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Having recently returned from Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering.  In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.

“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked.  Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive.  Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.

Back home in the U.S., this coming Memorial Day weekend is the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country.  In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t.  Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.

What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do?  How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us?  How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?

Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal.  Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given.  Or, in these tough economic times when layoffs become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did.  Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.

What am I being invited to sacrifice?  Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching.   Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.

Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me.  Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.

(This post is a slight revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2012.)

Meditation for Utilitarian Ends?

An earlier blog focused on the power of meditation to enhance success in life and work, with a particular focus on sports. Numerous studies demonstrate the beneficial effects of meditation on one’s life and work, not only in sports but also in other arenas.

Yet such studies raise further questions: Is the purpose of meditation to increase success? Should meditation be pursued for utilitarian ends? Does using meditation to achieve one’s personal goals corrupt an ancient spiritual practice?

There is nothing wrong with coming to spirituality because following a spiritual path will make one’s life better. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, find that relying on a higher power provides the first step necessary for their recovery. In fact, most seekers come to a spiritual path because of need, believing that through meditation or prayer the need will be met. And they are right.

At the same time, as sojourners continue on the path, they find the ground shifting under their feet. They encounter the transition to the second half of the journey, the part of the journey in which they transition from thinking that the spiritual journey is about getting something to realizing it is about their own transformation. What happens when it becomes difficult to pray or meditate, when the “honeymoon phase” is over? Often people feel they must be doing something wrong and they try harder, only to discover even more dryness and frustration. They may give up on prayer and meditation altogether, deciding that they’re not cut out for the spiritual path.

Yet spiritual teachers through the ages have taught that this is a normal and predictable part of the spiritual journey. The spiritual dryness provides an opportunity to be weaned from the expectation that meditation will always result in good feeling, that prayer will always result in the answers one wants. One learns to listen and let one’s prayers be shaped by the divine presence. Maturing spirituality involves embracing and letting go, time and again, of ways of meditation, of relationships, of work commitments, of community.

In articulating this transition to the second half of the journey, spiritual teachers help the sojourner understand what is occurring when she experiences it. When the first exhilaration of experiencing the blessings of meditation begins to fade, a deeper foundation can be formed, just as in a marriage when the initial romantic exhilaration begins to fade.

Thus, there is nothing wrong with seeking spirituality for “selfish” reasons. Anyone who continues on the spiritual path will eventually reach a different place. He will learn that the spiritual journey is about his own transformation rather than about the success he can procure from it. He ultimately learns that self-preservation is not the highest good, experiencing the relativization of self to a higher purpose.

Meditation and prayer are good practices, regardless of the reason they are taken up. May we learn to recognize in ourselves and others the vulnerable transition times, so that we can deepen into the mature spirituality of the second half of the journey.

Part of this blog is an excerpt from Soul at Work: Spiritual Leadership in Organizations. Used with permission of the publisher.

Leadership for Peace

St. Francis of Assisi
Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

As I prepare to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi in three weeks, I’m revisiting his life.  At this time in the life of our world, I’m finding myself drawn to Francis’s peacemaking skills.

St. Francis exercised peace leadership.  In the early thirteenth century, when Pope Innocent III rallied the troops for another Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land, Francis was appalled.  The Crusades broke his heart.

As Francis prayed about what part he was called to play, he felt moved to travel to Egypt where the Crusaders’ army found itself at a standoff with Sultan Malik Al Kamil’s army.  In the midst of the conflict, Francis felt called to cross battle lines and meet with the Sultan himself.

Cardinal Pelagius, the commander of the Crusaders’ army, at first refused Francis’s request to meet the Sultan, fearing that Francis would be killed attempting to cross to the other side.  At last he relented, in part because of his calculation that Francis might be better dead than alive, no longer pestering him about making peace, when Pelagius was committed to the path of war.

Miraculously, largely due to the openness of the Sultan, Francis crossed the battle line and survived.  Against the counsel of some of his generals, Sultan Malik Al Kamil agreed to meet Francis, and they had a mutually respectful conversation.  While Francis, not an official representative of Cardinal Pelagius, couldn’t formally respond to the Sultan’s proposal for compromise, Francis spoke of his desire for peace and affirmed the humanity of the Sultan and his people.

Cardinal Pelagius refused Malik Al Kamil’s proposal for compromise and continued his siege of the fortress city of Damietta until its inhabitants had died of starvation or by the sword.  Then he turned his face toward Cairo, ambitious to conquer that city.

