Archive for Grace

The Perfect Christmas Gift

I love Christmas and I love giving people gifts…but I really struggle trying to figure out what gift to give. It seems like everyone has everything they need. My wife and children put together Christmas lists and I look at the list. That helps. I can choose from the list. But sometimes I want to give them something from the list and something more, something that can really express my love for them.

This year, as I contemplate just what to give each family member to express my love, I decided to follow the example given on that first Christmas day. God knew the perfect gift to give. He loved us so much that He gave Himself. He emptied Himself of heavenly privilege and entered into the lives of those He loved. He became Immanuel, “God with Us.” He gave Himself in service stating that He had come to serve, not to be served. He gave Himself to ransom us (1 Timothy 2:6) from the evil that had kidnapped us. He gave Himself for our sins (Galatians 1:4) so we could receive His righteousness. He gave the perfect gift. He gave Himself.

This Christmas I’m going to follow His example. I’m going to “re-gift” myself to my family. The gift of myself won’t simply be opened on Christmas day and set aside. No, it will be an ongoing gift; one I will give to each one for the rest of my life. I’m going to set aside any perceived privilege and selfish tendencies so I can enter their lives and serve them, listen to them, encourage them, and support them. I’m going to give them my time and energy to help them reach their dreams and goals. I’m going to give them my love. Maybe, in the gift of myself, they will be inspired to live a more loving life themselves. That just makes the gift all the better. Yes. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m giving the gift of self…it’s the perfect gift.

I Heard the Bells?

It has been a rough couple of years for all. Person loss, deaths, pandemic confusion, political turmoil, continued racial and ethnic strife. I wonder if we are catching a glimpse of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow must have felt in 1863. He had lost his wife two years earlier (1861) when her dress accidentally caught fire. Mr. Longfellow tried to save her and severely burned his hands, arms, and face in the process. Sadly, he could not save her, and she died the next day. Mr. Longfellow was burnt so badly he could not attend her funeral.

The Civil War also began in 1861. In 1863, his oldest son joined the Union army even though his father disapproved. Mr. Longfellow discovered his son had left for the army when he found the note his son had written before leaving. On December 1, 1863, Mr. Longfellow received a telegram saying his son had been severely wounded in battle on November 27. He rushed to Washington D.C. where a surgeon told him that “the wound was very serious and paralysis might ensue.” (He did recover without paralysis.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had experienced unexpected loss of life when his wife passed. His son lay severely wounded in fighting for a cause the family believed. And still, peace seemed a distant shadow. the Civil War with all its racial strife and political turmoil raged. Amidst this chaos, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard church bells ringing and began to write…

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Maybe we need to take a moment this Christmas—a moment of respite in the midst of personal loss, unexpected death, pandemic confusion, overall political turmoil, and continued racial and ethnic strife—to recall and meditate upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lament and the Christmas hope it recalls…of “Peace on earth, good-will to men.” 

Love in a Dog-Eat-Dog World

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.” The competition is brutal. In fact, you might have to step on a few people to make your way to the top. But everyone can’t be top of the hill, right?

Did you ever hear that message? I have. Do you ever act on this message, behave as though it is the gospel truth? When we do, people often get hurt. When it becomes a theme in our marriages and families, our loved ones get hurt. A “dog-eat-dog” mindset just doesn’t work in family.

Surely you and I don’t hold these beliefs and let them interfere with our families though, right? Or do we? Consider these few examples.

  • We thrust our way into a conversation, maybe even talking over the other person because
    “my” ideas need to be heard. We may even feel as if they need to be believed above others. On Facebook we debate, look down on, and even belittle those who believe differently than “me” because “my” idea is obviously the right idea. 
  • We see the last parking spot available, or the one closest to the door. Realizing only one person can have that parking space, we rush to beat the other guy to the space.
  • Only one person can have the lead part in the play, so we spend countless hours working to crush the other guy in try outs. We even talk badly about the “competitions” performance in an attempt to sway others to view “my” performance as best.
  • I need to get to my appointment on time even though I’m running late, so I cut off the other guy at the intersection even though he’s likely running behind as well.
  • There is a line at the checkout counter, so I rush to get there first.

