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


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!


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!

Being Spiritually Creative – Thinking Outside the Box

prayerandholyspiritJ.P. Guilford is a cognitive psychologist who researched subjects like the structure of intellect and creativity.  Creativity is a fascinating aspect of psychology and while we know something about it, creativity still transcends the cognitive functions we explore.  Being creative requires a number of things, but important to the process is freeing yourself from two cognitive traps.  These cognitive traps are functional fixedness and mental sets.  Functional fixedness involves the limitations we place on ourselves when using particular objects to accomplish particular tasks.  A famous experiment demonstrating this was done by Duncker in 1945.  Duncker gave participants a box of matches, candles, and thumb tacks and asked them to create a lamp from the objects that could be mounted on the wall and keep wax from dripping on the floor.  He found the majority of his participants couldn’t come up with a solution.  The solution was simple; you just empty the box of matches, tack it to the wall, and place the candle in it. Then, you light the candle.  A simple solution, but one people struggled with because they believed the box of matches couldn’t be emptied and utilized as a candle holder, it was meant to hold the matches.  Participants in the experiment were fixated on one way the box could be used.  Creativity is impaired by this process and impacts all of us when it comes to doing things differently.  Mental sets are like functional fixedness but instead of being fixated on the proper way to use an object they cause one to fixate on how a process must precede.  How someone  does things is limited to a small number of procedures limiting any alternative ways to achieve a goal.  If you’ve ever worked with someone who says “We always do it that way” you’ve experienced someone stuck in a mental set.

J.P. Guilford’s work presents us with another aspect of creativity in regards to how we think.  Guilford believes creativity is best served by something called divergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is the ability to approach problems with an open-ended disposition involving a large number of potential solutions, some of which may or may not be correct.  Problems best served by divergent thinking are those without one correct answer.  Because creativity involves innovative thinking being able to have a divergent approach to problems allows individuals to utilize a vast array of ideas to solve the problem.  Convergent thinking is the opposite of divergent thinking.  With convergent thinking a solution to a specific problem has one correct solution.  This type of thinking best serves problems like mathematical equations.  At this point you’re asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with spirituality?”  Let me help you connect the dots.

In the book of Genesis God creates human beings and places them in a garden.  Then, he instructs humanity to create with and cultivate the many gifts bestowed on them.  One might argue being creative is at the heart of who we are.  We’re creatures tasked by our maker to create and cultivate a world reflecting the goodness of God and the spirit of beauty.  That’s why art is such a unique human activity.  Human beings are at their core “sacred artists” not “problem solvers.”  To be a creative artist is to use divergent thinking to find multiple ways to know, love, and serve our God and those he places in our lives.  In many ways the world we live in is that corner of the garden God asks us to cultivate.  Sin has placed a veil over our eyes and keeps us from seeing the raw materials provided in the garden.  Where there is pain, brokenness, and hurt we should see soil, seed, and water.  By creatively pouring ourselves into these situations we cultivate and create a more beautiful garden.  However, when all we see are problems that can only be solved in one way we’re not utilizing our divergent thinking; we’re stuck in convergent thinking limiting the movement of the Spirit.  Remember, Christ tells us people of the Spirit move as the wind moves (John 3:8).  Sometimes this scripture is used to justify behavior without direction, but I think Christ is reminding us to be people of the Spirit means being people who think divergently.  A person who thinks divergently thinks creatively, a necessity when one finds themselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places.  In these unfamiliar places we need to think differently about what served us well in the past.  Being a person moved by the spirit most assuredly causes us to live in ways we never imagined before.

A good example demonstrating how convergent thinking can get in the way of spiritual growth is found in how we approach scripture.  Some individuals believe particular bible passages are only applicable in one specific way.  They don’t allow the scriptures to speak to other facets of life or shed light into their experiences in ways never imagined.  I am not advocating that truth is relative or that scripture doesn’t speak specifically to certain ideas and events.  I am saying sometimes meditating on scripture enlightens us in ways never seen before.  For that to happen we must allow the Spirit to move us to think divergently about the passages and the situations in which we find ourselves so we can be spiritually creative.  As long as we’re not using a passage to justify anti-biblical behaviors allowing scripture to speak to us in a new way can be spiritually fulfilling.

Another way divergent thinking facilitates spiritual growth is when dealing with non-Christian material.  I saw this with the release of the movie Noah written by by Darren Aronofsky, and Ari Handel.  Many Christians struggled with this movie because it didn’t specifically address the biblical narrative as written in Genesis.  Yet, those Christians who saw the movie and liked it say the manner in which the “unsaid” aspects of the story are “filled in” are quite creative.  These “creative inserts” provide a new dialogue with biblical themes that deepen our spiritual understanding of God, the sin of humanity, and the redemptive acts our Lord continues to use to restore humanity to its original state of holiness.  The key to this approach to non-Christian things is that where they don’t conflict with the revealed truths of scripture creativity can be used to broaden our experience of God.