Malik Al Kamil opened the sluice gates of the Nile, stranding the Crusaders’ army in the middle of the flood plain.  As the days on the plain stretched into weeks, Pelagius’s army ran out of food and began to starve.  Malik Al Kamil’s generals advised him to take advantage of the Crusaders and kill them while they were weak, just as Pelagius had done with the inhabitants of Damietta.  Instead, Malik Al Kamil retired to pray and returned with a very different response.  He fed the Crusaders so they wouldn’t starve.  Shocked that the Sultan’s army brought them bread instead of killing them, the Crusaders began to see Malik Al Kamil and his people as human beings, and lost the will to fight them.  Subsequently, as word spread, Pope Innocent III had more difficulty mustering up an army to fight the Crusade, and the Crusade gradually sputtered out.

Because both Francis and Malik Al Kamil recognized in the other a person of deep faith and a person of peace, a way forward emerged when it had appeared there was no way.

How can the example of St. Francis and Sultan Malik Al Kamil enlighten us? How can their decision to seek peaceful resolutions within a world intent on war inspire us during the conflicts in our current world? Might we resolve to recognize the humanity in those whom we have been taught to view as “enemies” and together contemplate a better path ahead through dialogue and a commitment to work toward peace? The brave determination of the thirteenth-century peacemakers leads me to ask, “What is mine to do?” in the midst of conflicts today.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Executive Soul blog in March, 2017).

Praying for Peace

This week, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I am praying for peace. At the same time as I pray, I find myself asking, “What good is praying for peace?” In examining my experience of praying for peace, I observe several things.

First, praying for peace changes me. I notice that, as I pray for peace, my desire to be a peaceful person increases. I notice my motivation to de-escalate conflict in my marriage, my family, my faith community, my workplace, my neighborhood, and my world growing stronger. Creative ideas about how to achieve this goal spring up, as well.

Second, praying for peace results in divine guidance about what part is mine to play. As I pray for peace, sometimes I am led to spend more time in prayer supporting activists in the streets, sometimes I am led to protest in the streets myself, sometimes I am led to write letters to my elected officials, and sometimes I am led to give money to groups working for peace. Along with this divine guidance comes a sense of freedom and energy, and the sense that I am being the best link in the chain of peacebuilding that I can be and that I don’t need to engage in hand-wringing or waste my energy worrying.

Third, praying for peace helps others. I often hear from those I am praying with or praying for how much their energy and creativity and effectiveness increased when they were the recipients of prayer (and I experience this myself when others are praying with and for me).

Fourth, praying for peace makes a difference in the world. While most of the time I can’t see the effects of my prayer, I sometimes can. Occasionally I hear of people whose minds were changed or people whose hearts were encouraged as they stood for peace in the upper echelons of power. At the times that I can’t see the effects of my prayer, I trust that it strengthens the Russians opposing the war, that it encourages Ukrainians not to give into despair, that it sparks creativity in diplomacy, and that it waters a host of other seeds of peace being sown in this conflict even as I write.

Finally, my faith tells me that praying for peace is good in itself. While I can’t always know the good that comes from praying for peace, I do it because I am a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and I want to follow in his footsteps.

May we pray for peace in these perilous times, both knowing the good outcomes we see as a result, and also trusting in the ones we can’t see.

[An earlier version of this blog appeared in the February 2022 blog.]

Broken New Year’s Resolutions?

Have you broken your New Year’s resolutions yet? If so, you’re not alone. A study at the University of Scranton reported that 36% of participants had broken their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. By the end of six months, over half had broken their resolutions.

What if we thought of our broken New Year’s resolutions not as evidence of weak willpower, but as a sign of other important commitments that need just as much attention as our resolutions need? A book that can help do just that is Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

Using your broken New Year’s resolutions to identify your competing commitments can help you get to the bottom of what isn’t working for you in your life. More importantly, identifying competing commitments can help you achieve your goals much more effectively than New Year’s resolutions can.

Here’s how it works, according to Kegan/Lahey: When you find yourself breaking a resolution, ask yourself, “In addition to this resolution, what else am I committed to?” (In my own case, my resolution to not overextend myself competes with my commitment to not miss out on something good.) Once the competing commitment is identified, you can begin to seek a win/win. Rather than having your competing commitments sabotage your resolution, you can dig deeper, identify your underlying assumptions, and take small steps to test whether those underlying assumptions are valid.

