compassion

Leadership Isn't For the Faint of Heart: Four Transformational Strategies from the Wizard of Oz

What does it take to be a great leader in an era when the winds of global and local change are blowing in gale force, where the world is so interconnected that when you make a decision someone on the other side of the world is affected? Leadership has never been easy.  There have always been challenges.  But these days, the difficulties seem to be uniquely immense.  Which means leadership isn't for the faint of heart.  It's not just about competence and intelligence.

The Four Most Important Qualities People Look For in Leaders They Want To Follow

The Four Most Important Qualities People Look For in Leaders They Want To Follow

Successful leaders work hard at building environments centered around four qualities that have been proven to be the most transformational for empowering people. Ask yourself whether your leadership influence is contributing these important attributes.

Men Really Need Intimate Friendships, Too

Are Male Friendships Different From Female Friendships? My wife Shasta Nelson is one of the leading friendship experts these days, especially in the realm of female friendships.  Her book Friendships Don't Just Happen:  The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends is one of the most complete and profound explanations and prescriptions of the multifaceted dimensions of healthy friendships - why it's important and how it can be developed and sustained in deep and meaningful ways.

As I've read her book and listened to her speak to multiple audiences, I've thought how much men need and crave this kind of friendship intimacy, too.

It's been a fascinating experience bringing this view up in conversations with men and women.  Invariably, some people respond by saying that male friendship looks different and men approach relationships from a completely different standpoint, their needs simply are different - as one male expert puts it, men's friendships are more "shoulder to shoulder" compared to women's which are "face to face".  Men bond over activities as compared to women who bond in conversation and self-disclosure.

For some reason, most likely a lot from my own personal experience as well as all my work as a coach and pastor with both genders, I've had a difficult time with that stereotypical and simplified depiction of male friendship.  I reject the notion that men don't crave intimacy  (which includes the need for honest and authentic self-disclosure and empathy) as much as women in our friendships.

When I have coaching conversations with men and create a safe space in which they can share their lives deeply and authentically, I'm finding that men are as fully capable, and in fact as sincerely interested, in full disclosure and admittance of the need for intimacy and honest sharing.  They are craving the same kind of depth and closeness in their friendships as women do, but for the most part they're simply not getting it.

Latest Research on Men's Friendships:  How the Shift Happens

Turns out, research is now showing this craving for depth and intimacy is absolutely true about men and their friendships.  Men are in fact wired with not only this same desire but also the capability for the same kind of intimate, deep friendships.

According to a recent article in Salon ("American Men’s Hidden  Crisis: They Need More Friends!") New York University psychologist Dr. Niobe Way studied and interviewed boys in each year of high school.  What she found was fascinating.

Until the age of 15-16, all the boys she interviewed described their friendships with other boys using the same vocabulary as the girls used about their friendships:

"Younger boys spoke eloquently about their love for and dependence on their male friends. In fact, research shows that boys are just as likely as girls to disclose personal feelings to their same-sex friends and they are just as talented at being able to sense their friends’ emotional states."

Then something happened.  From the age of 15-16 on (right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls), the same boys talked about their guy friends far differently.

One of the boys described this shift the way almost all of those boys who were interviewed did:

When he was 15:  "[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other."

But when the same boy was a senior in high school, notice the shift:  "[My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do."

Why the Shift Happens

So what is happening?  As researchers are noting, as boys get older they are becoming conditioned to disassociate from what are often seen as more feminine qualities in order to be manly, macho, accepted in the male places of our world.

For example, why is it that sports coaches or military sergeants, in trying to motivate guys, call them "girls" -- as if somehow that demeaning use of a perfectly neutral term is suppose to inspire guys to be stronger, try harder, be more of a man?

So men learn early on to disassociate themselves from anything feminine--which unfortunately leads to a distancing from the experiences and expressions of need for intimacy, closeness, self disclosure, empathy, and other feelings.  Which in turn serves to isolate them from developing meaningful and close friendships with other men.

But as research continually reveals, this disassociation is actually distancing us as men from our complete selves by cutting vital parts of ourselves out.

Tragic Consequences of This Shift

Here's the way Lisa Wade, in her Salon article, reflecting Dr. Niobe Way's significant research, describes the tragic outcome:

"So men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine.This imperative is incredibly limiting for them. Paradoxically, it makes men feel good because of a social agreement that masculine things are better than feminine things, but it’s not the same thing as freedom. It’s restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends."

Two Things Men Need to ReShift and ReFocus On Who They Really Are

First, Men need positive male role models to show the power and transformational experience of intimate friendships with other men - friendships built around mutual self-disclosure, honesty, authenticity, empathy, caring for each other, and yes, sharing good times with each other, too.  Male friendships are not an either/or proposition.  It's both/and.

And Second, Men need to be given permission that it's not caving to a stereotypical feminine way of being by wanting and engaging in deeper, caring male friendships.  Men need this permission from the women in their lives and from other men.  The media isn't helping at all!  So others need to step up and openly talk about what it means to be a male with all the multifaceted qualities men have inside them that need to be expressed and that contribute to building deep and lasting and meaningful friendships with other men.

Because the truth is, men are hardwired with a yin and yang of qualities:  we are both "soft" and "hard" -- we crave strength and power, and we also long for warmth, intimacy, caring, and empathetic nurturing and sharing.  Men have been cultured to neglect one for the sake of the other.  But it's both/and.

And the sooner we men embrace this truth, the healthier we will be emotionally, mentally, physically, and relationally.  We will be living in alignment with who we truly are.  And that's always the place of greatest authentic power and well being.

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If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com.

It's Time to Leverage the Culture Shift: Necessary Leadership Styles for the 21st Century

Research on Effective Leadership Styles Important research these days is revealing some significant trends in how people are thinking about leadership, the style they want to see in their leaders, and what style is proving to be the most effective in solving today's complex global problems.

Gone are the days where the macho approach is looked up to as the savior of our problems.  That current track record speaks for itself.

Qualities to Move Away From.  "Everywhere, people are frustrated by a world long dominated by codes of male thinking and behavior: Codes of control, aggression and black- and-white thinking that have contributed to many of the problems we face today, from wars and income inequality to reckless risk-taking and scandal."*

Qualities to Embody More of.  Instead, says a growing body of academic and industry research, "senior executives around the world and across industries put qualities such as collaboration, creativity, flexibility, empathy, patience, humility and balance right at the top of the list of crucial leadership characteristics for the future."**

Soft Vs. Hard.  There are those in our culture who still choose to see these qualities as "soft" versus "hard" - they can't embrace them as truly significant to the bottom line of productivity and financial sustainability and growth - they see these qualities as luxuries at best, and perhaps curriculum to be relegated to Human Resources department if at all.

This leads to a tragic sidelining of what is increasingly showing to be more effective in the long run in addressing the fundamental needs of our organizations and markets with their complex, global, and interconnected challenges.  This short-sighted and biased view continues to do damage on multiple layers of our human systems and organizations.  Productivity and engagement are at all-time lows in our country.

In contrast, natural biologists are providing us with powerful examples of how the more relational and collaborative qualities are in fact hard-wired in the natural world to powerful effect.  My last blog post described birch trees and rhododendrons in a symbiotic relationship.

Here's another:  take the barheaded geese, for example.

Learning From Barheaded Geese

Flying GeeseIt’s estimated that at least 50,000 of them winter in India.  And when summer nears, they undertake the two month 5000 mile migration back to their home in Central Asia.  What makes this trip remarkable is that the route they choose to take every year is the world’s steepest migratory flight—they fly over the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Amazingly, this route is where the air is thinnest and oxygen level lowest.  What’s more, the thinner air means that less lift is generated when the birds flap their wings, thereby increasing the energy costs of flying by around 30 per cent.  And yet they still fly the same route over the highest place on earth.  Imagine it!

Scientists now find that these geese do not make use of tailwinds or updrafts that could give them a boost up the mountain.  One of the remarkable resources they choose instead to rely upon is teamwork---collaboration.

