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By Randy Roche, SJ
Below is a title and brief description of each essay. To read an essay, click on it's title.
Tired - Being tired is probably not something we would normally associate with love, but...
Prizes - No material prize of itself, even of gold, is more valuable than friendship in all its manifold forms.
The Source - We need to be properly and personally connected with our source.
The Angelus - What really makes our world go around, if it is not love?
Spoons - We cannot evaluate prayer by intensity of feelings.
Judge - God's judgment on us is that of merciful love.
Dynamite - But both anger and explosives are ultimately creatures that are available for our benefit. When we use them properly, no one will suffer real harm.
Waiting - Waiting is an intentional spiritual enterprise though it might not have the appearance of doing great deeds.
Good - Our attraction for goodness is directly related to who we are as creatures.
Pineapple - All of us can at any time and in any place, exercise our faith, hope or love.
Lead - An authentic call to lead others is not really about us; it is about those who will be served.
Lumber and Joy - We do not expect to find anything helpful by looking at the contents of a garbage can.
Freedom - If our God-given freedom for love was ours without any means to support us, we could become discouraged.
Thinking and Feeling - The gift and grace of discernment grows, like any "spiritual muscle," by exercising it.
When we say that we are tired of something, we usually have in mind some ongoing unpleasant experience. But if we tell anyone that we are tired because of what we have been doing, we might be conveying the positive truth that we have engaged whole-heartedly in whatever we were doing. When we let others know that we are tired from working or playing or from dealing as best we could with emotionally-laden concerns, we usually expect understanding and affirmation. If we consult our own interior senses, we will know with relative certainty whether and to what degree we are pleased or dissatisfied about the causes of our tiredness.
Becoming tired can be viewed as a gift befitting our human condition: an honest whole-person experience that is not just physical, but also mental, emotional and spiritual. If we become adept at paying attention to the various signs that accompany different modes of tiredness, we can direct our limited energies into more satisfactory enterprises than if we keep pushing ourselves until we drain even our reserves.
We know about most electronic devices that it is best not to run batteries down until they have nothing left; and about machines, that it is a better practice to add fuel to the tanks rather than allow the dregs from the bottom to be drawn into the engines. We are neither devices nor machines, but we recover more quickly and without negative consequences if we make conscious decisions about when to rest based on reflection or awareness instead of continuing what we are doing to the point of having no energy left for anything.
Being tired is probably not something we would normally associate with love, but just as a smile can directly signify care of one person for another, so also our internal experiences of tiredness equivalently give us a knowing, caring smile suggesting that we take care of ourselves. And not just for our own well-being, but for the sake of those with whom and for whom we expend our energies. Even becoming tired of something, including the behavior of others, can be of help to us as a sign that we need to decide how much we will allow to go unchecked, or as an indicator that we need to take means to ensure that we retain our own sense of purpose. The symptoms of becoming tired are as beneficial to us as are the symbols on devices that indicate low battery level and the gauges on vehicles that inform us of low amounts of fuel.
We do not have to tell anyone if or when we grow tired of repetitious behavior of others or even repeated activities that we perform, and we have no need to announce when we have depleted our capacities to the point of needing rest. But we ourselves need to notice and then act appropriately when our inner senses inform us accurately of how our bodies, minds and spirits are feeling. To ignore such information and so to suffer negative consequences is not at all the same as freely deciding to push ahead when we are clear that it is right for us to continue, even though we are likely to become exhausted.
Making conscious decisions about how to proceed in the light of valid information about our state of tiredness is both wholly appropriate and holy.
A prize is usually something given to a person for his or her performance: everything from an Olympic gold medal to a certificate of recognition. Most of us do not want to receive a prize simply for being present, but only for a personal or communal accomplishment. In many situations, such as awards given to those who are the best in some contest, it is clear that a few receive prizes and others do not. For some people, this causes discomfort, because it seems to them as if the value of persons was somehow involved, judging one as better than another. Our belief is that no person is of more value than another, but we also respect the reality among us that people of good will often choose to show appreciation by giving prizes for particular performances by individual persons as well as groups.
