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You Make Me So Mad

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I’m pretty sure you’ve said and heard these words. If you haven’t, I’d love to hear from you and discover your secret for never saying them, so I can get a glimpse into a perfect life. If I was a betting man, I’d bet you’ve heard them from your kids, from your spouse, from your parents, from co-workers, team mates, from yourself.

A long time ago I read (in a book whose title and author I can’t remember) that no one and no thing can actually make you mad. The academic term for an idea like this is “counter intuitive,” which means it sounds stupid when you first hear it or read it. It was certainly counter intuitive when I first read it.

I could instantly think of a dozen people and things that routinely made me mad. Car problems, money problems, math problems. Don’t tell me no one can make me mad. My world is populated with lots of people who make me mad all the time. So.

I almost deposited this idea in my mental garbage can. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it began to make.

I can easily be made angry. This is a combination of my character flaws and my habits. I’d like to say it’s because of the people I have to spend time with, but in truth, it’s not. I’d also like to blame my Welsh forebearers. But that’s not really it. As attractive as it is for me to say it’s because I have high blood pressure, or because I don’t sleep soundly, or because I’ve got a headache, none of these things are the reason. I’d say 99% of the time, I choose my anger.

Anger is usually my first reaction to pain. When I hit my thumb instead of the nail with the hammer, I get angry. In my worst moments, I do something stupid with my anger. In my best moments, I try to process the event and turn lose of my anger so it won’t bleed over (more often, spew over) into and onto unrelated issues and people.

I also get angry when I feel I’m under threat. Thankfully, I rarely feel under physical threat. I fairly often feel threatened emotionally or intellectually, though. This often happens when I feel misunderstood or disregarded or marginalized. When I’m criticized or feel accused, I’ll get angry, when I’m not at my mature best.

The operative word here is “feel.” I don’t have to actually be under threat to feel I’m threatened. In this, as in many other areas of life, my feelings aren’t reliable. My goal is live in a more reality-based emotional state. The reality is, though, I’m a good ways from this goal. I often feel more threat that actually exists.

But getting angry isn’t a sin. Why would St. Paul write, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…” (Ephesians 4:26)? If anger was a sin, Paul would have written, “Don’t sin by being angry.”

His thought goes on in verse 27: and do not give the devil a foothold. 

What I do about my anger is the thing. My anger doesn’t have be sin. But if I do the wrong thing, it will easily (and sometimes quickly) lead to sin. If I don’t respond wisely to my anger, it will give the devil a foothold, and that’s all he needs to dig his claws into me. Bad choices are always next, after that.

In a blog installment I can’t give you all you need to solve the anger problem. So I’ll admit that and give you a couple of tips that I’ve found to be helpful in my own battle with anger.

First tip: NOTICE IT. If you’ve been getting angry most of you life (and most of us have), you may not even notice when you first get angry. Others might notice it, and when they tell you they do, it usually only makes you more angry. But if you’ve got an anger habit, you probably won’t notice your anger very early in the cycle. It feels like there’s just a blink between “OK, I’m getting angry,” and “OK, I’m mad!” In reality, though, there’s more than a blink between the two. You have to train yourself to notice it. That means you have to go with more than your instincts. You have to develop stronger self-awareness. I know, that sounds like psycho-babble. It’s not. If you want to step away from the trouble your uncontrolled anger gets you into, you’ve got to grow an awareness of what’s going on in your heart and mind as it’s happening instead of after you’ve blown your top and there’s a lot of collateral damage to clean up.

You won’t get here quickly or easily. This takes time and work. It starts with reflection. Think about your last anger episode. Don’t start with who or what made you mad. Start with an objective look at the incident or moment you began getting angry. That’s what you want to get good at identifying, because if you can identify this moment as it’s happening, you can take your foot off the anger accelerator and start making good choices about what you’ll do about your anger. If you don’t do this, you’ll move full speed ahead on instinct, and this will almost always give the devil a foothold.

Second thing: ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION. Usually my first question is, “Who’s making me mad?” There’s a better question, but it’s a little harder to answer. The better question is, “What is my anger trying to tell me?” Your anger is virtually always telling you something. Figuring out what its message is can be tricky.

Here are some of the things my anger tells me (or tries to tell me…). You’re anxious and tired. Your blood sugar is low. Have a Snickers; you’re not you when you’re hungry. You feel threatened. You feel someone or something blocking you from your goal. You need to go to bed earlier tonight because you’re tired. You’ve got too much ownership of this issue. You’re not the owner, you’re just the steward. This person isn’t your enemy. She’s your wife. Or your boss. Or your friend.

