Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Two Favorite Books of 2013

I can never narrow down my favorite book of the year to just one, so I've taken to listing two when people ask me. For 2013, the two books could not be more different one from the other.

The first is Love Does by Bob Goff.

Goff is a remarkable man - a lawyer, law professor, diplomat, and founder of the international justice ministry Restore International. He is one of those guys who lives a legendary story on your average Tuesday. Most of all, he is a guy who does things and loves loudly - hence the book's title.

If you are my friend on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (@ToddHahnID) you'll know I quote Goff (@LoveDoes and @bobgoff) more than anyone else except for C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner.

The book is riotously funny and endlessly moving - he'll take you from spending two weeks on a raft in the Pacific Ocean, to taking his kids to eat ice cream with presidents and prime ministers, to the harrowing and dangerous work of caring for those caught up in human trafficking in Uganda. His point is that life is interesting when love motivates every action. His life is a case in point.

It's not a linear book - Goff moves from story to story the way the rest of us put on and take off clothes - but it never, not for one second, gets boring. It's short, inspirational, profound in the least heavy-handed of ways, and perfect for people who say "I don't like to read books" and avid readers alike. I read it in one sitting on a plane from Charlotte to Dallas, finishing before the flight was over. And then I've read it twice since then. It's that kind of book.

The second book is a whole different trip, man.

It's My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.

Wiman is a renowned poet, a professor at Yale, and, for most of his life, a devout skeptic. Several years ago, he received a harrowing and terminal diagnosis and, through coming to grips with that, found his way to a form of Christian faith. He refers to himself in this collection of essays as a "modern believer" and his belief system - and system is the wrong word - doesn't stay inside any boxes. But, oh my, the poet's way of seeing he has and the writing.

I read Love Does on a flight and still had time to take a nap and peruse Sky Mall. It took me four months to read My Bright Abyss, usually two pages at a sitting, and I am two months into my second reading, only on page 93. You can't read words like these rapidly:

"So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost"


"Be careful. Be careful that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us".


"Something is off. Life passes and we do not recognize it. The past streams through us like molecules we can't perceive, and we miss the God who misses - as in longs for - us."

or, finally,

"Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person."

These are rich meditations on life and death and art and being and seeing and faith and faith's counterfeits.

I read almost everything on my beloved Kindle Paperwhite. But I bought this book in hardcover. Buy it in a print edition so you can mark it up and return to it again to feel its rounded edges and smell its well-thumbed and yellowed pages one day. It's that kind of book.

What about you? What were your favorite books in 2013?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Give Your Money To These Guys

Every year, I list a couple of organizations I think are worthy of your hard-earned money for last-minute charitable contributions.

Actually, this is my first year to write the blog, so that's not true.

So, this year I am going to list a couple of organizations I think are worthy of your hard-earned money for last-minute charitable contributions.

And, I mean it. We're giving some money to both of these organizations this year-end and will continue in 2014.

One is local, for Charlotte-area readers in particular. One is international.

Local first. The Way/Camino Church has captured my heart.

Most every church talks about serving their community. This bilingual, multi-ethnic congregation, with two campuses in the Concord area, does it like a boss.

This past year, the church and its Camino Community Center gave 1.2 million dollars away. The Community Center - at a separate location from the site where the church worships corporately - features, among other efforts, a free health care clinic, a counseling clinic, a food pantry, a homeless kitchen, and a community store - all run on a shoestring and incredibly effective at getting help to clients who need it most.

The church itself is a combination of a freshly merged two churches and offers an English language service at 10 AM and one in Spanish at 12 noon. I have seen few churches with a better vision and a brighter future and a more intentional commitment to community outreach than this one. The campus where services are held is at 7557 Ruben Linker Road in Concord (near the Concord Mills Mall exit) and the phone number is 704.721.5922. You can also like them on Facebook under The Way/Camino Church

My respect for this group of people and their pastor, Rusty Price, is immense.

International next.

I hold no large-scale organization in higher esteem than the International Justice Mission. They are a human rights agency which brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression.

Their fearless team of investigators, lawyers, operatives, and aftercare professionals lay everything on the line to serve, rescue, and care for 'the least of these'. These folks are on the front line of dealing with the most significant human rights issue of our time - human trafficking. Their mission is worth every dime you can send their way.

In addition to their website, you can like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter at @IJM.

Whether you've got five bucks or five hundred thousand, a year end gift to The Way/Camino or IJM is a great investment.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday FAQs - Four Ways To Follow Fiercely in '14

I love the week between Christmas and New Year's because it offers a little more leisure time than usual and it is perfectly positioned for reflection - one year is ending and a new one with all of its possibilities and perils is beginning.

I think, write, and coach about leadership a lot. But, at heart, I want to be a great follower.

My personal spiritual commitment is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and "disciple" is simply a synonym for follower. So, following is at the heart of what I want to do with my life.

Here are four areas of followership where I am trying to be strategic in 2014 - and I offer them for your consideration:

1. Follow Your Family
My first day as a consultant, the wisest and best consultant I have ever known gave me three principles I will never forget. I'm not going to tell you the first two because I don't want to blow two more blog posts. But here's number three: Follow the client's energy.

I've found that advice to be brilliant time and again. It simply says this: whatever you bring into the room as a coach/consultant is less important than what is already going on in the room. The point is not your experience, insight, or brilliance, assuming you have any. The point is what is going on in the heart and mind of the client. Figure out what that is and go there rather than presenting a predetermined boilerplate neatly packaged in a three ring binder or Keynote presentation.

Same for your family. Every member in your family has energy going on somewhere - a life change, an undiagnosed insecurity, a hidden resentment, a cherished dream. Figure out where the energy is in each of them, whether they are aging parent or pre-adolescent, and do your best to serve and help them there.

2. Follow Your Instincts...After You've Listened
The older I get the more I trust my gut. Some of that is accumulated experience - mine and others. But more than that it is increased skill in paying attention to patterns. Some folks are  naturally gifted at seeing and identifying patterns of behavior, cause and effect, and motivation. Others of us have to work at it.

