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Archive for December, 2013

This morning I received an email from a close Singaporean friend.  Among other things, she thanked me for learning to listen to her; my learning and my subsequent listening were gifts to her.  I am remembering my first trip to Singapore – the first of many during an 11 year span.  I was guiding a three day ‘worktreat’ (part workshop and part retreat) and there were 30 participants.  After the first day I had dinner with my hosts.  I reflected to them that I could not ‘read’ the participants; I knew there were cultural issues afoot and I knew that there were things I could improve on but I was not able to obtain the feedback that I needed (one person did suggest, after some prodding, that I ‘write larger on the flip chart’).  My hosts looked at me and then one of them said: ‘Just listen!’  ‘Listen and you will learn!’

Most of us ‘know’ that our world is shrinking and it will continue to shrink.  We can now have daily interactions with a multitude of cultures.  How are we going to listen across cultures?  Are we going to intentionally and purposefully strive to understand the variety of cultures that we are going to encounter?  Singapore, like the United States, is culture rich and because Singapore is a small country one will be exposed to a multitude of cultures on a daily, if not hourly, basis.  For example, within a worktreat I would encounter Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Australian, Indian,  Filipino, German, and English cultures (and then there are the sub-cultures present within these).

For some of these cultures (or sub-cultures) I am an ‘elder’ and so I will not be criticized.  I might not even have a person look into my eyes.  I will not be approached unless I invite the person to approach me.  For other cultures I will be ‘the expert’ who is to be challenged and questioned (so I can prove my expertise).  For other cultures I will be immediately approached for it is a belief that I am there to ‘serve’ them.  When I am approached, some will come within inches of my face (literally) and others will remain a few feet away and will keep distance even if invited to come closer.  I have had the privilege of being in seven different countries and one of the differences is how folks queue up (i.e. line up).  Some cultures require one to ‘take and hold your place in line and move up when it is your turn.’  Other cultures say ‘the crowd is the thing and it is necessary to push and shove your way forward’ or you will get left out.  For the former, a person ‘cutting the line’ is seen as ‘bad’ while in the latter, a person who cuts to the front is seen as a ‘take charge person.’

I had to learn that cultural patterns were important; especially when it came to listening.  I had to move beyond my own cultural assumptions if I was going to learn to listen intently and receptively to a person rooted in another culture.  How do I learn about and adjust to the other’s culture rather than expect him or her to adjust to mine?  Am I willing to give a gift to the other (and to myself) by learning about his or her cultural norms – and then by honoring these norms?

I am smiling.  I am remembering bowing to a woman whose culture is Chinese; we were concluding a capacity development session and I was going to each participant and thanking them for choosing to be with us.  The first person I went to was this woman.  I approached her and bowed to her before I spoke.  She laughed and said: ‘Wrong Culture Mr. Richard’  I looked puzzled.  ‘Chinese,’ she said, ‘not Japanese.’  And she smiled brightly.  I blushed and then laughed.  The room erupted in laughter and all of a sudden everybody was bowing to everybody else.  Ah.  This might appear to be mockery.  But it wasn’t.  It was a time of great caring.  Being in the culture had taught me that.  The caring: Asian cultures are more reserved UNLESS you have been accepted into the culture; then great humor will be unleashed.  I felt part of the culture at that moment.  A gift I carry in my heart each time I remember the scene.  In addition, my ‘teacher’ of the moment also reminded me that culture does matter. . .Really!

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IT WAS. . .IT IS. . .

In 1859 Charles Dickens wrote the following words; words that have haunted many of us since then.  Dickens wrote:

It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief,
It was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the season of light,
It was the season of darkness,
It was the spring of hope,
It was the winter of despair,
We had everything before us,
We had nothing before us,
We were all going direct to heaven,
We were all going direct the other way. . .

And so it was!
And so it is!

These lines continue to cause me to pause and reflect.  Gentle reader, in what ways do these lines speak to you – if they speak to you at all.

Here is one of my favorite photos of Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens

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As I noted in my 26 November, 2013 posting, I have been re-reading and reflecting upon and engaging others in a conversation about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’  Gentle reader, this morning I will again offer you some of what has emerged for me in response to his 1963 epistle.

