Monday, July 13, 2015

The Wise Use of Failure

One of the greatest fears anyone has in life is the fear of failure. It’s true. Failure for some people is the very worst thing that could ever happen. Some people are simply paralyzed by the fear of failing, imaging what terrible consequences will result in a failure – public humiliation, eternal shame, smokelightningfire – real end of the world stuff.

 It makes sense to be afraid of failure. It feels terrible. It sometimes has undesirable consequences. Sometimes failure means life is no longer going in that direction. Failure might even mean the end of that important relationship or living here anymore. It can get pretty bad.

But if your relationship with failure is all bad, then you’re missing out on the benefits of failure. Benefits? Of failure? Yes, the benefits of failure. We don’t like to fail and we fear failure because we think it is all bad, but we determine it is all bad because it feels so bad.

While failure feels bad, it is not all bad. There is a baby somewhere in that bathwater, so don’t throw it out. When wisdom is applied to failure, some interesting things happen. In the movie Elizabethtown, (one of my all-time favorite movies) Drew tries to explain to Claire why his failure is so huge that it is impossible to get out from under. He is committed to failure being all bad. Claire has a different relationship with failure. Her relationship with failure is that it is linked to true greatness.

Claire: So, you failed.
Drew: No, you don't get it.

Claire: All right, you really failed. You failed, you failed, you failed. You failed, you failed, you... You think I care about that? I do understand. You're an artist, man. Your job is to break through barriers. Not accept blame and bow and say: "Thank you, I'm a loser, I'll go away now."  You want to be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you're still smiling. That’s true greatness to me.

What Claire knows that she tries to help Drew understand is that when wisdom is applied to failure, there is no greater source of learning, growth, and ultimate greatness. There is a greatness known only to those who have failed that cannot be known by those who have never failed.

 But how do I get at that greatness? What is the wise use of failure?

·        Learn: Ask failure what it is so generously trying to teach you. And don’t be simply satisfied with “well, I’ll never do that again.” Go deeper. Find out how to do better knowing that each failure is something to stand on top of in order to get a better look at things. Some people call this “failing forward.”

·         Look within. Search your character. What kind of person did this failure expose you as being? What are your areas of weakness, blind spots, and gaps that need attention? Then strategize how to fill these in.

·         Look within again. Search your character for what you did right, how you maintained yourself in the context of failure, how you succeeded within the failure. Nothing was completely a failure. Then strategize how to highlight these strengths.

 The only thing worse than failure is to fail to find its hidden wisdom. Mine your failures for wisdom, understanding, and insight. You will never regret it.

Discernment in the real world: How am I supposed to decide?

Everyone makes millions of decisions in a life time, probably billions. Each day is lined up with hundreds and hundreds of decisions. Most of those decisions are simple and easy, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Other decisions are huge and life altering like whether to go to college, getting married, or what you might do for a living. Although every decision you make deserves your attention and wisdom, the more substantial the decision the more wisdom is needed. Huge decisions come with huge consequences (for better or for worse), so making the best decision you can make is pretty important. Although some decisions must be made in an instant like I’m getting robbed what do I do? Most decisions, however, provide some lead time before having to be made.

But how does someone go about making a good decision? Do good decisions just come out of thin air?

Well, sometimes people just get lucky and accidentally make great decisions, but most of the time that is not the case. Luck is a poor decision-making strategy. Most of the time people make good decisions not because of luck, but because of discernment. They have learned how to make good decisions because they have cultivated discernment.

 So, what is discernment?

In its simplest form, discernment is using wisdom to make choices. 

Ok, so how do I get me some of that wisdom?

·         Self knowledge. Knowing yourself, your experiences and having a clear understanding of what happens when I do that. Learning from experience is a great pathway to wisdom.

·         Other people’s experience. Look, you can’t just experience everything. You’ll never live that long. So, learning from other people’s experience is good. If Jimmy throws his Axe spray can into the fire and it blows up, maybe I don’t need to throw my Axe spray can into the fire to know what is going to happen.

