Three Things you can Do to Keep your Resolutions This Year!

New-Years-Eve

I was asked to help put together some thoughts on how to best keep your New Year’s Eve Resolutions for 2016.  Here are three ideas that might help which are grounded in solid Psychological research:

  1. Be sure your resolutions are in line with what you value.  Too often people say they want to lose 20 pounds but when you look at their life they’ve never demonstrated healthy living is something they value.  They see it as something they “have” to do, not something they value.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have a resolution to lose 20 pounds, but you need to connect that goal to what you value.  Do you value family time traveling to unique places around the world?  Connecting a more healthy you to the fact it allows you to walk around these places more freely and without issue is what you want to do.  We will continue to pursue our goals when we connect them to what we value.
  2. Make sure your resolutions are turned into daily habits and routines. In the above suggestion I recommended connecting the resolution to something greater that you value, now I am suggesting you break it down into smaller bite sized daily, weekly, and monthly actions.  Do you want to write a book in 2016?  Every day you should write “some” amount of words on a piece of paper.  Your daily task might be to write 500 words every day.  Do you want to find another job?  Every day you must commit yourself to looking for 3 new leads.  When you break your resolution down to daily, weekly, and monthly tasks you have a better chance of actually achieving your goal.  If you merely have values in your life and never set goals (resolutions) then they remain nebulous ideas.  If you only have goals with no action items connected to them they are nothing more than a wish list.  If you have values defined by goals which have action items connected to them, you have potential success.
  3. The last thing to keep in mind is you need a growth mindset when approaching goals, not a fixed mindset.  Carol Dweck did a great deal of research on what allows certain people to succeed and others to fail in a number of life’s pursuits.  She found people with a growth mindset saw their goals and tasks as puzzles and challenges to solve and learn from.  Fixed mindset people saw them as hurdles and tests about their personal value.  This significantly impacts how we view failure.  Let’s face it, while pursuing your goals you’re going to fail.  Will you view failure as a judgement about who you are as or will you see it as a way to learn how to do things differently?  Growth mindset people see failure as a way to learn, adjust their plan of attack, and go after what they want.

Here’s to a better you in 2016!

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Three Emotions Couples Never Discuss

couple fightingSometimes emotions are hard to talk about. As someone who has worked as a couples therapist and a pastoral counselor I find my role is often to simply facilitate a discussion about things people don’t easily discuss without a third party prompting them to do so. One would think because two people are married they could talk about anything together. I’ve found that’s not often the case.

Here are three emotions many of my clients have a difficult time talking about. These three usually come up in therapy sessions but it would be wonderful if couples felt they could discuss them with one another before they came to see me. It might even save them a trip to the therapist’s office!

  • Indifference – I’ve seen this happen when a marriage is sliding downhill. One of the partners no longer cares about what’s going on in the life of the other. It’s as much an emotion as a lack of emotion. Indifference means you can see the other person in the marriage suffering and you really don’t care. You’re not concerned with their happiness and you’re not concerned with their pain. It’s a complete lack of empathy. Interestingly, while indifference is a major indicator a marriage is going in a bad direction, most everyone experiences it at some point in their relationship, even healthy ones. Sometimes we find ourselves in a place where we can’t care about the other person. Either we’re emotionally exhausted or consumed with our own situation.   To simply survive the day we need to be indifferent toward how other people feel, including our significant other. That’s when love needs to be unconditional for one another and hopefully your spouse can have enough love to love you back even when they can tell you can’t love them right now.
  • Jealousy – While no marriage is supposed to be a competition, two human beings inevitably compete with one another at some level. Perhaps one partner is getting ahead in their career while the other is stagnating or one of the partners is getting an award for charity work and the other isn’t even recognized for the part they played in their spouse’s success. It might even be the fact your child is drawn closer to one of you more than the other. We often think of jealousy as something arising when someone outside of the marriage notices one of you in a sexual way. The truth is jealousy arises within a marriage for many reasons, some of which we’re just too embarrassed to talk about.
  • Frustration – Frustration usually occurs in men because they want more sexual intimacy and their significant other is in a place where she just doesn’t have the desire for sexual activity. In general, men are biologically wired to want sex more than women. Men also associate sex with intimacy. When they’re not feeling their sexual needs are being met they get frustrated. They don’t want to talk about it because they’re often told, “All you ever think about is sex.” That’s really not a fair accusation because if it were just about sex men could just go and have sex with whomever they want (assuming there’s no moral compass guiding their behavior). The truth is they’re frustrated because in their mind sex is closely related to feeling loved and that’s what they really want. Women are frustrated in relationships when their partner refuses to listen to what’s going on in their lives. Women experience intimacy by sensing they’re being heard and that their partner understands their experience. They’re not looking for solutions nor do they just want someone to nod in their direction, they want someone to take the time to really experience how they feel. They want compassion, a word derived from Latin meaning to “suffer with” another person (cum – with, passio – suffer).

Why are these three emotional experiences so hard to talk about? Because they remind us we’re fallen human beings that have issues and weaknesses no matter how nice we look from the outside. We are embarrassed because we feel these emotions and we don’t want other people to know we’re weak or need attention from someone else. It’s okay, you can feel these emotions. More importantly it’s okay to discuss it with your partner. Marriage is a unique and wonderful experience where two broken people come together and bind each other’s wounds and share one another’s burdens. Sometimes one of you has to carry the load more than the other, but in the end its not about who carried more weight, its about the fact the two of you have created an atmosphere of love. Remember, we are taught “The two become one”, so it’s not about who is doing what, its about what you are doing together. Create an atmosphere of love, safety, and communication in your marriage and you just may be able to avoid that visit to your pastor or therapist!

