Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

seegerWhen Pete Seeger died in January, we lost an American musical icon. We also lost a leader, and we who have dedicated our lives to guiding others toward positive change can learn a lot from his approach.

Pete wasn’t an institutional leader, per se, although he and his wife, Toshi, founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., starting in 1966. The Seegers used the boat and Pete’s inspirational tunes to make a real difference. You can swim and fish in the Hudson now, and the river has regained its health.

Pete’s leadership came mostly through his music. He created tunes that playfully and pointedly described our beautiful yet broken world, inviting us all to remake it, together.

He also knew how to build community. His concerts were not so much performances as they were sing-alongs. While most musicians (and leaders) want you to be impressed by their cleverness and skill, Pete’s shows united his audiences in a common sense of joy, motivating them to make a difference in their daily lives and in a particular social or environmental cause. And somehow, he made humanity and the natural world the centers of our attention, not himself. Never himself.

This kind of leadership is rare, and I wonder, as institutional life in our country continues to erode, if it will become even less common.

There have always been crooks and despots at the helm of various tribes and nation-states, and recently the world watched in horror as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych directed the slaughter of those protesting his broken promises and financial misdeeds. Leadership by brute force, in any setting, only serves to erode trust, the essential bond of community.

Parents who are good leaders in the home understand the trust factor. Most kids (at least before adolescence) feel as though they should obey their parents, no matter what. However, when children can truly trust that their parents will love them consistently and gently, provide for them, keep them safe, and set appropriate limits on their own behavior, they will follow their parents to the ends of the earth if asked.

Leadership in the business world can be tricky in that it’s not only about guiding a group of people in a common cause. Quarterly reports show whether profits are high enough, and if they’re not, the leader is usually considered a failure. However, the best management minds know that, given a good business model, performance will improve if employees feel a sense of responsibility to one another and to the customer.

As the pastor of a church, my role is multifaceted. I am a theologian-in-residence, a steward of sacred rites, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, a shoulder to lean on in difficult times, and sometimes a secretary and janitor. Unless I am also a leader, I will be ineffective in all the rest.

In the world of religious institutions, leadership matters much more than many think. Even if everyone is very faithful and very kind, your church, synagogue, temple, or mosque will fail without solid ordained and lay leadership, working in partnership.

Let’s spend more time and energy in our families, schools, religious groups, and sports teams teaching our kids the leadership skills that they will need when they inherit the world. Eventually, they will be in charge, and all of us want them to be prepared and successful. The well being of all we hold dear depends on it.

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Music and Memory

photoI’m the first one to complain bitterly about Christmas music blaring over the sound systems in stores and malls before Thanksgiving and the one singing loudest on Christmas Eve. Not the best, the loudest. I am an enthusiastic singer of Christmas carols. I especially like to belt out the tenor part of the refrain in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” You know, Glo-o-o-o-o-ria! In excelsis Deo!  

Although it pains me to hear the great Christmas songs before Thanksgiving, it’s even worse when the arrangements played are those cheesy, soulless, overwrought versions that should never have made it out of the recording studio. Why remake something beautiful and make it worse?

But now, the season is really here and I couldn’t be happier. Because music brings me home.

When I hear “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (the Burl Ives version from the animated film), I am back in the house where I was raised and it’s 1965. There is a fire in the fireplace and I’m seeing Hermey and his friends tame the Abominable Snowman for the first time.

Or when one of the jazzy Christmas songs come onto my car radio (like “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby), I am suddenly sitting next to my mom as she drives through a snowy afternoon in our 1970 Chevy Malibu station wagon.

And when Pandora chooses, “Joy to the World,” I see my childhood pastor, Mr. Bryant, smiling brightly from the pulpit of our candlelit church as he sings on Christmas Eve. He died years ago – much too young — but his joy stays with me.

My sons are young adults now, and my guess is that Alvin and the Chipmunks (Me, I want a huuu-la-hooop!) and Howard Blake’s brilliant score in the animated film, “The Snowman,” bring them straight back to their childhood Christmases. Learning to sing carols in harmony and playing them on their instruments (cello and piano) was also an important part of the holidays when they were young. We created many memories singing for lonely friends and performing together in church on Christmas Eve.

