Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Endings and Beginnings


A Möbius strip is a simple and fascinating figure that connects two ends of a rectangular strip in such a way that there is only a single edge and a single side. As we get to the end of a school term, and as I end my two years in Singapore, it’s an appropriate image for illustrating the integration of ends and beginnings. We might see some things as ending and others as beginning, but actually the whole of life is one unbroken reality, as mysterious as it is obvious.

One example of this is found in the making of major decisions in life. Those who get married or commit themselves to a particular way of life think that they are limiting their options, ending their freedoms, and restricting their future choices. Yet those who fully engage new life realities in their major decisions discover that their options have widened, their freedoms have increased, and their choices have become much more meaningful. (My Singapore fling is just one such example.)

Richard Niehaus once wrote that “we act in the courage of our uncertainties.” The word decide comes from the Latin decider, “to cut off.” In deciding “you have cut off the alternatives and pray you have decided rightly. But you do not know for sure. Or else you are trapped in the tangled web of indecision. He then quotes 1 Cor 4:3-5 “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. … Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” When we make a choice, we enter a depth dimension of life and open up a whole new web of possibilities, previously unseen and unknown. It’s only later that one can say: “That was the best decision I ever made.”

The fact is that one’s interests, priorities, and values emerge in whatever choice is made in life. Gradually, these come to the fore and either colour or hijack the particulars of your life such that the inner core of your soul’s interest – otherwise known as your vocation – emerges to blossom in the soil where it finds itself planted. So there is little to worry about in this respect. Make the decisions that you are invited to make, respond to the people and situations that invite your response, and step into that uncertain future with a core confidence, one that becomes more real and steady as it is expressed and lived out. But keep feeding the soul.

I keep only one little sign on my desk. It is one that I found in a small shop years ago and that I still find meaningful. It reads “What would you start to do if you knew that you could not fail?” This is the sort of sentiment that invites engagement, the doing of things. Because it is only in the doing that you can set the conditions for your future positive decisions. You cannot see around the corner, but you can get yourself to the corner so as to see what lies beyond. This approach is particularly helpful in difficulties, as expressed in one of my favorite poems and hymns: “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, // Lead Thou me on! // The night is dark, and I am far from home // —Lead Thou me on! // Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see // The distant scene—one step enough for me.” (John Henry Newman)

Ends and beginnings are two sides of the Möbius strip of life’s journey. Don’t try to peek over the edge. Instead, enjoy what is there, pursue what is important, and keep moving on.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost


There is a fascinating dynamic that occurs when a group of individuals gathers for a specific purpose. The focus, direction, and purpose of the gathering create the conditions for its success. The cumulative human capacity and interests of those brought together, along with the hopes and positive intentions that they bring, set the stage for allowing the greater potential of human community (and God’s grace) to become an active and present reality. Any positive gathering of individuals brings to life this mysterious dynamic of the “more” in human relational capacity. It’s an example of God’s true presence among real people doing real things in real situations. The Golden Rule lives!

The occasion for this reflection is the upcoming feast of Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church. It is well described by St. John Baptist de La Salle in one of his meditations: “On this day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and on all those who were gathered together with them in the large upper room. He came to bring them a new law, the law of grace and love, and poured himself out upon them like a strong, driving wind. This was to show that just as God in creating man had, as Scripture expresses it, breathed into him the breath of life, so too, in communicating a new life to his disciples to live only by grace, he breathed into them his divine Spirit to give them some share in his own divine life.” (Med.43.1)

The human basis for this festive theophany – grace builds on nature – happens any time people who have a common purpose come together. It could be a birthday celebration, a planning session, a board meeting, a wedding or a funeral, a tennis match or FIFA game, a history class or study session. Each has its own character, purpose, hopes, limitations, focus and outcomes. Sometimes we get a bit overwrought when we cannot “control” the outcome of these gatherings, and some people are more comfortable with situations that are more predictable than others. But I would submit that the most rewarding, human, and enlivening events of this sort are those which carry an edge of unpredictability to them. As C.S. Lewis observed through Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the lion who has God-like characteristics in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “He'll be coming and going. One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down - and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