 

Can We Ever Really Discern God’s Will in Our Lives?

IDiscernment have spent a fair amount of time trying to understand the discernment process and help others execute this spiritual practice as well.  My dissertation was on the psychological aspects of discerning the vocation to ministry and I frequently present on the topic at conferences and workshops.  I approach this practice from a psychological and spiritual perspective.   To fully grasp discernment there are a number of questions to reflect upon in a prayerful way.  First, we need to ask ourselves what gifts we have.  We need to be sure we know how God has blessed us because these gifts are the instruments God uses to accomplish what he wants to do through us.  Are we good at writing?  Do we teach well?  Maybe we’re good with our hands or show artistic skills with wood and paint.  Recognizing your gifts helps you identify how God equips you for kingdom work.  He wouldn’t ask someone struggling with public speaking to be a great preacher.  He might ask a great leader incapable of speaking to lead, but if speaking is important in that role he will provide someone who can help (Think of Moses and Aaron).  If God has called you to do something he equips you for it.  Too often people think God will give them special powers from outside of their current talents to do kingdom work.   More often God works from within the individual and uses their gifts to accomplish what needs done.  Sure, God can work outside the natural order, but more often he builds upon natural processes to do supernatural things.  This is the sacramental perspective of the Christian faith allowing Christians to believe God’s grace builds upon our nature (See Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on this).  So the first thing to ask is “What are my gifts?”

The second question to ask yourself is how God wants you to use your gifts.  If you’re good at listening to people and enjoy helping them discover their potential you have a couple of options.  Perhaps you might be a good therapist.  Another option might be to become a school teacher or pastor.  All of these are paths allowing you to use the gifts God has given you.  To know which of these paths to follow requires prayer, reflection, and envisioning yourself in any of these roles.  Allow God to speak to your spirit and see if you can identify which of these paths are most fulfilling.  Think about what it might be like to do the work you feel called to even when it’s tough and doesn’t pay well.  Is it something you still want?  Do you still feel called to be a part of that profession, environment, and community?  Are you willing to suffer in order to execute what you believe God is asking of you?  These questions help you know more clearly if God is asking you to fulfill a particular role.

To answer the above questions we need to accurately assess what we’re able to do, how we might feel doing it, and how well it can be done.  Psychologists have known for some time people are miserable at self-assessment.  David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University has done research demonstrating people overestimate their abilities more than accurately assess how well they perform on particular tasks.  In fact, the less seasoned a person is regarding a task the better they think they can do it.  One of the key reasons psychologists attribute this overestimation is a lack of accurate and honest feedback from others.  Most of us don’t like telling someone they’re not as good at something as they think they are.  That type of honesty requires an intimate relationship many of us don’t foster with one another.  That’s why the final requirement of discernment is having someone you respect and trust share what they think God is asking of you.  To discern God’s will in your life well, You want someone who can be honest and give you a good assessment of your skills.  You want someone who can speak into the discernment process and give you an honest and accurate assessment of how God has gifted you and how well you use those gifts.  It’s only through this trust and knowing what this friend is sharing with is done in love that you can have a more accurate sense of your gifts and how they can best be used.

So how can you facilitate proper discernment?  Let me summarized what we just covered.  First, care for yourself in a holistic way.  Care for your body, your mind, your emotions, your relationships, and your spirit.  God speaks to the whole person, not just one piece of who you are.  Secondly, reflect on how God has gifted you so you can be aware of the talents the Lord wants you to use for building his kingdom.  If God has called you to do something he will equip you for it in one way or another.  Third, after identifying your gifts reflect on how God wants you to use them.  Imagine yourself in a number of scenarios and see which speaks to the meaning and purpose of your life.  Lastly, and most importantly, allow your deepest spiritual friend and advisor to speak into what you believe God is asking of you.  They will help keep you from overestimating your talents and provide you with an anchor to keep you from straying too far from reality.

By following these steps we can have a better sense of God’s will in our lives and our ability to accomplish it.  The key is not confusing God’s will with our own psychological processes, proclivities, and illusions as well as  identifying evil inclinations Satan whispers in our ears.  Our own psychological processes can be as confusing as the whispers of Satan so be intentional about your discernment, allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you, but realize it us through these natural processes that God will do supernatural things.  Allow yourself to be his instrument!

Seven Things Every Single Parent Should Do to Raise Healthy Kids

SPdating2Being a parent is a tough job.  It requires dedication, commitment, and complete selflessness.  It’s not a job you take a break from and the demands are more challenging than anything you’ve ever been asked to do in your life.  I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of parenting where children adore you and obey your every command.   That’s not what parenting is like at all.  Children have their own free will and the desire to do what they want rather than what’s best for them (they’re sort of like adults aren’t they?).  Parenting involves a huge investment of time and love to teach children how to live well.

Being a parent with someone as committed to raising children as you are is important.  However, we live in a broken world where sometimes people die or leave home because being a parent isn’t what he or she wanted.  You’re left alone as a single mom or dad.  Being a single parent is not ideal, can be difficult, and often leaves you feeling lonely.  I’m not an advocate for choosing single parenthood.  Quite frankly it turns people into commodities.  Dads are considered nothing more than sperm donors, mom’s nothing more than baby producing machines, and it usually means someone wants children without the full range of commitments and family configurations important for raising them.  The individual is in love with the idea of being a parent so the child is a “product” they believe they must have.  Single parenthood shouldn’t be something you choose, rather it is the result of broken fractured relationships experience by wounded fallen people.  It’s never ideal, rather it’s something you overcome.