Nowadays, when I am in my own home at holiday time, I feel most at home when listening to the Kings College Chapel Choir sing old English carols like “Adam Lay yBounden” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I’ve also learned to really enjoy Duke Ellington’s genius reinterpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite” and the soundtrack to “The Muppets Christmas Carol” (not least because of the moral thrust of the lyrics).

This year, I had the privilege to witness the Handel and Haydn Society perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Symphony Hall. The magnificent presentation was both a spiritual and aesthetic high, sweetened by the company of my wife and son as well as by talented friends in the choir.

The truth is that not all holiday memories are good ones. The sound many people remember from Christmases long, long ago is angry shouting. And maybe Christmas makes you feel left out because you don’t celebrate it. I can’t imagine feeling excluded in my own country for about 10% of the year, every year.

What kinds of memories does Christmas music invoke for you? How does it make you feel? Excited for family get-togethers or melancholy at the thought of another disappointing and lonely holiday season? My hope is that the music you hear at this time of year will bring you back to the best of your past and will also powerfully, and gently, redeem your present.

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Holy Beauty

If you’ve been lucky enough to be able to look up from your desk or windshield or kitchen sink in the last few days, you’ve seen the reds and yellows and oranges begin to splash across the treetops. The very beginning of foliage season is my favorite, when there is still a green background for the colors of fall and warm days thrill in contrast to lovely cool nights.

As I walked through the streets of Paris with my new bride this past summer, I experienced long periods of speechlessness. The spiraled ironwork, the bright flowers everywhere, the soaring church towers, the colorful clothing on both women and men, the unparalleled masterpieces, the understated cafes, and outrageous fountain statuary. And of course, the Seine flowing through the middle of it all with its elegant arcs. Paris fed some deep part of me that hungers for beauty.

And yet, I felt a twinge of guilt. As I beheld and revered the stunning heart of France, I wondered whether I was being superficial. I grew up in and continue to be a committed member of the United Church of Christ. Our spiritual ancestors were the Pilgrims who settled in this part of the world in the early seventeenth century. In their view, anything that satisfied human desire – aside from God – was to be deeply questioned and most often rejected as an idol.

Puritanism’s fear that beauty might draw us away from spiritual things is an understandable reaction to the Renaissance. However, I am fully prepared to claim that beauty is a gift from God. To be totally honest, I believe that beauty is one of the windows into the truth of God.

One caution: I have worked with high schoolers for almost thirty years and was of course a teenager myself once. Starting in high school, we tend to put way too much emphasis on physical beauty in my opinion. And we adults don’t help. Physically attractive teens get hired sooner for sure. My guess is they get selected for team or club leadership and are called on in class more often as well. This is not their fault.

When we are at our best, each of us can bring something beautiful to the table, whether it’s internal or external or both. And I hope the adults in our children’s lives realize that and work to empower each one to reach her or his potential for creating beauty.

The question then arises – and to me it’s a spiritual one: Does that mean we are wrongheaded if we appreciate physical beauty? I don’t think so, but we’ve got to keep ourselves in check, look for the beauty within each person, young or old or in between, and within each landscape and neighborhood as well.

The denuded hillsides of Scotland and the desert places of south central Asia have their own haunting splendor. And there are plenty of streets in Dorchester and Roxbury that at first glance may look rough, but contain good, loving, brilliant, and exceptionally creative people. Beautiful people.

So, I will continue to visit the Gardner and the Museum of Fine Arts to gaze at impressionist paintings, classical sculpture, and medieval mantelpieces. And I will make the annual trek to Manhattan with my son this fall to listen to world-class jazz at Birdland or the Bluenote or the Village Vanguard. And I will venture to the White Mountains and snowshoe in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, just to see the snow-laden evergreens on the side of some mountain this winter and listen to the absolute silence.

