Anticipating the transfer of power about to occur in the US, I tuned into events there these last 10 days or so more than I usually do, now that I live in London. While I, like many, was grieving the loss of the Obamas before they even left the White House, one thing that really struck me was the myriad of ways they found to say goodbye. Regardless of your political views and whether or not you are/were a fan of Barack or Michelle, it was a window into strong leadership and what it looks like to finish well.

Here are just a few honorable mentions:

-Returning to where it all began in Chicago for one final speech where Obama thanked his supporters, his staff, his wife and daughters, and his #2, Joe Biden, making it OK for many there and those us of us watching at home, to let the tears fall.

-Receiving the Chicago Cubs in the White House as his last public event on none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Day, prior to volunteering for the last time as President.

-The final razzle dazzle party at the White House with a spread of celebrities

-Obama’s final press conference

-Awarding Joe Biden with the  Medal of Freedom in a meeting in which Biden had no idea this honor was coming. And thanking him profusely and in so many different ways as he gave that gift that Biden broke down and wept openly.

-The party he hosted in his private residence for 30 of his closest aides on the eve of the Inauguration

-The final goodbye with 300 staffers with tears and hugs all around at Andrews Air Force base after Trump had been sworn in

Not to talk of the final TV interviews, the last interviews for the press, Michelle’s final public appearance, the article in the Harvard Law Review describing the need for criminal justice reform, commuting the sentences of 300 people (over 1700 during his presidency), and all the private goodbyes to the White House staff as well. And then there were all the ‘Thank you’ tweets, now archived under @POTUS44 & @FLOTUS44. (Pretty incredible; check them out!)

Probably as much for them as for all of us who are sad to see them move on, the Obamas created many, many, many opportunities to express their appreciation to the American people, to those who worked alongside them, and to show their gratitude for the extraordinary privilege it was to serve the US for the past 8 years.

They’ve made saying goodbye a little easier, a little better, and a lot healthier.

For those of us in any positions of leadership or influence, or even when we are making far smaller transitions in our own lives, we might do well to consider the value of the long goodbye and the gift of finishing well.

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In my last post, I wrote about Bryan Stevenson and the incredible work of the Equal Justice Initiative. Six weeks later, on May 20, Grace & Race, the Center for Faith & Work, and Hope for New York – all of which are connected to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City – collaborated to host Bryan Stevenson who appeared on stage along with our Senior Pastor, Tim Keller for the very first time. Prior to meeting backstage before the event, these two heavy hitters had never met. In the first half of the evening, each of these powerful speakers gave a rousing talk, available below in the first video. Following that, I moderated a question and answer time, including questions texted in by the audience, available on the second video.

Both are New York Times best selling authors and are now nationally and internationally known for the work they do. In the case of Stevenson, his life’s work has been dedicated to providing legal representation for those on death row, successfully advocating for relief for children tried and convicted as adults, and more recently, leading the charge to mark the sites of every location where a person was lynched in this country. Known for his gifted preaching, Keller, is also the founding president of City to City which has started 300 churches flung across six continents.

Interestingly, both men began their respective organizations 27 years ago with humble beginnings: Keller moved to New York City, which had more crime and far less wealth than it currently does, from the suburbs of Philadelphia to start a church with the least churched demographic: young urban professionals. Stevenson started his organization in Alabama, thinking he would be there for a few years and then relocate to Atlanta but has ended up making Montgomery his home, despite the sacrifices that decision has entailed. This common thread of being committed to the same vision for 25 plus years, signifying a long obedience in the same direction, is how I opened my conversation with both of them: what has sustained their hope over these long years? Stevenson has seen tangible successes in his work and when that fails him, he remembers those whose shoulders he stands on and that keeps him going. For Keller, he’s expected God to bring change through his life’s work because of his belief in the power of the gospel and even when he has doubts, he’s confident that justice will win in the end.

We covered a wide range of topics that evening. Among them: the role of the church when it comes to issues of justice specifically as they relate to mass incarceration and race, the importance of truth and reconciliation in creating a new narrative about the treatment of people of color in this country, and why we need to have a sense of urgency around these issues. For coverage of the whole evening, take a look at these videos, and be prepared, at moments, to be moved, outraged, challenged, and convicted.

