Joyful

As the school year comes to a slow pause for Christmas vacation, let’s all remember that we are the ones who bring the worry and frustration and irritability to the season of glad tidings. Quite the contrary, the conclusion of Advent brings new life in the person of Jesus the Christ (“anointed one”) and in turn directs us to remember what true joy means.

Being joyful doesn’t mean you are an unrealistic optimist. It doesn’t even mean that you’re happy more often than you’re not. Joyful is the disposition of recognizing the inherent value of all things. It is smiling when we hear the phrase “bad weather” or “good trip” because life is not meant to be a series of binary options: good/bad, light/dark, happy/sad. We may use them to express how we’re feeling at a given point in time but it’s important to remind ourselves that if we truly see God in all things then being joyful is being fully present and aware of creation that surrounds us.

This holiday season let’s be mindful of the sights and sounds that envelop us, not the tenor of a singer’s voice or the cascading lights on trees but in the everyday. Be more mindful during your daily walk or simply listen to the chatter of family members around the table. Whatever it is, practice joy by giving gratitude for the gift of being present to those we love and those who love us…simply because.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

An Empty Manger

Ten years ago, my parents recorded an audio book of “The Night Before Christmas” as a gift for (at the time) our only son Gabriel. At the end of the story, they say his name wishing him a Merry Christmas. When we listened to the book the other night with both boys (Daniel was born in ’14), Daniel turned to me incredulously and said, “Well, that was dark,” noting the absence of any reference to him in my parents’ remarks. I then had to awkwardly explain to him that there was a time when he was not yet here and it gave me pause to think about what it means for someone to simply not be. During the season of Advent, my thoughts were drawn to the manger and its empty space.

Nativity scenes decorate our homes, places of worship, and work spaces. Until Christmas morning, our focus is on an empty manger; a common, less than regal, bed for a savior. It’s anything but special and yet it is in that space that we wait patiently for a great event to happen, for someone to become. We embrace the time that he is not yet here. But even in that space of hope, of new beginnings, we know how the story ends. Our faith calls us to realize that the birth of Christ must lead to the Cross. The Cross of the Resurrection is what transforms this world into new life through the Kingdom of God: “already, but not yet” built in our lifetime. The building of of the Kingdom calls us to continue the waiting, the work, the struggle. In short, the empty manger allows us to realize the fullness of new life in the Easter miracle!

As we meditate on the birth of Jesus, let’s remember that through his life God entered our world in an otherwise forgettable setting. A king, born in a stable surrounded by livestock, changed our world and how we come to see our place in it. May we always remember what it means to empty ourselves into the lives of one another and to realize that the Christmas miracle continues to reveal itself in every moment of every day.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Waiting

Traffic. Delays. Lines. We experience waiting on a daily basis. It is usually met with frustration and an elevated emotional response toward those people or circumstances that seem to create or aggravate our waiting. In short, we don’t like it or look forward to it.

A few years back during the holiday season I was flying back to California to visit family when a storm canceled my flight. While I was in line waiting to reschedule, a man yelled to the airline employee, “Well I have to be somewhere!” I thought to myself, “So do I. We all do; it’s an airport.” After all, who goes to an airport to visit the airport? But his indignation has stayed with me for sometime because I think in a perverse way he captures the angst most of us experience during the holiday season: arriving somewhere.

The joy of the Advent season calls us to recall the joy in the mundane, the anticipation, the journey. The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday or a time to rejoice in preparation for the birth of Jesus. [Liturgical footnote: it’s also only one of two Sundays where the priest wears rose color vestments; the 4th Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, is the other]. As a child I remember seeing the rose candle in the Advent wreath and thinking, “We’re almost there!” This December, let’s all remember to enjoy this element of moving closer to something, however slowly it may feel.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Beyond Thanks

This time of year we are reminded to give thanks to those around us and to be thankful for what we have. At its best, this can foster a deeper awareness of our many blessings; at its worst, it is nothing more than an autumnal refrain. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t protest against a second slice of pie or a generous serving of cornbread stuffing. But if all we do is heighten our awareness of “haves” and “have nots” then do any of us truly change for the better?

