The Madness of March

March Madness is back! After the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled last year because of COVID-19, pent-up anticipation awaits as the Final Four takes place on April 2 and 4 for the women and April 3 and 5 for the men. I might add that the Iowa women’s basketball team (20-9) reached the Sweet Sixteen for the eighth time in program history and the third in its last four NCAA Tournament appearances. Despite a valiant effort, #5 ranked Iowa lost on Saturday to #1 ranked Connecticut.

Freshman star Caitlyn Clark of Iowa, who is from West Des Moines, averaged 27.8 points a game in the regular season, shot nearly 50%, and led the nation in scoring. Called by some as the most exciting player in college basketball, Clark was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It’s Madness!

The 2021 Women’s Final Four is scheduled for Friday, April 2 and Sunday, April 4, and the Men’s Final Four is set for Saturday, April 3 and Monday, April 5. Can you tell I’m pumped??

© Adobe stock photo

 March Madness was first used to refer to the excitement around Illinois state basketball tournaments sixty years ago. The phrase did not become connected with the NCAA tournament, however, until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament.

The increasing popularity of the NCAA tournament is maddening, isn’t it? Basketball has always been my favorite sport. I shot endless hoops in my driveway as a kid and played in high school and a bit in college. I don’t get to watch much basketball these days other than the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Tournament for both men and women.

People across the country love to guess which teams will be in the Final Four, with thousands of office pools and formal and informal betting going on. CBS Sports and Turner Sports expect to rake in more than $1 billion in advertisements for the men’s tournament. And up to twenty million people are likely to watch the final men’s game, with up to 47 million people expected to place bets throughout the tournament.

The “madness” can be a lot of fun. In a twist on all the betting pools, one of the churches that Gary and I served celebrates March Madness for Missions every year. People contribute $10 for every bracket they submit, and it raises thousands of dollars for missions at home and abroad. No one wins anything but the bragging rights, but the Missions budget sure flourishes!

At the same time, I am a bit uncomfortable with the effects of our national obsession. I hate to be a party pooper. However, to paraphrase Judas, “Couldn’t the staggering sum of money bet on the NCAA Tournament have been used to feed the poor?” Businesses suffer millions of dollars in lost productivity because of our madness. Not to mention the poor graduation rate of many athletes and how our adulation of young athletes affects their ability to put the game in a proper perspective. Could it be that we have some misplaced priorities?

It seems so, given the plight of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, which is played at the same time as the men’s tournament but receives much less attention and does not turn a profit. This year the NCAA was called out big-time by women coaches and players who were furious over the imbalance between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

In a social media post last Tuesday, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner criticized the NCAA, “Thank you for using the three biggest weeks of your organization’s year to expose exactly how you feel about women’s basketball – an afterthought,” she said. “Thank you for showing off the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments that are on full display in San Antonio. From COVID testing to lack of weight training facilities, to game floors that hardly tell anyone that it’s the NCAA Tournament and many more.”

I trust you are aware of another kind of March Madness taking place simultaneously with the NCAA tournament. St. Paul called it foolishness. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18. NIV) It’s Holy Week, and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. It’s not going to be pretty. Jesus will be betrayed by Judas, arrested, tortured, humiliated, denied by Peter, abandoned by his disciples, and crucified on a cross while soldiers madly gamble for his garments.

The disciples don’t understand that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, so they argue over which one of them is the greatest and who deserves the richest contract. Could it work for us?

  • We could sell advertising space on our clergy robe and stole to bring in a few more bucks.
  • How about clergy shoe contracts? After all, when we wear a robe, our shoes are the only item of clothing that stands out. We could start a new trend in dress Nikes, changing color with the liturgical season.
  • If a church pays 100% of its apportionments, each staff member gets an extra week of vacation.
  • Anyone who brings in five new members gets their own parking spot.
  • If a child invites a friend to virtual Vacation Bible School, they can go to the front of the refreshment line at coffee hour for the next three months after in-house worship resumes.

Yes, all of that is madness. But during this most holy of weeks, how will you enter into the real madness, the madness of the cross rather than the hype of the NCAA? Will you take the time to read the Passion stories in all four gospels? Will you make the journey from Jesus humbly riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds waved palm branches; to cleansing the temple; to weeping over Jerusalem; to discovering a fig tree withered up and teaching on faith; to eating a last supper with his disciples and washing their feet; to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Sanhedrin; to the madness of trials by high priest Ananias, Pilate, and Herod; to his crucifixion on a cross; and to Jesus’ seven last “words”?

Will you pay attention to what is truly important and not let the world dictate your thoughts, words, and deeds? Will you play the fool for the sake of the gospel? How will you embrace the madness of the cross and lead with your heart?

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves. But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 NRSV)

The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, April 12.

Tempered Resilience

“I just don’t know what to do,” the pastor said several months ago. “Everything has changed, and I think I’m getting too old for this. Half of my congregation understands the need to worship online, but the other half is abusive toward me. I am choosing to follow the science by social distancing, wearing face masks in public, and not conducting meetings in person. I am preparing sermons to deliver by video every week for those who choose to be together in the sanctuary, and I attend meetings by Zoom or conference calls. It grieves me, however, when I am bullied and even threatened because I am following the conference COVID guidelines.”

How do you and I lead through this incredible time when we have to learn something new every day? How do we care for our congregations when some dismiss the science and others insist on following precautions? How can we be resilient and thrive in the midst of constant change?