MRC Max feb2016

I first encountered Clive Staples Lewis at the age of 9. In 4th grade at the American missionary school I attended in Nigeria, our teacher, Miss P (all single women were really called Miss in those days) who was from New Zealand, began reading The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to us every afternoon from 3:00-3:15. Just before we were dismissed for the day, as we listened to this story, we were whisked through an inviting door into an imaginary world bursting with possibility and hope. However, joy and contentment were being held captive in a land that was “always winter, never Christmas,” until Aslan, a Christ-like figure, broke the white witch’s spell and restored Narnia to its glory days. After we finished this first story, Miss P went on to expose us to the rest of the 6 books in the Narnia Chronicles, the only children’s books that CS Lewis ever published.

These stories began for me a life long fascination with Lewis. I became not only concerned with what he wrote but more importantly for me was discovering who he was, how he’d lived, and what were the events – and who were the significant people – that had shaped him. I learned Lewis was from Northern Ireland, called himself Jack from a young age which stuck, grew up in Belfast in a loving home, lost his mother at age 10, and was then sent away to an English board school in the aftermath of his father’s debilitating grief.  He went on to become a brilliant student at Oxford, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a professor at both Oxford and then Cambridge. Along the way, his views on God underwent a gradual but radical shift. As he repeatedly learned that more and more friends and colleagues at Oxford whom he respected for their sharp intellect were also people of faith, he underwent a process from being a staunch atheist to believing that there was a God, to eventually encountering the God of the Bible in a personal way. Much to his surprise and dare I say even horror, he became in his own words the “most reluctant convert in all of England.” He died on November 22, 1963, the same day that JFK was assassinated which meant that the US President’s death overshadowed that of Lewis.

Now, the Fellowship fo the Performing Arts, has put together a stellar one actor production of Lewis’ journey to faith, starring Max McLean. Aptly called “Most Reluctant Convert,” virtually  of the words in the 90 minute single act drama come from Lewis’ own writings and letters. (As he became more well-known, he received hundreds of hand-written letters to which he replied to each one – by hand.) I saw this show several weeks ago while it was still in development and was incredibly moved at how persistently God appears to have pursued Lewis. Regardless of what you personally believe, Seeing this show is worth insight into that process alone. There’s a run of Most Reluctant Convert in Washington, DC, from April 20 – May 8. Check it out if you get the chance! And if you’re not in DC, pick up an autobiography of Lewis from your local library, or one of his many non-fiction books, and discover this genius for yourself.

 

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familiar feb2016It may be the first time that 10 black female actors are appearing on Broadway (Eclipsed @ the Golden Theatre on 45th) or off Broadway (Familiar @ Playwrights Horizons on 42nd) at the same time in the space of 3 blocks. We have the award-winning Zimbabwean American actor (The Walking Dead) and playwright Danai Gurira to thank for that. I had the privilege of seeing Familiar last weekend and then hearing Ms. Gurira talk about the play after the show. In broad strokes, the play is a window into the tensions that are exposed in a Zimbabwean American family living in wintery Minnesota on the eve of the older daughter Tendi’s wedding to a “white boy” who works in international development. Like any wedding – not to talk of an interracial/intercultural one – family stresses that have remained contained bubble up to the surface when the joining of two people/two families is at stake.

The first act had me and my (Nigerian) friend Ruth howling through much of it and I’m talking belly aching laughter. Picture an African version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and then add the complexities of trying to please Aunt Annie from Zim who’s flown in and insists that Tendi’s fiance pay a bride price, involving cows. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, a fiercely proud MIT-educated college professor and Annie’s younger sister, is vehemently opposed to anything Zimbabwean having raised her two daughters to be as American as McDonalds. Throw in the daughters’ father, a successful lawyer, pining for home and his younger artsy daughter, Nyasha, who’s just returned from Zim, jazzed about having had a chance to be exposed to the Shona language and who’s brought back a stunning mbira (thumb piano). If that weren’t enough, the couple getting married are both Christians and virgins – facts that become relevant to the plot as well.

The themes are not just familiar, but it’s a hugely ambitious play. The second act turns far more serious than the first when tensions reach a breaking point and we come to learn the hidden reason for so much (though not all) of the tension in this family… And then we discover that the character that has been largely overshadowed in the run up to the wedding, Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha – who’s name aptly means grace – is the one through whom redemption comes. The final scene with the daughters’ parents tentatively dancing to the sound to Nyasha playing Shona music on the mbira almost made me cry.

