Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lessons in Leadership and Service from Mother Teresa's Sisters

My niece Sara Potter and I went to Calcutta/Kolkata for the express purpose of serving at Mother Teresa's mission. Mother Teresa started serving there before I was born, and she has been one of my heroes my entire life. I have learned so much from her example and writings. I never dreamed I would be in that hallowed place.I am forever grateful for what I learned there. Here are just a few of the thoughts that will shape the rest of my own life and ministry.

1) Since the absolute good of those being served is a far higher value than the comfort and desires of the server, a desire to serve must be accompanied by a desire to train and be equipped. No one for any reason could serve without attending orientation.

2) Not "cleanliness is next to godliness", but surely "cleanliness is an essential part of godliness." The sisters clearly believe that good stewardship of yourself and whatever God-given resources you have includes cleanliness and care. You had to be clean to serve. The surroundings were exceedingly humble, but meticulously clean. Our first service there (before we got to do the acclaimed people care) was to clean. In our long skirts, Sara and I cleaned the volunteer room. She washed walls and furniture. I mopped the stone floor with an old bath towel clothes-pinned to a rake like structure--twice. When I was finished, Sister Marguerite with a cheery smile held up two fingers and said, "Again. 2x." Then we soaked and washed the supplies, hand wringing, and scrubbing. Only then were we ready to serve the poor in the ways we had dreamed.

3) That leads naturally to this: TRUE serving is doing whatever needs to be done, not just what I want to do or feel gifted to do. It is easy to put limitations on my service and feel undervalued and put upon if what I want to offer is not needed at that time.

4) True service doesn't depend on conducive surroundings, but on a cooperative and compassionate heart.  The buildings there are so very old and humble and limited and cramped---I could go on. My American mind would never have seen this as a place where such dynamic ministry of every kind could thrive. Could they do MORE with better? Absolutely. But since they don't have it, they don't dream or waste their lives away. They do the maximum they can with what they have. (ie:cloth napkin-like diapers tied in a triangle, no plastic pants.)

5) They are committed for the long-haul. We worked with abandoned, disabled, and handicapped children. Joseph, the handsome little boy with eyes gazing nowhere I loved on, carried, fed gruel, and changed, will likely be there for a lifetime. He is autistic with additional physical problems. Around 7 years old, he can't walk or do any care for himself. He is a large "infant". In the last 5 years, only one child has been adopted and given a home. These women's love is like Jesus'---no expiration date.

6) It occurred to me how much service we give for "others" is actually to make ourselves feel good. We announce it, report it, "humbly" call attention to it, look for the right "photo ops" to prove our service. In order to guard the dignity of those served, and preserve the selflessness of service, no photographs are permitted. One leaves with only priceless and indelible imprints in the memory and character. It made me wonder in our culture how much good would ever get done if no one ever knew who did it.

7) The DNA of a leader (whether it be parent, pastor, teacher, boss) leaks through everything. The longer they lead, the clearer the connection. Our followers become like us, whether we want them to or not. Mother Teresa has been in heaven since September 5, 1997, but her presence, character, and values pervade every molecule of the place.

8) WASTE NOTHING. Anything that could be used and re-used was. They got all the mileage they could from everything. Even our little thank you packets were made of old envelopes from personal mail the sisters received.

9) Excellence and love is its own best PR. Mother Teresa did not and her Sisters still do not advertize, pay for any personal publicity, or have media reps. They simply do the work few others want to do with consistency and compassion, and people come from all over the world to participate. On the day we volunteered, there were people from 6 different countries there, most of them giving up their vacations to come and serve for 2 weeks to 3 months without pay or notice. Humans are created to love and serve. When we exemplify what we want, a slow steady stream will join us.

10) Christians can work with the world without lowering their values, just raising their love for all people. Few if any of the people serving shared the faith of the sisters. However, the sisters with a smile accepted all offers to serve alongside them,  while making it clear in every possible way that the service was given in the name of Christ. They prayed---requiring only silence and respect from all of us. Mass was offered, not required. Everything was offered in the deepest respect BECAUSE of Jesus, but nothing was forced. The condition of service was the operational values, not faith. All were equally respected.

