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What In The World Am I Here For?

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I’m told the four most profound philosophical questions are: 1) Who am I? 2) Where did I come from? 3) Where am I going? 4) Why am I here?

If you have an answer to these four questions, you can navigate life successfully. The four things I’ve been writing about lately fit loosely into these four philosophical questions. Here’s what I’ve been writing about:

Identity – who am I?
Belonging – who wants me?
Security – who can I trust?
Competence – what do I do well?
Purpose – why am I alive?

I’ve left the “why am I alive?” question until last. I put it after “what do I do well?” because a person’s competence is often a primary hint to the answer to this purpose question. “Hint” is the operative word there. A good bit of intuition is required for discovering why you’re alive.

In one sense, our purpose has already been established. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” I love this phrase. It’s the finest explanation of the biggest objective for every Christian’s life I’ve ever seen or heard.

There’s another level, another sense, though, in which our purpose is more specific. What does it look like for me to glorify God? Me, specifically. Accounting for my gifts, my talents, my background, my wiring, who I am, individually. How do I, specifically me, glorify God?

My general purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Discovering my specific purpose calls for, well, discovery. Usually, one big part of discovery is experimentation. I believe the quest to discover my specific purpose in life takes intuitive experimentation.

For me, personally, this meant trial and error. At one point I thought I was going to be a high school vocal music teacher. I went to Oklahoma State University my freshman year with that intention. It was far from a wasted year, but during that time, I realized teaching music in a high school wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. It was a noble objective, but it wasn’t for me.

I went to Bible College as a Sophomore believing I didn’t want to be a minister. I was just going to get a degree of some sort and not get all tied down to being a minister. I’d grown up as a preacher’s kid, and frankly, I had seen too much of the underbelly of ministry to want it for myself. There was no money in it. I knew because I’d seen my dad working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet all my life up to that point. And I knew from watching my dad that there’s no pleasing church people.

It didn’t work out that way, though. I did a summer youth ministry out in a tiny town in the Oklahoma panhandle that straddles the Texas-Oklahoma borders, because I needed a summer job, and since one of my good friends at college basically got me the job, I went to Texhoma. It was the most exciting and formative summer of my life. Long story short, my life’s trajectory was re-directed to ministry. For the next 46 years. In spite of the things I already knew (and thought I knew) about ministry life, I worked in full-time, located ministry.

I intentionally use the word “discover” for finding your purpose. It’s not about inventing a purpose, or inheriting a purpose. An invented purpose has a very short half-life. Adversity has a way of pushing an invented purpose off the road and into the ditch. Purpose in the specific sense can’t be inherited. It’s not like the color of your eyes. And it’s not like your grandfather’s gold watch. As much as you would like to pass your purpose on to your child, it’s not inheritable. Each of us must discover it for ourselves.

If you haven’t identified your life-purpose, now’s the time to begin the journey. It’s an especially good time to start your journey if you have kids at home. You can share your journey with them and be an encouragement as they travel their own journey.

The good news is that although discovering your purpose in life is a challenging process, it’s not rocket science. You don’t need an advanced degree or even a ton of background to figure it out.

Here’s where I recommend you start: P R A Y. Ask God to give you a clear sense of how He wants you to spend your one and only life to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Ask Him to educate your intuition. And then keep praying this until you have clarity.

I have friends who tell me that they’ve heard from God in answer to this prayer, directly. Some have heard an audible voice and others an unmistakable inaudible voice that they knew was God. I believe them. Although I’ve never had this experience, I don’t disbelieve my friends.

For me, it was more of a dawning awareness than a voice in a moment. You may find this to be true, too. Whether you have a growing sense of your purpose or have a moment of illumination, I can say with assurance that God wants to clarify your purpose and empower you toward it. This is the message of Ephesians 2:10. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10 are my favorite verses in the Bible. I love the concept that God redeemed and saved me because of His goodness, not mine. And I love that He not only saved me from my sin and the futility of life on my own, but he save me to do good works that He prepared in advance for me to do.

I’ll spare you a complete download of my love for this passage, and just say you and your kids have a purpose that God prepared for you to do. My belief is that this purpose – the good works in verse 10 – is tailored to our unique gifts, wiring, experience, talents and background.

Your passion, the things that actually drive you, the things that burden you, in preacher-talk, the things that break your heart give you hints at your purpose, too. I don’t think passion equals purpose, though. The danger in making them equal is that when your passion wanes (and it will), you’ll feel your purpose going away, too. Sometimes you’ll have to pursue your purpose purely from your will. In my life, these are some of the most important moments of living on purpose. You’re not likely to discover purpose without finding passion connected to it, but they’re not the sane thing.

Once you seriously seek God for His direction and clarity in prayer for yourself, ask Him to also bring a clear sense of what His purpose is for your kid(s).

When you kids are young – grade school and younger – their main purpose is just to learn how to be a human being. They’re learning how to engage with God, life and other people. This is what developmental psychologists call “individuation,” or becoming an individual. I strongly believe that this is plenty of purpose for a child.

But by the time a kid’s in middle school, they’re usually ready to being exploring personal purpose. This is when your encouragement is very powerful. So is your permission.

One of the big pieces of this is, “Do I have permission to fail and not be punished for it?” Permission, in its best form, is a function of security. (Its worst form is a function of selfishness and apathy.) In its best form, you have to be secure enough as the parent to permit your child to fail, and they have to be secure enough to believe that when they fail, they won’t be punished by you for failing. Obviously, when failure on their part comes from direct disobedience to you, there are consequences that will probably involve punishment, or should involve it. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about kids feeling safe to try and fail as part of a process of discovery. This connects with a piece of what I wrote about last time, competence. (https://homeworkwithst.com/2020/02/22/youre-really-good-at-that/) Nobody gets really good at things without failure.

