WHEN WE SIMPLY ARE-WHO-WE-ARE AT THE DEEPEST LEVEL, WE BECOME A CONTRIBUTION – AN INTERVIEW WITH DR JOHN J. SCHERER
John, you work relentlessly for so many years, why are you doing it? What’s your ‘Why’?
Actually, Marzanna, I can’t remember the last time I had the thought: “I’m going to work”. Just the fact that my headquarters is here in the apartment is a sign of this fact, but even when I had an office, I never had the feeling that I was going to work. I’ve been just being myself wherever I am.
My mission—or my ‘Why’—has been to be the best John Jacob Scherer IV that I can possibly be in every moment, whether I am on a train, a plane or in an airport or a restaurant, or the check-out line at Carrefour, or making a presentation to 500 executives. Believe me, being myself as fully as I can is a full time job!
My Why also includes being continually interested in developing who I am. It sounds self-centered but, ironically, the deeper we go into an honest exploration into who we are on the inside, the more naturally our lives flow outward in service to the world.
Along those lines, a year ago I made an exciting discovery: that our English word “develop” comes from the old French word, desveloupez, which means “to unwrap” or “to discover”. At French children “develop” their Holiday gifts, which means they unwrap them to discover what is in the package. When we used to take our camera film to the photo shop, someone would dip the “negatives” in the right liquids where the photos were “developed’. What was hidden in the negatives was revealed or brought to light by being developed, where it could be seen or experienced.
In 1987 I called my first leadership program ‘The Executive Development Intensive’ with no idea how powerful that word desveloupez was! Believe me, if I had known, it would have been a part of our marketing all these years!
From the beginning my mission has been to help individuals, teams, organizations—and the world at work—to desveloupez, to unwrap or discover the fulness of what’s there.
In short, I would say that my life is about assisting people in unwrapping or discovering who they are in the process of coming home to themselves.
It’s beautiful what you’re saying about this discovery and I’m wondering, when leaders with whom you work discover themselves, what becomes possible for them?
Because you’ve been in the room facilitating our executive and leadership development experiences, you’ve seen what happens. Virtually everyone goes deeper. Everyone “unwraps” and discovers their previously-unknown gifts. Many people have a fresh moment of “waking up” to who they are, what they are capable of, and why they are alive. Isn’t that we are here?!
I believe we are on the earth to discover who we are, express that fully into the world, in a way that it contributes to Life.
The tagline of your company is Unleashing The Human Spirit At Work. Business exists in a material world with material objectives. Human beings have a spirit but also exist in a non-material or spiritual world. How do you join the two?
Everybody has some kind of personality. Every team, every organization, even every country, has some kind of spirit.
When I first came to Poland in 2008, I remember what happened when a new friend and translator, Dorota Kożusznik, was with me and 300 executives as I was giving a keynote presentation on ‘Work and the Human Sprit’. A few minutes into the talk, she put her hand on my arm, inviting me to pause, and began to speak to the audience. After two or three minutes she nodded and I started up again. When the presentation was over, I asked her what was going on that moment when she stopped me. She said, “Well, Janek, we don’t really have a word for ‘spirit’ in Polish. We can say ‘duch’ but that doesn’t generally mean what you mean. We do have the word ‘spiritus’, but that’s a Latin word from The Mass and makes people think you’re talking about something to do with the church. So I had to take a few minutes to explain to them what you meant by ‘human spirit’ — and what you didn’t mean by it.”
For me, ‘human spirit’ is the basis and the objective of our ‘why’. At the core of who we are, it’s all meaning-making. It’s what humans do. We wake up every morning and start making meaning out of everything that happens in and around us. Seeing or knowing something means we ‘name’ (label) it, and from those labels we make meaning.
“Unleashing the human spirit at work” is a simple but powerful way of reminding us about an arena or ‘classroom’–our workplace–where we have a continuous flow of chances to desveloupez ourselves. Think about it: We spend more time at work than anywhere else in our lives, even more than at home. What a shame if we live for however many years we have and most of that time is spent trying to be somebody else, or pretending that we care about something, or suffering because the meaning that we are making is depressing or injurious to our health, our spirit, our wellbeing, our excitement about being alive! What’s the point of that?!
