Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Diving Deep Who Do You Ask to Help Guide the Journey?

Over the course of my adult life I have been blessed with many professionals who have helped me to dive deep into my life.  I have worked with great and not-so-great therapists, career counselors, spiritual directors and now I can add coaching to the list.  Each of these people has brought different gifts and techniques to help me dive deeply into who I am and who I am becoming.  While there seems to be a common purpose - at least as far as my own experience goes - each has a unique focus. They are not interchangeable and one might need more than one at a time.  So if I am wanting to dive deep but need a guide who do I choose?

My first diving was into therapy.  I first went into therapy at my parent's insistence in high school. It was not helpful. First rule of any of these relationships is that you have to want to do the work and you have to like the person you are working with.  That is true of a therapist, a coach, a spiritual director.  No one in any of these professions can help you if you don't want it or you don't like who you are working with.

In college I did better. After another mis-match with another male psychiatrist (no bashing of psychiatrists but my own experience is that they are not great therapists and gender makes a difference), I found a wonderful woman psychologist.  Therapy, and I have since worked with two others, is really about understanding your mental and emotional self.  It is really about the past.  What are the events, family members, family systems that have contributed for good and for ill (although often the focus in more on the ill) that have shaped your present reality - again for good and for ill (but you wouldn't be there if it was all going swell!)  Therapy is great for understanding oneself in one's family of origin.  I come from a family that included an alcoholic parent and have witnessed the struggle of other family members with addiction. Therapy helped me understand the affect of that on me and who I am.  I struggled with my relationship with my family and mild to moderate depression so therapy helped me sort that out and understand myself more deeply in terms of my family system.

It was at Georgetown that I had my first spiritual director. While I had always consulted on and off for years various parish priests and religious leaders for advice and pastoral care, it was not until college that I had experience of a spiritual director.  Spiritual directors focus on your spiritual life and your relationship with the holy.  My first spiritual director was over a 5-day silent Ignatian retreat. My director taught drama at Georgetown. I met with him daily and we would talk about my prayer life and the particular Ignatian exercise the group was doing.  It was a powerful experience.  I have been privileged to have a number of spiritual directors over the years. Sometimes for very short focused periods like on that Ignatian retreat.  Others I have had longer relationships with.  Always the sessions begin with prayer and focus on my relationship with the sacred.  Certainly spiritual direction will also touch on real lived experience so incorporating everyday issues or difficult situations/relationships will come into play and definitely questions of vocation and call will be explored but the focus here is on spiritual discipline, practice and my relationship with the holy.  I have worked with directors of various religious backgrounds and materials have included the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, books from religious writers, Tarot cards and dream work.

Most recently I entered the world of coaching.  My coaching work has centered on job searching.  Coaches focus on the present and the goals you set for living a better, more fulfilling life as you define it.  I have really valued the goal centered, directed way my coach Dave Kaiser works with me.  I have homework after each call.  I get great feedback and all of it is about reaching my own goals or even changing the goals if the first ones don't work.  Dave is an Executive Coach.  I first encountered Dave on a Georgetown Alumni webinar, The Power of Magical Thinking. I was hoping to energize my job search and was looking for a coach.  I asked Dave about his experience in working with people with my background of non-profit, faith professionals and he had experience.  One thing about working with someone who usually works with for-profit professionals is that he doesn't bring all the pre-conceived baggage that I carry from the non-profit world.  For example, I was given an opportunity to interview for what I thought would be a great fit for me at a college.  The position had all the right pieces and I was excited about the possibility.  When they asked me to interview they told me the salary.  The salary was a good $20,000 below my expectation/need.  With Dave's coaching I went back to them to try and find a way to bridge that gap.  Unfortunately they wouldn't budge but the experience of not just accepting the too-low salary or walking away entirely, gave me an entirely new perspective on myself and the value of my skills and experience.

The work of therapy, spiritual direction and coaching obviously intersect. I am currently in spiritual direction and work with a coach.  Since vocation has been top of my concern list, there is overlap for me in working with both but there is distinction.  My spiritual direction focuses on my prayer life, on my spiritual practice.  Dave may assign me to take something to prayer (knowing that is important to me) but his focus is on the practical work of helping me live out my vocation.  My work with Dave focuses on what type of work I want to be doing, how I both deepen my current network and expand it in order to move closer to what is next, how I get myself in front of an organization before there is a position open, and/or how I open myself to possibilities not yet examined. Because of that last task, I am now beginning to embark on the journey of working for myself, having a more portfolio career (more on that in my next post!), now the work focuses on the concrete steps I can take to make it happen. Perhaps, most importantly, all along the way Dave has encouraged me and given me pep talks while still helping me to be realistic and grounded.

