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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I Still Read Books

I'm not trying to sound superior in my title... I just have not (yet) made the dive into Kindle or Nook or iPad. I'm not against e-Book technology necessarily -- but I cannot deny that I still love the feeling of holding a book in my hand... seeing those books in my shelves... pulling them out occasionally to look for the underlined quote or section that my visual memory is recalling... Ah.

I'm on a sabbatical of sorts this summer. My contract to teach ended in June and I don't start up again until the third week of August. So I'm working about half-time and am grateful to say I have enough income to not fret over the temporary decrease. Instead, I'm using the extra time to read. Ah.

I've piled an ambitious stack of books in my room, and hope to chip away at a book per week for 6 weeks or so. I'm already a week behind, but I am not daunted. I have finished one and am halfway through another. I've even tossed one aside that bored me within 50 pages.

I hope to put some thoughts here after each one I read, so here goes on the first book of my summer reads....

Reader Alert: Unlike normal people, I'm not a let's-just-read-something-light-in-the-summer kinda gal. I relax by reading, period. Sometimes it's thick stuff, but often the need to concentrate on what I'm reading is even more relaxing. I'm a weird one.

I picked this book up for three reasons:
  1. I loved Friedman's book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church & Synagogue when I read it in a seminary class some 20 years ago, so I especially trusted him as an author. Generation to Generation was a game changer for me. Not only did it help me to tap into some of my own family stuff, it helped me to see how family systems are at work in the church. This really helped me understand the intricate relational dynamics swirling around me as a youth pastor. (Of course I wish I had been mature enough and smart enough to avoid the many pitfalls I still stumbled into, but at least I understood them, mostly in hindsight...)
  2. I had read an article that referred to this new book, A Failure of Nerve, and the quotes were really intriguing. I had to read more.
  3. Leadership. I really care about leadership -- how to bring it out in others (especially pastors), how to discern it in young people, how to identify it, how to live it out myself. There is a pile of lousy leadership books out there. After reading the quotes from this book in the article I sensed that Friedman had something different (and NEW) to say.
I promptly ordered the book, and started reading it as soon as I got it. Soon I remember one significant quality of Friedman's work: he is a rather dense writer. Not impossible, certainly, but not one to casually scan either. Be prepared to dig in, and perhaps only read in small chunks.

Friedman must've been one very smart cookie -- he was both a Marriage & Family Therapist and a rabbi, and consulted with countless organizations and congregations. His books roam through history, theology, psychology, hard science, sociology... But I think I enjoy his books so much because they are not "same song, different verse," especially when it comes to the qualities of spiritual leadership. He has truly unique, thought-provoking things to say. Here's a simple example:
A well-differentiated leader... [is] someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.

In my own work with pastors and church leaders, I find the most prominent areas where they (myself included) get stuck is in trying to remain in front of the many tasks, projects and people under our care. There is a huge tendency to get buried by the demands and urgency of them all, be drawn into all of their crises, and become deeply tired and overwhelmed. One ends up becoming a manager of endless to-do lists or worse, a firefighter consumed with putting out the "Fire of the Week." All of that is tremendously draining and a fast ticket to burnout.

Friedman reminds us that our job is to lead. Yet rather than follow the route of the leadership and motivational books one sees filling the stacks of airport bookstores (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motivational Leadership, Heroic Leadership, Oprah's Guide to Life, 50 Self-Help Classics...) Friedman avoids gimmicks and methods completely. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter, and stays there. He insists that the reader grapple with the deeper, more fundamental issues that percolate inside all of us. This "requires commitment to the lifetime project of being willing to be continually transformed by one's experience." Remember the subtitle: "Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix." Friedman insists on one leading out of a profound, ethically-driven sense of mission, purpose and calling. He made me really look at how much chronic anxiety is at work in every corner of American life, and how much I succumb to it. As he says, "Living with crisis is a major part of leaders' lives." It "comes with the territory." But the book then sheds tremendous light on how to lead in spite of all those dynamics at work. If the leader can stay above the reactive fray, then he or she can move from a "seatbelt" mentality to one of adventure and prophetic wisdom. I must listen to God far more than I listen to the emails, voicemails and appointments in my day. This quote says it all:
In the final analysis, the relationship between risk and reality is about leadership.

Friedman gives insight into all the various expressions of leadership in front of us: as parents, in the church, at work, in our culture. As soon as I finished this book I went back to page 1 and reviewed the entire book again, taking notes this time. (I mentioned I'm weird). I could go on and on with the value of this book, but I'll end with this simple quote:
Most of the decisions we make in life turn out to be right or wrong not because we were prescient, but because of the way we function after we make the decision.
Friedman reminds me that while I cannot control nearly anything in this world, I can certainly decide, in and through Christ, how I will respond to the things I face every day. As the Apostle Paul says,
I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

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