What’s It All About, Alfie?

As far back as I can remember, my father has sung the same line in the same way — and stopped. Whether we were in the car, in an elevator, or at the dinner table, it was always the same thing. “What’s is all about, Alfie” . . . then nothing.

No second line. Nothing.

As a kid, it made me laugh even though I knew the “joke.” It took until I was about 13, and I was playing my way through a book of popular songs on the piano, when lo and behold, there was the theme song from the movie, “Alfie.”

Well, gosh darn it. I didn’t know there was a movie called “Alfie.” And even more surprising, I didn’t know that there were more lyrics. Even a second verse!

One day, after my dad sung his one line, I asked him, “Do you know the next line in the song?” He just looked at me, and said, “No.”

Funny thing is that the joke got even funnier (to me, at least) once I learned that he didn’t know the next line, let alone the rest of the song. The joke wasn’t the song. The joke was the fact that he sang it for no reason, at no particular time, whenever the urge came over him.

I do the same thing–one lyric, no more, without warning. But I do have a reason.

The old adage says that humor soothes the savage beast–basically, it helps to reduce tension and relieve pressure when tempers rise.

Nonsensical actions like singing one line of a song and stopping can serve the same purpose. They can change the trajectory of a discussion in moments, turning a debate into a conversation, or a heated controversy into a creative opportunity.

When dealing with group dynamics, especially conflict, look for the nonsensical action or element. It has the potential and power to lead you forward when the path you are taking may seem to have narrowed or been foreshortened.

 

What Inspires You?

One of our members, World Library Publications, is issuing 3 new recordings on vinyl this year. So, when I got word of these new recordings–one is Bing Crosby and the Christmas story–I got jazzed.

See, tucked away in a cabinet in our library is my stack of records ranging from “The Carpenters” to “Pebbles and Bam-Bam’s Christmas” (yes, really!), and a collection of 78s from the Big Band era.

Records were the soundtrack of my life growing up. They accompanied me in my low moments, sang me out of my doldrums, and celebrated the mountain experiences. Because I would listen to them from start to finish (never just one song), I lived through a whole range of emotions and experiences by the time the last song ended. My faith was formed by Ray Repp, “Joy Is Like the Rain,” and Followers of the Way.

Most people would say that music inspires them. Some music, somewhere. At least once in a lifetime.

What music inspires you?

Why?

I learned that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be (“Free to Be You and Me.”) This special and album spearheaded by Marlo Thomas inspired me to look beyond societal boundaries. It helped me believe that I was as capable as the next equally talented and skilled person in the room.

I learned to observe and experience with all of my senses through Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and then Ravel’s orchestration of it. It started as a college “Symphonic Appreciation” assignment, but it captivated my already-nerdy inclination toward museums. The original piano piece added an aural dimension to the visual that has never let me go. It challenges me look at decisions from different points of view, and stop and engage when something doesn’t immediately grab me.

I also learned how to be present in prayer before God. When I was about middle school age, a group of young adults recorded 2 albums as the Followers of the Way. I spent a lot of time listening to, singing with, and dancing to these songs. As I was growing into my faith, they helped me find God in the world, in my family, and in myself.

So, what 3 songs (or albums) have contributed to the score of your life and ministry, and why? How do you still see and hear them resonating in your work and ministry?

2017’s Best Catholic Reads

Here are the 11 best Catholic titles as honored by the Association of Catholic Publishers. Some are wonderful summer reads (The Lion of Munster, One Ordinary Sunday or Remembering God’s Mercy). Others are terrific gifts especially for First Communion or Confirmation (hint, hint — Dear Pope Francis, the Book of the Year, too!) And the remaining ones belong in your hands, on your desk, or on your shelf (once read, of course!)

Here are the best of the best Catholic books with comments from the judges.

Biography: The Lion of Munster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis by Fr. Daniel Utrecht (Saint Benedict Press) “Well-researched biography of contemporary figure.”

Children: Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World by Pope Francis (Loyola Press) “The questions are both thought-provoking and interesting, and Pope Francis illustrates his respect and care for children in his answers.” “Very fabulous in overall packaging, writing. Clearly an extraordinary book.”

General Interest: One Ordinary Sunday by Paula Huston (Ave Maria Press) “A well-researched and winsomely presented explanation of what happens during Mass. Huston interweaves her personal struggles with the various parts of the Mass one summer Sunday in ordinary time. Written with the zeal of a convert (which Huston is), it’s an important book given the lack of theological education among so many lay Catholics, and it’s a pleasure to read.”

