Sunday, June 30, 2013

Walking to Lambeth Palace

I walk the paved embankment to Lambeth Palace,
past Parliament on the north bank and St. Thomas
the hospital on the south, past nameless
buildings and nameless homeless on the north,
past the pastry and coffee carts with surprisingly
long lines this early, arriving to find what looks
less a palace and more a castle whose windows
need cleaning. What captures my attention is
what looks like an old church, moldering
on the west end of the palace, and it was
an old church, moldering, until it became
the Museum of Garden History, occupied
by parishioners who look startlingly like
either old books or old plants or both. But
it’s Sunday, Sunday morning, a glorious
Sunday morning, and perhaps the books
and plants are preparing to worship.

Photograph: Lambeth Palace on the left and the Museum of Garden History on the right, courtesy Britain Express

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saturday Good Reads: Why We Don’t Trust Companies

Speaking from (too much) personal and professional experience, I can testify that massive amounts of information, data, and research exist on the subject of reputation – corporate reputation, to be specific. Public relations and marketing firms have practices devoted to reputation management. Book after book has been published on the subject. And who can quantify how many billions of dollars have been spent by companies seeking to improve their reputations?

It’s not exactly comforting to know that, after all of this effort and expenditure, people trust corporations (and CEOs) only marginally more than they trust Congress.

Which is the same thing as that they don’t trust corporations at all.

This past week, I read three articles by Charles Green at Trust Advisor, a consulting firm that focuses on the subject of trust. What caught my eye (and I have to say, my heart), was this statement: “Most companies confuse trust with reputation. They view it as a communications problem, something to be handled by PR, especially in times of crisis. Trust problems are addressed by amping up the messaging.”

That first sentence bears repeating: Most companies confuse trust with reputation.

Another way of saying that: if you have a reputation problem, the problem is not your reputation.

I went back and reread the article. And then I read Part 2 the next day, and Part 3 the day after that.

After 40 years in the organizational communications business, I can say that I have never read more common sense – and truth – than I did in these three articles.

It’s not about reputation.

It’s about trust.

Monday Update: 

Part 4: Why We Don't Trust Companies - The Solution

Top photograph by Alex Grichenko via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Dancing in Trafalgar Square

It’s a party in Trafalgar Square,
chaperoned by expectant Vermeers
in the National Gallery after
sponge cake from the crypt
at St. Martin’s in the Fields,
and a percussion band is rocking
on the stage, swaying the crowd
like reeds in the wind. We dance
around the column, the band is
that good and from Brooklyn,
of all places, as traffic swirls its way
from the Strand to the Mall,
but still we dance, risking
the inevitably disapproving stare
from the man atop the column.

Photograph: The band Red Barat playing at the Mayor of London’s party in Trafalgar Square, celebrating the end of the Paralympics and the Olympics, September 2012.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wordsworth was right

I’m older now, older
than I ever imagined
myself to be, my mind
stuck in neutral at nineteen
and my body demonstrating
daily how ridiculous
that notion is, but I’m
older now, older than I ever
imagined myself to be, and
I see so much that I only
knew before, understanding
how much was created
in the first ten years.
Wordsworth was right, but
it takes too long to grasp
his truth, and realize our youth
is more alive now than it was
when we lived it.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Remember Levi

I’m considering taking on a motto.

Remember Levi.

Levi is the man we know today as Matthew, the author of the New Testament gospel. But when Jesus arrived in Capernaum that day, that day he told the paralytic “Your sins are forgiven” and “Take up your mat and walk,” that day he outraged the teachers of the law with his presumption of forgiving sins, that day he also happened upon Levi the tax collector.

And he looked into the heart of Levi, and said “Follow me.”

Jesus had already outraged the teachers over the implication of assuming equality with God – only God could forgive sins. To punch the implication home, he healed the paralytic. And then he risked the outrage of everyone else by consorting with that most despised of all officials – the tax collector. The Jewish tax collector. The man of the priestly tribe who had bought his office and now had to squeeze the people to both pay their taxes and pay off the cost of buying the office.

Tax collectors were not loved. Think of your reaction to knowing the U.S. Internal Revenue Service made people’s lives miserable simply because of an affiliation with “Tea Party,” and now “Israel” and “Occupy.” Think of your reaction if that they had that personally to you. Your thoughts of the tax collector would not be warm ones.

And, in the eyes of the Jews, Levi the tax collector was also something else. He was a lackey of Rome. “As a tax collector,” writes Andy Stanley in The Grace of God, “he served as a financial go-between, serving an almost priestly role between the treasury of Rome and his Jewish kinsmen. In a culture that was supremely religious, where seemingly every month played host to a different festival of day of remembrance, his guilt must have followed him like a shadow.”