Be observant. Look for things that hint at purpose. What do they seem to be wired for? What brings them satisfaction. Not just happiness, but satisfaction. What does their interest keep coming back to? Do they have a sweet spot yet? If they do, what is it.

I love it when I can live out of my sweet spot. I bet you do, too. The sweet spot is where you get the biggest bang for your buck. The term comes from golf, God’s favorite sport. There’s a spot on the face of every golf club about the size of a dime (or on some clubs, the size of a nickle) where contact with the ball is optimal. When you hit the ball in the sweet spot, you can tell immediately. You feel it before you see the result.

The odds are very strong that your purpose is connected to your sweet spot. When you can live in your sweet spot, you thrive. Unfortunately, you can’t live all your life in your sweet spot. There are too many moving parts in life that conspire against it. The most realistic thing is to do as much as you can within your sweet spot and give your best to the rest.

Like I said, you won’t do everything in your sweet spot, but much of your life purpose work will be done there. So discover your sweet spot and look for it in your kids. You’re looking for a convergence of gifts, wiring, experience, talents and background. Did I mention that this is a strongly intuitive process? Ask God to direct your intuition.

Then (for yourself and for your kids) start experimenting with what you think your purpose might be. Don’t take on Mt. Everest before you climb some less challenging hills, but don’t stay in the flatland.

If your heart’s drawn to the homeless, don’t start with building a housing development for homeless people. Unless you hear God’s voice (and you know it’s Him). If that happens, build! But otherwise, maybe start with lunch bags and survival kits for the folks on the corner with their cardboard signs. Or with working for a shelter as a volunteer. But start somewhere and see where God leads you.

It’s probably obvious that the subject of life purpose is very deep. Like most of what I write about, it’s far deeper than I can cover in a blog post. This one is already too long. But maybe it’ll get you started. Trust God to move you closer all the time to His broad purpose for you, and then to your sweet spot. For you and for your kids. And then experience the real joy of living life on purpose.

You're Really Good At That!

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Can you remember the first time somebody told you “You’re good at that!”? How’d it make you feel? Good, right? When was the last time you heard it? Still feels good, doesn’t it? It’s one of the most powerful things anybody hears, and I don’t think we ever grow out of wanting to hear it. The power gets drained off of it when everybody gets a medal or a trophy for participating, but hearing and knowing that somebody thinks you did well means a ton, even to grown-ups. (Don’t worry. This isn’t an old guy rant about participation trophies. I could go off on it, but I won’t…)

So how did you get good at what you’re good at? An interesting book, Talent Is Overrated, offers that the top performers in any field are as good as they are because they have put in 10,000 hours of practice at their particular thing. But not just any old 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours of specific and excellent practice. It’s not plunking around or just piddling. This is 10,000 hours of intentional and directed practice. Which partially explains why not every professional, even professionals who are quite good at what they do, are at the top of their field.

I’m not sure I’ve ever put in 10,000 hours of practice for anything. No offense, but I’m pretty sure you never put in that many hours, either. That’s 1250 8-hour days. Which is about 3 1/2 years. That’s a ton of practice!

Thankfully, not all of us need to be at the top of our field. But, still, being recognized for your accomplishments, even if you’re not taking home the $1,00,000+ income from it feels good. It motivates you to keep pressing on with your best effort. On the other hand, not being recognized does the opposite. It almost always demotivates.

Right. Back to the question, how did you get good at what you’re good at?

Raise your hand if you were just excellent at whatever you’re good at the very first time you attempted it. There are savants in the world of whom this is true. But they’re in such short supply that the percentage they comprise of the general population is nearly zero. Most of the rest of us had to work through a process of failure, correction, failure, more correction, forward progress. Rinse, repeat.

For some of us, there are things that took fewer rinses and repeating than other things. But for virtually all of us, this process was what we went through to discover and then build a level of skill and competency.

Have you been to a Middle School band concert lately? Unless it was hosted by the Savant School of Music, it was probably a bit of a gut-wrencher. Especially if you’re a musician. That’s the nature of getting good at things. You start out and go for a good while not being good at it. There’s a huge and wonderful difference between a Middle School band concert and a University band concert.

Competence isn’t THE holy grail of the good life. There are other things that are more important. But having competence and being recognized for it is a need none of us outgrow. Even in our mature adult years, we still want to (I’d even say we feel we need to) be recognized for what we contribute. I suppose the more mature a person gets, the less driven by this they are, but I still say we never outgrow the need to be good at something and to be noticed for it.

When children are young, They feel this need strongly. They want to be good at something, and they want to be recognized for it. There’s no rigid standard for how and when this happens, but you can be sure that at some point in their development, your kid(s) will stretch toward achievement. This sets you in a sometimes awkward position of having to help shepherd them toward attempting things that they might be good at, and away from things they’re not so good at. There are a couple things that make this awkward. First of all, you’re not likely to instantly know what they would be good at. You might, but the odds favor you having to try more than one thing.

The other thing that makes it awkward is that you may have to break the news to them that they’re not really cut out for the thing they’re trying to do. This is a delicate thing. If you tell them in a harsh way, you can crush them and they will carry the wounds of this through their adult life. But if you’re too soft, they may not get it. It takes grace and wisdom to do this, and lots of both.

We’re working against some cultural trends on this. One is the idea that “You can be anything you want to be.” I get that the point is to shoot for the stars, because even if you never reach a star, you’ll go farther than if you hadn’t tried. The problem, though, is that there are things a person actually can’t do or be. For instance, a short white boy (me) with a 2.5 inch vertical leap, who doesn’t have a 3-point shot is never going to play in the NBA. For talent to be developed, there’s got to be talent. So there are things a person isn’t going to be able to be or do, skills that aren’t within reach. If you’re tone deaf, you’re probably not going to be the 1st violinist in the Philharmonic. (Although, Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony while being totally deaf, so there’s a chance that even with real handicaps of various kinds one can still do amazing things.)

