Responding with Grace

The SCOTUS ruling and announcement about same-sex marriage blew up my Facebook account.


Lots of people have lots to say. Most of it isn’t all that helpful. In fact, some of it is simply hateful. But here are two examples of responses from two friends of mine on Facebook. One’s a Christian, and one’s not. But they both gracefully acknowledged the tension and spoke with grace towards others they might not fully agree with. I love that I can call these two gentlemen my friends.

From my Christian friend, Rory:

“Marriage can be hard. In a marriage, love only wins when you consistently, over a long period of time, make the sort of choices that don’t always feel “lovely” or “winning.” It requires commitment, a long-term perspective, humility, a willingness to consider someone else over yourself, a willingness to prepare for the possibility and responsibility of raising children, a denial of consumerism and selfishness and cheap promises, and an investment into and from your community.

Above all it requires the conviction that there are very, very few things, perhaps only death or sustained / serious infidelity, that truly amount to acceptable reasons for ending a marriage. This might mean that over the years you discover that you’ve actually married a few different “people” rather than the one person to whom you spoke vows. It is only under these conditions (and more) that marriage truly acts as a fundamental building block for society, as the SCOTUS mentioned in their ruling yesterday.

So, to same-sex couples who can now marry: sincere congratulations, but also, welcome to the long, good, hard struggle. I hope, for the sake of our children and grandchildren and societal flourishing, that you are in this for the long haul, and that as a result of more people having access to legal marriage we can start to see more of the benefits to society that marriage provides. It will be good to have more allies in the struggle against broken commitments, no-fault divorces, and children who are orphaned / parentless / shuffled-around-between-warring-parties / all that.”

From my non-Christian friend, Eric:

“To those who are disappointed by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the legality of gay marriage, I hear your anger. I don’t share it, but I hear you. I understand that you feel disgusted and horrified at the sin you feel this country is permitting, and that you may not feel the same pride in our nation as so many of us do at this moment. You have every right to these feelings and to continue disapproving of homosexuality, although you will likely face significant challenges from others each time you express these thoughts. I expect that these challenges will become stronger in the months and years to come. I truly hope that you won’t use these challenges as a reason for extricating yourselves from our collective society.

If you can find it in your hearts to forgive those who you feel are misguided, sinful, and deceived in their feelings of love for another person, I hope you will do so. It will bring you peace. I also hope you may find the courage to direct this anger and disgust toward other fights. Your anger and faith are ideal weapons for fighting poverty, sickness, violence, and hatred in our own communities and across the globe. I’m certain you will find many more allies in these fights than you have in your fight against gay marriage — you would have my support and my allegiance, at the very least. If you can bring the same level of organization and dedication to these other battles, I guarantee that we will have every chance of creating a truly just and loving world.

To my friends who are thrilled with this ruling, and especially to my gay friends for whom this changes everything, congratulations! This has been a long, and difficult, and uphill climb from the start. It’s so incredible to see these accomplishments come into being, when they often seemed so far from the realm of possibility. Your expressions of love, tolerance, and acceptance are a joy to have in this world, and I am so happy that you now have these equal rights in the eyes of the law. Whether or not you choose to marry, keep this spirit of love in your heart for all people. Celebrate this ruling, and celebrate your love. Please remember that those who oppose you will not change their hearts and minds by being told they are wrong. Their hearts and minds will only change by seeing you love and be loved. Stay vigilant, stay beautiful, and let us continue our push for equal rights and opportunities for all.”


What I’ve Learned in Five Years

A week ago my wife had a simple surgical procedure done. As we were getting ready to leave the hospital, and while she was still under the fog of general anesthesia, Sarah’s nurse asked her how long we have been married.

“It will be five years next week.” Sarah said (with a bit of a slur, and a smile).

“Wow! That’s great. So…what’s the secret?”

“The secret?”

“Yeah, the secret to a happy marriage.”

I didn’t know if this was some kind of test to see if Sarah was able to think clearly before she left. I though that maybe this nurse gets very truthful answers right after people come out of anesthesia and this is a question she likes to ask. I remained silent, because I too was curious as to what Sarah’s response would be. She looked like this was the most important question she had ever been asked. She wrinkled her forehead, lost in thought, and stared out towards my general direction.