We ourselves also "prize" one person over another. With our limited capacities for interpersonal relationships, we cannot give the prize of our friendship equally to all persons. We do not thereby deny the intrinsic value of all other people. Each of us has different bonds of love, friendship, association and contact with a wide range of people, but not with all persons.
In everyday life situations, we might be embarrassed to receive recognition for something that we have done, since our intention was only to do whatever it was that was viewed as noteworthy. How much more difficult it might be for us to accept that each of us is prized by God, without having done anything to deserve it. Yet it bears consideration at least as much as that of acknowledging that we have been, and are, prized by others, as a family member, friend or associate.
God prizes us not for being better than anyone else as a person, and not for behavior that we would consider better than someone else's in the number and quantity of "good deeds" we have done. Rather, we are prized as unique individuals with the capacity to love as we are loved. Our status of being prized is dependent not on anything we do but on our acceptance of the gift. The trust we exercise in accepting God's unconditional love is a requirement without which we cannot experience being prized as we are.
The ongoing consequences of accepting that we are so prized is that we become more like the One who loves us, which is of benefit to all with whom we live, work or play, enabling us to be "prizes" for them. Rather than being awarded to contest winners, we become, in accepting our calling, visible, tangible signs of a truly great ongoing accomplishment by God.
We surely are not perfect, but no material prize of itself, even of gold, is more valuable than friendship in all its manifold forms. We are continually called upon to grow in every way that makes us more like God, who is Love. Our growth depends not primarily on our own efforts, but through reliance on being prized by God as we now are. That is the power that moves in and through us as prizes for others.
If we turn on some lights, we rely on a power source many miles away, even though there are generators, cables, wires, towers, transformers, switches, meters and much else between our lights and the source. What about the source that powers our decisions of thought and action? Only when the lights go out do we usually give any attention to the source, and to anything that might have occurred between us and the power supply. In like manner, we might not reflect on the source of all that we think and do until we find ourselves in a situation where we are having a difficulty making a decision, our thoughts are muddled, or we are uncertain of how to act. We might wonder if there are blockages between us and our source of power.
If the lights go out, we usually look first to a local possibility, such as a blown fuse. But we might need to finally seek outside assistance when we ourselves cannot restore the connection. When our abilities to decide, to think clearly and act with confidence are somehow disrupted, we might want to consider what sort of breakdowns could have taken place, not in switches, cables and transformers, but through distractions, interruptions and disconnections to our relationship with the source. We could even ponder whether or not we have at some time tapped into an unreliable or false power supply. We can be sure that the problem is not with the real source, but at our end, and that it can be resolved to our satisfaction.
If we call a local repair person when an electrical power loss is not the public utility's responsibility, the service is not for free. When our problem is that we have clearly lost connection with our personal source of power, we can often turn to those who give us very practical help, and who do not charge a fee: a mentor, advisor, or true friend. They, and readings in sound spirituality as well as many other positive options, can be of much assistance. But ultimately, we need to be properly and personally reconnected with our source.
When electrical repairs are needed, someone with appropriate skills makes the necessary connections with the power source. But whenever, and no matter how often, we need to repair the connections that allow for power to flow in and through us in thought, word and deed, all that is required is a free and conscious response to the invitations, inspirations and other interior or external reminders of the presence of The Source.
We can easily become distracted with all that we "have to do" and lose sight of the ever-present power of love that enables us to accomplish all that is of real value. All it takes is a moment to deliberately reconnect with The Source. When we are relatively centered in life, and are suddenly interrupted by an event or occurrence that elicits strong feelings of fear, anger or affection, we might need to pause for a few moments to notice where God is to be found in the midst of our present reality. If we sense that we are disconnected from our purpose in life, we can, and need to, let God restore our confidence in the truth that we "count," and that we are loved and are here to love others. Praying is a fine option.
The Source: always available, always a free gift of Love.
Some churches and chapels in the United States follow a ritual that goes back to even before the Middle Ages: at noon and at 6:00 pm, the bells toll to call for a brief "time out," especially to recall the significance of the great mystery of God becoming a human being, the "Incarnation." Nowadays, most people who hear the bells ringing sets of 3 peals with an intervening pause between the sets, have no idea of their intent or signification. But we could all use some regular pauses in our busy days.