If I worked for an organization where the human spirit was unleashed, what would be different?
Maybe what we are exploring here is similar to what it’s like to be in love: It’s hard to explain or define but we definitely know when its there—or not.
Back in the mid-1960’s when I was in the US Navy, I served as Combat Officer on a Destroyer for 4 years. During that time, we had three Captains, which meant we had three very different at-work cultures, three different meanings-being-made. You could say we had three different environments for the human spirit. I would have followed one Captain off a cliff. When he said, “John, this is tough but it’s what we HAVE to do,” I said “Aye, aye, Sir!” and inside I was thinking ‘Let’s get it done!’ In fact, I found myself wanting to do it.
And we also had another commanding officer, who, if he told me to do something, I would still say, “Aye, aye, Sir. . .” but I wouldn’t do it with the same ‘spirit’. I wouldn’t have the same sense of being connected with our mission, or WANTING to do it. The meaning I would have made would be more like, “OK, John. . . It’s an order you HAVE to obey. That’s what you signed up for, so get to it. . .” But with the first Captain, our ship’s spirit was strong and we felt we could accomplish anything.
So you are saying that the spirit of the leader creates such a commitment?
That’s one of the great debates happening now in our field. In Political Science at college we learned what was called ‘The Good Man Theory of Government’, which would now rightfully be called ‘The Good Person Theory of Government’. The idea was that the key to having a good organization was having a good leader at the top. In support of this principle is a saying from the spiritual development tradition: “As above, so below.” When two executives in the C-Level suite are fighting, their people tend to be fighting, too.
There are very interesting alternatives to the top-down/command-and-control leadership models being explored today, but that’s another conversation.
In a traditional hierarchical organization, every leader at every level acts as a kind of a ‘limiter’, like a Speed-Governor on a vehicle that ‘governs’ the speed of the truck, keeping it from going faster than the speed limit. Even if the driver wants to go faster—or even has to—they cannot go beyond the maximum speed set in the Governor.
It is very difficult for a team, organization, or any social unit, to be more loyal, more committed, more alive, or more innovative than its leader.
The designated leader creates a boundary or ‘fence’ around what is OK and what is not OK. In Central/Eastern Europe, I experience people looking ‘up’ a lot more than they do in other parts of the world. It looks like they want to make sure they don’t make a mistake, that they understand what they are supposed to do.
Everything a leader or manager does—or does not do—’sends a signal’ that people below pay attention to. Even a casual or off-the-cuff remark can set an entire company off and running. For this reason alone, a leader’s commitment to their own deep development is even more significant here in this part of the world.
In 1983 a Canadian research firm studied what separated 250 ‘successful’ companies from ‘unsuccessful’ ones. They looked at each company’s business data like EBITDA, Market Share, etcetera. They were looking for the variables between the two groups? The only variable that was discovered to be present in every successful company but which was missing in the ones that were failing, was the commitment of the owner or CEO to their own personal development.
Isn’t that fascinating? When the top executive is developing then the business is also developing, which turns out to be a key ingredient in financial success.
And do you think that such awareness exists in the world today among leaders?
No, not so much. This may be because most leadership training is giving people tips and techniques: Be a leader like Bill Gates, or like Steve Jobs, or some other heroic leader. But this is imitating somebody else, not developing your unique capabilities. Or ‘Here are five skills or techniques for being a good leader. Practice these and you will be a success.’ When a leader is running a technique-based ‘show’ of authenticity, everybody can smell it.
When someone is employing tips and techniques and it is not coming from an authentic place, they are not fooling anybody. It is possible to get compliance with techniques where people follow your orders, but that’s management, not leadership. Leadership means they not only follow your directions but they are also following you as a person, as a human-being.
So, why do we have a crisis of leadership in the world?
I’m going to generalize here, which is not being fair to some of the more innovative business schools, but the ‘products’ of these schools, at least the ones that I’ve met, were not introduced to what we are talking about here. This conversation we’ve had so far would be a very foreign topic.
