The Deep End

floatingTwice in my life I have been thrown into the professional “deep end” and been trusted to figure out how to swim.

The first was as a young teacher with lots of theology, but no education training. As the leader in my own classroom, I used the general skills that I had to help me create lesson plans, write tests, and present whatever material happened to be on the syllabus.

The second was as a slightly older, slightly more experienced adult who accepted the challenge of coordinating the largest Catholic youth conference in the country along with a couple of other meetings and conferences. Again, the skills that kept me afloat were the ones that I had honed over many years.

In neither case, I had been prepared with the the specific skills set that each job required. No education training. No conference management.

So there were times when I barely kept my head above water.

In both instances, there was someone there with more experience, more knowledge, more ideas, and I listened. I hung out in doorways. I drank endless cups of bad coffee early in the morning. I memorized the cadence of a sentence and the pattern of a conversation. I practiced and imitated the veterans, hoping to find a behavior or a word or a grin that fit and worked for me.

The apostles must have been thrown into the deep end many times–from the time they met Jesus to his death and Resurrection, and their eventual journeys in proclaiming the Gospel. With only their memories to serve them, they must asked themselves, “What did Jesus do? What would he say?”

Think about it. When have you been thrown into the deep end (or found yourself there by choice!)? What preexisting skills helped you keep your head above water? Who and what else did you need to comfortably stay afloat?

Sitting in the Back Seat Means You’re Only a Rider

seatsI always know when I’m in the midst of a Catholic crowd.

The seats in the back are full, and the ones in the front are empty.

There is a more layered message in Sunday’s readings than just that of the virtue of humility.

For me, sitting in the back of the room is like keeping my faith private, my own, quietly settled. No loud shouts of acclamation or extended arms in praise. It’s “mine.” Or it’s “me and God.” But no one else needs to know or be part of it.

From the time I was a middle-schooler, I’ve watched televangelists on TV, and admired the energy and even euphoria that they inspire in their followers, so much so that their congregations are unafraid to embody what they believe in ways that might look very foreign in some Catholic churches.

The reading from Hebrews captured that for me.

No, you have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
— Hebrews 12:22-24A

In the presence of Glory, we should feel compelled to praise God with all our heart, mind, and body.

Sitting in the back of the room has no place in this faith of ours. Sitting in the back of the room is not being humble, but being cautious or private or scared. Or, as our associate pastor put it, selfish.

As leaders, we do not need to be at the head of the table in the seat of glory. But we need to be fully in the room, not on the periphery blending in with the wallpaper.

We should be and are compelled to approach the city of God with humility, recognizing that it is God’s action in us that began this relationship, and we cannot help but respond.

We need to be okay with sharing the highs and lows of our faith journey. We need to be comfortable talking about our prayer life. We need to engage with joy in conversations about Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

So the next time you aim for that back seat, think again, and move forward. Maybe not to the front (Jesus is pretty clear about the consequences there!) But forward. Be in the midst of the faithful and the pilgrim people on their way to city of God in the New Jerusalem.

What Team Leadership Is . . . and Is Not

leadingOne of the first lessons I learned about leadership is that the style of leadership must be appropriate for the situation. Steve Jobs successfully came back to Apple when they were in need of creative leadership. Carly Fiorina failed to lead HP and Compaq through its merger.

The games of summer–Olympics and baseball–give us some great examples of both successes and failures.

Ryan Lochte and other three US swimmers failed to be the ambassadorial leaders that we hope our Olympic athletes will be when the light is so brightly shone on them. On other hand, Katie Ledecky has refused to forfeit her amateur career in college swimming by signing multiple million dollar promotional contracts. She wants to have the whole college experience.

From the “Final Five,” there are Gabby Douglas and the little-known Madison Kocian. Gabby was in third place for the all-around competition after the team qualifiers, but could not compete because of the “two per country” rule. And her teammates were #1 and #2. Rather than reacting like another American woman after a stinging loss, she came back in the team competition in the uneven parallel bars, picking up the score that the team was depending on.

