Monday, February 28, 2011

Academy Awards

Yesterday was the Academy Awards, and I have to say that even though I love movies we saw only one of the films nominated for the major awards and that was The Social Network. Today, after it was shut-out of the major awards, although it was considered to be a serious contender, people are wondering why. I can give you a simple reason. It wasn’t all that great of a movie. Was it good? Yes, but I my opinion it was not Oscar worthy. In fact, after the movie was over I turned to my wife and said “If that’s one of the best movies of the year, it was not a good year for movies.”

But, to show you how far behind I am, we just watched The Dark Knight for the first time a couple of weeks ago, which won Heath Ledger the Academy Award, and I honestly didn’t see what was so great about his performance. I want to be blown away by the performers who win. I want it to be like Charlize Theron in Monster or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball or even Kathy Bates in Misery. (I know it seems like there is a pattern there, but there isn't. These were just three that I can name off the top of my head.) I want to walk out of the theater, or turn off the DVD which is more likely now, and say “that was incredible. That should win an Academy Award.” Am I alone in that?

I want my movies to wow me, and often the best I can now exclaim at the end of a film, even ones that are heralded, is “well at least we only paid a dollar for that.” I know great films are out there, they are still being made, I suspect that even some that were nominated this year are absolutely fantastic, but I want the smaller films that are incredible lifted up as well. Films like The Station Agent or The Sweet Hereafter, two small independent films that are extraordinary. I would much rather watch films like these than most of the big blockbusters any time I am given the choice.

(I’m not including animation as one of the major categories, but I have seen Toy Story 3 numerous times, and why wasn’t it nominated for best picture?)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Speed Linking

It's been a while since I've done speed linking, so this is a little long:
  • I've written in the past of my extreme dislike of airlines nickel and dimeing us for everything. Here is a list of the worst offenders.
  • Arizona has become the battleground, literally, for lots of the issues the country faces. Time did a good job of looking at my home state and their issues. And to think that Arizona was split off from New Mexico because they were considered too progressive for New Mexicans.
  • Last week former NFL player Dave Duerson died by suicide, but let his family know that he wanted his brain to be donated to BU to be studied for damage as a result of his football career. Here is a great article from The New Yorker on football and concussions. Why is it the the rest of the media is not doing as good of a job of asking the tough questions about this issue that The New Yorker is?
  • As the first group of people who have been dependent on 401ks approach retirement age they are finding that they don't have enough saved. This story will continue to play out and will become bigger and bigger, and as we discuss slashing pension programs it should already be a major issue.
  • This is an older story, but goes to show you how out of alignment booster support of colleges has become. Robert Burton wants $3 million he gave to the University of Connecticut back because he was not consulted about the hiring of the new football coach. He says that because he is the program's top donor that he "earned" the right to have his voice heard. Wow! That takes things to a whole new level.
  • The quarterback of my Arizona State Sun Devils has just announced that he is leaving football because of concussions. He has been told by doctors that his next concussion, which would be his fifth, could be devastating to his long-term health (if the first 4 haven't already been).
  • In honor of President's Day, the "blackest" name in America is Washington, for many different reasons.
  • This past week Clarence Thomas past the five-year mark without asking a single question from the bench. No one in history has ever gone longer than a single term without saying anything, let alone five terms.
  • In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the University of Arizona has started the National Institute for Civil Discourse. I hope it is a great success but suggest they don't discuss the rivalry between the U of A and ASU.
  • And, on the other end of the collegiate spectrum, Texas has passed a bill to allow students and employees to carry guns on campus.
  • Every year the t-shirts for the non-winning team in the Super Bowl (among other events) are donated to be given to people around the world. Some wonder whether this is being done for all the wrong reasons with all the wrong outcomes.
  • Wondering how the economy is doing? Just follow the ordering of desserts and Starbucks coffee, according to this article.
  • Say it isn't so! In order to cut costs, the Girl Scouts are cutting back on the number of cookies they offer.
  • We all seem to know someone who is always insanely lucky. Here is the story of one person who not only wound up with free tickets to the Super Bowl several times, but even got an onfield pass this year.
  • The idea that we are close to reaching peak oil has been around for awhile, but has widely been ridiculed. Wikileaks has revealed that the some in the government believe that Saudi Arabia is over promising their oil supply and production.
  • And finally, have you ever thought, "I'd love to own a Ferrari, but I really need it to have room to carry around all my stuff?" Well your prayers have been answered with the Ferrari station wagon (I'm serious). Only 1.5 million and it's yours.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Church DNA: Don't Be A Monkey

I am currently making my way through Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko, which I strongly recommend. He has this analogy about assumptions that I love:

Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice-cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with a new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with ice-cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

Don’t be a monkey. Challenge all assumptions.