My point here is that there’s got to be a careful balance of idealism and realism. Idealism promotes the positive and powerful idea that you can do something great. Realism promotes the sometimes not-so-positive idea that you can’t do every great thing, just because you want to. And in a family, guess who gets to help the kid(s) figure this balance out? Yep. You.

Where do you start with this? Great question. There’s more to a really good answer than I can write here, but let’s start tugging at it.

There’s some low-hanging fruit to start with. Sports is one. There are lots of sports to choose from. You may have to fight the desire to get your kid into the sport you did, or one you wish you had done. But you’ve got to start with your child, their interests, their general make-up. If you child is an extrovert, a team sport might be a better fit than an individual sport. If they’re an introvert, an individual sport might fit them better. And then there’s the possibility that they have neither the interest nor the latent tools to make a good run at sports.

Music is another low-hanging fruit. There are so many approaches to music. Dozens of instruments, dozens of styles of music, hundreds of contexts for it. If you’ve got a trumpet in the basement or attic, that doesn’t necessarily mean that this should automatically be your child’s instrument. The same principle applies here as in sports. Start with your kid and their interests and general make-up. And then there’s the financial aspect. Good musical instruments are not cheap! This is where idealism and realism sometimes collide. The financial piece has to be factored in. My advice is that you don’t start your child off with an expensive, professional grade instrument. Start with a reasonably reliable and low priced one, and if they excel with that, move up toward a better one.

There is a form of music that has almost zero cost. Singing. Almost everybody can sing. Obviously some people are better at it than others. And if your child shows interest and aptitude for it, you will eventually be spending money on it in the form of formal training. But the joy of musical expression through singing doesn’t have to be expensive.

Art is another low-hanging fruit. Painting, drawing, even doodling can be a wonderful and expressive outlet. I was never good at this, though I wanted to be and tried. Today, when I draw something to illustrate a principle in my counseling, there are times that even I can’t tell what it is.

Art goes beyond painting and drawing, though, when you think of it as “the arts.” Dance, for instance. Drama, too. Artistic endeavors of many kinds fit here.

There are so many other things that your kid(s) might be good at. Math, Science, English.

My youngest daughter had a rare talent from the time she was in preschool. It was so natural to her that I don’t think she thought of it at a talent. And at one point, she so wanted to have other outstanding talents, but had them only marginally, which was very sad and discouraging for her. The talent? Making and nurturing friendships.

Today, edging toward her late 30’s, she’s had a 15 year career as a children’s pastor to more than 500 elementary school kids, which means she had more than a hundred volunteers to recruit, equip and nurture, not to mention a paid staff to manage. In my 45 years of ministry in churches, I have never known or seen anyone who could do this better than Jenny did. She’s a relationship genius. For the last couple of years, she’s been the City Director for the Cupcake Girls in Las Vegas. It’s incredibly hard work for many reasons, but the biggest challenge is that she has to do her work through volunteers. She’s great at it. I would say this even if she wasn’t my daughter. She knows how to lead and nurture people without manipulating them. She’s one of my heroes. (If you’re curious about the Cupcake Girls, check them out at https://thecupcakegirls.org/)

Your kids’ talent may be rare and outside the normal box, like my Jenny’s. So try to keep from letting the box box you and them in.

The thing is they need to discover their talents and gifts and derive satisfaction and fulfillment from them, and you get to help them in the journey of discovery and development.

HERE’S WHAT YOU DO NOT WANT TO DO: Don’t ever define you kid by what they’re good at. What they do is NOT who they are. It’s only an expression of who they are. Don’t fall for the temptation to value them for how good they can do what they’re good at. If you do, you’re setting them up for a potential lifetime of disappointment and endless effort. And you’ll be cheating yourself out of the love and affection you can give to and receive from them.

START HERE. With a prayer that might go something like this:

“Lord, you know (your kid’s name) perfectly. You know how they’re wired because You wired them. Give me wisdom and grace to help them discover their gifts and talents.”

It’s not a big theological treatise. It’s not a poetic psalm. It’s just a cry for help from the only One Who can actually help, and the One Who most wants to help. Lean into the promise He made in James 1:5. You might want to print that verse out and put it where you can see it often. And then pray a simple prayer every time it comes to mind. Trust that God wants to answer that prayer, and pay attention for it when He does.

Who Can I Trust?

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A few decades ago corporate trainers did an exercise called the Trust Fall. If you got any kind of corporate training, I’ll bet you’ve done one. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s simple. One member of the group stands on a chair facing away from the rest of the team and closes their eyes. Then they fall backward into the waiting arms of the rest of the team.

The objective of the exercise was to dramatically illustrate the value of trust. Do you trust your team enough to do an eyes-closed backward free-fall into their arms? The risk-takers on your team will have little trouble with this. They like the thrill of a blind backward fall.

The risk averse, though, have a very different experience. Some will start to fall backward, and then catch themselves several times before they finally accomplish the fall. All the risk-takers just laugh and laugh.

If you had a good facilitator, they would walk you through a discussion to debrief and harvest the lessons from falling and catching. And there were lots of lessons in it for both the fallers and the catchers.

Back in the day, my cohorts in Youth Ministry and I “harvested” the idea and applied it to church camp team-building activities. You don’t have to have a Doctorate in Theology to figure out how to relate the thoughts and feelings of the Trust Fall to faith issues and trusting God.

The big question in the Trust Fall is, “Can I trust the people behind me to catch me?” Your level of anxiety or security over the fall depends on how you answer that question. High trust equals high security; low trust or uncertainty equals anxiety and insecurity.