She looked at me for a while, still lost in thought, thinking through the catalog of the last five years of our marriage. I too, then thought through these last five years: the laughs, the dates, the arguments, the compromises, the transitions, the times of plenty, the times of scarcity, the times of fear, the times of peace, the times of immense joy, the times of miserable exhaustion, the happy looks, the tears of sadness, the times of just the two of us, then the three, and then the four. I thought about how we’ve grown from being two silly teenagers in love eleven years ago, to the love we have for each other now. Is that really the same kind of love? Is it fair to call it the same thing?

“Vulnerability.” she finally replied.

The nurse had a surprised, yet satisfied look on her face.

“Oh…hmm…that’s interesting. I’ve never heard that one before. But I like it.”

I’d have to agree. Learning to be vulnerable with each other has created such a place of trust, security, empathy, and deep love for one another that it has strengthened our marriage in ways that I do not believe any other “secret” really could.

Of course we’re still working on it nearly every day. And we fail some a lot of the time. It seems you have to wake up every morning and remind yourself that you need to be empathetic, kind, and vulnerable. These things don’t usually just come easily. Through trial and error and through daily reminders, we try not to be people who attempt to be kind or compassionate, but rather attempt to become kind people, compassionate people, vulnerable people. (There’s a difference – be the type of person who is kind, not a person who says or does kind things).

We’ve learned that it’s tremendously worse to bottle something up or to keep it under the surface. It becomes the fuel for aggression, anger, bitterness, general grumpiness, and leads to disconnection. Donald Miller posted this on Twitter the other day, and I thought it was on point:

Recently I’ve been reading an incredibly helpful book by Dr. Brene Brown entitled Daring GreatlyShe puts words to so many things that I’ve felt as I’ve grown as a person, a husband, and a father. Brene Brown is famous for a couple of her TED talks about vulnerability and shame. She’s a shame researcher and has really captured some amazing truths about shame, vulnerability, and what it looks like to be a “wholehearted person.” (It’s quite the empowering book, by the way, and I can’t recommend it highly enough).

In the book she briefly mentions her own marriage, one that she’s been in for 18 years. This is what she says is the key in her own relationship:

If you asked us today what we believe is the key to our relationship, the answer would be vulnerability, love, humor, respect, shame-free fighting, and blame-free living.

— Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 105

Looking back on these last five years of marriage with Sarah, I’d have to agree completely with Brene. Something that really stood out for me in her list  was “shame-free fighting” and “blame-free living.”

Those are the things which are the hardest for me. Fighting? Yeah that can come pretty easily. It’s not hard to get upset over simple things when you live with another human being (and another two young, rambunctious ones for that matter). But I think it’s great that she says fighting is key to the success and health of her marriage. But it’s not simply fighting. It’s shame-free fighting. Now that’s hard. We are conditioned in this world to constantly feel shame and to shame one another – it comes so easily, especially when you know the person you’re fighting with so well. You know their weaknesses and they know yours. You know their struggles and they know yours. But shaming one another never accomplishes anything productive. Learning to have arguments and fights without shaming is a challenge, but necessary for growth.

Blame-free living is also incredibly hard. Shifting blame, pointing fingers, and getting defensive is super easy to do and is my basic default. I rarely want to take ownership if something fails or goes wrong. But I’ve begun to learn that is not helpful in any relationship, and especially within a marriage.

Blame-free living demands empathy and it demands humility. If Sarah did something which I typically would want to point my finger at her for, I have learned that pointing that finger or blaming her for whatever has happened doesn’t really strengthen our marriage. It strains it. It pushes us away from each other. It discourages partnership, empathy, and intimacy. And it encourages shame, guilt, and disconnection.

If I did something which caused a problem or messy situation or hurt feelings, I typically in the past have wanted to blame shift. I have wanted to blame the circumstances, or other people, or whatever it may be. The fault lies in anything but myself.

But obviously that’s not usually the case. I have been learning to own up to the mistakes and failures that I make throughout a day as a husband, father, friend, or even human being. I’ve had to learn what it looks like to be humble and own up to the times which have caused disconnection, shame, or guilt. And that’s really hard to do. And I’m only starting to understand what that looks like on a consistent basis.