Who have you asked to guide you on your journey?  
Are you thinking about asking someone, what is it you are looking for?   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Lie

When I was a child, one day I started throwing rocks into the deep end of our pool for no apparent reason other than it seemed fun at the time.  I knew not to throw rocks into the pool.  When asked about the rocks I said that the boy next door had done it.  Of course, it did come out that I had done it.  My father (I learned this later because I still don't remember my dad talking to me but I remember the huge impact it had on me), sat me down and told me how terrible lying is and that President Nixon had to resign because of the lies he told. That event and the talking to made a huge impression on me.  My wife will tell you that I am too honest.  It is not completely true of course.  I can lie particularly by omission but as a rule I cannot abide by lying.

I have written about this before in terms of youth below the age of 13 lying about their birth date to get on Facebook.  I still feel that if we want to teach our children honesty and to be honest then we have to practice it (even if we think the arbitrary age of 13 is ridiculous, I disagree with having to be 21 to drink alcohol but I wouldn't encourage an 18 year old to drink or to lie about their age to do so).  So I am not a fan of lying - not sure anyone would say they were but I know that being lied to sets me off in a way that few other things do.

So why this long introduction and exactly what is the point today?  Well our society seems to be awash with lies, particularly in the arenas where we most need reliable sources of truth.  Currently there is a nasty battle going on here in Virginia with the Governor race.  We just witnessed the fiasco of the government shut-down and debt ceiling crisis.  Our political ads are filled with lies and designed to mislead.  We have had news sources say it is not their job to correct the lies that are passed off as facts.  It is particularly true when it comes to the Affordable Care Act that the false and misleading information is rampant.  We are raising our children in a culture that says it is okay to lie in order to win.

Even our religious leaders are not immune, particularly when they venture into the region of politics.  The head of the Family Research Council has the audacity to state that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures don't require care for the least of these.  One quote from Isaiah illustrates how wrong he is: Isaiah 1:17

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Clearly Israel is being punished not because of their lack of worship or prayer.  They are being punished because they are not caring for the least of these (these 'least' in Isaiah's Israel and still today in our country are children and single parents).

Lying is explicitly in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:16) and it has to do with bearing false witness.  Our political system however is currently predicated on bearing false witness.  Unfortunately we also have a news culture that is tending toward the same in the name of presenting the most extreme views and calling it balanced reporting.  So we will have a conservative evangelical Christian with a view of Scripture as inerrant and an atheist who thinks all religion is harmful.  That is not balanced reporting! It is shock reporting or looking for great viewer ratings. It is a cultural phenomenon to have a political culture and news culture that promotes bearing false witness.

So what is the average person to do?  In reality we are left on our own to sort through the various myriad speeches, ads, news coverage and try to come to a conclusion.  We hope it is a reasonable one.  Yet this whole system is predicated on fear, fear of the other, fear that someone will take what little you or I have.  If we are kept in a constant state of fear then it makes it more difficult to sort out the lies.  Over and over in history we can see how at the core of our worst atrocities, worst genocides were the lies told to keep people in fear. The German people were lost and broken after World War I and Hitler gave them targets to blame and to fear.  The Bosnian Serbs convinced people that  Bosnian Muslims and Croatians were fundamentally different and inferior and should be destroyed.  In this country Native Americans and African Americans have been similarly treated.

Lies and fear keep people in closets. These lies are not just the ones that come from the outside in (like the lie that being gay is simply a sinful choice); lies are also internalized (internalized racism, sexism or homophobia) and the lies we tell ourselves are some of the most dangerous.  Humans have a remarkable capacity to deny facts even when they are right in front of them.  Like the people in Germany who lived around the concentration camps.  Like those in South African cities that didn't think Apartheid was all that bad.  Like those of us in this country that refuse to believe that innocent people go to jail; that our justice system works equally for people of all races and that poor people are really just lazy and make poor choices.

So what are we to do?  How do we resist this culture of lying?  Well I think it begins by asking critical questions of the news and news stories we receive.  It begins by asking whose voices are not being heard.  Maybe it begins with refusing to believe any political ad, turning them off, and doing the hard work of reading a candidate's platform.  Let's move beyond the tweet and the sound bite when it comes to making decisions about who to vote for.  It begins with being truthful with ourselves. What lies are we telling to ourselves? to our spouses/partners? to our children?  What do we refuse to see?  What do our communities refuse to see?  Do we refuse to see the poverty of our neighbors (or maybe even the members of our faith communities)?  Do we refuse to see how our privilege of skin color, sexual orientation, gender, class, education that insulates us from the suffering and oppression of others?