There’s tons more, but that’s enough to spark your own start on your own list. And besides, if I have to add any more to this list, I’ll start to feel my privacy (which is, unfortunately, a synonym for my fantasy) threatened, and that will make me mad. So.

Make your own list of what your anger tries to tell you. If you’ve got the nerve for it, ask your spouse what they think your anger tries to tell you. WARNING: only do this if you’re mature enough to not get mad at your spouse for telling you.

And then pray for divine help. Actually START HERE! You’ll never be able to pull this off without God’s help and intervention. Ask Him to give you the awareness you need to recognize when you’re getting angry, and the self-control to choose your responses.

After this, as with every skill you’ve ever developed, it’s a matter of practice. Practice and failure and restarts. That’s the dance. Give yourself grace and partner with God’s grace for what it takes to grow in this.

There is literally not a single part of your life that this doesn’t touch. No marriage will ever be finished growing in this. No family, no parent, no child will ever be finished growing in this. No friendship, no work relationship will ever be finished growing in this.

As you grow in this skill, God won’t love you more. He can’t love you more than He already does. But as you grow in this skill, you’ll be more useful and available to Him for what He wants to do in your life. And that will put you more and more in your sweet spot. And you’ll like your sweet spot. The people in your life will like it when you’re there more often, too.

Read To Them

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Research verifies over and over again that one of the best things a parent can do with their young children is to read to them.

If you have preschoolers, even very young preschoolers (as in they can’t talk yet), reading to them is a huge key to their healthy and steady development. There is a very complicated set of neurological events that take place in a baby’s brain when they’re read to, even before they understand language. If you’ve ever played with a picture book with your baby, you know that they like these things way more than you do. And the reason is their brain is developing at the speed of light as you read the one or two words per page, and show them the pictures.

If your kids are jabberwalkies (if they’re walking, they’re talking…), reading to them is also a huge boost to their brain development. Even if they’re not ready for big books and long stories, go ahead and read to them. They love simple stories. Most of the time when you finish one, they’ll beg you for more.

By the time your kids are 4 or 5, you can start reading things to them that even you will enjoy. I suggest reading stories to them. Bible stories are great for this. There are lots of Bible Story books available. You’ll find more than you have resources to buy in a quick Amazon search. The Bible itself is a fantastic resource for this. I suggest you use a version of the Bible that’s conversational, like The New Living Translation (NLT) or even The Message. At this point, I wouldn’t be very concerned with which translation is most accurate. Using a version of the Bible that they can understand is more important than word-for-word translation. And besides, if you did a literal word-for-word translation, it would be nearly impossible to understand. But that’s a whole other subject.

There are two objectives in this. First of all, you want to give your kids a distinct brain development and learning readiness advantage by reading to them, and second, you want to help your kids fall in love with the Bible by engaging your kids’ imagination with the fabulous stories that are found there.

The Bible doesn’t have to be the only book you read to them, though. There are thousands of wonderful books out there. Look for stories that teach values like honor, honesty, perseverance, kindness, courage and the spiritual traits you want your kids to have. Read books that are funny. Read stories about real-life events and heroes. Read biographies. Read books that are interesting to your kids, not just to you.

My wife and I are C.S. Lewis affectionados. So when our girls were in grace school, we began reading The Chronicles of Narnia to them. I say “we.” It was actually Debbie who did most of the reading. She’s got skills for making a story come alive, and our girls loved it. I highly recommend The Chronicles. The chapters are short, and the story is fantastic in all seven of them. Even if you and your kids have seen the movies that have been made of them, reading them is still superior.

As your kids get older, take turns and let them read to you. This is good in almost every way. Their teachers at school will thank you for it, and you’ll get a dividend when they can do a third of the three most important things in their school career: read well. (If you’re wondering, the other two are math skills and relating well to others.)

I do most of my reading on my Kindle app these days, but I think reading to/with kids from a physical book is better than using a digital device. More and more research is indicating that it’s not good for little eyes to be on electronic devices for many minutes a day. And in addition to this, there really is just something about feeling a book in your hands. One of the objectives in this deal is to give your kids a love of books. It could be done on an e-reader, but a physical ink-and-paper book is more tangible, and a kid’s concrete orientation helps make the hook of a book even more effective when they can turn the pages.

