How Open Are You?

I recently facilitated a retreat for a group at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral here in Portland, Oregon. The priest I worked with, The Rev. Canon Catherine Nichols, used the following quote in our closing worship:

“In the sacred hoop, the circle is always left open so that the new may enter. Nothing is permanent, no situation is ever fixed, and no category is ever closed.” F. David Peet, “Lighting The Seventh Fire”

I was struck by this quote in part because of the open circle in my own logo (see the top of the blog page). And also, I do believe that the future is always open. Many forces are at work on us and the systems we work within. The past is powerful in both positive and negative ways. But at the same time, human beings can make choices which can lead to a different future.

Art and Ministry

Do you use art in your ministry? I like John Beddingfield’s blog. John is the rector of All Soul’s Memorial Church in Washington, DC. He always includes wonderful art in his posts, which are generally the text of his very thoughtful sermons.

I find that looking at art helps gives me a different perspective, even though I’m more of a word person than a visual person. Somehow connecting with the visual arts stimulates my thinking in ways I don’t completely understand.

How Idealistic Are You?

Here’s another quote from my files:

“Idealism must always prevail on the frontier, for the frontier, whether geographical or intellectual, offers little hope to those who see things as they are. To venture into the wilderness, one must see it, not as it is, but as it will be.”
Carl Becker, Kansas (1910), quoted by William Least Heat Moon in Prairyerth, p. 362.

What do you see, not as it is, but as it will be? Your church? Individuals within it? Yourself?

How Competitive Are You?

Are you watching the Olympics? The Olympic Games are all about competition. It’s thrilling to watch the best athletes in the world compete in everything from swimming to track and field to fencing to discus. There is no doubt that the competition raises the level of performance.

Competition has many positives: it’s a powerful motivator, spurring people to do more than they would otherwise. Winning a competition provides tremendous satisfaction. In a team competition, deep relationships develop among teammates as they strive to do their best.
Competition exists in many arenas besides sports, of course. I was never in sports, but I was always competitive about grades in school. Siblings compete for their parents’ attention. Businesses compete for customers. Sometimes churches compete for members. Competition in all of these arenas, like sports, may be a useful motivator, and give people energy to do important work.

Still, competition can bring out our immaturity. The doping scandals show the disadvantage of the win-at-any-cost approach. Winning can be a very serious matter, and losing can destroy someone who has everything vested in winning. When our sense of identity depends on winning, we can find ourselves in trouble. What happens if I lose? Who am I then?

James Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games (Ballantine Books, 1987), suggests, “There are at least two kinds of games….A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” He also says, “A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.” He is really talking about zero-sum games and non-zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, there is only a certain amount to be won: only one gold medal per event. By contrast, in a non-zero-sum games, what can be “won” can be multiplied, like building community.

We all experience elements of both games in our lives. In a business, there may be a limited number of customers we could win. A church in a small town only has so many people it might be able to reach. A student can only take so many classes in his or her schedule. Conversely, we can experience an infinite amount of growth in our lives. There’s an infinite amount of love. The most important things in life may be about learning from experience and maturing emotionally and spiritually, not about winning any competition

For most of us, being the best in the world is not an option, no matter what our field. Still, I can be the best me I can be, competing only with myself. I can play the infinite game with strength, as Carse suggests. I can increase my own strength in a way that isn’t at the expense of others. That’s in everyone’s best interest.

Are You Too Hot?

I received this postcard in the mail, from Water in the Desert Ministries, in Albuquerque, New Mexico:


I truly found it refreshing, and I’m keeping it on my desk as the temperatures in Portland climb into the 90s the next two days (hot for us!). The photograph is by Val Isenhower of Water in the Desert, who also does meditative photography. She uses the images a lot in retreats. I wanted to share this image with you, with her permission.

May you find blessed cool somewhere this summer!

Can You Listen to God?

Here’s a quote on listening to God from a secular leader, Steven Sample, author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), a book I highly recommend:

“…when making really important decisions, a contrarian leader listens carefully to his conscience, or if he is religious, to his God. The operative word here is listen. When most people try to carry on a conversation with their inner voice, (be it the voice of God or conscience), they wind up doing all the talking. That’s because we naturally fear our inner voice — we’re afraid it might tell us something we don’t want to hear. Nonetheless, listening carefully to that voice for 20 minutes or so through contemplative prayer or silent meditation is often a key factor in making good decisions in the long run.” (p. 89)

Sample is the president of the University of Southern California, from where my daughter just graduated. I’ve appreciated the chance to watch his leadership of that institution from the sidelines

What Are You Reading This Summer?

What are you reading this summer? Here are some books I’ve found interesting lately:

1. Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement
by Donald E. Miller, Tetsunao Yamamori. This book is a study of Pentecostals around the world and their growing involvement in social ministries in their communities. I’ve met one of the authors, Don Miller (he teaches at the University of Southern California where my daughter just graduated from). The book is thoughtful and engaging. Miller is a self-described “liberal Episcopalian,” yet writes with the greatest respect for the Pentecostal perspective.

2. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church ,
by Christine Wicker. Wicker is a long-time religion reporter, who grew up Southern Baptist. She assesses the strength and numbers of the evangelical church and concludes the Religious Right has never been as numerous or strong as people have thought, and that the evangelical church as a whole is declining. This is a good-news/bad-news book from my perspective. While it may be encouraging that the hard-line right-wing Christian movement is weaker than thought, the trends she describes are of concern for anyone involved in church ministry at any point on the spectrum.

3. The Sun Also Rises. My classics book group read this. I’d read very little Hemingway, and found this early novel of his fascinating. His prose is spare, and particularly when the action shifts to Spain, it’s riveting.

4. Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design. A gorgeous picture book about movie costumes. It includes essays about every decade, but I’ve just been looking at the pictures. The fascinating captions are reading enough. Here’s a quote from Peter Sellers: “I have no personality of my own. I reached my present position by working hard and not following Socrates’ advice – ‘know thyself’ … To me, I am a complete stranger. I cannot do anything from within myself. I have nothing to project. I’ve got so many inhibitions that I sometimes wonder whether I exist at all.” (p. 365) A cautionary tale.

5. Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives, ed. by Peter Titelman. I’m still in the middle of this one, but I’ll recommend it anyway. It’s a collection of essays on emotional triangles in families and organizations. It’s written primarily for therapists, but it can be useful in ministry in understanding the triangles in our own families and the families we work with.

What are you reading this summer (beach reads included)?

Do You Have a Pile of Paper on Your Desk?

My favorite time management guru, Mark Forster, has a great article here on dealing with backlogs: the pile of papers, the e-mail inbox with 400 e-mails, the calls to return. I’ve found his approach clear and easy to implement.

If you’re trying to get through a summer clean-up of piles and files, check out this article, and his other articles on time management.