Recently, Sarah and I were in a fight and I was being miserable to deal with. I was disengaging, distancing myself from Sarah – not wanting to address the issue at hand. I was angry at her for ignoring a request that I had made earlier in the day and then later for  hurting my feelings by how she was responding to me. At first she didn’t understand where my anger or hurt feelings were coming from. It seemed to come out of nowhere for her. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous and that she should have picked up on it way sooner than she did, hence my hurt feelings and distancing. But she was patient. She stuck by me and told me she wanted to hear what was making me so upset, and why I felt the way I did.

I originally didn’t want to talk to her about how I was feeling. I was angry. I was upset. But her empathy broke down my defense and disengagement and gave me the space to say how I really felt. Her vulnerability encouraged me to be open and honest and vulnerable about how I was feeling.

[Side note: We learned long ago not to say statements like,
“You made me feel ______.”

We are responsible for our own reactions and emotions. Other people don’t make us feel anything. Instead it is much better to say,
“I feel _____ when you _____.”

Saying things like that may sound elementary or even silly, but it doesn’t put the responsibility of how I feel on the other person, and it allows for me to take the responsibility for how I’m feeling. And it still lets her see how my feelings correspond to what has been said or done (also leaving room for empathy). This is a part of blame-free living, too.]

Anyway, I spoke my mind. I told her my frustrations and why I was angry and why I felt hurt. After she listened to everything I had to say (she didn’t interrupt or get defensive) she told me that she was sorry. She didn’t shame me for how I was feeling. She didn’t try to pass the blame. She humbled herself and owned what she believed was wrong of her to do or say towards me.

And that meant A LOT to me.

She asked me if I would forgive her, which is such a vulnerable thing to ask. What if I said no?

But I said yes.

And then she asked if I was still angry with her.

And I thought about it. And no, I wasn’t angry anymore. It kind of surprised me. I had been very angry just five minutes beforehand. But I no longer was angry. And it’s because she was honest, allowed herself to argue with me, but not shame me or blame me, or get defensive.

She told me she’d let me be alone as long as I needed, so that I could continue to cool down and recalibrate. (Another kind and thoughtful thing for her to do). And she left me alone.

But it only took me a few moments to really feel at peace again. And when I walked back downstairs to be with her I felt completely reconciled. No baggage. No anger, resentment, or bitterness.

But having a fight like that has taken five years of having fights not like that

I recently heard a man speak to a group of leaders at my church. During the question and answer time of the evening he was asked about his marriage and what he has learned throughout the years. His response was interesting.

“We’ve learned to not be naive enough to think we’ll get tot the place where we won’t hurt each other. We will. But we have learned to repent quicker.”

We’re still learning what it looks like for two imperfect people to live in the same space while trying to raise (and keep alive) two small imperfect people. We’ve grown a lot in five years of marriage, and mostly through trial and error.

Going through life with someone I’ve known and loved for over eleven years now has been a lot of fun. It’s incredible to look back, but exhilarating to look ahead.

Happy fifth Anniversary, Sarah. I love you.


An Example of Vulnerability and Empowerment

Recently at my church here in Omaha, we had a video presentation from a married couple at our church. It was a very honest and vulnerable story of their marriage — and the brokenness they have experienced in it and the lessons they’ve learned through it.

Here it is:

After the video played there was a definite sense of heaviness that filled the room. I doubt there was a dry eye to speak of. People clapped in appreciation of their transparency and their vulnerability. When the pastor got up on stage afterwards he recognized the sense of heaviness that was present in the room. He appropriately told us to all take a deep breath in, and then a deep breath out.

After the sermon we have communion together as a church. There are about six stations where two people hold a loaf of bread and a cup of wine/grape juice. I noticed that Roger and Denise were at one of the stations. I thought that was a beautiful thing.