If we dare to stop whatever we are doing and turn our thoughts briefly to something of great personal significance that is not merely a topic "in the news" or of popular local interest, we might be surprised at the refreshment and motivational power we receive. We all have little private rituals such as the particular way we start the day with a hot beverage. Some of these rituals are simply non-reflective habits that we developed over time. But others are more consciously supportive of living a life of meaning and purpose. Like as those do who pray the Angelus, we stop doing what seems so important just because we are doing it at the moment, and reflect for a few moments on a value, a principle or some insight that is truly important because it guides how we do whatever we do. It might be a thought about God, but it might be a consideration of love or of justice, or a desire to make a positive difference by whatever we say or do. A deliberate, reflective pause gives us power over the common compulsion of uninterrupted activity that afflicts many of us.
We benefit as individuals if we develop a few private reflective rituals, but we also receive other advantages through some rituals that are shared with others. Some examples: bowing our heads in a shared moment of silence, becoming quiet rather than talking and making comments when we hear news of some tragedy or disaster, sharing a blessing before a meal or participating in a religious service. All of these implicitly acknowledge our need for more than what we are capable of on our own, or even as a group. What really makes our world go around, if it is not love? And how will we become aware of this all-encompassing reality unless we sometimes stop our internal car, turn off the ignition, and pay attention to that within us which makes our journey worthwhile?
In the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, people would stop what they were doing when they heard the Angelus bells, as a common shared ritual. We do not have equivalent pauses built into modern society. But the human need for occasional breaths of the clean air of our deeper aspirations and desires is even greater now, and has more significant consequences for our individual well-being all day, and which ripples out through the interactions we have with everyone else.
The Angelus has it right: a regular pause to acknowledge the presence and deliberate loving action of God in our very busy world makes a real and positive difference in how we think and act.
When we use tea spoons and soup spoons for eating, it is mostly for liquids or quite soft food, rather than for picking up solid pieces as we do with forks. However, serving spoons are quite useful for moving large portions of food, though usually not liquids. We use different kinds of spoons for different tasks that serve the one purpose of assisting with our meals. We can pray or otherwise engage with transcendence in many different ways, yet most of these are relational, each appropriate for different aspects of encounters with the spiritual environment in which we live. Some ways are highly personal, just as we might have a heart-to-heart talk with a close friend or family member, other forms are more suited to communal, shared experiences, and still others are so devoid of verbal and thought content that we might hesitate to call them prayer. If we question whether or not to name an experience as prayer, we will find our answer more readily by noting the subtle interior effects it has upon us rather than examining with our minds the many categories that are described in books. To understand what happens in prayer, we might reflectively consider the analogy of how two close friends or family members relate with each other, rather than consult some theological texts. We might be surprised to learn, if we have not previously reflected on the manner in which we carry on our interpersonal exchanges, that the words we and others use, even if many and carefully phrased, are not nearly as important in conveying our messages as is the way we spontaneously use tone of voice and facial and bodily gestures. Perhaps we are already intuitively aware that eye-contact is often our most effective means of correctly conveying our intentions, however unvoiced they might be. More of our meaning and intent, even over a phone, is conveyed with how we say what we say than in the words we use. We communicate with God in similar ways, relating with our whole person, not just by using words. We cannot evaluate prayer by intensity of feelings, but we can recognize authentic communication with God through interior movements that are universal among us. We know, at least when we are in a relatively peaceful frame of mind, whether or not our experience was good for us at the time. At one moment we might have a clear and undoubtedly close contact with God that leaves us deeply pleased, but at another we might express deep feelings of pain, followed by only an implicit understanding that it was right for us to do so, and was better than keeping it all to ourselves. Many of us have experiences of communal prayer in which we are so busy with the
singing, rituals, words and all that is going on around and within us that we have no spiritual sensations of any kind. We might even say that we "suffered through" some of these situations. But if the honest answer to our concern about authentic prayer is that we belonged there at the time, it is as much a part of a loving relationship with God as are all the efforts we put into giving a party because of our love for a family member or a friend. What do spoons have to do with prayer? The goal of all shared meals and of prayer is to experience communion, and we use whatever works best in each particular setting.