In the workplace, resolutions to change are particularly vulnerable, since many people are colluding in the status quo, and since old patterns die hard in the fast-paced, no-time-for-reflection work environment. Like individual New Year’s resolutions, organizational change efforts tend to focus on desired change without digging deeper to examine competing commitments. We’re all familiar with the term “resistance,” used to describe the forces that keep us from changing, both individually and organizationally. It’s easy to view resistance negatively, viewing it as the effort to cling to the old when it’s time to usher in the new. If instead of thinking in terms of organizational resistance to change, we can think in terms of competing commitments, we can mine rich veins of learning.

For example, Jean Quinn, the co-executive director of Sophia Housing in Dublin, Ireland, realized that a “command and control” leadership style inconsistent with the organization’s values had established itself in the organization. Because leaders had learned that style elsewhere and imported it, Quinn knew that their immunity to change would not be easy to overcome. She decided to call in an organizational consultant who would work closely with supervisors in the organization over an extended period of time to surface underlying assumptions and help people reflect on them. The organizational consultant, invited to offer leadership training in modules over six months, helped leaders in the organization identify their competing commitments, noting how leadership practices out of alignment with Sophia’s culture had crept in and how everyone had colluded in not challenging them. The supervisors worked with leaders both during the program and after, continuing with them in ongoing supervision after the six months were over. Through the integration of the training and supervision, Sophia’s leadership culture shifted, once again becoming more person-centered. Jean Quinn observed that, through surfacing assumptions and helping people talk about them openly, a culture of openness was created. The immunity to change had been overcome.

The next time you’re feeling discouraged by a broken New Year’s resolution, look deeper. You’re likely to find a competing commitment that is just as important and honorable as the “failed” commitment. If you can find a way to honor both commitments together, you may find yourself well on the road to success. What you learn from your “failure” can ultimately build a stronger foundation for moving toward your goal.

(Part of this article is taken from “Immunity to Change: Supervision, Organizational Leadership, and Transformation,” in The Soul of Supervision, Margaret Benefiel and Geraldine Holton, editors (Morehouse, 2010). Used with permission of the publisher. An earlier version of this blog appeared in the January 2015 blog)

Light in the Darkness

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world. Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

“Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.”

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level. In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward. Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity. These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work. The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer. In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer. It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision. Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action. “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.” Dying leads to new life. Out of the darkness comes light.

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty. And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

[An earlier version of this blog appeared in the December 2016 blog.]

Learning the New Song

The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. . . I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody – how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies.”  

 – Howard Thurman, “I Will Sing a New Song”

As I have reflected on this meditation by Howard Thurman during this election season in the U.S., I’ve asked myself, “What is the old tired familiar melody in my life at this time?” I realize that it is fear, despair, obsessive worry, knee-jerk actions. What is the new song for me? Discovering it requires listening. It’s God’s invitation to something fresh and new in each moment. It requires listening, learning the melody, and then singing along. These past few weeks leading up to the election, it has been an invitation to deeper prayer for me. When I read the fear-mongering and hostility in the news, I feel dismay and anxiety.  I watch in dismay as the authoritarian playbook unfolds before my eyes, with threats of voter suppression and election result denial. Never say, “it can’t happen here,” I remind myself. 

How can my dismay at what was happening be turned into productive prayer and action, rather than obsessive anxiety? As I listen for God’s prayer in me, I hear the new melody. I find myself being drawn to pray deeply that that of God in each person in this country would be raised up and that what is not of God would fall away. I return to this prayer many times a day.

As I pray, I have a sense of God working, of the good being raised up in poll workers to give them the strength to keep counting ballots in the face of threats, of the good being raised up in judges to give them the courage to hold up justice, of the good being raised up in ordinary citizens to give them the will and the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood as they listen to the rhetoric of politicians. I have a vision of others who are uniting in the same prayer that I am praying, holding up one another’s arms in prayer as Aaron and Hur did for Moses, so that we don’t give up when we grow weary. The vision I see includes some who are called to pray at this moment, some called to work for fair ballot counting and protection of our democracy, some called to witness in the streets, some called to pray now and work tomorrow, others to work today and pray tomorrow, some to work and pray at the same time. The work and the prayer are integrated. As I listen for the new song, I continue to pray and sense how God is at work. I feel confident I will know what is mine to do when.  

