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What do you call a leader without any followers? Somebody out for a walk

The politicians who failed to take action in America, actually made a choice to allow mass shooting events to happen.

The politicians who failed to take action in America, actually made a choice to allow mass shooting events to happen.

We had only been in Canada a matter of weeks when a deranged gunman massacred innocent children at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Our family stayed transfixed and bewildered by what we were seeing. We were sure that now, finally, Americans would take action on gun control.  We were wrong.

As an Australian, and particularly a Tasmanian, the repeated suggestion that introducing tighter gun control would have no impact on tragedies like this seems wilfully, and perhaps culpably ignorant.

We had a sickening tragedy here. Our then Prime Minister bravely stood in the face of opposition and changed the law.

I distinctly remember his decision to stand in front of an angry crowd to answer for his decision with the outline of a bullet proof vest filling out his jacket in a way that signaled the risk he believed he was taking.  There were lots of things I disagreed with John Howard about, but I will be forever grateful that in a moment of tragedy he demonstrated what leadership looks like.

The reason an American leader hasn’t taken the same path (although clearly Obama wanted to), is that the United States is slightly less aware of a fact that most of us forget most of the time: we are shaped by our environments much more than any of us want to acknowledge.

Guns don’t kill people, politicians who don’t lead kill people.

We want to believe that success or failure, winning or losing, good or evil behaviour is always a product of our free choice. It’s not. And the fact it’s not is a huge problem for a country that prizes free choice above everything.

It is the prizing of free choice that produces the unique kind of politics we see in the States . It is also this prizing of free choice that produces the gun culture in the U.S.A.  There is nothing that says “I’m free” more than my ability to kill anyone who wants to compel me to do something I don’t want to do. In America guns equal freedom. That freedom though, is an illusion.

As I pointed out in a previous reflection, one of the biggest risk factors for death by shooting is gun ownership. The tools that are meant to bring freedom, bring the opposite. Why is that? Our lives are profoundly shaped by our environments.

We all need to understand that nations are much more than a collection of individuals, and their choices. Nations are complex systems that are shaped both intentionally and unintentionally by the conscious and unconscious agreements their constituents make about how they live together. The same is true for families, churches and organisations. Those agreements then, in turn, shape the constituents.

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At a time when politics is incredibly polarised, I witnessed a moment of hope.

At a time when politics is incredibly polarised, I witnessed a moment of hope.

On Wednesday I attended a remarkable breakfast. At a time when politics is incredibly polarised, I witnessed a moment of hope.

Premier Will Hodgeman addresses the breakfast

For the last few years, I don’t think anyone would disagree that we have seen the fabric of democracy fraying in a way that seems very serious.

The core of the damage seems to be that we have lost trust in the people who are supposed to lead us, and in particular, we have lost trust that those people will tell us the truth.

Our politicians are operating in an environment of profound mistrust… and no matter what they do they seem unable to break through the dark veil of scepticism.

It is hard to imagine a more highly charged time for political leaders to be in the same room as Christian leaders. There is about to be a national postal plebiscite about Same-Sex Marriage and at the state level, there was a bill calling for the removal of the Lord’s Prayer from the opening of Parliament. Feelings are running high on Social Media and also the National “Mainstream” Media.

It was into this context on Wednesday morning that Stephen Baxter stood up to introduce the 2017 Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast which saw 461 people, largely from Christian churches, join with more than half of Tasmania’s Members of Parliament including the Premier, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Greens.

Stephen said something like “this breakfast has been happening for 12 years. This is a safe place where we come together in the name of Jesus Christ to pray for our leaders and hear from one civic leader how their faith has informed their own journey.” Stephen said a lot of other things, but in laying down the ground rules it was clear that this was not a moment for political activists to fight about issues.

There was a beautiful moment when Stephen asked everyone who wasn’t a politician to stand and express their thanks to those who had given their lives to serve. The applause was long and heartfelt.

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Social issues really do matter, however they are not the main challenge for the church.

Social issues really do matter, however they are not the main challenge for the church.

It is interesting coming home into what feels like a highly charged political environment. Things feel very polarised both globally and nationally.

There is a strange sense of foreboding at the moment as it looks like America and North Korea are, day by day, inching closer to a cliff and at the same time, a vitriolic debate about same-sex marriage is dominating talk radio and social media.

Polarisation is not new, but it does feel like this is different.  It feels like the whole nature and question of democracy is at stake at the moment.

One of the big differences between Australia and the U.S. is that the fragmentation here seems to be less about “Conservatives” vs. “Liberals” and more about an overall lack of trust in any institutions at all.