Inspirational: Remembering God’s Mercy by Dawn Eden (Ave Maria Press) “This book is rich in food for thought. The author draws on the teachings and lives of St. Ignatius and his son Pope Francis and adds her personal stories and references to an array of noted people. Not only will people suffering from PTSD find this book helpful, but anyone seeking to grow spiritually.”

Prayer and Spirituality: Faith: Practices, Models and Sources of the Spirit by Walter Kasper (Paulist Press) “The text is highly readable with excellent homiletic type points with the capacity to touch the heart as well as expand thought.  Its view of essential aspects of faith and stages of life, as well as insight into prayer and models of faith, are well gathered.  There is much on which to chew and to bring to prayer and to discussion with others.  Incisive, inviting, rooted in real life, focused on Christ – this, with Kasper’s previous work on mercy, deserves a place on the shelf for consult and ongoing reflection.”

Resources for Liturgy: Three Great Days by Jeremy Helmes (Liturgical Press) “Jeremy’s book helps parish liturgists make practical plans for celebrating the Paschal Triduum well. . .  The book contains 5 Appendices that will be very helpful for all who prepare the liturgies of the three days!”

Resources for Ministry: When We Visit Jesus in Prison by Chaplain Dale S. Recinella (ACTA Publications) “I found this book captivating all the way through.  He offers much statistical information and clearly provides helpful guidelines for working in prisons. His experience comes through, and he makes a strong case for the Christian teaching that we meet Christ in the people who populate our prisons. This is a helpful and thoughtful book about a form of ministry that can get overlooked. Pope Francis didn’t overlook this population by visiting with prisoners when he came to Philadelphia last year. This book does justice to what the pope wants all Christians to be concerned about.”

Resources for Ministry-Programs: Doors of Mercy: Exploring God’s Covenant with You by Fr. Jeffrey Kirby, STD (Saint Benedict Press) “Excellent content in both book and video.”

Scripture: Bringing the Gospel of John to Life by George Martin (Our Sunday Visitor) “I gave this book the most excellent rating because of its thorough scholarship of the biblical text (including the Greek), but also how highly readable it is. The pauses for reflection are at most appropriate times. I love reading and meditating with this book.”

Spanish: Querido Papa Francisco: El Papa responde a las cartas de niños de todo el mundo by Pope Francis (Loyola Press) “Querido Papa Francisco is a wonderful window into Pope Francis’ thought and teaching, through simple but deep insights in response to children’s inquiries from around the world. A great idea beautifully executed by the publisher!”

Theology: The Strength of Her Witness by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Orbis Books) “Johnson’s book is a really good collection of essays that is both diverse globally and features some of the major scholarly figures. Most are brief, but thoughtful, and generally presume some moderately advanced knowledge of theological discourse (e.g., biblical Greek, feminist categories and terminology).”

 

Three Steps Ahead

I am a terrible chess player.

When I was in middle school, my younger brother learned to play chess. Since it’s a paired activity, I also learned so that we could theoretically play with each other.

I know he isn’t a savant, but my brother was exceptionally good at chess within days. Really.

You might think, “well, big deal, that’s one thing.” It isn’t. I also learned to play tennis and golf with him. Within a few lessons or rounds, he had exceeded the skill of the teacher or best player in the vicinity. My brother is what you call a “natural athlete.” But more importantly, he has a naturally strategic eye.

Standing at the opposite end of a tennis court, I could see it at work, though I couldn’t catch up to it. The moment he had committed to serving the ball, he saw three steps ahead to where he was going to place the ball so I couldn’t return it. The worst part is that I could see him doing it, but was powerless to stop it because I couldn’t see three, let alone, four steps ahead.

Being able to envision the steps of a strategy multiple steps ahead of those with whom you interact is an incredible gift. This gift gives you the ability to anticipate, prepare, and respond (rather than react) using your best tools or offering your best response rather than just any tool or response.

But not all leaders have it. And in my lifetime, I haven’t come across many ways to gain it.

So, what do folks like you and me do? Three things.

We study. In chess, there are books written ad nauseam about the strategies for chess that one can research and memorize. The better we know the options in our field or about a situation, the more we can learn about all of the possible strategies ahead.

We practice. I have this same strategy problem with the game of bridge–especially knowing what card to lead when playing in no trump. I practice by watching and analyzing my husband’s play. He knows precisely what card to play when in order to make his bid. Same principle. Talk through scenarios with those you trust until you feel confident.