But in working at it, we learn a secret - having good instincts is not about going off half-cocked but about reflecting your way through life - considering everything that happens in your life for good or ill and divining what was going on underneath the surface at the time.

"Listen to your life...", Frederick Buechner writes. Listening leads to instincts you can trust. Listening defeats the prejudices and biases you grew up with or grew into, the comfortable certainties that are often unreliable. Listen. and then go with your instincts.

3. Follow Your Body
Chances are your body is not telling you to eat more Krispy Kreme, exercise less, function on very little sleep, and ingest more alcohol or nicotine.

You know this and your body does too.

The reptilian part of your brain - the part that likes to lie still and bask lazily in the sun - is telling you those things.

Repulse the reptile.

It's mostly inertia that piles on the calories, fat, shortness of breath and drowsiness.

It doesn't have to be CrossFit or a triathlon, but a few changes and tweaks (you know what they are) are going to raise the watermark on your physical well-being, which will bleed over to your spiritual, emotional, and relational life.

4. Follow The Right Leaders
Don't waste any more time following the wrong boss, pastor, or (God forbid) celebrity.

We don't live that long on Planet Earth. In the grand scheme of things, it's a short run. Why waste a second placing yourself in the hands of leaders who are incompetent, untrustworthy, unmotivated, or subpar?

That sounds brutal.

It's not. You've got a gift to bring to the world - Your Intentional Difference (by the way, there is a book by that title in a few days, if I haven't mentioned it previously!).

You and you alone are responsible for where and how you make that deposit, where you offer that contribution.

Evaluate who you are following. Don't be judgmental or arrogant, but do be reflective.

Do you trust the boss, pastor, or mentor you are following? Are they delivering consistently excellent results? Are they really good at what they do? Are their followers increasing or decreasing in number? Do you have confidence in the future under their leadership? If you had it to do over again, would you choose to follow them?

If you had to place your retirement income on them, would you?

If the answer is no, they why the heck are you following them?

They don't have to be perfect, but they do have to have game.

If not, move on. Don't move on with pride or arrogance, but with kindness and humility. Who knows, you may be the one holding them back! But, for your own sake, move on.

Take this week between Christmas and New Year's to evaluate how well you are following your family, your instincts, your body, and your leaders.

Get your thought ducks in a row:

And then make some gutsy leadership calls in order to follow well.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Two Most Important Words of Christmas Eve

Imagine if you had not spoken in four hundred years.

All those years to think about what you would say when you finally said something.

Now, imagine you are God.

According to the historical record, as the curtain closed on the bleak end of the Old Testament, God went strangely silent.

Things were bad in Israel, the heart of his people were far from him, their nation and people were in tatters. The future was uncertain, old alliances were fractured, friendships had been broken, security was lost,  the economy was depressed, families were split apart, up was down, and down was up.

And God goes silent.

You'd expect him to speak because at that point you'd figure people would pay attention. You'd figure.

But instead he goes silent. Generations pass. A people fizzle out into disinterested captivity. God is forgotten. A few reckon that God has forgotten them.

Only, God never forgets.

And then there is Christmas Eve, the first one.

A few years ago, the story has picked up a bit, the plot appears to have some juice to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Something is astir.

The desert wind blows a bit differently, the leaves are rustling in the trees, creation itself seems to be in a state of uncertain anticipation.

And something finally happens. It's not on the big screen, in Silicon Valley, in the financial centers, or in the major media markets. It's in a backwater town. One with historical significance, mind you - it's the ancestral city of the great King David of Israel - but those days have long passed. Now, there's a new king in town, an Emperor to be exact. This one's not ruddy of face and beautiful of countenance and noble of spirit as much as he is pudgy of face and sharp-eyed and full of appetite.

A baby is born, of uncertain provenance, under sketchy circumstances, in an extra room customarily used to feed animals, tonight pressed into service because there is, well, no room in the inn.

And, you know the rest of the story, at least sort of, most of you. The baby is born back in the mud room and hardly anyone notices.

Certainly the shepherds, with unshaven faces and dirt under their fingernails, aren't aware. It's another night in the salt mines for those guys, another workaday evening in their workaday world. Counting the damn sheep yet again.

And then the angels, sent from God. And then their words, God breathed words.

The first words from a seemingly silent heaven in nearly half a millennium.

God's first words in nearly four hundred years. Two words.

What would you think they would be?

"Hey, listen!"

"OK, then..."

"Be quiet!"

Angry or commanding or judging words, to be sure. Words designed to put the sinners (most everyone except the religious people with titles) in their place. Words designed to separate the good from the bad, the holy from the unholy, the in from the out, the acceptable from the marginalized, people like us from people like them.

Religious words, no doubt. I mean, keep a god silent for four hundred years and surely he's going to issue commandments or institute a new ritual or instill a new code of morality so that people - who had gone quite slack, the truth be told - would know to shape up or ship out. At the very least, they'd be able to define where they stood on the continuum of good and bad.

Maybe a call to arms. It's time to take back the promised land, people. It's been four hundred years and things aren't nearly as good as they used to be. We've gotten away from what's made us great! And that Emperor is a dunce and a corrupt, lying one at that - we need to get rid of him and get some god-fearing, upright people in there. After all, if we don't stand up for right, who will? And now, after four hundred years of silence, we've finally got a god speaking to us to tell us what to do and where to go. Right, God?


And then.

The first two words after four hundred years. Whatever they are, they are going to be important. They are going to be revealing.

Imagine yourself silent for that long. Finally you can speak and the people you love the most are gathered in front of you, hanging on your every word. How can you pack four hundred years into two words, how can you pack yourself into two words?

After four hundred years, God speaks these two words:

Fear not.

Just that.

Fear not.

Don't be afraid.

Don't tremble.

The words had a literal meaning. By all accounts, angels were fearsome creatures to behold.

