From our “wish list” to our “with list”

Years ago when working as a therapist, I often would call family members to come in alongside my clients who had depression. More often than not, those who are clinically depressed have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness fed quite innocently by family members who do things for them, mostly out of concern and even sympathy. My efforts would aim at helping family members instead do as much as possible “with” their depressed loved and as little as possible “for” that individual.

Often this would seem to families rather counter-intuitive as, by most accounts, the depressed member expressed a wish for someone to do things for them that they felt helpless to do for themselves. Part of their family therapy process would involve tearing up their member’s “wish list” and substituting a “with list” instead. Otherwise, what would happen is the depressed member, if getting what was wished for, would continue to feel helpless and, consequentially, hopeless as others had to do “for” him or her. This unintended consequence should always make us careful of what we wish for.

I think about this process each year as we turn the calendar page from November to December. With respect to the Christian faith, November tends to focus on being thankful for what God has done “for” us. By intuition this feels right, and so we continue into December with a “wish list” of things we want others to buy for us. Many of our preparations for Christmas carry some emphasis on doing for others. Everything seems to be about giving or buying for each other. And with these preparations comes more than the occasional depressed mood, as we sometimes struggle at all this being or doing “for.”

This year, this month, this season we often call Advent to mark the Christian Church calendar’s new year, I’m wondering what would happen if we tried doing as much as possible with others instead of “for” them. What if we traded in our “wish lists” for our “with lists?”

There’s a good reason for this, you know.

Christmas is what happened when God came to earth to be “with” us. We have a word for this, in fact. It is Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14 proclaims, “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” — NLT

Turned out, this baby born to an unmarried couple of poor pilgrims from a slum region of Galilee isn’t the Messiah people had wished for. Not at all. That baby Jesus never made anyone’s “wish list.” Instead, He came to fulfill something far more important, far more therapeutic, far more empowering: everyone’s “with list.” We Christians are too often deceived as, even in this season of Christian preparation, we imagine that Christ was sent here only to die for us. What if, instead, we were to celebrate this year how it is that Christ comes to live with us? Or, indeed, to suffer with us, to serve with us, and even to die with us? That we may then rise again with Him.

It’s not really about what God has come here to do “for” us. God is far too wise to reinforce our own sense of helplessness here in this world. God has chosen to instead empower us to become helpful persons “with” Jesus in this world. And it’s not about our “wish list” in this season of preparations. Nor anyone else’s. It’s about preparing to be “with” the Christ, Immanuel. It’s about remembering our own baptism in which we die “with” Christ and rise again “with” Christ; then facing temptations “with” Christ; overcoming temptations, trials, tribulations “with” Christ; ministering to our world “with” Christ; building God’s Kingdom on earth “with” Christ; being empowered, helpful, hopeful people “with” Christ; being and buying and doing and giving “with” other people whom we love. It’s called a “with list.”

It puts to rest our dark moods of depression in December, whatever our circumstance. No more learned helplessness.

And it’s what Christmas is really all about.


“Putting out fires”

Many years ago I worked as a Clinical Supervisor for a local 3-county counseling center here in southwest Ohio. I was one of three such persons on staff, and in conversation among ourselves it was not unusual to hear these words, “all I’ve gotten done today is putting out fires.” Not literally, of course, but our meaning was metaphorically clear: every time I try working on my own agenda, someone would call or walk in with a problem that needed solving immediately. This familiar metaphor in conversation typically conveyed the emotion of frustration , heard with unanimous head-nodding empathy.

Years later, that experience would serve me well when, as a local church pastor, I found my agenda of sermon preparation and program planning interrupted almost daily with other problems to be solved now rather than later. “Putting out fires” was, among my fellow clergy, the same old euphemism for “they won’t leave me alone to get my work done.”

This is not to say that I was ever so necessary as to be THE problem solver in any relationship.   My efforts were always to assist as needed and never to micromanage or at all manage anyone else’s affairs.

Now that I’m retired, I can see through some sharper lens of hindsight that “putting out fires” really was my calling all along. Didn’t always make that printed sheet of job description bullet points, but it was always my job. As a supervisor of counselors. As a pastor. And, get this, it is still my job as a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. It will always be my calling here on earth as a Christian. And if you self-identify as a Christian, it is your calling as well, whether you appreciate it or not just yet.

The Jesus of both the synoptic and fourth Gospels was perpetually putting out fires. Whether he was en route to Jerusalem, or trying for some time away just to pray and meditate, he was always being interrupted by people with problems that needed solving now rather than later. He couldn’t even attend a wedding banquet in Cana as an ordinary guest without being pressed into duty as a winemaker. Every day it was a different fire that needed “putting out.” People were sick, hungry, had another question, had another crisis, and needed something now rather than later. That was his job. Putting out fires.

