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Archive for January, 2013

AL-FATTAH. . . ‘THE OPENER’

In the Muslim faith, the Sufis during their lengthy periods of prayer choose one of ‘ninety-nine most beautiful names’ for Allah and then repeat the divine name as they pray.  I do not know many of ninety-nine names but of the few I do know the one that resonates deeply with me is that of ‘Al-Fattah’ the opener.  As one Sufi mystic wrote:

Al-Fattah is the Opener and the Solver, the Easer of all that is locked, tied and hardened.  There are things that are closed to one.  There are states and problems that are tied in a knot.  These are hardened things that one cannot see through and pass through.  Some are material things: professions, jobs, gains, possessions, places, friends that are unavailable to one.  There are also hearts tied in a knot with sadness, minds tied up in doubts or questions they are unable to answer.

 Allah al Fattah opens them all.  There is nothing unavailable to the beloved servant of Allah, for whom al-Fattah opens all gates.  No force can keep those doors locked.  But if Allah does not open the doors. . . , no force can make those doors open. . .

As I have noted in earlier postings, I am a Christian (one who follows Christ).  And when I spend time with the New Testament it becomes clear to me that Jesus exemplifies an opener.  He clears the eyes of the blind: Then he touched their eyes. . .and their eyes were opened (Mt 9:29-30).  He opens the ears of the deaf: He said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be Opened.’ And immediately [the deaf man’s] ears were opened (Mk 7:34-35).  Jesus frees the hearts of seekers: The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14).  Jesus also expands the minds of those who are confused: Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening scriptures to us? (Lk 24:32).

It is easy for me to seek Jesus as Al-Fattahthe opener.  And when I read what the Sufi mystic wrote I think of Jesus the Christ; I also think of Allah the Merciful.  Am I willing to surrender to the Opener?  Do I invite the Opener into my life?  Do I allow the knot(s) within me to be opened by the Opener?  I am now thinking of Alexander the Great as he was faced with the Gordian Knot and his response – simply to cut through it rather than try to unravel it.  Am I willing to allow the Opener to cut through the Gordian Knot that I have woven?  Unlike Alexander who cut through the Gordian Knot in order to invade – he was not invited in; Al-Fattah will only come and cut the knot if invited – and I must extend the invitation.  As any of us know who have woven Gordian Knots this is no easy invitation to proffer – it requires faith, trust, vulnerability and courage (to name a few).  If I wait for Al-Fattah to ‘invade’ me uninvited it will never happen. . . I have choice; this is the freedom I have been given as a human being.  What will I choose today?  Today, will I choose to invite Al-Fattah, the Opener, into my life?

Here is one representation of the Gordian Knot:

the Gordian Knot

 

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MEETING & GREETING. . .

I have heard that when Mother Teresa met someone they first found a quiet place and prayed – they greeted one another in quiet and in prayer.  They stood together in the presence of the eternal Presence.  The mystics, the people of prayer (you and me?), who deeply touch their own faith-tradition as they meet and greet those of other faith-traditions are the ‘glue’ (role models) that keeps us connected by demonstrating connection to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter tells the story of a Christian minister preaching on ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  He expertly developed his points around the idea of the need to love ourselves before we can love our neighbor.  At the close of the service Rabbi Heschel approached the minister and commented that he found his sermon interesting, but he had always understood the text to mean that ‘my neighbor is myself.’  To what extent do I take the time to meet and greet myself?  To what extent do I make sure that I take time for quiet and prayer in order to be in the presence of the eternal Presence prior to meeting and greeting myself?

Anthony DeMello was a Hindu (and later a Buddhist and Christian).  As a Hindu he expected God to come to him in others.  Mother Teresa strove to see the face of Christ in the face of each person she met during the day.  Howard Thurman believed that within every person there is a core (not unlike the Quaker view, ‘There is that of God in everyone’) and that it is the charge of human beings for ‘core to salute core.’  As I reflect on this, it appears to me that this is what we are invited to do when we meet and greet.

How do we meet and greet. . .with affection.  Affection is a by-product of the relationship I have with myself (self-love) and is a by-product of the relationship I have with the other.  Affection deepens as a result of our working through the ‘tough times’ and of ‘staying the path’ (our life’s journey) and of discerning what is most important (that which is before us at this moment) and who is most important (the one before us at the moment).  In meeting and greeting we do so with deep appreciation of the other as the other (or of self as the self).

We never meet and greet the same person more than once (even ourselves).  So meeting and greeting also involves preparing for the unexpected, for the surprises that will be there for us if we are awake and aware and present and notice.  New possibilities also come with each meeting and greeting.  Will this meeting and greeting nurture me or deplete me; will I-You-We be diminished or enhanced?  Will our hearts open or close?  I love Douglas Steere’s expression: Will we have a hardening of the categories?  Will we move toward the sacred or the profane?  Will we bring more light or more darkness?

In meeting and greeting we share our very being with the other.  Is our gift of self received and embraced?  Do we experience and embrace the ‘whole’ of the other?  Every meeting and greeting affects us such that we are changed, for good or ill.  Meeting and greeting are never neutral. We leave the experience more at ease or more at dis-ease.  Did I take time to meet myself today?  Am I more at ease or am I more at dis-ease as a result of my meeting (or not meeting) myself today?

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CHANGE & LEARNING. . .

We live in an uncertain world.  There are two things in this world that we are ‘sure’ of: one is that nothing is sure and the other is that change is both the norm and is accelerating.  The future is not an extension of the past – the old linear model of change does not hold (as if it ever did).  The future is not predictable – even though many still live in the illusion that it is (ask any weather person who is the butt of many ‘predictable’ jokes).  We can almost be sure that what worked for us in the past will not work for us in the future – an anxiety producing thought indeed.  In order to survive and have an opportunity to thrive we must learn together.  One illusion we still hold onto is that learning involves the individual.  The world is too complicated and complex for the individual to remain the primary learner.  We must learn to learn together.  Organized groups of two or more must learn to learn together (organizations that do this are called ‘learning organizations’).  There are many ingredients that need to interact in order for this type of team learning to move from potential to actual.  Today I invite us to consider five of these ingredients.

The first ingredient is an assumption of competence.  A learning team is rooted in this assumption – each member is competent and each member can develop overt and latent capacities that will enable and support the team in its quest to learn together.  Traditionally, learning has been rooted in an assumption of incompetence.  Competence is supported by an encouragement-based learning model (appreciative inquiry is one such model).  Incompetence is supported by a discouragement-based learning model (a competition vs. a high achievement model is a discouragement-based model).  However, an assumption of competence is not enough.

An assumption of competence needs to be accompanied by curiosity.  Watch any young child learn and you will see curiosity in the flesh.  Curiosity is rooted in inquiry.  Questions inspire searching and seeking.  Some questions beg answers, others beget more questions.  Because teams don’t know, they are more likely to be moved to experimenting – just as the child does.

Some experiments are not successful and thus the third ingredient forgiveness is necessary.  The question is: What have we learned? The question is not: Why have we failed?  When we name what we have learned we can then celebrate.  I am thinking of the team that experimented and ended up costing the company millions of dollars.  The president of the company met with the team.  The members just knew they were going to be fired.  The president told them, no, he was not going to fire them – he just spent millions educating them.  The question he had was ‘What did you learn?’  He also told them that they would be fired if they ever repeated that failure AND if they ever stopped experimenting.

Perhaps the major tap root that sustains a learning team is trust.  Trust, as we know, is not easy to give.  Each person interprets/defines it differently and each person offers trust or withholds trust based upon the many seeds that were planted in his/her life – seeds that took root and seeds that were nurtured into living plants that make up the garden that is their life.  We do seem to offer more trust to people we know; so learning teams need to spend time ‘getting to know’ one another; it does seem that telling our story and honoring the stories told increases a person’s willingness to trust another.

How do we get to know one another?  This leads us to the fifth ingredient: community.  A community of learners implies that ‘we are in this together’ and that when we come together we honor and celebrate differences.  As a community of learners we strive to enhance one another’s gifts-talents-abilities-potentials so that each person’s ‘weaknesses’ become irrelevant.  Communities are supported by a powerful vision, mission, core values, and guiding principles.  Communities are supported by clear agreements and by commitments to serve so that each person grows and so that the team, as a community, grows.

Consider that these ingredients enable the learning team to not only learn together but to evolve together and co-create together.

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EULOGY FOR MY FATHER. . .

He was 91.  He died on 25 January 2000.  His funeral service and life celebration was on 28 January 2000.  As I sit here this morning/mourning, Tears are washing my face as I look at a photo of my father. . .and I remember.

