Monday, February 1, 2016

Looking at the Moon

"Barn burned down. Now I can see the moon." - Mizuta Masahide

Saturday morning ,my husband and I took a "staycation." We wandered down to German Village to go exploring and found Helen Winnemore's. Helen Winnemore's  is a beautiful shop with handcrafted art items, to wear, to use and to just be beautiful, too. As you come through the door, you are offered coffee, tea or water as you browse. It's like coming to your cool artist friend's house and hanging out.

As I sipped on my coffee (handed to me in a handmade pottery mug) I spotted the pendant pictured above from across the room. I was intrigued by the shapes and metals that went into making it. As the crowd looking at the display cleared away a bit, I moved over to get a closer look and was caught off guard by the quote on it.

Tears sprang to my eyes and my throat closed around the cold lump that used to be my voice. "Yes, the barn has certainly burned to the ground," I thought.

Every now and then, I allow myself a moment of grief over my voice. And that's what this was - a moment.

Somehow, this quote, centuries old and composed of nine words, put into perspective three years of upheaval. From the thyroidectomy that stole my voice and career, to my children's marital struggles, to the birth of two new grandchildren, to a new major, a new career, and new home, this past three years has been a lesson in change management to rival all others. We have lost so much, yet we have gained immeasurably.

Most people would see Masahide's quote as somewhat Pollyanna-ish, but I don't. In thinking about the idea of a barn, we must realize that the barn is a link between past, present, and future. It is not just a place of shelter, but a place of storage as well as a place of investment. In losing the barn, Masahide has lost his food, his animals, his shelter, all of his security and possibly his memories, too. In other words, the loss of a barn is no small thing.

But instead of grieving, he focuses in the next sentence on the positive - he can see the moon. The moon, with all her elusive and silvery beauty is a symbol of dreams and inspiration, but in addition, the moon inspires the movement of tides and is feminine, so it's a symbol of new life, as well.

What the 17th century samurai has to say to us is more prescient than we might imagine. It is in chaining ourselves to the things that we have stored up for ourselves, in clinging to the memories of what has come before, in making plans for the future that may never yield a harvest --in short, imagining that we have control over our lives --that we lose our ability to live.

In trying to control what comes next, we lose the opportunity to see things that are unusual and paths that take us to more beautiful places than we had planned for ourselves. In mooring ourselves in the memories of what has come before, we lose the ability to see the places where we might go next, or even worse, fall into the hole we didn't see while looking over our shoulders. In feeling smugly satisfied with our present state, we lock ourselves into a stasis where we refuse to take risks, and therefore, refuse to grow.

In my own life, I can see these opportunities presenting themselves to me again. I miss singing and directing a choir, but I enjoy my new career, too. Renovating people's lives through the provision of education is very rewarding work and I get to participate in that work every day.  But even now the world is shifting under my feet again. Rather than thinking of these tremors as bad things, I can choose to think of them simply as change. Heraclitus tells us, "One cannot step into the same river twice."  I think this is true.

Relationships shift, projects get complex, and change is the only constant in our lives. How we look at that change makes all the difference. So, instead of crying over the smouldering remnants of the barn, I believe I'll look at the moon and see what path she illuminates for me.

Photo Credit:, 2015 - Pendant for sale on their site found here

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Filling Buckets

Last semester we read a series of books and articles on strengths-based development. I have always been a big believer in working on my weaknesses with more vigor than developing my strengths. As it turns out, there are data-based reasons why this way of thinking is exactly backward.

Here's the theory in a nut-shell: If you concentrate on your weaknesses, or the things that you don't do well, you will improve them, but you will never be great at them; you'll only be "not bad" at them. But, if you develop your strengths, and always play to them, you can develop those into towering strengths, be more engaged at work and feel more productive and fulfilled everywhere.

When I first went to college, I majored in Music, but ended up in Philosophy. I discovered that, while I loved music, there were things I needed to be able to do (like play the keyboard) that I would never be good at. I would only ever be "not bad". What I loved about music was all the Philosophy that is contained in Music. I was still playing to my strengths, just in a different way. In thinking about other people I know, I realized that what makes them happiest and most productive is when they play to their strengths. They know what they are good at and they use those talents every day.

One of the common misunderstandings of strengths-based development is that you ignore the weaknesses. That's not true. Your weaknesses can be your Achilles Heel, and if they are, you must address them. But there are things we work at that are not mission-critical, so to speak. If you're not a good pianist, you let someone who is play and you sing. If you're not a good singer, but you play piano well, you will always have a job in the Catholic church, you can let others sing while you play. Strengths-based development, then, is not really about the self - it's about the team.