As I’ve known and been good colleagues with faculty members of these programs, they have told me privately: “John, I wish we could do some of the things you are doing at our school but I would be laughed off the faculty if I brought up anything about ‘leadership-as-desvoulopez’ or ‘work and the human spirit’.”
Maybe in this past decade some things have changed at business schools, but I haven’t seen the signs. There’s a common definition of leadership as being special people who make big things happen, coupled with all sorts of qualifications or signs of a greatness. But not many are exploring the power and value of authenticity or presence or self-awareness and the other dimensions that live at the level of the human spirit.
The emerging field of Emotional Intelligence or EQ is a step in the right direction, and some of the B-Schools now even have courses on EQ. However, when I talk with people who had been through those EQ courses, they were clearly academic or ‘classroom’ programs; they read about EQ, wrote about EQ, maybe assessed their own EQ, perhaps had a conversation about it, but they didn’t actually ‘take the deep dive’ into the world where the EQ actually exist. These graduates emerge knowing about EQ, they might even be able to give a really good lecture or talk about EQ, but in terms of their own self-awareness and so on, I’m not sure they are any different, any deeper, than when they went into the classroom.
The personal development experience that we do is not a ‘program; it is more like a doorway into a way of being for the rest of your life.
John, I wanted to explore something different. You mentioned your Navy experience, some people know that earlier you were also in the ministry. And I’m curious how do you use all these experience and roles in your work now? From time to time you are referring to these stories, but I suspect that its more than what you are saying in a conference rooms.
What a great question!
I remember when I was writing my book I wrote this section on all the ‘jobs’ I had held. I started with high school, when I was a Camp Counselor at a YMCA camp, then a Life Guard and Waterfront Director, then an AAU Swim Coach. I looked at all the logos on the paychecks I had received for different types of work, and asked, “What were the themes which were present in all of them?” I remembered my Uncle George had suggested: “Johnny, if you want to make some money every summer, you should get a job operating heavy equipment, like on the highway. You will make a ton of money and meet another slice of life”.
But instead I ended up working as a camp counselor for a fraction of the money I could have made operating a piece of highway equipment. And when I thought about that, I realized that it wasn’t a conscious decision, working with people was just in me.
It’s like what happens in small towns that don’t have a permanent Fire Department: when the siren goes off, everybody hears the siren, but the volunteer fire fighters hear it as a call-to-action.
This is beautiful…
My whole life I’ve been responding to this call. One such call was to be with kids on the Swim Team at the Richmond Country Club when I was 19 years old. I still have the Timer’s Watch the Parents’ Group gave me. I remember Ben Saunders, Head of the Swim Team Committee, and the father of one of the truly great young swimmers on the team, handing me the watch and saying: “We, the parents, want to thank you, Johnny, because you not only taught our boys and girls to be better swimmers, but how to be better human beings.”
I was stunned at that because I thought I was just trying to improve their butterfly or freestyle. It still stuns me (as you can tell), because today I don’t go into a room with the intention, “OK, let’s do this life-changing thing here!” It’s more like I’m just trying to figure out what needs to be done in the situation and then doing it. But apparently, while I’m doing that, something else happens, something beyond anything I could even have planned.
I’m sorry, Marzanna. . . I’ve forgotten what your original question was. . .
The original question was about your different life paths, and the different roles and how they influence the work you’re doing now?
During my tour of duty in the US Navy I remember our ship’s Executive Officer walking up to me and saying, “Mr. Scherer, what are we running here, a ship-of-war or a psychiatric clinic?” I remember saying, “Well, XO, it’s kind of hard to tell sometimes. . .”
As long as I can remember, if I get on an elevator and casually say to someone, “Hey. . . How’s it going?” people start telling me their life story. And even if we only have 12 floors, by the time we get there they’re in tears telling me about their marriage or their kids or a crisis at work. So that ‘tendency’ is just something that has been in every job I ever had, from Camp Counselor to Combat Officer in the Navy—and now as a transformational consultant.
