Grand Lodge of Washington: 2016 Lodge Leadership Retreat Keynote Address
WB Owen Shieh delivered the following keynote address at our Lodge Leaders Retreat on March 19th. WB Owen is the current Worshipful Master of Honolulu Lodge.
Grand Lodge Officers, fellow Worshipful Masters, Wardens, Deacons, Brethren, and Ladies… Thank you for your hospitality here in Washington and for inviting me here to speak and enjoy fellowship with you all. On behalf of the brethren of Honolulu Lodge, I say, “Aloha!”
I’d like to speak with you this evening about something we all care deeply about… something that I know strikes a positive chord in all of us deep down, because we wouldn’t be here this weekend were it not for this shared experience. I would like to talk about Freemasonry as a journey – a journey not only through our fraternity as an organization, but one of finding personal growth and meaning in an otherwise complex world.
We can spend countless hours discussing the logistics of running a lodge, debating how best to address membership retention, talking about the history and purpose of our fraternity… but the
only guarantee for the future success of our fraternity rests with one word: inspiration. The one thing that must underlie everything that we do as leaders of our respective lodges is to inspire future generations of Masons to contribute their talents to our fraternity. One way to ignite such inspiration among our brethren is to actively consider Masonry as a journey.
Perhaps Brother Antoine de Saint-Exupery captured this idea best when he said the following: “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
I think our brethren and ladies here in this room who are teachers can relate to this easily… Students who want to learn end up learning much more than students who feel forced to do so.
In many ways, this is why Masons in general have the rule of not recruiting, in the hopes that those who knock on our doors are motivated by a higher purpose. BUT, that can’t just be it! Effective lodge leadership requires that we actively inspire our brethren to care about the journey or voyage ahead, to “long for the endless immensity of the sea” of Masonic knowledge and fellowship. Once we do that, then everything else, including membership retention, education, charity, and all other activities will happen much more naturally.
So, what is a journey? Simply put, a journey is an activity where you go from one place to another. Journeys can be physical, or they can be more abstract and philosophical. Masonry is both. It is a journey to the East within the officer’s line, but more importantly, it is a journey of self-improvement, of fellowship, and toward the attainment of wisdom or as it is sometimes called: enlightenment.
If you think about the greatest journeys of all time… Whether it is Odysseus’ long voyage home after the Trojan War, or Brothers Lewis and Clark’s expedition across the American West, or Brother Buzz Aldrin’s trip to the moon …or Luke Skywalker’s quest to save the Jedi… They all have the same components:
1) First, the main character meets an abrupt change or transformation that forces him outside his comfort zone. He may have an expectation of what is to come, but he is also ready for surprises along the way.
2) Second, he meets many difficult challenges over a period of time that tests his mental and physical limits.
3) Third, he endures, perseveres, and overcomes those challenges and becomes a “hero.” He learns about the people and places along the way as well as his own responses to each of the unique challenges. As a result, he learns about himself.
4) Finally, he reaches his destination, but the final scene is often a surprise that is unexpected. Yet the journey was fulfilling. It was rewarding in some way.
Without going into the details of our ritual, think about all of our degrees as a whole. Taken together, don’t they all have these four aspects of a journey? Every candidate, before he turns in a petition to join your lodge, has an idea or expectation for what Masonry is or should be. We all know that Masons first become Masons in our hearts, so how well we as lodge leaders can identify and fulfill the expectations of our incoming brethren will determine the future success of our lodges. So pull your candidates aside and ask, “What inspired you to become a Mason?” Everyone has a story. Effective mentoring of a brother cannot begin until the mentor understands the story of his mentee. If our new members are to cross the vast sea of Masonic wisdom, then mentorship is that boat that enables the candidate to find his way.
So, how did I start my journey?
Well, unlike many other Masons, I had no family history in our fraternity. I first heard about Freemasonry from my best friend in college, Brother Daniel Herr of Truckee Lodge No. 200 in California. Back in college, we would often suffer through our calculus problem sets together. And during those late nights, we would often find ourselves lost in philosophical conversation. Years later, when Dan became a Mason, he started hinting at how I would enjoy being a part of this fraternity as well. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at first, since I didn’t know anything about Freemasonry except through the limited discussion we had about it in my high school history class. But there was one event in my life that inspired me to dig a little deeper…
Back when I lived in Oklahoma before moving to Hawaii, Dan came to visit me for a few days to go storm chasing (that’s what meteorologists do for fun in Oklahoma). A lull in the storms implied fair weather and relative boredom in the southern plains. So during one of those “rest” days, Dan suggested that we go on a bike ride through my low-key town of Norman. Norman was a college town – home of the Sooners – but compared to the mountains of northern California where Dan was from, it was devoid of any major form of outdoor recreation much beyond hunting and fishing. I was a bit surprised by Dan’s request to go cycling. “Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“So what? Does it matter?” Dan responded, looking at me with a slight hint of consternation.