Yes, we all have taken on some of that “dog-eat-dog mentality” and so compete to be first in line, first to be noticed, first to be picked, first and foremost in everything. We invest our energy and our time to be the top dog, the best, the first. Unfortunately, we do this even within our families in subtle less direct ways.

  • There is only one piece of pizza left and I’m hungry. Maybe someone else is to…no matter because “the early bird gets the worm.”
  • One of us has to clean the kitty litter. If I just hold out long enough, my spouse will do it. (I guess this is more of a “cat-eats-cat” type example…oh well.)
  • My favorite TV show is on at the same time as your TV show…as long as I get the remote first, I can watch mine on the better TV.

You get the idea. Even in family we allow a “dog-eat-dog mindset” to impact our relationships and how we interact with one another.  

When we do, we have less energy to invest in others. We become so busy investing in ourselves that we neglect to learn about other spouse or our children.  We devote so much time and energy in achieving our own desired ends that we have no energy left to build relationships. We expend so much energy competing that we have no energy or time left to share a kindness with our spouse, our child, our parent, our friend, our neighbor.

But love is kind. Love does not compete in order to come out on top. Love does not take up the banner of a “dog-eat-dog world.” Love is kind enough to invest time and energy in getting to know the other guy. Love is kind enough to give the last piece of pizza to another hungry family member…or shares it with another. Love kindly listens to understand and even seek common ground with the person who disagrees with us. Love shows a radical kindness that helps the competition do their best, even if the one who loves in this way “loses” in the process.

Love is kind. So, I have to ask…Would your family say you are kind?

The Grace of a Parent Who Disciplines

We often think a show of grace means giving someone a special favor or showing them kindness even when they don’t deserve it. This is true, but grace goes even further. Grace sacrifices. Grace gives of itself, even gives up the self, to pave the way for another person to become healthier and more mature. As any parent discovers, becoming a parent is a practice in the grace of giving up their selves for their children, sometimes in subtle & often in difficult ways. For instance, discipline is an act of grace. No one likes to see their child uncomfortable. But in grace a parent gives up their own comfort and allows their child to sit in the discomfort of their poor choice. In a way, parents give up their own comfort to sit in discomfort like their child for the sake of their child’s long-term growth.

Sometimes a parent has to actively set a limit or enforce a rule. In anger, their child may look at them with hatred. They may even say, “I hate you.” When this happens, a parent gives up their desire to be understood and loved so their child can grow more mature. They have shown grace in an effort to help their child become a more mature person.

Other similarly gracious moments arise every day, moments of giving “hard grace” by giving up the desire to be liked 100% of the time, understood and appreciated for difficult decisions, and free to observe our children’s joy at all times. These “little moments” of grace occur daily in limits like:

  • “Save your snack for after dinner so you don’t ruin your appetite.”
  • “Leave your phone in the kitchen to charge overnight. That way it will get a full charge and you can get a good night’s sleep.”
  • “Please use polite, respectful language…even when you’re angry.”
  • “Finish your homework, then you can meet your friends.”
  • “Be kind to that kid at school, even if everyone else is mean to him/her. If you were in his/her place, wouldn’t you want a friend?”

The list goes on. Grace, giving ourselves up for our children’s maturity, may be one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. But the long-term dividends are amazing—an adult child who is kind, loving, compassionate…and full of grace themselves.

How an Argument Can Lead to Longer Life & Deeper Intimacy

It’s true. Stress is a killer. Research has found that chronic stress increases depression and anxiety, impacting our mental health. It also impacts physical health, contributing to heart disease, higher cholesterol, a weaker immune system, and gastrointestinal issues.

You know what creates a lot of stress for many people (including me)? Arguments. An Oregon State University study published in 2021 examined the impact of arguments and avoided arguments on a person’s negative emotions. Utilizing data obtained through an in-depth survey of over 2,000 people, they found that on the day of an argument or avoided argument, people who felt their argumentative encounter resolved reported about half as much negative emotion as those who felt the encounter unresolved. Even more, on the day after the argument, those who felt the incident was resolved felt no prolonged negative emotion related to the disagreement.

In other words, resolve the argument and the stress goes away. Resolve the argument before the sun goes down and have no stress related to it the next day.