I don’t tell this next piece very often, but I think I’m going to tell you: My navy commitment was only four years, from age 22 to 26, but they were significant years. With about six months left to go, I was sitting in my stateroom and trying to figure out what to do with my life. The ship was quiet, we were just gliding along, and I pulled out a yellow pad and I just sat there. And in the stillness of that moment I heard a voice as clear as a bell, speaking to me. The voice said: “John, be with people at the level of their deepest need”. Remember, I was an air controller, and I remember thinking, “Say again, OVER.” And the voice said, “Be with people at the level of their deepest need”. That was it. I remember thinking, “Wish you could be a little more specific. . .”
I knew that ‘voice’ was coming from somewhere very significant, so as fast as I could I wrote down all the jobs that I could think of that were ‘being with people at the level of a deep need’. I wrote down YMCA Executive, Boy Scout Executive, teacher, social worker, doctor, minister, and as I went through them I realized that they were all jobs of service; all of them were about being with people at a level of very deep need.
As I sat there, I remember thinking, ‘What’s the deepest need of people?’ I figured it would have something to do with the human spirit. It’s important to note that I have four generations of Lutheran Ministers in my gene pool on my father’s side, and that I spent the first five years of my life with my Grandfather, a Lutheran pastor. In fact, we were so close that I called him ‘Daddy’, and called my actual father ‘Pop’, I think because Pop was a off working in another city. As I sat there on the ship pondering my future, I remember thinking, “I’m going to try seminary, at least ‘tick the box’, and see whether I should be the 5th generation of Scherer’s to be in them ministry.”
And that’s how I made the decision to go to seminary, because I figured it was ‘being with people at the level of their deepest need’. After four years at seminary and four years at Cornell as the University’s Lutheran Chaplain and Pastor of the congregation there, I was called again, this time into the work I’m doing now.
A few years ago, when I was invited to give a speech to a group of European change consultants, my colleague, Amy Barnes, said, “John, you should talk about how you were called out of the ministry and into this work, because many people see the priesthood as the highest call anyone can have!”
I’m listening to you and thinking at the same time, that maybe you are just an exceptional human being, who hears the voice of his calling so clearly… But the serious question is, do you believe that everyone has a call?
Oh yes! In my book Five Questions that Change Everything, Question #4 is “What CALLS me?” and part of that is ‘What calls me from inside?’ Everyone has something in them ‘calling out’ from inside, some gifts or charisms, yearning to be expressed. These are natural—you could say ‘God-given’—gifts that are just in you. You never learned them. You just showed up with these gifts. Here’s the thing: if there’s no space in your life or your work for these gifts to ‘occur’, then your life is destined to be really hard or even meaningless, something too many people experience today.
So there’s being called from two directions: What calls you from INSIDE, and What calls you from the OUTSIDE. When ‘the siren goes off’, for firefighters it’s a call from outside: ‘That’s a call or me I’ve got to answer!’ Back during the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s, Bo Jackson, an African-American said, “When your name is called you’ve got to stand up!” This means learning to listen for ‘What am I being called to be or do right now in this moment? Everybody has the capacity—and, I believe—the responsibility to do that.
My conclusion is that everyone has in them some kind of deeper, more profound, reason for being born, something connected to the core of who they are, a purpose that’s more worthy of who they are and is connected to all the gifts they have been given.
‘Having purpose’ means having a meaningful reason-for-being-here, for being alive.
You’ve been in Poland for 10 years now and know our country and our people reasonably well, and, of course you know America and Americans very well. I’m interested how we are different from your perspective?
There is no way for me to talk about this part of the world—and especially Poland—without mentioning the Church. Many people, even my good friends here who are not practicing, but were raised as Catholics, have been imprinted deeply by a very subtle, sometimes not so subtle, sense of guilt. My dear friends here often carry a belief that there’s something vaguely wrong with them that needs to be overcome by a divine force. This may be a result of the teaching that God is watching from off in the sky and is basically upset with human beings, first of all for being born ‘in sin’. Fortunately, if we believe certain assertions about what Jesus did 2000 years ago, we have the potential to change God’s mind about us. Being raised as a Lutheran, with grace as one of the main teachings, this is a concept I understand but find to be a heavy burden for people and hard to get over.