But push beyond the obvious, remember that these words are from God.

The one thing I want to tell you, people, he is saying, is "Fear not".

Wherever you are, whatever you have done, wherever you have been - there is nothing to be afraid of.

You are admitted into God's good graces, without prelude, without ritual, without the right words.

You don't have to hide anymore, you don't have to hide others anymore, you don't have to hide your heart anymore.

God speaks not in the language of revolution or religion or morality or politics or judgment or show business but in the manner of a parent to a child:

Fear not.

Don't be afraid.

The rightful King has come back. He is here, where and when you least expect him, in a way you never would have dreamt, and he is going to set everything right.  He has not forgotten you. How could he?

Now, it won't be easy and it won't be quick.

There's misunderstanding and mocking and exile and betrayal and a fearsome death and three dark, cold, lonely, terrifying, silent days of death to come.

But, even given what is and what will be and what you fear might be at 3 AM when you can't sleep...fear not.

Because after the pain and after the cold, lonely desert will come life and will come victory and will come forgiveness and families riven apart will embrace again and nations will throw down their weapons and shake their heads wondering what they were thinking and the poor and foolish will try on new robes of unimaginably luxurious texture and the sick and "ugly" will possess a beauty so fair and an elegance so breathtaking that you won't be able to turn your eyes away.

Everything will be turned upside down, well and truly, and right will come round again.

You'll laugh at the thing you fear the most. You'll embrace the thing you thought you had lost forever. You'll defeat the ugly, grasping claws of that resentment, that addiction, that abuse that has endeavored for years to drag you down.

And when you laugh and embrace and break free you'll live that way too - not motivated by fear to grimace and judge and push away and push down anymore.

No matter what has come and what will, those are the two words with which to begin Christmas Eve and with which to end your life:

Fear not.

For behold these are the great tidings of the good news.

For unto you has been born this day in the city of David a new King. The once and future and always King.

Forever and ever.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Of Ducks and Men

Here is my one-time, very short take on the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle.

The whole thing worked exactly the way it is supposed to in a pluralistic, democratic republic:

1. Heavily bearded businessman expresses his opinions and convictions and returns home unmolested by governing authorities.

2. Corporation responds in line with its convictions and/or business calculations. Corporate executives return home unmolested by governing authorities.

3. Heavily bearded family of the heavily bearded businessman responds in line with its convictions and may well leave corporation, which may cost said corporation its leading revenue generator.

At no point does the government get involved or interfere with anyone. In so doing it upholds the Fourteenth Amendment Establishment Clause (protecting the citizens from a state-mandated or state-preferred religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (insuring that citizens can express their religious convictions and not be subject to prosecution or reprisal from the government).

It all worked perfectly. It's an amazing country and an amazing experiment in democracy, this United States of America.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Three Ways To Get Spiritually Prepared for Christmas

So, I was sitting around thinking about Christmas, drinking hot chocolate in my Christmas onesie. Oh, wait, that wasn't me. It was this guy:

Christmas. It's the most wonderful, high-stress, anxiety-producing, family-fightin', bank account emptying time of year!

But it doesn't have to be.

Here's the secret to a stress-free, spiritually meaningful Christmas:

Just kidding.

This post has nothing to do with that guy - I just felt left out because everyone else was posting his picture today.

Here's how to get spiritually prepped for Christmas:

1. Find moments to stop everything, be present, and savor.
When I perform a wedding ceremony for a couple, I tell them: "Several times during this weekend stop everything you are doing and savor. Take a mental picture of the people around you that you love. Notice the light, feel the air on your skin, catch your beloved's eye across the room at the rehearsal dinner. Freeze that moment and capture it, imprint it on your senses. Savor. Be, don't do.

For me, this is late Christmas Eve after most everyone is in bed. I take a very short walk alone, in the utter silence of Christmas Eve, and savor. I breathe, and look at the lights and at the sky and I talk to God. I've done it for twenty years and each year I can't wait for those ten minutes.

2. Read the Christmas story in the Bible once a day for the week leading up to Christmas.
Try Luke 2. Each day, imagine yourself as a different character in the story. What were they thinking and feeling in those days? What was it like to be Mary? To be Joseph? To be the shepherds or an angel? To be the magi who came a few years later to visit the toddler Jesus? Now, put yourself in the story. What would it have been like for you?

3. Spend time and money you don't have on someone else who needs it during the week leading up to Christmas.
Give some money directly - directly - to someone, anonymously if you can. Figure out how much is prudent and then give more. Talk to the folks at local charities to find folks who are in need if you don't know anyone. We try to do this every year around this time; there is always need.

You're busy, no time, family to see, presents to wrap, stuff to do. So, find some time for someone who would give almost anything to be as busy as you are, to have stuff to do and have someone to do it with. Invest time in them that you don't think you have.

I'll talk to you before then, but Merry Christmas. Prepare well, friends.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Who Cares How You Climb?

This is a New Year's-esque post even prior to Christmas.

What can I say? I tend to be an impatient man.

My two year old and I were out in the backyard yesterday. Our home, which we moved into this past January, used to operate as an illegal daycare center. That's a bit sketch, but the benefits to us are that some previous owners built a climate-controlled enclosed sunporch we get to enjoy as well as two nice swingsets and a slide.

Beckett has this funny thing about the slide. He doesn't much like to take the time to climb up the stairs and slide down. Takes too long, you see (wonder where he gets that?).

He finishes the slide and then starts climbing right back up the slide to do it all over again, ignoring the fact that the stairs are faster.

I have photographic evidence:

That's my boy.

I don't necessarily recommend this approach to either you or your toddler, but I am probably not going to change at this point in life.

When I'm ready to engage something, I engage it all out. When I'm ready to be done with something, I'm done.

On some visceral level, I've always resonated with St. Paul's words in the New Testament:

"Forgetting what lies behind...straining towards what lies ahead".