Now consider this in way of a Christian response to the refugee crisis in the middle east and in Europe that currently begs our attention. There have actually been several different responses that I’ve noticed in public or social media. One is that we have our own problems here at home to take care of. Our own agenda. Let’s not be bothered to stop and handle this interruption.

Another response has been “it’s too frightening.” Think of the analogy of “call the fire department, because I’m no firefighter myself.” Here the unspoken message is, “I’m afraid of fire” so don’t pick me.

Another response has been “let’s keep the fire from spreading to my house.” If we can’t keep them out of country, let’s at least keep them out of our state. If it spreads to our neighborhood, let’s at least protect my house.

Another response has been to blame the victim. As in “they should have never left those matches out where the kids could play with them.” Or “they should have known better.”

Another response has been to blame the firefighters. They haven’t done enough. They’ve used the wrong tactics. Or the arsonist who started it all in the first place. That’s always a great excuse for not having to putting out any fires ourselves. We’re too busy spreading blame.

Yet another response has been to throw fuel on the fire. Yep. That’s the spreading of fear from one house or neighborhood or State house or media outlet to the next. This response compares refugees to rabid dogs or the ebola virus or whatever other analogy it takes to spread panic in this world’s crowded theater.

And then there is the Christian, which in reality means Christ-like, response.

“Putting out fires” is what we do. It’s who we are. It’s our calling. It’s our job. It’s keeping our main thing the main thing. It’s the Jesus thing. It’s what Jesus would do. It is Christ-like.

And it matches the words of a lady named Emma Lazarus (I like that last name) when she penned her 1883 sonnet later inscribed on France’s gift to our nation of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Terrorism is like a giant fire burning in our world today. It’s not the only fire. There are many others by other names and labels. They involve people who are hurting. Scared. Angry. Confused. “Tempest-tost.”

A good friend of mine recently told me that he finds great meaning in thinking of this world as being hell. It is our curse, our punishment, our pain, our death, our crucifixion. Yet, he has found a way to turn his curse into blessing, his punishment into reward, pain into pleasure, death into life, crucifixion into resurrection. “How so?” I asked him. His answer: “by giving of my time in putting out fires.” By helping the hurting, one person at a time. By spreading joy, peace, hope, faith, love, a taste of heaven in the midst of hell, a lift to the fallen, a cup of cold water to the thirsty child in Christ’s name.

This friend of mine nailed it. For him, joy came from being Christ-like, descending into hell and taking on the sins of the world, easing others’ sufferings, comforting others’ sorrows. Carrying the water. Bringing God’s Kingdom here and now……on earth as it is in heaven. It was, and still is, his greatest reward in life as a follower of Jesus. It is life in abundance. See also John 10:10.

“And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” — Matthew 10:42 (NLT)

Today, on this eve of Thanksgiving 2015, I am thankful for many things. That includes my aforementioned friend, and it includes my own jobs past and present. That’s my calling as a Christian. Especially when I’m having one hell of a day (you know the type).  Those are the blessed days of greatest meaning when when all I get done is “putting out fires.”


Family Lives Matter

As a Social Worker and family therapist, I was trained to work with families on developing a safety plan in response to any incident of abuse and domestic violence. Such “work” differs from case to case, but in the broadest of terms, it involves calling a crime a crime and then taking all steps necessary to prevent the crime from ever happening again in that family. In effect, it becomes the work of crime fighting in the interest of everyone’s safety. The primary problem to be solved being that of a “safety problem.”

Beyond the obvious work of involving the police and the justice system in matters of criminal law enforcement, the work of healing the victims involves a confrontation with the violent criminal along the lines of these 3 questions: 1) Can you stop yourself from causing this safety problem again? 2) If so, who will be your accountability partners and how will they verify that you have stopped yourself? 3) If you cannot or do not stop yourself, do you understand that we will join as many people as it takes to stop you, and that we will decide without your participation exactly who will do what, when, where, and how to stop you? Such questions for the criminal to answer become important in the solution of any safety problem, for otherwise the safety plan itself is like an uncovered wound left to heal. When someone in the family is hurt by a violent crime of any nature, the yield signs are packed away and the stop signs, as many as it takes, are planted in their place.

Whether we are inclined to think in these terms or not, the world is a macro version of the human family. When the safety of some has been violated, we are all affected. We are all at risk. And as nation states, we must join as many member nations together as possible to get some answers as to what has caused this safety problem our world now has. Who can stop it from happening again? And if they can’t or they won’t, then who else can and how? This is called diplomacy. It engages victims as well as perpetrators in a separate process of conversation around the same topic of safety first.