How much and why you trust the people in your life is one of the Five Most Important Things in your life. I’ve written about two of them: Identity and Belonging. Who am I? Who wants me? (https://homeworkwithst.com/2020/02/11/when-your-needs-dont-get-met-and-when-youre-not-meeting-your-kids-needs/ and https://homeworkwithst.com/2020/02/12/who-wants-me/) And now a third question: WHO CAN I TRUST?

Virtually all the dynamics of your marriage and family stand on the answer to that question. Your kids are constantly asking it, although they may not ask it with words. Your spouse is, too. So are you. Nothing shapes your choices, your behavior, your emotions quite like the answer to the question, “Who can I trust?”

Your kids come into the world having to trust you. They’re helpless. They don’t know any better than to trust you. They have no filter to help them determine who they should and should not trust. But they gather data to construct this filter quickly. Not long after they recover from the birthing experience, they begin asking the crucial question, long before they even have spoken language, “Who can I trust?”

That question quickly becomes, “Can I trust you?” I think it’s one of the most important questions in a kid’s life, because how they answer it will shape their relationship with you more profoundly than any other question. Perhaps nothing is more profound than how safe your kid feels with you.

SECURITY is one of the biggest needs your kids feel, if not the biggest need. The more secure they feel, the healthier their choices and behaviors will be. And, of course, the less secure they feel, the more unhealthy their choices and behaviors will be.

One thing security influences is how a kid interprets failure and risk. This is huge. When a kid feels there’s no margin for failure, they won’t take risks – or not many, anyway. Or else eventually they’ll take maximum risks, which is a form of rebellion against the limits they feel have been put on them.

Here’s why this is so important: nobody develops skills and competency without risk. It’s virtually impossible to learn anything that matters without at least occasional failure. For lots of complex skills, it takes hundreds of failures and corrections. If a kid doesn’t feel permitted to fail, guess what they won’t do? Exactly. They won’t risk it to learn or develop skills and competencies. And if they don’t develop skills and competencies, they’ll never be ready to leave the nest and have a life of their own.

So the thing a parent has to figure out is how to structure the culture, norms and expectations of their family life to have appropriate boundaries AND to provide security enough to permit failure so that learning can take place. This is really difficult. If you ever come across advice that offers “3 Simple Ways” to do this, don’t bother with it. There are no 3 Simple Ways. It’s way too complex for 3 Simple Ways. Like nuclear energy is way too complex for 3 Simple Ways to make it safe and cheap.

I’m putting this in all caps, underlined and boldface because it’s the most important thing I’m offering on this: HOW WELL YOU ARE ABLE TO WORK WITHIN THE DYNAMICS OF THIS COMPLEX THING OF PROVIDING SECURITY FOR YOUR KIDS DEPENDS ON HOW SECURE YOU FEEL YOU ARE. If you feel secure, you’re in a much better place to offer security to your kids. And the opposite is also true. If you feel insecure, your kids will pick this up from you like the flu in a kindergarten classroom.

The balance required for this is very delicate and tricky. Do you feel safe enough to fail? If you don’t, they won’t. And do you have boundaries in place to keep you from failing in terminal fashion? There are certain physical risk-boundaries that are essential. Don’t jump out of planes without a parachute. Don’t try to take Dead Man’s Curve at 90 MPH. Don’t gargle with Draino. But my experience is that the vast majority of these terminal failures are moral in nature. There’s no wiggle room with God’s revealed moral will. It provides fixed points. They’re permanent boundaries.

But there’s so much room within these boundaries! Within them, we’re free to choose to take risks and grow. We’re free to take chances. Knowing this, and living within these boundaries is where our security comes from.

And when we either wander outside or crash our way through His moral boundaries, He promises we can experience forgiveness when we confess our sin (1 John 1:9). This isn’t a Get Out Of Jail Free card. There are still consequences for our sin. But not being forgiven isn’t one of them. And there’s security in this. The theology of security is deep and wide. Too deep and too wide to treat in a blog post. If you haven’t pondered it, now would be a good time to dive in and study it for yourself.

I’ll land the plane here: coming from your own security, building security into your kids, is one of the most difficult challenges of parenting. It’s also the most rewarding when you see it coming together.

It’s a process, a journey, not an event, though. Start the journey with a prayer. I don’t like it when people put words in my mouth, so I don’t want to do that to you, but if you’re struggling to know how to pray this, here’s one way.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for the high honor of being trusted by You with these (this) kid (kids). Please grow my security in You and Your love for me so that I can draw from it to nurture security in my kids. I want to model for my kids the security I want them to have. Make me wise to know what boundaries nurture security and trust. Give me all I need to walk this walk because it’s often so difficult and confusing. Thank You for wanting to answer this prayer. I put my trust in You for this.”

Public Service Announcement for GUYS

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Gentlemen, be alerted to the fact that TOMORROW IS VALENTINE’S DAY! Now is the time to get out on your lunch break and purchase something nice for your wife or sweetie. If you’re married, they’d better be the same person.

Lowes or Home Depot are NOT stores to shop for this. As hard as it is to explain, a nice power tool doesn’t trip most women’s trigger. If your wife/sweetie doesn’t fit this stereotype, more power to you (and her), but the vast majority of women are not excited about cordless power tools. Take it from an old guy with experience.

And do yourself a favor and buy your Valentine’s Day card at an actual store, not a gas station or the 711. It’s inexplicable, but women can tell the difference between cards purchased at these places.

I’m just trying to keep your bacon out of the fire.

An effort – even a lame one – at a Valentine’s Day gift is better than no effort at all. Take it from me. I know. The worst Valentine’s Day I’ve ever experienced was my first as a married man. When the Day slipped up on me.

I’ve been madly in love with my wife from the start. I still am. I was disgustingly romantic through our courtship and engagement. I wrote poems and long, sloppy letters to her. I gave her cheesy little (cheap) gifts. Our friends all rolled their eyes at me.

