Hope is not warm and fuzzy

I once thought hope was a perky disposition and that I was constitutionally incapable of feeling it. I was, yet again, wrong. Our cynical, sarcastic family is excellent at foreboding joy! But when I heard that research had proven my suspicions about the meaning of hope unfounded, I was comforted to know that I too could be a person of hope.

Here’s what C. R. Snyder, as explained by Brene Brown learned about hope. Snyder says hope is a three part process:

1. The capacity to identify a realistic goal. This aligns nicely with resiliency training, where we have learned that the ability to set and strive for a goal is a skill set resilient people practice and master. Maybe it isn’t realistic to say that you are going to go on a diet and only it sprouts and cauliflower. That’s not realistic (or healthy). Maybe our resolutions have failed because we have not practiced setting a realistic goal! (Good news, we can learn from this!)

2. Set a course to achieve the goal. The path may be winding, which requires flexibility, but it is important to be intentional about walking the path. If the path isn’t working, we get help to adjust our course.

3. Finally, the magic ingredient is this: have enough belief in ourselves that we can stay on the path until we have reached our realistic goal. When I am working out, my trainer believes that I can do things that I would never think were possible for an old lady. But since I am choosing to get it right rather than be right, I acquiesce to her way of seeing me and by dingy - I try. She’s right more than she’s wrong!!

Which part hope do you need some support and encouragement with? Hope may not be warm and fuzzy, but it is an essential element if we are going to stay the course.

Change requires practice

Shifting our focus from always having to be right toward a commitment to “get it right” is one of my favorite concepts that Brene Brown hammers home in her book Dare to Lead. This compulsion to know all the answers and be right all the time is a heavy burden. Lay it down!

Getting it right is a whole different ball game. When we work to “get it right” it makes us curious - we can ask, how can I improve? It creates an atmosphere of humility. We can assume that we have more to learn. We can think of ourselves as scientists running our own customized experiments. “Getting it right” implies process. It promises improvement without demanding perfection. It provides direction when we’ve lost our way without the need to blame or defend ourselves for the confusion.

After a terrible six month stretch of sickness I found a trainer to help me get strong because I was feeling so very weak. (The bear in the woods example came to my mind often in those days.) My trainer knows more about how to customize fitness to my particular brand of weakness than I could have ever imagined. Over a year into the process, I see progress. My “get up” form is decent. I can press a 20 pound Kettlebell with each arm for multiple reps. I can hold the plank position for longer than I thought possible. I practice my deadlifts several times a week and am making decent progress with my weight progression. I am getting stronger.

But in each of the above exercises, every single week, my trainer finds something to correct and improve in terms of my form or my degree of weight difficulty. Just today we worked extensively on repositioning my arm just a few little inches during a particular exercise. Without her, I would not be this particular. But without her, I would also not be making progress.

What do you need to change? Who can help you practice changing? Today I receive comfort and joy as I surrender to the process of being a willing student and active participant in my own recovery. I could not do it without a great coach. What kind of coaching might you benefit from?

What do you show up for?

In December our community was hit with an unusual blast of winter snow. Some report up to 11 inches fell in less than a day. This pretty much shuts this Southern town down. In the quiet of the early morning, when I knew that there was no need to get out of stretchy pants, comb my hair or shower, I sat by the fire and thought about a recent article I had read and its implications for the future of the world. Or at least, the future of Northern Virginia. Here’s what I wrote:

Calls poured into Arlington Country’s police department this week. The reason was unexpected. The local Cheesecake Factory was giving away 40,000 pieces of their signature cheesecake to celebrate their anniversary. The promotion clogged roads, a fistfight broke out, one person was hospitalized and another charged with disorderly conduct. All for a free slice of cheesecake.

It makes me wonder on this snowing Virginia morning, snuggling with my grand dog in front of a cozy fire - what do I show up for? What would be compelling enough to torpedo me out of this recliner and into the cold. What would be worth getting jammed up in traffic and willfully breaking out in “fisiticuffs” (a quote from the AP article), all in the pursuit of...what?

I love cheesecake; but don’t you think that most of the people who entered the fray could have afforded to pay for one piece of cheesecake without all the hassle? I wonder if the great cheesecake grab of December 2018 was more about winning than noshing. It would be easy to enter into the competition. The victory was assured. All participants had to do was show up.

What am I willing to show up for? What does it cost me? What am I willing to pay?

In Brene Brown’s newest book Dare to Lead she writes, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”

Resolutions, the ones that I suspect really matter, need to be more about vulnerability and courage than they are about winning or losing. But most of my resolutions are about achieving; striving; beating; having; acquiring. If that’s the case, if I can extrapolate from Brown’s perspective, the trouble with my resolutions is about what I’ve chosen to be resolute about and why I have chosen that particular resolution.