I urge you to rediscover your spiritually divergent thinking.  Become creators and cultivators of the world around you so you may come to understand God more deeply and broadly.  Too often we think God can be solved like a problem with one specific answer.  God is a deep mystery we can creatively explore.  This exploration can take us to multiple places and allows us to enjoy the depth and beauty of the divine.  If we try to solve the mystery of God we’re thinking too convergently.  If we’re exploring the many ways he touches our lives, our divergent intellect opens up the good things God has in store for us.

Will God only Forgive me as I Forgive Others?

woman_9The spiritual life is one of paradox.  We see the use of paradox in the bible in verses like Matthew 10:39

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The Bible is full of these expressions.  By using paradox what’s said in the Bible transcends our intellect and sinks into our souls.  We understand the deeper truths they convey because paradox disarms our critical thinking processes forcing us to think in a fresh new way.  Phrases like the one above in Matthew force us to ask questions like, “In what way do I need to lose my life for the sake of Jesus?”  Spiritual paradoxes are powerful ways to get people to think more richly about God’s truth.

Studying forgiveness leads us into a world of spiritual paradoxes.  The Scriptures are full of references to the reciprocal nature inherent in the forgiving life.  Let me provide you with examples so we can look more closely at this interesting spiritual revelation:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

These passages imply God will forgive us only to the degree we forgive others.  If you’re like me, the idea God only forgives me as I forgive others is uncomfortable and makes me think a great deal about the nature of God.  In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” causing us to wonder, “Is that all God will do, is forgive me as I forgive?”  Because forgiveness is not something that comes easily to me I begin to wonder about the forgiveness I have from God!  Is God only as forgiving as I am?  I’m a broken struggling human being and God only forgives me in the manner this broken soul can forgive others?  On the surface that sounds very troubling.

To wrap our minds around this we need to think about the nature of God.  Most theologians argue God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful.  This is why only God can be perfectly just and merciful at the same time.  If we’re saying this all loving God only forgives us in the same way limited forgiving people can than there’s an inconsistency in our understanding of the nature of God.  Yet scripture is teaching us something about the reciprocal nature of forgiveness we can’t ignore.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta addressed the 1982 graduates at Thomas Aquinas University with the following words:

“And this, the joy of the presence of Jesus, you must be able to give wherever you go. But you cannot give what you don’t have. That’s why you need a pure heart, a pure heart that you will receive as a fruit of your prayer, as a fruit of your oneness with Christ. And a pure heart can see God. And if you see God immediately — immediately — you begin to love one another. That’s all Jesus came on this earth to give us, that good news: “Love as I have loved you; love one another as I have loved you.” 

In this spiritually packed address Mother Teresa unfolds a beautiful mystery about the spiritual life we need to ponder given our present topic.  Just as an all loving God extends an overabundance of love for us to experience he also extends an overabundance of forgiveness.  However, just as being loved means accepting that love from God so does being forgiven require us to accept that forgiveness from God.  How do we accept the forgiveness and love of God?  By accepting Jesus the incarnational expression of God’s love and forgiveness.  Then, as we receive this love and forgiveness we extend it to others.  Mother Teresa states it very plainly, “You cannot give what you don’t have.”  When God says he only forgives us as much as we forgive others he’s reminding us any limitations we experience in forgiving exists because we haven’t accepted the abundance of forgiveness he offers.  To be a forgiving soul I need to understand how completely God has forgiven me.  This is why it’s important to reflect on our failures.  We don’t reflect on failures to become spiritual masochists, rather we do so to understand the great love and mercy God extends to us by meeting us in our broken fallen state.  When we see how far we are from God we appreciate how far he stretches himself  to be with us.  We are deeply loved and deeply forgiven.  Receiving that gift allows us to forgive ourselves.  We must forgive ourselves as a result of the great love and forgiveness God pours into us so we can love and forgive others.

God is not limiting his forgiveness because we limit ours.  God is teaching us the manner in which we forgive others is a direct reflection of the manner in which we receive his forgiveness.  When we ask God to “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others” we’re not asking for our reward.   We’re asking God to help us understand the more forgiving we are toward others is a direct reflection of our acceptance of his forgiveness.  You cannot give what you do not have; powerful words in relation to love and forgiveness.  When we have Jesus Christ in our lives and really understand the depth and breadth of that relationship, we can forgive and love abundantly.  Reflecting on our struggle with forgiveness and love helps us recognize the difficulty we have in receiving love and forgiveness from God. We cannot limit the abundant grace of God, we must pour ourselves out to fill ourselves with his love and forgiveness.