But when we got married, or more accurately, a couple of months after the wedding, it was like someone flipped the romance switch in my brain off. I have no explanation for this, let alone an excuse. Only regret for it.

In our first year of marriage, we were finishing our Sr. year of Bible College, living a 30 minute drive (when the traffic cooperated) from campus, with 7:30 a.m. classes Tuesday through Friday. I have never been a morning person. Getting up in time to be dressed and in my right mind for the drive to school was always a challenge. Often I did this somnambulitorily. My first 30 minutes, I was totally fuzzy-headed and completely on autopilot.

Debbie, my wonderful wife, did not have the same difficulty with mornings as I did. This is important to the story.

On that fateful first St. Valentine’s Day of our married life, she got up early, made a lovely breakfast, set the table lovingly, with a card at my place, and our little cassette player (remember those?) loaded and ready to play the recording of our wedding ceremony.

I stumbled in on my usual schedule, a couple of minutes before we needed to be out the door for school, grunted and said, “What’s this for?”

This was not my finest hour.

Debbie had to tell me that it was Valentine’s Day. She wasn’t ugly about it, but she was hurt. Well, duah.

The drive to school was silent, except for the roar of our little car’s engine.

Since I’d forgotten it was Valentine’s Day, I hadn’t bought a Valentine’s Day card. I’d bought no gift (we barely had cash enough to put gas in the car and food in the fridge). And by the time we got to school for our 7:30 classes, it was way too late to get either. It would have only made things worse. At least that’s what I told myself.

Now, 45 years later, I look back on that sad day and wonder what kind of brain injury I must have sustained to have forgotten the second most important day in the first year of marriage. I have no excuse and no alibi.

(If you’re wondering what the first most important day in the first year of marriage is, ask your wife. She’ll tell you it’s your first anniversary.)

I’ve successfully remembered Valentine’s Day every year since. But that was the last time Debbie made Valentine’s Day breakfast. After all these years, I have no idea what landfill the cassette tape of our wedding ceremony is in. Even if it turned up, I don’t have a cassette player to play it on, anyway.

Brothers, I tell you this cautionary tale for two reasons. First of all, for its cathartic function. Confession is good for my soul. And second, to remind you of a fact that is easy for guys to forget: your wife needs to know that she’s your Valentine. Seems easy, right? It’s not. There are thousands of other pressing issues crowding this important fact out of your conscious thoughts. This is a need, not just a want. So don’t blow past it on your way to whatever important thing is next on your to-do list.

It’s not just about you trying to be a little more romantic. And it’s not about the variety of romance that most guys attempt: foreplay. I could say a lot about this, but I won’t. If you don’t get it, it will take more words than I’ve got left for this blog. Look it up on Google or something.

You wife/sweetie needs to know that she’s not an afterthought. One of her biggest needs is to be reminded often that she’s the second highest priority in your life. Higher than your job or your hobbies. Higher than your buddies. Higher, even, than your kids. The only One who registers higher on the priority scale is God. It goes Father, Son, Holy Spirit, your wife.

You may not understand the impact of this. And it may not make sense to you. Well, get over it. So much of her security is in this.

Actually, you don’t need to fully understand this. You just need to act according to it’s value.

I know it’s late in the day that you’re reading this. You may not see this before your lunch break. It could be way late in the day. You may need to get in your car and drive a while to find a store, other than a convenience store, that’s open 24 hours. But do yourself a favor and get in the car and find the store and a nice card. Make it the front porch for telling your girl that she’s the love of your life. And then figure out a way to follow it up with loving words and actions that will say it loud and clear.

Who Wants Me?

When I was in the 9th grade, there was a clique of kids who ran together, sat together at lunch, sat together at ballgames, shared the same vibe. They were the cool kids. They actually referred to themselves as “The In Crowd.” I think this was a combination of adolescent hubris and a song that was hot on the top 40 charts and radio stations we could get at the time.

One very important thing about The In Crowd was that you had to be invited into it. You didn’t request entry. And you way didn’t just try to push your way in.

For all the wrong reasons (which I can see now, but couldn’t see then), I dreamed of being invited to sit with The In Crowd. Pretty much all of us 9th graders at Stillwater Jr. High School really wanted to be in The In Crowd. I’m pretty sure you had an In Crowd at your school, although they may not have named themselves as clearly as the one at my Jr. High.

I’m not sure we ever outgrow a form of that Jr. High dream of being in the In Crowd, because I don’t think we every really outgrow the question of whether we belong. That’s what was at the heart of the In Crowd allure. “Do they want me?”

Over time, the names of these In Crowds change, but I haven’t seen them go away. They get more sophisticated and more complex, but they don’t go away.

Some people seem to have settled this issue. They seem to be immune to the compulsion to belong. Sometimes they surround themselves with people who they know accept them and have already given them the “belonging card.” This can feel really good. Less mature people will surround themselves (or try to) with only these people so that they can control away the risk that there will be someone who doesn’t want them in their circle.

Or they grow to a point that they don’t need a “belonging card” from other people. In the best case with this, they don’t need the “belonging card” because they’re secure enough in their own identity (remember the whole identity thing from my last post? In case you don’t remember or didn’t get to read it, here’s a link: https://homeworkwithst.com/). In the worst case, they just don’t feel the need to be bothered with other people. This is a form of selfishness. Don’t be that person.

The rest of us are growing into knowing where we belong – in our family, our friendships, our career and other pursuits, and most importantly, in our walk with God. It’s a journey. A bumpy one for most of us.

If the question, “Who wants me?” isn’t answered in our family of origin, it will dog us through all our relationships until we finally find someone who wants us. This can take a lifetime. That’s why it’s high on my hierarchy of needs. (If you’re conversant with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it fits on his Love and Belonging level.)

In a perfect world, every child born into a family would hear clearly and often that they are wanted. Wanted by their parents. Wanted by their siblings. Wanted by their grand parents. In an ideal world, they would have the constant embrace of belonging, and they would know they’re deeply loved and accepted.