The judges in many of the Olympic Games were required to observe precise specific behavior of athletes in the various competitions, and then quickly decide upon an appropriate quantitative score of the action they had just watched. We expect professional judges to be highly specialized and skilled observers who base their judgments only on the behavior before them, not on an individual's reputation or any other personal quality. Most of our judging is not of this kind. We often make judgments about the behavior of people whom we encounter every day and even those we see only once, based on personal criteria that are often not even clear in our own minds, much less in the minds or intentions of those we observe.
The patterns we have developed over years of thinking and acting as we see fit are so spontaneous and personal that logical reasoning or emotional appeals rarely lead to radical changes in our habits of judging others. However, if we reflect on only a few of the judgments we have made during the course of a day, we might realize that we are pleased with some, but not with others. If we do this with some regularity, we are enabled to make gradual changes that enhance our capacity to judge properly.
We cannot become "pros" at judging even a small number of the kinds of activities of which people are capable. But we can develop excellence in knowing when to judge and when not to judge at all. Even the best of judges at an event might miss observing a critically important aspect of a performance, and need to abstain from giving any indication of approval or disapproval. We, who are in constant motion ourselves, often see only a limited part of someone's behavior, and might be wise to forgo giving any indication of a judgment, no matter how we feel about the actions we actually saw.
We usually judge people according to our own personal values, and others judge us the same way. We do not find many standards that are agreed upon by almost everyone. Especially in our times, there seem to be few norms that are accepted by the majority of those even in the civic, ethnic, cultural or religious communities to which we belong. Reflecting on some of our judging, as well as on the effect upon us of being on the receiving end of both positive and negative judgments by others will not enable us to discover universally applicable truth, but we can count on learning something of greater value.
When we pause to consider our own interior workings, we are much more likely to have common but frequent experiences of inspiration, and not about judging behavior as right or wrong, but about the far greater good: the presence or absence of love. God's judgment on us is that of merciful love. If we judge others as God judges us in this way, we will become ever more capable of making the distinction between a person and his or her behavior. And we will become less quick to judge others as right or wrong, good or bad.
"Who am I to judge?" (Pope Francis)
Dynamite was used for many years in a great number of major construction projects, and explosives of even more power are now used in civil engineering works. Explosives and almost any substance that is used for our benefit can also be used to cause us harm. Anything from gunpowder to nuclear chain reactions can serve us or destroy us, almost always according to the intent of those who utilize them.
Anger is a powerful emotion, which can sometimes be manifested with explosive force, but not always or necessarily with destructive purpose or effects. When, for example, anger is a spontaneous response to clearly outrageous injustice wrought upon people, it might provide the energy for speaking and acting with forceful expressions of truth that are best conveyed with an attention-demanding explosion. Like any explosion, there is liable to be some unintended damage, such as hurt feelings or shock at unaccustomed behavior. Whether or not a particular "blow-up" fits the circumstances, we are often able to determine only by reflecting upon the experience afterward.
Many of us are, with good reason, quite wary of anger in ourselves and in others. We might be afraid that we will explode in a manner destructive of ourselves or of other persons; or that we might be damaged by the ways that others express their anger toward us. We readily understand that even those who handle explosives on a regular basis need to exercise considerable caution. We do not want amateurs to have access to dynamite. But both anger and explosives are ultimately creatures that are available for our benefit. When we use them properly, no one will suffer real harm.
Just as it better for all concerned that those who handle explosives should do so according to rules and regulations that are suitable for their proper and safe use, then human society depends upon us to manage well the force of our anger. Rather than from a list of legal requirements for the exercise of anger, we find our most secure guidelines by adverting directly to the "manufacturer." Our creator is ready to assist us with immediate guidance and corrective, healing reflection.