We get advice. The smartest people in the room are smartest when they acknowledge what they don’t know, and ask others for their advice. It’s surprising sometimes to find that the people around you are sometimes wiser than you think. Talk to the parents, participants, other staff about the situation. Listen to the stories of how they responded in a similar situation, and learn from those.

Three steps to getting ahead: study, practice, and advice. Do all three and you may increase your chances of returning a serve or expecting the unexpected challenge in your ministry.

Give into These 4 Temptations

We Catholics spend the 40 days of Lent reflecting on those temptations that distract us from loving and serving God fully. The 1st Sunday of Lent’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the desert sets the course clearly and directly.

With Lent behind us, let’s look at the 5 temptations we should give into as the Easter readings and Gospels and the early Christian community instruct us.

Forgive. From the call of the Baptist to the preaching of Paul, Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness rings loud and clear. When faced with the pain and grief that we cause others when we treat them without charity, we are called to summon the strength and unconditional love to forgive. Like the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiveness should be our practice for Easter.

Praise. St. Paul is almost effusive in his praise of the goodness and kindness of the early Christian communities. He is specific and precise about what prompts him to recognize the communities. His model is worth duplicating. Praise must be concrete, not generic (as in “good move to the left on that penalty kick” rather than “nice job”.) Practicing it on adults is even more important in a world where adults, especially parents, are mostly on the giving end of it.

Listen. Have you ever noticed how much the apostles take from Thomas when he doubts that they have seen the Risen Lord? No interruptions. No cutting him off. They listen to his declarations of disbelief fully and completely. And then when Jesus tells them that they know where he is going, Thomas jumps in and says, “We don’t.” No laugh off. No chastisement. Jesus and the apostles model how to be a good listener. Jesus listens to the words, but also hears what is said behind, underneath them. And he responds to all of it. After the speaker is done. . . My mother was right. “Listen more, speak less.”

Welcome. Perhaps the most controversial of these temptations given our political climate, but it is one of the strongest threads in our Easter season Scriptures. Jesus, the stranger, is welcomed to supper in Emmaus. New believers are welcomed daily into the community of faith without limits or ceremony. Jesus prepares them to welcome the Holy Spirit during these final weeks. Welcomes are sometimes surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes challenging, sometimes unexpected. But we are called to extend them — always.

Follow. We think about Jesus so often as the one we follow that we often forget that he too was a follower — of his Father. For leaders, it is tempting to always feel compelled to be setting the direction and standing at the front of the line. Resist that temptation, and follow its sister — to follow.

When to Keep Silent

As my husband and I were binge-watching season 2 of “The Good Witch,” a very wholesome and entertaining Hallmark Channel show, one of the main characters, Martha, the mayor, started to get laryngitis on the eve of a very important award-acceptance speech.

The doctor’s cure? Silence for 72 hours. If you know the show, Martha talks incessantly, so she faced the cure as a “challenge.” That made me laugh!

Why? Because silence isn’t a challenge, but a habit, and one we have to cultivate and practice like any other habit.

Since I participate in many phone and online meetings, silence is a regular component. It’s a space that I am often tempted to fill. But I’ve learned something from my colleagues who are stronger introverts than I am (yes, I am a natural introvert!) Silence is not empty space and time. It is filled with ideas, thoughts, and questions that have yet to be expressed.

So, there are 2 things I try to do more of when the time and space are filled with silence. The first is to do nothing and say nothing. Inevitably, someone breaks into the quiet and articulates some of the ideas, thoughts, and questions that have been gestating in the silence.

The second is to invite someone whose voice has not been heard or heard infrequently to share their thoughts. As a friend reminded me, those thoughts may not be fully formed or the best response, but they are often insightful and provide a different perspective than the others we have heard.

Keeping silent is hard. Especially for me. It is an incredibly humbling experience to say nothing. It is a simple, but sometimes harsh admission that I don’t know or have all of the answers. And that the problem or question needs a “we” not a “me” to address to it.

Next time you are in a meeting and tempted to speak, listen instead. Let the silence be fertile ground for everyone including you.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers!

Tax Day only serves to remind us that so much of our work and life is made up of numbers. For example, I have a small notepad in my car on which I track my mileage for both business and charitable purposes. It’s just a series of numbers–dates and 5-digit numbers–that translate into something else, deductions. Another number.

In this era of “big data,” here’s the question: What are the numbers that tell the story of your success? Your failure?