In light of the recent criminal acts against our human family as perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a safety plan must be developed among our human family aimed at putting up Stop signs wherever they may be needed around the world. If those responsible for causing the problem with their criminal behavior are unwilling to stop themselves and be held accountable with adequate verifications, then obviously the remainder of the human community must figure into the safety plan. Such a safety plan must continue until such point as, for example, all victimized Iraqi and Syrian refugees who desire to return home from their settlement camps have safely done so.

To many, such social work on this macro level will seem impossible. The whole world will not fit into one therapy room. Yet, as in family therapy where one must sometimes divide the room into subsets for practical planning purposes, a good place to start may be either the 22 member Arab League (itself a rather dysfunctional family) or a larger group of nations with a significant population of Islamic citizens, to include Iran and Turkey among others outside the Arab League. Clearly, the matter of Islamic participation in any global safety planning is necessary because Muslims are most often the victims of terrorism (I prefer the term criminal violence) within their own larger family. The most likely therapist or social work agency for such a process is likely the United Nations itself. Not everyone trusts this therapist, but it’s the best one available since Dr. Phil is off doing Hollywood television.

Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect Islamic criminals, having caused safety problems internationally in legal violation within multiple sovereign States, to be willing or able to stop themselves from continuing their killing spree. If they do not stop from killing their own Islamic men, women, and children, and they obviously don’t, then it will take more than the Islamic nations themselves to stop them. It will take more than western military forces to stop them. Realistically, it will take all of the above and then some. But it must be done.

The global human family needs safety. Criminal violence against our family, whether by so-called insiders or outsiders, must be stopped. No plan of healing therapy can happen without this safety problem being solved. And no safety plan can, or will, be carried out only by “those people,” be they Arabs, Muslims, American soldiers or western allies. We must all volunteer. We must all act as family members together and play our own role in stopping the crime. If we would do it to protect our own smaller family here on earth, they we must do it to protect our larger family as well. That is the only way for us to manage the risk that we, too, may be the next victims of this illegal, criminal violence we have until now called terrorism.



After the ISIL strikes against Beruit and Paris this past week, I will join the long line of bloggers to use my own voice as a Jesus follower hoping this crisis can birth a greater piece of God’s Kingdom on earth than ever before.

Before you read my thoughts, I commend those of my fellow Elder in the UMC, Mike Slaughter, who writes in response to this crisis: Read Mike before you read me. He is much wiser than me.

In no way do I disagree with any of Mike’s words about doing love. Yet, I pose the question that is on the mind of Christians everywhere in response to these crises of violence we see everywhere in our world, including those perpetrated by ISIL in recent days, weeks, months and even years. How should we do love in response to ISIL?

Wisely, Ginghamsburg Church is seeking to do both physical and spiritual love through its partnerships with UMCOR in the middle east. I get it. I’ve read Walter Wink, too. Yes, the enemy is “spiritual evil” itself, if we are to fight the cause and not just placate the symptoms. Love does respond to both the physical symptoms and the spiritual “root causes.” I think that’s where Mike and Ginghamsburg and even UMCOR is going with all this.

If I can add anything to the conversation at all, it might be to suggest that sometimes a global “tough love” must include military force against an actual, physical enemy. When it comes to the question of “how to do love” in response to ISIL, I quite easily lose my own theology and begin to look like a hypocrite. My systematic theology, as a few of you might know, is predicated on the belief that sin is fear manifesting as “taking control over others of whom we are afraid.” We do this in the faith that this will make us more God-like, when in reality it separates us entirely from God. God is anything but a control freak. He’s just the opposite. He refuses to control others out of fear; opting to instead influence others out of love. We as Christians are challenged by I John 4:18 to have faith in God’s perfect love to cast out human fear in the long run. That very verse of scripture informs much of my theology, and my faith in love’s true meaning.

Until something like ISIL comes along.

Now I struggle with my own hypocrisy, for I find myself in a kind of reverse repentance mode and trying to justify a “do TOUGH love” approach using the allied forces of western, and even Russian, military power to stop ISIL now. Not in the long run. Not just spiritually. Physically! Now! If not sooner!

What my heart desires is to see a world in which all refuges can safely return home. No more ISIL when, say, Syrian and Iraqi refugees return home from their Lebanese and European and even American asylum. I want to see a full surrender on part of ISIL’s thieves and murderers. I want them to suffer the physical consequence of war criminals for the evil choices they have made, each person among them. I want to see the equivalent of America’s D-Day during WWII as an act of self-sacrificial love to save the innocents, and I want the equivalent of America’s Marshall Plan to then restore the sovereignty of those now dispossessed by ISIL. I want the equivalent of the Nuremburg Trials for all ISIL members captured alive. But I want it all to start with an allied military invasion of the ISIL Caliphate territories.