I think I’ve managed to make this harder than it actually is! Just get a book off the shelf that you think your kid would enjoy, and then read it to them. No rocket science here.

I do have to issue this warning, though. Reading to your kids will cost you
T I M E.

You’ll have to give something else up to do this. You can’t multi-task reading to your kids. If you’re not driving, you can do it in the car, unless they get motion sickness. Not a good idea then. When you have to wait for a doctor visit or some other appoint you’ve brought your kids with you to, if you don’t get too carried away, you can read to them. If you get too carried away, you may get, well, carried away. But most of the time, you’ll need to set aside time that would have gone to something else. My favorite thing to replace with reading is TV. To have a meaningful experience with this reading thing, you’ll need to turn off the TV. You’ll probably also need to put your mobile phone on silent and ignore it when it buzzes. You don’t have to enter the Cone of Silence, but you’ll want to mitigate as many interruptions as you can.

When your kids are little, you can combine cuddle time (some of the most developmentally important time you can have with your kids) and reading time. That’s a win/win.

Last thing I’ll write on this: schedule the time. It won’t present itself. You’ll have to MAKE time for it. So get your calendar up on your phone and plug it in. And then do it. The cost is small compared to the pay off.

My Reset Button

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Some of you know me personally, so you know my story, but for the few who follow HomeworK who don’t know my story, it involves a Reset button.

On January 10, 2011, I died of a heart attack. Three times, actually. OK, let me rephrase that. I went into full cardiac arrest – no heartbeat – three times. In Scottsdale, AZ, on Shea Boulevard. Thank You, God, I wasn’t driving, or else there could have been more than just one death. Shea Blvd. is a busy street. But in God’s mercy, my dear friend, Danny Hinkle, was driving my car. If not for his quick thinking and action, I would have died on 1/10/11 at 118th and Shea in Scottsdale. He literally saved my life.

I’ll spare you the details beyond the fact that I have no memory of the event, that there are a series of interesting miracles involved in the process, and that I did not see a bright light before I was brought back to life…

Every year, as you might imagine, on January 10, I call Danny and thank him for saving my life. Sometimes, when things align properly, Debbie and I have a special dinner out with friends to celebrate what I call my Lazarus birthday. This year, we had pot roast at home by the fire on a cold and rainy night in Oklahoma. I called it my simi-celebration.

Ever since January 11, 2011, I’ve had people say, “Well, God’s not done with you yet. He must have something special in mind for you.” Or something like that. I know these good folks intended to be encouraging and helpful. I appreciate that. But it sets me in a bit of a dilemma. See, God hasn’t messaged me with what this “something special” is. With few exceptions, every day seems ordinary for me, and I sure feel ordinary. I can’t see me bringing world peace or finding a cure for cancer. Some days, if I put my mobile phone down on my desk, I’ll spend 10 minutes trying to find it later… You kind of don’t want that guy to be responsible for world peace or to count on him to cure cancer.

The dilemma for me is that I don’t know what special, significant thing God saved me for.

A 2015 study says that the chances of surviving full cardiac arrest outside a hospital are 6%. With a Widowmaker (which is what I had), the chances are even slimmer. So if I survived as a result of happenstance or coincidence, well, I’ve got to be one of the luckiest guys on the planet. If it was just luck or chance, I need to break away from this right now and go buy a handful of lottery tickets. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t luck.

I believe God saved my life. It’s just too big of a stretch for me to believe it was luck. Most days I’m thankful He did a series of miracles and I didn’t die. For what purpose, though, that’s where I struggle.

As I write this, the day after my 9th Lazarus birthday, I still don’t really know for what purpose God saved my life. My Lazarus birthdays make me reflective and contemplative, but for 9 years, my contemplation and reflection haven’t given me a substantial answer to this dilemma.

Although I don’t think I discovered my destiny in it, the event and the 6 months of recovery from it served as an unmistakable Reset button for me and taught me some very important things about myself.

The two big learnings for me are: 1) not how precious my life is, but how precious my wife is to me. She put her life on hold for those 6 months to take care of me, never once making a complaint about it. Always tender, always empathetic, always loving. I realized that I couldn’t take that for granted ever again. And 2) all the stuff about identity that I have taught for dozens of years is a whole lot easier to pontificate about than it is to actually live. When you can’t contribute or work (or even play) for 6 months, it gets really clear where your identity comes from. Mine was way more from my work than I wanted it to be. I found it to be very difficult to do what I taught, to keep my identity rooted squarely on who God says I am.

