LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

Sonlight, the college vocal group I traveled with from 1981-83, was lost in New York City after dark. The passenger van was vibrating so badly that it felt like it might come apart. We stopped, and I crawled underneath to check the driveshaft, but without a flashlight, I could not see anything. I got back in the van, and one of the other guys figured out we were in Harlem and needed to make a few more turns to reach the expressway and head north to our hotel. We rounded a corner and saw a man lying in the street, suffering from a gunshot. No police cars yet. “We gotta get out of here!” we said. One more turn and we were on the expressway. Less than a mile later, the driveshaft let go with a loud BANG, and we were stranded.

That event sticks in my mind not only because of the location and time but mostly for the way our leader, First Baptist Church of Atlanta Worship Ministry Director, John V. Glover, handled the situation. Without losing his cool, he loaded all 12 kids into the equipment van and gave directions to the hotel. Then he began whistling as he stuck out his thumb. He’s whistling! I thought. He is not shouting, or cussing, or blaming anyone. He’s whistling. The fact that he did not seem worried helped the rest of us not to. Then a big two-tone Cadillac coupe pulled over, and a huge guy with a gray beard offered him a ride. I thought, “That’s it. The Mafia’s got Johnny, and we are never going to get out of here.”

My friend, Johnny, produced and directed the Atlanta Passion Play that ran for 35 years and played to over one million patrons. He has led choral groups for 60 years, produced and conducted more musicals than I can count, and mentored hundreds of young men and women into life and ministry. Via Facebook, his family helped us celebrate his 80th birthday this week with memories and gratitude for all he meant to us. He did it with legendary energy and positivity, but the leadership principles he taught us will be most valuable to you. Former FBCA Orchestra Director John Gage summed them up.

– It is more important to develop your spiritual life than it is to build your vocational/ministry life.

– Excellence is always critical and worth the time and effort.

– Collaboration is better than trying to do it all yourself.

– Trust those you hire, but help them develop as well, and they will become a valuable asset to your ministry.

– Give guidance but get out of the way and let your employees take responsibility for their areas of expertise.

– Pray first.

– Be creative but not at the expense of comprehension.

– Love your staff and let them know you love them by investing time in them.

– Family is more important than work.

– Always allow your boss to make the final decision after stating your case.

Johnny’s impact on me is immeasurable. I learned to trust God in impossible situations when he showed up the next day after spending all night in a truck stop getting our van fixed.  I courted my wife of 36 years backstage in the Civic Center during the Passion Play, and three years later, he performed the ceremony. I received the confirmation of my call to ministry in response to a challenge he gave Sonlight on the way home from a Jamaica trip. I memorized Romans 6 on that same trip because he challenged us to do it, and I still teach young men facing temptation to do it today. I learned to speak to churches on those Sonlight trips and what to do when the accompaniment tape breaks. And I participated as he took a few professional musicians and hundreds of average singers and molded us into a powerful community of praise. The list could go on, but most of all, Johnny became one of three key men God put in my life as mentors in those days to replace the father I lost when I was fifteen. I will never stop being grateful for him. So, Happy Birthday, Johnny! And here’s to another 80!

RISEN: A Day Without Death

RISEN: A Day Without Death

At the end of Act I in the 2016 film, Risen, a cynical Pilate probes his Tribune, Clavius, “Your ambition is noticed. Where do you hope it will lead?”

“Rome. Position. Power,” says Clavius.

“Which brings?”

“Wealth, a good family, someday a place in the country.”

“Where you will find?”

“An end to travail. A day without death.”

But death reigns in Risen, as an ever-present element in the Roman Tribune’s life. He is either delivering it, mourning it, trying to prove it, or outrun it as the film unfolds. I think that’s what makes it my new favorite Easter movie. It does not shrink from the stark reality of death and the impossibility of escaping it.

Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003, On Wings of Eagles 2016) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified. And Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is excellent. The plot is believable, the film is well-paced, and even though special effects got the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have several historical flaws and anachronisms. Except for the High Priest once a year during the Yom Kippur ceremony in the temple, Jews would never speak the name, Yahweh. Mary Magdalene appears as a redeemed prostitute, another commonly made historical error. And those concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just before the ascension. But these are minor problems, offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar.

Far more important, however, and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. The moment he catches the disciples in the upper room is worth the price of the film. It’s the most compelling portrayal of a cynical man’s encounter with the risen Christ I’ve ever seen. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

The Gospel Streamed

The Gospel Streamed

I sat down expecting to be disappointed. Religious television and movies have dissatisfied my artistic, historical, and theological sensibilities so often over the years that my wife, who had already seen the episode, had to nudge a bit to get me to watch.