On this day, the 13th anniversary of his funeral and life celebration I want to share with you, gentle reader, the eulogy I offered on this day thirteen years ago.  As you read I invite you to remember a person in your life who was a role model for you; a person who gifted you, challenged you, supported you and cared for you.

My father, Ernest Vernon Smith, Jr. was, like his father, ‘an old-time country doctor’ who practiced his art until he was 82.  He served three generations of families.  Here are the words I shared with those in attendance on 28 January, 2000.

 

The Poet Markova writes:

            I will not die an unlived life.

 

            I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.

            I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me.

            To make me less afraid, more accessible.

            To loosen my heart

            Until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.

 

            I choose to risk my significance.

            To live

            So that which came to me as seed goes on as blossom

            And that which came to me as blossom

            Goes on as fruit.

 

My father lived this poem and carried the torch and promise to many others in many subtle yet powerful ways.

Yesterday I was reading through one of my journals looking for a context for these comments.  I came upon the following that I had written: ‘The eyes, the face, the hands are areas in space where the spiritual reality of the person becomes present to others.  From here, the inmost being of the individual pours forth.’

My Father’s Eyes.  Bright, soft, penetrating, caring, admonishing, compassionate, intelligent, impish, and oh, so very blue!  I last looked deeply into those soft, blue eyes on Sunday night as I was leaving his hospital room; I did not know that this would be the last time our eyes would meet.  Our eyes held one another and we held each other’s hands as we look deeply into each other’s heart; we said to one another, ‘I love you.’

Those wondrous eyes!

How they must have looked to the thousands of people he served for more than 55 years.  Those eyes, blue and sparkling, meeting my mother’s own bright blue eyes in 1934 – he had, as my mother reminded me yesterday, already taken out all of the other nurses (300 is the number I recall) and then he asked her out.  The mutual eye-sparkle was fanned into flames of love that have endured more than 64 years and also produced 6 children who have carried this sparkle into their lives.

I remember watching my parents exchange those sparkling, impish looks with one another as I was growing up – I was fascinated by their exchanges, and I was a bit envious – I still am.

I remember, as a child, my father’s eyes holding me when I was ill; and I think of all of those souls he held with those healing eyes.  I wonder, as I look out over this room filled with those he loved, how did Ernie’s Eyes affect you?

REFRAIN ‘The eyes, the face, the hands are areas in space where the spiritual reality of the person becomes present to others.  From here the inmost being of the individual pours forth.’

My Father’s Face.  What are the words that come to your mind my friends when you reflect upon my father’s face?

For me the adjectives flow like a powerful river, bringing life and energy to all who drank his face in.  Beauty, strength, humor, intelligence, inquiry, competence, jokester, healer, competitor, surgeon, colleague, friend, father, husband, dedicated physician, servant. 

Sit a moment with me and remember his face and the words that come to mind for you as you image him standing before you. . . .

Over the years I have thought of how his face affected those who were waiting for him to come and serve them.  I thought about the response in themselves and in their family as my father walked into their homes and into their lives carrying his little black bag of hope with him; a hope that would sustain them in their hour of need.

REFRAIN ‘The eyes, the face, the hands are areas in space where the spiritual reality of the person becomes present to others.  From here the inmost being of the individual pours forth.’

My Father’s Hands.  Magnificent.  Steady.  Ambidextrous.  Deft.  Confident.  Vise-like (for those of you, like me, that tried to out-vise him and lost; you know what I mean).

The hands that held a scalpel, a clamp, a needle, a new-born.  Hands that were guided by the eyes, held in place by the calm, professional face that brought his skill and energy and dedication to the service of ALL who needed him; whenever they needed him.

Through his eyes, his face, his hands, my father, in spirit, truly became present to us: his colleagues, his patients, his friends, his children and his wife. 

My father’s presence will truly live on in each of us, will live on in our relationships, and in the fruit of our relationships and will live on in this community that he was dedicated to and served for a life-time.  We have all been blessed by my father and we are now asked to continue to bless all of those that we encounter, every day, for the rest of our lives.  I pray, each day, that I can in some small way live into the dedication and service that my father lived out for a life-time.   

Here is a photo of my father and mother standing outside of their home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  The date was 20 July, 1995 and it was their 60th wedding anniversary.

Mom & Dad 60th Wedding Anniversary

 

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AM I — ARE YOU — PRESENT?