Drafting.  Geese are famous for utilizing in flight the V-formation which helps reduce individual energy consumption by up to 30%.  Professional cyclists use the same principle that empowers them to sustain high energy and power for endurance races like the Tour de France (over 2000 miles in 21 days).  Drafting.

The whole flock of geese gets over 70% better mileage than if each bird flew solo.  When the lead bird gets weary, it drops back and a new one takes the lead.  As the birds vigorously flap their wings, it creates lift for the bird behind.  These geese actually choose to fly over Mt. Everest at one time rather than breaking up the trip, typically a grueling eight hour marathon.

And in addition, if one of the geese gets too tired or gets injured or sick, two of the other geese shepherd the weaker one back down to the ground and stay with it until it either gets stronger or dies.  Then they rejoin the group or find another group to fly with to complete their migration.

Clearly, there is no physical way these birds could soar over Mt. Everest without this kind of drafting, teamwork, and collaboration.  Forget it!

And yet so many of us individuals, including many organizations that insist on a few at the top within hierarchical structures possessing all the power, continue to assault our Everests ineffectively.

The Qualities That Make A Difference

What social science and organizational effectiveness research is telling us these days is that similarly there is no way we can scale the Mt. Everest-sized global challenges we face without prioritizing and valuing these same qualities:  teamwork, collaboration, empathy, nurturing, loyalty.

The days of the solo leader (or small group of men who conduct the business war games and deals in the backroom), projecting an omnicompetent ability, standing at the top of the hierarchy of power, position, and status, omniscient in wisdom, who has only to speak and command the vision, strategy, and way forward, are gone (or should be gone).

"In the new economy ‘winning’ is becoming a group construct: Masculine traits like aggression and independent trail the feminine values of collaboration and sharing credit. And being loyal (which is feminine) is more valued than being proud (which is masculine), which points to being devoted to the cause rather than one’s self. And that we want our leaders to be more intuitive—(also feminine)—speaks to the lack of many leaders to have the capacity to relate to ordinary people and their points of view."*

We have to intentionalize systems and structures that help us rely on each other, where everyone is empowered to contribute their best strengths, where organizational and team health is seen to be as important as ROI and the financial bottomline, where we mentor others and stand beside them to support their growing development, where we manifest patience and empathy instead of "get it or leave here" attitude, where we employ technicolor instead of black-or-white thinking to our problems.

If we want to soar over our Mt. Everests, we will choose to be more like the barheaded geese.

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* The Athena Doctrine:  How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future, Michael D'Antonio & John Gerzema.

** Gayle Peterson, associate fellow of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and co-director of its Women Transforming Leadership program, "We Don't Need A Hero, We Just Need More Women At the Top" (The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2013)

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If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com.

Why We Need A Better Way of Thinking, Being, and Relating

Big WaveAthena Doctrine Research There's a tsunami of change building.

Best-selling and award-winning authors John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio surveyed 64,000 women and men in thirteen countries across a wide swath of cultural, political and economic diversity. They gathered data from Canada to Chile and Mexico to Indonesia.  Everywhere they went they asked a lot of questions about life today, about what makes us happy and gives our lives meaning.*

What they discovered was quite sobering.  People are talking as if they live in an age of "extended anxiety".  Among many of the statements surveyed, both men and women weighed in on these:

"There is too much power in the hands of large institutions and corporations."  86% agree "My country cares about its citizens more than it used to."  76% disagree "The world is becoming more fair."  74% disagree "Life will be better for my children than it is for me."  51% disagree

And then two clinchers:

"I’m dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country."  57% agree

"The world would be a better place if men thought more like women."  66% agree

When the authors began to unpack these responses with the interviewees, what they discovered was not the fomenting of a global gender apocalypse -- where people were dogging and downing one gender more than another -- but rather where people were hungering for expression, a "way of being," a way of living life where certain core values were central to it, where certain fundamental characteristics were front and center to the way we do business and life.

As it turns out, these core values and ways of thinking happen to be characteristically feminine attributes.  Here's the way the authors describe it:

A Growing Shift in Roles and Values

"There’s a growing shift in the roles of masculine and feminine values in the twenty-first century. We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent. People around the world are showing that traditionally feminine leadership and values are now more popular than the macho paradigm of the past ... Everywhere, people are frustrated by a world long dominated by codes of male thinking and behavior: Codes of control, aggression and black- and-white thinking that have contributed to many of the problems we face today, from wars and income inequality to reckless risk-taking and scandal.  The most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, collaborative and nurturing. And both men and women from Medellin to Nairobi are adopting this style, which emphasizes cooperation, long-term thinking, and flexibility. Informally, and in countless ways, they are following the Athena Doctrine, named after the Greek Goddess, the warrior whose strength came from wisdom and fairness."

Why the Shift Is Happening - What's Broken and Needs to  Be Fixed?

When you consider the major institutions of the world, both current and past, what values have tended to dominate?  How have those institutions primarily engaged the world?  Power has been in the hands of a few rather than the many.  Hierarchical systems prevailed.  Influence was perpetuated by decree perpetuated by status and office.  Conflicts were fought by warriors where the strongest always won and the weak were dominated.  The world was based upon a win-lose paradigm.  Status, wealth, economic advantage, opportunity, education, religious influence, leadership -- all of these were centralized and controlled by a few, all in the name of God, of course -- and the few most often were men.

The "game" of institutional conquest had rules that were stacked in favor of the few or those who had the stomach to enter in and fight their way to the top at whatever cost.  Today's politics is a classic example.

Because women have been devalued in history, many of the characteristics and attributes and ways of thinking and being that women can bring to the world have been correspondingly devalued.  Businesses call them "soft skills" as opposed to hard skills.

So if you highly value things like empathy, collaboration, fairness, flexibility, win-win paradigms, compassion, unselfishness, and transformation, who wants to get into the dominant game with its warrior-like rules and mentalities?  Who wants to feel like you have to "prostitute" yourself in order to play the current game?  Who wants to sacrifice your fundamental core values for the bottom line of money, power, and status as the only end game?  Surely there must be more to life than that?

No wonder women aren't flocking to get into politics, for example.

No wonder so many people feel disenfranchised within religious communities.  Many religions refuse to allow women to fill top leadership positions, including being ordained to ministry, stating, "It's just not God's way" as if men have a corner on how God's will is suppose to be lived out.

As a result, the institutions of the world continue to play the game the way it's always been played, with a few at the top determining the rules and the outcomes and the style.

A Tsunami of Change - Different Values and Ways of Thinking and Being

But what the authors of the The Athena Doctrine are showing in their extensive research is that the game is changing.**  There's a tsunami of hunger and corresponding transformation that is sweeping around the globe.  It's a wave of change that insists on including experiences like delight, beauty, flow, vulnerability, authenticity, social responsibility, intuition, imagination, innovation, cooperation.

Both women and men are standing up and saying, "Enough is enough!  There's another way of doing business and life that centers around a whole different set of values that can be as effective or even more effective as those of the past.  After all, many of the primary institutions of the world are irreparably broken.  The old ways of doing things is over.  Things have to change.  We want to live different values in everything we do!  We want to help make the world a better, more humane, and more equitable place where there's room at the table for everyone, for the sake of each other and our future generations!"

So as Gandhi once said, It's time to "be the change you wish to see in the world."

So how does all this relate to strengths-based living?  Stay tuned.  More to come.  We need a fuller picture.

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* The Athena Doctrine:  How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the World, John Gerzema & MichaeL D’Antonio

** If you would like to see slides of the main parts of their research, go to this link.

Five Ways Relationships Become God's Holy Temple

compassionThere's an old rabbinical story that tells about two brothers living "time before time, when the world was young."  They each shared a field and a mill.  Each night they divided evenly the grain they had ground together during the day. Now as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family.  One day, the single brother thought to himself:  "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly.  I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed."

So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary to see that he was never without.

But the married brother said to himself one day, "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one.  What will he do when he is old?"