In America there is at least the illusion that things can be fixed when we defeat the enemy. In Australia the enemy is much less defined and so the societal fragmentation is much more obvious.

I was impressed by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson who seemed to be a voice of reason in the midst of the highly charged debate. He clearly articulated that the big concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage but whether the country itself will hold together.

All of this the context in which I now find myself leading a church and needing to equip our people to live their faith.

What would you aim for if you were in my place?

I know that one of the things I will need to keep remembering myself is that whatever the immediate battle seems to be, it isn’t actually the main game.

Jesus didn’t come and teach an ideology, he came and demonstrated a completely new way of doing life and invited his followers to step into that life.

The Christian church is never at its best when we are fighting the battle of ideas. We are always at our best when we are living our faith in the nitty-gritty details of ordinary life.

That doesn’t mean that we should avoid social issues. Issues of Justice matter, but when we debate issues without seeing or respecting people, we do exactly the opposite of Jesus’s direct command to love our enemies, and we also misunderstand how the church is meant to work.

One of my heroes is William Wilberforce. He and his friends, the Clapham Sect, transformed England and ended slavery through persistent and clever political action. I doubt though that even William Wilberforce would be very effective in the current political climate.

William Wilberforce was able to draw together a national consensus because an Anglican preacher had stepped into a very fragmented country and pointed to a different way of life for the fifty years before the young politician began his career.

England was falling apart. There were very few trusted leaders and it seemed that corruption was rife. In 1738, Bishop Berkeley declared that religion and morality in Britain had collapsed “to a degree that was never before known in any Christian country.”

Five years ago my son Dan and I visited John Wesley’s house. He is one of the leaders I most admire.

It was also in 1738 that a young preacher by the name of John Wesley attended a church service on May 24, that changed his life and ultimately would result in England changing to the point that Wilberforce could do what he did.

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If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

Last week’s induction service was very encouraging, but now the real work starts…

It is Saturday morning and I am preparing for my first “normal” Sunday as the Senior Pastor of Citywide Baptist church.

As I was reflecting on what my first sermon should be about, I realised that it needed to come back to what has been the central question of my life since Leeanne and I were married: What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God?

Regular readers of Faith Reflections will know that Leeanne and I had Matthew 6:33 engraved on our wedding rings after deciding that we wanted that truth of that verse to be our point of orientation for the rest of our lives.

Only 11 months ago, as I was ordained in Canada, Leeanne gave me a plaque with the verse on it, kind of as a re-affirmation that we are still on the same journey we started in 1994. As I sit here on our bed tapping away on the keyboard, the plaque adorns the wall opposite our bed, as a daily reminder.

Eugene Peterson (the author of The Message and a bunch of other books I appreciate) believes that every preacher who has been at the task of preaching for a while, really has only one sermon. He believes that each Sunday they just find a different way of delivering the same message, because that message is the core story of their lives.

I think I understand what he means. The wrestle for faith, the wrestle to seek God’s will above my own, the wrestle to seek first the Kingdom of God, has been the defining question of my life. I started Faith Reflections as a way of expressing the wrestle, and every time I get up to preach I am basically covering the same ground.

My dream for Citywide Baptist church is that we would be a bunch of people on the journey to put Jesus first in every area of our lives, and because we are doing that, we are learning to love each other, love our neighbours and change the world.

This Sunday I will quote Jaques Ellul who wrote:

Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.

That’s the kind of church I want to be part of.

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Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet. (So are you…)

Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet. (So are you…)

I haven’t known how to make sense of what’s been happening in American Politics

It is hard for an Australian to really comprehend the forces that shape the thinking of Americans. While Australia certainly has it’s fair share of irresponsible media coverage, divisive issues and poor leadership, the country as a whole is actually fairly whole. Pauline Hanson is not Donald Trump (no matter what she believes), Centrelink is not Obama Care and Crikey is not Breitbart. To be honest our politics is much less interesting… in a good way.

America is divided in a way that Australia simply isn’t, so I have spent the last four and a half years in North America a bit bewildered by what I see on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

This morning I heard something that was extremely helpful at a number of levels.  Since becoming addicted to “the West Wing”, one of my favourite television shows has been Meet the Press. The host, Chuck Todd, has recently started a podcast called 1947 (after the year that MTP started), where he seems to have longer form, more informative dialogues than is possible on the one hour show.

Today Todd posted a conversation between himself and President George Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Chuck was attempting to argue that the media wasn’t systemically biased, and Fleischer systematically demonstrated why he was wrong. A key insight for me was when Fleischer said:

Chuck I submit to you it isn’t intentional, it’s natural, and that’s even worse.