What does it mean ‘to be present?’  What does genuine presence imply?  I remember sitting in my desk in the first grade; I was six years old.  Sister Carol would call out the names of the students and we would reply with one word: ‘Present.’  There were times, many I assume, when I ritually responded even though I was not fully present – my imagination had carried me elsewhere.  Sometimes I would be imagining what I would do after I returned home from school; or on ‘hot lunch’ days I would imagine what we would be served – food I relished and food I despised (we were required to eat all that was put on our plate).  At times I would be rudely brought back to the classroom when Sister Carol would call on me to recite or go to the black board; sometimes she would circle around behind me and rap my fingers with the long thin pointer that she carried with her at all times (oh how today’s small laser light pen would have been a blessing).

When I replied, ‘Present,’ Sister Carol might well have assumed that I was ‘fully present’ or she might have assumed that I was physically present only.  Generally, she could look out over the room full of young faces and immediately discern which ‘presence’ we were offering.

I also have a clear memory of the day in mid-April when I was 12 and Louise, a beautiful girl who had moved into a new house just down the block walked by.  She had hurt her ankle and was using crutches to navigate her way home from somewhere.  I was standing outside, sort of gawking (O.K. I was really gawking, mouth open, arms flailing about ape-like); I was not looking at her crutches but I was looking at her.  She stopped, smiled, then laughed.  She was present to me in so many ways. . . YIKES. . .What’s happening?  I had become aware of the presence of a girl!

I also remember many times when my parents would host friends and neighbors; our home was always open to others.  During these gatherings there were always one or two of the adults who took the time to come over and talk with me (usually I was in the kitchen doing the dishes).  I felt that they were not just humoring me, they were interested in me; they were present to me and they invited me to be present to them.  These were the adults that mattered to me; these were the adults I often thought of during the passing years.

Authors and poets whom I never met have also been powerfully present to me.  Their words, their insights, their observations, their questions, and their stories shaped my very being.  Many of them continue to do so today.  I know the importance of their presence in my life and so I continue to seek out new authors and poets (‘new’ in the sense that I have not spent time with them not ‘new’ in the sense of contemporary).  I am now thinking of T.S. Eliot (one of the many authors/poets who first became present to me in high school); Eliot pointed out how often we find our true contemporaries not in our own time, but they walk into our lives out of other ages – they then grab us, hold onto us and become truly and deeply present to us.

I have also been blessed with close friends who, although they live thousands of miles away (some tens of thousands of miles) and yet each day they are truly and deeply present in my life, in my heart and soul.

I can also be standing right next to a person and not experience ‘being present’ even if we are conversing (as contrasted with being in conversation); a mentor named this experience the ‘conversation of  the deafs.’  I know quite well that I am not present to all I am with each day (too many ‘conversations of the deafs’); I know that even today, just like I was when I was 6 years old sitting in front of Sr. Carol, I can quickly ‘go some place else’ even though I am with you physically.  As always, I have choice.  I can choose to be present to myself and to the other and I can choose to be open to the presence of the other or I can choose to . . .excuse me I was just distracted by someone walking into the coffee shop.

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TENSION AND STRUGGLE. . .

A few days ago I invited us to consider four points of ‘common ground.’  I awoke this morning thinking about these points and it occurred to me that within the territory of common ground there exist times of tension and times of struggle.  These enhance our challenges when it comes to embracing common ground.  Today I invite us to consider five of these; as with the four points of common ground, these five points are not exhaustive, I am sure that you, gentle reader, can identify more of them.

The first point of tension and struggle is Exclusiveness and Exclusion.  These are the flipped coin sides of uniqueness and particularity.  This is the tension between being ‘in’ and in being ‘out’ or the tensions that occur between ‘we’ and ‘they’ or the struggle that comes with ‘we have it’ and ‘you don’t.’  When ‘surety’ reigns it is easy to move into ‘our way or the highway’ position.  There is a fine line between being nourished in a tradition and to believing that ‘our way is the only way.’  When we include and invite, especially ‘the other’ or ‘the stranger’ we invite not only diversity but tension and probably ‘struggle.’