And then I will return to Hingham and give thanks for the beautiful hearts of the people in this community, my brothers and sisters on the journey.
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My wife, Tracy, and I recently went on a pilgrimage as part of our honeymoon. We began our trip in Paris, which of course abounds with unique and flamboyant sights, sounds, tastes, and rhythms. We relished every moment of our time there. Afterward, we flew to Scotland to walk St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath that stretches from the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the coast of England.

Here on the South Shore, the word “pilgrim” evokes the zealous adventurers who landed at Plymouth in the early 17th century. But pilgrimage has a long and rich history that crosses religious and temporal lines. Christian pilgrimage began sometime in the early 4th century, with journeys to Jerusalem and other holy sites in Israel-Palestine. But most official pilgrims these days are Muslims making their way to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Pilgrimage, or Hajj, is one of the five pillars (core practices) of Islam.

While the journey to Mecca increasingly became a part of the bedrock of Muslim life, Christian pilgrimage evolved and changed. A trip to the Holy Land was dangerous, time consuming, and expensive. So, many continental and British cathedrals and other sites (including Lindisfarne), became pilgrimage destinations for those seeking hope, inspiration, and forgiveness in the challenging and violent world of medieval Europe.

Chartres Cathedral in France created an indoor labyrinth sometime in the early 13th century. Some historians believe that the Chartres labyrinth was originally intended for use by those who could not travel afar, but wanted to experience the prayerful movement that is at the heart of pilgrimage.

And movement is what pilgrimage is indeed all about, whether ones journey is internal or external or both. To me, the Christian gospel (and life in general) is not about apprehending certain static truths, but is rather a process of moving toward the heart of the Divine, true community, and ones most authentic self.

Christian pilgrimage faded in the 16th Century after the Protestant Reformation and reformations within the Catholic Church exposed certain exploitative practices. ImageHowever, it never completely went away and is definitely making a comeback as personal spirituality becomes increasingly important to the modern day faithful. The medieval route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain is especially popular.

I am an avid hiker partially because I find it easiest to pray while walking through areas of natural beauty. There is something about the rhythm of my feet and breathing that allows my anxieties and mental lists to slip away and opens me to the God who is within, among, and all around us. Purposeful, prayerful walking provides an alternative to the frenetic pace of everyday life.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 63-mile trek that leads the pilgrim through a colorful patchwork of rolling farmland dotted with sheep, over moorland bursting with purple heather, and down the streets of ancient villages. We were constantly aware of the magnificence of creation and of its Creator.

In the past, I have enjoyed walking long distance footpaths alone. However, on pilgrimage with my new life partner, the experience was safer, less lonely, and afforded us the opportunity to learn more about one another. As we crossed the mudflats toward Lindisfarne (accessible only at low tide), as many thousands have done for the last 1,400 years, we experienced elation at completing the walk and were thrilled at the prospect of a lifetime of shared journeys. What do you say? Solo or with someone you love, spiritual or physical or both, are you up for a pilgrimage of some kind?

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Gifts Too Good to Keep to Ourselves

ImageIn 1914, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., started building a system of carriage roads on his property on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. The island’s villages had just decided to allow cars and Rockefeller wanted to ensure that he, his family, and his guests could continue to enjoy their favorite activities – horseback riding and carriage driving – safe from the noise and danger of automobiles.

The new (private) carriage roads led the privileged rider through shady forest glades, beside sun-dappled wildflower patches, along breezy lakesides, and onto the shoulders of mountains with unmatched views.

A few years later, when Acadia National Park began to take shape, Rockefeller worried that a less than desirable class of tourists would begin to visit the island. However, within a decade, he would donate large tracts of land, huge sums of money, and most of his carriage roads to the park. Somehow, his perspective shifted outward. He realized that the natural beauty that meant so much to him should be enjoyed by his neighbors, no matter where they were from.