We must emerge from denial and face ourselves, our communities and our world with honesty.  We must bear witness.  In every act of suffering, genocide, and oppression, the largest number of people are guilty of refusing to see the truth, refusing to bear witness.  Part of the duty of not bearing false witness to actually bear witness. It is the story of the mouse and the elephant as explained by Desmund Tutu.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of the mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

How can you stop bearing false witness?  To what must you bear witness?  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

When All the Choices Are Poor

Recently Slate and New York Times published articles on recent scientific research on decision making and poverty. Both articles make the excellent point that poverty in and of itself affects people profoundly and their ability to make "good" decisions.  Both articles point out that when money is scarce and is scarce over time, relentlessly, and even in short term situations, then ability to make what most would consider "good" or "future-oriented" choices is limited.  Now the New York Times article goes a bit further to explore how the options available to poor people are fewer.  For example, many poor or working class people don't have much in the way of savings or access to credit.  So people in this situation come to rely on sources like payday lenders and title loans. One does not have to be a Nobel-award winning economist to know that these are horrible options to be avoided.  Yet if one is faced with a cash shortage and the rent is due, one has no other borrowing options, then the only choice may be to take the payday loan.  If all the choices are poor - not paying the rent, taking out a payday loan, taking a title loan - then how does one assess what the "good" or "better" choice would be?

So while I appreciate these articles, I struggle with this notion of the poor "making poor choices" when poverty is restricting choices.  If the actual situation of poverty and scarcity is creating conditions of poor choices i.e., there are no good ones - then how do we label these choices "poor." I might argue that the poor have to be innovative and creative in their choices as demonstrated by the author of the Slate article.  The poor person knows that they can't shop at Whole Foods or maybe even the grocery store closest to them. The poor person may have to shop at multiple stores to make their food dollars stretch. I bet if we did a study of those receiving food assistance and who live on extremely limited income, the results might suggest that do more actual work to procure food and have to be more creative at it, then those who are more middle class.  They may know how to stretch a food budget, because they have to, then the person who does not struggle with scarcity.

Both of these articles brought to mind a quote from James Luther Adams in his critique of liberal religion. Adams wrote "...the emphasis on the quality of the will,on the disposition of the entire personality, was replaced by a one-sided emphasis on 'reason.'...Thus religious liberalism, in the name of intellectual integrity, tended to neglect the deeper levels both of the human consciousness and of reality itself." (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.59)  When it comes the decisions people make around money, there is tendency to believe that all decisions regarding money are made rationally.  That we make decisions about money without regard to our emotions, our past history or the messages we have received.  Yet as Adams reminds we are not simply rational creatures. These articles actually show the affect of scarcity on the brain.  If you want another example read SNAP challenge blog of Panera CEO, Ron Shaich. He points out that when food was scarce, all he thought about was food and what he could and could not have.  Anyone who has been on a diet for any length of time knows the same thing. Not to mention the sense of isolation from others.  This is doubled for people struggling financially because we are schooled early on, particularly those raised with any class privilege, one does not talk about money and one does not ask for help.

Adams also rightly points out that liberal religion has frequently only appealed to certain classes of people - upper and well educated because Unitarians in particular relegated emotions and conversion to those who are underprivileged and ignorant. (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.60).  Unitarian Universalists continue to struggle with class and even in their work for justice often end up coming as "great white saviors" here to rescue the poor from their bad decisions.  This comes through in attitudes towards those who shop at Walmart and other low-cost stores. There is a clear disdain that comes through; "I would never shop there."

There are many great suggestions about long-term fixes such as low cost loans, access to emergency cash that would make the lives of those living with scarcity better. What I want to add is that we have to stop characterizing poor people as making poor decisions.  Again if all the options are poor options, what is one to do?  If we continue to define things as "good decisions" and "bad decisions" then we continue the cycle of putting the burden of poverty on individuals rather than on a economic system that shuts people out and keeps people poor.  Again our language blames poor people for their poverty.  Even in cases where one might not understand the choice - buying expensive sneakers for a child, paying for a smart phone, or other "luxury" items might be seen differently if we thought about maybe those expensive shoes are the only "nice" thing that child owns or sports may be seen as the ticket out of the cycle of poverty.  Maybe that phone is the only internet access that family has or is needed to maintain whatever work is available.  Suddenly even these "poor choices" look differently when we take into account the whole of a person's life.