And then one more thing. A big thing, actually. I found out how good Canyon Ridge Christian Church was. They kept me on staff and kept paying me and loving me all the way through my recovery, even though I was absent and contributed nothing. They figured out how to fill the gaps I left, and kept my office and my job waiting for me. I’d love it if I could say this is just normal for churches, but it’s not. Not by a long shot. I’ll always be grateful to God and Canyon Ridge for how they showed His grace to me through this.

There are other things, but these three top the list.

So I learned some very important things, but they’re not a map for my journey to destiny.

Here’s what I’m coming to, and I think it might be something you could do something with in your life. The journey may be more important than the destination. I know, I think Confucius may have said that. But in life, there are times when it’s all about the journey. And the journey is often mapless, more or less. You figure it out as you go.

For me, the journey is about showing up every day. It’s about bringing what I’ve got to whatever God brings to me. It’s about learning how to put my trust in Him every day for who I am and what I need. It’s about me loving Debbie when I’m tired and am bumping the bottom. emotionally. It’s about an array of things that I want to become normal for me, but that, in my quest to be somebody, couldn’t be normal.

In other words, it’s daily. Which is one of the things that makes it hard.

I’d love it if I were so deep and mature and spiritual that I could honestly say I’m grateful for my heart attack, but I’m not that deep. I’m grateful for many things that came from it, but I’d be happy to never experience it again.

I think what I’m most thankful for is that it was a Reset button that I couldn’t blast past on the way to my next appointment. Without ending my life, I think God let me restart my life with more intention, more gratitude, more empathy, and a very different vantage point from which to observe life.

So far, none of this has been very much about marriage and family. Sorry. Although, on one level, it could be all about marriage and family. Because who you are and how you do your life is at the core of how healthy your marriage and family can be. So I guess I’m not sorry.

I’ll end with a couple of questions. Is there anything in your life that needs a Rest button? Or maybe God’s been tapping the Reset button, but you just haven’t pulled over long enough to address it. What might it take for Him to get your attention? Take it from me. You don’t want to have to die for Him to get your attention.

What One Thing… pt 2

Last time ( I wrote about what I think is the One Thing, after having a personal relationship with Jesus, that you want your kids to leave home with when they launch into the big, bad world. For me, it’s the ability to make good decisions for themselves.

A quick recap on this is that building responsibility muscles through the use of household chores is a doorway to learning how to make good decisions. I focused on young children with this. There’s so much more than just doing chores that comes into this, though. There’s the developmental capabilities of your child. There’s the unique gifts and personality God has given them. There’s their Love Language. And probably about a hundred other things.

This time I want to focus on the fact that whatever a parent does for the child that the child is capable of doing for themselves actually steals an opportunity for growth from both the child and themselves.

I came across an article about Lawnmower Parents that relates to this. I bet you know a Lawnmower Parent. If you’re a teacher or a youth worker or a pastor, I bet you deal with them regularly…

This quote from the article caught my eye and so fits with my experience as a youth minister, family minister, care pastor and now a counselor. “Lawnmower parents go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure. Instead of preparing children for challenges, they mow obstacles down so kids won’t experience them in the first place.”

Sometimes well-meaning parents unintentionally rob their children of growth and development by lawn-mowing (the metaphorical kind). They take decision making out of their kids’ hands in an effort to protect them from any of the adversity that might come from their kids’ decisions. It seems like a loving thing to try to protect your kids from failure and struggle. IT’S NOT. You love them, and you don’t want them to be hurt. Protecting them seems loving and caring. But struggle and failure are two of the best teachers in life. Without them, we end up weak, dis-empowered, victimized by circumstances.

OK. I get that there are times for me to step away. So how do you decide when to step away and when to step in? How do you know what you should protect your kids from, and what you shouldn’t protect them from? If I had the absolute final answer to this, and could give it to you in a simple nugget, I could possibly become as rich as Bill Gates. Every parent who wants their kids to grow up into independence, and then to mature interdependence, wants to know how you do this. Unfortunately (well, maybe not so unfortunately, actually), there’s no easy pat answer or formula.