Though we are able to learn much from others as to how to deal with anger, we can always bring our most recent experiences, as well as any from the past, directly to God. God is not afraid of our anger, having made us capable of such a powerful emotion. So we have no real reason to hide our angry thoughts and feelings. Rather, in relating them to God, we gain clarity as to better options for whatever we will next think, say or do. We have never been judged as somehow "bad" for having feelings of anger and the negative thoughts that accompany them. But we do receive, if we wait a bit, healing of hurts received from the internal consequences of our own anger, or from someone else's words or actions. We are led to accept what has happened, no matter "who started it," and to decide on a next step that offers us, and others, peace rather than increased anger.
Most of us do not have opportunities for using dynamite constructively according to its purpose, but we all have experiences of anger, and it is ours to turn toward a good end.
If we are waiting on guests at table, we often try to anticipate what they might want. When we are waiting for friends to arrive, we anticipate the pleasure of their company. The two manners of waiting are not the same, but they are related. When we wait on people so as to meet their needs, or wait for someone, we orient ourselves towards the future, not the past. And waiting is not passive, but requires our continuing focus on expected interaction with others.
Waiting is an intentional spiritual enterprise though it might not have the appearance of doing great deeds. When we wait on people to serve them, whether as family members or friends, or as do those in the helping professions, our attention is fixed not just on what might be asked, but even on needs that might not be under consideration by the persons being served. Waiting such as this is not just standing by, but looking ahead to think of whatever might be helpful for others. Every form of caring for someone else is an exercise of the spirit. Money cannot buy active caring intention, though persons in positions of professional service deserve payment for their behavior on other's behalf.
When we wait for people, we can do so with a positive frame of mind or we can do so impatiently, thinking more about how we are inconvenienced than about our reasons for remaining available for the expected encounter. We are responsible for our attitude and for deciding how long we will wait, not the person or persons for whom we wait. Though we might find it easier to wait for a friend and more difficult to wait for someone who is liable to cause problems for us, the choice we make is primarily about some level of personal relationship, not merely the passage of time.
God waits on us and waits for us, although God does not operate under time constraints as we do. If we reflect on God as waiting on us, anticipating not only some of our needs, but all of the ways that we might be able to fulfill the deepest desires within us of which we are not even aware, we will be enabled to see how true it is. The Spirit of God will enable us to discover, with joy, how deeply, and with what practical and personal care, God waits on us.
Waiting for us is also a meaningful description for God's loving patience, much as we might wait for someone to come to their own conclusion rather than to tell them ahead of time what they should do or how they should think about something. As Ignatius of Loyola taught, people find great delight through personal experiences; therefore a guide or director should wait for such discoveries to take place and affirm them, but should not attempt to give to others their own personal insights. God waits for us to recognize and accept who we really are and to acknowledge the truth of our dependence upon His love for us.
Waiting does not require a college degree or anyone else's approval, but the good of all human society depends upon the quality of our waiting.
We know that chocolate is good. Perhaps we are good too, even though not every thought, word or deed of ours is good. Wars have been fought over whether or not people should or should not be considered as basically good.
We likely would have no trouble bringing to mind certain persons of whom we could say with conviction that they are either good or not good. We make our judgments about people based on what we observe, or from judgments made by those we trust. What concerns us ordinarily is not so much being able to appropriately define the absolute condition of individuals, but to state their correspondence, or lack of it, with our own values. We highly regard goodness in all of creation but most particularly as manifested by persons, including ourselves.
If we have at times found it more than difficult to act in ways that we believe are correct, we might have doubted our own goodness. A healthy respect for the reality that all of us are capable of both good and bad thoughts and actions is not the same as doubting our essential God-given orientation towards whatever is good. Believing in our own goodness encourages us to continue striving to improve. Those who take the option of believing that all of us are inherently bad, give themselves permission to forego their responsibility to make changes for the better.