It seems clear to me that King is stating clearly: This is where I choose to stand! 

QUESTIONS:  Where do I choose to stand?  And when do I declare this?  What is the benefit of my choosing and declaring?  What is the cost?  What is the effect upon me?  What is the effect upon the other(s)?  What is the response I receive?  What is the reaction I receive?  If no one notices have I actually taken a stand?

King writes: In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.’

QUESTIONS:  Campaign = a systematic course of activities for some specific purpose.  Given this definition — What are some of the ‘campaigns’ that I take part in?  What motivates me to participate in a given campaign?  What hinders me?  How do I determine the ‘facts’ that I need?  How do I go about gathering the ‘facts’?  When do I ignore the ‘facts’?  Why do I choose to do so?  How do I determine whether to ‘negotiate’ or not?  How do I determine whether ‘negotiation’ is integral to a given campaign?  Is the first ‘negotiation’ I engage in the one I have with myself?  How do I determine who else needs to be involved in a given negotiation?  What is this ‘self-purification’?  Given my definition how do I determine if it is a necessary step in a given campaign?

King writes that during their time of preparation and self-purification that they repeat and engage this question: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’  Am I going to be vulnerable?  Am I going to purpose-fully put myself at risk?  Am I going to carry the wound I receive with grace and honor OR am I going to seek to strike back or hold a resentment until I can pay you back later?  [Note: You might remember from previous postings that the root of ‘vulnerable’ is the Latin ‘vulnus’ which means ‘to carry the wound gracefully.’]  Finally, what does ‘direct action’ look like for me?  How often do I come up short when it comes to taking ‘direct action’?  What is the outcome that I seek when I take direct action?  What is the effect of my taking direction – upon myself and upon the other(s)?  What are the intended and unintended consequences of my taking direct action?  As I reflect upon the entire process, what have I learned?  What has served me well?  What has served the other(s) well?  To what extent has my serving been potentially immoral?

Gentle reader, I invite you to emerge more questions; questions that will serve you where your are at this time in your life.  And as the great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke does, I invite you to live your questions each day and ‘perhaps someday you will live into the answers.’

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I spent the first 18 years of my life in a small, Midwestern city.  For the first 12 years of my life we lived in a house on a corner.  There was some traffic but not a great deal, as I recall.  When I was about eight years old I was standing near the corner one fine day when a car slowly pulled up and stopped.  I am sitting here with my eyes closed re-imaging the scene and feeling the same fear and fascination; I wanted to run and I wanted to approach.  I have words for these feelings today: Xenophobia is fear of the stranger and Xenophilia is a fascination with what is different or foreign.

The stranger evokes these responses.  When we label the stranger as ‘outsider’ these responses are magnified.  Perhaps it is in our ‘first-nature’ – that nature which has been with us for thousands of years and is housed in the ‘old’ part of our brain (or so it seems).  Perhaps it is in our ‘hard wiring.’  It certainly served us well as a species for here we are today.  It also hindered us in many ways; it still does.

Uncritical trust (not mis-trust as such) of the new and stranger (or stranger) can be foolish trust.  Even if the stranger brings gifts we might well be wary of the gifts as we are of the stranger.  The gifts and the stranger might well invite us to change – I might change, you might change, we, the community, might change.  Even the great Chinese sage, Lao Tsu suggested that human communities be small and self-contained.  He also suggested that they be located with enough distance between them so that a ‘stranger’ (or was it an ‘outsider’) might not be able to just drop in for a visit.

At the extreme – which, unfortunately is not all that uncommon – xenophobia results in fears that leads us to vilify, demean and even harm the stranger.  At minimum we isolate or ignore or shun the stranger in our midst.  When I was in Australia I met a man who was then in his late 40s; he had moved to Australia when he was 18 and even after thirty years there he was still treated by many as an outsider.