This sense of ‘I’m not OK’ seems to run deep in many of my Polish friends, colleagues and clients. I see it as an ‘unintended consequence’ of the church that has kept Poland alive and ‘together’ for centuries! I feel emotional when I think about how significant the church has been to you guys, even when you didn’t have a country! From my perspective, two things that have helped you keep your identity as the Polish people: your language (as hard as it is. . .) and your Church (as human as it is. . .).
Barry Johnson’s principle of Polarity Thinking comes to mind: that often what we hold as an ‘either/or’ is actually a ‘both/and’. On the one hand, there is truth to the teaching that ‘there is something wrong with all of us’. That view of humanity is obvious for all to see: we are definitely screwed up! This world is really, really, really messed up.
And, at the same time, we are absolutely extraordinary human beings. To use Biblical language, we have been ‘made in the image of God’. Martin Luther did not meet Barry Johnson but he understood this one. He said we are simil justus et peccator (at the same instant justified and sinner). Both are true, and to emphasize one truth at the exclusion of the other truth is to create an unsustainable life. We are ‘OK’ and ‘Not OK’. It looks to me like the Polish ‘default’ has been to come down a little harder on the ‘I’m not OK’ side of the equation.
So what’s the consequence of this “we are not OK” that you see in people here?
August, 2008, my first month in Poland. With a Polish haircut and wearing newly-purchased Polish clothes, I walked into a store in Krakow and the young woman behind the counter said in perfect English, “Yes sir, may I help you?”
I turned to my friend Darek, and whispered, “How did she know to speak to me in English?! I just walked in!”
And he said, ”Janek, we can spot an American walking down the street.”
I said, “What do you mean?! How is that possible?”
Darek said, “Janek, notice how people in your age group walk down the street. When you walk in a room, you ‘own the room’. It’s like, ‘I’m here now, things can start’. Its not just you, John, it comes with being an American. You all carry ‘the world is my oyster’ concept. The world is mine, and I just need to open my arms and embrace it.”
I said, “Wow. . . That’s a truth that hurts. But what about you guys here in Poland?”
He said, “Here?! No, no way! Here, for many years there was no safety anywhere except at home or with really trusted friends. We were taught never to speak to anyone on the street other than people we knew we were safe with. We went inside our home and locked the door. Whoever was inside were the people who you opened with, but when you walked out the door it was ‘Shields up!’ And, Janek, notice how people look down at the street as you pass them.”
Running around the Błonie on my morning training runs sometimes another guy would appear running toward me. We’re both out on a beautiful morning, so I look up and I say, ‘Hey!’ or ‘Dzień dobry!’, and every time they look at me as I go by, like, ‘What does that guy want?! What is he trying to sell me?” I remember feeling sad about it. Sometimes in Poland my enthusiasm is experienced as ‘selling’ something, like it’s a trick.
Like you want something from them?
Exactly! Like I’m some kind of con man, trying to be sneaky and get something from people. These are all ways I’ve experienced what we are talking about here. The ‘I’m-Not-OK’ frame of mind that gets projected onto those around.
In America we are taught to motivate people by telling them when they did a good job, while here, if you tell somebody, ‘You did a great job!’ they get suspicious. Polish people know exactly what to do when they’re being criticized. They simply go, ‘Damę rady. I’ll do better, I’ll do better.’
It’s a generalization for sure—and there are many exceptions—but in America managers motivate people by encouragement, they lean in the direction of doing what my long-time friend, Ken Blanchard, says: ‘Catch people doing something right—and tell them.’ Even if you are training a horse or a dog or a cat, you reinforce the thing you want, you don’t smack them for doing something wrong.