Back in part 1 of this, I wrote, “Never do for your kids what they can do for themselves.” I learned this when I was a Youth Minister, many years ago. I discovered that it’s one of the best things I could do do help raise responsible kids (who grew up to be amazing superstars, by the way). It’s the starting gate for giving your kids what they need to be able to make good decisions for themselves. But you can’t observe this axiom if you don’t know your kids well. You have to know what your kids are capable of doing in order to not do for them what they can do for themselves. This is the central and most important thing about knowing when to step in and when to step away. You have to be a student of your kid(s) to have a sense of when and how to do this. You have to know your kids.

Start small. Start by giving your kids small choices to make. When they’re in preschool, giving them choices for what clothes they’ll wear is a great place to start. Don’t just throw open the closet doors and chest drawers and say, “Wear what you want.” Give them two or three choices (everything after three choices is just white noise), and then let them choose. It’s a small thing that will help your kids learn how to choose, but gives you a good amount of control over the outcomes.

As they grow, though, you’ve got to widen the scope of the things your kids can choose for themselves. Don’t try to engineer all these decisions, or you’ll find they will begin to choose what you don’t want them to choose, even if they tell you they’re going to do what you want them to do. They’re kids, but they’re not stupid, after all. And it’s incredible how creative kids can be in doing what you don’t want them to do.

By the time they’re an adolescent, all things being equal (which they rarely are…), they’re ready to make more and more decisions without your close supervision. If they’ve been making decisions since they were in preschool, they’ll understand the process, and with some more practice, they’ll be capable, at least, of making good decisions. They won’t have a 100% rate of good decision-making, but you don’t either, so don’t get on their case too quickly about it.

During this time (their adolescence) help them process the consequences associated with the choices they make. Essentially every choice carries a consequence. Some consequences don’t show up immediately, though. These are the ones you’ll need to help your teenager process. They need help with looking down the trail.

I believe the best way to do this is Socratically. In other words, do this by asking questions more than giving answers. Don’t just tell your teen what you know the consequence will be. Guide them to see the consequences by asking them questions. It’s not a bad thing to leave them hanging, sometimes, when you realize they need to wrestle this down for themselves.

This may be the most important thing I know about teaching kids how to make decisions for themselves: LET THEM OWN IT. By this, I mean, let them experience the consequences of their decisions, good or not so good. Let them celebrate (and celebrate with them) when they get the consequences of a good choice. Be careful, though, not to celebrate just the fact that they make a good decision. Affirm them for what you can see is a good decision, but this isn’t the moment to throw a party. When the good consequences come because of the good choice, that’s when you want to celebrate. That’s when it will mean the most to your kid.

The other side of this coin is less bright. When the choice isn’t good and the not-good consequences come home to roost, LET THEM OWN IT. Don’t bail them out of the negative consequences. How else will they learn how to deal with life when it gets big and bad? Let them own these.

Don’t re-punish them. Negative consequences are their own punishment. When negative consequences come, this is the time for discipline. This is the time to do a debrief and help your kid figure out where the train left the track. This is the time to help them figure out what they would do differently next time (because chances are there will be a next time). Again, don’t tell them what they should have done. Thoughtfully and carefully (and prayerfully, too) ask them questions that can help them process through to what didn’t work and why, and then to what they would do differently next time.

Ideally, you want to build a history with your kids that will make them feel safe enough to do this kind of debrief. Instead of being afraid you’ll judge or hurt them when they fail, you want them to feel safe to let you (or even ask you to) help them figure out the consequences/choice convergence.

You can see there’s no straight line between you wanting your kids to be able to make good decisions for themselves, and them doing it. The best news I have about this is that God wants to be your partner in this. He wants you and your kids to succeed at this. So ask for divine help, and then lean into the partnership.

What One Thing Do You Want Your Kids To Leave Home With?

I have a friend I don’t get to hang out with enough, who is one of my favorite people for hanging out with because he asks good questions. And by good, I mean questions that are a little hard to answer because they’re about things that really matter. Years ago (many years ago, now), this friend asked me one of the most important questions I’ve ever been asked.

“What one thing do you most want your kids to leave home with when they head out on their own?”

Well, the answer to that one was easy. I want them to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Right. That’s a given. After that, what one thing do you most want your kids to leave home with when they head out on their own?

Now that’s a lot harder to answer. My friend didn’t have the answer. He only had the question. So we wrestled with it together until we came up with what I think is a good answer. Here’s what we came up with.

The one thing, after a personal relationship with Jesus, that we most wanted our kids to have when they left home and headed out on their own is the ability to make good decisions for themselves.

When I read that now, I think, “Well, duah…” It seems pretty much like simple common sense. And it is. But, as you probably know, common sense isn’t so common.