“Well, then where do you want to go?” I asked again, not finding it worthwhile to go anywhere in Norman without a purpose.
“I don’t know,” he said casually, not seeming to care about my concern.
“So, do you want to pack a lunch or something? Maybe do a picnic at a nearby park? Or maybe we can check out the area by the small airport on the north side of town?” I suggested, trying to come up with some purpose for the bike ride.
Dan simply turned and walked out with a bicycle in the garage. “You coming or not?” he asked.
Well, considering he was the guest, it would have been totally unbecoming of me as the host not to have at least tried my best to entertain, so I dropped my doubts and decided to tag along. “Alright, fine,” I accepted reluctantly.
And so, we started our bike ride to… nowhere in particular. We followed a road north through town, sped through several puddles left by the rain shower earlier in the day, and took turns in the lead. We made it to the northern outskirts of town near a municipal airport and tested our skills in tackling mud puddles on our mountain bikes. We explored unfamiliar roads and parts of town to which I had never been. I was fascinated by the various convenience stores, small businesses, churches, and unfamiliar schools that were tucked away in the humble corners of town. Dan and I shared the details of our lives since we graduated from college, stories from childhood, and our hopes for the future.
After over two hours of riding around town, we returned to my house and cleaned up. Between the new sights, the good conversation, and the cool breeze on my face, I had completely forgotten about why we went on the bike ride in the first place! And yet, I enjoyed every moment of it. I soaked in all the nuances of sight and sound. I learned things about the City of Norman that I did not know before. Although we were already good friends, through our conversation during the bike ride, I learned even more about who Dan was as a person and how that fit with his life goals. But most importantly, I learned about myself. I learned about my habits. I learned about my usual mindset. I learned about my reactions to new places and new ideas. I learned to challenge myself, not physically, but mentally – all within the space of two hours during a random bike ride around town.
The next day, we had lunch before I had to take Dan to the airport to catch his return flight. During a pause in conversation, Dan looked at me and said, “Because you didn’t know where you were supposed to go, you never would have gone on that bike ride, huh?” That comment completely caught me by surprise. I thought about it… then let out a sigh, grinned, and gave a slight nod.
On our way to the Oklahoma City airport, I finally began to realize some of what I had learned through the bike ride, although the significance of those lessons would not hit me until years later. “People are so strongly attached to their goals in life that they completely miss out on the journey,” Dan said to me in the car. “Goals are good to have and all, but when we sacrifice so much just so that we can get something, when we don’t even know if that thing is really what we need or want in life, then what are we doing? We’re living for a dream but not really living.” As I drove into the airport departures area, Dan summarized his message with these words:
“If, instead of concerning yourself with the score of the game, you concentrate your whole-hearted efforts on doing the best that you possibly can in your role that moment, regardless of your task – living in that moment, that minute, that second – when it comes to the end of the game, you will have achieved more and scored more than you previously thought possible.”
~ Daniel Herr
This quote hit me hard. I did not know what to say but “thank you,” as I dropped Dan off at the curb. He pointed at my head and responded, “It’s all you!” as if to say, “It’s all in your head.” He turned and left. Usually, when we hear “it’s all in your head,” we assume it’s “false” or “opinion,” but in reality, as we discussed in our earlier class about Masonic symbolism, impressions are indeed reality. What’s in someone’s head manifests as reality for that person, whether we like it or not! I may not have known it at the time, but through the bike ride, Dan had taught me the meaning of symbolism! And he was right… He didn’t actually teach me anything; he simply set up the conditions properly so that I could learn a valuable lesson for myself. It really was in my head! And is what mattered. I took that bike ride as a symbol for my life without knowing it, and all Dan did was indirectly point that out to me.
With that epiphany, I decided to petition Norman Lodge No. 38 for membership, and the rest is history. What Dan did, without being aware of it at the time, was inspire me to not only join Freemasonry, but to realize that everything around us – even something as simple and as mundane as a bike ride through town – can be used as a symbol to teach us the most important lessons in life. So imagine the possibilities if we can truly master the art and the science of applying Masonic symbolism to our daily lives! By applying this methodology to symbols of our three degrees, we can similarly inspire a new brother to apply the lessons of his Masonic journey to his daily life. When he masters that, then I promise you, you will have a Mason for life and retention will never be an issue with that brother!
So the goal of a mentor is to inspire his mentee to understand his Masonic journey. I remember one night when I was a Fellow Craft, while sitting in a car with my mentor in Oklahoma in the lodge parking lot, I asked him excitedly, “What do I get to do when I’m a Master Mason?!” He thought about it, then responded, “Well, you get to vote… you get to listen to the bills… you get to listen to meeting minutes getting read…” So basically, nothing too horribly exciting. But then it hit me – Masonry is all about the journey of becoming a Master Mason! There are plenty of organizations out there that you can join for community service, for social networking, and other benefits, but Masonry is the only organization of its kind centered upon the long process of initiation! The act of becoming a Master Mason is the purpose of Masonry! So given the importance of facilitating our candidates’ journeys through the Craft, through much trial and error, I have found that the best way to mentor and inspire our new brothers is to do the following:
1) Match candidates with compatible mentors. A good way to start is to either give the candidate a choice in who should serve as his mentor, or to give preference to the Master Mason who officially signs and recommends the candidate on his petition. This ensures that the candidate is not only learning about Masonry, but is also making a friend.
