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.

“God Once Saw How Good It Was!”

Keynote presentation by Archbishop Wilton Gregory on the theme of the blessings of creation at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress.

“God saw how good it was” that special phrase appears five times in those opening passages of the Book of Genesis as the sacred text describes how the Lord God was obviously admiring His works of creation.  It is now our spiritual and moral obligation to “see how good it is” the created world that God has now entrusted to our care.  It’s not merely good because it is profitable or usable or exploitable.  First and foremost, it is good because it reflects God’s goodness itself.  In the very act of creation, God was bestowing upon all of nature an undeniable reflection of His own Divine Goodness.  The apex of that reflection is to be found in the women and men entrusted with God’s handiwork. Human beings are God’s creation that most perfectly reflects His Own Divinity.  If we are to begin to safeguard God’s creation, we must launch an increased reverence for every human life.  We must be so grateful for those whose concerns for the planet draw our attention to its fragility.  Yet we must first safeguard human life as the very starting point of environmental security. The life of human beings enjoys a priority of importance in the environmental concerns because those who have been entrusted with the care of creation must themselves be safeguarded in order to accomplish our Divine assignment of caring for His creation.

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Why Should Someone Trust You?

How do we determine that someone should be trusted? Is there a definitive test that we subject others to that gets us to a reliable and defensible answer? Are there black-and-white criteria with boxes that we check off as we reach a pre-determined grade or score?

Would that trust were so easy.

We are seeing this question played out practically every day in the political environment. We watch and read bellicose statements that sound more authoritarian and bullying than collaborative and bridge-building.

On the other hand, Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, today included this statement in his remarks to the staff at State: “Hi. I’m the new guy.” With a bit of candor and humility, he may have gained a few points toward the trust that he will need to lead the country in its foreign policy.

We’ve seen the former in our Church, too. We are not exempt. And gratefully, we have heard the latter as well. For folks like me, we were fortunate enough to hear Cardinal Joseph Bernadin refer to himself as “our brother.”

But words are words. And we know it. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we think, even if we don’t say it.

It’s our actions that speak loudly, and tend to be the building blocks of trust.

Within a few months of starting a new job, I realized that there was a great deal of mistrust between my committee and my position. My predecessor had not followed through on their decisions, and they were mad. With good reason. “Trust me” because I was new wasn’t going to cut it. So I chose actions–regular, detailed communication, opening the budget, as much transparency as possible. Slowly, we built trust between us.

Officials were suspicious of Jesus. His words were probably familiar since there had been others who claimed to be the prophet, the savior, the messiah during his time. It was his actions that distinguished him, and earned the trust of his followers–sitting next to a Samaritan woman at the well, touching the unclean, spending hours and days with the poor and dispossessed.

Let’s leave our words aside, and look at what actions we can take to build the bonds of trust that we need as a Catholic community.

Count to 10

As a child, I was restless and anxious, always looking ahead, anticipating what was to come, but wanting it now. And the repeated chorus that I heard from adults including my parents was, “Be patient.”

Patience became the centerpiece of my prayers throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I was told frequently to “count to 10” before saying something or acting. And as the joke goes, I counted “10.”

Leaders who practice patience have an edge over those of us who want to naturally rush ahead without pausing. The priest who hired me away from Chicago to Washington, DC, taught me a lesson about patience that we should remember as we look about us in our own personal as well as public “chaos.”

During my first week on the job, we were at the conference that I was to eventually manage, and he was introducing me to the leaders of the organization with whom I would be working. I met board members and icons in the field, and then he “tried” to introduce me to a long-standing leader from Iowa.

Before he could finish the sentence, “I’d like to introduce you to . . .,” I said, “You can’t.” And we both paused.

He had three options at this point. One was to plow ahead anyway. (How often have you done that? I have, mostly because I’m more concerned with what I need to get done, and not listening to the other person or paying attention to the situation.)

Two was to ask me questions. Which he didn’t do.

Three was to wait. Which he did.

I think he recognized–because he was paying attention–that there was something more than a simple introduction taking place. And he had the patience to let it play out. Which it did.

(The reason he couldn’t introduce this person to me is that we had known each other since I was a child. We just hadn’t seen each other in a very long time.)

As I look around me, the question I keep asking myself is this: How different would things be if our leaders had more patience, waited a little longer, and let things play out? How well do you cultivate the practices of listening and paying attention to the situation you are in before reacting?

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

Leadership Lessons from the 1st American Saint

Today is the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There is a deep connection between her and my chosen home of Baltimore because of the school and religious order she started here.

A few leadership lessons we can learn from St. Elizabeth.

  1. Be a lifelong learner. St. Elizabeth was an avid reader from the Bible to contemporary novels. Reading is a major life skill that feeds curiosity and the desire to learn.
  2. When in doubt, let the Gospels be your guide. This does indeed harken back to the “What Would Jesus Do” rage, but the underlying truth is the same.
  3. Despite the ups and downs of our work, ministry, and lives, God is constant and God’s calling to us is ever-present. Don’t lose hope and always listen for God’s voice.
  4. Family–of origin or by selection–is second only to God as a priority. Make sure your schedule and actions reflect that.

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.

6 Reasons It’s Important to Fail in Ministry

One of the most humbling things that happened during the week that my Mom and I spent walking sections of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela was realizing I couldn’t walk it all. When I thought I could go 16 miles, it turned out my feet were crying out at 10. After deciding to do the downhill that came after the hundreds of steps up to St. Tecla’s chapel, it became very clear that I was riding in the bus to the hotel, and not walking any further that afternoon.