Often people believe children raised in single parent homes are in a very bad place.  They say things like,  “If you’re a single mom or dad your child is going to suffer and won’t grow up as well off as a child born into a family with two parents.”  Well, that’s not true.  Being a single parent isn’t the end of the world and many people raised in this type of family are very successful.  While not the ideal situation God can still do wonderful things and take broken situations and make them whole.  Yet God needs you, the single parent to work with him.  His grace will build upon your limited struggling nature to be a good mom or dad.  Family psychologists have identified seven characteristics of successful single parents I want to share with you in this article.  If you commit yourself to adopting these characteristics your children have as much a chance of being successful as any other child being raised by a dual parent family:

  1. Accept the responsibility and challenges of being a single parent – You’re it.  You need the determination to do the best you can under varying circumstances for your family.  There’s no one else to pick up the pieces of parenting, you’re it.  While friends, extended family, and other social institutions like church can help in a number of ways, they can never be the parent of your child, that’s your job.  Accepting this fact focuses your parenting efforts and keeps you from slipping into the error of letting your parents or romantic partner become the parent to your child.  it’s always your responsibility and the challenges are yours.
  2. Parenting is your first priority.  You’re going to have to balance family, work, romantic relationships, personal needs, etc to do this well.  Your role as parent has to take priority ALL THE TIME!  If you’re finding work responsibilities are keeping you from being with your children at the most important times of their lives, change that.  I know you’re lonely and want to go on that date or spend time with a romantic partner you just met but you have to resist that drive.  These needs can be met, you don’t have to give it all up, but they’re met AFTER your responsibilities as a parent are met.  Parenting is your first priority.
  3. Use consistent nonpunitive discipline.  Children need discipline.  Structure is important.  If you don’t set up the boundaries of a good life and teach your children going outside these boundaries leads to consequences, society will teach them in much more punitive way.  By consistently helping your children develop character and positive behavior patterns while disciplining them when they break established rules you’re helping them flourish and become better people.  Children must learn to master themselves otherwise the world will beat them into submission and isolation.  Love your children enough to tell them no, give them boundaries and rules, and provide the punishments (and rewards) for the behaviors they exhibit.  In the end, like dual parent families, you want to use an authoritative style of parenting that’s loving, firm, and involves open communication (which leads to the 4th characteristic).
  4. Create an environment of open communication.  Successful single parents value and encourage children to express how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.  They don’t have another parent to share and discuss what’s going on in their lives with so they really need to feel they have a safe place to talk.  They also need to see you’re willing to discuss your thoughts and feelings with them.  Be careful when you do so, remember, they’re your children, not your emotional support system.  They have to know their parent is okay, willing to share what’s going on in his or her life, but also not burdening them with the responsibility to make everything okay.
  5. Value a child’s individuality.  Each child is going to be their own person.  Single parents who encouraged their children to develop their own interests and goals flourished and were successful.  Sometimes it’s easy to simply encourage the same interests and goals among the children so there are less places to go, interests to investigate, and activities drawing precious time away from you.  However, when children are encouraged to grow and pursue their own interests they develop as individuals feeling connected to and supported by their families.
  6. Single parents need to self-nurture.  While I’ve emphasized single parents need to make parenting their first priority, second in line of things to do is self-nurturing.  You need to maintain the independent self you’ve achieved through activities you enjoy and friendships you’ve made.  There’s a spiritual maxim I’ve heard a number of times that says, “You cannot give what you do not have.”  If you’ve depleted yourself to the point there’s nothing left to give, you can’t be there for your children.  They need a healthy, happy, flourishing parent because you’re all they have.
  7. Maintain a dedication to rituals and traditions.  Successful single parents create family rituals and traditions that become part of the rhythm of the family.  Develop rituals and traditions occurring daily, weekly, monthly and yearly.  Every night might include bedtime stories or watching a favorite television show together, every week might include going to church or out for dinner, every month might include a trip to the movie theater, and every year might include something special around Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Traditions and rituals are important for giving life a natural rhythm that can be comforting and signal a type of stability we all crave.  It’s in these family traditions and rituals we make memories with our children.  Life is about memories and as a single parent the responsibility is yours to create them for you and your children!

Certainly there’s no hard and fast set of rules to guarantee success as a parent.  People are too complex to establish exact cause and effect relationships between what we do and how children develop.  However, in-depth interviews by two academics (Olson and Haynes) found these seven characteristics of single parent families produced happy, healthy, flourishing children.  Life is never perfect and sometimes things don’t work out as we want, but being a single mom or dad is not a death blow to your children’s well-being.  Its simply a challenge requiring you to do things differently.  With a little prayer and a great deal of intentional love on your part you can and will have a great family!

A Simple Way to Identify Your Passion and Live It Daily

Untitled-1Are you struggling to identify what motivates you? Are your unclear or a little fuzzy on what you really believe you’re called to pursue as a career or as your life mission? Here are some steps you can take to dig a little deeper into what your passions might be and how they can shape your life.

Robert Emmons is a psychologist that talks about “strivings”.  Strivings are a type of motivation that draws us toward the things we’re passionate about.   They’re things we’re drawn to simply because they connect us to our deep sense of self.  One way to identify your “Strivings” is to answer the following question until you can’t think of anything new to say.  Here’s the phrase I want you to complete over and over again until you run out of answers:

“I typically try to….”