The most enigmatic encounters with others and with the real circumstances of our lives are those that involve an openness to this mystery of God, such as liturgies, retreats, and faith-focused gatherings. But they also include anywhere “where two or three are gathered” in God’s name, because this is exactly where the Holy Spirit, the dynamic and active presence of the resurrected Jesus in union with the Father, is most immediately engaged. The living face of God, the Holy Spirit, is found in and through actual relationships, real encounters with real people in real circumstances. Insofar as we approach these as true encounters with God’s presence, as Jesus did, they become the spiritual raindrops that quietly ripple through our souls.

In the school setting, De La Salle highlights that we actually do that all the time, or should: “You carry out a work that requires you to touch hearts, but this you cannot do except by the Spirit of God. Pray to him to give you today the same grace he gave the holy apostles, and ask him that, after filling you with his Holy Spirit to sanctify yourselves, he also communicate himself to you in order to procure the salvation of others.” (Med.43.3)

Ascension


This week, we celebrated the “Ascension of Jesus” into heaven (Luke 24:50-53 - Mark 16:19 – Acts 1:9-11), which occurred 40 days after his resurrection in the biblical narrative. It is the commemoration of the strong and long-standing belief that Jesus was fully taken up into heaven, resurrected body and all, so that the Holy Spirit might be sent “who will teach you all things.”

Back in the 1970’s I remember going to a beach in California called Goat Rock. In order to get there, you had to wind your way along the cliffsides for a time before descending to the beach itself. At one of the parking areas on top, we had stopped to watch a hang glider laboriously assemble his flimsy contraption. After about 30 minutes, he was ready, put on his helmet, strapped himself in, and waddling to the edge of the cliff stood poised, looking over the ocean ahead and the beach way below. He said: “Okay. Bye.” and then stepped out into nothing.

I had expected him to drop straight down and then rise up, like a jet taking off from a carrier. But instead something amazing happened. He hadn’t quite stepped off. He had leaned over into the wind that was coming up the side of the cliff. Then he turned the wings of the glider just so, and he rose straight up as if he were standing on an invisible elevator. The rest of us just gawked as he went higher and higher. After a while, I looked around expecting someone to say “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky?” (Luke 1:11) It was as nice an ascension as I have ever witnessed.

Who knows what the experience with Jesus was like, except for what we know from Scripture and the Church’s tradition? But if I can use that hang-glider analogy, there is an element of genuine, practical trust involved in all of this. When the young man leaned over the cliff, into the invisible wind, he placed his trust in what he knew to be true, and because he took that leap of faith, ascension happened and he was carried up by that which cannot be seen but can be felt and noticed by what it touches. Similarly, God’s grace manifested in Jesus Christ cannot be easily seen, but it is felt and experienced by its effect and impact on others, if not on oneself. The ascension teaches me to be open to God’s life, God’s breath, AKA the Holy Spirit (from the Hebrew Ruah, meaning breath or wind), to step out into God’s arms and trust the Spirit to be present, whatever the circumstances. It is that descent of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, an event that Jesus’ ascension initiated.

Anthony Bloom says it well: “We no longer know Christ according to the flesh, we do not touch Him as Thomas did, we do not hear and see Him as Apostles and the women, and all crowds of people did, but we know the Christ of the Spirit, the risen and ascended Christ, who is everywhere where two or three are gathered together, who is everywhere when a lonely soul cries for Him, when a life is being dedicated to Him. And so we are confronted with this mystery of a separation, which is a victory, a separation, which leads us to a new knowledge, to a new discovery of Christ. His Divinity is no longer veiled for us by His human presence, He is revealed to us as God resplendent not only in His Godhead but also in His humanity. And so it happens also all the time when people meet on a human level and then discover one another in the Holy Spirit, a discovery that makes humanity resplendent with eternity.”