This just in: this isn’t a perfect world.

Lots of grown people are still searching for someone to assure them that they’re wanted. They hop and bounce from one relationship to another in hopes that this one is the one. They’re easy marks for manipulators and users, because they’ll put up with almost anything to get the sense of belonging they’re longing for.

I don’t imagine I need to make any more of a case for the idea that this belonging thing, this question of who wants me, is real and a real need. Your life’s story and you own life’s scars probably tell you it is.

Not having this need met will create roadblock after roadblock for living a fulfilling life. It will get in the way of every good thing, in one way or another.

So how do we give our kids what they need to answer the question they may not even know how to ask, “Who wants me?” I’m glad you asked.

There are two primary ways we do this. First, through our words. Second, through our actions.

Your words are more powerful than you probably realize. A kind word to your kid at the right time is emotional oxygen for them. A cross word at the wrong time is like crimping the oxygen tube. I once read it take 12 positive things to compensate for one negative thing. I’m not sure how you could verify this research, but my experience tells me it’s right. Negative words carry such a heavy meaning for our kids. Don’t keep score on it, but know that both your positive and negative words are powerful. So leverage the power of positive words.

It’s a simple thing to tell your kids, “I’m so glad I get to be your mommy (or daddy).” Especially when they’re little. Granted, there are days when it’s stretching the truth a bit to say it. Even great kids can be tough to deal with sometimes. But if you go to the very bottom line, you’re glad you’re here with each other. And when you tell them, you fill their emotional oxygen tank.

Don’t imagine that as kids get older they need to hear this message less. Truth is, they probably need it more as they get older. You’ll have to say it more cleverly, and you may get surface messages from them that you’re embarrassing them by saying it, but they need it. So tell them with words that you’re glad they’re your kid. Tell them more often than you think you need to. This isn’t something you want to meter out by drops. Make it a fire hydrant.

That old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” is true, though. Your words matter, but your actions may be even more heavily weighted for meaning than your words. How do actions say, “I want you”?

I took a new job a while back, and when I got to my office for the first day, there was a little care package waiting for me on my desk. Nothing huge or elaborate. Just a few things that said, “We’re glad you’re here!” There was also a card that said, “We’re glad you’re here,” just in case I missed the meaning.

As childish as it may seem, it really made me feel good that somebody had gone out of their way to get to the store and pick up the things in this care package.

You can’t give your kid a care package every day. The job I referred to didn’t give me another care package after my first day. It would have been a little creepy if they did. But you can maintain the spirit and sense of the care package message through kind actions toward your kids. Simple things, like hugs. Like impromptu outings for something they think is fun. Things like occasionally surprising them with inexpensive gifts that say, “I’m glad you’re here!” Boys don’t generally respond to these things in the same way girls do, but even boys love to feel you want them. So when things are going fairly smoothly, take advantage of it and initiate.

When things aren’t going smooth, though, that’s where the men are separated from the boys and the women are separated from the girls. When things feel like they’re going south, it gets really hard to find the motivation to send messages that you want the kid who’s driving the bus south. In my experience, this usually happens as kids enter the teen years.

When you find yourself up against it with a kid who seems impervious to your most well-intended messages of belonging, START WITH PRAYER. I know, this is a real churchy idea. But it works when nothing else does. Ask God to give you a deeper and more intense love for your kid. Ask Him to help you confront your own anger and disappointment, and probably pride, and remind you of the fact that when they’re least lovable they most need your love.

Ask God to move in your kid’s life. Ask Him to direct your kid into relationships with people who will help him discover their true identity. Ask God to shape them and remind them that even when it doesn’t feel like it, they are loved and accepted by you and Him.

And then one thing to NOT do. DO NOT JUDGE THEM. There are probably a few opposites of belonging. Judging is one of them. I’m not talking about being happy about whatever behaviors they do and choices they make. I’m not saying that you need to pretend that what’s wrong is right. What I’m saying is being judgmental toward them will drive them farther away and faster than anything else you might do. Even though you can’t accept all their behavior, you’ve got to find a way to accept them. This is another thing to ask God for.

This belonging thing is so psychologically and theologically deep, I’ll never be able to adequately cover the subject in a blog. I think I’ve proved that here… But as with pretty much everything I write about, I really do believe that if you partner with God, He will help you navigate through even the choppiest waters. He wants your kid(s) to know to their depths that He wants them, and that you do, too. So ask Him to give you the grace and direction you need to say and show them, “You belong here! I want you!”

When Your Needs Don't Get Met, and when you're not meeting your kids' needs…

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That’s a long title for a blog. It probably violates all the rules about good blog titles. Sorry. I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it. Bad title or not, this is one of the most significant issues any parent and/or spouse can deal with.

Here’s the deal. If you don’t feel your needs are being met, the result, the behavioral-emotional outcome, will be FRUSTRATION. If your kids don’t feel their needs are being met, the same thing happens. Except it will be uglier, because until kids are on the far side of puberty, they won’t be able to articulate their frustration in words. They’ll use behaviors instead of words. And, by the way, these behaviors won’t be happy ones. Virtually all developmental psychologist agree that your kids will try to get your attention to let you know that they’re not getting their needs met, using behavior as their primary language. But here’s the hard part. Kids don’t always know what need(s) aren’t getting meet. They just feel the FRUSTRATION of not having their needs met. And then, sometimes (actually, lots of times), a FRUSTRATION FLYWHEEL gets kicked off and you and your kids frustrate each other into infinity. It’s not fun.

No small bucket can hold all the needs that humans have. But Maslow comes about as close as anybody. If you took Intro to Psychology, you’ll be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Here’s a graphic representation of it:

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I think he was right. There is a hierarchy. It starts with Physiological needs and runs upward to Self-actualization. Thanks, Abe. This is helpful stuff.