2) Meet once a week outside of lodge for at least an hour. This enables the mentor to build a relationship and a deeper friendship with the candidate outside of a lodge setting. This becomes a space where the candidate is comfortable asking questions and working through his own challenges in life with the guidance of his mentor. If done properly, a candidate should be inspired and enthusiastic to return to lodge with renewed vigor each week and with a clear understand of why he decided to become a Mason!
3) Review proficiency work, then leave with a question. During a typical mentoring session, I start by working through a few lines of memorization in the proficiency, then discussing with the candidate some ideas for applying those ideas and symbolisms to his daily life. At the end of our meeting, I leave the candidate with a philosophical question to ponder, which he is required to consider throughout the week and to which he should jot down his answers in a pocket notebook. The next time we meet, we work through that question and continue on. This form of mentorship through questioning is effective because rather than teaching the candidate knowledge, the mentor inspires the candidate to come up with his own answers. Only then does he effectively internalize the Masonic symbols and lessons.
These three principles of mentorship are what we follow at Honolulu Lodge, and the result of our active and youthful membership speaks for itself! Proper mentorship and inspiration takes a lot of effort, but that effort will be paid off through better retention and growth in your lodge. In the words of an anonymous poet:
You came with me on a long arduous journey,
Through many forests and jungles;
The paths confusing and twisted,
Sometimes, I made you miss a turning;
There was no promised pot of gold.
But then my brethren, it is not the gold;
It was the search itself;
The journey and your comradeship,
The jungles we saw
The forests we conquered
The rivers we forded,
And the links we made.
It would not have happened
If it was not for the pot of gold.
The light that we seek is not a destination, but an ongoing process. The journey itself is the pot of gold. At the end of this journey, we find peace of mind – the contentment and fulfillment that comes with becoming not just a Master Mason, but also a Master of ourselves and our understanding of the world in which we live. The philosophies inculcated by Masonry then come naturally to us with little effort, and the joy that results from this peace of mind is something that nobody can take away, because it is grounded on personal experience and practice.
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” ~ Matsuo Basho
So as we continue this wonderful Masonic retreat, I charge every brother here in this room to think about how you can best inspire your fellow brothers, especially your lodge candidates. The planning, logistics, finances, and everything else is important, but all of those things become FAR easier when you have a strong membership base that is grounded on personal inspiration. As a lodge leader, you will know that you have succeeded when you no longer have to push your brothers to do something and instead, you feel that you are all walking the same journey together.
I would like to end with my absolute favorite Masonic poem of all time, one that I’ve printed out and keep handy whenever I myself need inspiration to move forward in Masonic leadership no matter how rough and rugged the road ahead may be. These were the words of Brother Joseph Fort Newton in his book, “The Builders,” published in 1914:
When is a Man a Mason?
“When he can look out over the rivers, the hills, and the far horizon with a profound sense of his own littleness in the vast scheme of things, and yet have faith, hope, and courage – which is the root of every virtue. When he knows that down in his heart every man is as noble, as vile, as divine, as diabolic, and as lonely as himself, and seeks to know, to forgive, and to love his fellow man. When he knows how to sympathize with men in their sorrows, yea, even in their sins – knowing that each man fights a hard fight against many odds. When he has learned how to make friends and to keep them, and above all how to keep friends with himself. When he loves flowers, can hunt birds without a gun, and feels the thrill of an old forgotten joy when he hears the laugh of a little child. When he can be happy and high-minded amid the meaner drudgeries of life. When star-crowned trees, and the glint of sunlight on flowing waters, subdue him like the thought of one much loved and long dead. When no voice of distress reaches his ears in vain, and no hand seeks his aid without response. When he finds good in every faith that helps any man to lay hold of divine things and sees majestic meanings in life, whatever the name of that faith may be. When he can look into a wayside puddle and see something beyond mud, and into the face of the most forlorn fellow mortal and see something beyond sin. When he knows how to pray, how to love, how to hope. When he has kept faith with himself, with his fellow man, and with his God; in his hand a sword for evil, in his heart a bit of a song – glad to live, but not afraid to die! Such a man has found the only real secret of Masonry, and the one which it is trying to give to all the world.”
Thank you for the opportunity to share and fellowship with you all. May your Masonic journeys continue to be the most rewarding, and I wish you fair winds and following seas! If you ever find yourself in Hawaii, please do come visit Honolulu Lodge on Tuesday nights!