In the end, the Ascension of Jesus is about embracing the life of God in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and being carried by his love and example into being and doing the same for one another. No hanglider or elevators are necessary. Just lean over into the life of the Holy Spirit and tilt your wings correctly.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mary - Mother of Jesus - Mother of God


Before the month of May comes to a close, it is worthwhile to provide a short reflection about Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Catholic world, the month of May is the month of Mary, during which there are special prayers and celebrations that highlight her role in the history of salvation.

Mary has become a very special figure in all of Christian religious history. She is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran. (Qs 3:42) One theologian has said that she represents the feminine face of God for many people. The one thing that the Church has strongly and regularly said is that Mary is not someone to worship; rather she is someone to emulate, to pray with in approaching God, to turn to for intercession when all else fails or seems far away. In this respect, she represents the best of “motherhood” and all that this means for people.

The biological connection between mothers and children goes far beyond the physical, even beyond the emotional. A well of deep connections and unacknowledged complexities lie beyond our grasp when it comes to our mothers. Psychologists, therapists, clergy, bar tenders, and airplane seat-mates may experience the ripples of a mother’s influence on her son or daughter. As one person once told me, “Your mother knows how to push all of your buttons because she put them there.” She knows your faults and limitations but loves you nevertheless and, for the most part, unconditionally.

One can imagine how the mother of Jesus was involved in the life of Jesus, from his birth to his death. While we don’t know the details, we know the results. Much of the personality, priorities, and passions that shaped the person of Jesus are due in no small part to his 24/7 relationship with Joseph and Mary, both during his early years, his teenage years, and his twenties. If indeed Jesus did not start his public ministry until the age of 30, he would have developed a close, mature relationship with his mother.

Therefore it is not strange that we should hold Mary in such high regard and assume that her present connection with Jesus is closer than that of anyone else. Ever since the early years of the Church, her influence has been notable, concrete, and frequent. Christians have turned to her for any need, as they would turn to their own mothers when they were young. One can try to analyze and rationalize this all day, but the plain fact may simply be that she indeed has the kind of close ongoing relationship with Jesus which allows for a different sort of intercession. There is more engaged mystery here than one can simply dismiss. Just look at the history of Marian devotions, apparitions, sayings, and all the rest.

G.K. Chesterton puts Mary in appropriate light: “When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. ... You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother…. The Blessed Virgin Mary is born to be Mother. The supreme consolation that Our Lady receives at the foot of the cross of her Son is the assurance that her vocation as Mother does not end with Christ’s death. The Lord commands the world, ‘Behold your Mother.’ The resurrection begins for Mary – and for us – with these words. The Blessed Virgin’s womb remains forever fruitful. Mary leads us to Christ, but Christ leads us back to his Mother, for without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.”

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 3


For today’s reflection on the Catholic prayer form known as the Mass, or the Eucharist, I would like to provide a fine quotation by Ronald Rolheiser, who sums up the multi-dimensional experience of this ritual, the source of which lies outside of and beyond all of them put together.

(Rolheiser, Ronald. Our One Great Act of Fidelity, Pg. 28-29)

“Christians argue a lot about the Eucharist. What does it mean? What should it be called? How often should it be celebrated? Who should be allowed to participate fully?