I wrote about 5 needs that have to be met for anybody have a balanced and fulfilling life in my last blog installment: https://homeworkwithst.com/2020/02/07/if-you-dont-feel-these-5-needs-are-being-met-youre-toast/

If these 5 needs aren’t getting met, you’re toast. And if your kids aren’t getting these needs met, they’re toast, which means you’re really toast, if you’re the parent. Or teacher. Or coach. Or Youth Pastor. Etc…

So how do you help your kids feel these needs are being met? That’s the Million Dollar Question.

Let’s start with what I think these 5 primary needs look like in their own hierarchy:
Identity – who am I?
Belonging – who wants me?
Security – who can I trust?
Competence – what do I do well?
Purpose – why am I alive?

First, identity. How do you help your kid(s) feel their need for identity is being met? In some ways, you give your kids their identity. If they’re yours biologically, they got your genes. That’s the nature side of it. If they live with you, they’re getting their basic ways and means for relating to life from you. That’s the nurture side. In some ways, though, you can’t give them their identity. You can only help them discover it and then reinforce it.

I think there are 2 ways this identity thing needs to be addressed: 1) who you are because you’re a part of our family; 2) who you are because you’re a part of God’s family.

I think the finest way to address the “our family” side is through a Family Mission Statement. I’ll never forget the sacred moment I observed my friend, David, have a teachable moment with one of his sons, many years ago. I don’t remember the particular incident that caused the moment to surface, but I hope I never forget what David said. “We’re Sheltons,” he said. “We don’t steal. We don’t cheat. We don’t hurt each other.” It was one of the best family mission statements I’ve ever heard. Of course, there was more to being a Shelton than theses three simple things. But these three were easy to communicate and easy to understand. They explained in simple language three essential things being a Shelton meant – three behavioral targets.

If you want, you can write a Family Mission Statement, or a Family Constitution, for your family. I highly recommend it. It will take time and effort, but it will pay off big time over time. If you’re not in the habit of writing mission statements, this could be an overwhelming assignment. Don’t lock up. Here’s an article that will give you lots to work with on it: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/creating-a-family-culture-how-and-why-to-create-a-family-mission-statement/

Whether you write a Family Constitution or not, you’ve got to have a set of character qualities and personal attributes that you want to be reflected in your family. Ask your kids what they would like to be known for. “When people think of us, what do we want them to think?” Little kids may have to be coached quite a lot on this, but the coaching can be fun. Let them name qualities they want your family to be known for.

Then remind your whole family who they are, every chance you get. Bedtime and meal time are two of the best times for this, I think. Do this often. Eventually your kids will be able to fill in your sentences before you do.

That’s the front end of them having a sense of family identity. Then it’s a matter of intentionally modeling it as the parent(s), and calling it out when you see it in your kids. Train yourself to recognize it in them. At some seasons of family life, you’ll have to work pretty hard to see it in them, but train yourself to look for it. And then say something encouraging about it to them. Out loud. The other side of the coin is that when you don’t see it when you should, call that out, too. But don’t beat them up about it. That won’t motivate them to live up to their family identity. It’ll push them to push back, and will probably result in some form of rebellion or passive-aggressive behavior that will get you the opposite outcomes you want.

Who they are in God’s Family is essential here, too. For little ones, the most important message they need to hear over and over again is that they are loved by Jesus, and that Jesus’ Daddy, God, loves them to the moon and back. It’s a simple message that contains the key to all of life.

As they grow older (like 2nd or 3rd grade, usually), they can start understanding that God believes some very big things about them. Things they may not even believe about themselves. What God believes about them (and you, too!) is the most important things they (and you) need. They fall into three broad categories: you are ACCEPTED, you are SECURE in His love, and you are SIGNIFICANT.

I believe this is pivotal for every person who says “Yes” to Jesus. In my counseling, I very often ask, “If you believed about yourself what God says He believes, how different would your life be?” Nearly everybody says they’re sure sure it would be different, but almost nobody knows exactly how different, and nearly no one actually knows what God says He believes about them.

My good friend, Joe Hardenbrook, put together a great tool for discovering what God says He believes about you, and I’ve “harvested” it (with his permission) half-a-dozen times. It’s one of my favorite teaching and counseling tools. It fits on one side of an 8.5 x 11 page. If you would like to have a copy of it, I’d be glad to email you a PDF of it. Just comment that you would like it, and leave me an email address. I promise I won’t use your email address for anything but sending you the Identity Card I’m talking about here. If you’re already conversant with what God says He believes about you, you’re in a great place to help your kids discover this for themselves. But if you’re not quite there, let me know. I’d love to give you this ID Tool.

Another friend, John Lynch, says, “God’s nuts about you. When He thinks about you, He smiles. He’s crazy about you.”

This was a hard thing for me to believe about myself when I first heard it. I know me. I know all the stuff that couldn’t possibly make God smile when He thinks about me. There are days when I don’t even like me. It was really hard to believe God’s nuts about me.

But He is. He’s not waiting for me to get good enough that He can give me some kind of a nod of approval. Everything that needs to be done for this to happen has already happened. He took care of it 2000 years ago on a cross on hill in the Middle East. When Jesus said, “It is finished!” the debt for my sins and bad behavior was absolutely and completely paid. All of it.

All my garbage and sin was all in the future at that point. But it was all paid for. Completely. Totally.

This is the deepest and most profound theology of all. If we don’t get this, nothing else about life will work. Your identity in Christ is THE most important thing you’ll ever settle. And it’s THE most important thing you can ever help your kids settle.

Meeting the essential needs of your kids starts with helping them settle the question, “Who am I?” You’re on holy ground as you partner with God to help them own the answer to this profound question.