There is another side to this paradox.  Xenophilia involves the love of the stranger; more than tolerance or even acceptance.  Xenophilia enables us to welcome the stranger; it enables us to invite the stranger in; it enables us to be hospitable to the stranger.  It allows us to be open to the stranger’s voice and story and to then honor both.  Xenophilia allows us to inquire about the stranger in ways which promote the development of a caring relationship.  The Old Testament admonishes us: ‘You shall love the stranger’ and to ‘show hospitality to strangers.’  Xenophilia helps us nurture into life engagement rather than estrangement.

More than ever today, we are faced with ‘strangers’ no matter which way we turn.  Almost daily we have the opportunity to encounter different cultures, faith-traditions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, races, cultures and values that might well seem ‘strange,’ if not ‘alien,’ to us.  With each encounter we have choice.  We can respond with the heart of Xenophobia or with the heart of Xenophilia.  During this holiday season, how will I choose to respond to the many strangers that appear at on my life-path?

Like the eight year-old, will I take the risk and approach the stranger; will I reach out to the stranger with the expectation that I will be able to connect with the stranger and that I will be able to be of service to him or her?  I can see the car window opening slowly.  I can see the man’s face, now smiling at me.  I can hear his words: ‘We are lost.  How do we get to Highway 23?’  I know the way.  I provide the directions.  The man smiles, thanks me and slowly drives away.  I smile.  I am feeling sad now as I consider how that scene might be played out today.

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For a time, the sky was clear yesterday.  As I closed the door to my car I looked up at the blue sky.  I noticed the vapor trails of an airplane (or was it a UFO).  I began to recall my many flights to Singapore and for a minute or so I stood there looking up at the sky remembering with gratitude and love those I had the privilege of being with during my visits to this far-away country.  As I settled in this morning I again visited Singapore.  As I imaged my traveling there I began to think about all of the security check-points that I needed to visit both coming and going.  Airport security check-points.  You don’t need a degree or a certain income or status or even shoes on your feet.  What you need is a verifiable identity.  Nothing will enable you to get through an airport security check-point except who you really are.

Who we really are!  The most valuable gift we bring to our/the world is our self.  The more I embrace the Oracle of Delphi’s admonition ‘to know thy self’ the more I am able to bring my self to my/the world.  Knowing my self enables me to engage others with the understanding that I have gifts, abilities and talents to offer and that I am called to receive them and their gifts, talents and abilities.

The most valuable gift I bring to my work is my self.  The wonderful poet and author, John O’Donohue reflects that it is our deeper self that we bring to our work.  He writes: The invisible within us finds a form, and comes to expression.  Therefore our work should be the place where the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present.  The rich unknown, reserved and precious within us, can emerge into visible form.

I believe that my work becomes service when I view it as more than something that has to be done.  My work becomes service when it is a response to my call – to using my gifts, talents and abilities to meet a need that exists in my/the world and to do so rooted in joy.  My work becomes service when I view what I have to offer as my ministry, a ministry rooted in love.  My work becomes service when I hold in trust those who have invited me into their lives.  My work becomes service when I call forth the voice and story that the other needs to bring to his/her world.  My work becomes service when I choose to respond even though I am feeling inadequate or doubt-full.  My work becomes service when the same ‘self’ that walks through the airport security check-points walks through the doors of those I am called to serve – whether they be literal doors or the doors that lead to their hearts and souls.

As I recall, Jesus did not call any perfect people, not a one.  This gives me hope.  I can enter into my work as service not as one who will ‘walk the talk’ but as one who will ‘stumble the mumble.’  I bring my strengths and limitations.  I bring my virtues and my vices.  I bring my self.  A question:  How much of what I will choose today will be ‘just plain work’ and how much will be ‘work as service?’

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THE JOURNEY. . .

THE JOURNEY. . .
A few days ago I was re-reading some of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver.  Her poem, ‘The Journey’ continues to impact me such that I stop, step-back, and reflect upon my own life’s journey.  What caught my eye, and attention, as I read her poem were the words ‘It was already. . .a wild night.’  I have been having some ‘wild night’ experiences.  Here is a depiction by Elena Mary Siff of a ‘wild night.’