·         Scripture – relationship with the Bible. The Bible has the richest deposits of wisdom in the world. No other book even comes close. Read the Bible with the question, “What wisdom is trying to find me here?”

·         Relationship with Jesus. Most people know Jesus is loving, good and kind, but what a lot of people don’t really get is that Jesus is the smartest and wisest person to ever walk the Earth. The Bible does not report his IQ, but it was most certainly higher than Einstein, Plato, and Edison combined. Learning the ways of Jesus and what he was thinking and how that motivated his actions will result in wisdom.

·         Prayer to God. Prayer is, for some people, an unexpected location of wisdom. Seeking God is always a good idea. Sometimes just sitting and asking God for wisdom results in getting more of it.

·         Relationship with older people. People older than you have had more time in their lives to learn from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others as well as their good choices and the good choices of others. They can really give you some great advice on some things and help you avoid the mistakes (and the consequences) they made and model the good choices (and positive consequences as well) they made.

 What are the individual conditions under which wisdom could thrive? There are some conditions under which wisdom can thrive. Each person must create within herself or himself conditions in which wisdom can take root and really grow.

·         Humility. Wisdom and pride (arrogance) cannot co-exist. They are oil and water. In the ears of a person filled with pride, anything wise sounds stupid. Seriously, the wisest counsel will sound like foolishness, judgment or oppressiveness. Pride sours wisdom, but humility makes it grow rapidly. Humbling oneself results in space for wisdom to dwell.

·         Desire. You have to want wisdom to get wisdom. It is not hard to find if you actually go looking for it. Hunger for wisdom. Thirst for wisdom. Go looking for it and you will most certainly find it.

·         Space. It takes some intentionality to carve out space in one’s life for wisdom. There is so much in our lives that will take our time and space from us. If we do not devote time and space to the search for wisdom, something else will take that time and space from us. Right now a lot of people are experiencing “The techno-timesuck” in the form a smartphones. When we are bored, lonely, or whatever, our “go-to” is our phone. What boredom and loneliness are telling is that there is something lacking in our lives. One of those things is wisdom. Rarely is wisdom found in getting sucked into “10 things your doctor doesn’t want you to know” or “These mind-blowing pictures will change your life forever - #3 just about did me in.”

·         Preparation. Gaining wisdom before you need it is essential. When a decision comes upon you, that is not the time to consider getting some wisdom any more than when you need to run away from a wild animal is the time to start the discipline of running.

 How do I make wise choices? Getting the wisdom-generating processes into place will result in making much better decisions. Some decisions you know are coming up and some you do not. Either way, setting into motion the time, the self-reflection, the relationships, and the relationship with Jesus through scripture and prayer are going to set you up to be a wisdom accumulating person.

 How do I make unwise choices? People make unwise choices for lots of reasons. They are unique to each person. I will share some of the ways in which I make unwise choices. Feel free to learn from my shortcomings.

·         Anxiety. When I make decisions motivated by anxiety or by fear, it puts me at risk for making poor decisions. When I make decisions in this way, I am usually doing it for the sole purpose of relieving the anxiety or resolving the fear. In short, these decisions are usually self-centered or simply self-absorbed. When I am fully and completely focused on myself, I am helpless to make a wise decision.

·         Insecurity.  Sometimes I get insecure, especially when someone is going to evaluate the work I do. When I start making decisions to appease my insecurity, I make poorer decisions. Again, this is selfish.

·         Affirmation lust.  I admit it, I want everyone in the universe to like, me, a lot. Too much. This is not good. When I make decisions with goal of getting more and more affirmation, even if the thing I am doing is the right thing, it is for the wrong reason. I can get sucked into a weird “Christian” looking narcissism that is real trouble in the end.

·         Anger. Decisions made in anger almost always s result in revenge. In short, I become a worse person and other people get hurt.

·         Regret. When I make decisions out of regret, it never goes well. I cannot change the past, and that is all regret really wishes could happen. When I make decisions based on regret, I am the one who ends up getting hurt. 