I don’t know about you, but I have arguments with my spouse now and again. I can also experience disagreements with my daughters. Left unresolved, I ruminate. Stress continues to push cortisol (stress hormones) through my veins. I don’t sleep well. I’m restless. And the next day I’m tired, still feeling the stress of yesterday’s disagreement, and even feeling a little grumpy.

Better to avoid all that and do the work of resolving the argument and any residual anger that accompanies it. This doesn’t mean you have to reach an agreement. It means you have to resolve your anger. How? Start by taking a break and during that break…

  1. Take a deep breath. Let the breath out slowly as you look around the room. Intentionally recognize where you are, what you see, what you hear, what positive memories you have in this place.
  2. Think of the good times you have had with the family member with whom you are having an argument. They are much more than this point of disagreement or moment of anger. Remember what you admire and appreciate about them. Recall times of joy and celebration together.
  3. Agree to meet together to understand one another better after everyone has calmed down. Notice, you are not going to meet to resolve the disagreement, although this is often a byproduct of meeting. Instead, you are going to meet to understand one another better. But first you want all the parties to become calm. When we are upset, we often don’t think rationally. Our fight or flight system gets activated and we only think of survival. Wait until you are calm and your rational, loving brain is back on board. Then you can discuss the disagreement. And, with a calm, clear mind, you can approach the discussion with the intent of understanding your family member’s perspective. The goal is not to prove your point or make them understand you, but for you to intentionally seek to understand their perspective.
  4. Share affection. A hug, a kiss, an “I respect you” or an “I love you” will go a long way in resolving anger among loved ones. Even if you still feel a little agitated…or even a lot agitated…give your family member a genuine hug. After all, deep down you love them in spite of any disagreement. As you share affection, feel the anger dissipate.

These 4 steps take effort. But the effort pays great dividends. Stress is reduced. Anger is resolved. You’ll likely find that the disagreement is even resolved or becomes less significant. Your physical health is nurtured. But best of all, intimacy with your family member deepens. Like I said, it takes effort, but the reward is fabulous.

The Power of “How Can I Help You?”

You have at your disposal a powerful question that can strengthen your family relationships. It’s a simple question: “How can I help you?” Of course, there are variations:

  • “What can I do for you today?”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • ‘What would you like me to do?”

We underestimate the power of this little question, power that would benefit every family. Take a moment and consider its power for your family.

  • “How can I help you?” honors your family. It communicates our interest in our family members. It expresses how much we value them and their work. It reveals our interest in their lives and their work.
  • “How can I help you?” shares grace with your family. It shows your spouse, your children, and your parents that you care enough about their daily life and work to invest your time and energy in it. It means we will give up your desire to be in charge and let them be in charge, let them direct you in how you can help them.
  • “How can I help you?” promotes togetherness within your family. It opens the opportunity to work together.
  • “How can I help you?” communicates grace by opening the door for you to serve other family members.

Are you beginning to see the power of this question to strengthen your family relationships? By asking this question we honor our family, we show grace to our family, we promote togetherness with our family, and we open the door to service within our family. In other words, we lay several of the building blocks needed for a healthy family just by asking this simple question: “How can I help you?”

To truly experience the power of this question, I suggest a 30-day challenge. Every day for the next 30 days, ask a family member “How can I help you?”  You could ask the same family member every day or you could ask a different family member each day. Either way, ask a family member this question every day for the next 30 days.

After 30 days, reflect. How has this impacted your relationship with your family? How has it changed the way you think of your family? How has it changed the way your family acts toward you and you toward them?

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes your family experiences because of this one simple question: “How can I help you?”

Put on Your C.A.P.P. to Build Trust in Marriage (or, Kindness in the Prison of Mistrust)

I recently asked a couple what daily acts of kindness they could share with one another. Sadly, they could not think of any. After a few minutes of silent thought, one of them said, “It’s hard to think of kind things to do when you don’t trust the other person.”

That is sad, but true.  A lack of trust in our spouse locks our marriage in a prison of insecurities. It binds us behind bars of despair and shackles us with the fear that our vulnerable offers of kindness will be rejected or, worse, used to manipulate us.

Lack of trust also blinds us to any kind acts our spouse does share. It causes us to misperceive those acts of kindness as an attempt to exploit us.

