Article for Sept 26, 2010

About fifteen minutes into our conversation, the lyrics from a 1980’s song somehow managed to slip out of some forgotten corner of my unconscious, “Eyes without a face. You’re eyes without a face…” That song was conjured up by the large, expressionless eyes of the corporate director who sat before me. Months ago, I had been hired to help in a process of constructing leadership retreats for this company. The former director, who had hired me, had been moved to another department. The unblinking eyes before me, belonged to his replacement model. What I had thought would be a friendly breakfast meeting to pick up where we had left off, was actually a kind of interview to see if I would continue on the project.

Like a mismatched pair of athletes, one skilled in tennis, the other in racquetball, the corporate representative lobbed a question from her side of the court—the Organization Development side— and I whiffed at it on my side, armed only with the language I have developed from my hybrid disciplines of Psychology/Marriage and Family Therapy/and spirituality. With a resonant thud, one-at-a-time, the questions settled on the corporate dining room floor/food court in which we were seated. “Blink. Blink. Blink.” Went the expressionless eyes. “That doesn’t actually answer my question.” Sip, Sip, Sip,” went her mouth on the liter-sized water bottle in front of her.

As I attempted a clarifying question or two, I began to notice a nagging knot developing in my abdomen. It was then that I began to do what I counsel others in my position not to do. I began to say things…great cascades of things…things that would cover the side of a barn if they were handfuls of mud…. things that amounted to a tennis player’s futile whiff of a racket, just as he or she was getting aced by an opponent.

The friend who sat next to me, the colleague of Eyes without a Face (EWAF), who introduced me to his company in the first place, mercifully took control of the meeting and asked her, “Since you’re new here, what are your goals for this institution, and what is one thing you hope to accomplish with us?” “Blink. Blink. Blink. Sip. Sip. Sip.” “I am too new here to answer that question. I am still in my assessment phase.” (“Dang it! Why didn’t I think of that?!” I chastised myself.) My friend continued to ask questions with the same result until he pressed her about what she hoped to give to the employees of this company. In between sips from her water bottle (no doubt filled with an intergalactic nutrient routinely consumed by life forms on her planet), EWAF said, “I want people to realize that the new corporate contract is no longer about longevity. Employees can no longer count on working for years and years for the same employer. I want them to know that the modern employer-employee contract goes like this, ‘The company will give you meaningful work that will sharpen your skills, until such a time as either you, or the employer feels that it is time to part ways. You, the employee, will leave with more skills to take to your next employer, while we, the company, will have benefited from your time of excellent work (however long, or short that is).’

It was shortly thereafter that EWAF pressed a few buttons on her tri-corder/IPhone and said, “I’m sorry, I have a meeting with (here she inserted the name of one of the many replaceable parts in her company).” With that, she politely gave my hand a, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” shake, and took her leave.

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 16: 19-31), Jesus offered a parable meant to outline his corporate philosophy. The story involved two men, one rich, one poor named, Dives, Lazarus. In that famous tale, Dives could not be bothered with caring for his impoverished neighbor. The natural spiritual consequences that flowed from Dives’ lack of faithfulness to his brother in need was made manifest in the latter part of that story.

After I picked myself up off of the corporate dining room floor, I got in my car, and drove across town for a decidedly different sort of meeting I had scheduled with David, an old mentor, and friend of mine. For the last year and a half, David has been fighting pancreatic cancer. Only about 5% of the people diagnosed with this virulent form of cancer survive, and yet, here was David, slightly thinner, inviting me into his company’s dining room for lunch.

David is to Catholic spirituality what Pete Sampras was to tennis. Consequently, there were many things that David had to say worthy of reflection. But given the meeting I had just exited, one thing that struck me had to do with the fidelity that David exercised toward his company, and the fidelity that his company was practicing toward him. It seems that all the while that David had been battling cancer, he continued in his work writing, editing a journal, and providing presentations for his organization. He explained that his company has been patient with the pace of his work. In fact, he has been provided a room with a cot near his office. When he grows weary, he takes an hour or so to rest. After his siesta, he goes back to work. As a result of this arrangement, David has edited a couple dozen journals, written articles, given presentations, and laid the groundwork for his successor to continue after his death.

When looking at this parable through the prism of David, one sees the fruit of a life lived in intimacy with Christ: courage, peace, and resilience. Through the prism of David’s company, one sees an organization that is decidedly different than the one that was described for me, just an hour earlier. Operating from a “modern” business philosophy, David would have been handled with a kind of dispassionate (dare I say, “inhuman”) efficiency that would have made room for the next replaceable part. But, unlike the rich “Dives” in this Sunday’s Gospel, David’s old fashioned (i.e. “human”) company practiced fidelity relative to an employee who showed up with a kind of Lazarus’ like poverty.

And just look at the fruit this company reaped as a result of their old-fashioned employee contract. With his last breath, David is donating the treasures of his time, energy, creativity, and intelligence, leaving his company far better than he found it. This Sunday’s Gospel presents you and me with a ground-breaking headline for a front-page Wall Street article: NEWSFLASH: FIDELITY WORKS!”

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