Complete that phrase until you can’t answer it any more.  This differs from how you might usually be asked to describe yourself because it forces you to think about what you try and do rather than describe who you think you are. This is really important because your passions are action oriented. They pull you toward your ideal self.

Once you create your initial list look through it and identify answers that are “avoidant” in nature.  Put those aside, these aren’t your passions; these are things you don’t want to do for some reason or another.  For example, if you said “I typically try to avoid eating poorly” throw that answer aside.  More than likely you have a statement saying something like, “I typically try to stay healthy” which is a positive statement drawing you toward something you value rather than away something you dislike.  For this exercise you want to focus on the positive statements.  Throw out the negative avoiding statements and look at the positive ones.

When you have your list of positive statements look for a common theme (or themes).  For example you may find a number of statements mentioning eating well, exercising, taking care of yourself, etc. If this is the case you’re probably passionate about physical fitness and healthy living.  Whatever your statements are they more than likely are connected to a passion of yours; something you can identify as a common theme among a number of things you do in your life.  Find that key theme and put it aside.  Make a list of the key themes you‘re passionate about.

Now, when you look at this list use the following criteria to further refine it.  Ask yourself, “Am I passionate about these things because I want them or because other people have persuaded me to want them (i.e. you want to please someone else, you want their approval, etc.)  Throw out anything on your list you do because someone else has motivated you to do it.  You want to identify what you’re passionate about because you want to do it not because someone else has convinced you it’s important to do. This allows you to identify items you find intrinsically motivating.  Items intrinsically motivating are your deep passions, not things you do so other people will like you or approve of your behavior. Its not that you don’t want to do things for others, but we’re trying to identify things you’re passionate about because they speak to your heart, not because they need to be dutifully completed.  Your deep passions are the ones you’ll be more motivated to pursue.  Psychologists have identified those items you’re intrinsically motivated by as the items speaking most profoundly to you.

Okay, now you have a list of things you really strive for; things exceptionally important and meaningful.  These are what you’re passionate about because they’re connected to who you are.  To further refine your understanding of your passions I want you to come up with a couple of sentences that integrate these themes and say something meaningful about who you are.  For example, you may have a list of themes like the following:

      1. Passionate about health
      2. Passionate about exercise
      3. Passionate about looking good
      4. Passionate about feeling good
      5. Passionate about being active
      6. Passionate about teaching others about health
      7. Passionate about learning more about exercise, fitness, and health

Take that list and create what I call a “life theme” that intimately describes your passions in relation to who you are and what’s important to you.  Here’s an example:

“Dominick is someone who cares about his health, looking good, feeling good, and being active.  He’s passionate about learning more and more about fitness, exercise, and eating well for his well-being and to he help others live well.  By being healthy himself and training others to do the same Dominick is fulfilling his vocation to be an agent of living well in the lives of others.”

Once you have your life theme drafted, use it every morning to set your daily agenda.  Make your life theme your daily theme and revisit this process often to keep what you’re truly passionate about in front of you all day. When you set daily goals reflecting your passions you’re living your life in a way that echoes the divine call God has placed on you and not merely taking tasks off your to do list.

I once heard someone say there are people who get up every day and choose to survive and there are people who get up every day and choose to live. My prayer is all of you choose to live a life rather than get up every day to simply survive.

 

Love – The Distinction of Christian Education

classroomWhen someone attends a Christian university they should expect their experience to be qualitatively different than educational experiences at other institutions.  Even if the level of professional engagement and type of material being used are identical, the Christian university must reflect something radically different. I believe the key difference is love.  Love is what has always distinguished Christians from the rest of the world.  Scripture demonstrates how radically different Christian’s viewed the concept of love.  For example, in John’s first letter to his community the deep connection between Christian love and the person of God is expressed like this:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” – 1 John 4:7

John also expresses the fact  Christians understand the love they express as a love originating in the divine.  He writes:

“We love, because he first loved us” – 1 John 4:19

John’s letter identifies love as a core characteristic of the Christian life because it’s a core characteristic of the Christian God.  In fact scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16) and therefore to be a community of love is to be a community that dwells in the midst God himself.  A Christian education must have love as part of its educational process if it is to be truly Christian.

The early Christian church understood the importance of loving one another as part of discipleship, the most essential type of education mature Christians provide for those growing in Christ.  Their obvious love for one another caused a great social disturbance in the societies in which their communities flourished.  This new approach to living, learning, and caring for one another was not only a distinctive mark of who they were but something resented by non-Christians.  Tertullian, a well know second century Christian wrote this about the distinctive mark love made on their community:

“It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us.  They say, ‘See how they love one another!” . . . and they are angry with us, too, because we call each other brothers.”

It is this author’s argument that a uniquely Christian form of teaching and learning requires the professor to love his or her students in a radically unique way reflecting the same love exemplified in these early Christian communities.  That fact however, leads one to ask another important question which is, “What kind of love might that be?”

Sacrificial Love in Teaching

The English language suffers for lack of ways to express the complex experience of love.  The New Testament uses a number of words to express the complexity of the love experience.  For example, philia is a word found in the New Testament expressing a deep friendship one might share with another.  While this is an important word expressing Christian fraternal love, the love Christians are ultimately asked to participate in transcends philia and is a selfless, giving, sacrificial love imitating the love of Christ.  The Greek word describing this experience is agape.  Agape is required to teach in a uniquely Christian way.  There is an old English proverb capturing the essence of this self-giving love distinguishing Christian love from others. The proverb states the following:

“He that plants a tree loves others besides himself.”