Now, that's not a perfect way to navigate life. It can be part and parcel of denial and deflection. Some of you are analyzers and processors and deliberators and I honor that.

But there's a tribe of us who needs to be reminded to be true to ourselves by going for it, ignoring the conventional ways of getting to the top of the slide, charging - straining, even - ahead.

Maybe that's you. Even if you've never acknowledged it before.

It's not quite the New Year, when such resolutions tend to be made, but who cares?

What do you need to forget (while being grateful for what it may have meant) and wave goodbye to?

Better yet, what's the next thing ahead of you? It shouldn't scare you and you shouldn't hesitate and you shouldn't allow yourself to feel guilty about it.

My normal writing style is to list examples at this point, in the belief that universal examples can lead to particular personal application.

Gonna hold off on that this time and let you fill in your own blanks:

____________________   _________________________   _____________________

Endeavor to strain for wherever it is you are going with all you've got. Even if others say "Hey, that's not the way to get there!"

Monday, December 9, 2013

Tuesday Teaching: God Is The Eternal Optimist, Even About You

Heres the way the Bible talks about the origins of mankind:

God created Adam and Eve, for perfect relationship with him and with each other and with the earth.

But they wanted more than that - they chose wanting to be God over relationship with God.

Ten generations go by, things going from bad to worse. People become more and more violent and loathsome and so God chooses Noah, a good man, to start over again with.

Only Noah develops a drinking problem and ends up choosing the bottle over relationship with God.

Another ten generations go by and things get, if anything, even worse. This time, humans decide that they've had enough of God and so they vow to unite and build a tower that goes all the way to heaven, glorifying themselves and their own ego and waging a coup d 'etat against God. The Tower of Babel.

People chose pride over relationship with God.

You'd think that by this time God would get it. People are difficult and we really don't want him.

I mean, we might want what he can offer - stuff, security, meaning in life, a way out of a dangerous dark alley on a stormy night. A partner, a baby, a good job, some job other than the one you have. Health, peace in the family.

But not God for God's own sake.

We want something else. Or God plus something else.

That's what it means to be human.

God would be justified in just being done - angrily - with the lot of us. Casting thunderbolts or plagues of lice or something. Or nursing a Scotch on the rocks in a dark corner, mumbling to himself about the ungrateful kids.

Instead, he causes Abraham to show up.

Abraham - out of Ur. Out of nowhere. No one special - maybe the most famous man in the history of the world (think about it - he's a major figure in all three of the major world religions), but no one really knows who his daddy was. 

He's discontent, underachieving, nervous, restless, maybe a little OCD, more than a little dishonest. Dude has a very casual relationship with the truth.

A big deal in his culture is having kids, lots and lots of kids. A man is judged by the quantity and quality of his offspring. And for the longest of time, neither Abraham nor his wife can have children.

Altogether unpromising. But it was from his line, his descendants, that God chose to bring Jesus Christ into the world.

You think your kids are special? Well, how about.....

Abraham basically had one thing going for him and it didn't click into view until years later. According to Paul, the great early leader in the Christian church, Abraham "believed God and because of this belief got credit for being in the right place when it came to his relationship with God". (Galatians 3:6).

That's it. At the end of the day, he believed God. And staked his life on that belief.

He chose.....nothing over relationship with God. No thing over relationship with God. He just believed and rolled the dice or went all in (choose your own gambling metaphor, friend).

God endured generations of disbelief, mocking belief, disobedience and all-around lunacy before he brought Abraham along. Because when it comes to people he is not a pessimist. He's not even a realist. There's nothing realistic about the story of the Bible. Very little of it makes sense, from either a psychological or theological standpoint.

It's the most unlikely of stories, the most far-fetched of books. If you don't laugh out loud from time to time when you are reading it, you're not paying attention or you're either too religious or too uptight or both.

God is holy and perfect and even frightful, not to be trifled with. That much is true. He is jealous of love and he roars like the billion most terrifying lions in the world defending their children and he often seems to make no sense and occasionally appears to wreak havoc.

Life can look a lot more like Sophie's Choice than Rudy a lot of the time.

And yet God is absolutely, crazily in love with people at the same time he is absolutely, steadfastly determined to bring justice and goodness and peace in the world, not through carols and tolerance - nice as those may be - but through nails and blood and kindness and sacrifice and pain and raucous, battle-soaked laughter.

Because he knows how things are going to end.

The Cross turns into the Resurrection and death turns to life and mourning turns to morning and whatever the hell you are going through ultimately gets redeemed - bought back, made new.

God believes in you. All he asks you to do is believe in him and do the stuff he did.

When it comes to you, no matter if you've been sold out or or on the deep discount shelf....God is buying.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Friday FAQs - Four Things To Say To Someone Who Is Hurting

'When I run across someone who is really hurting, I just clam up. What do you say to someone like that, especially if you've never experienced what they are going through?'

I get this one a lot, because a lot of my career has been spent as a pastor and pastors are expected to have something approximating a good answer to such questions. But it is relevant to being a consultant too, or a leader of any kind.

When you see someone hurting - because of a seemingly random tragedy or because of a self-inflicted wound or because of a simple cruel twist of fate - it can create fear and anxiety in you.

You're afraid the same thing could happen to you, so you don't want to go near them. Perhaps pain is contagious?

You think things like "Well, you dummy, if only you'd have listened to...none of this would have happened" but you sense that this would not be a helpful thing to say.

(You are correct, by the way. It wouldn't be.)

Or you just flat out don't know what to say.

So, what do you say? Four things:

1. Something

Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. Seriously. Not everything is better than nothing, (see 2 below) but almost everything.

Saying something, even if it is inarticulate or has been said before, shows that you care, that you want to make a connection with the person.

When our family endured the loss of an unborn child far along into Miranda's pregnancy, we were overwhelmed with the love of our friends and even people we weren't particularly close to. But there were a few others who, inexplicably, stayed away.

One approached Miranda later.

This person said "I just did not know what to say and it was really hard so I avoided you".