  • 21 = years in Catholic schools (from primary through graduate schools)
  • 2 = marriages (one failed, one very successful!)
  • 540 = students I taught in 4 years of high school religion classes
  • 2 = qualifying exams I failed (AP German and the LSAT)
  • 7,815 = days living in my current hometown

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. But numbers only tell a first-level story. Take a look at my “21.” In that number are a bunch of stories each with meaning and purpose–a grade I loved and hated at the same time, 18 months in public school that I’d prefer to forget, 4 years at the only high school I wanted to attend and loved, 4 years at a University I never expected I’d cherish, then 2 graduate degrees–one that took 7 years of “a class here, a class there” and the other that was 20 months of intensive work. Each segment a very different story. Each story contributed in a unique way to who I have become.

For those of you have attended the Mid-Atlantic Congress, you may have completed one of our Congress evaluations and noticed that we ask our questions in a very specific way–we ask about your expectations and your level of satisfaction.

In the end, isn’t that what we really want to know? We want to know how well we fulfilled the expectations that were set. The key is setting the expectations to begin with.

If you’re largely evaluating your ministry based on numbers–how many children in religious education, how many confirmations, how many parishioners–try adding a few other criteria to your list. What are the five things you want each child in each grade to know at the end of the year and how are you going to measure that? What ministries or leadership roles do you expect your confirmandi to take on once they have completed the sacrament? Who welcomes each new parishioner and how many times does the parish make contact in that first year?

Numbers are, after all, just numbers. Until we assign them meaning. Without meaning, they are just numbers.

The 4 Traps of “Crying Wolf” and How to Escape Them

We know the moral to the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf–if you tell lies to get attention, when you are telling the truth, no one may listen.

As a leader, that is a bridge over a chasm–a deep, dark, and unyielding chasm–that, when shattered, cannot be either easily rebuilt or crossed. So, how do we avoid even appearing to “cry wolf”?

Here are 4 of the traps of crying wolf and some advice on how to escape them.

Trap #1: Your Statement Comes Out of Nowhere

I know we are used to great journalists breaking stories that seem to come out of nowhere, but we’re not pretending to be great journalists. We’re leaders, and as leaders, we are in the relationship-building and mission-fulfilling businesses where openness and collaboration are essential ingredients.

If you feel a statement rising in you and it is going to surprise others, ask yourself these two questions. Why now? Why will it surprise them?  Odds are likely that you have overlooked some important steps in these relationships or mission work. Instead identify what work you have to do before saying anything.

Trap #2: The “Is-Ness” of the Statement

Beware of the simple, yet powerful verb “to be” and its related friends like “to do.” They tell us very little about anything. They rely heavily on the subject and object of the sentence which are often limited in descriptiveness.

What do I mean by “is-ness” of the statement? “It was this big” or “It doesn’t work.” Can you picture any part of these statements? I can’t. Which usually means that neither can anyone else, and that can lead exactly where you do not want to go–to conflict–all because no one agrees on what actually was said.

If you gravitate toward using “is” and “do” in your statements, think twice. Choose specific verbs that describe a particular action. Use nouns or subjects with as much detail as you can.

Which leads us to . . .

Trap #3: Vague Words

Whereas trap #2 is sort of about a lack of works, trap #3 is about vague, somewhat meaningless words.

Rehearse what you want to say in your head, and listen carefully. Do you use vague adjectives like “very,” “tremendous,” “enormous,” and “terrible”? The descriptors indicate a lack of detail in the action or the object of the statement. It is the difference between saying, “The man was very tall” and “The middle-aged man was about 6 feet tall.” Challenge yourself to be accurate and precise.

And a James-Bondian corollary: Never say “never” again (and the same holds true for “always.”)

Trap #4: A Lack of Physical Evidence

Okay, let’s state the obvious. If you can point to actual evidence of any kind, it is less possible that you will be accused of crying wolf.

Force yourself to have at minimum of 3 concrete objects or experiences that you can point to to substantiate your point. And the “3” is important. If you only have 1, then you might want to rethink saying anything at all. It could just be a one-off. Three examples demonstrate a pattern and give substance to your claim.

When others look to us as leaders, many accept and trust that what we say and do is right, just, and true. Ensure that their faith in us is well-placed by stewarding our language well, completely, and richly, and avoiding the temptation of all of these traps.

Connection or Transaction?

I am not a cat person.