Think about that for a moment.  Planting a tree becomes a selfless act because the shade, wood, and perhaps fruit of that tree is not just something benefiting the one who plants it, but more often is something benefiting others more profoundly many generations later.  This is the kind of love teaching in a Christian setting embraces.  To teach for one’s own benefit or because it is professionally lucrative feeds one’s ego and is not much of a sacrificial act.  It might be argued one has not only taught improperly, but far from what might be called Christianly.  A Christian pedagogy understands one is sharing something they have received, struggled with, and mastered for someone else’s benefit, not their own glory or self-serving purposes.  If students never remember the name of the professor who taught them the material of their discipline yet goes on to do great things helping the world overcome its many problems, they have been taught sacrificially by a professor who loved them.  Love requires the professor to recognize they are a link in a chain God is creating to transform the world.  Sometimes that link is merely teaching others to do simple things well.  Professors teach students to think critically, write beautifully, and develop confidence when speaking in front of a group of people.  None of these things in themselves are grand bringing great glory to the professor, but simple tasks taken together that can do great things when taught to someone God wants to use marvelously.  Mother Teresa captures this approach to teaching when she says:

“In this life we cannot do great things.  We can only do small things with great love.”

It is because of sacrificial love one teaches as a Christian.  To teach in any other way is to teach for self-promotion.  Students may not like their instructor all the time, but one does not teach to be liked or loved, one teaches so that the one being taught may learn and do great things for the kingdom of God.  One teaches from a position of love, not to be loved.  That does not mean a relationship between students and faculty cannot emerge, it simply means it is not the intended end, merely the effect of caring about one’s students and doing a good job.

Teaching and the Right Order of Love

Vincent van Gogh said, “The best way to know God is to love many things.”  While this is indeed true, we can only love God through many things if we love the many things and God in the right order.  Saint Augustine understood this when he wrote in his confessions:

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you.  And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.”

To teach Christianly is to show students we love the created things, the disciplines of academia, not for themselves, but for the revelation of God provided through them.  The purpose of Christian learning is to allow one to explore the mystery of God himself.  If one teaches students to love their disciplines above everything else then they introduce these students to the sin of idolatry and make the academic field being studied God.  Christian education teaches the student to love his or her discipline but only as a means to worship, adore, and know God.  It is when the order of love is reversed; loving creature above creator, that what is learned draws students away from God.  Yet, when approaching the disciplines while loving God above all things, the very subjects studied become conduits to knowing God more deeply.  The role of the Christian professor is to teach students how to properly love their disciplines.  In an ancient 4th century Christian document called, The Apostolic Constitutions the proper ordering of love between God and one’s trade is described like this:

“Follow your trades as secondary, as something necessary for earning a livelihood.  However, make the worship of God your main business.”

A Christian educator takes this one step further making the trade of academic study a type of worship and means for knowing and loving God.

Love, an Act of Humility

When teaching first becomes an act of love for God, then something done for the  benefit of students, and lastly something done to contribute to the academic discipline, it perfects itself through the practice of humility.  To love God first is to humbly recognize what he has revealed in the Bible as divine truth which guides one’s academic inquiry.  To answer questions such as “What is a human being, life’s purpose, and humanity’s final end” requires one to search the Word of God as a primary epistemological source.  In this way the truth one pursues is not something constructed in arrogance from an instructor’s experience of the world but rather truth is something discovered guided by the eternal truths of God’s revelation.  Teaching students to think Christianly is to teach them to submit themselves in humility to the Word of God as part of their academic inquiry.  Otherwise the professor becomes the revealer of all truth and self-love consumes love of God and neighbor.  Love of one greater than ourselves leads us to a humble understanding that God’s eternal perspective trumps our temporal observations.  Faculty need to not only teach this to their students but model it in their own academic pursuits.  It is important students see the tension this causes in academic pursuits but also how Christian scholarship can also be rigorous and academically sound.  Love of God first compels the Christian scholar to take what God has revealed through the scriptures seriously and in all humility.

In the End, Christian Education is Uniquely Marked by Love

In summary, to teach Christianly is to teach with love properly ordered toward God first, students next, and the academic discipline last.  To teach from the perspective of sacrificial love is to teach in a way that makes the classroom experience a type of worship and adoration of God himself.  By sharing in this act of worship and adoration with students, one helps them not only learn course content, but how a particular discipline is a conduit toward understanding the mystery of God.  When this is done in love, the professor patiently teaches the student to learn just as one disciples a fellow Christian to live a Christian life.   All of this is done in humility to enable both student and professor to see what they do is temporal in the scheme of what God does eternally.

Love is a powerful pedagogical characteristic that must be a part of Christian education.  When it expresses itself the world will look upon Christian universities and say as Tertullian stated, “See how they love one another!”

Keeping Kids from being Spoiled at Christmas – Teach Gratitude

Christmas is jugiftsst around the corner and I want to share a little Christmas present with you.  This present is something for you and your children.  Christmas is definitely a time of giving abundantly and parents often do so with their little ones.  I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on all of you, it’s just a simple fact about how we live in the United States.  We’re a consumer driven market so quite naturally a holiday in which gift giving is promoted, even as a peripheral act to religious celebrations, leads to spending and giving gifts generously.  What parent doesn’t want to give generously to their children?  The question is, are we giving them the right stuff?  Material things are fun, but maybe this year give them something that can make them happier, reduce negative emotional experiences, develop empathy for others, and be a more forgiving helpful person.  What magic gift is this?  Teach them to savor life and be grateful for what they have.