There are so many other things that parents try to equip their kids with before they leave the nest. The one I see and hear about most often is “a healthy self-esteem.” I believe a healthy self-esteem is a good thing. I want one, myself. And, yes, I wanted it for all three of my daughters. But I think many of the kids who are leaving the nest, whose parents (and teachers) believe they’ve done everything to give them healthy self-esteem are actually leaving with a dim shadow of the real thing. When they encounter the difficulties and challenges of real life – and, boy, will real life pitch these at them – these kids often get flattened. Failure is inevitable, and will roll over them like a steamroller. Especially since Mommy or Daddy aren’t there to somehow deflect or absorb it for them, or pay the consequence of the failure for them. When they finally get their flattened selves up, they begin to try to figure out who did this terrible thing to them. Because it sure couldn’t be the fault of someone as brilliant and worthy as they are. When this pattern continues, it creates victims.

I believe strong, healthy, sustainable self-esteem is one of the many outcomes of learning how to make good decisions. It is both an outcome and a reinforcement. Good decisions result in self-esteem, and it reinforces it as positive consequences come from good decisions.

Please tell me I’m a good guy with worlds of potential. I need that. Tell me I’ve got what it takes. I need that, too. Or better yet, tell me you’ll help me figure out what it takes, and then help me get equipped with it. But don’t just tell me this stuff. Give me a chance to get there for myself. Help me, but don’t do it for me. Because if you do, I’ll never have the blessing of owning it for myself.

So how do you help me own it for myself? I believe the best way to do this is to help me learn how to make good decisions.

And you know how to do that. You let me make some bad decisions and pay the price for them. Experience is a good teacher.

I’m not talking about inappropriate decisions that your kid isn’t capable of making well. This isn’t about giving the car keys to your 5-year-old and saying, “Have fun, but make good decisions, and be home before midnight.” I’m talking about age-appropriate decisions. Developmental psychologists have been writing books about this for generations, and there are hundreds of articles and papers on the Internet about it. Your common sense (you know, that uncommon thing) can guide you, and may be your best resource. Here’s something I’ve found helpful on this subject. It will give you a sense of what children are generally capable of at various ages, which will give you some help figuring out what’s appropriate for your kids. It’s not the definitive statement on this, but it’s something to get you started.

Your kids doing household chores and developing responsibility muscles is really the starting gate for helping them learn how to make good decisions. The motto for this idea is, “Never do for your kids what they can do for themselves.” The reason is simple on this. They’ll let you do pretty much anything you want to do for them. Unless they’re 2. That’s when their motto is “I do it myself!” Unfortunately, this never covers picking up their toys or clothes, or generally anything that’s meaningful and helpful.

By the time they’re 3, though, they can be taught and expected to take some basic responsibilities. Like picking up their toys. You’ll need to supervise them. You’ll also have to teach them how to do this. Teach them how you do it. I think the best way on this is to do the chore with them. At first. Until you’re convinced they know how to do it. Then give them chances to prove to you that they’re enough of a “big kid” to do this on their own. Spoiler alert: this will not guarantee that they’ll do a great job of cleaning up their toys on their own, or that they will be thrilled to do it. But if you don’t do something like this, you’ll be picking up their stuff until they leave for college…

Picking up toys is just one thing . The article I gave you a link for above will give you a ton of good help expanding the field.

Your kids may not be totally thrilled with the chance to grow and develop in this way. In fact, they may very well fight you tooth and nail all the way. Sometimes they’ll be so good at fighting you that you’ll be tempted to do the chore or whatever the thing is instead of fighting them, because just doing it yourself is so much easier than fighting WWIII. And in the short run, it will be easier. But if you’re taking a long view and looking to the future, the battle is worth is.

This is too big of a subject to tackle in one installment. I’ll pick it back up next time, and talk about how to let your older kids begin making decisions for themselves.

What's Your Word for 2020?

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I’ve never heard the voice of God. Not audibly. I don’t disbelieve people who tell me they have. There have been many times when I wished for and asked to hear God audibly. But so far, I never have.

This makes a practice I’ve heard a couple of people talk about that I think I want to try (and am going to challenge you to consider) a little problematic. Approaching the first of the year, they ask God to give them a word to lock in their mind for the year ahead. They’re asking for a watchword for the next 12 months. A word that sums up what their best effort should be toward and about.

I think I got my word this morning. No audible voice (again). Just a sense that this word should be my word. It’s (a drum roll, please) ALIGNMENT. I want this on all the levels of my life.