We tend to focus on the part of the story here Jesus goes with Levi to his home, and has a meal with him and all the other people willing to consort with Levi – likely among the most despised people in all of Capernaum.

We tend to overlook the first part. The part when Jesus first sees Levi, sitting at his table, a line of people waiting in front of him to pay taxes, waiting to be cheated and trying to figure out how little they could get away with.

Jesus says two words: “Follow me.”

You’re doing the job you’re paid to do, that you pay yourself to do, and some itinerant rabbi walks up to you and says, “Follow me.”

And you do it. You stand up, you walk away from your job, and take Jesus to your home. And from then on, you are no longer Levi the tax collector. You are Matthew the disciple, the Matthew who will one day write an account of the life of Jesus expressly for the Jewish people, the people who hated you, the Matthew who, according to tradition, will be martyred for the sake and in the name of that young rabbi.

“Follow me.” Two words, and Levi the tax collector was born again.

And that’s why I’m considering taking on a motto. “Remember Levi.”

If Jesus could love the despised tax collector, and be willing to be seen with a man considered a traitor by his own people, then he could love me, too. That’s the lesson of Matthew – there is always hope for the grace of God.

Remember Levi.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading the Grace of God. To see what others have to say on this chapter, “Accepted by Grace,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Painting: The Calling of St. Matthew by Arnold Houbraken (ca. 1710), Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht, Netherlands.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Poet Focus: Marianne Moore

I live in the oldest incorporated suburb of St. Louis, a town of 27,540 called Kirkwood. It became a town in 1853, when a rail line was extended west. The project manager for the line was a surveying engineer from New York named James Pugh Kirkwood.

For the first 40 or 50 years of its life, Kirkwood was likely typical of towns in the 19th century Midwest – small town center serving both the rail line and the farms in the surrounding region. Merchants, clergymen, and others built homes near the town center, many of which survive today in good working order.

This was the town and culture where poet Marianne Moore was born in 1887. Her grandfather, the Rev. John Warner, had been a chaplain at the Battle of Gettysburg and was called to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood in 1867. Moore and her family lived with her grandparents until 1896, when Warner died and the family moved back to Pennsylvania. (The church still exists, although not the original church building.)

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Making Decisions that Keep Work and Life in Balance: Preparing to Be Wrong

We had talked about it for months – a new electronic publication for employees. Only two companies in North America had one at the time, one in the U.S. and one in Canada. We had talked with both, and the one in Canada was our best analogy – no standardized platform for employees to read it, people scattered across several countries, and uncooperative technical staff. 

We planned it, designed it, found stories for it (we still called them stories back then, not content), and staffed it.  

We did three things right.  

We set everyone’s mind at ease by starting small – a test group of 100. That’s what Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, call “ooching,” or trying things on a small scale before you go all out.  

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling. 


Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

All on the same page

Singly and together we crowd
into the designated space, careful
to avoid the edges and the inevitable
cuts, but we are so many and the space
so small we soon find ourselves
crowding and elbowing each other,
finding breathing increasingly difficult
as more and more of us push inside,
until some of us are hanging
by the edges, irrespective of the inevitable
blood staining the white, and the words
upon the white, until the space itself
begins to shudder and buckle causing
the wisest among us to leap for safety.

Over at dVerse Poets today, the prompt is idioms, and I can think of no idiom I’m least fond of than this one. To see more poems, please visit dVerse Poets.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Bad Reviews

One thing I’ve learned about Christian fiction – never write a bad review.

I learned that lesson the hard way. When I first started this blog, I was naïve. I read a lot of Christian fiction, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the norms of the industry, like “thou shalt not write a bad review of Christian book or novel, even if it’s bad.”

A few months into blogging, I wrote an unfavorable review of a novel that was clearly in the Christian fiction genre. The writing was good; it truly was. But the novel had structural problems – serious structural problems that were actually there by design. My major issue was that it should have been disclosed on the cover, and not left for the reader to discover in the last 10 pages that this wasn’t a self-contained novel but more of a serialization.

I posted my review, and the apocalypse arrived in short order. If you think Christians aren’t capable of intimidation campaigns, then you don’t know the friends of Christian writers. It was ugly. Emails – blog comments – things said online generally – it was ugly. It was capped by an exchange of emails with the book’s editor, in which things were said about me, my review, and the Christian book publishing industry that blew my socks off. The nicest thing said in the email exchange was “you don’t understand what the author is trying to do.”

Unfortunately, I did understand.