As I listen for the new song, my prayer also moves to those who are marginalized. I’m aware of many who have been and still are suffering deeply, of the children at the border still separated from their parents, of the black lives lost in police killings, of those in poverty especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and more. I pray that that of God in the marginalized will be raised up to give them hope and remind them of their dignity when they are tempted to despair. I pray that that of God in the rest of us will be raised up to give us strength and courage to fight for the protection of those on the margins.

This prayer feels deeper than any particular election.  We so need the good to be raised up in each of us as we move forward as a country, as a world. Those of us who disagree with one another, who support different candidates, need the good to be raised up in us so that we are not tempted, respectively, to gloat or to turn to bitterness and despair. We need the good to be raised up in each of us so that we can hear the good in opposing points of view.  How can I listen for the good in them? How can we carry out respectful dialogue and find our way forward as fellow citizens seeking to re-build a democracy together?

May we each continue to listen for the new song that is ours to sing. May we all learn to sing the new melodies. The degree to which we each faithfully sing our new song will determine the degree of harmony and healing manifested among us.

[This is a further development of the November 2020 Executive Soul blog.]

Politician or Leader?

“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman [or leader] of the next generation.” (James Freeman Clarke, 1870)

A midterm election year provides ample opportunity for sorting out the politicians from the leaders. In my home of the U.S., Election Day, now 8 days away, brings out the best and the worst in candidates.

Of course, most candidates are a blend of politician and leader, succumbing partly to the pressures of the next election. How can we choose wisely, discerning the degree to which a candidate exhibits real leadership rather than mere political savvy? As we consider candidates, some guiding questions that go beyond party lines might be: To what extent does this candidate focus on future generations and their needs? To what extent does this candidate focus on the issues rather than personal attacks on his/her opponent? To what extent is this candidate qualified and able to tackle the issues?

Furthermore, we get the elected officials we deserve. They mirror us. Robert Kegan, in his book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, noted over twenty years ago that many of the mental demands of modern life are beyond most people’s level of mental and emotional development. However, the U.S. greatly needs not only mature leaders but also mature citizens, voters who can direct our country’s path toward the best possible future. We might also ask ourselves: To what extent do I focus on future generations and their needs? To what extent do I focus on the issues rather than being swayed by personal attacks? To what extent do I focus on qualifications and abilities? Furthermore, as a collective group of engaged citizens, we might ask: How can we mature to take on the challenges before us? How does our culture keep us immature? How can we begin to challenge our culture to change so that it challenges us to grow up?

Elections test the mettle not only of candidates, but also of citizens. Will you ask the tough questions to sort out the leaders from the politicians? Will you examine yourself and where you focus your attention? Will you be part of the solution of helping the culture to mature? As for me, I’m pledging right now to do my best to answer these questions in the affirmative throughout the remainder of this election season.

(This is a revised version of an article that appeared in the September 2012 Executive Soul blog.)

Impermanent Leadership

I am spending this week at the beach. As I watch the waves come in and go out, I am reminded of the impermanence of all things. Mighty waves crash against the shore and immediately lose their form and power. Sand castles, carefully constructed, disappear in one crash of a wave.

At the same time as I watch the waves, I am reading Tilden Edwards’ new memoir, Life Woven in Sacred Time. As the founder of the Shalem Institute and its first executive director (for 27 years!), Tilden reflects, among other things, on what it was like to lead a contemplative organization. As Shalem’s current executive director, I reflect on what resonates with my experience. The impermanence of leadership stands out and shimmers for me.

When I construct a sand castle, I do so knowing full well that it will disappear in the blink of an eye. Yet as I build an organization, I am tempted again and again to regard my work as permanent.

Tilden reminds me that contemplative leadership is full of surprise, humility, humor, awe, and surrender. These things serve to remind us that our best human plans can be upended in a moment. He tells stories of establishing programs, not knowing which would continue to thrive and which would fade away. He recounts fundraising experiences: 1) Certain that the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation would not fund Shalem’s two grant proposals after the impassive visitor from the Fund departed, he was amazed to learn that they decided to fund both proposals fully; 2) Another year, they had to reduce staff and expenses when they fell significantly short in raising the money they thought they needed.

The uncertainty of programs and funding kept him humble. He would put his best ideas forward and at the same time, watch and wait to see what God would do. Leadership was full of both wonderful surprises and devastating disappointments.