“There are lots of views on the Eucharist. For some it is a meal, for others it is a sacrifice. For some it is a ritual act, sacred and set apart, for others it is a community gathering, the more mess and kids the better. For some it is a deep personal prayer, for others it is a communal worship for the world. For some its very essence is a coming together, a communion, of those united in a single denominational faith, while for others part of its essence is its reaching out, given that it contains an innate imperative to wash the feet of those who are different from ourselves. For some it is a celebration of sorrow, a making present of Christ’s suffering, the place where we can break down, for others it is a place to celebrate joy and sing alleluia. For some it is a ritual remembrance, a bringing into the present of the historical events of Jesus’ dying, rising, ascending, and sending of the Holy Spirit, for others it is a celebration of God’s presence with us today. For some it is a celebration of the Last Supper, something to be done less frequently, for others it is God’s daily feeding of his people with a new manna, Christ’s body, and is something to be done every day. For some it is a celebration of reconciliation, a ritual that forgives and unites, for others unity and reconciliation are preconditions for its proper celebration. For some it is a vigil act, a gathering that is essentially about waiting for something else or someone else to appear, for others it is a celebration of something that is already present and is asking to be received and recognized. For some it is understood to make present the real, physical body of Christ, for othes it is understood to make Christ present in a real but spiritual way. Some call it the Lord’s Supper, some call it the Eucharist, some call it the Mass. Some celebrate it once a year, some celebrate it four times a year, some celebrate it every Sunday, and some celebrate it every day. Who’s right?

“In truth, the Eucharist is all of these things, and more. It is like a finely cut diamond twirling in the sun, every turn giving off a different sparkle. It is multivalent, carrying different layers of meaning, some of them in paradoxical tension with others. There is even in scripture no single theology of the Eucharist, but instead there are various complementary theologies of the Eucharist. …

“How does one put this all together? By letting the Eucharist be patient with us. … There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love, for embrace, and for the reception of life and spirit through touch. Certain realities take us beyond language because that is their very purpose. They do what words cannot do. “

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 2



This reflection follows on last week’s regarding the upcoming Founder’s Day activities, which includes a student body Thanksgiving Mass for all High School students and Catholic Elementary School students from Grades 4, 5, and 6. For a more comprehensive rationale about this, please see tinyurl.com/q5xunyd

“The Mass is not merely a meal which reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion play which helps recall Good Friday, or a Sunrise service which celebrates the Lord’s resurrection. In the Eucharist, when we recall these mysteries of redemption, ‘the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold of them and be filled with saving grace’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #102). At every Eucharist, in a real yet mystical way, we become present to these central mysteries of our Faith.“ (Thomas Richstatter, OFM)

It is important to recognize that all Christians seek to relate to, and enter into, God’s mysterious, loving, constant, and intimate presence through the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, who introduced, defined, and became “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) really and truly, actually and practically, up to today and into the future. This is crazy to some, foolish to many, incomprehensible to most, and difficult to all. But to those who have lived into this subtle yet oddly familiar mystery, this too-easily-dismissed historical conviction on the part of billions of people, the truth of God’s loving and saving presence in Jesus Christ becomes more and more firmly entrenched through the practice of reflective, genuinely engaged experience, the kind of intentional experience that the Gospels call us to again and again. The question is no longer “Is this true?” In some ways you come to realize that this is the wrong question. The question becomes “Where in my life does this remain not true?” Perhaps it is similar to what happens whenever love blossoms, when “Does she/he love me?” gradually becomes “Where or in what ways can I love her/him further?” What was first seen more in reference to self is reframed through the sometimes difficult expressions of sacrificial love into being for the most part referenced in terms of the other. Parents will know this dynamic well. God knows it best.

For Catholic Christians, the focal invitation, expression, and sustenance of this dynamic – what we call the “paschal mystery” of Jesus – is centered in the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” in Greek and refers to the ritual that through the centuries has most profoundly and best touched our inner lives in ways that are undoubtedly unique to each person who has taken its invitation to heart. Robert Taft, SJ, one of the greatest scholars of the Eucharist (the Mass), who also happens to be an Old Boy of the Brothers, summarizes things well: “The purpose of the Mass isn't to make hosts so people can go to Communion. The purpose of the Eucharist isn't to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ. It's to change you and me into Jesus Christ. That is not only supposed to happen, it's also supposed to be represented.” (tinyurl.com/yl76t4g) If at the end of each Mass Catholics attend, we emerged with greater conviction and ability to be more like Jesus towards others, its rationale and substance would be self-evident.

