Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.

Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.

This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!

Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.

This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.

I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.

But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”  And we wonder why people have stopped coming!

Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.

Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.

In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.

Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:

  1. Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
  2. Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
  3. Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
  4. Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
  5. Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinkingI could never have imagined myself reading a book by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but I have, and to my profit. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has helped me understand more about how I think, make decisions, communicate, and respond to the words and actions of others.

His basic idea is that we have two different modes of thinking and processing information. The first mode is automatic and impulsive. It’s our knee-jerk response that enables us to take short cuts and move on with ease. The second mode is more deliberate, focused, logical, and it’s necessary for making truly wise choices. Some of us tend to react instinctively, go with our guts, and sometimes miss things that are critical. As an ENFP (Myers-Briggs Type), I’m one of them. People need to spend most of their time in the first mode because we haven’t got the time or the stamina to carefully examine every decision we make. Some things just need to be automatic. However, we can become lazy thinkers, and take short cuts when we shouldn’t, and not slow down when we really should.

We are all prone to making snap choices—weighing up people and situations in an instant. We oversimplify, latching on to something we like and assuming that we will like everything. This can lead to major errors in judgment. Let’s say I’m considering someone for a job. I learn that they love fishing, camping and four-wheel driving. This leads me to gravitate towards them. We spend time chatting about our common interests, places we’ve been, experiences we’ve had. I like them. Hence, there is now a bias toward preferring this person regardless of what experience they might have had in the job, how competent or incompetent they are, whether they are a team player or prima donna, or any other critical criteria. This has been called the halo effect. We assume they will be good even though we know very little about them.

Similarly, I might know some details about a person, such as where they trained or who they’ve worked with previously. I associate what I know about them with an ideal that I’ve created. If I’ve had positive experiences with the people they know or with the training organisation they come from, then confirmation bias may lead me to make assumptions about them and not do due diligence to get more relevant information specifically about them. I wonder how many people employed on the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ principle, have turned out so differently to what was expected. Taking short cuts might save time in the short term, but may lead to drawn out disasters in the longer term.

Kahneman discusses how we perceive statistics, memories, risks, choices, and more. He shows how our perspective shapes how we respond to things. For example, if a shopkeeper is told that there is a 1% chance that someone entering her shop will be a shoplifter, then she might not worry too much. But, if she was told that of the 1000 people who will come through her shop this week, 10 of them will be shoplifters, you can imagine she will be on high alert for who they might be. The statistics are identical but each statement offers a different perspective.

Context is also important for weighing decisions. If two people are both promised that by the end of the year they will each have a net worth of $100 million, then you’d expect them to be equally happy, wouldn’t you? If one of them was me, I’d be ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be happy with $100 million? If I told you that the other person was Mark Zuckerberg, whose current net worth sits at $75 billion, you can see how context changes everything!

These insights will help us to be more effective communicators. Pausing to consider how people might ‘see’ what we are saying, will move us to take the extra step to get our message across more clearly. So often we think if something has been said then it’s been heard. But is their perception the same as our intention? It pays to be clear and it pays to enquire as to whether we’ve been understood.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book to get us thinking about our thinking. While much of what we do needs to be quick and automatic, there are some areas where we need to disengage cruise control and put our minds into manual. In my work as a church pastor over many years I can see times when I took the lazy option and endured the consequences of not thinking hard or long enough. Now, I watch others fall into similar errors of judgment. While we know there is always more than meets the eye and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we get lazy, we’re attracted by the short cuts. I hope that I will grow in wisdom, be a better judge of people, make smarter decisions, and communicate for effectively, as I seek to think both fast and slow.

 

 

 

My Donkey Body

It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!

donkeyMy Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.

Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.

I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself.  He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.

Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128

I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.

There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.

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Expositional Preaching

helmCoaching and playing don’t always require the same skill set. Not every player will make a good coach and not every successful coach will have been an elite player. Look at some of the men coaching gymnastics. It’s hard to believe they could have ever mastered the pommel horse or uneven bars for themselves, but they can be brilliant at training others.  The successful coaches are somehow able to deconstruct each aspect of each move, and train their athletes to weave their brilliance in seamless performances.

Every now and then we see a player with a deep awareness of the game. And not just their contribution to the game, but the game itself, and how every part works together. Steve Larkham, the Australian rugby great, was a player like this. He’d weave his magic and he’d create the opportunities for others to weave their’s. Larkham not only did, but he knew what he did, and he could pass this on to others. He coached as he played and it was no surprise to see him coaching after he stopped playing.

So what does this have to do with expositional preaching? Nothing. I just love gratuitous sporting illustrations!

