Gathering Embers

The celebration of Ash Wednesday solemnly marks the start of the Lenten season. The dictum, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us of the need for penance and humility but also the grace that allows us to be forgiven. Ashes represent a symbol of our faith and serve as a reminder of the human condition. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich describes these characteristics of a symbol:

It opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us. All arts create symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. A picture and a poem reveal elements of reality which cannot be approached scientifically. In the creative work of art we encounter reality in a dimension which is closed for us without such works…it not only opens up dimensions and elements of reality which otherwise would remain unapproachable but also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality…there are within us dimensions of which we cannot become aware except through symbols, as melodies and rhythms in music.

(Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957)

In a similar way, every Lent we gather embers as a way of inviting ourselves to ponder a reality that is beyond us while also reflecting on what is within our very being. Recognizing we are flawed sinful beings is not meant to be a form of psychological punishment; it is an affirmation of our faith and connection with one another. Like the cross at Easter or manger during Advent, ashes function as a powerful signpost on our spiritual journey. They remind us to take a spiritual inventory of where we’ve fallen short in words and deeds. But they also remind us what our shared humanity demands of us once when we wash them from our foreheads.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Beautiful Ignorance

In school settings, ignorance is not something one would typically embrace, let alone value. We teach through various methods of engagement with the goal of students performing at a high achieving level. They learn the art of asking higher-ordered questions while understanding content that challenges them to employ the skills they are taught. But ignorance? It should be removed from our collective educational psyche altogether, right?

The other day I stood at the school front door as our Kindergarten classes left for their field trip. Their excitement was palpable as it was the first time many of them had been on a school bus. When they returned, I asked some of them what they liked most about their trip. “The bus!” they emphatically yelled. “It was the journey,” I thought to myself. They were ignorant about the goal or purpose of the trip, i.e., visiting the museum, not in a deficient or pejorative way, but in a way that elicited a beautiful naivete which embraced the “how” of getting there altogether. It demonstrated a pragmatic indifference about the ends of the trip; it was the means that made all the difference.

In the well-known Aesop’s Fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the Hare pokes fun at the Tortoise:

“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh. “Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think.”

All too often in educational circles, the focus becomes solely about the goal or destination: scores, grades, certificates, awards. The journey itself is rarely commented upon: How did you learn about that? Why did you answer the question that way as opposed to another? Can you think of a better way of responding to your classmate? These types of questions engage the psyche on a deeper cognitive level. They also create space to allow for beautiful ignorance to envelop us and, much like the children going on the bus ride, enjoy the journey, the process, the messiness of authentic learning.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Making $en$e of Giving

Can you recall the first time you donated money to a cause? Do you remember why you did it? For most of us, this is like trying to recall what you learned in elementary school: you may not get many specifics but you do remember how you felt and perhaps who made you feel a particular way. I remember when I was in the 3rd grade and bringing home a Catholic Relief Service Rice Bowl to collect money for children in Africa. During the season of Lent, I remember giving part of my allowance each week toward this cause. What strikes me about this memory isn’t the cause or even the recipients. It was knowing I was making an impact and that it felt good to give what I could. Fast forward to 2020 where the technology in our world allows me to give across various platforms and know my (relatively small) donation is appreciated and put to good use; technology allows us to donate by clicking a button or simply sending a text. So if it’s not difficult, what prevents us from giving?

It’s been said that anyone can raise money. From children soliciting door to door with candy bars to the most polished philanthropic advisors, anyone is capable of managing a simple financial transaction. But what differentiates fundraising from philanthropy is the cultivation of relationships and emotions. To say you can increase your own dopamine (chemical associated with reward and motivations) and serotonin (chemical associated with mood regulation) production borders on being quite the salacious offer. But in many ways, there is a real truth in this idea that charitable giving is more biological than financial. Emotions leave a powerful imprint on our collective memory; songs, words, and symbols can all evoke them. While we may not always remember a name or date, we are usually able to remember how some person or some event made us feel. We can recall the joy from our experiences in college while refraining from recalling more unpleasant memories. Our selectivity is important to consider here. For many people reading this, being part of the SMM community or another Catholic grade school was a positive experience. Many of those who have this shared experience may have even decided to make a gift at some point as a way of saying “thanks,” “I appreciate the experience,” or “I want to provide for future students.”

Giving is about our organization, your taxable income, our initiatives, impressing your friends—alright, maybe we can include the last one—making YOU feel good about the impact YOU make. As parents, friends, and potential donors, you are our best resource and spokespeople for what is unique about SMM in 2020. Part of my responsibility is to thank you for your contributions and communicate to you the impact of what you do for our students and faculty. Making sense about giving means shedding light on the power of an educational program; or the financial ease that comes with receiving financial aid to help with tuition; or seeing a renovated playground and library ensure ample study space. It’s at best odd and at worst defeatist to say fundraising isn’t about money. To better understand giving means realizing it doesn’t make sense to donate your hard-earned income; it is not a purely rational act. It is an emotional endeavor where you are given far more in return by knowing that your gift has a tremendous impact on our ability to provide a premier Catholic educational programming, enhanced professional development, and state of the art technological accessibility. By giving to the SMM, you help continue the work started 67 years ago by the Bernardine Sisters and Fr. Henry Miller, our first pastor. Because of you and your generosity we continue to stand on the shoulders of giants—those who have gone before us—in a spirit of gratitude and humility for our beloved school.

Let’s celebrate Catholic Schools Week by remembering our rich history while investing in our future on January 28. Join us and be part of our storied legacy in Wilmington!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

To Lead is to Step Aside

The new year brings a multitude of resolutions, commitments, and a sense of things starting anew. (For me personally and professionally, this means my Amazon book list continues to grow like a literary hydra!) with topics ranging from psychology and sociology to economics and theology. But in particular, leadership books intrigue me. As one of my colleagues liked to remark, “Reading a book on leadership is like reading about baseball: you have to do it!” In many ways, he’s right. To just read about leadership on its own can be a mental exercise in futility unless there is a connection between theory and praxis, concepts and action.

School leadership in particular can be complex given the web of curriculum, laws, policies, enrollment, and funding needs, among others. In parochial schools, the principal or headmaster is seen as a gatekeeper, one who oversees everything from facilities to staff to curriculum. Yet this idea does more of a disservice to the numerous individuals it takes to truly lead a school, to support its constituencies, and to engage in a shared vision for the future. It’s like the belief that only a quarterback or running back can win the Heisman Trophy: we tend to ignore the peripheries in life. There are so many individuals that contribute to success within a school setting that we have the tendency to limit the recognition needed to thrive. Only hubris allows for an individual to truly believe that success is accomplished in isolation.

In our #Twitterverse world, we can engage another tendency to make brevity the norm for explanations. Bumper stickers can be memorable, but they can’t allow for nuance. Then again, not everything needs a 300-page thesis to get the point across. So here’s my sticker:

Lead by stepping aside. Ensure people are cared for, foster organizational excitement, and embrace risk. Frame the vision, build ownership, and respect differences. Repeat.

Leadership is about action. It is about empowerment. It is about serving those you are responsible for first. It echoes what leadership and management expert Simon Sinek means by the phrase “leaders eating last.” In committing to this, we can move beyond catchphrases and grow closer to tangible results that place us closer to building the next generation of leaders.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

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!