And little Madison Kocian. She was chosen for one reason, and one reason only. The bars. And she did what she had to do–probably better than anyone expected.

Then there are my Orioles. The life of a utility player must be rather odd. You never know if you are going to be playing–and you never know where. With a game clearly beyond reach, managers often call in someone who is not a pitcher to get through the last few innings. Last week, it was Ryan Flaherty’s turn. His job is really quite simple. Throw the ball, let the batter hit it, and let the rest of the team get the outs.

Baseball is the only game that I know of where the leader–the pitcher–can be and is replaced by someone who is not primarily trained in that role. Can you imagine someone at the professional level coming off the bench to play quarterback? But that’s what is expected of him. And he is always ready to do what needs to be done in whatever situation he is placed.

Think about the times when you have seen a pastor come to a parish that is deeply in need of healing. He is often chosen for the gifts he can bring to lead that parish through its grief. Or when parishes need to raise money, are combining with another parish, or closing a school. Special gifts and experience are needed to lead communities along these paths.

What kind of situation are you currently in? What qualities of leadership does it call for? Which of these qualities are your strengths? Which ones challenge you to grow beyond what you are comfortable with? How can you be or share leadership with others to move your community along a positive and fruitful path?

 

 

 

Olympics Withdrawal and the Agony

OlympicsI must confess–I’m in withdrawal . . . from the Olympics. I become completely immersed in the hope that the Olympics represent and generate. So much so that when I was in high school, I did a report on Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympiad because I admired his philosophy when it came to sport:

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

While NBC insisted on packaging so many of the events to feature the American athletes, many in their moments of expected or anticipated triumph, I missed the lesser important events with the unknown men and women whose stories of bravery and perseverance brought them to the international stage.

Fortunately, the cameras caught a few of those moments. The collision of the American and New Zealand women during the 5,000 meter race, the one lifting the other up and finishing the race. The 41-year-old gymnast who was the team representing Uzbekistan. The entire refugee team competing under the Olympic flag.

While I applauded Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and the Final Five, I missed the “agony of defeat” as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” used to say in its show’s introduction.

During Sunday’s homily, our pastor reminded us that “agony” in Greek also means “strive.” It’s that sense of the word that seemed appropriate these last two weeks. The striving, the struggling to be a little faster, a little farther, a little stronger. I hope that that is the lesson that so many of us and our young people take home from these Olympic games.

 

Pizza and Flowers–Or What Do You Really Mean (Rule #3)

pizzaMy brother-in-law has a very dry sense of humor which sometimes gets mistaken for plain grumpiness.

He spent some time in the hospital recently. When he woke up and regained some semblance of lucidity, he asked for pizza. Everyone said, “No.” Then he asked us to order five pepperoni pizzas. Again, the answer was no. We knew he was hungry, but pizza wasn’t on the physician-prescribed diet yet. And there was no way a pizza delivery person was getting onto that floor!

Seemingly cowed by the force of our explanations, he quieted down for a while. Then he asked us to order five flower boxes from the local florist. Initially, we thought maybe he had slipped into that sleepy, confused state he had been slowly coming out of. But he insisted, grumpily. He wanted five flower boxes.

It look a while, but then it hit us.

Buy 5 pizzas. Put them in 5 flower boxes. It’s a hospital!! Who is going to turn away a delivery!

Rule #3. Explain your reasoning and what your intent is.

Just because you say you want something and you want it a certain way doesn’t mean anyone other than you understands what you are talking about. My brother-in-law’s intent? Sneak pizza into the hospital. His reasons? He was hungry, and the solution called for a cover story–flowers.

I have to admit that this one is sort of personal. In grad school, there were many times when I raised my hand, got called on, and made a comment only to be met with absolute silence — then the conversation picked up someplace else.

Why? I did a poor job of explaining the point that I was trying to communicate. My reasoning might have been hard to follow. And the intention behind what I was trying to say was unclear.

Think of the “let’s do it this way” conversations you have had — and which ones have turned into heated discussions. They can quickly and easily turn into “push-me, pull-you” arguments that include a lot of “no’s'” and “but’s” in them.

