The Importance of Being Fully Present

For the last four weeks plus, I have been belabored by an ongoing case of sciatica. I’m a “newby” to back issues, so this whole experience has taken its toll.

The irony is that at the start of this month-long odyssey, I was able to accompany my mother to her surgeon’s visit to find out how he wanted to deal with her chronic and very painful back issues. She has lived with extreme pain since she was a teenager when she broke her back. This upcoming surgery will be her fifth.

In ministry as in life, our viewpoint or perspective dictates the colors and contours of how we see and interact with the people among whom we minister.

Every time I visit my mother some 3,000+ miles away, she shares with me stories about her patients (she is a hospice chaplain), their journeys, their challenges. The one thing I know for certain is that she understands what the families and the patients are going through. She’s been there as a daughter. And knows pain firsthand, a steady, if decidedly unwelcome companion.

My Mom is actually quite extraordinary. Life has given her the ability to empathize — actually connect with — what her clients are experiencing. While empathy makes it easier for use to fall into step with those in our ministry, it isn’t necessary. Sympathy does just fine.

Sympathy allows us to share in the feelings of the experience even though we may never have lived it before. We all have parallels in our lives that provide us a context for being present with others.

And that is the key. Presence. It is one of the strongest, longest-lasting elements of Jesus’ ministry — being present fully and completely to those around him.

One of the biggest obstacles to this presence is the antagonism we see around us in our political climate. It seems to seep out and infect all of our relationships, dividing families, neighborhoods, and communities. Being present may be the greatest challenge we face in our ministry today because of this.

How do we do it?

  1. Reach deeply for the experiences in our lives that allow us to be sympathetic or empathetic.
  2. Recall what Jesus did in a similar situation. There is no better model.
  3. Remember that we all have a little bit of the saint and sinner in us. None of us are completely right or completely wrong, so honor the truth in what others experience.
  4. Be brave. The hardest ministry situations for us are the hardest for a reason. Be brave and face them. Inject into them whatever virtue you can.

 

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?

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?

 

Is Your Blueprint Babel or Pentecost?

Archbishop Lori greeting 2017 MAC participantsArchbishop Lori, during his homily on Friday at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress, posed the question, “Is your blueprint Babel or Pentecost?”

Will pastoral leaders simply parrot Pope Francis as they explore new ways to build up the church, or truly “deny” themselves and follow the example of Christ, regardless of the consequences?

That was the challenge described by Archbishop William E. Lori Feb. 17, during a late-afternoon Mass at the Baltimore Hilton on day two of the sixth annual Mid-Atlantic Congress.

He began his homily with a comparison of his parents, typical do-it-yourself members of the Greatest Generation, and the builders of the Tower of Babel.

Whereas the former built and remodeled a house in southern Indiana that was founded “on faith, on discipleship and self-giving love,” the ancient builders “sought to build independently of God and even in defiance of God.”

How does that contrast relate to the reorganizations being  undertaken by archdioceses and dioceses around the nation, such as the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s pastorate planning process?

Read the complete article in Baltimore’s Catholic Review

Humanity Was My Business

Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

In his efforts to convert old Scrooge and guide him along the path of reclamation, Jacob Marley shares the insight he only gleaned after death–that regardless of what he and Scrooge did in their counting house, humanity was always his business.

Now that the election has ended and we see what our new government might look like, we have to be careful not to forget Marley’s sentiments. Business and the common welfare are not enemies. Think Tom’s Shoes, for example. Time and time again we have seen very successful businesses demonstrate how tending to the common welfare can be beneficial to the “business” of the business.

With the approach of Christmas–and a new administration–let us remember to always practice charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence in our business dealings.

The Advent Version of Letting Go

The children in our choir are singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” at our concert. So, I have Disney’s Frozen on my mind.

It’s an intriguing starting point to reflect on leadership and Advent.

We have a young girl who has been trained to control her gifts, her feelings, her insights, her way of seeing things and being in the world.

Suddenly she is forced into the public eye as the unexpected queen.

And she reacts by running away and isolating herself from her people, her job, her calling.

In Elsa’s version of letting go, she takes a pretty selfish stance and says basically, “This is the way I am, so deal with it world.” It’s a good thing the movie doesn’t end there.

Most of us have probably traveled in Elsa’s shoes at some point for some period of time. Perhaps it was in a first job when the insights and energy you brought to the table weren’t valued and you walked away frustrated and unappreciated.
Perhaps it was during a transition to a position of more responsibility where you supervised or oversaw more people than you had in the past. It might have been tempting to stay in your office some days when you felt misunderstood or like you didn’t know how to motivate your staff well.