So every night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary.

As a result, both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished each morning.

Then one night the brothers met each other halfway between their two houses, suddenly realized what had been happening, and embraced each other in love.

The story is that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed, "This is a holy place---a place of love---and here it is that my temple shall be built."

"And so it was.  The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love." *

Here are four ways from this story that our relationships can be turned into holy temples where God chooses to dwell.

First, God's holy place on earth is the intersection between people where love is the center.

Our relationships of love are where God's temple is.  Those relationships are sacred ground.  When people respond to each other from a spirit of love and compassion, a temple of God is raised up.  God is revealed best and most completely within relationships of love.

Second, relationships become centered on love when each person looks at the other in a spirit of compassion and chooses to give what the other needs the most.

The spirit of compassion is antithetical to a competitive, win-lose worldview.  Sacred relationships are based upon a win-win paradigm.  We give what the other needs, not what we need to give.  We love in the language of the other so that our act of love is truly experienced as love by the other.

Third, a relationship of love doesn't necessarily mean both people agree with each other on everything.

Our ability to love each other pragmatically in the midst of our differences creates God's temple.  Contrary to popular opinion, love God's way doesn't mean having to unilaterally agree.  God's way of loving is giving to others no matter what, even when we disagree.

Fourth, people are empowered to love compassionately and generously when they see the other as their brother or sister.

Family members certainly don't all agree with each other---whether politically, theologically, philosophically, sociologically.  Families inherently contain great diversity.  But because they're all family, blood runs thicker than water.  Until we start seeing all others as members of our great global family---children of God, every one---we will continue struggling to give love and compassion graciously and generously to those we disagree with and are  different than.

Fifth, when people are in a relationship of love, they're content to give to the other anonymously, without credit or recognition.

The joy is in the giving because, as A Course In Miracles emphasizes, when a person gives, they always receive.  The New Testament references this reality when it says we reap what we sow.  In this universe, you can never give away something you don't also receive.  So you don't need credit or recognition in order to receive something; you've already received what you've given away.  When you give, you are never in a place of deficit.

When you and I deliberately and intentionally design our relationships to be centered on love, compassion, generosity, and grace---because we recognize and acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood with all others---we enter into the holy temple of God, we are on sacred ground.

"And so it was.  The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love."

So how many sacred temples do you have in your life these days?

* Belden C. Lane, "Rabbinical Stories:  A Primer on Theological Method," Christian Century 98:41 (December 16, 1981), pp. 1307-8.

Pie in the Sky: A Big Reason People Reject Institutionalized Christianity

You've heard the old American idiom "pie in the sky," haven't you?  Maybe you've even formed a sentence with the phrase.  We tend to use it when we're referring to a promise of something that has low likelihood of happening right now.  "Good luck with that," we'll say similarly. Origins of "Pie in the Sky"

Joe Hill, 1911

Do you know where the phrase originated?  The idiom "pie in the sky" was first coined way back in 1911 in America by a Swedish-born itinerant worker named Joe Hill.  Joe belonged to one of the labor unions of that day, The Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, and wrote songs for them.  One of his tunes grew in popularity.  Titled The Preacher and the Slave, it was composed as a criticism of The Salvation Army's theology and philosophy, specifically their concentration on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry.  The song parodied the Army's heavy use of the hymn "The Sweet By and By" which Christians still enjoy singing today.  Here's the opening verse and chorus:

"Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right; But when asked how 'bout something to eat They will answer with voices so sweet:

Chorus: You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

"Good Luck ... We're Praying for You"

Pie in the Sky.  In other words, "Sorry, folks.  We know you don't have much to eat right now, but just hang in there.  When Jesus returns, it will all be different--you'll get your pie in the sky.  In the mean time, we're praying for you."

"It's All Going to Hell Anyway"

This attitude and philosophy gets expanded to, "Since Jesus is coming back soon and the earth will be destroyed, with the righteous being saved to Heaven, we really shouldn't spend too much time and energy trying to fix this world.  We should invest our energies into saving people's souls before it's too late."  Pie in the Sky.

I've heard many Christians say these very words to me in conversation.  And I have to be honest--every time I hear this I cringe.  I'm angered.  Not because I don't believe in paying attention to people's souls.  Not because I don't think people should be concerned about Heaven.  But because it communicates such a narrow, limited, destructive view of life right now.  When people are suffering and dying from starvation, poverty, AIDS, other diseases, natural disasters, economic injustice, torture and killing, slavery, environmental destruction, hatred and greed ... in the midst of theses painful realities, the best the Church can do is offer "pie in the sky"--after all, it's all going to be destroyed in the end, anyway?

Why People Reject Christianity

It is this Christian belief that is one of the big reasons I hear all the time as to why people reject Christianity as a viable spiritual belief and practice system.  In fact, the fastest growing religious demographic in America these days is the Nones, those who are intentionally choosing not to be affiliated or attached to religious organizations.  They're the famous "wanting spiritual but not religious."  More than one in five are in this category.  And it has a lot to do with this limited belief that church people often portray in word and deed. A Pie in the Sky theology.

So people respond, "Why would I want to be a part of a religion whose followers are more concerned about the next life than the quality of this life for the whole world?  Why would I want to join a group that cares more about the after life and getting there rather than helping fix what's wrong right now by bringing compassion and service to the suffering everywhere?"

The sad irony is that the Founder of Christians at the beginning--Jesus--had more to say about how people are to live right now than about getting ready for a coming kingdom.  In fact, Jesus' primary emphasis was about the Kingdom of God being here right now, in the present, and learning how to live out the values of God's kingdom now in the face of a pseudo-righteous church institution and an unjust empire.  His emphasis was so dangerous to the status quo that he was executed.

Jesus' Lord's Prayer Establishes Our Priority

Albrecht Durer's Working Praying Hands

When he taught his disciples to pray--what we call The Lord's Prayer--the opening request is "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This isn't an expression of longing and hope for the Second Coming.  It is an ardent, passionate desire and surrender to cooperating with God so God's will would be done on earth right now.  That's a powerful introduction to a prayer, isn't it?

It's like Jesus is saying, "Look, don't even think about making any other requests to God until you surrender to the task of bringing God's will to bear on all of life in the present.  When you've aligned with that Will, then bring your own needs to God.  'Give us our daily bread.  And forgive us as we forgive our debtors.'"

Not "Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by."  But "pie on earth in the sweet and sometimes sour now."

An Echo of the Old Testament Prophets

By introducing that part of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus was intentionally echoing the vision of the prophets of old which descriptively and passionately pictured "a world where all people are treated equally, cared for, respected, fed and nurtured for the wonderful creations of God that they are; a world where all people regardless of color, sex, race, religion, political party, nationality or sexual orientation have a voice and a place; a world where people and nations, as the Prophet Isaiah put it, 'beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; where nation no longer takes up sword against nation; where war is no longer learned' (Isaiah 2:1-5)."  (Dr. Steve McSwain)

This is the world Jesus came to establish and build.  Not a Pie in the Sky in the Sweet By and By kind of exclusively future hope, but a dig in, get your hands dirty, working tirelessly to press God's compassion to every corner of the broken world kind of lifestyle.  People need the pie right now, after all!  "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the whole world" (Mark 10:45).  "I have come that you will have life, an abundant life" (John 10), not a pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but right now, in this life and in all the ages to come.

Everyone Deserves A Piece of the Pie Now

images

I wonder how people would feel about a Church that chose to pray seriously this first part of the Lord's Prayer--prayed so seriously that they actually went about intentionally and courageously and compassionately bringing God's powerful will of compassion and care to the enormous and painful needs of this world?

It's time to give everyone a piece of the pie right now.  And some day, in the sweet by and by, we'll all together enjoy more pie!

 

Eleanor Rigby and a Common Failure of Institutionalized Christianity

Have you listened to the Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby" recently?  It's one of my favorite Beatles songs.  I just listened to it again and was struck by it's very poignant central message.