I want my behaviors to align with my fundamental beliefs and values. I want how my life looks to anybody watching to be a transparent window into what I say are my values and beliefs. I want the trust in God that I claim to be reflected in my actual behaviors. I want the value of every person to be seen in how I treat people – even people I disagree with (maybe especially them) – with respect. I want my value of being a true and authentic disciple of Jesus to be seen in how I do my actual life. There’s about a dozen other values that go in this alignment bucket, but you get the picture.

I also want alignment with my talents, gifts and abilities. This has to do with how I apply these things in my life, and how I steward my resources toward them. At this point in my life, they have a direct connect with my career.

For the first time in my adult life, I’m not employed as a minister in a church. This season has put me on an interesting journey in uncharted territory. I believe I’m still “in the ministry,” though I don’t get my paycheck from a church. I’m still in the business of helping people find deep connection with God, and learn how to live out His purposes for them. I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing this as long as I’m working in a career. The mission for my counseling practice is, “Helping people find their best life.” That only happens as people discover God’s design for life and begin pursuing it. My role is to help people discover God’s design and to do what I can to encourage them to choose it for themselves. I can’t do this for anybody but myself (which has been a difficult but essential thing to learn), but I can serve as a guide as others make this journey for themselves.

This has been my mission for the 45 years of my ministry career, though I didn’t articulate it this way. My wiring – my spiritual gifts, skills, background and education – sets me up for this. My primary gifts of Mercy and Teaching fit with this. My education has supported it. My basic temperament fits. I’m in my sweet spot when I’mm in a venue for the alignment of these things.

Funny, though. Life doesn’t always support me working from my sweet spot. I’ll bet you know about this. Things like insurance, taxes, rent, utilities, gasoline, car repairs, groceries and a few dozen other things are also in the picture. And they all cost money. If I’m not careful, these things, and the money they cost, fill the whole frame instead of merely being a part of the picture. And this doesn’t even account for the hundreds of demands of being a parent. Those things are HUGE. So huge that you sometimes can hardly see anything else.

That’s why alignment is so important to me. Without alignment, I’ll end up having a lot of activity and spending all my resources without making any significant movement toward the things I say matter most. I’ll lose sight of the picture and get all tied up in the brush strokes.

Balance is a synonym for alignment. If things are aligned, they’ll be balanced. If they’re balanced, they’ll be aligned. But the kind of balance required here is dynamic balance, not static balance.

Static balance is the balance a jeweler’s scales depends on. You put a one-ounce weight on one side of the scales, and one ounce of something on the other, and the scales will settle into balance. This is static balance. It works well with jewels and precious metals, but not so much with life.

Life requires dynamic balance. This is the kind of balance you used when you were a kid and balanced a broomstick in the palm of your hand. To keep the broomstick balanced, you had to keep moving. You maybe only made a tiny movement, but if you stood completely still – if you were static – the broomstick would tip and fall. You kept the broomstick balanced by making constant adjustments. This is the balance life takes. Constant dynamic adjustment.

This kind of dynamic balance and adjustment for alignment in my life requires some significant things. Maybe the most significant thing is discipline. St. Paul and the Holy Spirit call it Self-Control in Galatians 5:23. It’s one of the nine qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit. Without it, there will be nothing but a few isolated moments of accidental alignment.

That it is a quality of the Fruit of the Spirit points to the single most significant things. For me to get my life aligned, and to keep it aligned through the vicissitudes of life, I must have divine intervention. As in the work of the Holy Spirit, producing His fruit in my life as I cooperate with Him.

Alignment may not be the word for you for 2020. Even if the idea of it is right for you, you might say it differently, and probably better than this. But if you don’t have a focus for the year ahead, you’ll end up spending your resources on whatever screams the loudest, shines the brightest, or your boss tells you is most important. And that may not put you where you want to be on January 1, 2021.

Here’s my challenge. Ask God to give you a word for 2020. And then listen for Him to give it to you. If you hear His voice audibly, that would be fantastic. But if you simply get a strong impression, that’s equally great. If you only get a subtle prompting, that, too, is worthy. The point is, when you sense you have your word, prioritize how you steward your resources around that word, and then see how God will direct your path in the year ahead.

I’m not making any guarantees that doing this will make you healthy, wealthy and wise. But I’ll promise you that if your word is really from Him, pursuing it in 2020 will draw you more deeply into His design. And that will be awesome in the truest sense of the word.