John, so how can we overcome that deep ‘training’ of ours? I’m asking what needs to be done in order to have massive change across the entire country? Is the hope in the way kids are educated? And I know it’s a process… 🙂
Yes. You are right: It is a process. As you know I’m Core Faculty for Cezary Wójcik’s Leadership Academy for Poland, and every year that program puts out 40 people into Polish political, education, business, and NGO worlds, men and women who have been through four months of a very intensive personal and leadership-developmental experience.
Poland needs more of this kind of re-education experiences, where people begin to wake up, to catch up, to imagine a fresh future for themselves, their organizations, and their country.
Take heart in a classic saying from Margaret Meade, the American sociologist: ‘It’s ridiculous to think that a small committed group can change the world. It’s just always the way it happens.’
So, these little ‘islands’, these small groups of awakened and committed people, are taking shape here in Poland, and if I were 48 instead of 78, I might put effort into bringing some of these groups together into a ‘spirited’ community, empowered and inspired to create transformation wherever they are. To be clear, I’m not talking about a religious community; it’s more about gathering people who are shifting the way they think about life, work and how we interact with each other.
Thank you, John.
I really love this next question: Is there something that is true for you, but almost no one agrees with you about it?
Whew. . . That’s going to take a moment, because I think I’ve been gifted in finding something that is true for me and the person I’m talking to, making this a strange and potentially powerful thing to think about.
Well, one core belief I have is that everyone—terrorists, nuns, priests, doctors, people on the street, families at home—literally every human being and every human system, has not just the capability but also the responsibility to discover who they are at the deepest level and then BE that in ta way that benefits he world. Now I mean who they really are, not who their parents or teachers or priests or bosses have told them they are. At some point, each us needs to step into a process that helps us work our way back through that well-intentioned ‘training’, to the core of who we are, that ‘golden center’, that ‘essence’ we spoke about before, continually developing the depth of who we are. As one of my CEO clients likes to say, “I’m still a work-in-progress. Guess God isn’t through with me yet. . .”
In that state of mind and heart, we need to courageously express the Being that we are discovering into the world, like artists do. If you want to know who each one of my children is at their core, their essence, you need to experience my daughter, Emma, as she dances her heart out on stage in Paris, France. Or listen as my son, Asa, plays a Rachmaninoff piano concert on his grand piano or teaches a complex math principle to students in his college classroom. Or be in a small church basement or a huge 40,000-person stadium where my son, David, performs his life-changing hip hop for yearning Lutheran teenagers—and their parents and Pastors. Or, if you want to know who my older son, Jay, is, feel his heart come out as he plays his guitar.
Each of us was given a three-part ‘assignment’ when we showed up here on the planet: One, to discover who we are.
Two, express that as fully as freely and as often as possible into the world.
Three, so that our best self-expression, combined with everyone else’s, becomes a contribution to Life and its constant renewal. Some people, would say that that’s really self-centered.
Thank you for saying that, because my first reaction to what you were saying was: “Isn’t focusing only on discovering yourself purely egoistic?”
That would be the default way of hearing what I am saying, especially here in Poland: ‘He is talking purely egotistical nonsense.’ In discovering who we are, if we stop there, it is possible that what happens next is egoistic. It happens all the time.
But, based on a lifetime of working deeply with leaders and their organizations around the world, when we contribute who we ARE at our essence, in our soul, from that Greater Purpose we spoke about, when we let that ‘being’ loose in the world, full out, letting our gifts unfold in service to Life, then something way beyond egotistical self-aggrandizement happens. When Asa is playing the piano, he’s not showing off. When my daughter Emma is dancing, she’s not hoping to impress you, or get good feedback. She’s dancing because she’s Emma. You get Emma you get a dancer. Why does a bird sing?! A bird sings because it’s a bird! As far as we know, it’s not saying, “Hey. . . Look at me! Look at me!”
Why am I doing what I’m doing here in Poland and elsewhere in the world? Why am I in this interview with you? Because its who I am! Why would I want to be anywhere else, doing anything else? Because when we are who we are at our deepest level, we are a contribution.
The way you put it, it reminded me that someone said “The world needs happy people”. Because when we are happy, then we are more able to help others. So it’s not really egoistic, when you think about it this way.