11) Gratitude is a hallmark of excellent service. The Mother's disciples were so naturally joyful in their sparse and meager setting, filled with unrelenting responsibility. Calcutta/Kolkata announces itself as "The City of Joy." Sara and I laughingly labeled it false advertising, because we saw joy NOWHERE except at Mother Teresa's humble mission. Not only were they grateful to God for his mercy and faithfulness, their faces were wreathed in smiles as they thanked us for serving. They led the whole group in singing, "We thank you, we will miss you, we love you, God go with you", clapping hands and making us feel...well, how do I describe it? I couldn't help but smile, because they were so kind.  But it is without a doubt one of the most unworthy moments I have experienced in my life. I, a hit-and-run server, was publicly applauded by people whose entire lives were defined by selfless giving. It was backwards and upside down.

There will be a day when everything is set right and the price tags on what we value will be switched to show their true worth. The last shall be first, and Jesus will declare that what he announced as truth is now forever fact: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:41-45)

On that day, the day when Who the applause comes from will be authentic and accurate, I so want to hear "Well done." I am seeing more and more clearly how far I have to go. Thank you, Mother. Thank you.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I remember the Taj Mahal rising into the blue sky on the pages of my geography books back in those junior high days most of us love to forget. Balding Mr. Powell was an unlikely romantic, and he impressed on us (over and over) that the Taj memorialized the memory of a great love between two unforgettable people (whose names I do not know, and I'll bet you don't either.) My niece Sara accompanied me there on a 12 hour side trip when we were in India last month.

I'll give you this--the Taj is beautiful. Resplendent marble and stone, massive symmetrical pillars, and exquisite inlaid gemstones. But truly, the Taj trip left me saying "Hmmmm..." and processing thoughts I didn't expect to think on a trip I never expected to take. Here's a half dozen musings that might trigger some thoughts in you.

1) Count on something that looks very simple to occasionally flip you on your head. This trip was "so simple", set up by a qualified travel agent, but add human foibles and sheer life to the mix, and anything can happen. We had a taxi driver who spoke no English and turned a 2 1/2 hour trip into a 6 hour trip, we rode in a taxi all that time with no bathroom stops and nothing to eat or drink. No bathroom stops makes unplanned fasting probably a good thing. This hit and run trip ended up taking so much time that our snapshots became so expensive---that's why everyone on my Christmas list is just getting a 4x6 print of me at the Taj. (Sorry, Charlie, but life calls for sacrifice sometimes.)

2) Successful journeys in life require flexibility and laughter. I hope and pray your traveling companions can always turn on a dime, laugh at the mishaps, and decide every disaster will become simply a good story to tell in a few days. Unexpected stress can either be a relationship killer or a great memory. Fortunately, Sara is the queen of spontaneous wit. We had SO many problems, and SO much laughter that we couldn't breathe for minutes at a time.

3) Rarely does anything take just the time, money, and effort you allot and plan for it. Estimate, and then up it. :-) You'll be glad you did. (The 2 1/2 hour ride was more than 6 hours; the Taj was supposed to take about a decade to build --not a speedy burial at that-- but ended up taking more than 22 years!)

4) Count on it. Some of the people who appear to be so delightfully obliging have bigger agendas than serving you. When it's over, they have their hands in your face for payback faster than you can say snap.  In India, it was tips that were demanded. Sometimes we were indignantly informed our rupees were inadequate, and treated with eye-bulging rudeness within moments of the gracious service. Back in the good old USA, it's not so much tips, but it is surely not unusual for apparent good will and simple generosity to be a cloak for "I am doing this to obligate you to pay me back in in the manner and amount I desire."

5) Beauty is wonderful, but there's a bigger purpose in life than looking pretty.  I was startled to learn that in a country with so many desperately poor ( we saw entire families sleeping on the streets everywhere, and only in a couple instances did we we see actual homes where people lived in relative comfort), a second Taj is being built in Dubai, at an estimated cost of just over $1 billion. It's part of a theme park, glamorous beyond belief. The Taj itself is breath-takingly beautiful. And cold. And empty. And useless.  Made me take an honest assessment of my own values, and how much time and effort I put into appearances that really don't matter, that don't help anyone. Better to be less breath-taking and more difference-making.

6) The most significant lesson was learned by superimposing the Taj visit over our time at Mother Teresa's very humble ministry center in Kolkata (Calcutta). Wow. The contrast couldn't have been starker. All this money and effort expended to memorialize 2 lives---and no one even knows their names or anything significant about them except that they were in love. Mother Teresa's operation since 1953 has been on a shoestring, yet heaven is replete with thousands and thousands of souls who made it there because of her. And the work goes on. She said it well: "There are no great things, only small things done with great love." Mother  regularly argued that small, sacrificial things are where the action is. Jesus felt the same: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Luke 9:24-25)

I'm still thinking.