I thought it was beautiful because it exemplifies what I believe to be empowerment. They put themselves in a vulnerable spot. They bore the darker moments of their lives with us as a congregation, and now to the world via the internet. Yet, vulnerability is not simply sharing personal, shameful, or embarrassing information about yourself. It is a reaching out for connection while telling such information, not knowing how others might respond. But having Roger and Denise serve communion (a sober celebration and reminder of the death of Jesus Christ and an anticipation of his coming again), it allowed them to serve the people of the church to whom they just bore their souls. It allowed the church to affirm them as our fellow brother and sister despite their messiness. They were empowered as they served communion to others in the church and spoke “this is Christ’s body, broken for you” and “this is the blood of Christ, shed for you” to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

A beautiful thing. And an example of what empowerment looks like. The leaders of the church created the environment for this couple to be empowered, and the congregation truly empowered and affirmed them as they came up for communion.

Empowering Leadership

[A note to the reader: This is very much a working document of mine as I consider my views of empowerment and leadership. Please comment and add your thoughts or opinions. I’d love some pushback, too, if you happen to disagree with various aspects of what I have written.] 

Over the course of my life I have had the privilege of being in a wide variety of leadership roles. In nearly every stage of my life I have been a leader of some sort in various groups or organizations, whether it be in Boy Scouts, school, or ministry. Empowerment is a term and a concept that has been used in nearly every group I have been a part of. Empowerment is often a goal of most leadership roles that I have experienced. We are told that a good leader empowers those below themselves – gives autonomy, gives power and responsibility to those under one’s leadership. And yes, I believe this to be true in a sense. But how this is done exactly is almost never explained. It’s just assumed that a leader will empower others.

What is required for a leader to be able to successfully empower those under his or her influence? Well, I believe this is crucial to understand if a leader is to successfully and consistently empower others.

One of the issues to first note is that the term empowerment is often thrown around with the assumption that we understand what it means. We may say that it means to give power to others, but what does that look like when it’s acted upon? Oftentimes what people call empowerment in reality looks like delegation. What often happens is that a person in a leadership role will see someone else taking on various responsibilities and deem that person an up and coming leader and then gives that person more responsibilities. Or someone wants to be involved in some way, and a leader puts that person in a role that might fit what the person wants to do.

So without ever taking any leadership courses at a university, these are details and thoughts that I have learned myself along the way.

An empowering leader is self-aware and honest.

For a leader to really flourish and be empowering, there is a prerequisite of being willing to be self-aware and honest about themselves. This creates an environment for them to be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It allows for them to see where they have succeeded and failed in various endeavors of the past. It allows for them to be able to first admit their mistakes, and then to learn from those mistakes for further application.

An empowering leader knows their own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses.

Everyone has aspects of themselves that are gifts. These are the skills and characteristics that seem to come naturally, almost a part of one’s personality. Some people are gifted in being able to speak publicly for example. They are able to speak clearly and creatively communicate their ideas, thoughts, and stories. Some are simply gifted in this area, while others are not. Some are gifted in humility. They are the types of people that do things behind the scenes and are not bothered when they are not recognized for the work that they do. Gifts are the aspects that come naturally to someone. They are the parts of the person that are a part of their identity – and have been for as long as people can remember.

Gifts may be used and shown everyday, but some can be left undeveloped. Strengths, however, are usually the gifts that have been developed and nurtured in such a way that they stand out as a part of our identity and have become parts of our everyday actions.

Strengths are the skills and characteristics that oftentimes come easy, but usually they have also been developed throughout one’s life. Gifts and strengths often overlap, but not always. The way I like to categorize strengths is that they are the skills and characteristics that we have been told stand out in us and that we find our confidence in. They are the skills and characteristics that through training or life’s various experiences have been nurtured. Some people might have developed the skill of being a quick and improvisational thinker. This is a skill that might not have necessarily come naturally to them in the past, but through various experiences and schooling they have developed the ability and are very good at it. Some people might have the characteristic of being patient. This isn’t necessarily something that came easily to them, but throughout their life have been told they are patient and have continued to develop this characteristic in such a way that it has become a strength that stands out in their interactions with others.