I chose the word “partner” intentionally. Because you’re in a partnership with the Creator of all there is. You’re not on your own for this. God is your partner. No one wants you and your kids to get this more than He does. So put your hand in His and start this fabulous and transformational journey.

And oh yeah. Make sure you let me know you want the Identity Card…

If You Don't Feel These 5 Needs Are Being Met, You're Toast

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A CAUTION: You may think this is highly philosophical and not very applicational, but stay with me on it. I think it has a huge application.

I read an interesting article this morning that identified 5 basic needs that everybody has. Here’s a cut from it:

Human beings are designed with five core needs – five desires that must be met for us to live lives of wholeness:
Security – who can I trust?
Identity – who am I?
Belonging – who wants me?
Purpose – why am I alive?
Competence – what do I do well?

I’d arrange them differently, but I think the list is right. When we have these needs met, we’re set up to give our best and do our best in whatever situation we find ourselves. The opposite is true, too. To whatever degree these needs are not being met, we’ll be unable to bring our best and do our best.

I believe this is true for you, your kids, and your spouse. All God’s Children need these five basic things connecting in our lives and empowering our responses to life as it happens to us. Everybody. But most of us haven’t thought about it long enough or deeply enough to figure it out. So let’s think about it.

There are a couple of big things here. First of all, we FEEL these needs either met or unmet. This is a feeling thing. It’s not a thinking thing. Thinking almost always follows feeling. It absolutely does in terms of our needs. I’ll write it again. We FEEL our needs are either met or unmet.

This is tricky because most of us have been trained or have trained ourselves to either over-value or under-value our feelings. I fall in the second group. When I was young(er), I was in the first group – very emotionally driven. My feelings were often behind the steering wheel of the car of my life. It was sort of fun, actually. Right up until my feelings drove us into the ditch or off a cliff. If you’re a feelings person, you know what I mean. After a few dramatic crashes, I decided I didn’t want that anymore. So to keep it from happening, I decided that I’d just try and not let my emotions factor in anywhere. I was unsuccessful. They still routinely got back behind the steering wheel. Usually at the worst possible time. Anybody know what I mean?

To have no feelings, to shut off your emotions in an attempt to protect yourself and others almost never gets you what you want. You’ll be protected all right, but you’ll also be emotionally inaccessible to people you need to and want to be connected with. When you armor up against the potential hurts emotions open you up to, you also armor up against the beautiful and enriching things your emotions make possible in your relationships.

So emotions and feelings are more than a little problematic. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Unless you learn how to educate them. This is where thinking comes into the equation.

The second tricky thing is that we generally act out of these feelings without even knowing that they are the prime motivators for our behaviors. Ever had an outburst of some kid – bad or good – and afterward wonder, “Where’d that come from?!” Everybody has. Mature people have it happen less often than immature people, but everybody has this happen to them. Our feelings are strong motivators. And they are quick! They can get behind the steering wheel in a nano-second.

There’s a whole lot more on the whole feeling/thinking thing, and about coping with emotions. I’ll write more about it another time. But you have to factor this in when you begin dealing with your 5 compelling needs.

I wrote that I’d put them in a different order than the article did. Three’s a reason for this. These needs have a sort of hierarchy. Here’s my order:

Identity – who am I?
Belonging – who wants me?
Security – who can I trust?
Competence – what do I do well?
Purpose – why am I alive?

I am convinced that the greatest need humans have is to know who they are. For Christians, knowing who God says they are is the absolute starting point for living the deep, full and abundant life God has for us. If you don’t know who God says you are, you’re saddled with whatever everybody else in your life says you are. Most of the time, they’re projecting their autobiography on you in a very flawed fashion.

Believing about yourself what God says He believes about you is the most empowering and freeing thing you’ll experience in your life. But you’ll never discover this for yourself until you know your true identity. I could camp out here, too. I believe the whole identity thing is so central to a person’s healthy and whole development that it trumps almost every other issue in your life. This is another thing I’ll write more about later…

When you have a settled sense of who you are, the next thing you need to know is if you’re accepted. Do I belong? Who wants me? And is there anything that will make you not want me? If there is, what would that be?

For most of us, belonging and acceptance have always been conditional. I love the idea of unconditional acceptance, but it’s a really hard thing to pull off. I’ve known a few very mature people who come close to actual unconditional acceptance, but no one is there all the time. Truly unconditional acceptance is an absolute only with God. There is nothing you can do that will make Him love you any more than He already does, and nothing you can do will make Him love you any less than He already does. This is called GRACE, my favorite word in the Bible. Unfortunately, few of us grew up sensing we belonged unconditionally. Lots of us are still trying to figure out if how good we are and how well we produce or perform is enough to get the nod from the important people in our lives.

When you feel you belong, that you’re wanted, when you’re convinced in your heart and mind that you’re accepted, you find security. And that gives you the ability to trust. Knowing who to trust, and how much to trust them is one of the most important things a person will ever grow into. This connects with the idea I wrote about belonging and unconditional acceptance. Only God is absolutely reliable. Only God warrants absolute and complete trust. There are no limits to his reliability. But everybody else has limits.

Our security is directly proportional to how reliably we can trust the people in our life. This is big. It effects every relationship you have. If your need for security isn’t being addressed, you will walk with an emotional limp in all your relationships.

I put competence after security and before purpose for a reason. I’ll only be able to develop my competence when I’m convinced I’m secure and safe enough to fail. If I don’t think it’s safe to fail, I’ll never risk it. An no competence comes without failure.

When I have these four things at work in a reasonable measure in my life, then I can begin making a difference in my world. I can discover and apply myself to purpose. I can begin to answer that most vexing of all philosophical questions, “Why and I alive?”

I’m already over my word count, so I’ll close. Next time I’ll write about why I think addressing these 5 needs is so essential in Marriages and Families, and toss a few ideas on how to leverage meeting these needs in your kids and spouse, and in yourself, too.