Instead, replay the last one you can remember. Rewrite the discussion by changing your lines so that you start by saying “this is what I hope we can accomplish” (the intent) and explaining the reasons why your proposal could be effective.

Notice, there is nothing in here about which person is right. Because “right” isn’t the issue. As leaders, the only “right” thing is identifying the right problem. Problems have many solutions, and being able to discuss calmly and rationally multiple good and potentially effective solutions is what leaders are called to do.

 

The Secret to Achieving the Awesome

By guest blogger, Terry Modica, Good News Ministries, gnm.org

BikeWhat’s the gold you’re pursuing? What treasure? What awesome goal? What new spiritual height? What overcoming of wounds or sin?

My husband and I recently began riding our bikes every morning. The gold we seek is weight loss and stronger knees and backs. For weeks we rode merrily around our neighborhood with only minor results.

Then I watched the Olympics. I listened to the interviews of winners. And one important message came through: True athletes don’t practice their skill so much that gradually their body improves enough to run farther or jump higher or swim faster than the competition. They don’t wait for that. I had been waiting on my legs muscles to improve enough to bike farther and faster. That’s a mistake. I was slowing down whenever my muscles cried out, “That’s enough pushing for now! You’ve reached the pain threshold.”

True progress is made only by reaching the pain threshold and pushing through it.

Keep going when it hurts; push harder — this is when you begin to make a difference.

Pain while exerting muscles comes from a buildup of lactic acid. If we choose not to focus on the pain but on the goal instead, and if we remain motivated by our passionate desire to reach that goal, lactic acid won’t stop us. Lactic acid is just a reminder that we’re succeeding: We’re getting closer to the gold. Hooray!

What’s the lactic acid that’s been keeping you from being all that you’re called by God to be? What do you wish you could accomplish but you’ve reached the threshold of pain and this has kept you from moving forward?

I’ve changed how I ride my bike for exercise. It’s no longer a question of, “How much longer can I ride today because I’ve built up my muscle strength?” Now it’s, “Go faster! Push harder! No pain, no gain.” My bike ride takes less time, but now I return home panting and aching and feeling awesome about the new, improved results.

The pain isn’t as noticeable when we keep our eyes on the goal. If I focus on the top of the hill, I get up the hill faster, because the lactic acid in my legs is not the center of my attention.

What’s the gold beyond your own pain threshold? Trust Jesus, work those faith muscles till they hurt, and keep your focus on the gold that God wants to give to you. This will make you a winner every time!

How Firmly Rooted Are Your Feet? (Rule #8)

yogaIf you have trouble with resolving conflict, this is the rule for you.

One of the things that I love about practicing yoga is what the focus is–practice.

I find balancing poses–tree pose, dancer’s pose, Warrior III–to be very challenging. When I first started yoga, I thought the focus was supposed to be on doing the position perfectly, and it started with the feet. I learned–after many unattractive, acrobatic flourishes–that it has nothing to do with the position, and everything to do with core.

Rule #8, focus on interests, not positions. In yoga, the focus is on the core, those all-important muscles that keep everything else in alignment, not the position. I’ve found this to be true in groups, relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of work and life.

When we focus on the position, we become adversarial. In tree pose, I used to get mad at my arms because they were fighting what my legs and the rest of me wanted to do. In relationships, we get rooted to a spot, and often there is no bridge to a place where we can join minds, hearts, and heads.

When we focus on interests, the starting point is very different. I read many years ago that the best negotiators started conversations with the simplest of decisions–where and when to meet, how many people would be invited, what language would be used. The best of the best knew that each of these little decisions created a base upon which more challenging interests could be addressed, and ultimately the questions that were at the core of the positions the parties held could be answered.

I think about really big international conflicts that have been addressed in my lifetime–the peace settlement in the Mid-East (not permanent, but it was a step), detente and ultimately the breaking down of the walls between East and West, the opening of dialogue with China. Each of these negotiations started with questions like, “Where do we meet? Who should we invite? What are the rules for dialogue?” And which smaller partners were these negotiations tested with, practiced on?