The Psychology of Sacred Remembering

RememberingThe psalms have been the primary prayer book for both Jews and Christians over many centuries.  They reflect the full range of human emotion echoing the human spirit’s most raw and honest life experiences.  They describe the joy of knowing God as he breaks into human history as well as the pain of exile, loss, and human suffering experienced in a world of sin and brokenness.  The psalms are a formative force in the lives of all believers.  I was privileged to lead a devotion using psalm 105 at a gathering I attended not long ago and wanted to share it here for others to reflect upon.

The section of Psalm 105 I want to discuss is the following (From the NIV):

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.  Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.  Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.  He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth.”

The key phrase I want to focus on is “Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he pronounced.”  The word I want to focus on is “Remember.”

Remembering is a profound human ability we take for granted.  In fact, if we didn’t have memory we would be purely instinctual creatures, not too different from the most basic crustacean at the bottom of the ocean.  There’s a fascinating case study done on a man named Clive Wearing who lost his ability to remember things more than a few minutes in the past.  He wakes every day as if it’s his first conscious experience and becomes easily frustrated when he sees writing in his journal he believes someone else wrote. He doesn’t remember writing in it just moments before and while he recognizes his own handwriting, he can’t understand how it got there.  His case is an extreme example  regarding the importance of memory.

Memory is a powerful tool because it makes present a past experience.  For example, whenever you smell a meal from your past being prepared, something you enjoyed  as a child at some long forgotten Christmas, that experience becomes vivid and real.  You’re struck by how much the past becomes part of the present and you can be brought to tears thinking about loved ones from that past celebration.  It’s like they’re right in the next room laughing and sharing a bottle of wine together.  The past is made powerfully present when the odor of the food brings back that special memory from a special time.  This power in vivid memories can work against us as well.  For example, people struggling with PTSD experience their past trauma in the present when something triggers their difficult memories.  The slightest trigger causes them to relive the traumatic experience that caused them pain and suffering.  For these people the past is not a distant memory but rather becomes a present reality.

This powerful experience of making the past a reality in the present is something God uses to help us stay connected to what he has done for humanity throughout salvation history.  During worship and prayer our remembering is a powerful tool.  The Jews use this power of sacred remembering when they celebrate the Passover meal.  When Jews celebrate Passover they’re not simply remembering something God did in the past, they make present the experience of being freed from slavery and led to the promise land right there in the midst of their gathering by remembering this saving act of God.  Like Jews, Christians do the same when they celebrate The Lord’s supper.  While Christians continue to argue about “how” God is present when they make Eucharist, focusing too much on the how leads us to forget about the fact he “is” present.  When Christ instituted the Lord’s supper he commanded his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me.”  There’s that word again, the word remember.  Christ asks his disciples to exercise what I have called “Sacred Remembering”, something very different than just recalling  past events.  Sacred remembering allows the Holy Spirit to make present the sacred saving acts of God from the past.  While we often do this in private prayer,  I believe this is best done in our communal worship.  When we gather as a community our collective remembering transforms the ordinary to include the saving acts of God in the midst of the people of God.  Eucharist is the Christian Passover, a time for remembering that Jesus Christ gave his body and blood for the sins of many.  Remembering makes that past event a present reality for the gathered community.  Christ is mystically present.  I am not saying God is only present when we remember, I’m merely suggesting through our remembering we’re made aware of the imminent presence of God.  This is why psalm 105 is so important for our discussion about remembering.

Psalm 105 is a psalm celebrating two foundational acts of salvation for the Jews.  The first is their freedom from slavery in Egypt.  The psalm sings about how the people of God found themselves in a foreign land and that God sent them Moses to free them from their slavery.  The second act of salvation celebrated in the psalm is God’s promise and fulfillment in giving the Jews the promise land.  These are two very important acts of salvation the Jews recalled frequently as a community.  By “Remembering the wonders” they are recalling the presence of a saving God existing among them now, not just in the past.  This act of remembering was sacred and Scripture reminds us this psalm in particular facilitated that act of sacred remembering within the context of communal worship.  Yes, we are fairly sure all the psalms were used in the liturgical worship of the temple, but this psalm in particular reminds us David used this type of remembering to help the Israelites experience God’s powerful presence.