It’s just reflective of a worldview that reporter’s have. Where I’ve been on sets, I’ve been talking to reporters and you just see them roll their eyes, “How can anybody be for Trump?”

It’s an institutional thought that is pervasive throughout journalism and it goes back decades frankly. I think it’s hit its peak with Donald Trump because reporters find him so personally offensive and ideologically offensive, and they let it rip.

Fleischer came across  as very grounded in reality and gave numerous examples that Todd simply had no comeback for. By the end of the conversation, both of them seemed to agree that the “main-stream” media had a “left-wing” bias. At the end of the interview, Presidential advisor Steve Bannon’s claim that the media was the real opposition seemed a little less crazy than it initially sounded.

What seems to be happening is that the American media is only just starting to become aware that they are not completely objective.

I almost laughed out loud as I watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper who looked shocked and hurt last night when he, and the media in general were accused of being biased. His defence was that Newsrooms were more “diverse” than ever.

For Cooper, “diverse” meant people from different ethnic backgrounds and people of different sexual orientations… however, as Fleischer pointed out to Todd, very few newsrooms have any socially conservative people at all, most of whom would not be excited by what Cooper calls diverse.

Anderson Cooper is biased, he just hasn’t realized it yet.

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Reflecting, learning and listening to that part of you ready for the new adventure that God lays before you today is the only way to having a full life.

Reflecting, learning and listening to that part of you ready for the new adventure that God lays before you today is the only way to having a full life.

Thanks to an emergency vet visit, we had a late Christmas dinner

This is my favourite week of the year.

We had a really enjoyable Christmas day, except for the moment when it appeared that our little dog might be a casualty of the Christmas dinner.

My son Josh put together a documentary of the day, including the last minute dash to the vet,  which he would be very pleased for you to check out. (I’m not sure how I feel being on youtube in my dressing gown…)

The week between Christmas and New Year is an oasis in a calendar of busyness. Here in Canada many offices close as a matter of course, giving staff a week off without having to use annual leave.

It is a week to catch up on the movies you have always wanted to watch or to relax in front of the Boxing Day test (thank goodness for internet streaming!)

It is also a week to let the dust of the year settle and to allow myself to stop and ask, “What have I learned?”

The pace of most of our lives means it is easy to just be carried away by the unresolved questions in front of us, never taking the time to integrate the learning that is behind us. In his final recorded speech, Socrates was recorded by Plato as saying:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Examining your life requires time and this is the one week a year when many of us find ourselves with unallocated hours. I know it’s tempting to fill the hours with those movies or sporting events, or even with social activists or a good book. This week is great for all of that, however if that is all it is we will find ourselves waking up on New Years Day facing another trip around the sun without the foundation of what we have learned on the previous voyage.

Without reflecting on the ups and downs, the joys and the pains of the year just gone we are in danger of getting stuck in a never changing rut. We are in danger of doing what Robin S. Sharma warned us about when he wrote:

“Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.”

For me Sharma’s warning carries extra weight this year because one of the things I have learned is that there is part of me that likes to navigate myself towards “business as usual.” I identify with the anonymous author of the bicycle poem I published on this blog six years ago when he wrote:

“When I had control, I know the way. It was rather boring, but predicable…….It was the shortest distance between two points.”

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We were reminded by a New York Billionaire that it is words and not ideas that change us.

We were reminded by a New York Billionaire that it is words and not ideas that change us.

A while ago I spoke at church about the importance of letting the bible shape your identity. It felt like an important message about how we need to find our identity in the biblical story.

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We spent a lot of the week watching the unfolding election.

On Tuesday, from the comfort of the Lake Louise Chateau Hotel, I watched Donald Trump become  President-Elect of the United States because he had learned to tell a different kind of story.

Leeanne and I were in the mountains for the annual Prayer Retreat for the Western Canadian District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Donald Trump was elected President, thanks largely to winning the votes of 81% of White Evangelical Christians.

In the weeks leading up to the election many Christian leaders had spoken out in favour of Trump, and some even prophesied that God had chosen Trump.  I was a little bewildered by that. I understood all the arguments about the supreme court but that wasn’t enough to explain such strong Christian support for someone who the facts indicated was immoral and unprepared for national leadership.

I actually thought the facts were the issue. They weren’t.

As I reflect now, I see that part of the problem was that I had basic assumptions about how I interpret reality that were wrong.

On Sunday I taught that we needed to align our stories with the biblical story if we want to know truth.

On Tuesday I was reminded that discovering what it is true is much more than facts and information.

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It’s tiring if you play a role to maintain a good image. One day your true character will be discovered.

It’s tiring if you play a role to maintain a good image. One day your true character will be discovered.