Any organization we join has its own DNA, its own way of doing things. Even within organizations, different groups will take on different characteristics, and what makes these things unique is that this DNA is not really dependent on the people. Like the monkeys, the DNA will last long after those who started the pattern have left unless something is done to change that pattern, and then what's likely to happen is that you will be attacked.

Even though the new monkeys don't have any idea why they can't go near the stairs, they never try because they learn the culture of the cage. Sometimes this culture is learned through being attacked and sometimes its learned through observation or more nuanced approaches by gently being told "that's not the way we do it here." I'm sure we've all experienced this learning.

The same is true of churches. Every church has its own unique DNA, its own unique way of doing things and its something that you have to learn, and over time everyone learns it whether they recognize it or not. Most of the arguments and conflicts that churches get into are linked to patterns that are sometimes generations old.

In this congregation a common refrain from past conflicts is "We felt like it was being jammed down our throat and no one was listening to what we had to say." I have heard this said about conflicts only 5 years old, and about those 20 years old and older. I suspect if we talked to people who were here sixty years ago about about conflicts then, the same phrase would be repeated. We learn and adapt to the culture we are in, and we operate and act by those rules, and if you don't then be aware that your missteps will be brought to your attention.

So how do we get passed this and change the DNA. The first answer is, very carefully. Systems do not like to change, and they will always revert back to the status quo. It is the path of least resistance, and its also the path that everyone knows. But, if you are going to change the system, you start by challenging the assumptions. You ask "why can't we go near the stairs?" And when you ask that question, remarkably you will hear two things. The first is because that's the way it's always been done, of course, and the second is that people have no idea why it's always been done that way.

There will be people who object to you even asking the question because it's assumed that the answer is self-evident, even if it's not even evident to them, and also because they assume that you want to change the system. Challenging assumptions and asking about them does not mean you have to change them. There might be a completely good reason why things are done the way they are and reasons to keep them that way. But it's just as likely that the reasons have run their course and no one has asked any questions about them and so they haven't changed.

I remember hearing a story from a professor about a church she visited in which when the Apostle's Creed was said everyone turned around and faced the back wall and recited it then turned back to the front of the church when it was over. She asked why they did this, and of course no one knew, it's just the way it was done. In digging more through the church archives she found an old picture of the sanctuary in which, as you might have guessed, the Apostle's Creed was written on the back wall, and so everyone turned around to read it. It had long since been painted over but the pattern still remained.

Don't be a monkey. Challenge assumptions. Change those things which have long since past their necessity and keep what needs to be kept, but don't stay away from the banana simply because that's the way it's always been done.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Mediocrity. It’s not a word we hear a lot about these days, and certainly not something we often apply to ourselves, unless we’re saying something like “it’s good enough for government work” (which I object to, but that’s another post). Even though it’s not something we strive for, if you can even strive to be mediocre, it certainly drives a lot of what we do.

We end up getting into ruts and come to believe that because our past performance has been “acceptable” that it is all we need to do. Think of all the times you’ve been in a business that was clearly mediocre, where the service wasn’t good, where the items where a little disheveled, maybe there was just a little bit of dirt and grime, where everything said “we’re doing just enough to get by.”

The problem with that behavior is that it will infiltrate the entire system. Sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling put forth their broken windows theory which says that if a window in a vacant building is broken and not fixed that more windows will be broken. The one broken window will become a catalyst to more destruction. If, however, the broken window is fixed then the building will not be vandalized more.

