West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E3 “A Proportional Response”

1. Good friends and colleagues – like CJ and Leo – tell you what they think and then work to protect you, even when they disagree with you. Foster those relationships; make them your first port of call.
2. In your anger do now sin. Anger in itself isn’t sinful, but ut can often lead us to do is.

3. Leaders are held to a higher standard – both by God and by people. It doesn’t feel fair – especially from people – but it’s true.

4. Even righteous anger can be dangerous – listen to dispassionate and trusted people, willing to speak truth about the dangers of your course action.

imdb.com Plot Summary

After being offered “a proportional response” to the Syrian military’s downing of a U.S. military plane on a medical mission (and carrying his newly named personal physician), the president demands an option that will have greater impact. Leo gradually must talk him down, while Bartlet snipes at everyone, including Abby. The president ultimately agrees to the initial option, but is not happy about it. Charlie Young is introduced as an applicant for a messenger job whom Josh decides to hire as Bartler’s personal aide (note: he mentions being sent to Josh by Mrs. De La Guardia, who is later introduced in season four as Debbie Fiderer, who becomes Mrs. Landingham’s replacement)

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E2 Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Series 1, Episode 2

1. Jokes can backfire – use humour wisely.
2. Your strengths (in this episode, look how Bartlet’s intelligence, specifically his Latin, alientates CJ) can alienate people if you get too absorbed in them rather than using them to the ends you’re called to use them for.
3. All of us have a past which accompanies us everywhere and could trip us up or affect how we see people (even someone as intelligent as Bartlet feels insecure with the Joint Chiefs); get to know how your past dogs you – and get help with it.
4. Personal involvement in a decision – especially in a crisis – can affect you for better or worse. To get to know which, involve people who know you well and whom you trust.

IMDB.com Plot Summary

Josh trumps a potential Democratic challenger in a masterful political move and then hires the challenger’s chief of staff and ex-girlfriend Mandy Hampton. Toby tries to warn Sam away from his friendship with the call girl, but to Toby’s horror, Sam seems intent on reforming her. CJ tries to spin the latest clash between President Bartlet and Vice President Hoynes. After an American plane is shot down carrying Bartlet’s physician, Bartlet’s response leaves Leo worried about the President’s response.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E1 – Pilot

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode. 

Series 1, Episode 1

1. When handling news about yourself as a leader, even embarrassing news, honesty and truth is best – especially once the gossip starts. Truth – even about a bike accident – robs embarrassment of some of its power.

2. If you’re in a heated interaction, don’t say what you’re dying to say. It may feel good in the moment, but it may also cost you everything – Josh comes very close to losing his job.

3. Know your audience; Sam looks for Leo’s daughter in the class rather than in front of the class – leading to yet more embarrassment for him.

IMDB.com Plot Summary 

The West Wing staffers are introduced as each learns via phone or pager that the President was in a cycling accident. Josh faces the possible loss of his job after an on-air insult of a political opponent, which Toby tries to prevent by having Josh make a personal apology. Sam’s fling the previous night with Laurie, who unbeknownst to Sam is a call girl, puts him in hot water, which he compounds when ineptly lecturing a class of 4th-graders about the White House and then asking their teacher which child is Leo’s daughter. Leo must deal with the fallout from Josh’s blunder, as well as 137 Cuban refugees who escaped on rafts and are seeking asylum. The president walks in during Josh’s apology, recites the First Commandment, and lambastes three Christian pols for not denouncing a fringe group.

After getting called in early in the morning due to President Bartlet having a bicycle wreck, the staff deals with the problems of the day. Josh faces losing his job after infuriating millions of Christians on a Sunday morning talk show. Sam learns he accidentally slept with a call girl the night before and then accidentally tells Leo’s daughter about it, placing his career in possible jeopardy. Leo works to convince the President to let Josh keep his job as Leo tries to make peace with infuriated Christian leaders.

 

Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.

Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Obsession, anger, grace and dreams: Netflix’s Last Chance U

I may have related before that a few years ago  I was co-chaplain at a relatively minor professional football team in London. The club was in the parish I was working in; the chaplain approached a robe-clad, sun drenched version of myself about 20 minutes into my life as an Anglican minister. He’d heard from a mutual friend that I was going to be serving in the parish for a while and that I liked football; he sidled up to me, introduced himself and set about pitching to me to help him in his ministry. I was enthusiastic, but needed permission from the vicar with whom I’d be working. He didn’t need much convincing, so it was I was able to give a handful of hours each week to the football club. I worked with the youth teams, attending training sessions (as a spectator), hanging around to start conversations about anything and everything with coaches, playing staff and non-playing staff. We gratefully received free tickets to matches whenever we wanted to go; we sat amongst the directors, getting to know people. We led carols on the pitch at half-time at Christmas; I scattered the ashes of more than a few fans on the pitch on cold Tuesday mornings. I was at the youth training pitch when I heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. It was a ministry of pastoring and mission enabled by presence; a kind of holy hanging around, waiting for God to do something. I wasn’t especially good at it, but I learned a lot from it. It fostered in me convictions about models of mission that I’m still fleshing out.

There was an annual conference for chaplains in the sports world which I attended faithfully. It was a tremendous fun – and I say that as someone who has a skeptical relationship with conferences. As well as some good training on specific issues, we had some fascinating speakers from the sports world. I even got to meet some proper legends of British sport; if you’re British and like football, you’ll know what a big deal it was for me to have conversations with Trevor Brooking and John Motson. Sport featured as an activity; and the food was atypically excellent for a Christian conference. We found ourselves queuing for supper with athletes from many disciplines using the National Centre for Excellence (which gave us a venue) for their own purposes. I remember wondering what Andrew Flintoff was doing eating that when he was meant to be healing his injury ahead of the Ashes.

All of this gave me a real insight into the various pressures at play in the life of full-time athletes at all levels. What it means to make your living entirely through your body; the sheer number of people hanging on coat-tails to be associated with success; the boredom of most of the life of the athlete; why a massage can actually be tiring. At one conference I heard a line which stays with me to this day. “If you want to be a sports chaplain, there are two things you need to remember. First, it’s only a game. Second, it’s never only a game.”

I remembered that line again over the last week whilst watching a 6-part documentary series. The show in question is Last Chance U. It’s produced by the online streaming service Netflix, but as is the way with these things it may well appear on other platforms at some point. Whatever your relationship with sport in general or the sport it focuses on, you should make an effort to check it out. It’s about sport; but it’s about way more than sport. It’s about people of all ages growing up. It’s about grace, forgiveness, family, obsession, failure, success, apologies, anger, forgiveness and much else besides. It’s utterly magnificent and compelling and hope inducing.

(For a 2 minute acquaintance with the show, click here for the trailer)

It’s focuses on the febrile world of college (American) football. As you may know, university level sport in the USA is a world unto itself; a breeding ground for excellence, simultaneously making and crushing dreams in front of an audience of millions. The college in question – in a small town, apparently adjacent to the middle of nowhere – takes promising players who had failed elsewhere and gives them another go. The college team has built a habit of winning and getting players well onto the path to big-league success, signed the next season by big name colleges. They’ve also built a habit of not losing, and not losing by huge scores. Which makes them fearsomely unpopular with their opponents.

The coach is obsessed with winning, and winning big; the life of the town revolves almost entirely around the team. The real hero, though, is the remarkable Miss Wagner. She is tasked with the job of keeping the players on the academic straight and narrow; if they don’t pass, they don’t play. If they don’t play, they don’t get signed. If they don’t get signed, they’ve lost their dreams – which for many of these guys is all of they’ve got left. Watching her reminded me of my wife and her endless capacity to work with people to help them discover what they’re best at and can achieve; part of her that I first fell in love with.

I’m a fan of the sport who is denied the affordable ability to watch it due to where I live, so I ate up the sporting side of it all. The game sequences – a relatively small part of the 6 hour series – are brilliantly directed. If you appreciate this sport, you’ll see just how good these guys are and you’ll feel the hits, the scores, the highs and the lows. But it’s all about the people, in the end. The story of individual hopes and dreams, and what this all might mean for their futures.

It being a documentary  with no narrator, the series allows the people and the events to speak for themselves. Events can be presented a certain way, of course, but we’re intimate spectators to a roller-coaster ride on which we can’t see beyond a few feet in front of us. Events take a startling and unpredictable (unless, of course, you know American college football especially well) turn in the last two episodes; we see success and failure, anger and forgiveness at their most raw and life-changing. We end with an act of grace so kind that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all set-up for the cameras. Except of course, we know by then it can’t possibly have been.

Sport is only a game, right? Maybe. There are times when all of us  – players, fans – need to know that and remember that. It means nothing in the scheme of things. Yet it also means everything; sport, like all art, is unpredictable, messy, glorious and infuriating and utterly irreplaceable. Watch Last Chance U and you’ll use those few words of well-meaning diminishing with much less casual ease.

Which of us have never been obsessed? Never had a dream? Never hoped? Never got angry? Never needed grace?

Only a game?

You sure?

 

Proudly No Nation

Proudly No Nation

The Olympics are in danger of helping me forget that 2016 is, fundamentally, rubbish. It’s tempting to think of big sporting events like this as bread and circuses (minus the bread); the ancient Roman tactic of staging magnificent spectacles of blood-sports in the Coliseum to distract from some inconvenient facts of life. Used the wrong way, such events can be just that. Put them in their right place, however, and they can serve an important purpose: a kind of holiday from the depressing full-time difficulties that occupy all of us, that when it’s over may leave a bit of a hole but as a result of which we will find ourselves somewhat refreshed with a bit more lightness in our spirits to help us navigate these dark and troubling times.

There are few absolute goods that are of human creation, however. Big sports events in general and the Olympics in particular can fan the flames of the sort of love for nation and exultation in nationhood that can be hard to resist. When a lifetime’s work – most of it away from the public eye – is rewarded on the big stage, it can feel good to wave or wear or post to social media a flag and enjoy the shared afterglow of one person’s achievement. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the acheivement per se – especially if it inspires us to more unseen commitment to our own goals and callings.

I’m a British person who lives in South Africa. For many years I thought myself proud to be British. I’ve let go of that, however. I’m still proud of some of what British people have and do achieve; over the last week I’ve been freshly staggered, for example, by the almost routine commitment to excellence from the British cycling team. It inspires me, and I believe it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded; I want to learn about it, and apply it my own fields of endeavour. Increasingly, however, I find that I can’t call myself proud to be British. Not when I consider a history of colonialism, a present of racial and economic inequality, and much else besides. I’m not proudly British. 414eztpwzkl-_sy450_

This drive to exhibit national pride easily tips over into hounding good people for not doing what others think they should be doing. Think of American gymnast (and champion from the London Olympics) Gabby Douglas, hounded to the point of tears for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the American anthem (read about it here). It starts with criticisms of what this supreme athlete does with her body whilst a piece of music is played; it soon becomes the dog-whistle racism of criticisms of the texture of her hair. In other contexts I’ve lost count of the number of social media posts I’ve seen criticising a South African rugby coach for not being ‘#proudlysouthafrican’ because of his team selection (interestingly, I rarely see that particular criticism made when the coach has white skin). It seems that the message is this: be proud of your nation, and make sure you show that you are in the way I demand – or you’ll be hounded until you change or you’re gone.

This should be especially problematic for us who follow Jesus. When God chooses a nation in the Old Testament, he doesn’t choose it to be ‘great’ in terms of its achievements, victories and international power or fame; He chooses it to be a blessing to other nations. Blessing, in Bible terms, is about speaking well of others (or God) and enabling others to move into the fullness of what they can be, doing and being good towards them. In New Testament terms, Jesus models a use of power and status that empties itself rather than draws attention to itself; that wraps a towel around its waist and washes dirty feet rather than pride in self. We’re invited to take pride in a stigmatised death, a seeming capitulation to power, a use of one’s own power to open life in all its fullness to those who would snuff it out. Jesus, Paul, John, Peter – they all seem to have very little time for the very idea of a nation; let alone taking pride in an accident of birth. The identity and pride of a Jesus follower isn’t Israel or Rome or Britain or South Africa or America; there’s no true greatness in any of those, and there can’t be whilst they consist of sinful people. Identity, pride, greatness for us is in the new creation, in eternity and the way of the cross – suffering, death, sacrifice for others, that leads there.

The flag has no place above, or next to, a cross. We live in the here and now – and that means in a nation, yes. But we die to self that we might live for others; we invite the awareness of the reign of a king who rules over a kingdom that transcends physical borders and breaks down the divisions of race and country and everything else of human construction.

We live under the rule of a servant king, who calls us to serve and love and carry a cross; not wave a flag.