For those who may not be fully familiar with the parts of the Mass, which can certainly include many Catholics, or the reasons why this ritual has developed as it has over the last 2000 years, I have uploaded two short articles that walk through what it all means and provide a succinct summary worth reading. You may just find that this ancient yet modern ritual is more relevant than you had thought. You will certainly find it all very interesting. The link to the document is this one: tinyurl.com/l2w82q7

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 1


[The entry below is one that was part of the school's newsletter this year. I have left it "as is" in order to preserve its continuity with the reflections that follow.]

In a few weeks the school will be celebrating Founder’s Day. This is part of the Lasallian Spirit Week, during which we highlight the qualities of the school that make it a special place to be. All of it comes together on May 15th when we take the whole day to appreciate our founding, our roots, our way of doing things, our educational community, our context, and our life.

The reason that May 15th is celebrated by many Lasallian schools is because it was the date in 1950 that De La Salle was declared in Rome as the Special Patron of All Teachers of Youth. As the Patron of Teachers, he belongs to everyone who takes on teaching as their vocation. As such, in a school, it’s appropriate to take that day – which conveniently falls near the end of a term – as the day to celebrate his life and legacy.

This year, there will be several components to the day, in recognition of De La Salle’s life, influence, and ongoing inspiration among the 1,096 institutions and 80,000 educators around the world that are part of the educational “Lasallian” movement he began. In the Sports Hall at the beginning of the day, we will begin with a student body Mass, the common form of prayer expression for Catholics, and central to both De La Salle’s life and the lives of all those who live out the love of the Gospel through their educational endeavors. This Mass will be for all high school students and selected elementary school students. For non-Catholics, it is an educational exposure opportunity whereby they may learn about this unique Catholic service and witness its expression as part of our Catholic school identity on this special day. Just as we encourage and include exposure opportunities to other religious traditions for our students, this is the one opportunity during the year to provide an educational exposure opportunity of our Catholic worship traditions for all of the students who attend the school.

In the next few Lasallian reflections prior to May 15th, I will use the opportunity to provide some background information as to the core meaning and elements of the Mass, so that it is not a total mystery for our non-Catholic (and perhaps Catholic) students and staff. Among the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, there are 420,000 priests who “celebrate” (that’s the verb usually used) Mass daily and several times on Sunday in 220,000 “parishes” (churches). Such churches could be anything from the grand Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome to a very simple, drafty wooden or mud building in parts of very poor areas. So it would not be far from the truth to say that every Sunday a million of these “Masses” are “celebrated” all over the world. And almost all of them have the same structure, prayers, rituals, actions, and words (in different languages), although the level of formality may be vastly different, from the ornate to the simple, from inner-city parish to monastery, from huge crowds in large buildings to a small group gathered in a small chapel.

In all of these various settings and formats, they are all about the same thing: expressing, sharing, celebrating, recalling, adopting, and bringing to the fore the loving and saving presence of God in our lives. It’s the love of God made present, shared, and drawn out in each person, with the invitation and directive to do likewise outside of church, especially among people in need. Annie Dillard, a great (non-Catholic) writer, said it best: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Resurrection

These days, Christians around the world recall and celebrate the fantastic explosion of God’s Love in Jesus Christ, brought to true and enduring reality in the way-too-easy-to-dismiss fact of his bodily resurrection from the dead. My Easter-time reflection will be from two others great thinkers and writers, whose words about the resurrection will at least make all of us think a bit.