In those and the many other situations you can probably recall, we’re a lot like Elsa. It’s easy to put the focus on others, and even the blame.
But that’s where the Anna’s of the world come in. They remind us of our responsibility to be engaged in shaping the world, especially our Church community of faith.
Advent is a great time for examining the ways in which we freezes ourselves in place or freeze others out from our ministry. Advent is a good time to reflect on how we can command (not control) the gifts that we have to better serve the Kingdom of God that we acclaim and celebrate this season.
How are you letting go so you can let God be present this Advent?

A Teachable Moment: Syrian Refugees

Syria - Peace is PossibleThe world has been watching as Syrian refugees flee their country to find warmer, safer, healthier places to live. Catholic Relief Services and Caritas International invite us to Pope Francis in prayer on Monday, Oct. 31.

On October 31, Pope Francis will be saying a prayer for peace in Syria at 3 PM in Sweden. Caritas Internationalis is asking all members to encourage prayer around the world at that time (9AM ET) or at 3 PM local time—or any time that works. Here are links to the prayer and the overall campaign website.

Visit the website for ideas on how to spread the message that peace is possible in Syria.

One Tip on Healthy Culture

Blessed SacramentIf there is one lesson to be learned from this political season, it is how silence can breed mistrust and transparency can feed trust.

Catholics have many positive experiences of silence. The pause between an intercession and the words, “We pray to the Lord . . .” Or the grander silences like the incensing of the altar and preparation of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday.

In our secular experience, we often keep silent and do not talk about those things we share in common–“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–because we do share them.

However, this political year has shown us the high price for not talking about things.

On Sunday when my children’s choir led the music, one of the 6-year-olds looked up at me during the Eucharistic Prayer and asked me what the “round thing” in the priest’s hand was. I said, “It’s Jesus.” He mumbled, “It looks like a round thing.” I repeated it again, “It’s Jesus.” He looked away and the conversation ended.

But I stood there, looking at my eight 6-year-olds, knowing that they would be preparing for First Communion next year, thinking about how easy it was for me to just believe what was happening in the reverent silence, and how hard it was to explain it satisfactorily to a 6-year-old.

His understanding and trust in transubstantiation won’t come through osmosis by silently looking at the elevated host. It didn’t for me–or you. It will take lots of explanation, lots of tumbling around in his brain, lots of conversations and questions before he will be able to trust in our shared Catholic belief about the mystery of the Eucharist.

And if people like me and his parents and his teachers don’t take the time to talk with him about it over the years, he’ll make up his own mind . . . When that day comes (if it comes, please, no!), it will be near impossible for him to trust in any different understanding because those of us around him have been silent.

Bottom line: Information and transparency build trust. If we want to create a healthy culture, we must articulate what we know and believe first–and often–before we can settle into the silence of assumed agreement. And even then, we cannot be afraid to talk about them again and again and again.

Who Will Reap the Harvest?

harvestChange, change, change, change, change.

It’s a key driver in this year’s elections. And the one challenge put before most of us as leaders at some point in time.

As much as we want to be the one out front, leading the way from what was to what will be, the reality is, in most cases, we only sow seeds.

Great leaders know this. They know that most of what they try to accomplish will only be evident years after they leave their position. Politicians take advantage of this sometimes, highlighting the changes that happen during their years in office when, in fact, their predecessor’s decisions were often the ones that forged the current path.

The truth is, the harvest is for others to reap.

Ministry with teens is one of the best examples of this. As I look back at my years of teaching in an all-girls’ Catholic high school and subsequently as a volunteer in my parish’s youth ministry program, we adults knew that we had four years–and in some cases, fewer–to sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love (ah, yes, the theological virtues!) in the hopes that there would be a harvest.

As each graduating class of seniors departed, there was an internal tug-of-war–what more can we do to keep them connected versus just letting them go free in the hope that the seeds would take root and they would find a “home” in their faith and the Church.

Social media has been the greatest friend to this “sower.” With it, I have been able to follow the lives of our “kids” (many of whom now have their own kids). And I’ve been able to share in their joys and sorrows, and watch how the seeds we planted have fared.

Some fell on rocky ground. Some fell among weeds. But some fell on good soil, took root, and have grown and flourished.

So, in a society that seems to grow more impatient and a culture that demands immediate gratification, what are we to do? Remember and practice the theological virtues so that we may teach them in both our words and deeds.

As Jesus shows us, faith is not something that we go from not having to having. It develops over time through prayer and action. While we are conditioned in our culture to connect hope with wanting things, hope is an attitude that looks to the future, but walks with others in the present (think the familiar poem, “Footsteps.”) And love comes through the care we take in the sowing and feeding so that there may be a harvest.

Being a sower is what we are called to. When you have the opportunity to harvest, thank God for those who came before you and tended the fertile ground and planted that seed. And ask God for support to those who will come after you to tend what you have planted.