Everyone also has weaknesses. These are aspects and characteristics of people’s life that have not been nurtured or addressed. These weaknesses usually arise throughout our lives due to the complexities of our personalities and temperament mixed with our life’s experiences. Most people, starting from a very young age, create coping mechanisms and ways to process the things we witness or hear about that lend themselves to be counterproductive to nurturing healthy habits, skills, or characteristics. Oftentimes these weaknesses are no fault of our own necessarily, but they remain hidden because we usually don’t want to analyze our weaknesses. However, oftentimes we are well aware of our weaknesses, such as a short temper or a tendency to judge people, but are unwilling to do the work necessary to change them due to our own pride or even because of our shame.

Naturally we like to focus on our gifts and strengths. And it feels good when people acknowledge them. We feel valued when they are recognized. And that’s ok. An effective leader knows their strengths and gifts well – and usually, they rely on them every day. But it’s even more important for an effective leader to know their weaknesses.

There are many advantages to knowing your own weaknesses:

  • It illuminates the places in which you can grow.
  • It helps to show the kind of people to surround yourself with and to learn from.
  • It creates transparency with others and a sense of humility – a way to for others to see that you don’t have to act like you have it all figured out. Everyone has places in which they can grow.
  • It keeps you as a leader in a place where you’re willing to learn – to still be teachable.

An empowering leader learns when and where their strengths become weaknesses.

The thing with leadership is that it, like most everything in life, is not done in a vacuum. We work and do life with other people. Other people who have personalities and strengths and weaknesses of their own. When working with people, things can get messy pretty quickly. Personalities clash. People can get defensive, prideful, or power hungry.

Most people lean into their strengths to help them in their tasks, relationships, and jobs. And for leaders, it is often their strengths that helped them get to where they are. That’s fine and normal. But in leadership, strengths are not always strengths. Sometimes the strength that helped someone become a leader hinders their ability to continue to lead well. Let’s say someone is skilled in making quick and wise decisions. This skill helped them stand out as a confident leader. And it was one of the reasons this person quickly became a leader in whatever circle he or she was a part of. But once this person was a leader, the skill of quick decision making might not be as helpful as it had been. The leader now has a lot more people to consider than just him/herself. To make quick decisions might not be a good thing like it once had been. People could be overlooked, voices not heard, and therefore problematic for good leadership.

So a good leader will be able to recognize these types of potential situations. They are self-aware enough to be able to recognize how strengths that helped get them to where they are, may no longer be strengths.

An empowering leader understands the value of diversity.

Because good leaders realize that leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum, they see the value of those around them. They also don’t want surround themselves with people exactly like themselves. Diversity exists all around us, whether we can see it or not. There is diversity of race, which is what most people first think of when the word diversity is mentioned. Racial and ethnic diversity is such an incredible environment for empowering leaders. There are so many perspectives and backgrounds to listen to and learn from. Sometimes the act of simply listening to voices different from one’s own is an empowering act in and of itself. Being a voice for those whose voice is rarely heard or valued is a responsibility of an empowering leader. In fact, it may be a requirement of a truly empowering leader.

But diversity is not simply limited to racial and ethnic categories. There’s also diversity of age, gender, sexual orientation, theological background, socio-economics, political, and other cultural elements with people self-identify. An good leader understands that there is value in all this, and wants to understand and implement the strengths that come from all that diversity. A good leader recognizes this diversity and creates environments in which the diversity of voices, opinions, and beliefs can be spoken in a safe environment. That means the leader is first willing to be vulnerable before those he or she leads.

An empowering leader is relational.

This may be a very Western understanding of leadership, but I think it is very effective in any culture. We are relational beings, and I think we always appreciate it when leaders are approachable and relational. I believe that a good leader is willing to take the time to be truly relational with those he or she leads. He or she actually gets to know those around them. This means that a safe approachable space is able to be created. Being relational and approachable doesn’t undercut a good leader’s authority, it enhances it.

An empowering leader learns the strengths and weaknesses of those around him or her.

Because a good leader is relational, they are able to identify and learn the strengths and weaknesses of those around them. The leader is constantly people watching, observing those around them — noting how various individuals interact with each other, learning what they are passionate about, and what they value. The leader constantly keeps these notes in the back of their mind as they think about those they lead and serve.

What are some of the strengths of various individuals that are not getting utilized or recognized very well? Where are some of the weaknesses holding people back from growing or maturing as a person or potential leader? The leader then thinks about how various individuals could be empowered and given various responsibilities to tap into the their strengths and to help them overcome some of their weaknesses.