When faced with conflict, how tightly do you hold onto your position? Think of the most recent experience you had, at the heart of it, what were you interested in accomplishing? What was the other person interested in accomplishing? Where did your interests potentially overlap? And how could you go from there?

Discipleship Is about Making a Decision

NormanEvangelist Luke and Olympian Peter Norman understood the cost of discipleship. And we should pay attention.

Peter Norman was the unknown and unremembered white man on the podium for the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He stood beside the two African-American medalists, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood in bare feet, and raised their arms in the Black Power salute to show their support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

In yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus preaches division, not for division’s sake, but to challenge his listeners, to help them understand that following him was a conscious decision, a decision with consequences, even death.

In choosing to stand with Smith and Carlos, Norman understood the consequences and did not falter. He would have worn a black glove and saluted like Smith and Carlos, had there been a third one. So instead, he wore the same badge that they wore, declaring his support for the cause.

After the Olympics, he returned to a racially divided and deeply segregated Australia. There he was ostracized from sports and life (he struggled just to find employment because of his stance) and marginalized for the rest of his life. He was asked to condemn the other medalists in exchange for a pardon, but he refused.

In the long-run, Smith and Carlos were acknowledged for being on the right side of the civil rights issue. The government’s pardon came too late for Peter when he died in 2006.

“Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honor, recognize and appreciate,” John Carlos said.

“He paid the price with his choice,” explained Tommie Smith. “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing.”

What is the cost of discipleship for you?

Words and the Word

words“Ich bin ein Berliner.” “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” “I have a dream . . . ” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Words have meaning. Kennedy’s brief German phrase showed his sympathy for those who lived within Berlin’s walls. Gandhi’s invitation challenged us to choose a path of virtue and for the common good.

King dispelled the darkness of day with the clarity and light of his dream for all. Roosevelt called us to rise above that which might have held us paralyzed and work together.

The Word of God brought a simple, yet profound message of love, repentance, and salvation that we still seek to unpack each and every day.

Words–and the Word–have meaning. We can’t ignore that. And listeners go where the words lead. That path may be intended or not, clear or ambiguous, but listeners go where the words lead. And that responsibility is with the creator and speaker of the words.

Yesterday, one of the news shows shared an anecdote from one of our past presidential administrations. While the interview with him was over, his microphone was still open, and the president jokingly made the statement that the U.S. was preparing to bomb the Soviets. Upon hearing this, the Soviets prepared for war, going so far as to make their intentions public in the press. Eventually, it came to light that the president’s words were only a joke and no harm was intended. But what if . . .

Most leaders know this. We know that our words have meaning, and that we want to communicate our thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible. With the speed of social media, we know how quickly words can do harm. But we also know how quickly they can bring healing–see the responses to the many human and natural disasters in the last few years, even weeks.

We tell children to use their words. We’re missing one word–“well.”

Handling Success

humilityShortly after my very exhausted husband walked through the door yesterday, he told me about a conversation that he had with his peer leaders at the high school about humility and leadership.

He’d been struck by how the USA swimmers who medaled in the first few days responded to questions about their success–thanking their families, their coaches, the team–recognizing that the end result could have been something very different if they hadn’t given it their best.

Within the last few days, we’ve seen the value of humility illustrated on many stages. Katie Ledecky, proud of her medals, but oozing gratitude to her family and friends. As opposed to Chad de Clos, strutting in front of Michael Phelps, trying to psych him out before their semi-final. (Yes, he was indeed strutting!)

Daniel Boudia and Steele Johnson thanked Jesus Christ for inspiring them to work so hard that they were able to win silver in men’s synchronized diving.

And Ichiro Suzuki reaching 3,000 hits without the fanfare and over-analyzed attention of the Alex Rodriquez retirement press conference.

What we have seen and heard is that humility does not ask for attention. It proves its value by actions we take. It recognizes that “I” am always part of the “we” that is bigger and greater than me.

In what other realms have you heard or seen humility at work recently? How do you strive to imitate Christ’s humility in your daily work?