Especially in this part of the world! Give yourself permission to be happy!
Were you born this way? 🙂 Many people are curious about your openness with people, that during workshops and presentations, you don’t keep a distance with the group. You connect with them. What’s the secret?
I think it is cultivating a kind of elan vital (to use the French term). It means finding your kind of aliveness and bringing that to each moment. I like the word ‘spirited’, often used to describe a horse. When a horse is ‘spirited’, it just wants to run or play, it’s always ready to go, and, on reflection, I think I’m probably a ‘spirited man’.
Also I’ve been told that I have an engaging way with sharing whatever wisdom I might have. I don’t think of myself as an authority because I’m such a learner, not a knower. I’m not an expert, but someone who is curious, someone who is seeking to discover the essence of what is happening in every moment. I’m a-man-on-a-journey. I could talk for hours about the fields that interest me. As you know, I was a Gestalt Therapist. Let’s talk about that! Or let’s talk about theology, especially the Parables of Jesus, the topic of my first book in 1973! Or about spy novels!
There are so many things to be interested in! Guess I’m kind of a Renaissance Man. At my apartment in Seattle, I have four sections in my little ‘library’: Theology, Quantum Physics, Magic (I was a magician for 12 years), Leadership and Change. If pushed, I could probably teach a graduate level course in any of those topics—except for Quantum Physics!
But in spite of everything that has happened to me—maybe because of it—when I’m in the room with people, I’m ‘one of them’. People seem to get that. They pick up quickly that I’m just like them. I’ve had failures in my life. I’ve had joys in my life. Grief. Sadness. Hopelessness. I’ve experienced it all, and I’m not afraid. I just keep living my life forward and trusting the unfolding. I’m not afraid to be honest with pretty much everything that has happened in my life, which I think might be a source of whatever power or authority people grant me.
Fear makes people weak. There were times in the military when I was absolutely terrified. It was necessary to bring my fear with me into the threatening situation—and I had lots of practice! But I’m not afraid anymore, for instance, to talk about my Pop’s alcoholism or my Mom’s depression, or my marriages, or anything and everything that went on in my life. Why? Because I wouldn’t change any of it.
Every single thing that has happened—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful—has contributed to me being who I am right now.
So, when you’re sharing it, I guess it gives people power, a feeling of safety to discover something painful or shameful in themselves?
People around me have said my openness leads them to think, ‘My Gosh, if John can talk about his stuff, then maybe I can talk about my stuff.’
Is there something important that you would like to say that I haven’t asked you?
That’s such a great question. We would have to start a whole new hour and a half conversation! Because it wouldn’t be related to anything we have touched on today except for my own spiritual journey, and that probably wouldn’t mean much to anybody else. What I miss the most about being a Pastor is the whole sermon-preparation process. Reading the biblical stories that show up as a focus for each Sunday, going to that world, reading the original languages, searching for what it might have meant back when the story was first told. Why was it told—and remembered? What was the need or the situation that people back then had and how might it be similar to what people today might be facing? Listening deeply for what that story is saying to me, and figuring out what needs to be said, how can I communicate the essence to the people in the church pews so it will have meaning for them. I went through that process almost every week for a number of years and I miss it.
But I got interested in Parables of Jesus.
Jesus told stories that shifted the world view of his first-century listeners. His story-telling gift, his ability to create what have come to be called ‘parables’, is not replicated in any other religion’s scriptures. In the parables—unlike many other passages that have been attributed to Jesus and passed down to us—we are most likely directly hearing his ‘voice’. Over the centuries he has been ‘domesticated’, tamed, made to fit our own cosmology. Jesus and his messages have been turned into something not quite as revolutionary as it was clearly heard at the time. But in his parables we can experience transformational ‘encounters with whatever is divine’, that which is bigger than we are. It’s an encounter with that energy, translated into a story. The story draws us in with images that are somewhat familiar and then, at the end, the story’s ‘trapdoor’ opens beneath us and, if we are ready, we are transported to a new, a fresh, way of seeing something crucial to living. That’s why I love the parables!