The song features two individuals: Eleanor Rigby, a woman who lives alone, and Father MacKenzie, the priest of the local parish.  The suggested tragedy is that these two individuals never meet up in any meaningful way, never connect with each other beyond perhaps a perfunctory "hello" at the end of weekly mass.

During the week, Eleanor stands at the window of her small apartment looking out at the world, wishing she could be out there among people and be truly seen and accepted for who she is.  Instead, she keeps a "face" inside a jar beside the door to put on whenever she emerges from her lonely little world inside her apartment.  She's afraid of not being loved and accepted for who she is.  So she puts on the "face" she thinks will be acceptable.

The one time the song describes her emerging, it's to attend a wedding.  But that only increases her angst.  She picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been and wishes it was for her.  "Who is it for?"  She's consigned to live a fantasy of imagining and longing it's her.

Meanwhile, Father MacKenzie spends his week writing his Sunday sermon.  But the song points out that he writes sermons that no one hears.  The implication is that very few people are there at church on Sunday.  And whoever does attend isn't very interested in his words.  He feels useless and meaningless.  But he keeps writing in his little study because it keeps him occupied, away from the lonely reality of his life and his own existential angst.  Better to be alone in his office then out with people who don't "see" him, either.

And at night, all by himself, "Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there, What does he care?"  Like Eleanor who keeps her face in a jar by the door to be able to put on when she might go out or someone might visit, he darns his socks to get ready to use when he goes out.  He must look good, after all, for whoever might notice.  But of course, no one ever does.

As the chorus theme repeats, "All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?"

Two lives, living alone, not really "seen" by anyone.  One is too busy writing sermons to notice the other.  The other is too busy worrying about what others might think about her to notice him.  Two ships passing in the night.

Until finally the end comes when the two meet up.  Father MacKenzie officiates Eleanor Rigby's funeral.  And this tragedy becomes complete:

"Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name, Nobody came. Father Mckenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, No one was saved."

The Beatles' indictment against the institutionalized Church is driven home.  A lonely woman is completely forgotten.  Her name is buried with her body.  And all Father MacKenzie is concerned about is whether she or anybody else was saved or not by his sermons.

Here's the way one reviewer put it:  "This song is a bold-faced accusation against the self-righteous and overly religious that refuse to reach out to the all the lonely people and then wonder why so few come to church.  This song is saying that it isn't enough to be friendly. This song is saying that as long as people, especially religious people, remain cold and aloof, the Eleanor Rigby's of this world will continue to die and be 'buried along with her name.'"

Isn't it a tragedy that institutions too often get so self-absorbed with their own structures, rituals, rules, and policies--the "work" they simply have to keep carrying on--that individual people are forgotten or set aside or even neglected.  It writes its sermons in the isolation of the office and study, It conducts Its "business" in the isolation of Its board rooms, oftentimes ironically not connecting to the very people It's suppose to be loving, helping, and paying attention to.  Rather than trying to listen to people's stories, it's easier to preach them sermons.

And whatever attention is given to the people, it's attention more for their "salvation" than their personal needs and interests.  The religious institution allows their faces to remain in the jars beside their door.  In other words, people have to put on the mask in order to feel accepted and loved and embraced by the Church.

And what results?  As Eleanor Rigby reminds us, "All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?"

In contrast, Jesus said, "I have come that people will have life, abundant life."  How different Eleanor Rigby's "song" would be if the followers of Jesus would give the same gifts He came to give:  abundant life now and for ever.  And central to the experience of abundant living is meaningful connections with others, being truly "seen" and "heard" and loved.

If this happened with greater regularity, as part of the very DNA of the Church, the Eleanor's of the world could emerge from their apartments into a world filled with love and compassion and acceptance.  Preachers would feel the courage to connect with others and even themselves without agendas other than to simply love and be loved in ways people and themselves need it the most.

It's time for a new stanza to Eleanor Rigby.

Personal Obstacles to Your Roar of Awakening

What Is the Roar of Awakening? In my last blog, I told the story about the tiger who grew up thinking he was a goat but who finally discovered he was a tiger.  Read the story if you haven't already.  Upon his discovery, he let out a huge "roar of awakening."

The roar of awakening is the discovery that we are more than we think we are; we have taken on identities that incorrectly or inadequately express our essential being.  And when we arrive at this divinely-inspired realization, we experience a totally different reality that expresses itself in a new kind of personal power, passion, and confidence.

One of My Roars of Awakening

One of my roars of awakening came when a highly respected leader in the church I was pastoring years ago deeply yet firmly affirmed my leadership style and effectiveness.  I had just downplayed myself to him, making an observation about myself that I had held to be true for years.  I had been retelling this narrative to myself every time I encountered a difficult, and potentially conflict-inducing leadership moment.

He stopped me and said, "Greg, I never want to hear you say that about yourself again!  Ever!"

"Why?" I pressed back.  "I'm just being honest about myself."

"No!" he countered.  "You're not!  Because it's not true.  You're stating an identity that simply has no basis in fact."  And then he spent the next five minutes describing all the things he had observed about me in my leadership position which clearly countered my own self-perception.

As he boldly and articulately described what he both saw in and believed about me, the light of truth began to dawn in my mind.  I saw it for the first time.  He was right.  I had been living and believing both an incorrect and inadequate picture of my essential being.  I had been living as a goat instead of the tiger I really was.

As I look back now, I can see that that awakening was a watershed moment.  My leadership, the owning of my true leadership capabilities emanating from my unique essence, took on a new kind of power and confidence which resulted in profoundly effective outcomes as a spiritual leader and pastor.  I had found my "roar."

Obstacles to the Roar:  What Is the Narrative You've Been Living?

Have you considered what narratives you've been living in your life that might be incorrect or inadequate?  Have you ever taken the time to evaluate the truth about those personal narratives?

We don't only tell inadequate stories about ourselves.  We also hold incorrect narratives about others--perhaps our spouses or significant others, our colleagues, our bosses, our friends and family members.  The destructive power here is that as we keep retelling these perspectives they grow stronger.  They end up seeming truer and truer.  So this becomes the reality at the center of our relationships.  And we wonder why these relationships can never seem to improve or get better or be fixed.

Painful Consequences of a Wrong Narrative

It is astounding to me how many people are not living their own truth or the truth about others and so have not been able to step into their personal or relational divinely-given power to show up in the world with clarity, confidence, courage, and contentment.

Over the years of living in this unreality, they become satisfied with bleeting like goats instead of roaring like tigers.  After awhile, they actually come to believe that they are goats (imagine believing, for example, that you're in a "goat of a relationship" instead of a "tiger of a relationship"--how would that impact how you show up in that relationship?).

Consequently, they never seem to arrive in a place of alignment and congruence with who they really are or what the essence of their relationship truly can be.  There's a form of timidity or aggressive conflict they end up manifesting to themselves and to the other.  They might not even be aware of it.  But there's this subtle hesitancy they often seem to feel in many situations--an inability to really land and be grounded where they are.

In the religious world, we often tend to label this as humility, on the one hand, or righteous indignation, on the other.  Truth is, ironically we are actually spiritualizing this sense of inadequacy or conflict by giving it this spiritual attribute in order to feel okay about it.

But it never completely works for us--deep inside we long to be free of this timidity, hesitancy, and sense of personal and relational inadequacy.  Without being aware of it at times, we are actually hearing our tiger nature calling out from deep inside us to be embraced.

Our Calling

We cannot allow ourselves to be content with being a goat if our nature is actually a tiger.  We must embrace our tiger.  Only then will we awaken the roar.  Only then will we and our relationships exude a confident, genuinely compassionate presence in the world.  And we will be like Jesus, who with a boldness that comes from unconditional acceptance of his truth, loved others shamelessly and tirelessly.

Next time, What does it take to awaken our roar?

The Roar of Awakening: Are You Clear About Who You Are?