But I pulled the review. Yes, I caved. I have never mentioned the writer again, nor have I read any of the subsequent books written. And I’ve actually reviewed only one other book by that publisher in the five years since, and it was non-fiction.

When I begin reading in the Christian fiction genre today, I can usually tell whether it’s going to be good or bad within the first 20 pages. If it’s bad, I stop reading. I don’t review bad books. I have returned books to publishers saying I believe the book is bad and that I have a policy of not reviewing bad novels. If I’ve bought the book in question myself (which is usually the case), I place in the “giveaway pile” for a local charity.

I’m not the only one out there doing this. It’s kind of a conspiracy of silence – and it’s likely keeping Christian fiction from developing into something better. But it seems to be an unwritten, unspoken commandment – don’t write bad reviews of a Christian novel.

I’m reading a book by a favorite author right now. I’ve been tempted to stop at several points. It’s well written, and an interesting story, but it’s been over-researched, with all the research pushed into the story. Too much detail is taking the mystery and mystique out; I’m not sure if I’m reading a story or a magazine article.

And there are too many negative things afflicting the hero. I’m three-fourths of the way through the book, and I know there are two, possibly three, more negative things coming, including a lot of violence. I know it will ultimately end okay, but at times it just seems too much. One big impending promise of violence is enough; two seem too much to me.

Will I do a review of the book? No.

Will I continue to read the author? Yes. The author is a fine writer and an engaging storyteller.

I’m likely more sensitive to this because I have two of my own novels published. The most critical review of Dancing Priest said something like this: “It’s written in a plain, almost news story style, and I prefer lots of atmosphere.” If that’s as bad as it gets, that’s not bad. And the comment about the style is true.

But it is a question, this relationship (or lack of one) between reviewers and Christian fiction. Are we only supposed to write good reviews? Do we ignore the badly written, or badly constructed, or books with serious flaws? Is this what publishers of Christian fiction expect? Or is the expectation that we overlook the flaws and give everything a good review (which maybe a nice way of saying “if you don’t like it, you’re supposed to say you do,” or “lie about it”)?

I have an answer; I’m not sure I want to implement it.

So in the meantime, I don’t review bad novels. 

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

El Mirage

We streamed into the desert
following a pillar of cloud,
sand cloud, by day, and
a pillar of fire, back fire,
by night, hoping to catch
a glimpse of youth forgotten
when all the world seemed
about fast women and
faster cars. We convinced
ourselves it was no mirage
reflecting an empty landscape
back upon us, empty except
for a pillar of cloud by day.

Over at Tweetspeak Poetry, Seth Haines has a poetry prompt this week – about mirages and mirrors.

Photograph by Michael Miloserdoff via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. The photograph was taken in El Mirage, California – a dry lake bed. If you click on the photo, you will the name of the sponsor of this particular car.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Years of Silence

We’ve come to a pause in our reading of The Grace of God by Andy Stanley, a pause that covers about 400 years.

It’s a period covering roughly 400 B.C. to the birth of Christ. Many Protestants call it the “400 years of silence” – the period when no writing was produced that would be added to the canon. Catholics take a different view, and include what are often referred to as the “Apocryphal” texts – Esdras, Maccabbees, and a few others. All three Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) generally agree on the New Testament canon.

But it wasn’t exactly a quiet period in the history of Middle East. Momentous things were happening that would have a significant impact upon the first century A.D.

The Persian Empire declined, and was conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s empire was divided into three parts upon his death, but Greek culture and influence became pervasive.

Antiochus Epiphanes got a little too enamored of himself, and defiled the temple in Jerusalem, for he re received a rebellion and loss of territory.

For a time Palestine and Israel operated quasi-independently, until Rome occupied the territory when the ruling factions couldn’t stop their bickering.

For 400 years, there was no prophet, or canonical writing, and no direct communication by God to his people, at least in the way they had experienced it before. It was a kind of silence, but a silence which masked how the stage was being set.

Like an unannounced intermission,” Andy Stanley writes, “the curtain of world events closed on the story of God’s grace, and the stage went dark.”

By the time of the birth of Jesus, there was a common government for the Mediterranean world (Roman), a common culture (Greek), an empire-wide road system that allowed ease of travel – and, among the Jews, a growing expectation for the arrival of a Messiah, one who would lead them to victory over the Roman oppressors and restore Israel to its promised earthly power.

But that’s not what happened.

While this story is a large one, it struck me as I read it that there’s a personal application. We can go for long periods of hope and expectation, and nothing happens. We can pray and pray for something to happen, and nothing happens. We can convince ourselves that our suffering can’t last forever, that something must change, and yet nothing seems to happen.