In characterizing others as good or bad, we owe it to ourselves to take care, lest we forget our own inability to always say or do what is right, or implicitly deny our own goodness by declaring a fellow human to have no possibility for goodness. With an honest awareness that we cannot rightly absolutize our judgments of a person, we can still call them good or bad, knowing that we are referring to the present, and that our judgments might be based on emotional responses to particular behavior as well as to our process of reasoning. We hate to be judged by others in situations where we are not able to offer explanations that might change someone's understanding of our behavior. Being careful about our estimation of other's words and actions does not interfere with making sound judgments about what we observe or what we learn from other sources. But we cannot live secure in our own sense of being good persons if we too easily deny that possibility for others.
Our attraction for goodness is directly related to who we are as creatures. Only good can come from the creative love of God, because God is good, absolutely. We are good, but with our freedom, we can make choices that fulfill our orientation or subvert it. God looks with unwavering love upon all persons, regardless of their decisions which affirm or deny their inherent goodness. We are not one another's creators, and we are not capable of such complete love. But we can aspire to an ever-growing appreciation for the persons whom God loves, while still noting, as does God, the behavior in others and in ourselves that manifests goodness or does not.
How good that our judgments are limited to whatever we can perceive, but that God's true and merciful judgments are based on reading the intentions of human hearts with complete understanding.
Looking at a pineapple does not usually bring to mind the image of an apple, though the resemblance to a pine-cone might suggest itself. Whatever the name, any of us can appreciate the fruit when it is removed from its rough covering and set forth for eating. Considering the words "spiritual exercise" seems to awkwardly juxtapose a wholly interior kind of experience with something belonging to the physical order. But, just as "pineapple" specifies a particular fruit, "spiritual exercise" is an accepted designation for a helpful kind of human activity.
For those who have never removed the fruit from the very tough exterior of a pineapple, the task appears to be quite daunting. But with the proper use of a sharp knife the end result is worth the effort. Likewise, for someone considering the possibility of making a spiritual exercise, unfamiliarity can present an obstacle. But with only a little knowledge about the process and a willingness to learn what the fruit of a spiritual exercise might be, most people find the experience personally valuable.
Describing pineapple to someone who has never tasted it, we could talk about its color, taste and texture. If it is ripe, it will surely be sweet, but one has to try it to enjoy it. A spiritual exercise can be described quite well in words. But no description can substitute for even a small taste. Experience is far more satisfying than knowledge when it comes to a spiritual exercise. And most of us already have had such experience, though we might not have recognized it as such, so common is the gift among us.
Following the metaphor used by Ignatius of Loyola, a physical exercise uses the muscles in our bodies. When we engage in a spiritual exercise, we deliberately use our interior "muscles" of faith, hope and love. We decide to give direct attention, insofar as we are able, and in our own way, to some aspect of our lives that is primarily of a spiritual nature. Since we are whole persons, not divided into separate compartments of reasoning and feeling, or of activity and passivity, any spiritual exercise takes place within, and has effects upon, our bodies. If ripe pineapple tastes good as food for our bodies, spiritual exercises "taste good" as food for our hearts.
Whenever we reflect, however briefly, we do so with trust that we can make some sense out of whatever we consider because we believe, at least implicitly, that there in an order in the universe depending upon the goodness of God. Or, when we ponder some of our experiences in the hope that we can improve our attitude and behavior, we do so in the belief that God supports all such desires. Likewise, we often consider the pros and cons before acting, wanting to do what is right, which can be understood as acting lovingly, which fulfills the purpose for which God has made us.
Very few of us have access to fresh pineapple at all times. But all of us can at any time and in any place, exercise our faith, hope or love. And we do not have to do it on our own. Rather, every exercise that is spiritual is personally engendered and supported by the very Person of the Holy Spirit, guiding, encouraging, consoling, and illuminating our minds and warming our hearts whenever we are open to whatever is true, good and beautiful.
Without a context, the English word "lead" is wholly ambiguous. Only when it becomes clear either that the word indicates an activity or else a physical substance do we know what is under consideration. If we read or hear that someone wants to lead a group on a walk, but his or her legs feel as though they are made of lead, we not only understand the meaning, but also have an example of one of those human situations where desires must take into account whatever physical limitations might apply.