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology demonstrated through his research that people who “stop and smell the roses” seem to have more positive, healthy, and flourishing lives.  This ability to intentionally experience the “present” and exercise a mindful disposition for the good things we experience in life seems to be a very important element for healthy living.  Couple this mindful presence with a heart of gratitude and you have quite the winning combination.  I’m proposing there are four things you can do starting this Christmas morning to benefit your children helping them grow to be healthy flourishing adults.  Here is what I want you to do in the midst of flying wrapping paper and squeals of excitement:

  1. Have your child open one gift at a time.  When they open it have them take time to explore it and be interested in it.  Have them “savor” the gift and express gratitude for it.  Don’t drag it out for 20 minutes, but take at least two minutes to show them how to be present to that particular gift and the joy of receiving it.  As a side note if you think two minutes per gift might be too long maybe you’re over buying for your children?  Just a thought to ponder.
  2. Teach your child to say thank you for the gifts they receive.  Make sure they understand thank you means more than words being parroted back to the gift giver.  Help them learn to be grateful because believe it or not, being grateful is not something that comes natural to us.  Being sinful human beings means being selfish human beings.
  3. Model savoring and gratitude for your child.  Make sure your children see how grateful you are for what you receive and how you take the time to enjoy and appreciate the experience of receiving the gift.  Not just the gift itself, the “experience” of receiving it.
  4. At the end of Christmas day commit to starting a gratitude journal.  Perhaps one of the gifts you can give your children is a notebook and a pen.  Sit down together as a family once all the fanfare has settled and have each person write down five things they are grateful for receiving.  Robert Emmons, a well known researcher in the area of gratitude, found people who did this daily or even weekly were healthier, less stressed, and more optimistic.  Make sure you tell your children each week, perhaps on Sunday, you will be writing down and talking about five things each of you are grateful for that week.  Make it a family habit so it becomes ingrained in your family culture.

We get stuff at Christmas, and in the American culture, it ‘s expected.   In some sense it’s even okay.  We don’t want to become gluttons of stuff, but it’s perfectly acceptable to shower one another with gifts.  A bigger mistake is giving and getting things and not learning how to savor the moment of receiving a gift and being grateful for it.  If you want to do one thing this year teach your children to enjoy, savor, and be thankful for what they have.  Then, use this Christmas to start the practice of weekly gratitude sharing.  Sunday is a great day to use  because Christians already use that day to worship and give thanks to God.  Why not use Sunday to share things you’re grateful for with one another after a wonderful day of being in the presence of a generous God.  So, what are you going to give your children for Christmas this year?  How about the habit of gratitude and thankfulness!

Celebrating Christmas when Someone You Love Died

ChristmasAmidst the jingle bells, holiday chuckling, feasting, and visits to decked out malls people are suffering. They may not look like it from the outside, but inside they’re struggling because someone they love (not loved, I am not making a grammatical error but recognizing a continued relationship) is no longer with them. To be blunt, someone they love is dead. It might have happened this year or maybe several years ago, but that’s not important. What’s important is recognizing the holiday season often reminds them someone they love will not be with them for the celebrations.

I’m not writing this to bring everyone down and take the Santa Clause out of your holiday cheer, but I want to share some things for those of you feeling the loss of someone you love to help you find meaning and purpose in the holiday season. I’m not asking you to put on a smile and pretend all is well, I’m hoping to provide you with some things to do to allow the holidays to continue to be meaningful.

The first thing you can do is accept the new face of your holiday celebrations. That new face no longer includes the person who died. When a death is fresh this is particularly important because subconsciously we still believe our loved one will come through the door and everything we experienced about their death was nothing more than a bad dream. Accept the fact your loved one is no longer with you on this earth. The acceptance of the reality of death allows you to begin the mourning and grieving process. Remember, grief is a normal reaction to the death of someone we love. Grief is healthy, not pathological (at least when the process progresses as it should) so allow yourself to grieve. If you don’t feel like celebrating with any great fanfare don’t. Someone you love is not with you and its okay to take the time to accept that reality. Yes, whether we like it or not, the holidays will never be the same but that doesn’t mean they have to be worse than before, just different.

Once you’ve accepted things aren’t the same and you’re allowing yourself to feel the pain of loss you can begin to adjust to holidays without your loved one present. This means you have to change how you celebrate the holidays. I know that word “Change” scares us, but it really is something everyone has to do at different stages in life. Change doesn’t have to mean totally rearranging your life so you have no connection to the past, but it does mean thinking of ways to participate in the holiday season differently. It might mean spending the holiday with family or friends you haven’t engaged in the past because you were doing specific things with your loved one. It might mean the Christmas meal isn’t at your house. Maybe this year your younger son or daughter should host the Christmas Eve celebration. Perhaps you don’t put up a big tree that required two of you to put together but rather you buy a smaller tree you can decorate with a mix of old and new decorations. Whatever you choose to do, it has to allow you to adjust to participating in the holiday in a modified way. What you shouldn’t do is NOT participate in the holiday. It might be very simple and it might mean spending more time by yourself, but don’t retreat from the world, find ways to engage it. Little by little continue to live your life without your loved one.