Given this tension and struggle it is easy for one, or many, to feel Insecure.  When I feel insecure I seek ‘solid ground,’ I seek the ‘predictable,’ and I seek the ‘unchangeable.’  When this occurs I feel and experience a division between my heart and my head; I begin to live rooted more in fear of losing rather than in anticipation of gaining.  On the other hand, I have also experienced that when I have plumbed the depths – alone and with another – and have found that deep underground spring with nourishes me-you-us I feel less insecure and hence less threatened by ‘the other’/’the stranger.’  I can then embrace what a mentor offered to me many years ago: All is good.  All will continue to be good.

I have learned – and a hard lesson it was and is – that my insecurity is rooted in my Ego Need.  When I am not at my best I need to be continually affirmed or I need to be the center (it is after all, all about me) or I need to be in control.  The easy flow of give and take is replaced by my rigidity.  On the other hand, I do believe that we must learn to care for one another’s egos; they tend to be fragile.  We need to relate to one another in ways that are nurturing rather than depleting.  We need to trust that when we all grow and develop we all benefit and that a major part of our growth and development involves the growth and development of that which makes each of us unique.

My Will to Power is rooted in my insecurity/fear and in my ego-need that is actually more like an ego-centric need.  I become seduced by a desire to exercise my will and diminish your will; I can, in addition to being rigid, become quite intimidating.  I have learned that I must be awake and aware lest I become seduced by my ‘will to power.’  I know that when I am ‘sure’ then it is but a small step into my becoming rigid and self-righteous; it is far better for me to relate from a place of ‘doubt’ and ‘not knowing’ – the difficulty I have with most dogmatic religions is that the participants seemed to be rooted in ‘surety’ rather than in ‘faith’ (which is rooted in ‘doubt’).

At my worst, these four guide me to Idolatry.  I know!  I know Best! AND You know! You know Best!  God/Spirit has been replaced by KNOWLEDGE, not FAITH.  I am finally cut off from others – or we, in our arrogance and fear cut ourselves off from others.  I/We cannot possibly learn from the other for I/WE KNOW.  The mystic John of the Cross reminded us of this when he said if we think we know the Way, surely we do not.  Our idolatry hinders us from learning from other faith traditions and it surely limits God.  We, in reality, claim that we are more powerful than God and we limit God.  The golden calf that Moses destroyed has been replaced by the golden calf of our religion; our religion has become more important and more sacred than God.  Our religion, not God, is what we end up worshiping.

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ON BEING ‘ALL THERE’

My graduate degree is in family therapy.  I remember inviting family members to consider that their ‘dis-ease’ was partly, if not significantly, rooted in one or more of them not being all there.  Members were not being fully present when they were with one another.

I love reading and savoring Tolstoy.  In his Twenty-Three Tales his last tale centers around a czar who is in search of an answer to three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time?  Whose advice can I trust? And what things are most important and require my first attention? 

The czar disguised himself and went to visit a hermit who lived in the deep dark woods; he believed that the hermit, who was known for his wisdom, could and would answer his questions.  When he arrived he found the hermit near death.  The czar then cared for the hermit; he also tended the hermit’s garden.  Near sunset a stranger stumbled into the clearing; he collapsed as he had a terrible wound (the czar’s bodyguard stationed in the wood had inflicted the wound).  The czar tended to the man all night long.

In the morning the wounded man confessed to the czar that he had lain in wait for the czar for he had wanted to kill him; the czar had had the man imprisoned.  The man begged the czar’s forgiveness and pledged to serve him.  The czar accepted the man’s entreaty and said that the court physician would attend to the man’s wound.  The hermit was also doing better so the czar turned to him and asked him the three questions.

The hermit told the czar that his questions had been answered twice already.  When the czar had attended to the hermit this was the right thing at the right time and the most important to be done for had the czar returned through the dark woods he would have been attacked by the man waiting for him.  Then when the wounded man appeared the czar did the right thing in tending to the man and an enemy had become a friend.  ‘Remember then,’ added the hermit, ‘there is only one time that is important. Now!  The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . .the most important thing is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’ 

If I am going to be able to be response-able in the moment, I must be present; I have to be there in the moment; I have to be awake and aware.  Too often I find myself in a half, in not full, sleep (Pascal called this the Gethsemane-sleep where Jesus’ disciples failed him three times by dropping off to sleep; by not being fully awake and therefore by not being present).

How will I choose to be today?  How will I choose to engage the three questions today?

Here is a photo of Leo Tolstoy; I love this photo for it captures, for me, the essence of the man.

Leo Tolstoy

 

 

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