Now, if you have had someone treat you this way, don't be too hard on them. No one does this out of malice or ill-intent.

But if you are not sure what to say to a hurting friend, whatever you do, don't avoid them. That compounds the hurt. Say something. Say it quickly after the deepest cut of the hurt.

First responders are our heroes - the police officers, firemen, military, and emergency medical personnel who run to a disaster. Be a first responder when it comes to the pain of others.

2. Something brief

If a person is hurting it feels like life is screaming at them. They are trying hard to silence the voices in their head..."If you'd only said"...."How could you have done that?"....."Why did God allow this to happen?".

It feels like there is no relief. So don't add much to the cacophony of voices. Don't quote someone's sermon. Don't be too quick to share similar experiences of your own (see 3 below). Don't tell them things will get better,  because they might not for a while. Don't minimize their pain, no matter its source.

Be brief. Sometimes "I'm really sorry. I know you must really be hurting" is perfect. In fact, almost all of the time it's perfect.

3. Something about them

Don't make it about you. Now, this is easy to do because if you are nervous or struggling for something to say you can always go to the subject you know best - yourself.

But even if you are talking to someone who is enduring a pain similar to one you have endured, their experience will be vastly different than yours, because they are vastly different than you are. What eased your pain may make theirs worse.

Whatever you do, friends, do NOT say "I know exactly how you feel".

This is a nails on a chalkboard, a squawking infant at 3:47 AM, Dick Vitale with a sore throat. It's intolerable and it's untrue.

The only thing that is worse is to try to draw moral lessons or to explain the ways of God to a person who is hurting. Good luck with that.

If you are a person who reads the Bible, you'll know that there are two exemplars of the making-a-moral-point and explaining-the-ways-of-God school: the friends of Job in the Old Testament and the Pharisees in the New Testament.

Both groups had one thing in common - their hearts were very far from God and they get crunched in the end. If you are hurting and someone begins a lecture of any sort or a theological explanation of any stripe, run for the hills as politely as you can. Run.

Remember, "I'm sorry"? When you go to someone who is hurting, go with that.

Go with that and connect it to them.

"I'm really sorry. You must really miss your husband."

"I'm really sorry. Losing your job must really be a blow right now."

"I'm really sorry. I know that diagnosis is scary for you".

Do you see how you can't go wrong with any of those statements?

You're connecting with them, talking about their experience, offering your sorrow. That's a great and lasting gift.

4. Something About You and Them

This one applies in particular if you have a relationship with the person.

To suffer is to feel alone, to feel like things will never get better, never work out, that the pain will never stop and that there is no one who can enter into that pain with you.

And no one fully can enter into that pain with you, to be sure.

But you can connect with the person who is hurting.

At times in my life when I have been in pain, the words that gave life were such as these:

"I am here for you no matter what".

"I've got your back and the backs of those you love".

"You're my friend and I love you now even more than I did before this really hard thing happened".

Brilliant, life-giving statements. But here's the deal - You. Have. To. Follow. Through.

None of this requires a degree, any special knowledge, or a type of particular experience.

Just a heart of love and some common sense.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tuesday Teaching: Does God Even Know What Time It Is?

Psalm 31:15a is stark and simple. Someone praying says this to God:

"My times are in your hands".

And, just like that, you have words to base your life on, an unambiguous promise, and a mantra - all in one.


God relates to us in a personal way, because he is a person - not an idea, a construct, a philosophy, or the Honorary Invisible President of Outer Space.

Because he is a person, you can speak to him in the first person. He knows you personally, whether you have known him well for years, whether you are not even sure he is there or not, whether you are so glad he exists because his existence alone makes sense out of life, whether you believe in him kicking and screaming, whether you hate him or love him. He is. And you are.

And you are his idea.

When he looks at you he sees someone he is flat out crazy about, not someone he is ashamed of, barely tolerates, or is disappointed in.


Don't miss this part. The word "times" is important.

The writer could have said "life" or "days" or "future" or "existence" or something like that.

Instead, he said "times". A very specific word, meaning a very specific thing - every second of life you have lived, are living at this very instant, and will ever live.

Every. Second.

That horrible time years or weeks or minutes ago when you hated what you had become, hated what was being done to you, hated the mess you had made, hated the mess you had been handed.

He was there when you let someone you love down, said the thing you would give years of your life to take back, walked away from an act of courage or kindness, failed to say that thing you have always wished you had said. Back then.

He's there in that uncertain future that right now that you don't trust, that you dread, that you can't believe in. There in the uncertainty around your marriage or finances or health.

He's there in that future you are so excited about and have such high hopes for - so high that you can barely dare to believe it might be that good and right.

And he is there right now, in this very moment whether this moment is about great joy or searing pain or just your average afternoon.

All of your times. Every second of them.

And that goes for those you love - the beloved you can't live with or without, the kids you love more than you dare express, the older one who is slipping away from you more each year, the little one yet to be born whose life you hope for so much.

are in your hands...

There's that personhood thing again. God's not an old-fashioned watchmaker who wound up the universe and is letting it wind down on its own, or a forgetful laptop owner who boots up and forgets to plug in and ignores things as the battery runs down, or a psycho puppeteer playing with his jerky creations as they dance around on strings finally crumpling into pointy pieces.

He's holding you, supporting you, seeing you, loving you, telling a story with your life that is not a one-man or one-woman play but is rather a great work of art - full of drama, comedy (you know who you are!), triumph, loss, long journeys and - always - a coming home.

You're not an accident, and you have not been left on your own to fend for yourself.

You're not the captain of your fate or the master of your soul.

You're loved, far more than you could ever dare to ask or imagine.

Whatever your times have held, are holding, will hold...they are in God's hands.

So you can relax and hope, no matter the odds or how late in the day it feels to you or how little you may feel up to the task of the next moment.

Your times are in his hands.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday FAQ: What's The Highest Compliment You Could Receive?