Only silence.

And yet, something is happening. Something is always happening. We may not see it or sense it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

A stage is being set. It’s always being set.

Led by Jason Stayszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Andy Stanley’s The Grace of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “Selah,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Illustration: A map of Alexander the Great’s empire at its height.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Telling the Truth Upward

A senior executive has made a request, something impossible to achieve. The request is born of a lack of understanding and rising frustration, and it’s passed down until it lands in my email.

I understand the frustration, and I share it. So I respond, politely and with understanding, directly to the executive. I explain why it’s impossible.

One of the people copied on the email stops by with a bit of advice. “You need to be careful saying what you did,” he says. “You could hurt your career.”

This reminds me of the old line about Socrates. He told the truth, so they poisoned him.

But the statement surprises me. Doing anything else other than what I did never entered my mind. What I believed important was to provide the executive with an explanation.

Later, I consider the statement. Why did my fellow employee think that telling an executive the truth would hurt my career?

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Illustration by Fritz Ahlefeldt via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Poetry at Work: The Poetry of Electronic Work

Twenty years ago this summer, I was having a series of meetings with the then-company’s IT people. We wanted to do an email newsletter for employees; IT did not want us to do that. “It will crash the system,” we were told. “This will harm all of our computer systems,” they said. I even heard vague hints that our overtaxing the email system could lead to financial chaos and cultural collapse in the West.

We took the risk and started our newsletter. Nothing bad happened. In fact, the email system handled the news letter just fine, thank you. Nothing even minor happened.

The first lesson we learned was to look at dire claims of disaster with a skeptical eye. The second lesson was that an email newsletter was work. Despite the appearance of ease that bytes and pixels seem to promise, nothing was easy about an email newsletter. And we learned that, if employees liked the newsletter (and they did), our work for employees soon found itself far outside the company. Imagine – they forwarded the newsletter to friends, sales prospects, academics, and just about anyone else they thought might find it interesting.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph by Charles Rondeau via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Familiarity Breeds…Contentment?

It’s an old saw – familiarity breeds contempt. But in organizational settings, it’s also dead wrong.

Familiarity actually breeds contentment – and that can be dangerous.

We call it “corporate culture” or “organizational culture.” Put another way: “It’s how we do things here.” It’s what we believe in, and the values we hold.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, suggest that contentment often comes from repeated exposure to an idea, a program, a process. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, “but what’s more troubling is that mere exposure also extends to our perception of truth.”

In other words, the more we hear or read or see something, the more we believe it’s true. Even if it’s a flat-out lie.

How many times have you received a group email claiming something (usually outrageous or bizarre) is true and you’re urged to pass it on? The internet lends itself to this type of communication. If something seems unbelievably outrageous, it’s probably untrue.

I received one that claimed a certain consumer product (I won’t mention names here to protect the innocent product) was the cause of all cancers, autism, Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy and virtually every other illness and disease known to humanity, supposedly on the basis of “new scientific studies.”(I am not making this up.) Looking at the email chain, it has already been passed on numerous times.

If you receive something like this, check Snopes. The odds are good that Snopes will have an answer as to the validity of an internet claim.

Why are we so prone to believe this stuff?

We trust the people sending the email or making the claim.

We see a lot of people making the claim on twitter and Facebook.

There’s an article about it on Wikipedia.

An online publication that you read regularly has an article about it.

We have a lot of reasons for doing this. The key point related to all of these is that we tend to believe something is true if it fits our pre-existing worldview.

If we mistrust big corporations, or big government, or big religion (or any religion), we are more prone to believe crazy things about them. We don’t stop and ask if something might be wrong with our worldview. We’re a consumer culture and we consume news and information just like any other consumer commodity.

For organizations, the Heaths say, this status quo or “it’s the culture here” mentality can be devastating. It’s often most easily seen when an outside executive is brought in to change things in a staff or business unit with a strong culture. Watch how fast the white blood cells go to work to “kill the infection.”

We all can do better than that. Not every status quo is bad or wrong. Not every change or innovation is good. But we need to develop a highly tuned sense of discernment to know the difference.

And stop forwarding those crazy email chain letters.

Over at The HighCalling, we’ve been discussing Decisive. To see more posts on this section about short-term emotion, please visit TheHigh Calling.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Theology of Puddles

It’s just a patch of dirty water,
nondescript, huddled by the curb,
silently waiting for evaporation
as it reflects upon its short life,
when it is suddenly catapulted
into eternity by the sandaled feet
of a three-year-old boy.