 Discernment is the use of wisdom to make decisions. Get wisdom, whatever you do. Begin a wisdom-generating way of living and a wisdom-accumulation way of being and you will make much better decisions than you do now.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Objectification of Adolescents: Monster-making, Trophy-making, and Colonization

I have spent a lot of time in my life with adolescents. In fact, most of my life has been spent in this is stage with these people. I have spent time with so many individuals in their second decade of life as well as with the social systems in which they are embedded – families, churches and schools.

First, I spent quite a bit of time being an adolescent, taking some bonus time in my 20’s really getting to know this stage very well. I spent several years as a public school teacher and youth minister investing lots of time into being near adolescents and their families and working with them. Then I became a marriage and family therapist and worked with families with adolescents in a therapeutic setting. Then my own children entered into adolescence and I am now getting a first-hand education on parenting teens. I am now 45 years old and have been in some level of engaging with adolescents since I become one over three decades ago.

In these three decades, I have explored, experienced, and examined how these humans in the second decade of life live and move individually and how they are treated in their social systems. I have learned a lot in these three decades, but I also know that I have much to learn.

One thing I have learned in these three decades is how much loved these adolescents are by the adults that exist in their families, churches, and schools. I have also learned that sometimes that love is expressed in some ways that are not so healthy. And frankly, sometimes it is not love that motivates the adults in their lives, but something less generous.

One of the processes I have seen frequently between adults and adolescents is adult objectification of adolescents. Adolescents are sometimes objectified by the adults in their world. In short, adults may intend to be protective, engaged, and supportive of the adolescents in their lives, which is a good thing, but what ends up happening sometimes is that the adults treat the adolescents more like a possession than a person.

I have identified three objectification processes that take place between adults and adolescents. For the most part, these emerge from good intentions, but devolve into dehumanizing processes. Here goes:

Monster-making. Sometimes adults and parents of adolescents make all adolescents into monsters. It is generally done as a response to fear as these adults hear horror stories of terrible things done by adolescents and fear that the teen they love is at risk for being the next one to do such a thing. Here are four ways adults engage in this process:

Obsessing negative. Sometimes adults and parents hold mistakes or imperfections against an adolescent. This process happens when an adult highlights only the negatives, the mistakes, and problems of an adolescent while obscuring, ignoring or dismissing anything good about the adolescent.

Overgeneralization. Sometimes adults and parents hold the worst in any adolescent against all adolescents. This process happens when the negatives, the mistakes, and the problems of any adolescent are generalized to apply to all adolescents.

Sympathy magnet. Sometimes adults or parents magnify adolescent’s imperfections as a way to gain attention or sympathy. Sometimes the insecurity or selfishness of the adult or parent becomes central when communicating about adolescents. There can be a sense in which parents or adults compete for who is suffering the most from their adolescent. Parents, teachers, youth ministers, and therapists are all vulnerable to this process.

Scapegoating. Sometimes adults scapegoat adolescents based on the problems of the adolescent in order to obscure their own problems. This process occurs when the adult or parent has significant issues of their own that they want to protect or are ashamed of and use the problem of the adolescent to absorb the attention of others.

Trophy-making. Sometimes adults and parents overemphasize the successes of the adolescent and obscure or dismiss the negatives, problems, or mistakes. In short, they set up the adolescents in their lives to be trophies of their own success rather than celebrating the legitimate success of the adolescent. Here are three ways this process plays out:

  • Self-esteem. Sometimes adults and parent use the success of their adolescent for their own self-esteem. Being associated with the adolescent reflects well on the adult and therefore the adult exploits this process.
  • Self-promotion. This process is the next step building off of exploiting the adolescent’s success for their own ego, it drags that process out into the public to demonstrate their own greatness.
  • Superiority. Stage three in this process is when this trophy-making process is leveraged against other parents or adults to demonstrate who is the better parent, teacher, youth minister, or therapist.
Colonization. In an effort to be or to appear to be (or to relieve guilt), parents and adults may over-engage so much in the projects, activities, or events of adolescents that they edge out the adolescent partially or completely. Here are three ways this process plays out:

  • Take-over. Sometimes adults or parents completely take over the success of the adolescent. They see an opportunity to be supportive, but end up commandeering the whole thing such that the adolescent becomes secondary to the success, project, or event.
  • Projection. Sometimes the adult or parent engages with the adolescent in the event, project, or effort so much that the original effort of the adolescent disappears and is remade in the image of the adult or parent.
  • Overwhelm. Sometimes the adult or parent offers so many ideas and contributions to the adolescent’s initiative that there is no room left for the adolescent to develop their idea, project, or effort. In the worst cases the adolescent just quits the project and the adult or parent continues it to completion.

Becoming aware of these processes is an important developmental component of the adult or parent. Awareness is the first step to stopping these objectifying processes before they become entrenched. If you find yourself engaging in any of these processes, here are a few tips:

·        If you can see a way to stop and it makes sense, then stop. Replace the objectifying process with a more humanizing process.

·        For some it might be more difficult to just stop. Talk it over with other parents or adults. Tell them that you might be inadvertently objectifying the adolescent’s in your life. Just talking with someone else might help highlight ways to make a shift in how to engage with adolescents. Make sure you talk to someone who can listen well and not dismiss your struggle.

·        For some it might take talking to a professional marriage and family therapist. The process might be so entrenched that it requires a family level shift.

It is never too late to make changes in how you engage with the adolescents in your life.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Read the Bible Badly: A Primer

How to read the Bible badly: A primer

If you want to make a mess of the Bible and hurt a lot of people while doing so, I have a few tips that are going to really make your work a whole lot easier. Put these into practice and I promise you will completely ruin any chance of getting the point of scripture.

Therapy manual. Use the Bible as a therapy manual. Select scriptures out of context and then apply them to people’s legitimate mental disorders and relationship suffering. This way you can almost certainly make matters worse.

Hammer. There are some really harsh passages in scripture that have some specific contextual meanings. However, if you take them out of context you can make someone feel really bad and maybe even coerce them into doing things your way.

Science book. Make sure that you make specific scientific claims from the Bible, especially about how the world was created. The more specific the better. If someone pushes back, just say that the Bible was the first book science and it is the last book of science. That should open up their eyes.

Literalize everything. If the Bible has any truth in it at all, then everything in it must have happened. No room for story, poetry, narrative, parable, history, law, perspective, and human participation.

Act like you aren’t interpreting it. It is really important to be honest while reading the Bible. And the best way to be honest is to pretend that you are not the least bit influenced by culture, family of origin, 2000 years, translation, other people’s interpretations or any other thing. You are 100% completely objective.

Me-ify it. Make sure that every bit of scripture was written with you and only you in mind and that everything in scripture, someway somehow, applies to this moment in your life, right here, right now.

Hammer II. Use scripture to back up every belief you already have, especially beliefs that make you more powerful than anyone else. Start in Joshua to justify violence and then dig up a few scriptures to justify how God hates the people you hate. It’s much more convincing when God hates the same people you hate.

Metaphor it. Make sure that the stories in the Bible are merely stories and that none if it really happened. Jesus raising from the dead is a great metaphor for making a big come back, but it flies in the face of all common sense.

New Israel. Always apply everything about Israel in scripture to the United States today. Be offended when other people compare the United States to Rome.

Leverage Hell. Make sure that the Bible is used to identify who is going to Hell and who is going to Heaven and then keep maintaining the boundaries, but tell them God said it.

Don't Know What To Say In A Prayer?

Don’t Know What To Say In a Prayer?
An Introduction To Prayer

Prayer is a conversation with God. It is that simple. And yet talking to the God of the universe may leave you wondering what to say. What could I say that would matter to God? Doesn’t God know what I am going to say anyway, so why bother? And a bunch of other questions may inhibit.