A review I heard on wnyc this morning criticized the play for having too many extraneous, undeveloped characters which meant Gurira “missed an opportunity to connect audiences with their point of view.” I disagree. At the speakout after the show, Gurira – before this particular review was aired – spoke about her intentionality in creating meaty, substantial parts for each character. A playwright who feels called to tell the stories of women of African descent, she’s committed to developing roles that an actor can really “sink their teeth into.” Bravo Gurira! It showed. The acting was first rate and the Zim accents and intermitent use of Shona was convincing. Familiar is not just funny but fantastic!

(Photo credit: www.playwrightshorizons.org)

Today, on account of the blizzard pummeling the east coast of the US, the city which never sleeps has ground to a standstill — and that includes Broadway. Yes, all matinees and evening performances were cancelled earlier today. The hope is that by tomorrow afternoon, the storm will have blown away, and the city will re-awaken, the subways and buses will begin to move again, in time for Sunday’s matinees.

But in the meantime, here’s a touching Broadway story…

Last Weds night, a group of us from our midtown office decided to walk over to the Richard Rogers Theater to try our luck in the popular lottery for a front row seat to the performance of Hamilton that night. (We were hopeful. After all, a work friend had won front row tickets to the show the previous evening (!), and several others from the office had been lottery winners too. Apparently, their success is not unconnected to how one folds their ticket, it seems, but that’s a story for a different blog post.) As I put on my coat, a friend and colleague, Jess, was heading out, and she, being a lover of all things Hamilton – she’s memorized all the words to the soundtrack – decided to stop by with us on her way home. We joined 300+ other hopefuls, wrote our names on a piece of paper, tried to fold them in that special way, flung them into the basket, and waited on a crowded sidewalk in the winter cold.

The first name was called and cheers went up as that person dashed through the crowd and up to the front to present their ID, hand over their cash ($10/tkt, 2 max), and pick up their tickets. The second name was called and there was more yelling – and this time some groans too. Then the third name was called – and as God would have it – it was our friend, Jess! She blushed with disbelief, her eyes got tearful and then she scurried off to claim her tickets.

The show was in two hours and with three young kids at home, she had some juggling to do: she texted her babysitter and asked her to stay later that evening and then rushed home. Together they got the two youngest kids (4 1/2 & 2) into their pajamas and ready for bed after dinner. With C, her oldest @ 7, since she was having a special night out with Mom, she got to put on a pretty dress.

When the others were settled and in bed, Mom took C into the hallway and told her they were going to Hamilton. At first C couldn’t believe it. When she realized that it was really true, she started dancing and jumping up and down saying, “Nobody loves Hamilton more than I do!”

The show did not disappoint. They were in the front center – and C was given a booster seat so she could have a perfect view of the stage. She sat up, alert and awake, through every scene and rap.

By the end of the evening, both C and Jess were overwhelmed with tears. During the closing ovation, Lin-Manuel Miranda looked right at them, winked, and patted his heart. They were beyond ecstatic.

The next day, Jess couldn’t stop talking about their spectacular evening. I was both thrilled and envious. When she’d dropped C off at school, after letting her sleep in, C’s teachers told her how jealous they were too. Still on a high, Jess decided to tweet Miranda to thank him for such a special treat. And this was his response:

lin manuel tweet jan2016 cropped #2

How’s that for a sweet down-to-earth Broadway response: a 7 year old winking back at a star!

ocean grove jan2013 #3January 6th, is called the Day of Epiphany in the Christian calendar. It is marked by the visit of the magi in search of the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that magi came from the east to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews. They had seen his star and had come to worship him. The star was a sign which led them first to Herod and subsequently to Jesus himself. They saw something unusual and different and it provoked them to take action, to go on a lengthy journey, not knowing where it would lead them or what it would mean for them. But nonetheless, upon recognizing the sign, they took off.

The Shepherds were the first to hear of the birth of Jesus on a dark night that probably seemed no different than any other. When angels lit up the sky and shared news of the birth of the Savior of the world, they too were given a sign: They would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Despite being terrified, they went to see if what the angels had told them was in deed true.