The Tiger/Goat Once upon a time* there was a tigress who was about to give birth. One day when she was out hunting she came upon a herd of goats. She gave chase, and even in her condition, managed to kill one of them, but the stress of the chase forced her into labor, and she died as she gave birth to a male cub. The goats, who had run away, returned when they sensed that the danger was over. Approaching the dead tigress, they discovered the newborn cub and adopted him into their herd.

The tiger cub grew up among the goats believing he, too, was a goat. He bleated as well as he could, he smelled like a goat, and ate only vegetation; in every respect he behaved like a goat. Yet within him beat the heart of a tiger.

All went well until the day that an older tiger approached the goat herd and attacked and killed one of the goats. The rest of the goats ran away as soon as they saw the old tiger, but our tiger/goat saw no reason to run away, of course, as he sensed no danger. The old tiger did not know what to make of this full-grown tiger who smelled like a goat, bleated like a goat, and in every other way acted like a goat. Not particularly sympathetic, the old tiger grabbed the young one by the scruff of the neck, dragged him to a nearby creek, and showed him his reflection in the water. But the young one was unimpressed with his own reflection; it meant nothing to him and he failed to see his similarity to the old tiger.

Frustrated by his lack of comprehension, the old tiger dragged the young one back to the place where he had made his kill. There he ripped a piece of meat from the dead goat and shoved it into the mouth of our young friend.

We can well imagine the young tiger’s shock and consternation. At first he gagged and tried spitting out the raw flesh, but the old tiger was determined to show the young one who he was, so he made sure the cub swallowed this new food, and this time there was a change.

Our young tiger now allowed himself to taste the raw flesh and the warm blood, and he ate this piece with gusto. When he finished chewing, the young tiger stretched, and then for the first time in his young life, he let out a powerful roar--the roar of a jungle cat. Then the two tigers disappeared together into the forest.

The young tiger’s roar is called the “roar of awakening."  This “roar of awakening” is the discovery that we are more than we think we are. It is the discovery that we have taken on identities that incorrectly or inadequately express our essential being. It is as though we awaken from the dream, look around, and become aware of a totally different reality.

* excerpted and adapted from the prologue of Embracing Ourselves, by Drs. Hal & Sidra Stone (1989)

Spirituality and Identity

Every major spiritual tradition has at the heart of its spirituality the process of coming to know your true self, who you really are, your divinely given identity.  I'm inspired in Jesus' story how many times God "roars" from heaven to affirm his true identity:  "You are my son, the one I love.  I'm so proud of you."

And in one of the more poignant vignettes, Jesus looks at his disciples and asks them an identity question:  "Who are people saying I am?"  And then driving it closer to home, "Who do you say I am?"

It's the "roar of awakening" to this truth about ourselves that empowers us to live like the tigers we are (not the goats we think we are).  When we're confused or in the dark about our spiritual identity, we get stuck, we live in the shadows of our truth, and false selves rise up to control us.  We become insecure, uncertain, anxious, fearful, allowing other people and circumstances to control our sense of value and worth and direction.  Our roaring turns to bleating.

In contrast, when you know who you are, you have an internal confidence and courage to live with deep compassion even when it looks like weakness.

Jesus' Radical Example

Jesus reveals this self-assurance and engages in his most radical and unselfish act in the upper room the night before he's executed:

3 "Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him."  (John 13)

Jesus lives in perfect alignment with his essence, his identity as Son of God.  He's completely clear about who he is, why he's here, and where he's going.  So he acts again and again in courage and boldness, even in the face of tremendous opposition which ultimately leads to his execution.

In the next few blogs, I'm going to talk about how we get back our "roar of awakening."  What tends to keep us from seeing ourselves as the tigers we are and instead thinking we're goats?  How can we wake up to our truth, to God's truth about us?  And how does that truth empower us to live boldly?  Stay tuned.

A Year of Awakening the Roar

What do you say you and I make the year 2012 "the Roar of Awakening."  Let's choose to step into all the power of our true essence not just some of it.  Let's do whatever it takes to clear away the obstacles keeping us from being our Truth.  Like Jesus, let's be so clear on who we are that we are radically empowered to live a world-transforming compassion.  Because that's who we really are!  It's time to awaken our roar!

The Significance of God's Tattoo

When you see the word "tenderness" what do you think of?  Tattoos, right?  Those two words usually go together, don't they? Well, I can't say I typically think of them in the same sentence.  Which probably shows my inadequate understanding about body art as being portrayed by the stereotypical picture of the Hells Angel Harley-storming brute whose tattoos make him look like a modern day pirate with some dark form of the skull and crossbones etched into his bulging biceps.  Not my best mental depiction of tenderness.

And yet ... I have seen some beautiful skin art.  I love asking a tattoo-wearing person if there's a story behind their picture.  There almost always is--a commemoration of someone or something meaningful and significant to them, or a symbol of their sense of purpose in life, or simply a depiction of something they like.  I've heard some evocative and very moving stories from these wearers about how the pictures move them deeply and inspire them regularly.

Which at times tends to end up reminding me of how "tattoos" and "tenderness" are related, even in the divine realm.  Notice this picture:

14 But you have said, “The LORD has forsaken me, And my Lord has forgotten me.” 15 But I the LORD say, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; You are continually before Me."  (Isaiah 49)

God is pictured feeling tender love and compassion for her children.  In fact, the word compassion is from the word tenderness.  It literally means "cherishing the fetus in her womb."

Think of how much care a mother gives to the baby she carries inside her.  Once she learns she's pregnant, she immediately makes some lifestyle changes to make sure the child grows in healthy ways--she stops drinking alcohol, eats more fruits and vegetables, stops smoking, tries to reduce unnecessary stress, and the list goes on.  She does all this because she knows that even before the baby is born that child is nursing from her and receiving nourishment on every level.  So she even sings to her baby and speaks words of love and affirmation.

And then once the child is born, tenderness continues.  The same word "compassion" in this text also literally means "to fondle."  I well remember wonderful moments of tenderness when my kids were babies.  One of my favorites was me leaning back on the couch, holding my baby on my chest, and feeling completely relaxed and at peace with that precious bundle of life wrapped in my arms.  It was such a tender moment for me and a place of absolute safety and love for my child.  That fondling expressed a powerful covenant and commitment of value I placed on my baby.

When the mother nurses her baby, her own body is changed and impacted from these acts of love and care--oxytocin is released which tends to increase the mother's sense of wellbeing and happiness.  Studies have shown that even feeding the baby with a bottle (like for fathers or a care-giver who can't breastfeed), if the baby is held with a spirit of tenderness and loving care, releases oxytocin into the system.

So think of all this tenderness, cherishing, compassion, fondling in loving care that the parent feels for her child.  Think of all of this in fact moving and transforming the parent at the same time it's providing increasing confidence and security for the baby.  This mutual, symbiotic relationship is a metaphor for the divine relationship with us.

And then the bible text reveals a stunning reality--to memorialize this tender relationship, God has tattooed our name onto Her hand.  "I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; you are continually before me."

What art display has God drawn on Her hand to depict you me?  Is it a symbol of some kind?  A scene?  A word or few that describe my essence?  Maybe even a cross carved into Her hand with my name on it?  Kind of intriguing to imagine, isn't it.

Whatever the tattoo is, She looks at it often ("continually," says the text).  And every time She looks at the tattoo She's reminded of Her eternal love and tenderness for me.  That's why She has the tattoo.  She can never forget me.  Her divine essence moves and stirs with compassion every time She sees the tattoo and thinks of me.  She never forgets.  Like loving and nurturing parents, She loves me without conditions.  There's nothing I could ever do or not do to eradicate my identity as Her beloved child.  Once a child, always a child, period, forever!

Divine body art.  God's tattoo.  Infinite tenderness.

The french word for tenderness is poignant.  Used in conjunction with les bras ("the arms"), the related verb entendre means "to stretch out one's arms" in a gesture of welcoming love.

Picture it:  God stands with outstretched arms eager to embrace you, hold you, enfold you in Her arms; to cuddle You in safety, longing, and intense compassion.