Here’s the point of this blog, however. I’m not sure but what my hearts’ desires are not rooted in my own fearful and thus sinful nature of taking control over others. I’m not sure that what I’m wanting is not to do fear instead of doing love, even tough love. And so I’m not blogging today to make a statement, but rather to ask a question that expands the conversation.

How should we do love in today’s world? How should we do “tough love” when responding to crises of violence, be these perpetrated by German Nazi’s thinking they were doing Christ a favor when killing Jews and even other Christians OR by ISIL et al in thinking they are doing Mohammad a similar favor with their own similar acts of violence. How, and then how else? I’m eager to learn from each of you.


Don’t like waiting lines? Read this.

If you’re like me, you don’t like waiting lines. Whether it’s waiting in traffic, waiting for a doctor, for a cashier, for a teller, or for an answer to that interminable call for customer service that requires waiting on hold because “your call is important to us,” I REALLY don’t like waiting.

If you’re like me in having been taught in church that we must wait upon the Lord, that God’s delays are not God’s denials, that “wait awhile” is how God often answers our prayers, then I have some good news for you today. Here’s the REAL Gospel. God never keeps us waiting.  God stops to take care of us immediately. NO WAIT TIME in His line.

Don’t believe me? Then turn with me to Luke 18. I’m serious. Go ahead. Find your Bible now and then find Luke 18. I know you’re busy, but this won’t take long.

Let’s break this chapter into 6 parts. Ready? So part one is The Parable of the Persistent Widow, verses 1-8. Often we read this to mean that Jesus wants us to persist in our prayers, much like this despairing widow in the parable. Quite the opposite! Unlike the unrighteous Judge, God hears us the first time and answers us immediately. With God, we get justice quickly —  v. 8. It’s the world’s judicial system that keep us waiting and makes us desperate. In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait for justice. That would be in the world’s kingdom.

Part two is the Parable of the Tax Collector, verses 9-14. Notice the holy man even tithes! The preacher’s best friend has just prayed a holiness prayer! Except, does he go away with an immediate answer? Well, no. He’s probably still waiting for his blessing. Meanwhile, it’s the unholy man who leaves with an immediate blessing. In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait for holiness.   That would be in the world’s kingdom.

Part three is about Jesus and the Little Children, verses 15-17. When I was a little kid, the hardest thing to hear was always, “wait til you’re older or wait til you’re bigger.” I felt utterly helpless to make myself older or bigger. The world says that a lot. Jesus never says it. NEVER. In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait until we’re older. That would be in the world’s kingdom.

Part four is about Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, verses 19-30. How long does it take to get rich? Does it usually happen quickly? For me, at age 69, I have to confess something. It look me a long time to save enough money to retire. I want it to take the rest of my life to get rid of it all. Hard to come, hard to go — far as I’m concerned. I’m no better than the rich young ruler in this story. But I’m not sure that’s even the point. Rather, it’s easy to come, easy to go — far as Jesus is concerned. . In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait until we’re richer. That would be in the world’s kingdom.

Part five is about Jesus predicting his Death and Resurrection, verses 31-34. His disciples had, as Jews, been waiting a long time for the Messiah to bring Israel’s salvation. Jesus is essentially telling them here to “wait no longer.” The waiting is over. He’s going to the cross. But that’s not all. He’s coming again. At the resurrection. That’s right, at the resurrection. Today’s church is still waiting for Jesus to come again. But what if it’s already happened? What if the second coming was the resurrection? What if the waiting is over? . In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait until Jesus returns. That would be in the world’s kingdom.

Okay, last part. Jesus and the Blind Beggar, verses 35-43. Chapter ends as it begins, with a beggar. Not a widow this time, but a blind man. In despair. Tired of waiting. Persistent. It’s been a long time of having to wait. And wait.

Until Jesus comes!

Jesus stops, says “receive your sight.” And the wait is over. In God’s Kingdom, we don’t have to wait for our sight. That would be in the world’s kingdom.

If you’re like me, and tired of all the waiting lines, let’s at least accept that this has to do with waiting for the world. Waiting for the world to reward us for being holier, more grown up, more wealthy or powerful, or healthier. It has nothing to do with waiting on the Lord. Nothing to do with God’s delays. God’s Kingdom is the one and only place that gives us an instant reward or blessing. THIS LINE HAS NO WAIT TIMES.