It's just like Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians "There are many gifts, but the same Spirit." As the body of Christ, we are all called to a mission and given the specific gifts and talents to accomplish those. No two of us will be exactly alike - and that's a good thing! How would it look if we walked around with three feet instead of just two? Well, the Body of Christ is no different.

Recently, as I was prepping to pass this information along to some of my younger friends who are getting ready to graduate, I discovered another facet of this theory - the relationship facet. One of the suggested books for follow-up is a book called "How Full Is Your Bucket?" (Clifton and Rath, 2009). In this book, Don Clifton, the father of strengths-based development theory, puts forth the idea that when you are positive, and share genuinely positive interactions with people, you and the person you share with are healthier and happier. He suggests a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions as the "golden ratio". No relationship is completely positive, but when you get more negative interactions, to positive ones, you drain people, and you drain yourself, too.

This is a great way to develop and mend relationships. When you fill a bucket, you aren't just blindly dropping compliments that mean nothing. You are taking the time to get to know each person. To get to know who they are, what they do best and how they are motivated best. It becomes a personal relationship and the people you work with or live with become Persons, not just cogs in a wheel or problems to be dealt with.

I see this as a very Christian way to look at the world. If we are truly serious about the idea that when we act with kindness to even the least of God's people, we are acting toward Him, then there is no other way to act. When we recognize the strengths of those around us, we recognize the gifts that God has bestowed on each individual - gifts he has given in to that person in that combination. When we complement those strengths and draw others' attention to them, we honor the presence of God in each human soul.

It's not always easy to look for the good in the bad. It's there, I promise. Recently, my sister-in-law and I were discussing how much it stinks that my brother is so sick and in the hospital. I reflected that it could be much worse. We live in a city with one of the most highly rated cancer research hospitals in the country. We live in a place where we are close to family and friends - our roots run deep here. And, though this is awful - no doubt about it - it could be a worse situation.

For me, it's a reminder that time passes quickly and you may not get another chance to say "I love you."

Do it today. Fill that bucket.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Full Church

Will my church be full or empty?
In my family it's not a matter of if you will get cancer, but where and when. All four of my grandparents and one of my uncles have tangled with (and lost to) cancer. I have already battled thyroid cancer and I am staring down a second biopsy for breast cancer in just a couple of weeks. I don't really want to talk about dying here, though that's an inescapable part of the conversation. I want to talk about the way we live.

I was very young when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died when I was 7 so I don't remember many of the details of his illness. What I do remember is being at the funeral home the day of the funeral and all I could see were knees in dark dress pants. I actually got lost in the crowd of business suits thinking I was still standing next to my dad. Later that day, I remember exiting the limousine at St. Patrick Church and walking through a crowd of people standing all the way out to the sidewalk. I didn't realize what that meant as a small child.

It wasn't until my uncle died of cancer about 7 years ago and there was a similar traffic jam at the funeral home and the church that I realized that both of these men had made a tremendous impact on the community around them. The church was absolutely packed for both of their funerals and the crowds spilled out onto the sidewalks with people whose lives were touched in a very real way by these men. At my uncle's funeral, I heard story after story from people who he had cared for and whose lives were better for him being in it -not because it was him, but because God called him to serve the poor and the lonely, and he heeded that call.

When I think of these men, I think of the Just Man as described in  Psalm 112: 9 "Open-handed he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn shall be exalted in honor."

My brother is currently fighting cancer and right now he's fighting off pneumonia and a sinus infection, too. It's hard to watch him go through this. John has always been the one who was more active, more in shape, more driven, more generous, really - kind of more "everything". He is a great friend and a wonderful and supportive brother. To see him scrambled and gasping for breath was disturbing to say the least.

In my grief over my brother's illness, I have realized that John's church will be full. Over the years, he has served the community in many ways - inviting those without family around to share Thanksgiving with us; donating time, money and toys to struggling local families; working as a volunteer firefighter; giving of his substance to people when ever and where ever they needed him. He, like his grandfather and uncle before him, has made an impact on his community, and, God willing, will continue to have an impact for years to come.

I want my church to be full when I die, too -not because I am so awesome (I am not), not because I am ready to die (again, I am not) -but because I am ready to live. I am ready for God to use me to really make a difference in people's lives. I am not so sure that my life right now is one that inspires a full church at my funeral, but I hope that I can live up to that charge. Just like the cancer, it seems to be a family tradition.

Photo Attribution: St. Patrick Church, Columbus, OH by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons