America’s Dark Night of the Soul

Photo credit: Luigi Mengato via flickr

Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Has America started down this road?  Yes. Irreparably?  I hope not.

We’re destroying ourselves in many ways, the most obvious at the moment being the way we’re handling our midterm election campaigns.  Experts estimate over $4 billion will be spent on midterm election campaigns, billions used to stir up fear and hatred, billions that could have been spent on the world’s crying needs.

While politicians argue that the system forces them to spend huge amounts of money, and that negative ads work, where are the voices pointing out the consequences of these actions? Where are the voices speaking up for the nation’s soul?

If an alien came to our planet and watched its wealthiest, most powerful civilization collapse, the alien would no doubt say, “They reaped what they sowed.” By the way we are spending our money as a nation, by the way we are focusing our energy on planting fear and hatred, we are sowing seeds of collapse.  Will we follow like lemmings to destruction? Or will we choose a better path?

Many are familiar with the concept of a dark night of  the soul, in which the seeker is plunged into a spiritual crisis, lost in a state of darkness and struggling with doubts and fears. Is it possible that countries, too, can experience a dark night of  the soul?  Perhaps America, itself, is suffering from this malady, as political strife, greed, and instances of violence shake its foundations.

Yet many of us have seen that even in times of darkness, God is at work.  Throughout the turbulence that our country faces, more and more people are waking up to the need for change.  As people become utterly dissatisfied with how broken the system is, they become more passionately motivated to alter it, making changes at the local and grassroots levels.

The dark night of the soul brings more than just pain; it can also bring new opportunities to engage with life more fully, to live by our hearts more deeply. Let us take the opportunity of this dark night of the nation’s soul to search our hearts individually and as a nation and to take the action that we are called to take.  The night is darkest just before the dawn.  Let us look for glimpses of God in the dark night and respond in the way that is ours to do.

(This is a further development of an article that appeared in Sojourners in November, 2010.)

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

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As St. Francis’ Feast Day approaches on October 4, I’ve been reflecting on what I can learn from his leadership failures.  Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

1. Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict.  Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers.  Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers.  Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go.  As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

           Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

2. Preparation for leadership. In 1217 Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land.  While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed.   Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting.  Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

          Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment.  And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

3. Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217.  He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home.  But the urge to travel in ministry returned and he left for Egypt in 1219.  Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities.  The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous.  This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

          Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive.  By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to be more effective leaders.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in June 2015.)

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

Photo credit: Chris Light

As St. Clare of Assisi’s (1194-1253) feast day approaches on August 11, I’ve been reflecting on her soulful leadership.  Best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” Clare eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond.  While St. Francis took center stage with his extroverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me.  Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.

First, Clare knew the power of prayer.  She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership.  Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing.  She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult.  Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed.  Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God.  Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled.  Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi.  Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent.  When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed.  People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.

Second, Clare knew how to build community.  Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and from afar.  She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions.  Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent.  While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships.  And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.

Third, Clare lived perseverance.  Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it.  For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God.  She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community.  When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up.  Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her.  When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.

Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times.  The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith.  However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.

 

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in April 2016.)

Freedom

Freedom is on my mind.  As the U.S. prepares to celebrate Independence Day several days from now, I’ve been contemplating my freedoms.

I enjoy the freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice.  I enjoy freedom of religion. I enjoyed the freedom of a good education, which gave me the opportunities to do work I love and to marry the person I chose.  I enjoy freedom from want, with a place to live and food to eat. I enjoy the freedom to live where I want to live and to travel to the places I want to travel.

As I consider immigrants at our border, I know that most of them enjoyed none of these freedoms in their countries of origin.  While poverty has long been a cause for immigration from Central America, added to that motivation now is gang rule in regions of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. With gangs in charge, murder, extortion, and sexual exploitation have risen dramatically. The asylum seekers at our border aren’t even assured the freedom to live, let alone the other liberties I take for granted.

The U.S. has long been a country that has promised freedom to those denied it in their own countries.  We take pride in being the land of the free and the home of the brave, with many of the free and the brave among us having made dangerous journeys to escape the oppression they faced in their homelands.

Now, however, America’s approach to refugees does not reflect the same welcoming spirit that, in the past, allowed many immigrants to seek safety and better lives on this soil. Dr. Fiona Danaher notes,

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed 404 unaccompanied or separated immigrant children in 2013, they found that 72% and 57% of the children from El Salvador and Honduras, respectively, potentially met criteria for refugee protections under international law. Yet in recent years, only about one third of asylum requests by unaccompanied minors have been granted — and the proportion is likely to diminish under the current administration’s ever-narrowing asylum criteria.

Why do we Americans, who have such a long history of granting freedom to refugees, seem so hesitant to do so now? Asylum seekers deserve the right to a fair hearing.  Asylum seekers deserve the right to be considered for refugee protection in their search for freedom.

To be an asylum seeker does not make one a criminal.  

As we celebrate our many freedoms on July 4, let us remember all those who don’t live in freedom.  And let us not add further to their misery. Let us ask, “What is mine to do, to help offer the gift of freedom to those who lack it?”

Sacrifice

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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. now, this is Memorial Day weekend, 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.)

 

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

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As I walked on pilgrimage this month in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I pondered what I could learn from him about leadership.  Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, six lessons in leadership effectiveness stand out to me.

  1. Be true to yourself. Francis traveled a number of paths before he found the one that was right for him.  The son of a successful cloth merchant in thirteenth-century Italy, Francis seemed destined for business success.  From playboy to soldier to knight to cloth merchant, Francis experimented with paths he thought might suit him.  It was only when he heard God’s call to rebuild the church that he discovered his true path.  Yet when he abandoned his father’s business and embraced poverty and service, the townspeople called him crazy.  For years he wandered through his native city following a path that no one understood.  In time, as he persevered in pursuing the way that was his to pursue, a few people caught his vision and began to follow him.  Eventually, his followers numbered in the thousands.  By being true to himself and persevering in the face of misunderstanding and mockery, Francis forged a new way that attracted thousands.
  2. Love God passionately. Francis brought the passion of his former life to his love of God.  Not one for half measures, Francis fell utterly in love with God, and loved with abandon.  He roamed the countryside singing of his love, and he constantly sought ways to please God.
  3. Embrace all. Francis learned early on that rebuilding God’s church meant embracing everyone.  He embraced the leper who represented the lowest caste in society.  When people began to follow his way, he embraced brothers from the highest class to the lowest, inviting them to live together in simplicity and community.  When Clare ran away from home in order to follow him, he embraced her and helped her establish a women’s order.  Francis learned to see the gifts that each person brought and to embrace people with gratitude for their contributions.
  4. Live with joy. Francis lived with contagious joy.  His delight in the beauty of nature, in the uniqueness of each person, in the gifts of God, drew people to him.  Even in adversity, Francis lived with joy.  For example, when a hut in which he took refuge for a night proved to be infested with mice, after an initial expression of displeasure, Francis welcomed his “brother mice” with joy and hospitality.  His joy disarmed friends and detractors alike.
  5. Approach power courageously. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” decided early in his ministry that he and his tiny band of brothers should approach the Pope to ask for his blessing on their way of life. Undaunted by Pope Innocent III’s wealth and power in contrast to their outcast status, the rag-tag band walked from Assisi to Rome.  Rebuffed by the cardinals when they arrived, they persevered in seeking an audience with the Pope.  After the Pope had a dream in which he saw a little poor man holding up a huge church, he realized he needed to talk to Francis.  Francis and the brothers, fearless before the Pope, described their way of life as living the gospel as Jesus intended.  The Pope, impressed by their sincerity and commitment, gave his provisional blessing.
  6. Reach across differences. The Crusades broke Francis’ heart. He hated seeing Christians fighting Muslims over the holy land.  In 1219, he traveled to Egypt where the battle was raging, and crossed enemy lines, unarmed, in order to speak with the Ottoman Sultan.  He hoped to find common ground, and risked his life to do so.  He boldly spoke to the Sultan and the Sultan listened attentively.  Though he didn’t achieve reconciliation, the two men left the encounter with mutual respect and admiration.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, discovered how to be an effective leader as he followed his calling.  Much of his success in leadership was a side effect of his faithfulness.

St. Francis displayed a great deal of love and courage during his lifetime, and he influenced many people through his example.  His life, teachings, and spiritual insights have attracted many followers through the years.  His teachings are timeless and continue to live on today.

Note: Francis also suffered a number of failures in leadership which can also prove instructive (to be explored in a subsequent reflection).

An earlier version of this appeared in the May 2015 Executive Soul blog.

 

The Power of Youth and the Wisdom of Age

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Last Saturday, I participated in the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.  Later the same day, I attended a friend’s memorial service. The juxtaposition of the two awoke me.  The vast numbers of youth at the march had inspired me.  Their articulate voices, their energy, their enthusiasm, their vision, all had sparked my energy and vision. At the memorial service, I looked around the room and thought, “We were all youthful idealists once. We were like the young people on the stage this morning (though maybe not as articulate).  Where are we now?”  As we celebrated the life of my friend, a young idealist who had grown into a mature leader, I reflected on the pitfalls she had avoided (and a few she had fallen into).  How did she avoid cynicism?  How did she continue to love?  How did she keep her vision alive?

On the stage that morning, I witnessed young leaders bringing their hearts and their souls to a cause they believed in.  They wanted to be able to come to school and learn in safety.  Tired of mass killings, they called on Americans to stand up to the NRA. So articulate that opponents concluded they must be hired actors, they spoke with passion.  For example, 11-year old Naomi Wadler spoke out for African American victims. Parkland High School student Emma Gonzalez spoke eloquently and then held six minutes and twenty seconds of silence before a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

These voices, fresh and new, are making a difference.  Adults are in awe.  Yet, at the same time, this is nothing new.  Youth have perennially been in the forefront of social change. Many of the prominent human rights activists we now thank for leading us to a more just world got their start at an early age.  The famous suffragette and social reformer, Susan B. Anthony, began petitioning slavery at the age of 17. Ella Baker challenged the “paternalistic racism” of her university’s president. Ida B. Wells was only twenty-two when she bravely refused to give up her first-class seat on a train to Nashville.

America’s progress has been shaped also by young activists whose names never made the history books. The Civil Rights movement was moved forward by children, teens, and young adults facing violence and the threat of imprisonment to stand up for their beliefs. Protests against the Vietnam War were led by young activists who greatly influenced the public’s view of the war. In 1903, children took part in a three-week march from Philadelphia to New York to bring light to the need for child labor laws which could protect them from horrible working conditions in the mills.

As Margaret Mead observed, “the young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown. . . The children, the young, just ask the questions that we would never think to ask.”

Teens and young adults are making a difference in ways that older adults often miss.  For example, these young adults are having an impact in many different sectors, all over the world.

These young voices must be supported.  How can those of us who are older and hopefully wiser help these young people become the next Martin Luther Kings, the next Dorothy Days, the next Nelson Mandelas?  We must use our influence to open pathways for them, to help them persevere.  At the same time, we must not interfere with their message.  Overly cautious, tainted by cynicism, we could easily pull them down.

The power of youth can be joined by the wisdom of age.  If we do it well, the mature leadership of people like my friend whose life we celebrated last Saturday and her friends gathered around her can propel forward the inspired youthful leadership arising today.