“The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham.” (G.K. Chesterton, As I Was Saying)

“Saint Paul in one of his Epistles says that if Christ is not risen we are the most miserable of all men... And, indeed, if he was not risen we would be, because then all our faith, all that we call our spiritual experience, all the life we build on it would have been nothing but a delusion or a lie, a hallucination. But we are the most happy of all men because Christ is risen. This is not only something that hundreds and thousands know, but millions know from a direct, personal experience. Many could say: God exists because I have met him, Christ is risen because I have met the risen Christ. And not only in spirit but also in the flesh; because we have the witness of the Apostles, simple men who had run away from Calvary, knowing - as they thought - that Christ was defeated when he was taken down from the Cross and buried, knowing that everything they hoped for had come to an end. And yet, they are the witnesses of the Resurrection, unprepared, hesitant, and then exulting in the joy of the truth which was revealed to them; exulting because the women came in the morning to anoint Christ, and they saw that his body was no longer there. John and Peter came after them, and the tomb was empty. And when they came to the other disciples, asking themselves questions, doubting, hesitating - Christ came to them, and he himself said to them: Fear not! I am not a ghost, I am not a disincarnate vision; a ghost has no flesh and no bones as you can see that I have! And he ate with them, he spoke to them, they touched him! And indeed, St John says in his Epistle that what the Apostles proclaim is what their eyes have seen, their ears heard, their hands touched, and that they are speaking the truth. Yes, Christ is risen, risen not as a ghost, not as a spiritual presence but as a living God with his body, the body of the Incarnation. And indeed, if we truly believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was God himself become man for the salvation of the world, then what is beyond our imagination is that he, who is life itself, could die; and the thing which is obvious and simple is that Life Eternal should break the fetters of death, conquer death, and that he should rise, in the body, in the flesh, as a promise to us. Because uniting himself to human flesh he has shown us that man is so vast and so deep that he can be at one with God, united with God; that, indeed, a human being is complete only if he is in oneness with God, when he is a partaker of the divine nature... The Resurrection is a revelation of the mercy of God, of the power of God, of the love of God... but also of the greatness of man. Death has no fear for us; it has become a gate into eternity, and we know that the day will come when the voice of him who has brought into being all things, the voice of him who is our Savior will resound, and we will all stand before God, clothed with eternity, but in a flesh that has become part of this eternity.” (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Easter Sermon) 

This is the reality that draws forth the substance of our faith. And the longer I live and breathe and think, the more almost self-evident it becomes that the things least able to be explained away are the things most worth attending to. God’s intimate presence, made real through Christ’s resurrection is surely one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leadership and Being Elected

This morning, as I was greeting students in front of the school, one of them stopped for a short conversation, saying at one point: “I wasn't elected to the Senior Council.” That led to some comments about leadership, and the fact that you don’t have to be elected to a position in order to be a leader. In fact, losing an election is probably a fine way of finding out your true disposition towards leadership. Did you mostly want to be elected, or did you mostly want to be a leader? Elections increase expectations, but they don’t make you a better leader.

Leadership may be pursued and exercised without a single title to your name. As I think about good leaders, three aspects of “leadership” stand out to me right now, among the many that are available. Leadership involves the developed capacity to engage in genuine listening, pro-active direction, and graceful persistence. Insofar as these are recognized, taken on, and advanced, leadership grows and deepens.

Genuine listening is more than looking attentive while someone else is speaking. It means being fully in the moment, actively thinking about and absorbing the other person’s words, intentions, and actions. We know people who seem to be fully engaged when they speak with us, as if there was nothing else in the world more important. Politicians have a knack for doing this, as do teachers in general, or even those who successfully wait on tables in restaurants. It’s a developed habit of attention, and good leaders know that such input provides the true substance of what they work with as leaders.

Pro-active direction refers to that unique combination of calculated risk-taking, decision-making, and follow-through that is the exercise of leadership and that may either work very well or fail miserably. This aspect is the difference between those who just think they know better, but don’t do anything to move forward in making it happen, and those who think they might know better, and who take steps in that direction in order to find out. Without somebody doing something, somebody else will, and whatever direction you had envisioned goes off somewhere else. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Leadership rests on the willingness to make the choices and take the actions necessary to move a vision, the things that matter, forward.