I think the same holds true with mediocrity. If mediocrity is allowed to exist in one area, then it will expand to other areas because it becomes the norm. Mediocrity becomes the accepted level of behavior and performance and it will eventually impact everything else. I remember being in a restaurant one time with my boss and there was a napkin laying on the ground and one of the employees walked right by without picking it up. When he saw that he said to me that he could guarantee that it would still be there when we left, because a pattern of behavior had been established, and sure enough it was. Mediocrity had entered the system, and mediocrity is much easier to achieve and requires a lot less effort then excellence, and so it becomes the path of least resistance.

When we moved to Boston, my wife and I were looking around for a church to attend. One Sunday we went to a church and there was just sort of general clutter up in the chancel area of things totally unrelated to that Sunday’s service. Then I noticed that there were crayon drawings in the two hymnals we were using, which led me to notice lots of other things that conveyed the attitude that they didn’t care about the appearance. Even though the preaching was good, it was not a church we ever went back to. I don’t know which thing came first, but metaphorically the church was full of broken windows, and who wants to worship someplace like that?

Another church I recently attended had its organ, which is at a major focal point in the sanctuary, covered in music and books giving, again, a generally cluttered look and feel which then matched other things in the church. A third church which I also recently attended had significant troubles getting their PowerPoint slides to work which added chaos to the system and made everything a little disorganized. They would have been better off shutting them down then to try and keep fighting with them and causing a distraction to what was going on in the rest of the service, because what I can clearly feel about the service was that it seemed rather disjointed. Was the entire service disorderly or was it just the slides? I don’t know, and in fact it doesn’t matter, because I walked away with the feeling that the entire service had this characteristic.

I can even see this on this blog. On week's in which I update the scripture readings for the week, you can be sure that I will also write a post. But on week's in which I don't even make that simple change then I usually won't write either. I have set the standard for myself on these weeks that this blog is not important, and so it isn't and it moves to the back burner.

Now I am not saying that everything has to be perfect, but what I am saying is that we must do the best with what we have. Mediocrity cannot be the norm. One church planter I heard speak said each week in his welcome he says to the congregation that he is glad they are there because that day’s service is going to be the best worship service they have ever done. And the week after that is going to be the best, and the week after that, and so on.

They are constantly striving to correct their mistakes, improve where they can and to keep moving on. When that is our goal and we honestly undertake that process then mediocrity cannot set in, because the constant review will not allow it. It also pushes us to look at the smallest, most minute things, which often are the ones that make the biggest difference.

Would we trust a business, or go back to a business, that was cluttered and dirty, that had boxes just laying around, or looked as if they didn’t respect what they were doing, or that they even knew what they were doing? Not likely, and yet we see this in our churches all the time.

What would our church look and feel like if we constantly pushed ourselves to excel? What would it be like if we were to say each and every week in everything we did that it was going to be the best we had ever done it? Would we always succeed? Of course not, there are going to be times when things happen, but recognizing those things, learning from them so they don’t happen again, and then pushing ourselves to do better will make everything better. It will also make people want to be a part of what we are doing.

People don’t want to be involved or go to places that are mediocre, that are just going through the motions. They want to be involved in places that excel, that do things better than everyone else, and that in turn push them to excel as well. People will rise to the expectation level set for them, and, conversely, they will also lower their behavior and performance to the expected level. If we hope to change the culture of our church we need to raise our level of expectation and our performance.

The church has settled for mediocrity in far too many places, and we are paying the price. We need to raise our level of performance in all levels of ministry and in doing so I believe we will see profound changes in what we do and how people respond. As Jesus said, we are called to be perfect as God is perfect; we are not called to mediocrity.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Option to Fail

Recently I saw a bumper sticker which gave me some pause. It said, “Failure is not an option.” Underneath that was some type that was too small to read, so I don’t know exactly what they were saying couldn’t fail, but that statement got me thinking.

I am writing this from Albuquerque where I flew on Saturday. Certainly I don’t want failure to be an option when I’m flying, but how do airline pilots make sure failure is not an option? They practice and fail constantly in flight simulators, then study and rehash their mistakes so that they don’t make them again. In other words, in order to make sure that failure is not an option they fail a lot in order to learn from their mistakes.