Here's the inaugural version of the annual Friday FAQ on this blog. This week, I'll make it personal instead of professional.

The question: What is the highest compliment you can imagine receiving?

The answer...

(First, a disclaimer. I self-identify as a follower of Jesus Christ. So, the obvious answer is 'you remind me of Jesus in the way you navigate life'. That's a given for me. So, I'll keep going, knowing that many people who read this do not consider themselves to be particularly religious people.)

The highest compliment I can imagine receiving is 'You are a loyal friend, the kind of friend I know I can depend on no matter what. I can trust you no matter what'.

In earlier stretches of life my most coveted compliment might have had to do with success or status or skills. No longer.

The older you get the more you realize that at the end of the day what matters are relationships. All the other stuff goes away, or could go away or if it doesn't go away it fades dramatically in how much you care about it.

I'm an introvert and don't need a lot of friends. But I am intensely loyal to those I do have and I value that sort of loyalty more with each passing year.  It's a rare thing, man.

It would be a compliment beyond measure to be told: "Even if I were to fail in spectacular fashion I know you would be there for me - physically, relationally, spiritually. I know you would be there even if being there was costly to you. I know your friendship is not just in words, but in deeds".

That's the kind of friendship you can take to the bank, even when your bank account is empty.

You can't outsource or delegate that kind of friendship. It's not dependent on external factors and circumstances and sometimes it's not even logical.

It's rare and takes real commitment to pull off, but I want to be that kind of friend.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday Teaching - Spit and Grace

No one likes anyone else's spit.

With two exceptions - your beloved, and your kids.

Everyone else's spit grosses you out, but not theirs, most of the time.

After all, one phrase for kissing is "swapping spit". It isn't a good kiss unless some measure of spit is involved.

And we don't mind our kids' spit too much either.

Think about it...

Your kid has a cookie and it's too big for them to eat. You don't think twice about sharing the cookie with them, even when they are toddlers and their eating involves some - well - sogginess. You'll eat a slightly spit-soaked cookie after one of your kids, no questions asked, no dry heaves restrained.

Now, picture your best friend's kid. You love this kid. This kid is a delight. You wouldn't think twice about giving this kid a bear hug, maybe even a kiss on the cheek.

But when this kid, child of your best friend whom you love dearly, hands you a soggy cookie, you're looking for the nearest trash can. Or potted plant.

Sharing spit connotes intimacy.

There's this scene in John 9 in the New Testament.

A guy approaches Jesus. The guy has been blind since birth. In that culture, such a disability carried moral implications. Maybe his parents did something 'wrong' and their punishment is a blind child. Maybe God knew that this guy would be a bad apple so He inflicted blindness on him as a warning to others.

Whatever the cause, blindness in this culture was a one way ticket to isolation, poverty, friendlessness, desperation.

So, this guy cashes in all of his chips and goes to Jesus. He has to get through Jesus' people first, the disciples.

The disciples are religious guys, for the most part, and when they see someone with a problem they are looking to cast blame. That's what religion does. Every time.  The good and well-behaved are in and the bad and ragged are out.

Religion looks to fix blame and isolate.

So, the disciples, looking to make a point, say to Jesus in front of a crowd: "Hey, Rabbi, check this guy out. Who sinned - he or his parents - to cause him to be born blind?"

The point was to point out this guy's wrongdoing, make an example of him, and then divert attention elsewhere. Nothing to see here after you've seen what there is to see - the sinner's guilt...move on.

Remember, religion equals public blame-casting and isolation. Gotta blame somebody.

Jesus (I imagine) rolls his eyes and sighs. He says a few words about darkness and light, night and day. He makes the radical and unexpected claim that it's not about wrongdoing or rightdoing, it's about God showing up and doing something that shows how great He is.

Then he does something downright weird.

He spits on the ground. Then he puts his finger in the wet dirt and makes a muddy paste. Then he takes the spit-soaked mud and he rubs it on the guy's eyes. Tells him to wash. Heals him right then and there.

Why the spit?

Scholars debate this question. I've read all the arguments and don't find any really convincing, though some are clever and even plausible. I think it's pretty simple.

Jesus - if he truly was a healer, as the Bible claims - didn't need to spit. He could have just said "See!" and the guy would have seen.

But he chose to use spit.

Earthy, intimate, messy, a little gross.

Like always with Jesus.

Religion is cut and dry - isolate the wrongdoing, pronounce sentence, let the consequences play out, move on. We don't want to think too much about it, especially when it involves someone else. We don't want to get too involved because we see too much of ourselves in the blind guy getting spit rubbed on his eyes.

And who the hell wants someone else rubbing spit on their eyes?

Jesus, I think, was saying this - it's not about what this guy or his folks or his neighbors have done, though well and truly they have all done bad things and good things alike just like the rest of us.

It's about what God is doing. Taking elemental things like spit and mud and creating beauty. Using something dirty and off-putting to show off His offer of forgiveness and grace and a fresh start. Saying that God is here, right now, in the most unrefined and basic of ways that you can touch and smell and see.

The Christian faith is not about pronouncements and laws and plans and spreadsheets and neatness and processes.

It's about God being born in an animal's mucking stall, and bread and wine and mud and blood and messiness and prostitutes and criminals with white collars and blue getting invited to Christmas dinner at the Biltmore House and being put at the head of the table, eyes blinking and mind spinning and stomach rumbling.

When it comes to the blindness of others are you more apt to spit on the ground or at the blind guy?

When it comes to your own blindness have you let mud be rubbed on your eyes today, or are you trying to clean up on your own?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tuesday Teaching and Friday FAQs

There are all kinds of blogs for all kinds of people, but I have always gravitated towards the ones that I can count on for a certain kind of experience at a certain time.

Like the ones where the writer gives me the best videos from around the Internet every Tuesday or an update on the latest Scandinavian mysteries on Wednesday (I - seriously - have a Scandinavian mystery post coming later this week) or stock tips twice a week. I can overlook the origami still shots or the tips on horse-racing if I know what I am going to get at other times.