My own experience mirrors Tilden’s. For example, when the pandemic hit and we had to cancel programs, all my careful planning became irrelevant. I had to come to a point of acknowledging “if we perish, we perish,” at the same time doing my best to discern what steps to take to meet the challenges at hand. When it became clear that some programs could thrive and even grow on Zoom, we knew that God still had work for Shalem to do.

When staff changes due to retirements, graduate programs, and other opportunities occurred, I had to trust that the way would open for the right staff to come along to do the work that Shalem was called to do. When doors closed that I thought would open, I had to reassess what I thought Shalem was called to, listening for God’s voice in the midst of the many voices (including my own) clamoring for my attention.

Contemplative leadership, then, allows for the impermanence of all things. Contemplative leaders trust that the organization will survive and thrive as long as it can be of service in the world, in the ways that it can be of service. They are willing to let go when the work of the organization is finished. They are willing to surrender their own agendas when doors close. They listen for the new when their plans fizzle. They receive what is given in humility and gratitude.

My hope and prayer is that I can serve day by day, week by week, year by year, with an awareness of the impermanence of leadership. It is a spiritual practice that keeps me humble.

3 Leadership Lessons from John Woolman

We currently face at least six pandemics in our world:

1) COVID-19

2) Racism

3) War

4) Police brutality and militarization of police

5) Climate change

6) Economic inequity

In the face of these pandemics and the related refugee crises, world hunger, bitter political divisions in this country, and international political tensions, I sometimes find myself feeling helpless and even hopeless. What can one person do in the face of these impossible challenges? Where can I find the courage and hope to move forward?

I find the eighteenth-century American Quaker John Woolman inspiring and instructive for this time.  He faced one of the impossible challenges of his time, slavery, with prayer and action.  Through prayer and discernment, Woolman discerned what was his to do.  He felt called to travel to visit American Quaker slaveholders to challenge them to free the people they had enslaved.  Woolman was both loving and prophetic. He didn’t give into hating the evildoer while denouncing the evil of slavery.  He didn’t water down his prophetic message in order to “love” the slaveholder.  How did he hold this tension?

He held it through prayer and discernment.  After visiting a slaveholder, he would return to worship, holding that person in the Light, reflecting on the pro-slavery arguments with which he had been presented.  Not getting hooked by his ego, he would systematically refute each argument, returning to the slaveholder and presenting his thoughts clearly, with humility and love.  He knew that oppression hurt the oppressor as well as the oppressed.  He met each slaveholder with love, yearning for the slaveholder’s liberation from slaveholding as well as for the enslaved people’s liberation from slavery.

What can I learn from John Woolman in this time in which I find myself?  In this time when more details about the Jan 6, 2021 insurrection in the U.S. are revealed, for example, can I love Donald Trump and the people he incited to riot, people I see as dangerous for my country and my world?  When I pray for them, I do feel compassion.  I see hurt little children inside and I long for their liberation from the fear and hatred that imprison their souls.  Will I be called to speak truth to them?  Is there hope for their transformation?  These are questions that are beyond me.  All I know is that I will continue to pray for them and I will seek to be faithful as I am led.  I also know that I will work to bring them to justice, to stop the damage I think they are doing.

Closer to home, how do I love the Trump supporters in my own family?  I know that I can pray for them.  When I pray, I am changed from an oppositional stance toward them to feeling compassion for them as I see the fears and hurts that draw them toward Trump and his rhetoric.  As I am led, I can speak to their fears and hurts, and also speak prophetically to them.  And when the conversations grow tense, I can keep returning to my spiritual grounding, keep praying that I will come from a place of compassion.  When my ego gets hooked and the conflict escalates (which happens more frequently than I like to admit), I know it’s time to take a break and center down.  Loving and speaking prophetically at the same time is a spiritual practice for me.  Will it change others?  I don’t know.  But I do know that it changes me and that it sows seeds of transformation in others that might take root and grow, either now or sometime in the future.  There is no template for loving across differences, no formula that we can follow that will result in transformation of others at the end.  There is the lifetime work of spiritual practice, practice that will change me and, through my actions, sow seeds in the world.  Whether those seeds grow is up to other people and to God.

So, in this time of multiple pandemics, how can we have courage, faith, hope, and love for all, even for those with whom we disagree? First, by staying spiritually grounded through daily spiritual practice. Second, by making the practice of loving across differences one of our regular spiritual practices. Third, by discerning in community “What is mine to do?” and being faithful in carrying out our part.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 2020 Executive Soul blog.)

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