Here is the truth: God is deeply interested in what you have on your heart and mind. God is ready to listen all the time and is eager to connect with you, hear from you, and talk with you. Every good mother or father not only wants to know what is on the minds of their children, but eagerly awaits the conversation that will reveal it, even if the parent already knows. 

But what do I say to God?

Here are several ideas:

 Thanks. Just voice your gratitude for the good things in your life. This has the added benefit of actually spending some time to focus on the positive in a world that either focuses on the negative or numbs itself because of the negative. Giving thanks to God is good medicine – for you.

Ask. Explore the desires of your heart and ask for them. Wait a minute, isn’t this selfish or self-absorbed? Well, it can be, but there is a huge difference between “God, let me win the powerball” and “God, fill me with great wisdom and humility.” Seeking virtue in order to help you become your best self is never selfish.

 Intercede for people you love. Knowing the struggles and hopes of the people you love (family, friends, neighbors, co-worker / other students etc) and sharing these with God is a generous act. It also has the added benefit of increasing your empathy for those people.

 Intercede for people you do not like. Genuinely seeking the good of others and asking God to be good and generous to those who bother you, hurt you, mock you, take credit for what you did, accuse you, embarrass you, wrong you, etc is beautiful and humble. It also has the added benefit of developing empathy better than just about any other thing.

Intercede for the world. There is a lot going on this world that could use some intervention. Hunger, disease, terrorism, war, scandal, oppressive systems, various kinds of human trafficking, all manner of discrimination, etc. Pleading to God for intervention on these matters is powerful. It has the added benefit of helping you find your place in being part of the solution.

 Pour out your heart. Expressing your hurt, worries, fears, pain to God in an honest and vulnerable way can build intimacy between you and God. Yes God knows it, but sharing it makes the relationship closer and more intimate. it may also feel good to cry with God. 

Confess. Sharing secrets, especially sinful or even shameful secrets, with God is one of the most power kinds of prayer. Confession is not about giving God new information that would have otherwise remained unknown, but rather about having the humility to “look God in the eye” and say it while having the trust that God’s response will be loving and kind and forgiving. Confession has the added benefit of great emotional relief.

Repentance. Seeking ways to change unhealthy or sinful ways of living and asking God for the courage to change and the strength to maintain the change is about as humble as it gets.

Listen. Sometimes prayer is about just listening. Being quiet in a room alone, in nature, in the car etc  can provide a rest for the mind and heart. Sometimes the rest itself is enough. Sometimes God provides thoughts that would not otherwise have come or feelings that had no space to emerge otherwise.

Scripture. Open up Psalms or Proverbs or one of the gospels and read through part of it, but read it as a prayer. Sometimes there is no better way to connect with God than through the Word of God filtered through you and back to God.  

There are more ways to pray than these, but when those moments come when prayer is difficult or you are overwhelmed and just can’t think of how to talk with God, maybe these can help. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Big Empty

I am a thimble
Yearning for the ocean
Longing to be a bucket
Yearning for the ocean
Longing to be a hole
Yearning for the ocean
Longing to be a canyon
Yearning for the ocean
Longing to be a crater
Yearning for the ocean
Longing to be empty enough
To be filled with the ocean

Friday, June 12, 2015


A scoop of sand
Held as tight as can squeeze

Sand of hourglass
Sand of desert
Sand of sea

Gravity, wind and wave
Conspire to regain
All sand

From this moment
Of held sand
Till it is
Wisped away
Fallen to earth and
Swallowed by sea

My fingerprint 
On every grain

The Parable of the Sculptor and the Saboteur

The Parable of the Sculptor and the Saboteur

The Kingdom of God is like a great sculptor who hammered and chiseled at a large stone. The sculptor alone knew the image that was contained within the stone and therefore knew how to release the image by eliminating unnecessary pieces of the stone to reveal the image. Day after day the sculptor chipped away at the stone and eventually some semblance of an image began to emerge.