So, with that in mind, I am going to introduce two weekly features on this here blog:

-Tuesday Teaching


-Friday FAQs

Here's the plan. I have a great love both of teaching and the Bible. I particularly love teaching the Bible.

So every Tuesday, I am going to post a meditation - as short as I can - on a passage from the Bible. Please note that this post will be intended both for those who believe the Bible and those who don't. It won't be "Todd's Pious Thoughts",  for two reasons - I don't have many pious thoughts and, if I did, you would not find them interesting.

There's a lot more than piety in the Bible, including a fair measure of violence, sex, drama, intrigue, and rock and roll.

OK, not so much rock and roll.

In any event, I plan on looking at some intriguing and off-the-beaten path stuff in the Bible and trying to bring it to life.

For instance, my post tomorrow will be about spit.

Yep, spit.

Friday FAQs will be interesting, at least to me.

I've been given the opportunity to have a varied career path - professional ministry, writing, public speaking, small business ownership, executive coaching for Fortune 100 leaders, and consulting in both the public and private sectors. I've had the chance to meet a lot of interesting people and explore some interesting topics along the way and hopefully that sort of voyage is just beginning.

So, I am going to address some of the most interesting questions I have asked, received, or run into along the way - one per Friday.

Hope you'll hang around and have some fun with me...starting tomorrow, with the first installment of Tuesday Teaching.

Friday, November 22, 2013

All That You Can't Leave Behind

In 2000, the band U2 released an album called 'All That You Can't Leave Behind'.

I've always thought that was one of the best album titles ever,  because it can be taken in so many different directions.

By all accounts, the band was "reapplying" for the job of best band in the world and the title reflected their desire to bring together the best of their past with their continued development as artists. As the lyrics from the album revealed, there were other layers of meaning - especially as it related to the spiritual life. What are the things we need to be whole and human? And what do we NOT need? What can we safely leave behind?

As folks in the recovery community say: "You can never have enough of what you don't really want".

But we want it anyway.

And that's the question I pose to you today:

What can you leave behind?

What should you leave behind?

It's easy to walk through life dragging around a backpack full of stuff that hinders us:

-Memories we can't shake
-Grudges we can't let go
-Deferred or denied dreams we still cherish
-Relationships, once important, that have become toxic
-Habits that die hard, but suck the life out of us
-Regrets that keep us awake at night
-Things we've said we want to take back, but can't, and we don't know how to undo them

Here's the thing to remember: Leaving something behind does not necessarily mean that you get left behind.

Leaving something behind may be the key to freedom and joy and health in the future. Even though it feels hard and like a sort of death.

Think of it instead - this Fall - as a pruning. Old stuff that once served a purpose, being trimmed away so that new life can flourish.

So, is there something in your life that was never healthy that you need to cut away - a habit, a relationship, a misguided ambition?

So, is there something in your life that once served a good purpose, but whose time has passed for you - a job, a non-binding commitment, an organization?

If it's the first, cut it away today.

If it's the second, have the guts to hash out your hesitation, say goodbye, move on, embrace a different and ultimately better future.  But do it with hope and not despair, with gladness for what it once meant, not resentment for what it has come to mean.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of the great writer C.S. Lewis. Here's what he said about this:
"There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind"

You won't grow until you go.

If it's not healthy, and not good - if it's going nowhere fast - leave it behind.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Are You You (Or Who 'They' Want You To Be)?

I chose the head shot below for this blog mostly because my wife likes it.

But it makes a point too:

Here's the point...

The vast majority of people who know me laugh out loud when they see this photo. Mostly because they have never seen me wearing a suit. My day to day uniform tends to be a T-shirt and jeans.

But there are others who have never seen me any other way. Most notably, a consulting client in Oklahoma. This company's dress code is business wear and they require the same for their outside vendors. I have been honored to work with them for two years now and those folks have never seen me NOT wearing a suit.

So, which is the real me?

The guy in the pressed Nordstrom Traveler's Edition suit or the guy in the $6.99 T-shirt from Target worn over Levi's?

Same cat, different clothes.

We can wear our self like a change of clothes if we're not careful.

What's important for you is that you figure out who you are - who you are made to be - and be that person.

Who are you?

In many ways, it's the ultimate question.

Don't be an exaggerated or veiled version of you just to suit someone else.

Others expect stuff of you that they have no right to expect.

Disappoint them. On purpose.

A chunk of my career has been leading faith-based organizations, often as a church pastor.

And, man, you talk about a career path where people expect a person to be a certain way.

Give a guy or a girl a clerical collar or a microphone or a ministerial parking space at the hospital...and watch the expectations bloom.

I've always made a point of saying stuff like this to the folks I have been privileged to serve:

"I may be a 'professional religious person', but I am no different than you. I'm surely not a better person than you are. My job is no more or less important than that of a teacher, an insurance agent, a carpenter, a homemaker, or a corporate executive. Contrary to popular myth and a misinterpretation of James 3:1, I should not be either more honored or judged more harshly than you".

I've had the chance to operate professionally in a lot of different spheres, and each one comes with its own set of expectations.

The trick is to find YOUR true North, the person you were made to be, and act and live that way.

It doesn't mean you shirk your obligations or live a life that is all about self, but it does mean you refuse to color in the lines if you don't want to and if to do so is not true.

Resist every pressure from 'them'; purpose to be who you were made to be, not what 'they' (whomever 'they' are in your world) expect you to be. This includes parents, priests, bosses, even spouses and kids.

At the end of Shakespeare's King Lear, when the stage is littered with bloody corpses and all hope seems lost, Edgar says this:

'The weight of these sad times we must obey/
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say'

Hopefully, your life is more seashells, balloons, and ice cream than a stage full of bloody corpses.

Likely, it's somewhere in the middle.

Whichever it is, be you in the ins and outs, ups and downs of it. Find your voice and speak with it. 