Most people work to avoid failure as much as possible. There are usually two paths to this. The first is a reluctance to try new things or to take any risks, thereby keeping our lives limited only to the things we already know. The second is that we will often continue things long after they are effective, if they ever were, because to stop them means that we will have to admit that we failed.

But here’s the problem with both of these positions. When we are afraid to fail we are also afraid to succeed, because it is only through admitting failure that we can face our mistakes, learn from them and teach ourselves to be better than we are. It is through embracing the possibility of failure that we are able to take the risks necessary to advance ourselves, those around us and the institutions and groups with which we are affiliated. Indeed, there are few advancements in the course of human history that did not take significant trial and error before succeeding.

When asked by a reporter for the New York Times how it felt to have failed 700 times in his attempt to create the light bulb, Thomas Edison is reported to have said, “I have not failed seven hundred times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those seven hundred ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Edison learned from what did not work, and kept pushing forward until he finally found the right answer. Had he been afraid of trying new things he would never have been successful.

I have written in the past that I believe there are a series of questions that every church must answer. One of them is “If there was one thing you believe your church should do, but have never done, and you could be guaranteed it would succeed what would you do?” The follow-up, of course, is what is keeping you from doing it?

The only way we can get better is to be willing to take risks. Being afraid to push ourselves to try new things is a much bigger failure than trying things and not having them work, because, as someone else once said, “Failure is not an outcome, it is an attitude.” Maybe, in that sense, failure is indeed not an option.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Random Sports Thoughts

Yesterday was national signing day for high school football players to choose the school they would like to attend. ESPN dedicated 10 hours of live coverage to this event. Can someone please tell me why this is necessary? We’re treating high school football players signing scholarship papers like it was the NFL draft. Is it any wonder that so many elite athletes think they are above normal rules? And why are we putting so much pressure on 17 and 18 year old young men? This also totally distorts player/booster interactions leading to some of the many problems we have seen in the last year.

This Sunday is the Super Bowl, and I’m a little puzzled by one thing. When it looked like there was a real chance that Michael Vick would be in the Super Bowl people were talking about how he would be received and what the NFL would do about dealing with someone convicted of animal abuse playing in the biggest game. Would there be protesters? Would advertiser refuse to place ad? Or worse, would animal rights groups try and place ads?

The NFL never had to face that, instead they have a quarterback who has twice been accused of rape. No charges have ever been filed, although there is a civil case currently making its way through the courts. Why are people not up in arms about this? Is violence against animals somehow worse than violence against women? Why is Big Ben not being held accountable for this despicable behavior? Where is NOW on this issue? It seems to me this should be a much bigger issue than it is, and I wonder why.

A think part of it might have to do with a recent poll which found the 10 most disliked people in sports. The list is:
1) Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders
2) Michael Vick
3) Jerry Jones, Owner of the Dallas Cowboys
4) Tiger Woods
5) Manny Ramirez
6) Terrell Owens
7) Albert Haynesworth
8) Mark McGwire
9) Bob Knight
10) Randy Moss
I can’t help but notice that the majority of these people are black. No whites who are current players make up the list. Why is that?

We have two whites in the top five. But they also happen to be NFL owners who are known for running teams with “thugs” as players, who also happen to be black. Coincidence, I don’t think so. Of the other whites, Mark McGwire, has become the poster boy of sorts for steroids in baseball, and Bob Knight known for his terrible temper. Big Ben’s dislike rate dropped from 57 to 39 percent over the course of the year, and so he is not in the top ten.

Can someone please tell me how what Tiger Woods did is worse then what Roethlisberger did? I’m not going to defend Woods’ behavior, but I do not put adultery on the same level as potential sexual assault. I think there are several things which separate Woods out. The first is that people expected more of him for some reason, and felt betrayed when everything came out. But I also believe that a lot of the animosity has to do with the fact that he was a black man, married to a white woman having affairs with other white women.

As white’s its really easy to believe that race doesn’t matter because it’s not something we really have to think about. Our color is to our advantage. People of color do not have that same advantage, and we as a society have lots of assumptions, conscious and unconscious, that impact how they are viewed. Among these are two of the major taboos of black men with white women and blacks getting too “uppity.” I believe that these two beliefs play very much into this list.

Only 11 more days until pitchers and catchers report, and 21 until the first game. Yeah!