One night, when the sculptor was away, a saboteur approached the stone with hammer and chisel in hand. The saboteur neither knew the image within the stone nor cared whether there was an inherent image. Instead, the saboteur began to chip away at the stone in some other way. Some of the chisels were random and harsh, damaging the image while some of the hits with the hammer were intentionally damaging. Still other efforts of the saboteur were carefully crafted attempts to make the inherent image in the stone into something that the stone was never intended to be, something much less.

“This is your real image,” the saboteur said to the stone, “this is what you were really meant to be.”

When the great sculptor returned to see that the stone had been sabotaged, never once did the thought of destroying the stone come to mind. Rather, the sculptor loved the stone so much that the damage done inspired an even more creative impulse in the great sculptor.

“I will take each wrong hit and make it right again,” the great sculptor said, “for so long as there is stone the image remains within it.”

When it came time for the great sculptor to reveal the finished sculpture to all the world, the saboteur was in the audience. A sheet covered the sculpture with everyone waiting in anticipation to see what the final work of the great sculptor would be. The saboteur sat smug and eager to humiliate the great sculptor. Yet, when the sheet was pulled down and the sculpture revealed, the crowd cheered in great joy as this sculpture was even more beautiful and glorious than they could have imagined.

“I can see myself in this,” said one person.

“It is like the sculptor knows me,” said another.

The sculpture was the exact representation of the inherent image imagined by the sculptor all along, with each mark made by the saboteur creatively and masterfully worked into the final product as though it had been anticipated all along. Every jagged chip crafted into a clever angle; every ugly mark made beautiful.

The saboteur sat shocked and humiliated, whispering in disbelief, “That’s impossible. I made irreparable damage. I destroyed that stone.”

“My chisel of redemption,” said the sculptor, “is sharper than my chisel of creation.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Yankee? Lessons on Moving South

1. When you move to the South from the North you're going to hear and see some strange and perhaps even offensive things. Grow a tolerance for difference. 

2. Only people in the North believe Texas is in the South.

3. There are many Souths in the South. Learn the difference between Georgia and Mississippi and you're on your way to a much more pleasant experience.

4. Not all things that look alike are alike. For example, in Texas cowboy boots and a cowboy hat are for work, but in Tennessee they are for style.

5. They're going to call you Yankee. It doesn't matter if you've never thought of yourself in that way. If you must correct them, do it in a self deprecating and funny way, like you don't really mean it. But it's probably best just to let it pass because you run the risk of offending their entire sense of history. 

6. They will know in much greater detail the history of the Civil War than you do.

7. About 30% of their knowledge of the Civil War is incorrect or biased, but because you don't know anything about the Civil War, you won't know what they are wrong about. Either read up on the Civil War or let it go.

8. The pop versus soda versus Coke debate is not one worth having, but if you do have it, enter into it in a self-deprecating way such that you do not appear to be coming across as superior. They already think you think you're better than they are, so no sense in proving them right. 

9. If you think you have nothing to learn from someone from the South you are every bit the fool they think you are.

10. . Don't let your longing for home degrade into comparisons of how much better home is than this place. Just long for home and visit there when you can.

11. When you start hearing how the SEC conference is a better football conference than your football conference, just smile and nod and let it go. It is useless to offend another person's religion. Plus, boasting about your pro team when the topic is college football is like sneezing in the pudding. 

12. There is beauty in every place and there is worth in every person. If you spend your time looking for those things you'll have spent your time well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Inadequate Containers

Oh Eternity wrapped in flesh
So eager to expand
Pressing from within
With anxious impulse
And untamed energy

Like a hurricane in a thimble
A volcano in wine bottle
A tornado in the soul

You strange Gift
Feels so empty
Never so full
Feels so lonely
Never so close
Feels so afraid
Never so powerful
Perfection wrapped in imperfection

Perfect gifts given
To the imperfect
Have weight
Infinity swirling within
A body…
A glorious risk
A reckless faith
An experiment in Heaven’s lab

It is Love, no less
Spilled gleefully, endlessly
Into little fissured vats
Flawed and leaking
Not good at containing
Eternity must spill out
Just as it spills in