God frequently gives us signs which prompt and nudge us out of our current situations and into experiences and deeper understandings of who he is and what he’s calling us to do. If you are anything like me, you are usually too distracted to notice the signs, to recognize them as such, to pay attention to what they might signify, or to act on them. It’s like when I get the flu: my throat begins to tickle, my nose runs more than usual, fatigue begins to creep in – all indications that my body’s immune system is becoming compromised – but usually, I don’t pay too much attention or make any significant changes to the rhythm of my days, until my throat is raging, my sinuses rebel in earnest and my body weakens further, demanding rest (and perhaps flu medicine). The signs were there all along but I ignored them until I couldn’t do so any more. And then I was knocked flat on my back.

As the start of this new year, I wonder what sign(s) God might be inviting you to see in your life right now. Are you strung out and weary from a holiday season that was too full of busy-ness with little time to slow down and reflect on it’s true meaning and implications? Do you need to make a significant change –let go of an unhealthy relationship, release a deeply buried grudge or hurt, transition out of a job that is violating your soul, build margins into your schedule that allow you to have moments of quiet and rest, take up something new that breathes life into you and stirs your passions? Or perhaps you’re already aware of the sign(s) but what to do about the fears and paralysis that interfere with you taking action?

Let the life-changing journey of the Magi encourage you. They didn’t travel alone. They weren’t in a hurry. They asked for help along the way. They kept following the star. And when they found the baby, they were overjoyed.  Open your eyes, look for the sign(s), start moving, take others with you, be willing to go slowly, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and wait for the joy!

 

 

This weekend, I had the wonderful pleasure of attending a launch of the latest issue of Black Renaissance Noire (www.nyubrn.org) an artsy literary journal, which the Institute of African-American Affairs @ NYU puts out three times a year. I’d never heard of Black Renaissance Noire, edited by the esteemed writer and poet Quincy Troupe, until my friend Linda was contacted by Quincy who wanted to include an excerpt from her forth-coming book about Toni Cade Bambara.

A Joyous Revolt, the first ever biography of Bambara is coming out later this spring. In 1970, Bambara published The Black Woman, a collection of essays and poetry that she’d edited, “igniting a new political movement within the Black community (p. xvii).” Having begun a new conversation about African-American women’s lives and stories, Bambara went on to publish novels (i.e.The Salt Eaters), short stories (i.e. Gorilla, My Love), and make documentaries (i.e. The Bombing of Osage Avenue). With each genre she tackled,  she pushed the boundaries of identity and dignity a little bit more. For this ground-breaking book on Bambara’s rich and varied life, Linda conducted 50+ interviews with those who knew and worked with her, including writers like Toni Morrison and Jan Carew and filmmaker Louis Messiah.

At NYU on Friday night, one of the others featured in the new spring issue of Black Renaissance Noire was Ghanian-born poet Kwame Dawes, a Jamaican who’s now a Professor @ the University of Nebraska. He told of meeting Bambara at a conference in Toronto when he was a fledgling, no-name writer, toiling away behind a closed door, wondering what he was doing there and whether he would ever really make it. Out of the crowd – Dawes led us to believe there weren’t too many others there that looked like them(!) – she picked him out, without knowing him beforehand, and invited him to spend the day with her. They hung out, talked, and she fed him. She was a well-known and established writer by this point. During the course of their time together, she encouraged him to keep writing, to keep plugging away at his craft. They kept up somewhat by email as she continued to encourage him, but that was it. Today Dawes is the author of 18 collections of poetry, as well as two novels and several anthologies. He’s currently working on a project that looks at the church’s response to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

As I reflected on Dawes’ story about Bambara, I realized that he had similarly encouraged me to write. I didn’t meet him at a conference and we didn’t spend the day together, but probably about 15 years ago, a friend of his and mine took me along to hear him recite poetry. I recall the force of his passion in a poem that was a tribute to Bob Marley, and I was intrigued that he was a Christian poet making art that the mainstream culture was embracing.  Afterwards, we all went out to a Jamaican restaurant (Rice and Peas?) in midtown. Over dinner, I tentatively confided a fledgling interest in writing – I was not even sure then what I thought I might write about – but without knowing much more about me, he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so. “Just write,” he urged several times, and then again when we were saying goodbye, and “try to do it every day,” he added. I nodded, thinking to myself how unlikely – unrealistic even – that would be.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me close to a decade to put his advice into practice.

When I heard Dawes pay tribute to Bambara for encouraging him in the generous way that she did, I realized I had benefited from him. The words he said to me – which he didn’t remember saying, he didn’t recall even meeting me – were an encouragement nonetheless, and I was grateful to be able to thank him for that.