If you remember I started this discussion by saying people are feeling a loss of someone they love this holiday season not someone they loved (past tense). That’s important because we must remember we continue to have an ongoing relationship with people even after they die. I don’t mean just spiritually (although I certainly believe that as well) but psychologically. Because this relationship continues you need to make modifications to your participation in the holiday that respects and memorializes your continued connection to the deceased. While we have to accept change and make changes we also need to maintain continuity to the past. You want to emotionally relocate the memories of your loved one to a place of dignity and honor. It might mean during the holidays you place a picture of them right by the holiday tree with a candle. I’ve known some people who to take clothing from the deceased and turn it into a special blanket they use during the holiday seasons to feel the presence of their loved one surrounding them at this special time of year. Some people even set a place setting for the deceased individual at the holiday meal or perhaps your memorialization consists in just mentioning them at the dinner table before you eat together again as a family. The key is to find a way to remember your loved one with honor, particularly this time of year. Allow yourself the gift of memories, life is made of them and they should be celebrated even when we are still in the mourning process.

I know this time of year is tough. I’ve lost people I love and their memory always comes back to me during Christmas. My father, grandparents, and even some friends have become a part of my past and are no longer a part of my present. Yet during this Christmas time I still can hear their laugh, see them holding a glass of their favorite wine or beer conversing with one another, and making merry at this special time of year. Sometimes a tear comes upon my face but ultimately I know I’m a better person because they were in my life and I celebrate that important fact. However you have to do it, take the time to have a merry Christmas even if that means you need some time to shed a tear or two in honor of the friends and family who may not be with you in person but are surely with you in spirit.

Can Your Child Become Virtuous?

ParentingAs a psychologist, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life and with a number of different problems. People who have difficulty in their marriages, people who have anxiety, people who are depressed, you name it. One of my favorite professional tasks is working with good parents who want good ideas on parenting. This is most rewarding because it’s not so much about helping someone correct problems as it is teaching parents to utilize the raw material of childhood to build good human beings. Parenting is the most difficult endeavor individual’s will be tasked with but it can be the most rewarding as well.

One of the first things I’ve learned as a parent and professional is there are very few “absolutes” about raising children. What seems like good advice for one child is often quite the opposite for another. To try and come up with a one size fits all approach to parenting doesn’t work very well. After all, that is not how God made human beings; we are all unique creations which express the goodness of God. Good parenting means listening to the research and applying it appropriately as your situation needs. I believe that one of the most important things parents can teach children is virtue. It is a universal part of being human, and in fact many ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Confucius have demonstrated that being human is living a virtuous life. They reflect a universal truth that the Christian religion sees fully realized in Christ and which needs to become a way of life for his followers. In more recent times we’ve seen numerous books about virtue for our children, but how does one teach it to them?

I am going to develop some simple ideas from Aristotle’s work because I believe it is most applicable. He approaches the idea of virtue in a very practical way. So let’s start by identify what virtue is. Traditionally, there have been four “cardinal” virtues most great thinkers have said all other virtues derive from. These cardinal virtues as described in the Christian faith are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance (Christians also recognize faith, hope, and love as virtues however these are gifts from God in which we participate, not so much something we acquire by effort). From these four it is believed that other virtues follow such as generosity, patience, etc. It’s all well and good to know these and they’re indeed a good starting point, but virtue extends in many directions. To act virtuously is to act in an appropriate manner, at an appropriate time, in an appropriate situation. How does a parent teach this and recognize a virtuous approach to a given situation?

To acquire virtue, one does not need to be a great scholar or saint. You simply start by acting virtuously. Virtue is like any other skill, it is acquired through habit. Whatever behavior one practices they then assimilate into who they are. We do this in most all areas of our life. How do we become readers if not by taking up words and learning how they go together and read? Reading is acquired through practice. If you think about a professional, how did they become an accountant, a computer programmer, or a manager? They acquired the skill by practicing the trade. That’s how we become virtuous, by practicing virtue. If you want your child to learn how to be temperate, to not overindulge in a particular activity, you help them practice the virtue of temperance. My son loves computer games but all parents know when a child spends most of his day in front of a video game it’s a fairly harmful practice. It’s also a vice known as overindulgence. By limiting his time, telling him he can play for one hour and then having him engage in more productive activities, he learns temperance. Will he scream and fight about it? Maybe, but as he develops he will learn to be temperate in other matters. So as a parent it’s my job to teach my children to practice virtue. Children learn in a number of ways. One important way of learning is imitating what another person is doing to assimilate the behavior. So, as a parent, children need to see you working out virtuous approaches to life as well to grow in virtue. Psychologists call this method of learning social learning theory, and it is an effective way to teach children morality and values. If my child observes me take the extra change I was given boasting how the teller was an idiot and how I got one over on her, that’s not presenting a very just model for him to imitate. How about if I continue to over eat, what is that teaching my son about a balanced temperate way to enjoy food? If I practice virtue and help him learn to do so, then the acquired virtues will become a natural part of who he is.

What do you do when it’s difficult to identify the most virtuous behavior? Aristotle helps us here as well. He indicates that virtuous acts tend to be the mean between the extreme vices. For example, to be courageous one has to keep from being too rash and impulsive and too timid and frightened. Overzealous impulsive lack of concern for danger is a vice and harmful to an individual and others. Over timid fearful anxiety is also a vice that limits a person’s ability to participate in life. Between these two is the virtue of courage. Teaching our children to develop a sense of the middle way, the virtue between two activities is the way to instill in them what I call a “sense” of virtue. Let me give you another example. My daughter acquires a fairly good amount of money because of a birthday party and she wants to buy something with it. She finds an electronic MP3 player that can do more than any 11 year old would ever want to do with it. She also wants to save money and likes to have money in her account (she’s a lot like her mother). If she leans too much toward spending extravagantly, she will become a spender and lack the prudent understanding of how to use money. If she leans toward saving at a rate where she falls in love with just having money, she could fall into the vice of greed. As a parent I have a chance to make this a teaching moment. By helping her see the importance of saving money but also to use it to enjoy life, she can be happy. Perhaps she can find an MP3 player that she will enjoy while keeping some of her money to use later. The mean becomes the virtue.

