Are you facing a big setback? Or even a little one? On a recent visit to my parents in Sacramento we went to the Crocker Art Museum. The main special exhibit there is Edwin Deakin: California Painter of the Picturesque. I’d never heard of Deakin, but I found seeing his paintings delightful.
But what struck me even more was the story of his experience as a young man. He moved from his birthplace in England to Chicago as a young man. He lost all but six of his paintings in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. The loss caused him to move to San Francisco, where he became a prominent painter. Another artist might never have recovered from the setback, but Deakin prospered.
What losses are you experiencing? What do you need to do to start again?
Giving something up for Lent was a foreign concept when I was young. It was something Catholics did, not us. As an adult, I discovered the value of a time of special discipline in preparing myself for Easter. I’ve given up chocolate, ice cream and coffee (the hardest!). I found practicing the idea that I couldn’t indulge myself whenever I want to be spiritually valuable.
The last few years, however, I’ve turned it around. One year I worked on giving up being self-critical for Lent. Now I frame it positively. My Lenten discipline is to treat myself every day. I might buy extra coffee or chocolate, or get myself a novel. I might sit down at the piano to play and sing a song from a Broadway musical. Sometimes I take the time to call a friend.
I’ve found this discipline to be just as challenging, perhaps more so, than giving something up. I use it to remind myself, every day of Lent, that God treasures me.
I’m a Baptist, and we’re really no good at Ash Wednesday, although we need it as much as anyone else. When I was the pastor of a local church, we ended up joining with the Lutherans and Episcopalians for Ash Wednesday. I figured we might as well do it with the people who really know how.
I always find Ash Wednesday services profoundly moving. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are a good reminder for leaders that the efforts, the plans, the programs and even the buildings that we invest so much energy in are temporary. We hope and pray that some of the work that we do will last beyond us, even into eternity. But when we remember our own mortality and our human limitations, we can keep our work in perspective. It’s not about us, anyway.
Are you feeling a little worn out? When Lent begins as early as it does this year, we feel like we turn around from Advent/Christmas to encounter Ash Wednesday before we’re really ready.
I’m continuing to read and enjoy Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. He comments on the different approach to work taken by Europeans and Americans: “Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe–comfort.” He goes on “When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season…when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”
If you engage in a Lenten discipline, perhaps one possibility might be more sleep…
I’m reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad for a new book group I’m in which is reading classic books (you know, all the stuff you read–or didn’t read–in high school and college). I was a bit sceptical, especially when I found out it’s 700 pages long. But I’m loving it! Twain’s writing style and pointed perspective is hilarious. He satirizes Europeans and Americans equally.
As a congregational leader, particularly when we are new to a congregation, we are traversing a foreign country, even if we just moved across town. We bring our own prejudices, and the church members have theirs. Sometimes a clash occurs, or a misunderstanding, as when Twain desperately tried to obtain some soap in a public bath in Italy. If we can maintain our sense of humor, as Twain did so well, we’ll be better able to learn the territory. If we can laugh at ourselves and ask genuine questions, we’ll learn the territory more quickly and avoid the Ugly American reputation.
“Explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatize, or accept another’s dogmatism.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m applying this not to “dogma” in the sense of doctrine, but to our view of the gatherings of humans we are a part of, both families and churches. We have our own dogmas, our own points of view. Others will tell us their points of view. Rather than accepting our own perspective as it stands, or that of others, Emerson suggests we continue to be curious, and explore what is in front of us. This attitude will help our leadership and our relationships, because we can be open to new learnings about others.
Is your focus on the present, or the future? My friend Israel Galindo sent me a writing book, A Writer’s Book of Days, by Judy Reeves, which I’ve been using daily this year. The book includes a writing prompt for every day of the year, a phrase to write about every day, just for practice. Today’s prompt was this: “in the meantime…” As I wrote I realized yet again how much my mind flies away down the path to the future. The present becomes nothing more than “the meantime,” the time we are marking until the real stuff happens.
Considering the future, clarifying goals, making plans, is all an important part of leadership. But the only moment we can experience is the present one. The present is not simply a prelude to the future. If we only think about the future, we don’t really show up in the present.
Stop right now and take a deep breath. Look out the window. What do you see? Look at the next person who crosses your path. What do you see? This moment is not simply the meantime: it is all we have. It is the only moment we can truly experience God’s presence.
It’s easy for church leaders to lose their sense of humor in January. Winter weather takes its toll. Many churches have annual meetings this month, and finalizing the budgeting and nominating processes can be stressful.
Here’s another approach: what can you learn about your church’s story, past and present? Perhaps annual meeting time can bring out the memories of long-term members. What new perspective can you gain on this unique church you are a part of? Every congregation is fascinating. How can you tease out what it is they do and when? (Asking “why” is rarely useful.) What are the patterns that you see? When we can remain curious about our church’s story, past and present, we will be less likely to become willful, frustrated, or burned out.
Cultivating curiosity about your church might even be better than a trip to the Caribbean. The impact lasts longer. And it’s free!