In November 2020, Tod Bolsinger published a book called Tempered Resilience; How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change. Some of you may know Bolsinger as the author of the 2018 book, Canoeing the Mountains; Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

The premise of Tempered Resilience is that in order to lead our churches to a new place during the Pandemic, we need to lean into the Holy Spirit, learn how to absorb disturbance, and deepen our capacity for spiritual growth and resilience. In the process, we create a new normal for rebuilding community, reaching out to our neighbors, and embodying justice, mercy, kindness, and generosity. (Click here to listen to a podcast with Tod Bolsinger about resilient leadership.)

Dr. Bolsinger uses the image of a blacksmith to describe the kind of change that is needed right now. Participating in an urban blacksmithing class in Los Angeles, Bolsinger learned how raw materials can be turned into something useful and beautiful. How? By fire! If you want to transform steel into a tool, it first has to be broken down and become molten and oozing. Only through heat, tempering, and shaping will beauty emerge.

Any time deep change is required, we tend to resist. However, discerning when to stay in the fire and keep on keeping on is essential for growth to occur. Even though it may feel as if we are getting burned up, we are experiencing tempered resilience. Bolsinger says, “Resilience is not about becoming smarter or tougher; it’s about becoming stronger and more flexible. It’s about becoming tempered.” To temper “means both to make stronger and more flexible.”[1]

Retired United Methodist Bishop Janice Riggle Huie writes in her December 2020 paper, Reservoirs of Resistance in Uncertain Times; Reflections on Hope, Courage, and Purpose, “Ecologists define resilience as the capacity of a system or enterprise to absorb disturbance and reorganize so that it retains its core purpose and identity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Leaders who can persevere under trial are teachable, attuned, adaptable, tenacious, empathetic, and humble. The most challenging aspect of leading change, however, is facing our own vulnerability through the heat of self-reflection. We often try to protect ourselves from vulnerability because it requires the kind of deeply personal and organizational change that feels as if we ourselves are breaking down and losing our bearings. Discerning that we need to stay in the fire in the midst of the resistance of others is critical, for leaders are formed in these crisis moments.

In fact, the heat may be at the heart of vulnerable self-reflection. The very best leaders have to allow themselves to move in and out of the heat in order to bring about transformative change. That’s called tempering. As President Harry Truman put it so well, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He realized that our best selves are forged as we are tested in the fire.

I believe that two critical questions need to be asked. How can we personally stay deeply and creatively engaged with our faith communities, embodying resiliency and courage as God calls us to imagine and create a new normal? Bishop Huie writes, “For people of faith to thrive in such a time and continue to build toward the world that God imagines, I believe we will need to drink deeply from reservoirs of the Spirit, particularly the dimensions of hope, purpose and courage…”

“In such disordered times, we need substantial reservoirs of resilience so that, in drinking deeply from those waters, this season might be not only a time of loss but also a time of spiritual deepening and new life. In another period of profound change, the Apostle Paul writes, ‘All creation is groaning as if in childbirth.’ (Romans 8: 22-23) Even as we groan and grieve, people of faith intuitively sense that we also inhabit a pregnant season, ripe with amazing possibilities and new birth.”

The second question is yet more vital. How might you help lead your congregation to live out “tempered resilience” during this liminal time? Some congregations have the capacity to deepen and grow and will emerge from the Pandemic stronger and more purposeful. Some will become clearer about their purpose, reach out to their neighbors, and rebuild their communities. Others will focus on ministries of justice, mercy, and generosity. Still, others may regretfully choose to close and leave a legacy by offering their land to become green space or affordable housing. But they all need to be led to these understandings.

Can you catch a vision for a new heaven and earth, where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”? (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)

  • How will you become a more tempered and resilient leader with the capacity to maintain core purpose and integrity in the midst of a disordered and changing world?
  • Will you dare to make the movement from expert to a vulnerable leader by embracing the spiritual formation of the forge?
  • Do you have the resilience to engage the resistance of others and become more attuned to the voice of the Spirit?
  • How might you lead your congregation to understand that they, too, are being tested, purified, and molded through the fire of this time?
  • In times of extreme change, failure, and even destruction, people of faith need additional spiritual disciplines to deepen their reservoir of faith, hope, and love. What practices will ground you in clarity of purpose and courage in order to increase your capacity for resilience?
  • What new visions will you see of a world that God already imagines?

            How is God calling you and me to a tempered resilience?

[1] Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience; How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change, Intervarsity Press (Kindle Edition), p. 4.

Show Us What We Yet May Do

I love spring! It was a long, hard winter, with lots of snow, ice, and very cold temperatures. As we officially welcome spring on Saturday, I’d like to share some Iowa photos that remind me of the new life to which God invites us as we share and model the love of Jesus to a world that hungers for kindness, mercy, justice, and peace.

“Day is dying in the west; heaven is touching earth with rest; wait the worship while the night sets the evening lamps alight through all the sky. Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of thee! Heaven and earth are praising thee, O Lord most high!” (UM Hymnal, #687.

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all.” (UM Hymnal, #147)

“Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning; blackbird has spoken like the first bird. Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning! Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word. (UM Hymnal, #145)

“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.” (UM Hymnal, #400)

“When morning gilds the skies my heart awakening cries: May Jesus Christ be praised! Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair: May Jesus Christ be praised! (UM Hymnal, #185)

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light the lily white, declare their maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair; in the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere. (UM Hymnal, #144) (cliff swallow nests)

“God, who stretched the spangled heavens, infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space,
We your children, in your likeness, share inventive powers with you.
Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.” (UM Hymnal, #150)

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided; Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me. (UM Hymnal, #140)

Why should I feel discouraged; Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart feel lonely; And long for heaven and home,

When Jesus is my portion, My constant friend is He.
His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.

(The Faith We Sing, #2146)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese (Mary Oliver, American poet, whose work was inspired by her passion for nature)