In 1 Chronicles 16:1-15 we read about David’s worship before the Ark of the Covenant when it was finally placed in the city of Jerusalem after being lost to the Philistines for a period of time.  David is in the presence of God and asks all those present to recall God’s saving acts.  All of this is done in the context of communal liturgical worship with ministers, music, food, and praise.  At the appropriate moment David asks the priests to sing Psalm 105.  This is a beautiful reminder that the God who wishes to dwell among his people remains constantly present and by recalling his saving acts through psalms, songs, scripture and sacrament, he is present once again.

We are finishing our journey through Advent and drawing closer to the incarnation of our Lord.  God, who so desires to be with us takes on human flesh and dwells among us sharing in our weakness and frailty.  During Advent and the coming Christmas celebrations we need to use the gift of sacred remembering to make God present with each worship service we attend.  When the scriptures are proclaimed, God is present.  When the Lord’s supper is celebrated, the saving act of Christ’s death and resurrection is present.  God is not distant in the historical past he is ever present in the “now” of life.  Through communal sacred remembering in the proclamation of word and participation in the sacrament we are drawn into the divine presence of God.  As the Psalm tells us we “seek his face always” and therefore he is always there.  Christmas is about God dwelling among us.  Allow the Holy Spirit to make that more than a past event on a cold Christmas night, make it a present transforming reality for you now!

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!”

There’s No Such Thing as Spiritual Formation for Christians

Spiritual FormationThere’s No Such Thing as Spiritual Formation….

Wow, that is a powerful statement to make by someone who values the spiritual nature of the person in his writings, speaking engagements, and preaching!  As a psychologist I’ve argued extensively that true healing only comes when we include the spiritual nature of our clients in treatment.  How can I say there’s no such thing as spiritual formation?

Last year I attended a conference at Regent University that explored spiritual formation and the role of the Holy Spirit.  The conference was good.  I wasn’t fond of all the speakers, but I enjoyed the conference overall.  Yet, every time I attend a workshop, retreat, or conference dealing with spiritual formation I walk away thinking, “Sometimes Christians just don’t get it.”  Let me explain my frustration.

In the Scriptures Jesus doesn’t talk about spiritual formation in the way we discuss it today.  In fact, neither does Paul, Peter, the author of Hebrews, or any other New Testament writer.  A perfect example of how easily we slip into a very “spiritually reduced” understanding of the human person is found in a statement made by a speaker at the conference mentioned above.  I am paraphrasing, but basically he said,  “We are not physical creatures with a spirit but rather we are spiritual creatures with a body.”   Umm….. no, that’s not correct either.  To be more accurate you’d have to say we’re creatures with a body and a spirit, neither more important than the other!  Actually, if you want to be completely accurate you have to say we’re creatures with bodies, minds, spirits, emotions, and created to flourish in social relationships.  Anything less gives too much credence to that evil I often speak about called “reductionism.”  When we give up a solid holistic understanding of people we reduce them to be something less than God created them to be.  If we think everything about human experience can be explained by physiology we fall into the error of physical reductionism.  If all experiences are about emotions we fall into the error of emotional reductionism.  The same can be said when we rationalize everything (Rational reductionism) or spiritualize everything (Spiritual reductionism). None of these provide an accurate understanding of how God made us.

Because of this, I believe Christians solely focused on spiritual formation tend to misunderstand what Jesus did with his followers.  In my opinion spiritual formation is too reflective of the neoplatonism and gnosticism of the first few hundred years of Christianity.  When we read the Scriptures we don’t see Jesus holding spiritual formation workshops, rather he’s discipling others, an act requiring the engagement and forming of the whole person.  Discipling is a more biblical approach to helping people grow than spiritual formation in the modern sense.  I don’t deny spiritual formation is part of discipling, but it’s exactly that, only part.  For Christians to become mature functioning agents of God they need to care for their physical selves, emotional selves, cognitive selves, and social selves as well as their spiritual selves.  That’s why Jesus challenged the disciples to rest, eat, and care for their physical bodies as well as the physical needs of others.  Jesus challenged them to think about the law and the prophets differently and he challenged them to experience the pain and joy of others while living in communities as brothers and sisters to one another.  Jesus believed these areas of human functioning were as important for Christian maturity as spiritual formation.
Here is my challenge to the church.  Quit trying to simply form the spiritual lives of your members.  Challenge them to eat well and care for their bodies which are temples of the Holy Spirit.  Encourage them to use their minds to think deeply about the world and their role in transforming it.  Ask them to reflect on their emotional life and allow them to experience the joy and pain of living in a fallen world.  Create opportunities for them to engage one another socially and extend that fellowship to others around them in their communities.  Finally, help them grow spiritually.  When the church takes the call to make disciples seriously perhaps we will create an army of holistic people, not spiritual people with bodies, but real people to do the real work of the kingdom of God.