Could that be a problem you struggle with too?

To be continued...

Giving and receiving

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is actually a by-product of practicing the spiritual discipline of not judging.  I don’t know why, but I am often astonished at how quickly someone is able to help me if I ask.

Problems that seem confounding to me often have clear, often simple solutions that others can explain to me.  I hope this is also true in the reverse.

Once I learn, through trial and error and often a fair amount of failing, who can be helpful in situations that I find impossible to understand, the beautiful side-effect is a deepening cache’ of folks I can call on in my time of need.

This frees up my time for the things that I can help someone else with - time I previously wasted spinning in uncertainty and a skills deficit in areas of life where I really, truly need to ask for help in order to resolve an issue.

This doesn’t have to be major stuff.  For example, when I study and prepare for a message series, I always cram too much into a single outline for a weekend message.  I will ALWAYS have this tendency.  Twenty years in and I STILL CRAM TOO MUCH IN TO A SINGLE MESSAGE OUTLINE.  What I have learned is that Scott, our co-pastor at NSC, can read my notes in 3 minutes or less and suggest to me what he thinks is my strongest point, what is extraneous information, and where in the outline I stop one message and go on to a completely new message.  I rely on Scott to help me in my weakness.  He never has this problem, and that’s great, because I could not be helpful in solving it for him.  But he has another area of message delivery that I can sometimes provide advance feedback on and I hope he finds it as helpful as I find him in my own preparation.

This is no big deal.  The world will no crash down around us if we do not practice this exchange of feedback.  If I go way too long in a message, the checked out faces in the room will teach me to stop talking.  But this kind of mutuality is helpful.  The scripture refers to this I think when it says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  It is not suggesting a cover up.  But it is saying, I think, that when we love and trust one another, it is a natural thing to rely on one another to cover our perennial weaknesses.  This strengthens the whole of a community.  It is helpful.

If Scott were to judge my over-preparedness, then I could not ask him to help me and in fact, he wouldn’t be very helpful even if I asked.  His judgment would negate his capacity to help.  

Is judgment getting in the way of love in your life?


Integrity requires that we choose to live courageously by our core values over the comfort of taking the easy way out when faced with a tough decision that calls our values into question.  Recently someone offered me a high profile speaking engagement that may have helped our local community spread the word about our ministry.  They also required that I sign a release form that gave them ownership of the content I would present.  I chose not to speak.  

In past years, I might have been distracted by the perceived opportunity to share with our larger community all the wonderful things that I believe Northstar Community participates in out of my unbridled enthusiasm for our mission.  I wouldn’t have thought about the implications of willingly signing over my creative and proprietary rights in the process.

Today, I realize that this was not a respectful request when the speaker (me) was not being paid or even acknowledged for their work.  This is not an integrity move, and it took more courage than it should have for me to respectfully decline the offer.

Many carrots will be dangled in front of our faces that will tempt us to make decisions that are not consistent with our core values.  One way I am learning to distinguish a real carrot from fake fruit is giving myself time to make decisions.  All decisions.  Even small decisions.  Pausing to prepare, think about the implications of my choices, notice and acknowledge times when I want to avoid acting with courage - this time is necessary for me to live with integrity.

It’s not easy.  What shortcuts have you been tempted to take?  How have you allowed an “opportunity” to blind you to the cost of pursuing it?


In Brene’ Brown’s model of “B.R.A.V.I.N.G” - the first three things - boundaries, reliability, and accountability are fairly obvious and oft talked about concepts.  But  V is for “VAULT” really caught my attention.

The skill set she puts in this category goes like this:  “Learning how to keep confidences, to recognize what’s ours to share and what’s not.  The challenge is to stop using gossip, common enemy intimacy, and oversharing as a way to hotwire connection.” (p. 150 Braving the Wilderness)

These concepts are all ways Brene says we use fake connections to imitate true belonging.  When we gossip it feels all connected...until we imagine others gossiping about us.  Oversharing feels like intimacy until we realize that we shared with someone who was not safe and the sharing backfires.  Common enemy intimacy is when we experience a connective zing based on connecting with others based on who and what we are against.  This intimacy is particularly pernicious because it often joins us to people we with whom we share no common core values.  

This is why my Republican friends are rightfully upset because their Democrat friends are now labelling them a rascist because they voted for President Trump in the election.  My Democrat friends are devastated that their Republican friends say, “Hey, there is no way I could vote for crooked Hillary.”    The name calling and the connection each political party feels when they gather together and bash the other is an example of common enemy bonding.  Each is making assumptions that the other side believes are false.  But here’s the real problem.  We are making enemies out of people who are not enemies.  This is a problem.  