So next time I hit a moment of discouragement, self doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, loneliness, or weakness, I'm going to try to remember:  my name, my picture, is tattooed on God's hand; at this very moment God is looking at it, thinking of me with absolute tenderness.  And She is holding out Her arms, inviting me into Her holy embrace, that ultimate, eternal place of safety and security where I remember who I am and who God is and how loved and valued I am to Her forever.

And She's got a tattoo to prove it!  I wonder what Her body art about you is like?

Freeing the Unique Song in Our Souls

Twentieth century Afrikaner author and political advisor Laurens Van der Post tells the story of two brothers who lived in South Africa.  The older brother was strong, tall, handsome, intelligent, an excellent athlete.  His parents sent him away to an exclusive private school where he soon became an admired leader of the student body. His younger brother, six years younger, was neither good looking nor capable, and was also a hunchback.  But he had one great gift.  He had a magnificent singing voice.

Eventually the younger brother joined the older at the same boarding school.  They were so different from each other no one knew they were related.  One day in a cruel outbreak of mob psychology, a group of students ganged up on the younger brother, started making fun of him, tore off his shirt to reveal his hunchback, and then taunted, jeered and laughed at him.

The older brother, as it turns out, was in the chemistry lab trying to complete an assignment when he heard the commotion outside and went to the window to see what was happening.  He saw the ugly scene with his brother in the middle of the gang being humiliated by those sadistic students.  He made a painful decision – afraid of losing his popularity with the student body, he chose to not go out and face the crowd and acknowledge that the strange hunchback was his brother to put an end to the whole sorry mess.  Staying in the lab and going back to his assignment, he left his brother to the mob and out of fear betrayed him by what he failed to do.

The younger brother was never the same again.  He returned home to his parents’ farm where he kept to himself and refused to sing, his humiliation and embarrassment locking the song in his soul .  After graduating, the older brother became a soldier in WWII, stationed in Palestine where every night his painful betrayal ate away at his heart.

One night, lying outdoors in the middle of Palestine in the midst of the war, and gazing up into the starlit sky, the older brother thought about his younger brother, how defeated and pained he had been when he went back home, and how he had refused to sing again – his heart and soul had been betrayed.  The older brother lay there night after night imagining the pain and suffering of his brother that he had caused.  He began to feel that hurt keenly.  And his heart told him that he would never have peace until he went home and asked his brother’s forgiveness.  And so he made the incredibly difficult, dangerous wartime journey from Palestine to South Africa.

The brothers talked long into the night, the older one confessing his guilt and remorse.  They cried together, embraced, and the breach between them began to heal.

Late that night, after the older brother had fallen asleep, he was startled awake by a sound.  He went to the window, and there out on the open lawn was his brother, face lifted toward the stars, singing again, the beautiful song soaring into the night sky.  An act of compassion had set the song in his younger brother’s soul free again and had unlocked his own soul, too.

Spirituality is the journey of being set free - free to sing the God-given, unique and personalized song that is often trapped in our souls, free to learn how to truly sing that song again unabashedly, shamelessly, courageously, truthfully, authentically.

And what tragic consequences, as the story reminds us, when we live in fear or judgment of others.  The song we have always been meant to sing to the world becomes trapped inside.

It continues to amaze me how much influence you and I have over each other in our journeys, for good or for ill, for freedom or for bondage, for expression or for suppression.  I'm in awe of the power of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance to free our songs.  It impresses me how people in my life have related to me in a way that has empowered me to sing my song in a way that's truly me and in a way that no one else on earth can sing just like me.  It hasn't been their criticism and judgment of me that has set my song free.  It has been their tender compassion, acceptance, and encouragement that have made the difference.  It has been their nonanxious presence to hold space for me in a spirit of unconditional support.  It has been their undying belief in me as a worthy human being and their confidence in my calling and purpose in the world.  These gifts have set my song free again and again.  And I've been empowered to sing with joy, courage, and more and more abandon.  And when I sing my song authentically, others are empowered and emboldened to sing their song, too.  The cycle of life.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Transformational Spirituality Pays Attention to Walls

Gordon MacDonald, author and speaker on spirituality, tells about one Christmas vacation when their son Mark flew home from college and greeted his parents with an unexpected gift – a cute little ferret named Bandit.  Unexpected, for sure.  And not exactly a gift they were hoping for. But in the following weeks, the cute little furry animal worked its way into their hearts – Bandit was cuddly, fun, funny.  They enjoyed him.

But enjoyment stopped after about four months.  Bandit began to grow up, and they started learning the hard way that adult ferrets can become nasty – they bite, they exert independence by neglecting simple hygiene producing a stinky house – it all overwhelmed their delicate senses.

Gordon and his wife Gail soon lost all affection for this Christmas gift critter.  Which led them to begin considering how they could get “rid” of Bandit.  The idea finally emerged:  Why don’t we take Bandit up to our cabin in the woods and give him his freedom.  After all, the acres of forest and woods will be perfect for him to live and roam and enjoy!  Nothing there will be bothered by his smelly habits!

Gail said she’d feel more comfortable if she could first go and talk to the pet store people to see what they thought.  Later that day, she came home and told Gordon:  “The pet store people explained that we shouldn’t release a tamed ferret (or any tamed animal for that matter) in the woods.  It would be dead within twenty-four hours because it wouldn’t know how to find its own food and it wouldn’t know who its enemies are or how to defend itself again them.”

The irony of the situation struck them both.  By taming this ferret, by taking it out of the real world and teaching it to live in the safety and seclusion of their nice home, they had destroyed its ability to live where it had been born to inhabit.  It could never be a free ferret.

Is it possible we do the same thing with our faith and our spirituality?  By trying to forge faith and spirituality within the exclusive confines of a personal, small, safe, isolated, and secluded world, we create a faith that doesn’t work in the real world – a limited faith and spirituality – a potentially timid, narrow, insecure, ineffective, unliberated spirituality.

I love the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it.  Bonhoeffer was the Protestant pastor in Germany during WWII who became convicted that he should preach and write against Hitler and the genocidal Nazi regime.  He boldly broke ranks with many Christian leaders of that time who were either silent or supportive of Nazism.  He ended up being arrested and jailed and then finally executed by Hitler just as the Allied Forces struck the final blow of liberation in Europe.  Here’s what he wrote:

“It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.”

Effective spirituality, transformational spirituality, has to be forged and lived in the real world.  It has to work and make sense and produce positive effect in the WHOLE world, not just our safe, small worlds.

So in my spiritual community Second Wind, we’ve had a series during September called “APPLYING YOUR SPIRITUALITY TO THIS WEEK’S GLOCAL HOT SPOT."  Our goal is to inform our spirituality by means of seeing the rest of the world beyond our individual lives.  So each week, we focused in on a current issue taking place in the world (*GLOCAL = think global + act local).  What is the “crisis/need/situation” – what are the issues involved – who are the people involved – how is the situation being currently handled – how are we impacted?  And how does this situation inform and shape our spirituality?  What kind of spirituality does it take to work in this situation?

The whole attempt is to inform our spirituality and faith with the real world, opening ourselves up to a bigger picture than we would typically allow for ourselves.

This last Saturday we looked at the current plight of the Roma, Europe's largest minority group that originally migrated from Northwestern India back in the 11th century.  They traditionally held slave-type positions among the aristocracy and monasteries of Central and Western Europe.  And now they find themselves spread out all over the continent and beyond, often living in camps under squalid and marginalized conditions from the rest of society, barely able to eke out subsistence to stay alive and provide for themselves.  Last year, Amnesty International described current realities:  "The Roma community suffers massive discrimination throughout Europe. Denied their rights to housing, employment, health care and education, Roma are often victims of forced evictions, racist attacks and police ill-treatment."

The Roma have especially been in the news the last few months as France's President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to expel over 1,000 Roma from his country back to Romania and Bulgaria, creating quite a firestorm of controversy among the nations of the European Union.  It's forcing leaders to address this significant humanitarian crisis within their borders.