If you find your marriage in a prison of mistrust, how can you begin to build trust? Try the CAPP method.

  • Commit to building trust in your relationship. Trust grows through small daily moments of connection with your spouse. Commit to looking for and initiating those moments. Trust grows when we follow through on our word so commit to following through.  Show yourself
    trustworthy in making daily connections and in keeping your word.
  • Admire and appreciate your spouse. Resentment or anger may have blinded you to those things you admire in your spouse. In this case, you will need to expand your view of your spouse beyond your resentment by intentionally looking for those things you can admire and appreciate in them. A lack of trust may also keep you from voicing what you appreciate. It will demand courage to risk voicing your admiration and appreciation. Commit to diligently searching for those things you truly admire and appreciate about your spouse. Every day, courageously express genuine admiration and appreciation to them.
  • Practice small positive moments. We already noted that trust is built on small, daily moments of connection. Practice making those connections. Practice doing kind things for your spouse—things like washing their dish, getting them a drink, offering a compliment, opening a door. Practice noticing when your spouse does a kind deed for you and practice thanking them for that kindness.
  • Prove your devotion. Let your spouse know you “got their back.” Don’t laugh at your spouse’s expense. Encourage them instead.  Take your spouse’s side. Even if you disagree, don’t disagree in public. Instead, talk in private and search for an intent or motive with which you do agree. Start with the agreement. You and your spouse are a team. Don’t let anyone or anything come between you. Prove your devotion.

These four actions will begin to build trust as you practice them over time. As trust grows, kindness will become easier to share. As kindness to shared more often, trust will grow. (For more on building trust read Building Trust in Family Relationships.)

The Fantastic Duo of Giving: An Experiment with Toys

Several young couples have told me about the vast number of toys in their home. They have so many toys that some even remain unopened. Their children have grown tired of other toys… now they lay in a corner collecting dust. Stuffed animals that once lined the bed are now stuffed in a closet. Broken Barbie Dolls lay under the bed forgotten. And, of course there are the boxes and wrappings that our children found more fun to play with than the expensive toys the boxes protected! It all makes me wonder: how many toys do our children need?

With this in mind, I propose an experiment. A challenging experiment that you and your child will find rewarding when it is all said and done. It’s an experiment to thin out the toys. Here are the steps involved.

  1. Team up with your child and talk about the virtues of sharing and gratitude. You might also want to pick a nice name for the project, like Team Generosity or The Great Toy Giveaway.
  2. As a team, pick out the toys you will give away to those who have less. You can identify the toys no longer used to give away and choose a couple more to represent an extra level of generosity and caring.
  3. Decide where you want to give the toys to. You might choose the Salvation Army, a toy lending library, or even someone you know. You can also learn about children who might have a need through an area social service agency or church.
  4. Pick a time in which you and your child (The Fantastic Duo of Giving) can deliver the toys to the charity the two of you agreed upon.
  5. Deliver the toys.
  6. Finally, talk about the experience with your child. What, if anything, was difficult? What was easy?  Now that it is finished, how do you both feel?

Not only does this experiment allow you and your child to declutter the toy room, but it also allows you to spend time together as well (and isn’t that what children really want?). As a bonus, your child will likely experience the joy of generosity and gratitude as they complete this process…and that experience may just prompt more great team giveaways. (For more read One Ingredient of Happy Children.)

If I Had Only Known Then…

I wish I had written this blog about 10 years ago. I could have used the information. But I suppose late is better than never. And, if you have children or teens in your home right now, you’ll find this information very helpful. I remember my daughter coming home angry from school or coming home upset after an outing with friends. Not every time… but several times. Has that happened to you? If it hasn’t and you have children, it probably will. Anyway, I hate to see my daughters upset so I tried to fix the problem and make them feel better. Impossible. Didn’t help.  I tried using humor a few times, but it usually ended up with them directing their anger at me. Apparently, using dad humor when your children are upset is a bad idea. I reasoned with them. No good. Only made it worse. Eventually, I just threw up my hands in defeat and let them stew in their frustration and anger.

If only I had known what this study out of Ohio State University reveals. It could have saved me a lot of heartache. This study consisted of three experiments that included a total of 307 participants. Each participant spent five minutes writing about an incident that made them “intensely angry.” Then, they verbally described the incident to a researcher. As you can imagine, their anger grew as they completed this exercise.