Some of us have leadership roles that are recognized by most people, but all of us lead others in some situations, whether or not we, or they, acknowledge it. We can be called to be a leader in many ways: the birth of a child, an invitation to take charge of a group; an unexpected event where we spontaneously show others to safety; an honest desire to offer one's self to act on others' behalf as a teacher, mentor or guide; or even a willingness to serve in a public office. We know well the difference between an officer of any kind who actually leads and a person who merely rules. A title does not make a leader; a recognized calling is the surest sign of a true leader.
When we provide leadership for one person or for many, we bear certain responsibility for their welfare. The heaviness of that responsibility could seem like a lead weight or it could appear to be only a bag of feathers, depending upon our image of leadership. The more we are focused on ourselves as leaders, the weightier the burden; the more our concern is for others, the lighter the load appears to be. Likewise, the more we resist or deny the limitations of time, circumstances and our own personal weaknesses, the heavier the role of leadership will seem to be. But when we take into account the realities of our present situation, we are then free to do the best we can.
An authentic call to lead others is not really about us; it is about those who will be served. We know that good leaders engender trust which is given freely, especially to those who do not seek positions of leadership. We are spontaneously more trusting of those who manifest their real concern for others and who also seem able and willing to serve as leaders. The opposite is true of those who seek roles of leadership and at the same time seem more concerned with their desire for personal honor and power over others than with serving the common good. We have multiple examples of persons who say and do almost anything in order to gain a position of prominence, and who gain adherents through generating fear and anger, rather than engendering sincere trust by their concern for our welfare.
The grace of leadership includes an inspired sense of recognizing a way forward, always positive, even though we might not yet see how we will get there. We can always ask others, including God, for further insights and guidance. But to lead in any way is a gift, not a lead weight.
"Lumber" is not a bright, attractive word even for those who like forestry products, and certainly not if we think of persons who lumber about, ponderously bearing life's burdens. People build homes and make things out of pieces of lumber. But we do not usually derive benefits from those who approach life dispiritedly.
Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God, which is a characteristic relatively easy to perceive in people about us, and is certainly an aspect of our lives that most of us notice and for which we are rightly grateful. If we, and those we know, have moments of lumbering about gloomily, we either need to metaphorically turn the occasions into the kind of lumber we use for making something useful or manage a graceful turn-around in attitude. The consistent experience of joy is both eminently desirable and within the capability of everyone.
For large construction undertakings and for small individual projects, not just any lumber will do. The correct kind of wood must be treated properly from tree to work-site, or no one will be fully satisfied with whatever is made. Likewise, experiencing joy as an abiding attitude is not a habit we acquire brand-new from some spiritual source. We prepare our minds and hearts for joy by selecting with care the patterns of thought that persist in our minds at all those times when we are not concentrating on something that we are doing. If we let our minds dwell on all the negative realities and possibilities that are around us, we will literally not be able to take much joy in whatever we do. If we make some efforts to notice the good that really exists in the people and situations around us, as well as in the always-present possibility that "all will be well," we will be ready for spontaneous moments of joy in the ordinary occurrences of our days.
We can also prepare for the natural and God-intended connection between joy and our daily interactions with all aspects of creation by deliberately choosing an appropriate physical posture. When we stand or sit up straight with a relaxed facial expression, we take on the inner characteristics of persons ready for whatever gifts life will offer. We are like a piece of lumber ready for some good use. But if we permit ourselves to slump about with a frown or scowl like a lumbering ox, we will more likely become only aware of the immediate ground beneath us and find nothing of value in what we see.
We do not expect to find anything helpful by looking at the contents of a garbage can, but when we look upward and outward toward an expanded horizon we are able to think and imagine how things can change for the better. More than that, if we open our minds and hearts to the presence of God in and through all that exists, we will at times be surprised by joy in places where we might never have expected to find it.
Most of us are likely to think more about having freedom from various kinds of obstacles than to possessing freedom for achieving our purposes. We rightly are grateful for many freedoms from the kinds of burdens others could impose on us that would considerably diminish our capacity for living as we choose, but neither do we want to miss being thankful for the many opportunities we have for fulfilling our purpose in life no matter what kinds of realities might impact us.