Seriously though, many great preachers function at a very high level of unconscious competence. They communicate with clarity and depth. They shine a light on the riches of God’s word and they impress it on the hearts and minds of their listeners. We come away from their preaching with ‘our hearts burning within us’. But don’t ask them to train other preachers. They can’t even tell you what it is they do. They’re at a loss when it comes to coaching.

Recently, I attended a preaching coaching workshop at Moore College. I’m so glad I did. For me it was Preaching Coaching 101. Keep it simple. Break things down. Clarity. Simplicity. Specificity. Depth. Grace. Gospel. Theological. Heart. Mind. Affections. Motivations. Exegesis. Contextualisation. And more.

I love preaching, but I also love listening to great preaching. We need more and more passionate, humble, empowered, clear, focused communicators of the Word of God’s Spirit. We need people who will dig deeply into the text and fire it deep into the psyches of the listeners. We need preachers who handle the Scriptures with care and expect God to transform their listeners. This means both getting the message right and getting the message across.

Enter David Helm and his sharp little book, Expositional Preaching: How we speak God’s Word today. Our coaching workshop leant heavily on Helm’s approach to expositional preaching. Helm has learned much from the likes of great preachers like Dick Lucas and Kent Hughes, and it shows. Like a master coach he has broken down the art of preaching so as to pass it on to others. Helm is persuaded that we need to do two things well: Get it right and get it across (p36).

I’ve listened to the audio book of Expositional Preaching and now I’m digging into it more thoroughly with my paper copy, and a pen and a highlighter in hand.

Helm addresses the dangers of merely coming to the Bible to find something that fits with what we want to say. He asks the question “Who will be king? Me? Or the biblical text?” Helm is persuaded that we must let God speak and not get in his way with our hobby horses or attempts to be ‘relevant’. This must involve careful exegesis and theological reflection, but it will also require an investment in careful communication. Helm covers both sides of this equation in his book.

Expositional Preaching provides an introduction to the necessary building blocks for preparing messages that will communicate God’s message to contemporary listeners. If I can shift my metaphors, Helm’s book offers us a recipe for preaching that is nutritious, well presented, and full of taste.

It’s probably aimed at new preachers—ministry trainees, students in theological colleges, people starting out on a lifetime of teaching the Scriptures. For me, it’s an excellent coaching manual for those of us who feel we can do, but who have trouble in identifying what we do and why we do it and how we do it. If we seriously want to equip people who are passionate and skilled in biblical preaching, then I recommend we recruit David Helm as our coach—or at least work seriously through his coaching manual.

Returning to the scene

IMG_8551It’s been an anxious week as I’ve anticipated returning to the exact place and the same event where I first noticed the symptoms of my cancer. It was the Geneva Push church planting conference and I was speaking on leadership, church planting, and the vision to reach Australia with the good news of Jesus. It was the end of November in 2011 that I climbed the three flights of stairs at Scots Church in Melbourne, stopping on each landing, completely breathless, not knowing that within a few days I’d be in hospital fighting for my life.

Fast forward six and a half years and here I am at Scots Church, speaking on ministry, team work, and persevering as a Christian, and listening to others teach about the urgency of sharing the message of Jesus with those around us. I walked the same stairs to get to lunch today, pausing on each landing and reflecting on the amazing kindness of God. Wow! Who’d have thought I’d be remission? But more than this, I mean the wonder that God cares so much as to reach out to us, send his Son to die for us, welcome us into his family, gather us together in unity, transform his children into the likeness of Jesus, and equip us to work together to build something that will last for eternity—the church of God. Not human institutions, but the gathering together of people belonging to him.

We’ve been reminded once again that God’s vision for this world is to restore broken relationships. Primarily our broken relationships as sinners to a holy God, but also our relationships with one another. In days where the church seems out of touch and past its use by date, we are encouraged to understand our world, to listen to others, to show kindness, love, and patience, as we seek every opportunity to share the amazing news of Jesus Christ. No, not religion—Jesus!

davemaccaIt’s a joy and honour to be able to gather with men and women, young and old, to spur each other on to reach Australia with the life transforming, eternally consequential message of Jesus. People are getting jaded by the endless cycle of meaninglessness promoted by our society. People are searching for meaning. Surely there has to be more that work, sleep, eat, over and over again. Or are we just caught up in an endless Groundhog Day?

Our scientific materialism has ripped us off. It can’t deliver answers to the questions that matter most. It doesn’t offer meaning or purpose. It leaves us rudderless, lost, and unsatisfied. No, the truth is there is much more to life. The transcendent, living, almighty God has entered our world in Jesus Christ. Jesus has shown us what it really means to be human. He’s taught us what life is all about. More than this, by giving his life for us, and through rising from the dead, he has placed God within reach. He’s made peace with God possible. He’s gathering people to himself. He’s planting, growing, and building churches—gatherings of weak, ordinary, forgiven people. People who deserve nothing but are given everything. That is such good news.