We know that the word Eucharist comes from the Greek meaning “thanksgiving” and yet we all struggle with living out what receiving the Body of Blood of Christ actually calls us to be. So why not try something new? Make a commitment to be life giving this holiday season. Give it through your actions and not your rhetoric. Go public with praise and be private with criticism. Get offline and go in person. Search out sources of joy and recognize they will always outnumber what can be faulted.

This time of year let’s challenge ourselves to not just know Christ but to be Christ for others. [In fact, this is the very mission of our parish which comes from our new advisory council]. In a beautiful phrase attributed to St. John Chrysostom, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.” We cannot simply list blessings, we must become them for others. We must manifest hope in our treatment of the stranger, the person we disagree with at work, and those we love, all the same. To be beyond thankful calls us to model the way as Christ would ask of us—not just “this time of year” but with every breath of every day. Don’t make thanksgiving part of the holiday season. Make it part of who you are.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Unity

The featured track from the metal band Tool’s new album is titled “Pneuma,” which means “breath” or “spirit” and the opening lyrics reflect a particular biblical motif of unity:

We are spirit
Bound to this flesh
We go around one foot nailed down
We’re bound to reach out and beyond
This flesh become Pneuma
We are will and wonder
Bound to recall, remember
(We are born of)
One breath, one word
(We are all)
One spark, sun becoming

Word-Flesh. Immanent-Transcendent. These theological and philosophical pairings are not intended to be abstract constructions but rather serve as a way of framing the human condition. As Teilhard de Chardin, SJ reminds us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In a meta-cognitive kind of way this reminds us of how we recognize what is recognizable about ourselves as individuals and as part of a collective entity. Many communities speak to having a unified front or an authentic sense of togetherness despite numerous differences, the way an athlete overcomes a career threatening injury. Likewise, families themselves are a microcosm of “unified chaos.” They emulate the way numerous obligations, agreements, and conflicts somehow overcome the challenges of time to emerge as a unified whole, however imperfect and flawed. But that’s the nature of relationships; they’re messy and complicated, like sausage-making. The quest for unity is not linear or simple; it is fraught with detours, distractions, and doubt.

I often describe my approach to school as a “systems thinker,” most likely a reference to Peter Senge’s work in organizational learning. Since most of my academic background is in systematic theology, I tend to view things in a way which recognizes the potential influence of each aspect of an organization. In a theological discussion, for example, you can’t talk about God unless you talk about human nature and you can’t talk about human nature unless you talk about the impact of freedom and sin, etc. So too we can’t talk about the unity of oneself or of a community without its parts, without the challenges and flaws that make it a uniquely distinct entity. In short, it’s not reasonable to conflate unity with agreement. Unification does not mean that conflict or disagreement have somehow dissipated into the ether of community-building but rather views this mosaic of differences as a collective whole.

“One breath, one word…” go the lyrics from “Pnuema.” Breathing is a habit we are usually unaware of. We are rarely fully aware of our breath unless it is shortened after rigorous exercise or in need underwater. But it requires intake and output, giving and taking, critiquing and supporting. To be unified about any issue or problem is more complex than we realize. But there is a grace in knowing the journey toward it is a priceless spiritual investment in ourselves and those around us.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

I recently finished reading “Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by the journalist David Epstein who argues for the value of acquiring a deep breadth of knowledge over the hyper-specializing in one discipline. The central motif in the book is base on the idea posed in an essay by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (and previously by the Greek poet Archilochus, d. 645 BCE) who offered an intellectual exercise saying people can be sorted into two categories: foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing; or, to put it another way, those leaders who excel at seeing the granular details of projects and others who can see the big picture.