Folks, beware this kind of bonding.  It’s indecent.

Respectable Living

In yesterday’s blog, I told a story about a time when I set, held and respected the boundary of self-respect.  I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time.  I thought I was  mad and not going to take the belittling and insulting behavior of another anymore.

Resentment is the feeling we get when we think life is unfair; shame is the feeling we have when we believe that we are broken, wrong and of no worth.  People do not MAKE us feel resentment or shame.  

Which means, I believe, that the number of times we wrestle with both might just be related to how we treat ourselves than how others treat us.  Feel resentful, envious, jealous and maybe a pinch unworthy?

What better way to take a different path than to behave respectably.  Do good.  Be kind.  Work hard.  Learn from mistakes.  Live our life not constantly looking around and asking how others are evaluating our life.

This is the best boundary work we can ever do.  Boundary work, it turns out, is one of 7 skills Brene’ Brown says we need to strengthen our capacity for courage.

It isn’t about asking others to treat us as we hope to be treated.  We decide to live in such a way as to be satisfied and unashamed of the life we are making.  How others evaluate that?  That’s their problem.

As an adult looking back on that dinner table debacle, my family’s socio-economic status was barely different than the frat boy’s situation.  At that point in time I had an intact family and he had a family dealing with grief and loss and a new move to a new city and who knows what else.

His accusations were unfounded, but if I had been insecure, freaked out, emotional and neurotic, I might have believed every stinking word he said.  Not because it was true, but because I lacked boundaries.

A strong back is the result of knowing who we are, deciding to live congruently with the values we profess to believe, and sometimes be willing to stand alone when our boundaries are under attack.  It took decades before I developed a more consistently practiced strong back, but it is kind of neat to look back and realize that way back then I had one small spark of dignity within me.  To that young girl I say, “Way to go!"

More and more curious

Carrying on from yesterday...if you need to get caught up, there is a link at the bottom of the email (for those of you who read via email).  If you're reading directly on the web, check out the post from September 4, 2018.

After the story was told to me, I had some curious questions of my own.  I asked my adult child about the reaction of the other party and I was pleasantly surprised to hear this:

“Well, it was interesting.  Here’s what happened.  When I didn’t get sucked into a discussion about my personality, it allowed me to stay on point with the real purpose of the conversation - which was to provide feedback to this person.  My boss had asked me to handle the problem of this person’s under performance.  The whole conversation started with me having to do the hard thing of explaining why this person’s service contract with us was on the verge of cancellation.  Instead of getting sidetracked with a conversation about me, I was able to return to the original point of discussion:  her need to improve her performance.  Which, by the way, could be done with or without me having a personality at all, either good or bad.”

No one likes negative job feedback.  Right?  But consider the alternative.  What if the vendor had been able to distract the conversation.  In the moment, she could have avoided hearing about her work issues BUT she would have forfeited her opportunity to respond to the feedback and improve her performance.  Which, by the way, she actually was able to accomplish and resulted in her keeping the contract.

Using the “strong back” “soft front” language of Brene’ Brown, the capacity to not chase after the approval of others in that moment enabled my child to provide a kindness to another.  At my ripe old age, I am not sure I would have had the wisdom to do the same.  Tomorrow, I will share what I learned when I asked my adulting child how this decision was made because I believe it holds some practical wisdom for those of us who are trying to rise above our defensive and resentful postures to a more hopeful and courageous way of living.

You can't like everyone, and not everyone is gonna like you

I was shocked.  One of my adult children was recounting a story that clearly called for a strong back and a soft front.  What does that meant?  Today we're going to talk about having a "strong back."  A strong back means being courageous enough to face problems head-on, so that we are sturdy under pressure.  It means refusing to hide behind a false personality.  

A person who worked tangentially with this child was providing unsolicited feedback about my child’s personality.  This, for the record, is bad behavior.  My kid who has a working knowledge of the enneagram and resides in the dependent stance of this tool (if you do not know what I am talking about, no worries, I’ll provide more descriptors), was able to use enneagram language to describe the experience.  For the sake of this post, I would say that those of us who reside in the dependent stance (1,2,6 if you’re interested) move “toward” others.  We are referenced outside of ourselves, often looking for others to validate and even provide us input on what we should think, feel and do.  Anyway, my kid was noticing that this person was giving themselves a lot of permission to speak about said child’s personality without really having the benefit of knowing my child other than through the most casual and limited of business interactions.  The person concluded, “You know, I really do not feel like I have connected with you interpersonally.”  My kid heard implied blame, even resentment on the other person’s part. (Is connecting interpersonally a job requirement?  One wonders…)

This is when a strong back and soft front was not only a helpful metaphor but a good guide.  Having just had a long discussion on the paradox of practicing daily courage AND vulnerability, my  adult progeny did something very different than the dependent stance they live in would have predicted.