Thank you God for bringing me back—not simply to Scots Church and another church planting conference—but to you, to Jesus, to your family, to a certain hope for all eternity.

Do you need an echocardiogram?

echoThis morning I had an echocardiogram. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I until this morning. It’s basically an ultrasound of the heart. This is one of a number of health checks I’ve had in recent months. Since it’s six years since I was diagnosed with cancer, and two years since I’ve had chemo, and since we’re planning on moving cities, we thought it wise to book in for a major service or two. So far, I’ve had the cameras in both ends and seen some of the damage chemo has left behind. I’ve managed to take on another ‘C’ disease—well developed coeliac. So we’ve had a pantry purge and I’ve started to become one of those difficult people who is always asking what’s in the food I’ve been given. I’ve had lung function tests and discovered that despite the beating my lungs have taken I’m sitting on the low end of average for a bloke my age. My bone density has been checked and I’m osteopaenic. Don’t know that word either? Well, it’s much better than osteoporosis and osteopathetic. I’ve even spoken to my first specialist, a lung physician, who was willing to explore another ‘C’ word—cure. I liked the sound of that one, but we can’t ever know for sure.

Back to the echocardiogram. They were checking the health of my heart. Occasional atrial fibrillation or arrhythmia. I’ve had it a few times over the years and I’ve usually been able to explain it away. But then the heart is one organ to take seriously. It was behaving itself today, but there was something a little remarkable. The echo showed that my heart has become somewhat hardened. The muscle has thickened. Probable causes are high blood pressure and insufficient exercise. Yes, I know what to do. More exercise, get the heart working a bit more. And slow down, relax, rest, recreate, de-stress. In other words, I mustn’t harden my heart any more than it is.

As I walked away from the cardiologist this morning, I remembered having heard something like this before:

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:

‘Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.’

Hebrews 3:12-15 NIV

I need to pay attention to my heart. This muscle is indispensable to my continued welfare and existence. I can’t do without it.

But, more importantly, I must also pay attention to my spiritual ‘heart’—the centre of my being, my values, my conscience, my choices, my priorities. God is calling me to listen to his voice. Not some mystical connection found in solitary introspection, but his message of good news focusing on Jesus. The good news is that Jesus is the only one to live for, the one who deserves everything, including my complete allegiance. He has given his life for me, to rescue me from the futility and judgment that comes from living for myself.

When God reminds me of this fact, I mustn’t harden my heart against him. When my will aches for independence, when I simply want to do my own thing, when I’m tempted to despair, when I’m feeling that God is remote or irrelevant, then I mustn’t harden my heart. When the world around me is shouting that there is no God, and when consumerism keeps luring me to live myself, then I must listen to the true word of God. The voice that reminds me that my heart will never be satisfied until it finds its rest in God.

And I urge you too to listen to God. Take a look at your spiritual echocardiogram, get your spiritual heart checked, while you still can. Good heart health is smart and spiritual heart health matters even more.

6 AD

You know I’m a Christian, right? So BC and AD to me reflect the most significant events in human history: BC—before Christ and AD—anno domini (in the year of the Lord). It makes perfect sense to me to divide our calendars at this point.

So it is with humble respect that I claim another BC and AD hinge point in my own life. BC—before cancer and AD—after diagnosis. And today I reach 6AD. Today is my six year survival mark. It’s exactly six years since my friends ushered me from the coffee shop to the cancer journey. On 2nd December 2011 I was admitted to hospital and today I begin my seventh year of life AD.

IMG_7390Yesterday I had the privilege of catching up with the same blokes who cared for me on that first day. As we have done every year, we drank coffee (or chai lattes and hot chocolates—we’re getting older), we shared stories, and we prayed for each other. Much has happened in this time. So much has changed. But the goodness of God remains. As I drove home, I found myself singing (yes, truly—and I believe I was even in tune!)

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
’tis has brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home

There have been so many dangers, toils and snares, and I am so conscious of God’s grace in all of them. God’s abundant kindness and mercy astound me. All of my bucket list prayers have been answered. I’m not supposed to be here—the doctors said so. And yet God has given me more days in this life to sing his praise.

But, you know, it’s not about me. The original BC-AD divide leaves my personal experience deep in its wake. The coming of Jesus Christ offers us forgiveness, life, and reconciliation. The sting of death has been removed. Hopelessness and despair have been replaced by joy and assurance. I can look forward in confident anticipation to an eternity with my saviour, not because of anything on my part. No, it’s all of grace, amazing grace. The same grace that transformed John Newtown, and William Wilberforce, and millions of others throughout the centuries. And you too can know this grace.