA Director, resigned his position this week due to an extra-marital affair he had. He called it tremendous bad judgement and now he must rebuild his life and marriage.
     This reminds me of President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewisky. Members of the Democratic Party staunchly defended President Clinton then. Now they are eerily quiet toward General Petraeus. Senator Diane Feinstein did say she did not think Petraeus necessarily needed to resign.
     We are seriously self-deceived if we believe that a leader's private life has little impact on his or her public leadership. It most certainly does. While we all may have "skeletons in the closet" and character flaws, truly great leaders consistently address these character issues deep in their souls.
     I applaud General Petraeus for resigning this week. You have served your country with great dedication and courage. I hope you will also serve your wife and family as courageously as you seek healing in your most important relationships.

08 November 2012

Waiting for "Lincoln"

Steven Spielberg's film, "Lincoln" starring Daniel Day-Lewis opens in theaters tomorrow. I cannot wait to see the film. I have studied Lincoln for more than 20 years now and I am convinced he is one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had.
       What Lincoln possessed 150 years ago that most political leaders lack today was a sense of destiny, both for himself as a prophetic voice as well as for the country he led.
       This sense of destiny (focused ultimately on the abolition of slavery) caused him to be self-less in his leadership. He cared little about his reputation (outward appearance) and all about character (inward conviction).
       Many, many people in America yearn for this kind of leadership - a leadership which is unconcerned about the next election cycle, a leadership which is self-sacrificing rather than self-protecting, a leadership which rises to meet challenges rather than stooping to the pettiness of our current opinion.
       For me the film will be a welcome escape, an entrance into a fantasy land that I fear is now lost.

07 November 2012

Not so very good, not so very bad

Thankfully, the U.S. election is over. Surely elections matter, but I doubt that we should be so wildly exuberant nor horribly despairing. Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress should be tremendously humbled at the task of governing in the coming months and years.
       I was very disturbed (as were many people) at two escalating trends in this election:
       First, the sheer amount of dollars spent to get someone elected. It is heart-breaking to me that media outlets made so much money on a political process. We all know that these funds could have been used in wild and amazing ways to bless people, to improve the quality of living, to spur our economy;
       Second, political opponents were torn down and denigrated - over and over and over again. Why was it SUCH a breath of fresh air for Obama and Romney to speak generously toward each other last night? Because both of their campaigns and PACs have spent large amounts of time, energy, and money demonizing the other. So I ask: Has this strengthened our society and culture? Not one bit.
       Perhaps the day after Election Day in America should become a national holiday called, Repentance Day. I'll vote for that!

05 November 2012

Laughing at One's Own Culture

I love that Saturday Night Live spoofs New Yorkers. The spoofs are far closer to reality than most of us New Yorkers care to admit.
     For a bit of levity and laughter in the midst of a horrible (please say with strong new York accident) situation .... LIVE FROM NEW YORK IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT! Enjoy!

04 November 2012

Take a Breath, Long Island

I visited my parents for a few hours on Long Island over the weekend. It was a Sunday, almost a week after Hurricane Sandy.
     I read the New York newspapers.
     I listened to conversations on the streets of New York City and on the Long Island Railroad.
     I watched people's non-verbals.
     And I saw a bunch of very long lines of people and cars waiting for gasoline - an effort by Long Islanders to have some semblance of normalcy by running generators for electricity.
     My sense is that the entire island is dealing with some kind of acute traumatic stress. Whether it is a collective "dysorder" or not I'm not sure. But you could cut the tension with a knife in the train station waiting room in Babylon village, and in the bar where I got a drink.
     You could hear the hurt and sorrow in the guy's voice at the rehab center whose house on the water in Babylon village was wiped out. And he is suffering from kydney failure at the same time.
     I don't have any pithy statement or spiritual reflection or even words of encouragement. I feel really sad, I feel really tired (for a number of reasons). Bummer.

03 November 2012

Light in the Darkness

I flew into Newark Airport tonight in the dark of night. There were large patches of black where there is still no electricity. It was freaky.
     In other spots the electric restored. Cars driving, buses, shops open. Light in the darkness, life returning, restored.
     A stark reality that we live in darkness spiritually too. God is light, in Him there is no darkness. Jesus is the light of the world.