They paused.  They neither moved toward the other person by getting sucked into this inappropriate and boundary-less discussion nor against them by getting all aggressive and ugly nor did they withdraw by wrapping a cloak of invisibility around themselves and disappearing into their own mind palace (these are common ways we humans response to a perceived threat).

Instead, they simply stood there, acknowledged that they heard the person, and offered no commentary.  My offspring decided in the moments of pausing that no response was needed.  This was unsolicited feedback from a questionable source.  It could be received but did NOT need to be absorbed.  Mostly, they decided that they did not need to chase after approval, apologize for their personality, or defend their place in the world.  All of that means, I think, that this was a moment when a strong back and soft front did not require my child to seek out approval from a virtual stranger.  This is an example of the strong back; tomorrow we will discuss the soft front portion of the interaction.

A Prayer for Wednesday

Last week we talked about change, bravery, trust, receiving feedback and the skill set of relational reciprocity.  Can we pause to admit that change is not easy?  Can we agree with Brene’ that it often requires us to challenge long held perspectives and rules which our family system has propagated for generations? 


In their book Rooted In God’s Love, Dale and Juanita Ryan speak to this very topic (pp.134-135) and offer a prayer, here it is:


Lord, it isn’t just me

that I am trying to change.

I am up against

generations of dysfunction.

An empty way of life

has dominated my family for a long time.

It has been passed down to me.

No wonder it seems so hard to change.

I need your help, Lord.

Help me to find hope

in your understanding of my struggle.

Help me to find hope in your gift of redemption.



I pray this for you; I ask you to pray this for me.  Together, we carry on. 

What happens after a relational offense?

In addition to following Brene Brown through her words and imitating her ways, I practice this thing I call reciprocity.  Reciprocity is nothing more than a phrase that reminds me of core principles that I hope to live by in the heat of my own freak out moments.  For example.  I get an email which explains to me how I hate Jesus and clearly know nothing about spiritual transformation.  I feel automatically defensive, irritated and worried - Is she right?  I mean, she could be. This is what happens to anyone who dares to put themselves out there in the world.  There will ALWAYS be folks who criticize.  And since Brene admits that she used to listen to her critics (even though it is a bad idea and she tries not to do so now), I can certainly follow suit:  it is hard for me not to doubt myself when others are telling me I should.  Vulnerability teaches me that I can acknowledge that I am tempted to give criticism from strangers sway in my sense of self-worth.  There.  I said it.


It isn’t enough for me anymore to know this about myself without developing some skills to change my response.  How about you?  Are you ready to change some aspects of yourself that do not serve you well?


Tomorrow we are going to talk about a skill I practice to help me weather criticism in a way that is constructive.

On Being Brave

Recently I received an email criticizing me for a particular course we were offering in our community.  This person evidently is on our mailing list.  It felt great.  Not the criticism, no, I do NOT like to be criticized but it turns out I have other feelings as well about criticism and THAT is what felt great.


In Brene’ Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness she opens up about her own fears and uncertainties.  In particular, when her research teaches her that she will “challenge long-held beliefs or ideas” (p.3), she confesses to self-doubt and fear.  Her plan of action, an antidote really, for this kind of personal freakout, is to “search for inspiration from the brave innovators and disrupters whose courage feels contagious.  I read and watch everything by them or about them that I can get my hands on...I do this so that when I need them, when I’m living in my fera, they come to sit with me and cheer me on.” (p.3)  For me, Brene is one of MY go-to peeps for times like these.


So it was GREAT when I received the email while I was studying Braving.  Brene has all sorts of amazing vocab and stories to help us figure out how to be brave especially in the midst of criticism.  Read her book.  It is so good!  What I love the most about her work is that she teaches me that brave does NOT equal fearlessness.  It doesn’t have to mean we are instantly calm and kind and cool in the face of criticism. 


Brave as illustrated by Brown means that we keep plugging away; we learn stuff; we develop strategies that allow us to practice bravery even when we feel like a chicken.  She harps, quite eloquently, on this thing called vulnerability and it is working for her.  So I will continue to follow her lead.


Along the way, I have a couple phrases of my own that I have incorporated, and tomorrow we will talk about one of them.  In the meantime, let me ask you:  how do you feel when a stranger criticizes you, your work, and/or your character?