So how does our spirituality and faith inform our response to this contemporary situation?  How does this significant human need shape and inform our spirituality and faith?

Timothy Egan, in The New York Times last week said it well:  “Perhaps the best way to judge the health of a nation’s heart is by how it treats the shunned.”

He's certainly echoing the sentiments of historic sacred scriptures.  Jesus himself put it this way:  "If you've shown compassion to one of the least of these, you've shown it to me."

In other words, a Christlike heart (a healthy heart) manifests Christlike compassion, especially to the shunned and marginalized of our world (in Jesus' statement of what the final judgment is about, he refers to acts of compassion to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and prisoner).  And the amazing thing about Jesus' statement - that reveals how important this issue is to Jesus and the values of God's Kingdom - is that when we show compassion to those in need, we are in reality showing compassion to Jesus - Jesus incarnates himself within the "shunned" person so that we're actually encountering and relating to Jesus himself.  And in the End, says Jesus, we are judged by our response to these people (and therefore to him).  Quite a different paradigm from the picture of Judgment so many religious groups paint of the End, where we're judged by what we believe, by our subscription to the doctrines of those religions and how closely we align with them.

Transformational spirituality is informed by a global view of the world, not just our narrow individual every day worlds.  Transformational spirituality, the kind that really works and makes a difference, chooses to actively engage with the "least of these," refusing to ignore the shunned, the strangers among us, the aliens and foreigners, the dispossessed, the refugees and immigrants, the sexual "other," all of those people groups who are too often labeled and judged as "less than" or wrong or unworthy for whatever reason.

This is a raw and honest kind of spirituality that refuses the easy way out, that allows itself to be confronted by those most unlike us, that chooses to look beyond the surface and in fact discover that we are one family under God, interconnected, interdependent, and intertwined in the life of this planet.  How we navigate this complex, complicated, and yet very human journey is how we are ultimately judged, says Jesus.  Sobering and yet exciting and brimming with possibility!

I'm reminded of Robert Frost's profound poem Mending Wall.  He pictures himself and his neighbor walking along the stone fence that separates their two properties, talking together about the purpose of the wall, the sections that need mending and how.  His neighbor's view is that "good fences make good neighbors."  He, however, doesn't see it that way.

"There where it is we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. / He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it / Where there are cows? / But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down.'"

Transformational spirituality is about taking down walls where there shouldn't be any.  It's about refusing to shut ourselves out from the "shunned."  It's about engaging the world of hurt, human suffering and pain.  It's about not allowing our sight to become mono-focused and narrow to our own little worlds.  It's about compassion for "the least of these."

Rarely easy to do.  I admit.  But, as Timothy Egan reminds us, it reveals the true health of our hearts.  And who among us doesn't want a healthy heart!

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10 Spiritually Transmitted Diseases

I took today's perceptive title from a blog post I read recently written by Dr. Mariana Caplan, an internationally acclaimed author and teacher on Western Spirituality, and a psychotherapist specializing in spiritual issues and somatic and body-centered approaches to transformation.  She has an active practice in San Francisco and Marin County.  You can read her whole post here. Dr. Caplan provides what I think is a helpful description of the some of the dangers inherent in the spiritual life.  These are dangers that we often don't want to think about or simply don't see, especially in relation to ourselves.  In the midst of our genuine desire to grow spiritually, to commit ourselves to experiencing transformation and positive change in our lives, regardless of the specific religious environment we're a part of, there are certain blind spots that have the potential of derailing our spiritual growth.

Blind spots are those places that we simply don't see but by not seeing them, we are susceptible to crashing.  Remember taking driver's ed training and the teacher talking about being careful of the blind spot between what you see in your rearview mirror and what you see in your driver's side mirror.  There could be a vehicle in that blind spot and if you make a lane change too quickly, you could hit that vehicle.  So what are you suppose to do?  You're suppose to check your mirrors first, and then look over your left shoulder to take a specific visual cue of what's actually there.  And if there is in fact no vehicle there, you turn on your signal blinker and slowly make the turn.  You've checked your blind spot in order to navigate safely.

The title also suggests another spiritual reality.  If we aren't aware of our spiritual blind spots, not only will we hurt ourselves, we'll hurt others, too.  Dr. Caplan describes these spiritual diseases as transmittable - we can infect others with our spiritual deformities.  Our sneezes pass on our diseases.  How significant, then, for us to be aware of our own issues and work hard to deal with them effectively.  It's good for everyone in our lives!  The health of a spiritual community is only as good as the health of each individual's personal spirituality.

So here are Dr. Caplan's 10 spiritually transmitted diseases.  Ask yourself which one(s) you tend to suffer from.

1. Fast-Food Spirituality: "Mix spirituality with a culture that celebrates speed, multitasking and instant gratification and the result is likely to be fast-food spirituality. Fast-food spirituality is a product of the common and understandable fantasy that relief from the suffering of our human condition can be quick and easy. One thing is clear, however: spiritual transformation cannot be had in a quick fix."

And I would even add this caution for Christians:  though belief in the grace of Jesus is hugely significant to building confidence and security (we can't work our way to God's favor and the Next Life - it's a gift), grace is no substitute for the intentional discipline of applying that grace to every aspect of our lives.  Transformation doesn't happen in us spontaneously or magically.  It takes effort, determination, and practice.  Healthy, transformational spirituality cannot be purchased in a drive-through, fast-food delivery system.

2. Faux Spirituality: "Faux spirituality is the tendency to talk, dress and act as we imagine a spiritual person would. It is a kind of imitation spirituality that mimics spiritual realization in the way that leopard-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of a leopard."

This is true because deep spirituality works from the inside out.  It deals with motives and values, feelings and thoughts, not just behaviors.  Even Jesus, in commenting on many of the religious professionals of his day, called them "white-washed tombs; cups that were clean on the outside but dirty on the inside."  Their kind of spirituality was external only - what you see on the outside is what matters most, not who you are on the inside.  That kind of spirituality was not acceptable to Jesus.

3. Confused Motivations: "Although our desire to grow is genuine and pure, it often gets mixed with lesser motivations, including the wish to be loved, the desire to belong, the need to fill our internal emptiness, the belief that the spiritual path will remove our suffering and spiritual ambition, the wish to be special, to be better than, to be 'the one.'"

Have you ever asked yourself, what tends to motivate my actions when I'm around other people?  Is my spirituality being driven by healthy motivations?

4. Identifying with Spiritual Experiences: "In this disease, the ego identifies with our spiritual experience and takes it as its own, and we begin to believe that we are embodying insights that have arisen within us at certain times. In most cases, it does not last indefinitely, although it tends to endure for longer periods of time in those who believe themselves to be enlightened and/or who function as spiritual teachers."

5. The Spiritualized Ego: "This disease occurs when the very structure of the egoic personality becomes deeply embedded with spiritual concepts and ideas. The result is an egoic structure that is 'bullet-proof.' When the ego becomes spiritualized, we are invulnerable to help, new input, or constructive feedback. We become impenetrable human beings and are stunted in our spiritual growth, all in the name of spirituality."

Perhaps this explains why oftentimes it's spiritual or religious people who simply can't be argued with.  They know "the truth" and they believe they're embodying it, which makes them right and everyone else wrong.  They're already on "the way" so what can anyone else teach them, especially those who don't have "the truth" like they do?  They've allowed their identities to become completely enmeshed with their spirituality - so if their spirituality is threatened in any way, their identity feels threatened.  So they cannot allow their spirituality to be questioned.  And they will fight to keep their "rightness" and certainty.

6. Mass Production of Spiritual Teachers: "There are a number of current trendy spiritual traditions that produce people who believe themselves to be at a level of spiritual enlightenment, or mastery, that is far beyond their actual level. This disease functions like a spiritual conveyor belt: put on this glow, get that insight, and -- bam! -- you're enlightened and ready to enlighten others in similar fashion. The problem is not that such teachers instruct but that they represent themselves as having achieved spiritual mastery."