The Promise of a Wild Night copy
And, gentle reader, here is the poem: “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, from Dreamwork (Atlantic Monthly Press).

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Gentle reader, what, if anything, in her poem causes you to stop, step-back and reflect upon your own life’s journey?

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PROVIDENCE. . .

Consider that it is easy to praise providence for what happens in your/the world provided you have the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and you have a sense of gratitude.  Without these you might well miss the ‘good’ [or ‘blessing’ or ‘usefulness’] of what happens or, supposing that you are able to ‘see it’ you might not be able to be grateful for it.

For example, if God had created colors, but not the faculty of vision, colors would have been of little use.  Or, if God had created vision, but not made sure objects could be seen, vision would have been worthless.  Even if God had created both color and vision but had not created light, then neither would have been a blessing or a gift.

It appears as if all animals possess this same ability of ‘vision.’  And it appears as if we humans are the only animals that have the capacity to understand what we see and to be grateful for it.  ‘Use’ is one thing; ‘understanding’ and ‘gratitude’ are something else.  It seems that for the other animals it is enough to eat, drink, sleep, breed and do whatever else it is that satisfies the members of their kind.  But for us humans who have been given the capacity (gift?) of understanding.  Yet, ‘understanding’ itself is not enough.  We are called to do more than seek understanding; it is in our nature to do more.

We humans were brought into the world to look upon God and God’s works not just with understanding but with appreciation as well.  And part of our appreciation is directly linked to whether we are then ‘good stewards’ of our/the world.  But the world is not all ‘light.’

Difficult things happen to us; bad things happen to good people.  Our favorite sport in America is American football.  Many people each week, during the football season, will brave the elements and sit outside for hours in order to support their team.  They, at minimum, put up with the inclement weather and the noisy (often times drunk) fans — they practice a form of patience and they cope fairly well.  Now, as humans we also have the capacity to develop our inner strengths, the strengths that enable us to cope with a variety of life’s difficulties.  We can develop our capacity for patience or fortitude or courage.  One is able to cope with anxiety when one has developed the capacity for/of fortitude.  Instead of meeting difficulties with groans and moans and tears I might well call upon my coping skills to help me ‘see my way through’ — especially if I believe that ‘this too shall pass.’

This is the season for colds.  I remember observing a mother and daughter.  The daughter was complaining that her nose was running.  Her mother looked at her and simply said, ‘Wipe your nose!’.  It did no good for the child to complain; her runny nose was a ‘fact’ and at that time the best coping she could do was to wipe her nose.  How often do I complain of a ‘runny nose’ [now, gentle reader, this is a metaphor although at times my nose does run] and complain about it rather than just ‘wipe it?’

At times life is ‘difficult’ and presents us with a variety of challenges.  Would we have had Hercules if there were no challenges like the lion, the wild stag, the rampaging boar or the fearsome hydra?  What would his life have been like without these difficult challenges?  Well, he might have simply rolled over in his bed and gone back to sleep — snoring his life away.  He would not have become ‘Hercules’ and we would not be telling his story today.  I am remembering Achilles.  His mother told him that if he did not go to Troy that he would find a wife, have many children and live to a ripe old age.  His children would remember him and so would their children but then his name would be lost; no stories would be told of him.  If, on the other hand, he went to Troy, he would face many challenges and difficulties and he would overcome them; he would also die there.  Yet, his story and his name would resound for the ages.  He must choose his path.

Like Hercules and Achilles we all have gifts, talents and abilities and we have choice.  We can develop them and find ways of using them to meet the needs that exist in our/the world or we can roll over and go back to sleep.  Are we going to choose to celebrate the resources that God has given us?  Are we going to choose to develop our gifts, talents and abilities so that we can say — as Hercules and Achilles might have said to Zeus: ‘Bring on the challenges and the difficulties; I have the resources to cope with them.  I choose to live rather than to sleep.’

Am I willing to ‘see the whole’ of it — the good, the bad, the ugly — and am I willing to be be grateful for all that comes my way?  Both are challenging questions for me.  Well, I will think about them later, for now I plan on rolling over and taking a nap.

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