By Your Love — The Loser and Finder

sheepA parable about a young and inexperienced teacher and sheep.

In her second year, a young teacher began her class by sharing the few rules that she had to keep the chaos to a minimum and creativity and participation to a maximum.

One of the rules was very simple. Don’t make the teacher mad. It wasn’t easy to make her mad, but it could happen, and the teacher was well aware of this weakness, so she was very diligent about letting students know where the line was.

But one young lady pushed the boundaries, and the teacher did indeed get mad. The young lady was sent to the principal’s office to await who knew what.

It took about 30 seconds before the teacher realized that she had lost something in the altercation. A proverbial sheep who liked to wander even though the territory was dangerous. So she went to find the student.

Her student was upset and crying (not surprisingly). So the teacher sat them both down, and feeling more like the sheep than the shepherd, she apologized.

Frequently in parables, we so often find ourselves in one role or another, but rarely in both. One of the takeaways from the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son is the searching, searching for boundaries, searching for open fields, searching for freedom, searching for forgiveness. That is the perhaps the thing that the older brother doesn’t understand.

In some strange way, we must be both losers and finders. That is how we come to know the depth of the love of God in and around us, especially through forgiveness.

 

By Your Love

We’ve all been lost at some point in time. Lost in love. Lost at sea. Lost in a crowd. Lost in faith.

Like a sheep or a coin.

Sometimes we get lost without knowing it. Who of us doesn’t know a story of someone who as a child got separated from Mom or Dad in a big store, and couldn’t for (hopefully) the briefest moment find the way back.

Sometimes we choose a path, headed in a direction that we think will lead someplace we want to go. It happens in relationships–the ones we stay in too long. It happens at work–the jobs that we chose for the now not-so-right reasons.

Like the prodigal son.

The promise of faith is that we will always be found, searched for desperately and welcomed with generous and loving arms. By your love, we are found.

 

Every Leader Knows a Dark Night . . . or Fifty

lincolnCEO biographies are almost a “dime a dozen.” Many have the plot lines that work for a Hollywood interested in digging deep, pulling back the curtains, and showing us our “naked” leaders–all without the proverbial rose-colored glasses.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields was a tour de force,¬†trying to capture the depth of the man who saved the Union. Abraham Lincoln greatly and frequently despaired that the Union would ever survive or that the war would ever end. His despair was fierce, and fed a depression that was already part of his character. On the big screen, we saw how Mary Todd Lincoln helped guide him through some of these days, back to the light, one might say.

The Letters, a 2015 biopic about Mother Teresa, probably escaped the notice of many people as it stayed in theaters for a very brief time. Set in the 1940’s and 50’s, it focused on her early ministry, sidestepping the last 50 years which she herself described as her “dark night of the soul.” Despite the tremendous work that she was doing, she experienced a great period of doubt and loneliness as she continued to minister with the poor, sick, and dying.

Here’s the thing. I read biographies and watch biopics to learn how a great person dealt with the issues and circumstances they faced. I’m like a sponge, trying to soak in lessons that others before me have learned so that I can try to avoid them in my own journey.

But with these two movies, I’m not sure we learned much about leadership–or as much as we could have.

The “dark night of the soul” is a real and even necessary part of leadership, and it isn’t pretty, romantic, dramatic, or especially cinemagraphically interesting. This is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane “dark night.” This is the inevitable and lonely time when I’m “it.” There isn’t anyone else above or beyond me except God. And I’m not even sure God is there.

Great leaders know dark nights of despair and loneliness. We must. Without them, we are never challenged to examine who we are, what we do, and why we do anything, but in a superficial way. Our great leaders show us the way, in prayer, in vast communities of India’s poor, with a spouse.

 

Wise Ones

sharingIn 2003, Robert Fulghum published a book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If you haven’t read it (and you should), he gathered together a series of lessons that many of us were taught as toddlers, many of which continue to be true for us as adults and leaders. Here are a few excerpts from http://www.peace.ca/kindergarten.htm

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.

Wisdom comes in big and small packages and from expected and surprising places. Kindergartners. Pagan kings. Great prophets.

For the last four weeks, we have heard from Sirach, Wisdom, Jeremiah, and Isaiah on Sunday, teaching us the simple, yet challenging lessons of the wisdom of God. Humility was last week’s focus. The week before, with Jeremiah stuck at the bottom of a cistern, King Zedekiah recognized the truth and rescued him from his imprisonment.

What’s the common denominator? Biblical wisdom always seems to be about that first thing children learn — sharing. Or to put it in adult terms, selflessness.

Reread Sunday’s second reading from Philemon to better understand how Paul lives it. He sends his beloved companion whom he would like to keep by his side in his imprisonment, but in his own words, “but I did not want to do anything without your consent.”

On most days, wise leaders start with the rule of sharing–what is best for our customers, what is best for my parish, what is in the best interest of my children, my students, my staff?

As a leader, if your thinking began with these questions, how might the results differ? In what ways do you start from a position of openness, sharing what you have and know with others in order to meet your goals together?

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!