I know this sounds overly simplistic, but it really isn’t. First, you need to think about your own life, what you value, and how you communicate those values to your children. They will learn to assimilate or reject those values based on how you live. If they see a parent living a happy life embracing values reflective of virtue, they will find the hard work required in becoming virtuous worth the effort. If they see a parent finding no joy in life, even if it is virtuous, they will reject those values. So the first thing you need to do is think about what you value and how you live a virtuous life. Happiness is not just a passing state of emotions, it is a well lived life and I agree with Aristotle, this life comes from living virtuously. The second thing needing understood is teaching the habit of virtue will be met with resistance. Temperance for example, often means self restraint, therefore pleasure is limited. No child likes that!!! It’s an important lesson though, one needing learned. Justice requires sharing, not having everything you want, and not getting what you want any way you can to get it. Again, that causes pain, and will be met with resistance. If the parent doesn’t set the boundaries, when children leave the nest, the world will teach them the hard lessons in a less forgiving way.

Virtue is taught in a very simple but challenging way. You identify how you model virtue for your children. In all activity, virtue is identified by finding the mean between the two negative features of excess and deficiency. Overeating and starving yourself are vices; the virtue is proper temperate eating. Lastly, set the consequences and rewards for virtuous living. If you don’t, a child who never learns temperance will be an overindulgent, overweight adult suffering from diabetes and heart conditions. There is a good life to be enjoyed for your child through virtuous living. Challenges and problems will be overcome with Christian dignity when we teach them to embrace what is most human and desired by God, a life of virtue.

Virtue and Vocation – How a Particular Vocation and General Vocation Connect

photo (1)To understand why virtuous living matters we need to explore the concept of vocation.  In particular we need to understand the difference between a general vocation and a specific vocation.  Let me use life as an example of these two dimensions of vocation to help explain these concepts.  I serve the Lord through a number of particular vocations.  First, I work as a psychology professor at a Christian university.  That’s a particular vocation at a particular place in which I serve the Kingdom of God by educating students in the discipline of psychology.  In addition to my job as a psychology professor I’m an ordained minister in a particular church body.  That again is a particular vocation in which I serve a particular part of the body of Christ.  Yet, within all  these particular vocations there is a general vocation I exercise simply because I call myself Christian.  Part of this general vocation includes the idea Christians are an incarnational representation of a number of virtues within the families and communities they live.  To be Christian is to be a living sign of forgiveness, gratitude, patience, etc., all the virtues Christ displayed as transforming agents in the Roman world.

For the Christian, a vocation is a response to a divine call.  A vocation finds its source in God, not in the individual.  It’s a God given call (Thus the english word derives its meaning from the Latin word vocare meaning to call) to which one must respond.  The individual must respond but the response must be discerned through a number of channels, one in particular is the Christian community.  The community in which the individual lives is part of the discernment, particularly when we talk about particular vocations.  A particular vocation is always mediated through a faith community.  Ministry is a perfect example of this need for community as part of its discernment because most Christians cannot simply proclaim themselves as ministers and pastor for a non-existent church.  There is always a community helping an individual discern whether or not they are truly experiencing the call to minister to others.  This community may be the local church, a larger church body, or the seminary faculty.

While our particular vocations are discerned through a number of channels and take time to process, our common vocation is much more evident.  By surrendering to Christ we immediately say we will live out our salvation in a number of ways which identify us as Christian.  This common vocation requires us to love and serve God above all else and then our neighbor.  Vocation in the Christian sense has ontological implications as well functional implications.  It’s a type of “being” manifested in “doing.”  The Christian “takes back” his or her human dignity by choosing a life of grace instead of a natural life impacted by sin.  Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, a human life is best lived when it reflects the divine life in this fallen world.  The Christian regains (Through grace) a special human dignity and lives in this dignified manner through acts of love toward God and neighbor.  To live the general Christian vocation is to live as Christ demonstrates in Matthew 5:13-16:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way , let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This passage is a reminder that God intends us to live lives incarnationally reflecting the divine life so the world may be transformed to more perfectly reflect the coming and present Kingdom of God.  Part of the Christian’s common vocation is to live kingdom values in the world seeking what is best for it.  Why is this part of the Christian vocation?  Because God intended human beings to live virtuously as benevolent caretakers of creation giving him glory and praise.  In our fallen state we’re content to live creaturely instead of in a grace filled supernatural way.  We would rather live in darkness than in light.  The virtuous life is deemed useless because it benefits others more than it does ourselves.  The light of kingdom values gets covered up and never gives the world the guidance it needs,  the guidance we are to provide as God’s caretakers of the created order.  People give up the core of who they are choosing to be something less than God intends with every selfish and sinful act.  The Christian vocation calls us to recognize through Christ we’ve been “Fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and are “Little less than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7).  Sin has caused us to forget who we are causing us to embrace our creaturely, selfish, unfruitful lives instead of the grace filled lives we were originally created to have.

I encourage you to explore both your particular and the general Christian vocation so that they compliment one another in the life you live. God has called us to a new life in Christ and this changes who we are and what we do. This new life however, is lived in a particular way, and when the particular vocation you have lines up well with the general vocation you have received as a Christian, the world is transformed and God is given glory for the majesty in which he has crowed the human person.