An empowering leader understands that true empowerment comes from the community, not from a leader.

This may be my most important insight. Something that I believe is unfortunately often misunderstood.

A leader is not someone who just recognizes a strength in an individual and then gives them responsibilities based on that strength. That’s delegation. It’s good the leader recognized the strength in that individual, but placing them in a place of power or giving them responsibilities isn’t necessarily empowering. It could be burdensome. The people they are leading might not appreciate their leadership style or strength. The individual’s weaknesses could be overshadowing their strengths.

A truly empowering leader understands that he or she is not the one who does the empowering — it’s the community that provides the empowerment. A leader is wise enough to place a person with certain strengths and weaknesses in an environment or community that will provide that empowerment.

An empowering leader appropriately places people, based upon their strengths and weaknesses, in environments that allow for their strengths to flourish and be recognized and their weaknesses to be nurtured.

This is critical for good leadership. If someone is a good at teaching and explaining things, then to place them in an environment in which they can teach others just makes sense. But the people that this person is teaching should also be willing learners. Maybe the person teaching is really great at explaining things, but severely lacks confidence. The people that surround this teacher should not just be willing learners, but encouragers as well. This group of learners could really encourage the teacher by vocally affirming his or her skills of teaching and explaining.

As a leader, it may even be important to let the group of learners in this situation know that this person is a really gifted and skilled teacher, but lacks confidence. Maybe the teacher also lacks tact as they teach or explain things, and the group of learners could provide feedback in a way which helps challenge some of the weaknesses that this teacher has. This allows for the teacher to have their strengths recognized, affirmed, and utilized while also aptly addressing their weaknesses in such a way that encourages growth. So in the end it is not the leader who actually does the empowering, it is the community. The leader simply helps create that an environment where empowerment can occur.

An empowering leader consults when possible with both the empowered person and the group or team they lead.

If the leader has successfully created an environment for a person to be empowered, then that leader doesn’t need to constantly be there. However, it is important to check in with the newly empowered individual. How are they feeling about their responsibilities? Do they feel that they have been able to use their strengths effectively? What has it been like to use those strengths? How have they been able to identify some of their weaknesses and perhaps start to lean into some of them?

It is also important to check in with the group when possible. From their perspective, what are things that are working? What are things that aren’t working as well? What have they enjoyed about the empowered individual? How have they grown under his or her leadership?

The model that I have just explained fits within situations where there the empowerment comes in the form of empowering leaders. But the key element in my opinion of true empowerment is that a community or a collective group of people is truly where empowerment is generated. It does not come from the top down. A leader may put the various pieces together or orchestrate events to occur – but the empowerment itself comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.

I recently read an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic in which he refers to Robert Nisbet’s distinction between power and authority. I think his thoughts on power and authority are a refined and advanced reflection on my ideals of empowerment that I have just discussed. But it also shows the  when people assume the power should come from the top down instead of the bottom up, major systemic issues can arise.

In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between “power” and “authority.” Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is “based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.” Power, on the other hand, is “external” and “based upon force.” Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. “Power arises,” writes Nesbit, “only when authority breaks down.”


Journey to the Cross: Thursday

I did write most of a post for Tuesday and the Bible is very quiet about the events of Wednesday. I would have finished my post if I hadn’t been spending over two hours trying to convince my two and a half year old to stay in bed. But that’s where I’m at in life right now and I’m just not going to be able to post about Tuesday and Wednesday at this point. And really, today isn’t going to be much better.

But Thursday of Holy Week is an incredible day. The Last Supper, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the mobs.

I decided that I wanted to try and share a part of what happened that day to my kids. I pulled out the Jesus Storybook Bible and opened to the page about the Last Supper and the part where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. I got a basin of warm water and a cloth and we read the story together. I told them that Jesus told us to love everyone in this world. And sometimes that means we have to do things that aren’t pleasant or fun. So I washed Micah’s feet with the damp cloth and showed him how Jesus did that with his disciples. Then I had him wash Ezra’s feet with the cloth like I had done for him. It ended up being a very precious time for me. I grabbed a quick couple shots on my phone, and I’m so glad I did.

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