If we were to draw up a list of the freedoms that we consider most important, most of them would likely be those that allow us to do whatever we want to do. Yet, we possess a more important freedom that applies even in circumstances where we might be severely constrained by physical and societal forces such as government, health, employment, education or experience. No one, and nothing, can keep us from accomplishing the purpose for which we exist. We are not complete masters of our own lives, as demonstrated by the many ordinary limitations that we experience every day. But neither can we be prevented from exercising our essential freedom for deciding how we shall live within the environment of physical controls, boundaries or restrictions that we experience. For example, organized society can grant and restrict our freedom to possess firearms, but has no power to either grant or restrict our freedom for love.
We do not find ourselves as creatures living within some arbitrary life-condition that is devoid of meaning. Rather, God, who is Love, has created us for love, and provided us with freedom for becoming loving persons. Love is always a free choice. And with this freedom to love, we are equally free to choose the other option, which perhaps we have done at times, to not love in some specific instances. Also, with this same freedom, we can make decisions in the name of love that are inauthentic, that do not truly satisfy our hearts no matter what reasons we use to justify them. Freedom for love indicates our highest calling, and our most fulfilling opportunity, but it requires much more of us than all the freedoms from external forces that we possess.
If our God-given freedom for love was ours without any means to support us, we could become discouraged. But in addition to free will, we are also gifted with all the ways that we ourselves are loved. In addition to receiving respect, consideration, kindness and every other form of love from people which sustains us and reinforces our own efforts to be loving persons, God continually and personally moves lovingly within and around us. We can love, and thereby fulfill our purpose in life, because we are loved, and were loved before we had the least inclination to love people or God in return.
In a wonderful circular arrangement, God gives us not only the capacity to be fulfilled by loving, but the precious freedom for love that is continually supported by our experiences of receiving love in the countless ways it comes to us.
Sometimes we might say that we feel disturbed when, for example, we think about the suffering of children in war-torn situations. Or someone might say that he or she thinks that it is terrible how children suffer in time of war. And someone else might talk about feeling that they should do something about children orphaned by war. We are somewhat free in our use of the words thinking and feeling, using them interchangeably when describing both thoughts and feelings. Sometimes this serves our purposes adequately, at other times not, especially when we need clarity about our interior state of being.
Not only in communicating with others, but also in our own inner expressions, we are at our best when we attend to the distinction between thinking and feeling as well as their complementarity. When we want to understand and perhaps share with others one or other of our experiences, we can do so with more facility when we are able to distinguish a thought from a feeling, while also noting which feeling accompanies or follows a particular thought. For example, if we had an experience of being treated unjustly, we want to deal with it in the best way possible. If we have thoughts about how to respond that are accompanied with increasing feelings of anger, this is likely not an internal process worth following. If we have thoughts about a way of proceeding and our anger diminishes, we have found a way forward that satisfies us. The different feelings that accompany each of the different lines of thinking reveal which is the better option for us.
Observing the intimate direct connection between thinking and feeling is an exercise of our spirituality. We exercise courage and honesty, leading to both integrity and true interior freedom when we consciously reflect on the specific feeling that follows or is attached to an individual thought. God gave us not only the freedom to choose, but the capacity to exercise discernment by making use of the information we receive when, for example, the thought of doing a random act of kindness is accompanied with a feeling of peace. Or the thought of mocking someone for his or her appearance causes feelings of unease. When we give attention to our thoughts and feelings we receive immediate, accurate knowledge for making decisions that are in keeping with our values.
The gift and grace of discernment grows, like any "spiritual muscle," by exercising it. No warm-ups are necessary, but we cannot arrange an exercise schedule for practicing decision-making based on our observations of how we feel about what we think. Rather, when a particular event arises that catches our attention and requires of us that we make a decision before we act, that is the opportune moment to consider whether we have a sense of unity or of dissonance between our thoughts and feelings. Also, we always have the option of reflecting later on in the day, and at that time, unhurried by circumstances, notice whether or not we had chosen what was better as opposed to less good, in view of how the feeling that followed the thought was either truly complementary, or actually disturbing.
Discernment and decision-making depend upon taking note of what we are thinking and feeling.