Contrary to many church's religious zeal and methodology, you cannot mass produce spirituality through attempts at mass movements or mass conversions.  And genuine spirituality is not a "cookie-cutter" life where everyone looks and acts and believes the same or where everyone only has to utter the same words in a simplified formula.  Authentic spirituality looks different in different people.  It's achieved differently because everyone is unique.  Embodied spirituality

7. Spiritual Pride: "Spiritual pride arises when the practitioner, through years of labored effort, has actually attained a certain level of wisdom and uses that attainment to justify shutting down to further experience. A feeling of 'spiritual superiority' is another symptom of this spiritually transmitted disease. It manifests as a subtle feeling that 'I am better, more wise and above others because I am spiritual.'"

I find it significant that the primary spiritual teachers and leaders from the major spiritual traditions (people like Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad) were people of great humility.  Jesus commented about his spiritual life by saying, "I assure you, the Son can do nothing by himself.  He does only what he sees the Father doing."  No wonder, on the eve of his death, in an upper room where he and his disciples had gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, when it became clear that there was no servant to wash their dusty feet, he took off his outer robe, picked up a towel, and began to wash his disciples' feet.  Genuine spirituality is not driven by pride but by authentic humility.

8. Group Mind: "Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Individuals and groups infected with 'group mind' reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group."

Every authentic spiritual tradition encourages inclusivity and compassion as core to the spiritual life.  Ironic, then, that so many religious groups develop an "insider" vs. "outside" mentality - an "us" vs. "them" worldview.  "You can only be here if you become like us!"

9. The Chosen-People Complex: "The chosen people complex is not limited to Jews. It is the belief that 'Our group is more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened and, simply put, better than any other group.' There is an important distinction between the recognition that one has found the right path, teacher or community for themselves, and having found The One."

This deadly spiritual disease has been the motivator of countless persecutions, executions, and shunnings in the name of God.  The paradigm is, "If we have been chosen, then you can't have been chosen, too.  For you to be equally chosen like us, you have to join us, believe what we believe, live like us."  So the whole mission of the "chosen people" is to bring everyone else into alignment with them.  And if they resist, they are resisting God.  So we either have to "fix" them, or walk away from them lest we get contaminated by them.  This is a deeply destructive spiritual disease that can often be terminal for both parties.

10. The Deadly Virus: "I Have Arrived": "This disease is so potent that it has the capacity to be terminal and deadly to our spiritual evolution. This is the belief that 'I have arrived' at the final goal of the spiritual path. Our spiritual progress ends at the point where this belief becomes crystallized in our psyche, for the moment we begin to believe that we have reached the end of the path, further growth ceases."

I'm reminded of the super-disciple of Jesus, Paul, who once wrote about himself that he had not arrived.  He was still on the journey.  And so he kept his gaze on the one he was following, Jesus, in order to stay focused and remain moving forward.  Spirituality is not about arriving, it's about traveling; it's about a transformational process and journey that continues one's whole life.  That reality should produce great humility in us.

So which of these 10 spiritually transmitted diseases do you struggle with the most?  Is there one you tend to be infected with more than the others?  How does the disease manifest itself in you?  What are your primary symptoms?

Dr. Caplan's partner, Marc Gafni (an author and teacher), makes this statement:  "The essence of love is perception.  Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly--including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself."

And when you and I begin to truly love ourselves, we are empowered to love others in healthy, meaningful, and compassionate ways.

So are there any spiritual vaccinations we can take to prevent and/or heal ourselves from these spiritually transmitted diseases?  In my next blog, we'll take a look at some powerful antidotes that have the potential of effecting profound, honest, authentic spiritual growth and transformation.  Stay tuned!

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The Spirituality of Google's 'Undo Send' Button

Have you ever said or done something that the moment you let it out you wished you could take it back?  A lot of us live with a lot of regret along this line ... because you simply can't take back things you've said or done that might have been hurtful or disrespectful to others.  And our human tendency is to react quickly when our egos are threatened. So many of us do it regularly, in fact, that Google has added a feature to Gmail called "Undo Send."  Once you hit "Send" Gmail holds the email for five seconds, during which time you can stop the email from going out.

Wouldn't it be great if in the rest of our lives we had the option to simply hit an "Undo Send" button?  Unfortunately, once we've spoken the word or committed the act, it can't be retrieved.  Our words or actions hang out there creating consequences that can't be erased or undone.

But perhaps there's another 5 Second option that might prevent the words or behaviors in the first place.  The key, in real time, is to avoid the unproductive "Send" in the first place.  What would happen if we tried using the 5 second option before we hit Send?

Effective and healthy spirituality is about paying more attention to the way we are present in the world, learning how to live with greater awareness and compassion.  Which makes this 5 Second Option a potentially deeply spiritual practice.

Here's how it works.  Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, spoke to a friend of his (Joshua Gordon, a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University) about this issue of why it's so natural for us to react negatively to a person or circumstance that threatens our egos.  And is there anything we can do about it?

Dr Gordon pointed out :  "There are direct pathways from sensory stimuli into the amygdala.  The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain," he explained. "When something unsettling happens in the outside world, it immediately evokes an emotion.  But pure raw unadulterated emotion is not the source of your best decisions. So, how do you get beyond the emotion to rational thought?  It turns out while there's a war going on between you and someone else, there's another war going on, in your brain, between you and yourself. And that quiet little battle is your prefrontal cortex trying to subdue your amygdala.  Think of the amygdala as the little red person in your head with the pitchfork saying 'I say we clobber the guy!' and think of the prefrontal cortex as the little person dressed in white saying 'Uhm, maybe it's not such a great idea to yell back. I mean, he is your client after all.'   The key is cognitive control of the amygdyla by the prefrontal cortex."

So Bregman asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. Dr. Gordon paused for a minute and then answered, "If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response.  Slowing down your breath has a direct calming affect on your brain."

Which begs the very practical question, how long do we have to stall?  How much time does our prefrontal cortex need to overcome our amygdala?

Dr. Gordon's response:  "Not long. A second or two."

Sounds like Google is onto something with its 5 second "Undo Send" option.  Apparently there's significant biological / physiological / psychological (and dare I add, spiritual) reality to actually being able to overcome our immediate urge to react negatively and aggressively toward someone or something that is threatening our ego and beginning to make us want to attack back.  Imagine in the moment choosing to press "pause," taking a few deep breaths for 5 seconds, and allowing the immediate emotion to drain away even just a bit, so that you can then at least begin the process of trying to respond positively and with no regret later.

Peter Bregman applied the strategy to his recent situation:  "When Bob yelled at me in the hall, I took a deep breath and gave my prefrontal cortex a little time to win. I knew there was a misunderstanding and I also knew my relationship with Bob was important. So instead of yelling back, I walked over to him. It only took a few seconds. But that gave us both enough time to become reasonable. Pause. Breathe. Then act."

I don't know about you, but for me this 5 Second Option isn't as easy as it sounds!  I find it extremely difficult in practice when I'm facing some deep emotional feelings being stirred up and my buttons are being pushed left and right.  Maybe that's why the great spiritual traditions of the world have developed rituals and disciplines they call spiritual practices.  These disciplines and behaviors that are designed to produce greater peace and calm and centeredness in the midst of life's turmoil take intense practice.  Change doesn't happen over night.  Transformation comes as the result of determined discipline to engage in new thinking and new behaviors.

Which also (and most importantly) means you and I need to be patient with ourselves and with others.  We need to hold ourselves, including all of our mixed up and all-over-the-board reactions to life, gently.  We must give ourselves compassion, too - to honor ourselves as we are with the goodness we have in us that we ultimately want to express and let out more often than we do.  Maybe this self-gentleness and self-kindness would empower us to more readily hit the Undo Send button.

What would it look like in your life for you to use the 5 Second Undo Send button?  How much practice do you need to make this strategy more of a natural response, your more automatic default mode?  Pause. Breathe. Act.  I'm going to keep practicing this one.  I need it.  And living with regret isn't worth it.

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