Passionately and intentionally.

The rest of us need you to be you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

How To Choose and Fire Your Friends

The older I get, the fewer friends I have.

That sounds sad, but it's not.

I find that I have an ever-widening circle of acquaintances, and some of those are very important to me.

But friends - that's another matter. As we get older, I think our sense of what it means to be a friend ripens and deepens and becomes more valuable.

Instead of trying to define a friend with prose, I'd like to tell you two stories about real friends in my life.

The first we'll call Bob. I've known Bob for one fourth of a century.

Just typing that makes me feel old.

The thing about Bob and I is that both of us have enjoyed some measure of what people would call success.

And both of us have really screwed up at times - royally.

The one thing you could say about Bob and I is that our lives have not been boring.

Here's the thing...when I think of each of those screw-up moments, Bob was there. I mean physically there, even when we lived hours apart. And at his screw-up moments,  I was there too. It would never have occurred to either of us not to be.

We were totally on each other's side, even when we knew the other had screwed up.

It's like this. Say I slathered myself in peanut butter, and tried to scale the walls of the White House to launch a revolution and proclaim myself King of All I Survey.

I'd probably lose a few friends if that happened. But Bob would be there to try to bail me out (unsuccessfully, I grant you).

And here's what he would most likely say...

"Seriously, peanut butter?"

Let's call the second friend Owen. Owen is older and has been a big influence on a bunch of other friends my age.

Years ago, Owen was accused of doing something he didn't do, not really, and many of his friends abandoned him. Some of them outright abandoned him in ugly, blatant ways, and others did it in a really "Christian" way - subtly and with shaking heads and promises of, you know, prayers and stuff. Gossip under the guise of 'we really need to pray for Owen'...'can you believe that about Owen?'

("Well, have you talked to Owen to hear his take?" "No, I am sure Owen has people surrounding him. I'm just gonna pray for him").

The deal was that on the surface, things looked bad for Owen, depending on what part of the story you got.

I was talking with another of the young friends of Owen - a guy my age -  about how things looked and he stopped the conversation suddenly and said "So what?"

"So what, what?" I asked, intelligently.

"So what if he did it? He's still Owen. I mean, I'll tell him it was stupid if he did it, but he's Owen. He's always been there for us, defending us even at cost to himself. And we're loyal and we've got his back no matter what. We'll go to war with him even if he's in the wrong. We're Owen's guys. That's what friends are."

And, you know, these many years later and with a lot more life under my belt, I think that about sums it up.

Do you have friends like Bob or Owen? Tell them you love them today and never lose them.

Do you have people you consider friends but who would cut and run in ways either blatant or subtle if you ended up slathered in peanut butter outside the White House?

Fire them. Gently, but fire them.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why 'Unforgotten Grace'? (1)


What's your very first memory?

Mine is of a trio of Vietnam-era fighter planes flying low over my family's backyard in Charlotte when I was very young. I still remember how loud they were, how the ground shook.

I remember a kindly neighbor across the street who used to bake these delectable chocolate chip cookies and pack them tight in a metal coffee can. To heft a metal Sanka can loaded with chewy chocolate goodness was bliss.

I remember the perfume of the first girl I ever danced with, the howl of the wind when I walked across the swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain, NC as a terrified pre-adolescent, the musty smell of the lawyer's office the day my first marriage ended in divorce.

I also remember smelling each of my children in their first minutes of life (you know, that completely unique scent of newborn baby), seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, the very first glimpse of the ocean from the road running parallel to the shoreline on every beach trip as a kid, the smell of the freshly cut grass outside the church building where Miranda and I got married on a warm May day when there was all at once great joy and the stabbing pain of one of our family lost and falling apart many miles away.

All memories carry a sensory imprint of some kind. We see, smell, feel, taste our memories.

My favorite writer is Frederick Buechner (get used to reading about him here, reader). One of his dominant themes is memory. He remembers and causes us to remember the suit his father put on before going out to the garage to end his life, the precise routine of his mother as she applied her makeup of a morning, the sound of his own halting and frightened voice as he tried to talk his teenage daughter out of an eating disorder. He writes:

"It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened over the years God was offering us new possibilities of life and healing..."

How about you? What memory, charged with hope or tinged with regret, do you need to own and savor? Where do you need to believe that there are new possibilities, the chance of life, the hope of healing?

There is so much about my own life I want to leave Unforgotten, much of it in the distant past and some of it in the very recent past.

Part of that is the way I have experienced Grace.....

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Hi, I'm Todd. Welcome to my new blog.

I hope Unforgotten Grace stuns you, causes you to think in new ways, makes you mad at times, causes you to marvel at beauty, entertains you, and leads you to love the things and people you love better than you love them today.

I've blogged for years, for organizations I have led or represented. I like to think I have found a blogging voice - short paragraphs, intentionally leading questions, 'reframes' - new ways of putting things we think we have figured out. I'll be writing about reframing a lot.

I'll reveal a lot of myself to you in these pages. In the past, I've blogged mostly on behalf of organizations - now, it's just me. 

I don't follow any party line and I don't owe nobody nuthin' except for love and respect.

You'll learn about what I value and care about, what makes me weep and pound the table and laugh and tear up.

You'll hear about my wife and the five boys we have between us.

You'll hear about the jobs I hold and have held in a lot of different realms of life - pastor, organizational consultant, writer, small business owner, professional speaker.

You'll read about books and writers I love and books I have written and am writing, music I care about, places and spaces I love, controversies that matter to me.

Yeah, there will be some controversy. Probably sooner rather than later.

But it won't be controversy for controversy's sake - it will all serve to bring truth to light and to create reframes for all of us.

I trust we'll have fun together. 

Maybe we'll be part of changing the world in some small way.

I'd love for you to follow me on Twitter and friend me on Facebook - you can do that over there to the right.

I'll get things rolling tomorrow by explaining why I named this blog Unforgotten Grace.

So, here we go....thanks for being here for the start.