Graceful persistence describes the long-term intentionality that is carried onward step by step, at each corner and through each relevant situation. It’s the decisions, conversations, suggestions, challenges, celebrations, hires, budget projections, and evaluation measures that bring a bearing, priority, or goal to life. It is done quietly and inexorably, proceeding with measured stubbornness balanced with tact and a graceful disposition. Great social movements start that way. De La Salle started the Brothers that way. Even the Bible has stories that illustrate this characteristic (Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-8). Jesus knew it. Things are accomplished through thoughtful, well-received, respectful, consistent, nimble, focused, small actions of all kinds that create a current of activity leading to the desired end.

Of course, one can recognize and agree with these three characteristics of leadership without fully possessing any of them. Knowing is different than doing; but knowing helps. These are areas of potentially acquired mastery that each person brings to life in his/her own context and according to his/her own talents and personality. We have to bring them to life in our own little world first. As they begin to be developed, other challenges and opportunities will call us forward, and the whole thing becomes much more interesting. It may even be that we are elected or invited to a position of leadership. But that would simply be the ticket into a new game, and not the game itself. The real fun happens on the field.

In the picture above, I think the real leader is the last penguin.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thou Shalt Not ....

Why is it that so many pieces or advice, instruction, or moral guidance appear to be couched in negative language? “You shall not ….” “Don’t be dishonest.” “Never bet against the house.” You can probably come up with plenty of other examples, from your grandmother, your religious leader, or your best friend. Some of the most popular advice in the world is expressed in terms of what not to do.

The other side of the phenomenon is the fact that telling someone to do something positive doesn’t seem to have the same impact as telling someone to stop doing something negative. Telling someone to “Be nice!” is less effective as “Don’t fidget!” This is because being nice is wide-ranging, generic, and largely open to personal interpretation, whereas not fidgeting is very immediate, clear, and specific, an instruction that allows for little nuance in meaning.  As an instruction, “Be nice!” is a broad searchlight and “Don’t fidget!” is a laser.

Is there something in that specificity of identifying wrong behavior that allows for a greater respect and wider leeway for personal freedom? If we know what not to do, or where you cannot go, doesn’t that give us greater liberty and confidence to wander and explore within the allowable limits?

Back when I was in high school, there was something that my mother said which has stuck with me. The family had just moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. The houses were right next to each other, and our backyard flowed into the backyard of the house on the street behind us. Fences had not yet been built anywhere. On the first evening when our family of seven occupied the house, my mother mentioned to my father at dinner: “The first thing I want you to do is to build the fence around our house. Otherwise I won’t feel free.”

At the time this struck me as a contradiction. How was it that a fence could make you feel more free? Fences are there to limit movement. They enclosed a space and hampered freedom, or so I thought. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that fences, rules, principles, limitations, and specific prohibitions usually arise in order to protect or enhance genuine freedom, instead of limiting a false perception of freedom. The best and most creative freedom rests within appropriate limits.

The simplest example of this, also involving a fence, is of a children’s playground in a very busy city, or on the roof of a tall school building. When there is a fence, kids play right up against it, even leaning on it, or resting on the ground with their backs up against it. When there is no fence, the kids play more towards the middle of the playground, not venturing too close to the edges for fear of being outside of the zone of security. Their perceived and actual freedom at play is enhanced by a clear border, one that was pretty much unassailable. Knowing how far you can go better allows you to go as far as you can go.

The Ten Commandments actually define a breadth of liberty. As G.K. Chesterton noted: “If there are only Ten Commandments, it means that there are only ten things forbidden: and that means that there are ten million things that are not forbidden.” It's still true today. Google’s corporate slogan is a negative, “Don’t be evil”, which leaves a lot of room for being and doing good.

So there is wisdom in this age-old practice of the censure of wrong behavior. There may be many such statements which are petty, or vindictive, or wrongly focused. But in terms of the big things, you could do worse than simply stating what shouldn’t be done.

Don’t believe something without trying it out.