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My Sister Liz and I were inspired by meeting Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama when he was Regent of Belitung Timur in 2006

The major capital city newspaper, writing about the upcoming election, wrote “hate speech has gotten out of control.”

While they could have been speaking about some of the more extreme things we have seen coming out of the most bizarre U.S. election any of us have ever seen, they weren’t.

They were talking about the upcoming Gubernatorial election in Jakarta where the first ever Christian to hold the office is facing massive and violent opposition from hardline Islamists.

I met Governor Basuki back in 2006, and the meeting was inspirational. I imagine it would have been similar to meeting a young William Wilberforce who had a sense of call to politics, not because of a personal desire for power, but because of a real love for his country.

Today more than 50,000 Muslims took to the streets in the capital city of the world’s most populous muslim nation, to demand his arrest. They claim that he committed blasphemy against the Koran. According to ABC news, “During the protests, some began throwing rocks and bottles at riot police while others chanted that the Governor should be killed.” 

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If we truly want peace, we need to stop dividing the world into “us” and “them”

If we truly want peace, we need to stop dividing the world into “us” and “them”

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A couple of policemen took some time out today to make a point.

Media outlets in North America have become experts at this.

A tragedy happens, amateur social media videos are lined up one after the other, professional “experts” give their paid opinions and reporters stand in locations they have never been, acting like they know what they are talking about.

Everyone is looking for answers, hoping that this will be as simple as the good guys versus the bad guys. It never is.

Like normal, people are trying to reduce complex issues to simplistic stereotypes. Right now there are loud voices proclaiming that the whole problem is either the police, the #BlackLivesMatter movement or Barack Obama. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.

The problem is systematic and multi-faceted, but at another level it is incredibly simple. In our worst moments we see people who are not like “us” as the enemy, and then when we over-react because of our fears, we give them the justification to see us as the enemy. This vicious cycle repeats, and repeats, and repeats.

We live in a world that is shaped both by the best of humanity, but also by the worst. The fact that white Western people enjoy a standard of living far beyond the global average is partly due to the Judeo-Christian values that created a culture that produced productivity, but it is also partly due to the oppression of people who are not white.  Any cursory reading of history makes that unpalatable fact hard to deny.

Over the years we have started to acknowledge some of the worst forms of our oppression. We stopped racing to see which country could have the most colonies. We let our women vote. We let black people vote. We stopped stealing aboriginal children. All these things were good and necessary, however oppression still exists.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but it is the truth, that black people are economically and socially disadvantaged in an economy that is created and dominated by White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Middle Aged Men. First Nations people are also disadvantaged, so are Latinos and so are Women. We might not like to hear it, but it is true.

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I love the heart, vision, challenge and pathway that I am seeing.

I love the heart, vision, challenge and pathway that I am seeing.

There was a two week period where I attended two conferences that were quite different but at the same time similar, and influenced by a very challenging author and what I was preaching about at the time.

The first conference was the National Assembly of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. That was followed by the Deepening Community conference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. While I was doing all this I had also been continuing to preach through Ephesians chapter four and was processing two books by Danny Silk (Culture of Honor and Keep Your Love on) which have been challenging and inspiring.

These diverse experiences and inputs somehow wove together, and a picture is emerged that had me feeling both excited and daunted.

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I am glimpsing both the kind of family and kind of church I want to be part of

I am glimpsing both the kind of family and kind of church I want to be part of

Dinner on our first night
Dinner on our first night

I loved the week I spent with my two eldest children, driving 2,500 km from Edmonton to Vancouver and back in 5 days. My daughter Maddi needed to renew her passport, which must be done in person and at the consulate.

24 hours in a car gives a lot of time for incidental conversation. It also gives a lot of time to listen to music any anything else we happened to have on our phones. I felt old.

We caught up with friends in Vancouver. Sam and Danni both worked with Fusion in Australia and are closer in age to Josh and Maddi than me. It was helpful for me to see the way that Sam and Josh chatted about the podcasts they listened to.

Maddi and I listened to a couple of Josh’s podcasts on the way home and it dawned on me that there is a whole other digital world that is largely invisible to me.

The podcasts were basically groups of people seemingly talking about nothing for a couple of hours at a time, and yet enjoying audiences of millions of people. It is a whole new form of media that doesn’t really make sense to me.

It struck me that groups like Rooster Teeth and people like Pewdiepie are the Beatles and Elvis Presley of this generation… and most of us have never heard of them.

If I am to be honest I have thought that these people were simply a distraction that Josh would grow out of, and maybe they are, but they are part of his world at the moment and to know him I need to know the things that shape him.