Which one is your favorite?
The parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’, which really should be called ‘the parable of the Waiting Father’. The story goes like this: a man had two sons, an older son and a younger one. Remember, in those days the older son inherited virtually everything. At some point, frustrated, the younger son thought, ‘To heck with this! I’m out of here!’ and goes to his father and says—I am paraphrasing here, ‘Dad, I’m tired of all the second-born BS that goes on around here. I want whatever is legitimately mine, and then I’m leaving.’
So the father gives him his little inheritance, and, as the story goes, the son goes to live in ‘a far country’, which means ‘a country that doesn’t share our religion’. When he gets there, he lives ‘a wasteful life’. Even today you can imagine what a young man might spend all his money on, until, eventually he has nothing. In fact, he ends up with a job feeding pigs. Now, if you’re Jewish, which everyone in the story is, feeding pigs is absolutely disgraceful.
This younger brother character could not have broken more serious religious laws, could not have placed himself any farther out of the circle of his spiritual, cultural home, could not have done anything worse to create shame in his father, the entire family, and back-home community. He has cut off all ties with his family, his religion, breaking every rule a good Jew could possibly break.
And then—I love this line, because I think it names something that we all have to experience at some point—one day when he was shoveling the shit in the pig pen (sorry but that’s the exact translation from the Greek), ‘he came to himself’. This young man ‘came to himself’. You could also say he ‘woke up’, or he ‘broke the trance’, and in this broken-but-newly-awake state, he had this thought: ‘I have to go home and speak to my father and admit my failure and throw myself on his mercy. Maybe he will allow me to live there as one of the servants. . .’.
So he starts home, walking along for days or even weeks, rehearsing his confession of shame and guilt for his father. The next line in the story always touches me. (It’s touching me right now as I tell you about it. . .) It says, ‘And while the son was a long way off, his father saw him coming down the road.’ How did the father spot his son w-a-y off in the distance?! We need to imagine the father sitting there every day, maybe for several years, hoping that ‘maybe today will be the day that my son will show up walking down this road, coming home. When he sees his son coming toward him, the father does a series of things that break every rule of parenting, common sense, and spiritual tradition that any self-respecting Jewish father should do.
First, he gets up and runs to his son. You need to understand that in first-century Palestine, elderly people don’t run. It’s beneath their dignity. Second, when his son tries to drop to his knees and express the guilt he has been feeling, the father ‘embraces’ him. The verb in Greek means more like ‘grabs’ in a full-body hug. An embrace like that was only offered to equals—or to members of the family. The father won’t let his son go down to his knees, something a servant or a person of ‘lower’ status would do, but instead he hugs him, man-to-man, father-to-son. Not giving up, the son tries to run the tape he has been practicing: ‘Father, I have sinned, I have fallen short, I beg for your forgiveness. Just let me return to your household as a servant.’
In response, after hugging him, his father gives him his ring! Doing this would be the equivalent today of giving the son his credit card and access codes, along with Power of Attorney privileges regarding family matters! The ring was used to stamp hot wax seals, indicating the holder of the ring’s authority and status.
Then, as they walk into the house, the father goes to the closet and gives him ‘The Robe’. In the closet hung several inner and outer garments which were ‘ranked’ and offered to guests. But ‘The Robe’ was the one that would be given to a high-ranking political or religious visitor, or whoever the region’s most important person was.
Seeing his son afar off, running to him, hugging him, not letting him kneel, giving him The Ring and The Robe. . . These are the opposite of what Jesus’ listeners would have expected a self-respecting Jewish father to have done—in fact should have done—in response to a runaway son crawling back to try to get back in good graces with everyone.
As a finale, the father goes back with him to the house, and says to everyone, ‘My son was lost and now he’s found! Let’s have a party!’
If that parable from Jesus is all I had, I could give up all the rest of any material from any of the spiritual traditions, including the Bible. I just need to know that story right there.
John thanks so much, I’m touched.
This is has been a fabulous conversation, Marzanna, just lovely. . . Thank you.