Most of our experience in life tells us that experience itself is the key benchmark for discerning how to make decisions. [We’re all familiar with the employment tautology of jobs requiring experience: How does an applicant without experience get experience so they can be experienced?!]. What we fail to recognize is that being an outsider looking in can have a great advantage beyond those who are deemed insider experts in a field. When I entered the fundraising profession after years of being a teacher, I didn’t have the typical credentials to justify how I perform in the position. I had no direct experience and development was most certainly not in my wheelhouse. Yet I knew that being in administration would require me to have some background in this given the challenge of many private schools to raise capital while achieving long-term strategic planning goals. What I did have was an understanding of cultivating relationships (pedagogy) coupled by an appreciation for the psychology behind the emotional impact of philanthropy: giving literally feels good!

When I was department chair hiring theology teachers, candidates would often tell me, “I specialize in the New Testament,” or “I would like to teach a seminar on St. Paul,” to which I would reply, “I need you to do everything.” As an educator, being adaptable is the antithesis of being specialized. You can’t just focus on 2nd grade Language Arts; you need to be proficient in phonics and science and religion and so much more. The work of psychologist Phil Tetlock underscores this point in his work on forecasting and predicting. We may presume that political scientists are best suited for predicting polling results but sometimes that specialization can obfuscate the answer that’s right in front of us. In his research, generalists tended to fare better in their predictive abilities because they were able to examine a case from multiple positions. Our focus quickly becomes our proverbial blind spot.

So while this animal representation of leadership styles and approaches to decision making may be a fun topic for your next cocktail party, it does hold important implications for how our society influences and inspires the next generation of scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs. Do we allow for greater intellectual space to explore new ideas or do we simply replicate previous achievements? Are we more excited about the young sports prodigy (e.g., Tiger Woods) or the person who writes their magnum opus well into their middle ages (e.g., Julia Child)? We are all guilty of this “achievement impatience” whether it be for ourselves or our loved ones, especially our children: excel now and succeed today are common sentiments. Instead we may be better served by allowing the fox inside us to explore with more freedom and the hedgehog to ponder more deeply. Maybe then we can begin to learn to take the short and long view of things hand in hand.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Proud of Death

When my dad died three years ago, I knew he would not be forgotten but I did wonder where he was. Despite my background in theology, I was at a loss as to how my life would be impacted by his absence. A deeply religious man, he was an imperfect model of grace, guided by virtues he lived more often than spoke about. The “Fall Triduum” of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day confronts our thinking about death, loss, and new life; it is the religious and cultural trifecta of seasons, death, and judgment. John Donne’s (d. 1631) famous sonnet “Death, be not proud” frames this difficult topic in a more hopeful light:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

The way we process losing someone in our lives is as complicated as it is transcendent insofar as we confront our own existential grasp of what it means to no longer be. While we may undergo the classic five stages of grief outlined by the great psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (d. 2004), we are nevertheless faced with a much deeper crisis of identity. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (d. 1965) aptly titled one of his books “The Courage to Be.” In it he examined how human nature is faced with a true moral dilemma: how do we face the threat of nothingness? How do we define ourselves in the face of no longer being? Tillich contended that this threat can either define us or paralyze our way of thinking about what it means to be human. Our personal and collective identity as members of the human race is more than a singular memory or experience; it is the totality of creation anticipating its final call to go beyond a life plagued by war, disease, and conflict.

By choosing to title this entry “Proud of Death,” I am not making some morbid assertion but rather hoping to raise awareness about the gift of life and the gift of memory. Perhaps it would be better to say, “be proud of death no longer having power over us.” This is the challenge of the cross and resurrection: to witness that death no longer reigns over us and that new life awaits us. Perhaps Donne and Tillich are arguing along similar lines that death itself remains a reality but its grasp and power (and hold on shaping who we are as individuals made in the likeness of God) no longer applies. It is a dimension of who we will become but it does not have the last word; our family and friends who have passed already know this all too well. By holding up our loved ones in prayer we do keep them alive. The emotions we experience are testimony to this and the mantle we are charged to take up is one of remembrance and hope.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!