In my last reflection I wrote about creating a culture of honour in my family. It’s an idea that has continued to frame my thinking. As one of my readers commented last week, creating a culture of honour is not only the key to a healthy family, it is the key to any healthy group. It is also much easier said than done.

The phrase “a culture of honour” was coined by Danny Silk, one of the pastors from Bethel church. His book “Creating a culture of Honour” has challenged me and provided a vision of the difference between how people normally relate to each other and how a group of people shaped by the truth of the gospel would relate to each other. His book has given me a vision both for my family and also for what the church should be.

The fundamental difference between a culture of honour and what is normal is that in a culture of honour people are trusted and people are different.

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Will the Christian church look in the mirror to discover things have changed?

Will the Christian church look in the mirror to discover things have changed?

wpid-274_custom-efa872e7a347073668fff56c4d203299f9417425-s6-c30Lately, I’ve been looking in the mirror and being surprised by what I see. The face staring back at me is 10 years older than I imagine it to be. Apparently, this is a normal phenomenon.

I have a strong sense that the Christian church, too, is needing to look in the mirror.

I’ve was in Calgary participating in a conference run by the Evangelical Missiological Society featuring, among other things, a series of lectures by Dr. Chris Wright (who is the author of a number of books about the implications of Biblical Theology for the practice of the Church).

I appreciated Chris’s sessions. He gave a very thorough, biblical framework for mission as more than (but not less than) evangelism. His input though left me with a slight sense of frustration.

I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything he said, but I’m not convinced we, the Christian church, are ready to look into the mirror and re-interpret ourselves based on what we see.

I said as much in the question I asked Chris (I hope I didn’t offend him).

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You think you make your own decisions, but actually that is very rarely true.

You think you make your own decisions, but actually that is very rarely true.

Last week I posted a reflection that came from my wrestle with what I was seeing ISIS doing. Last weeks posting was one of the most read ones since I started Faith Reflections in 2010, so I guess that I’m not the only one who has been disoriented by the constant wave of violence we are seeing played out around the world.

This disorientation is similar to what people felt after the second world war as the nature of the atrocities committed by Germany started to come to light. One Psychologist, Stanley Milgram, established an experiment to discover what kinds of people would commit those kind of horrific acts against others.

Basically the experiment asked ordinary people to make choices to give a person increasing levels of electric shock, up to a point where they believed they were killing the person. The shocks were given whenever the person answered a question wrongly, and were given under the direction of somebody who told the subject what to do. You can read more about it and actually watch videos of the experiment here.

Milligram asked a sample group of social psychologist to predict the results of the study. They believed that only about 1.2 percent of the population were capable of such a horrible act. Turns out they were wrong. 65% of ordinary people were willing to torture and kill another person simply because someone who looked like an authority figure told them to do so.

After the second World War, it was normal to want to think that German soldiers were somehow inhuman, and that something like the concentration camps could never happen in our more civilized societies. It is not surprising that Milgram’s research was heavily criticized for a number of years because none of us want to countenance the possibility that we might act in such a way.

The disturbing truth is that a good number of us would.

What happened in Germany and what is happening with ISIS is not the result of abnormal genetics, it is the result of a basic human tendency to place more trust in people we see as authorities than in our own moral compasses.

Migram said:

“I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

So how can we make sense of this?

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Normal doesn’t mean right, it just means normal.

Normal doesn’t mean right, it just means normal.

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Have you ever had a moment when you had to stop and ask yourself “How did I get here?”, where your picture of yourself doesn’t quite fit with the experience you are having?

I’m having one of those moments right now.

Leeanne and I, for the first time ever, have left the kids for four days and we are at a Prayer Retreat with 575 other pastors from all over Alberta.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I am now a pastor, but that fact doesn’t quite register yet, so I feel a little like an imposter in this group of people. It is so strange being at a conference with a different group of people than the Fusion crew. For 21 years I turned up at Fusion’s national and international meetings and I don’t think I realized how much those meetings were shaped by Fusion’s culture until being here. The way Fusion did things was normal, and I realize now that I kind of saw the way Fusion did things as the “right” way to do things. I knew intellectually that wasn’t the case, but I’m now realizing that assumption was there.

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A movement that is actually changing the world

A movement that is actually changing the world

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of U2 and often quote their lyrics. As someone who has been working with a group that calls itself a movement, I have been fascinated as I watch Bono’s intentional efforts to build a global movement to eradicate poverty.

Back in 2006 he gave what I consider to be one of the greatest speeches so far in this millennium. He was calling for action.

A couple of weeks ago he gave a speech at TED, which shows that things are changing in a remarkable way.

I have posted both speeches in this reflection, and I would recommend you watch both.

This is the 2006 speech:


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