PS.  Here’s hoping you totally cannot relate to criticism from strangers!!


In Brown’s introduction to her book Rising Strong she says, “I define wholehearted living as engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.  It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.”  (p.xix)


My friend with the serial adultery issue was the first to acknowledge that her adultery didn’t fit with her core values.  She is a pastor in a large church.  She teaches a course on ethics at the local community college.  She would be mortified if her daughter found out her dirty little secret. In spite of all that acknowledgement, she seemed very reluctant to actually DO anything different.  What was she missing?  Here are some things we can shoot for that might help us walk a path of personal growth, and we can perhaps use them to guide our own insights about what is “missing” in our search for transformation:






Change is more likely to happen when we utilize courage, compassion and connection to do our work.  Sadly, I often hear parents lament over their children’s problems.  Having three of my own I have done my fair share of lamenting too.  But I’ve never seen it hurt a situation for those of us who love a struggling person – whether child, spouse, parent or third cousin twice removed – to do our own work of recovery.


I hope you have some dreams about what a wholehearted life would look like for you personally.  What foundational actions might you need to take to get the ball rolling in the right direction?  What small first right steps need to be in place so that you can move toward your wholehearted, whole hog life?  Can you find courage, compassion and connection in your own life?  What might have to change in order to access these 3 c’s?


Belonging isn't easy

Brene Brown writes the most amazing books.  In her book Rising Strong, she provides the guiding principles that she has in her own organization.  I’ll get to those in a second, but here’s the main point for us to consider today:  she and her organization are operating by guiding principles.


This is uncommon but necessary for belonging.  There is this tendency to get sentimental about belonging.  “Hey, come!  We accept everyone!”  I love the sentiment but it can be taken too far.  In almost twenty years of recovery ministry I can count on one hand the number of times that we have had to respectfully ask someone to find another community.  Yikes.  I hate writing that sentence.  BUT and this is a big BUT – BUT for the welfare of the community, it is important to have thought about the conditions of belonging.  I am SO not talking about forming a club where people get along.  In our community we have conflict and petty arguments on a fairly regular basis.  This is normal for a tribe of people who love each other and form deep attachments.  I’d be concerned if we didn’t have issues to sort through.  But there are limits, and those limits are best not determined in the heat of a dispute, but forged through a discernment process over a long period of time and shaped by experience/failure.


Remember Sister Monahan’s discoveries:  truth, authenticity, and humility (another way to say that is finding her place in the bigger story as she discovered she was neither unique or alone). Add to that Brene’s five guiding principles and I think we end up with the start of a great conversation for ourselves, our friends, our families, our communities, and any organization we are invested in.


Here are Brene’s (paraphrased by me but available in totality on p. 257 in Rising Strong:


1.     Respect -  for all and everything.

2.     Rumble – value our tribe enough to be willing to wrestle with hard things.

3.     Rally – even in conflict, refuse to let go of collaboration, ditch ego, and practice the discipline of gratitude.

4.     Recovery – rest!

5.     Reach out – don’t isolate, stay connected, practice empathy, compassion and love.


I hope the connections are fairly obvious regarding Monahan’s and Brown’s perspectives.  More than anything, I pray that me and mine find ways to remember the 5 R’s and practice living them.  Which of these is most difficult for you?  Which one do you feel you could show up for your community and practice reasonably well?


We are all doing the best we can

At NSC we try to bring a variety of voices to the table of reckoning.  One voice that has been amazingly helpful is the work of Brene Brown – who is amazing.  We could do far worse than reading every word she has written and watching all her Youtube videos like any decent rabid fan would do.


She’s the one that introduced the language that we are all doing the best we can.  It helped that she fought against this concept tooth and nail herself in order to accept its premise and mostly true.  We certainly resisted the concept. 


But after wearing this slogan for a while, most of us agree with her.  We are all doing the best we can – and sometimes it isn’t very good. 


One of the things I like about this reminder is what it doesn’t say.  It doesn’t say that someone’s best even when it is awful needs to be tolerated.  If we’re in a relationship that includes someone’s “best” as being abusive, ugly and inappropriate OUR BEST might include having the courage to walk away from the relationship.


Her phrase fits nicely with another slogan:  when we know better we do better.


Understanding that people are doing the best they can is an invitation to find our empathy and compassion NOT a directive to tolerate unacceptable relationship practices. 


It also doesn’t suggest that the best we can do today is our highest achievement in “bestness.”  Surely our pursuit of inspired vision and following God compels us to pay attention and learn new ways of being better more decent human beings.


How can we continue to remind ourselves of the “both/and” of compassion paired with the commitment to continual transformation?