I came away profoundly moved and ready to buy the first season of The Chosen, a new streaming television series on the life of Jesus as experienced by his followers. It is billed as the largest crowd-funded production in television history and it doesn’t disappoint.

Artistically, The Chosen is very satisfying. The scenery, the videography, the acting, plot lines and story structure draw you in and keep you engaged. Often, in Bible-based films, one or more of those elements is so bad it’s like hearing a soloist mangle the Star-Spangled Banner. You just wish they’d left it alone. Not here. Only a few of the actors were recognizable. Eric Avari (The Mummy, Independence Day, The Brink) plays a nuanced Nicodemus. Jonathon Roumie (The Good Wife, Fallout 4) plays a kind and believable Jesus. But none hit a flat note.

Historically, The Chosen hits its marks with credibility. The interplay between Matthew the tax collector and his Roman body guard and between Nicodemus and a Roman Centurion rings true to what we know of the relationships between oppressed and oppressor. Andrew and Peter’s fishing boat and business and their interaction with tax collector Matthew are also believable.

I’ve only seen the first episode, available here for free, but so far, The Chosen doesn’t disappoint in the spiritual or theological arena either. In fact, just the opposite. Director Dallas Jenkins, son of well-known evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, is a Bible-believing evangelical who has “zero desire to mess with Scripture or make some sort of new theological point. This is about telling these stories in a way that makes the moments in Scripture even more impactful.”[1] Justin Tolley, a producer on the project, agrees. “We don’t want to roll one frame that’s contrary to the Word of God. We want to do it with excellence, to give God our best.”[2] Show consultants include a New Testament scholar and a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of the culture. This is the greatest story ever and in The Chosen it is being well told. So far so good, but there is one fly in the ointment. VidAngel, the streaming service they’ve partnered with just lost a big legal battle with the Hollywood movie industry that has the potential to kill the service. That would force the producers to go with another platform that may not be as friendly to The Chosen’s production values. That would be a shame.

If you’re looking for something edifying to watch with excellent production values, I encourage you to try The Chosen, or look up their Facebook page for trailers and background videos. You won’t be disappointed.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-dallas-jenkins-first-multi-season-drama-life-christ/

[2] From The Chosen Facebook page.

I’M HERE FOR THE MUSIC

No iTunes can match, no earbud replace the living intercourse of artist and audience.

The kid at the keyboard, Samuel, who is only sixteen and won’t mind me calling him that, had no idea what he was about to do to us. Oh he knew he was presenting a Chopin piece for an offertory, one he had practiced for many months in preparation for a local scholarship competition. And that our small church was a great place for a first public performance, a warm up for the big dance, but he could not know the rest.

That the music, Fantaisie Impromtu in C# Op. 66, was not specifically religious did not matter. All beauty belongs to God and, as per Philippians 4:8, our congregation celebrates it whenever we can. That such an intricate and demanding piece came from such a young man, with power, grace, skill, and sensitivity, moved the adults in the room on a level a sixteen-year-old cannot comprehend. When I realized he’d played it from memory I nearly fell off my stool, but you would have had to be there.

That’s the thing about live music. It is fleeting, communal, and transparent, lasting only as long as notes linger midair, shared only by those who perform with those who attend. No iTune can match, no earbud replace the living intercourse of artist and audience. Of all God’s creatures only humans have the experience created when a musician brings a composer’s song to life and infuses the listener with its soul.

You have to be there.

I’ve “been there” three times since last summer. Once to hear one of my favorite rockers, Don Henley, this was a gift from my daughters; once to hear the Ukrainian National Symphony, presented by the Danville Concert Association; and of course Samuel playing Chopin in church. (That none of the music was specifically Christian says things about the state of Christian performing arts, but we won’t go there today). Each time the music, the mastery of the artists, and the shared joy of the moment, moved me to tears. Each time I gave glory to God and thanked him for the gift. Earth is full of the echoes of heaven, and if we are capable of such beauty, pathos, and exultation through the combination of tone, rhythm, and word, what must God be able to do?

Some say that in heaven we will be able to hear color and see music. If so, I can’t wait. Until then keep singing in church, encouraging young musicians, and making room in your life to share the experience of live music, because if you want to be blessed by the piano man, you have to be there.

Oh, and Samuel? He won.