New Year's Resolutions

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I’m a New Year’s resolver. The week between Christmas and New Year’s almost always sets me in a reflective mood, and New Year’s resolutions are the usual result.

But I’m in the minority on this. If the research is reliable (and I have no way of determining otherwise) way more than half of us won’t make New Year’s resolutions. The gazillion reasons for this come down to one thing, really. We won’t keep them, so why make them? They’re just another thing to feel guilty about when the second week of January rolls around.

I get that. I don’t need anything more to feel guilty about. But I have a theory about why so few New Year’s resolutions are kept. It comes down to two things: too many, too grand.

I think the people who give resolutions a try write up a list of lots of things they want to change about their life in the coming year. You’d be a rare person is you didn’t have a fairly extensive list of these things. If you are this person, please let the rest of in on your secret, because it would be awesome to know how to pull it off. The rest of us will just keep on either making a list or rejecting the idea of making a list. But for Resolutioners, the lists we make quickly get out of hand. We’ll have eight or ten things on the list. Good things that would be incredible to achieve. This seems reasonable right up until we try to go to work on eight or ten things. Reality sets in fast, and before long, most people will abandon working on any of them, because they’re overwhelmed by failure.

My advice on this is to observe a time-tested maxim. “Less is more.” You’re far more likely to make changes in your life that matter when you identify fewer of them. And I mean a lot less. Narrow your list down to one or two items. If you can, whack it down to one. You’ll be able to work meaningfully on one thing. And you’ll be able to cross the goal line with it.

This makes good theological sense. The Apostle Paul wrote, Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14 NIV)

Obviously, you have to be thoughtful about the one or two things you come down to. Huge, global changes are really hard to follow through on. World peace is too big. So is getting down to your high school graduation wright.

Another essential key to doing the things you resolve to do on your New Year’s resolutions list is making them do-able. This is difficult. There will be a tension between aiming too low and aiming too high. Too-low resolutions aren’t meaningful, and too-high resolutions aren’t attainable.

This dynamic tension is vexing, but essential. The resolutions that are difficult, but doable are the ones you’re most likely to pursue until you achieve them. I have no formula for striking the golden chord on this. Sorry. But I know from my personal experience that the effort is sometimes more important than the outcome. The good news is that whatever you come up with is good. If you follow through on it, it will be great. And one thing, as opposed to even 3 or 4 things, is doable, and your odds for getting there are exponentially higher.

I’ve got a couple of other advice nuggets on this.

First, make your own resolutions. It can be very hard to follow through on someone else’s. I’m not saying you should never take up someone else’s if it fits your life and aspirations. But most of the time, the resolutions you make will give you more bang for your buck than somebody else’s. Let someone else’s resolutions inspire you, but don’t feel obligated to take them for your own.

And then turn you resolutions into goals. The difference between a resolution and a goal is really only one thing. Boundaries. A resolution states an objective, but a goal sets up parameters. A goal is a dream with a due date. I read that somewhere years ago. A goal answers a couple of important questions: how much, by when? And the more specific you can be with the answer to these two questions, the more powerful your goal will be.

Let me give you an example. I want to lose weight in the coming year. That’s my resolution. My goal is to lose 15 pounds by next Christmas. This is a reasonable goal, but will take effort and discipline to accomplish.

I’ll make it more doable by breaking it into a series of short-term goals. By Ground Hog Day, I will have lost 5 pounds. Then, after Ground Hog Day, I’ll set another reasonable short-term goal. And on through till I drop the 15 pounds. You get it.

And then one last thing about this. Write your goals down. Pen on paper or pecked away on your computer. And read them every day. Some psychologists say reading them out loud will give them more power. Whether you read them out loud or not, read them every day. Preferably at the start of the day. There’s no magic in this, but it will help you keep your goals at the front of your mind, and that leverages your attention and will to work on them.

Let your goals simmer a little. Your plans for reaching your goals will present themselves. If you read your goals every day, your mind will work on plans for achieving them. It does this often without your conscious thought, believe it or not.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: It works if you work it. The same is true of pressing on toward your one-thing resolution. I’m not a Goal Achievement Guru, but I know what’s worked for me, and this model works. If you work it.

And here’s a final piece of good news. Really good news. You don’t have to do this on your own. If your resolution will draw you closer to Him, no one is more interested in helping you achieve it than God is. So partner with Him and press on into 2020 with a confident hope.