As I was riding my bicycle on one of Rockefeller’s carriage roads last week, I started thinking about other gifts and experiences that begin as personal pleasures, but come fully to life when shared…

Marriage: I was not in Acadia alone. Beside me on her bicycle was my brand new wife, Tracy. We anticipate that our marriage will be deeply pleasurable to the two of us. We look forward to the everyday delights of home and to many more vacations to stunning locations in Maine and around the world. But one of our fondest hopes is that our union will be a blessing to others as we offer friendship, hospitality, financial support, leadership, and service in our community and beyond.

Cooking: Last night, I made Moroccan lamb burgers. It was a fun recipe and yes, they were scrumptious. But if I had sat and eaten by myself, I would have taken very little pleasure in the exercise. I know many bakers who can’t wait to get their goodies into the hands of neighbors and coworkers. It’s as if the fruit of their labor is amity rather than the cookies or muffins they’ve produced.

Music: Truly excellent musicians spend a lot of time practicing. In addition to talent, the repetitive act of rehearsing – usually in solitude — is what makes for a good performance. And when a particular sequence finally falls into place, there is almost no better feeling. But what’s the use of all of that work if the beautiful sound is destined only to bounce off the walls of the musician’s home or studio? Some people play or sing for themselves, but that is rare. To really be music, it must eventually fall upon the ears of others.

Spiritual Community: Most join religious groups with a sincere desire to connect with the Divine, but there are other motives: a longing to serve or lead; a need for social bonds or emotional support; a wish for thoughtful input. There are wonderful religious folks everywhere. But only some are good at welcoming others into the deep joys of spiritual togetherness. Maybe it’s because we love our faith families just as they are and we are afraid to risk change. Maybe we don’t know how to be welcoming because we’ve never been shown how. Whatever the case, I believe that the love that exists in our houses of worship is a love born of God, a love that simply cannot be clenched in human hands, a love that must be turned outward.

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Learning to Dance… Again

My fiancée and I are taking dancing lessons, and we’re having a blast.

This isn’t my first crack at dancing. A kindly gentleman visited my sixth grade gym class and tried to teach a crowd of nervous eleven-year-olds how to square dance, a form which requires some hand and elbow contact. That was a terrifying (at least for the boys) and mostly failed attempt to help us through an awkward stage. I appreciated the effort and we all had some fun, but I wonder how long it took for my partners’ toes to heal.

Then there was the ballroom dancing class my mom signed me up for three years later, when my hormones got me to class early each week for a little self-conscious flirting. I learned a lot and still have the spider plant my teacher gave each of us for being good waltzers. That’s one hardy spider plant.

Last week, thirty-five years after I first learned the two-step, my fiancée and I hit the dance floor for our lesson. As the music began, I suddenly thought of those injured in the marathon bombings. My prayer was and is that they will eventually learn to dance with their prosthetic legs and feet. Though I understand it will be a long, difficult journey, there is no way for me to truly know their pain or the challenging road they have to navigate in the coming weeks, months, and years. But I hope (and suspect) that they will have lots of support. Maybe a little dancing will help them celebrate life again.

As a parish minister, I am in some ways a dancing instructor. I invite, cajole, and dare the members of my church to “dance” in the face of uncertainty, loss, and pain — not in denial, but in hope. I ask them to choose life even (especially) when death is before us, to join with others in and beyond our congregation in a joyful, imperfect reel. I teach steps, but rhythm is also important. I ask them to attend to the music of the Spirit, to feel it and live it out, not just understand it.

Dancing a spiritual dance can take many forms. Sometimes, it means losing oneself, by oneself, in the ecstasy of mystical imagination. Mostly, though, it means taking hands with people you’ve learned to love over time in the dance of life-in-community. It means losing ourselves, together, in service to something greater than ourselves.

I’m getting married in a couple of weeks, for the second time. Divorce is a reality I never imagined I would experience. But I have, and I don’t recommend it if you can possibly steer clear of it. No judgment there; sometimes, it can’t be avoided. One of the reasons my fiancée and I have been taking dancing lessons is because we want that romantic moment at the beginning of our reception to be something more than three minutes of swaying. But mostly, we are learning to dance because we are building an intentional, coordinated relationship. We will be dancing into the future on purpose. Spontaneity is more our style. All the more reason to learn some actual dance steps.

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