Every day I failed to meet my own expectation of myself. Five days with lots of time to think about it, too.

During the last day’s walk into the city, we met a woman who had started with her husband. Her husband made it a mile or two before health reasons prevented him from going further. So, she walked alone. When we asked if she was going to go the full 20 kilometers that day, she laughed in our face! “It might take me 3 days to get that far,” she said, “but my husband is meeting me in the next town, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

In the business world, there is a lot of emphasis on failing. It’s the only way to innovate and move forward. Not so much emphasis on it in the ministry world. So, why is it important to be willing to fail in our ministry?

#1. To cultivate a sense of humility. Remember, St. Paul was struck blind before he was able to see the path for the rest of his life.

#2. To push and be pushed. We are supposed to be like the mustard seed, and grow. Remember that all of us have to push through the weeds to grab the sunlight.

#3. To test the limits of our creativity. When the door was blocked, the lame man and his companions went on the roof and lowered him down to Jesus. Pretty crafty! Like them, try things a different way, and if they fail the first time, identify the positives and build on those for the next attempt.

#4. To stumble a little, let go of your focus, and start seeing what other solutions present themselves. I often wonder what the adulterous woman saw in the dirt that Jesus had written in. Was it possibly just a message for her? Sometimes it’s better to land on the ground so that we can see things from a different perspective.

#5. To remind ourselves–and those we minister with–that we are only human. Not God. Nuff said.

#6. And that the best way to fail is not alone, but with others. The majority of the time I walked, it was from the back of the pack (which is very unusual for me!) with my Mom. We faced the aches and pains and discomforts together, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Next time you hear or read about pilgrims, remember that they usually travel in groups. They are there to pick themselves and each other up to continue the journey. That’s what we are called to do in our ministry, too.

 

Are You Ready for What Comes Next?

ornamentReadiness is the “value of the season” now that we have passed into Advent. In the lead-up to the season, it’s hard to miss what the “what” is — the Kingdom of God — but as often happens at this time of year, I find I’m, um, stuck.

In The Christmas Ornament, a Hallmark Channel movie (we are big fans even though they start Christmas movies right after Halloween), the main character struggles with her grief over the death of her husband during the last year. She meets someone who helps her to start seeing what might come next in her life. But she gets stuck. At the end of the movie, she realizes that the answer to what comes next is a great, big question mark, and she is ready to start the journey to discover what “next” is.

I find the dramatic arc of a 2 hour movie–beginning, middle, and end–very comforting. Even more hilarious because my husband accents each one with the exclamation, “I’m going to go out on a limb . . .” quickly followed by the obvious “that ___________ are going to fall in love” or whatever the obvious final scene might be.

Not so much Advent.

Just because Christmas comes doesn’t mean that the readying has been complete or that we have arrived at what comes next.

And, well, duh, that is the point, right?

While Advent and Christmas draw lines in the proverbial sand, the movement of each is endless and timeless. We are never fully ready nor is the Kingdom ever fully here. But we as humans would tire too easily and quickly if the journey extended to the end we know nothing about. Think of the Israelites who spent 40 years in the desert on a journey to a home that many never saw. They tired, grew weary, looked for short-cuts, and were steered back on the path by their prophets and leaders.

Our journey is unknowably long and tiring, too. But we need weigh stations along the way to celebrate the distance we have come before we face the distance that still lies ahead. Maybe we need to hear our contemporary prophets point out where the path is that cuts through the many “-isms” we face lies. Maybe we need to admit that all we’re ever going to experience is the journey, but others will arrive at the endpoint.

Maybe that is the point after all.

 

To Be Still or Not to Be Still

Find us ready, Lord,
Not standing still.
Finding us working and loving and doing your will.

When it comes to the pace and speed of Advent, we are a very contradictory people!

In the world around us, there is this whirlwind of activity starting with Black Friday sales and extending through highway traffic and airport lines. There is the “to do” list–put up the lights, get the tree, buy presents, mail cards, bake the fruitcake, clean the house, yada, yada, yada . . . And in four short weeks (or less, depending on the calendar year), Christmas arrives and is over in 24 hours, complete with undecorated trees at the curb and parking lots full of the rush and tumble of post-Christmas discount buying.

To some extent, our prayers and songs reinforce that. The call to charity–to not stand still in the face of need. In general, to be doing–something, anything that engages in encounter with the face of Christ in this world.

How often does all of this become a really tricky arithmetic problem for you? Add up the usual, traditional stuff that must be done plus that which our faith compels us, and the sum total is — not enough time, too much stress, and very little “presence.”

Is the answer letting go of our traditions, simplifying our lives? Possibly. Heavens knows that maybe 4 Masses on Christmas Eve (oh, yes, we have 4!) is bit much, so could we do with only 3? Maybe. Does that really address the problem? Probably not.

Because what is the problem? We have too much to do in too little time? That’s one way of putting it. But how about another.

We tend to think of time as linear–60 seconds equals 1 minute, 60 minutes equal 1 hour, etc. And only one thing can occupy any given second, minute or hour of the day. But that’s not true.

St. Paul reminds us to “pray always.” So, why not, underneath the busy-ness of the season, pray always?

Since teaching my children’s choir the refrain to the above Tom Booth song, I find myself coming back to it again and again and again while I am doing other things. One of the things that I like about it is that the lyrics acknowledge how occupied our time is, but they also remind me that each activity should in some way contribute to building the Kingdom of mercy and love.

What refrains, familiar phrases, mantras can you suggest to those you know who are seeking some stillness and grounding during Advent?