So I appreciate these articles for pointing out that poverty itself affects the whole of a person's life - it is not just about paying rent, buying food and making good rational choices about how to do that - but rather poverty itself affects the brain, the spirit of a person.  Yet please stop characterizing their decisions as "poor." When choices are limited, which they are for those who are poor, then people are just making the best choices they can given the options available.

Have you experienced scarcity in your life?  In what ways?  Have you experienced the narrowing of options and choices due to circumstances? When you have you experienced a time of "no good choices"?  How does your understanding of "no good choices" affect your understanding of those who are poor if you yourself are not struggling with scarcity of money?

Thursday, October 10, 2013


So starting on Friday around 3 pm I declared for myself an e-mail Sabbath. I decided I was not going to look at my email until Monday. I set a vacation message and turned email notifications off on my phone and tablet. Why did I do this?

Well I met with my spiritual director on Friday at Richmond Hill. I found myself longing to be at Richmond Hill for a number of days of silent retreat. I did this shortly after I left my job. I spent five days at Richmond Hill - I prayed, participated in the community prayer life, attended a centering prayer circle, read books, slept, walked the labyrinth, met with a spiritual director and other than talking to my family each night I was off all social media and email. I wore a silent tag around my neck and ate my meals in the room set aside for those observing silence. It was absolutely wonderful! So while I could not at this point do a silent retreat at Richmond Hill I knew I needed a Sabbath. I needed to take a break from the job searching, networking, emailing. It was a good break. I read, I played on Facebook, Pinterest, and hung out with my family. I stayed off this computer all weekend. I didn't even write my blog post because I just needed to stop.

Sabbath is about stopping. It is about unplugging, turning off the devices and paying attention to time and each other in a different way. Judaism has an amazing Sabbath tradition. All work ceases from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset. Sabbath is tied to creation - God resting on the seventh day. A few years ago I preached a sermon on Sabbath, after I had read Wayne Muller's book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and another wonderful book called A Day Apart: How Jews, Christians and Muslims Find Faith, Freedom and Joy on the Sabbath by Christopher Ringwald.  These two books informed the Sabbath practice I developed over my time working in a congregation. I was always very intentional about turning off work email notifications on Sunday evening and they did not go back on until Tuesday morning.  I did no work on Monday.  I spent the day with my family, I cooked, I read, I slept in.  It was critical to my work that I stop, step away and let work take a back seat.  You see I have learned I often think that I always have to be working.  That if I am not working than I must be lazy.  You can imagine that being unemployed since March might just be getting to me.

What I discovered is that I have treated my job search much like my work. Doing it all the time, thinking about it when I am not doing it, feeling guilty if I find myself carried away by an interesting article on Facebook.  There is this constant sense that I must always be emailing, figuring out who to reach out to next, searching web sites for job listings.  Since there is urgency about the job search and since it is not like a job with hours, it is easy to be sucked into the notion that there should be nothing else in my life right now except job searching.  So each day I sit at this computer writing and reaching out.  Doing research on various organizations or people.  Sometimes I am writing resumes or cover letters.  Yet most of this work is not immediate pay off. It is planting seeds and waiting for them to grow. It is following up with people (watering the plants) and waiting.  Hoping there is just the right mix of sun, rain, warm, cold to nurture this garden of job searching.  A lot of it is like watching grass grow - you can't see the progress until you step away.

Well I had not been stepping away very well.  I felt like I had to be at the work, all the time and if I wasn't doing something then I was either feeling guilty or thinking about what I needed to do next.  It was too much and I was done.  So I turned off my email.  Now one of the gifts of a religious or spiritual practice of Sabbath is that you do it at the same time every week without exception.  So Sabbath comes for Jews on Friday at sunset every week.  For those who observe Sabbath in a more traditional way, work goes away, the candles are lit, children are blessed, wine/juice are consumed and services are attended.  Of course each family, each congregation, each denomination has its own traditions to this practice.  For some it is removal of the watch, for some video games go up and for others they come out (the only time the children are allowed to play them), computers go off...but in some way time is marked in a different way then any other day of the week.

That is the beauty of spiritual practice and how even more wonderful for that practice to be celebrated by millions of people, each week, around the world.  That is the gift of being part of a world-wide religious community.  It is probably one of the things I miss most about being part of the Roman Catholic Church. I knew that I could walk into a Roman Catholic Church, any where in the world and be a part of that community.

So after this weekend I am thinking I need a Sabbath practice.  I need to regularly turn off email. I need to step away from the job search. I need ways to mark time differently.  It is time to return to the spiritual discipline of rest.

Do you have a Sabbath practice?  What does it look like?  How do you fit rest and renewal into your life?  What does your spiritual life and discipline tell you about work, rest and play?