After listening to the participant describe their anger-provoking incident, the researcher either validated or invalidated their angry feelings. They either responded with validating comments like, “Of course, you’d be angry about that” and “I can understand getting angry about that” or invalidating comments like, “That doesn’t sound like anger,” or “Why would you get angry about that?”

Not surprisingly, participants who heard validating comments recovered their positive emotional states. Those who heard invalidating comments did not. In fact, the “recovered positive mood” of the validated participants either matched or exceeded their positive mood prior to recalling the anger-provoking incident.

If only I had known that 10 years ago. I could have responded to my daughter’s anger about school incidents or conflict with friends with validating comments. You know:

  • “I can understand how that would make you angry.”
  • “Wow, that would really make someone angry.”
  • “I’d be angry about that, too.”

Simple, validating comments that could have helped my daughters regain their positive mood. Validating comments that could have enabled us to have a more enjoyable evening. Oh, but I do have a secret about this idea of validating though. It works with adults, too—adults like my spouse and my adult children. And, it has already saved a few evenings of heartache.  Give it a try. Validate the angry feelings and enjoy an evening of positive moods. (Validating will also help you use the power of empathy in connecting with your family.)

Avoiding the Family Flush of Criticism

Criticism is toxic. It creates a toxic environment that threatens to flush your happy family right down the tubes. It’s true. It never helps and it always hurts. Consider the cycle of criticism. Criticism causes the person criticized to retreat behind walls of protection and toss out bombs of defensiveness against the one criticizing them. Criticism also captures the one criticizing in a cycle that focuses on the negative and, as a result, perceive an unending list of reasons to remain unhappy and angry. Unhappy, angry criticism leads to more unhappy, angry criticism, eliciting and swirling around with a protective distancing and defensiveness, both reinforcing the other as your happy marriage and family are flushed away in the toxic environment of criticism. Criticism never helps. It always hurts.

But what if you have a genuine concern, an unmet need that you must express? How can we offer a concern, even a complaint, without falling into the flushing cycle of criticism? After all, our children, our spouses, even our parents will do things that we will rub us the wrong way, pushing us to criticize their choices or requiring some form of correction. How do we address these legitimate concerns without criticism?

First, become aware of our feelings and take time to understand those feelings. Why does my spouse’s behavior or words arouse my anger? Why do my child’s actions make me feel so helpless? Why do my parents get on my last nerve? What priority are they touching upon? What thoughts are their words and actions arousing in me? Are these thoughts rational or extreme? Answering these questions will help us understand and respond to our feelings more accurately and calmly.

Second, take responsibility for our feelings. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Our feelings, and how we act on those feelings, are our responsibility. We cannot blame our spouse, our child, or our parent. Instead, we can take ownership of the way we respond to our feelings. Accept your power. Manage your emotions. Don’t give the power away by blaming the other person.

Third, take a “criticism fast” (Much of this information is taken from The Marriage Vaccine, the idea of a “criticism fast” in particular). For the next 30 days, do not criticize. Remember, criticism never helps. It always hurts. Focus on complimenting, encouraging, thanking, and admiring the good you see in the other person and the good in what you see them doing.

Fourth, if you have a genuine concern that you need to address, do it with kindness. (Join the Kindness Challenge with Shaunti Feldhahn.) Here is a process to help you express your concern with kindness rather than criticism.

  1. Nurture your compassion toward them before you speak. Consider how the action or words you want to address may impact that person in a negative way. When you can feel some level of compassion for the other person (the person you want to criticize) move on to step two.
  2. When you address the concern, begin with a gentle start up. Remember, your discussion will end like it begins [blog]. Use a neutral tone. Avoid “you-statements” as they
    are easily interpreted as blaming. Objectively describe a specific situation that epitomizes your complaint [Turn your Argument Into the Best…].
  3. Offer a simple, positive action the other person can take in the future to remedy any similar situation. Offering this type of solution invites your partner to relate in a new way, a way that can build deeper intimacy. It invites your spouse into a deeper relationship.

These four tips can help you avoid the flush of criticism that will send your happy family swirling down the tubes and, instead, develop a more intimate, loving family.

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