Over at dVerse Poets, the poetry prompt is the beauty of everyday things. I don’t think I could find something more prosaic than a mud puddle. To see more poems responding to the prompt, please visit dVerse Poets.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Café gone fifty years

Passing the place where the café
was once, I smell strong coffee
where no coffee brews in this street
of commerce and business; the café
gone these fifty years, a few tables
with red and white checkered
tablecloths, leathered cups of dice
on each to see who would pay
the bill amid murmured conversations,
muted laughter, biscuits made
from scratch brushed with butter:
businessman’s breakfast. A car horn
blasts; a delivery truck blocks
the right of way. The smell of coffee
lingers in the humid air.

Photograph: 400 block of Gravier Street, Central Business District of New Orleans.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Doug Spurling’s “Grieving Grace”

Two classic works on grief are A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud. Lewis was writing about the death of his wife, Joy Davidman Lewis; Gunther was writing about the death of his 17-year-old son from a brain tumor. Only the Lewis work is well known today, largely because Lewis is still well known today. (Lewis died in 1963 and Gunther, a well know journalist and author, in 1970.)

Lewis wrote from the perspective of faith, although a shaken one. Gunther write from a human, non-faith perspective. Both convey the depth of the pain and loss each man experienced.

The loss that prompts grief is always hard. Lewis moved in the direction of the idea of loss as grace; joy herself seems to have gotten there before he did. But loss and the grief it prompts are the measure of the love and feeling we have for the one who dies.

Grieving Grace by Douglas Spurling, a writer and blogger (Spurling Silver), fully embraces the idea of loss as grace. It is a small book with a large theme, prompted by the death of his mother-in-law Mary. The mother of 14 and grandmother of 100+, Mary died at 87. What Spurling has done here is essentially to keep a family journal of her last days, yet raise questions that apply to all of us.

In addition to chronicling her physical decline, Spurling asks probing and sometimes unexpected questions, such as how do you tell a loved one they’re dying? What is the withdrawal from this life actually like? What characteristics are common to the dying? What are the final days and hours like?

This is a work about dying, grieving, and loss, but it is also a work about love. It takes love – a lot of it – to tell someone it’s okay to let go, to move from this physical life we know to the life we don’t know but can only guess at and hope for, really.

Grieving Grace is a private journal written for the large extended family that is Mary’s. But it surpasses that,a nd becomes a record of dying, grief, and grace for all of us.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jonah: It’s Not About the Fish

For those of us who didn’t first learn about Jonah in Sunday School, the story seems scientifically impossible and a proof point that the Bible contains preposterous accounts, if not downright inaccuracies.

For those of us who did first learn the story of Jonah in Sunday School, we leave the scientific debate to others. (I don’t embrace creationism versus evolution arguments, either.) Hearing the story as a young child, all I can say is that it made sense, a truth easily grasped by children  and often far better than learned adults.

It’s not about the fish.

The story of Jonah is about many things, and to focus on the fish is to miss all of them. It’s about faith, obedience, understanding the culture and world one lives within, understanding how God works in that world, repentance, and having expectations confounded or confirmed.

Jonah is an individual whose life gets played out in a much larger context. And it’s a geopolitical story, the story of the capital city of a brutal empire being brought to its knees.

And, as Andy Stanley points out in The Grace of God, it is a perplexing story of God’s grace. Perplexing, in that the Assyrians deserved anything but grace. What they did deserve was destruction for their brutality and the evil they committed upon the surrounding nations and peoples (they were the ones who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, whose people disappeared into history).

And yet, the fish notwithstanding, Jonah makes his way to Nineveh, and preaches repentance for three days (the same number of days he was inside the fish; and likely the same number of days in his “anger at God” period at the end of the story). The city listens to his preaching, repents, and is spared God’s wrath, much to Jonah’s chagrin. He knew this would happen, because he knew God as a God of grace.

And it made him angry.

I identify with the Assyrians. I did nothing to deserve God’s grace. Nothing. Just the opposite, in fact. And I was grateful for it.

And I identify with Jonah. Don’t all those people today who deny and ridicule the very notion of God, the people think his church is filled with stupid yahoos, the people who murder and destroy and tear at the very fabric of our society, the people who are trying to force an anti-Christian underpinning on everything in the culture, well, surely they deserve to get theirs, right?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps they will hear the call to repentance; perhaps Christians will articulate a call to repentance. Perhaps God will spare them too. The story of Jonah is also the story opf how anyone, no matter how evil, can repent and be forgiven.

Yes, the story of Jonah is a story of God’s Grace.

Led by Jason Stayszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing The Grace of God by Andy Stanley. To see more posts on this chapter, “Puzzled by Grace,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Sally Pesavento via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.