Yet I couldn’t help clicking on a cat video yesterday–two cats, each with a hospitality bell next to them, and a plate. Each time they rang the bell, they got a piece of kibble. Completely Pavlovian to the point where the one cat figured out that it didn’t matter which bell he rang. As long as he rang a bell, he got a treat.

This little video reminded me that we live in a transactional society–you give me 3 oranges and I give you 6 bananas, you post a funny picture on Facebook and I “Like” it, I get rid of all of the Candy Crush icons and the bear rises above the line so I win.

This isn’t new, but transactions have grown in number as technology and the Internet are become more integrated into our daily and work lives. Email–of which I am an enormous fan–gets quicker answers than phone calls or letters. A two-minute Facetime session in the morning means no phone call. Make a quick 360 pirouette in a crowd, and we see smartphones everywhere, and people deeply enmeshed in these transactions.

I have friends and colleagues who will wax poetic on both sides of the argument–“smartphones have created greater connectedness” to “smartphones and technology have depersonalized relationships and isolated us.” These two perspectives represent specific answers to the key questions that arise when we make one of these transactions: What is the value of what we have? What do we seek to get in return for that value? And what must we give up in the exchange?

As Jesus has shown us repeatedly through the Gospels this Lent, we are called to engage in personal relationships with others, not mere transactions. That means that empathy is required of us–being able to listen deeply, hear and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and respond.

Early in his tenure at our parish, our youth minister met with a young mother who wanted to know if her son who was developmentally impaired could receive his First Communion with the second-graders that year. This was not the first parish she had come to. At the other parishes, she was turned away for various reasons, but they boiled down to either the priest didn’t think he was capable of understanding the Sacrament or it would be an inconvenience.

She was shown very little empathy and compassion. The transaction–Sacrament to a child–required too much than they were willing to exchange.

In the end, the decision for our youth minister to say “yes” was actually easy. He recognized as the mother already had that her son was as much in the image of God as anyone else and quite capable of understanding what he was about to do. What she and her son received in return was more than they expected–they became part of a larger community that fostered and sustained them, and continues to do so. On the youth minister’s part, he gave up some extra time and work to fashion a program that met the young man where he was.

How do we move from transaction to connection? The next time you are faced with a need to connect with people, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is valuable about the connection with the other person? Is the person a friend, colleague, or stranger? Are you trying to forge a stronger partnership or tapping them for information?
  • What do we seek to get in return for that value? Is this a long- or short- or no-term relationship?
  • What must we give up in the exchange? How much time will this take? Can you commit to the exchange? How are you going to overcome what makes you uncomfortable in this exchange?

 

The Law of L . . . Loyalty?

One of the most challenging moments in a Gospel parable for me is when the oldest son says to his father:

‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ — Luke 15:29-30

Who among us has not felt this way at some moment–in our families, among our friends, in our job? Loyalty is something we feel strongly. It is something we give to others as trust grows. As super-heroes and TV and movie protagonists put it, “I’ve got your back.”

We know the power of loyalty in our daily lives. When tragedy strikes the family, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and far-flung relatives come together to “circle the wagons”–to protect, to comfort, to raise up, to pray.

In business and politics, we see this same “herding of cattle” mentality–bringing everyone and everything tightly together to resist any outside attacks or challenges.

Loyalty is a peculiar thing, though. It is by definition devotion or faithfulness to a thing, person, or cause. But what is at the root of loyalty–a common experience, a shared emotion, something more profound?

I’m convinced that one of the most subtle lessons Jesus tried to teach us was about loyalty. It is much easier to stop the parable of the prodigal son after the father rejoices at the return of the younger son, and say, “A-ha. The lesson to be learned is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”

And that is all true. But by the wisdom of those who determined the readings in the Lectionary, it doesn’t end there. And so, we (or, at least, I am) left with this quizzical “hmmm” moment at the end of the Gospel. Because it doesn’t quite fit the easy and obvious lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation. Is there a more profound lesson here? Yes.

The eldest son got the “circling the wagons” kind of loyalty easily. Regardless of what befell the family, he knew his role and what to do in any situation. But there is another “L” in loyalty that has escaped him — Love.

When we are loyal without love or true faithfulness, what we expect of each other can become transactional. “I do this for you. You do this for me.” Instead the father tries to show him how deep and rich the love he has for his older son is, and in that, what true loyalty is. He does not rebuke him for his anger. He accepts it and offers back a gift, everything he has and is.

It is the love of the father for the son–this father, this son; fathers everywhere for their sons; the Father and the Son. This is loyalty.