Wednesday, December 16, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: This Christmas, Something Better Than We Can Imagine


“Sometimes what we think we need isn’t what we need at all, and what gets thrown in for good measure is that which fills our hearts.” Philip Gulley

For nearly everyone, Christmas 2020 will probably not look like what we earlier imagined for ourselves. This is not likely to be a “normal” Christmas for most of us.

Some are already grieving or complaining that the virus will keep them apart from loved ones this holiday season. They fear they will miss long-anticipated gatherings due to travel restrictions or safety concerns.

Some are suffering financially. This has been a difficult year for many families, having lost jobs or businesses, or finding that a shrinking national or local economy has reduced their personal income. Many worry that they will not be able to buy the gifts they hoped to give their little ones.

Some have experienced the death or serious illness of family members and friends. My wife Marcie’s mother died in April of Covid-19 contracted in a locked-down nursing home. Our daughter-in-law Hilary’s father succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in September. We will deeply miss sharing Christmas with them this year. Many others we know have suffered similar losses, whether Covid-related or not. These absences will cast a pall over our holidays.

Nearly everyone will be impacted by the loss of festive parties and traditional gatherings in homes, offices, churches, and neighborhoods, as we continue to “socially distance.” Sharing gifts, Christmas hugs, kisses under the mistletoe, and other affectionate greetings will be AWOL this December.

I could go on, but you get the point.

So, what are we to do? Do we just mope around through the holidays, spewing doom and gloom from now until the new year and beyond? Do we bemoan what we do not have or will not experience, and in the process fail to recognize what can still be ours this Christmas? Will we allow our victimhood to rob us of the joy of the season?

I hope not.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a jewel of a thought in a Facebook post that could serve to brighten our Christmas spirits. The context was quite different, but the sentiment is the perfect antidote to our communal holiday malaise. I believe it could help us pivot our attitude from negativity to joyful thanksgiving. It could even produce a far better Christmas than we can even imagine.

My friend Adam Zern is a gifted and highly successful leader of young men in our church. He has guided scores of boys, if not hundreds, in navigating the difficult passage to manhood. Ironically, however, in his own family, he has four daughters and zero sons. This is something he never expected from life. In recently expressing his deep love and gratitude for his children, Adam used a powerful quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne that we all could choose to apply to the upcoming Christmas season.  Adam wrote:

Oh, my girls. I’m not sure anyone plans to have all girls, but in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Providence had meditated better things for me than I could possibly imagine for myself.” I do [everything] I do for them. As one who knows, God loves his daughters and counts their tears. I am forever theirs. #givethanks.

I invite you to re-read and savor Hawthorne’s words: “Providence had meditated better things for me than I could possibly imagine for myself.”

What an earth-shattering idea! Even if we think we know what would be best for us, God may have something EVEN BETTER in mind for us. God’s plans for us or God’s timing for our lives could turn out to be far more wonderful than our own grand expectations. He may actually know what’s best for us.

Do you suppose this concept could revolutionize the way we are thinking about this upcoming Christmas? Here are some questions I want to pose for myself and for all of you:

  • What if we adopt the “Hawthorne/Zern attitude” regarding our upcoming Christmas?

  • What if, instead of lamenting what won’t be, we have faith that something better could result for us?

  • What if we re-think and re-configure our holiday plans to seize the opportunities we do have?

  • What if we begin to open our eyes to new possibilities, and we began to search for something else, something different, something new, something better?

  • What if we trust that “Providence has meditated better things for us than we could possibly imagine for ourselves,” and then we worked to make it so?

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas our present-giving and present-receiving took a back seat to deeper thoughts and more meaningful sharing?

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas we rejoiced in what we do have, rather than grumbled about what we don’t have or — even worse — begrudged others what they have.

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas we set aside the time and found the quietude to contemplate what we can do to bring, as the angelic choirs proclaimed, peace on earth and good will to mankind, at least to our little corner of the world?

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas we, like the shepherds of old, returned to our fields of labor glorifying and praising God for all the things that we have heard and seen and felt?

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas, after the hubbub has subsided, we, like Mary, kept all these things and pondered them in our hearts?

  • Thinking afresh, what if this Christmas, by study, meditation, and prayer, we came to truly understand and appreciate the supernal and eternal significance of the virgin birth of the Christ-child in an obscure village in Judea?

I believe that with a little effort and the right attitude, we can enjoy an incredible Christmas this year, because I have faith that “Providence has meditated better things for us than we could possibly imagine for ourselves.” 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: The Surprising Power of The Gratitude Question




“Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can't feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack." Harvard Medical School “Healthbeat” newsletter


I have a new secret tool for upgrading or calming my troubled thoughts.

Years ago, a teacher and leader I admired taught me a simple method for reining in out-of-control thoughts. He taught me to sing or hum an uplifting song to myself whenever I found my mind wandering in unhappy, anxious, discouraging, or inappropriate paths, or when my thoughts were racing and keeping me from going to sleep. Amazingly, after only a verse or two, my thinking would shift into a more positive direction or I would be able to relax and drift off to sleep.

Lately, however, for reasons unknown to me, singing a song to myself has become less effective than it used to be. Perhaps the song had become repetitious, perhaps the neural pathways in my brain were getting older, or perhaps it was something related to the pandemic. Whatever the cause, my singing technique wasn’t working as well anymore.

But recently I have come across a new approach, a different methodology for controlling or quieting my thoughts.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about gratitude, trying to write something appropriate for the Thanksgiving season. With those ideas floating around in my head, I made an amazing discovery. I have found that when I can’t sleep or when my mind is roaming in undesirable directions, I can place myself in a happy, inspiring place by asking myself one simple question. 

What Are You Grateful For?

I call it The Gratitude Question.

It’s a simple but effective query. When I ask myself The Gratitude Question, I find that, without resistance, my brain glides into thankful, appreciative territory where I relax and realize how blessed I am. While there, I remember that when you love what you have, you have everything you need. While there, I recognize how much I love the people who surround me. While there, I stop worrying; I stop fretting; I stop yearning for things I don’t have. I am at peace.

Going to my thankful place by asking myself “What Are You Grateful For?” completely changes my spirit and attitude. My eyes are opened to the multitude of blessings that continually surround me. From that vantage point, I treasure the words of William Arthur Ward, who wrote: "Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings."

This Thanksgiving, despite the uncertainty and angst swirling around us, I choose to be grateful. I choose to cherish everyone and everything that blesses my life.  I choose to believe what Melody Beattie said: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more."

This Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for my wonderful new super-question: “What Are You Grateful For?” 

Perhaps you should try asking yourself The Gratitude Question and see what happens for you. For me, it changes everything.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020




“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”  Oprah Winfrey

Over the past several months, our country has experienced the most non-empathetic environment I can remember. Everyone has been shouting at each other and imagining that their rancorous arguing was changing someone’s mind, when in fact no one was listening and not one person’s mind was actually changed.

This is a dangerous place to be. The fabric of our society is fraying due to these divisions.  “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” said Roger Ebert. “The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” according to Hannah Arendt. Sadly, in this tumult many friendships and familial relationships have been torn asunder.

I do not pretend to know how to fix what’s going on in our country, but I do have an idea about how we might repair schisms on a personal level. 

We must return to empathy, and it starts with simply being nice to one another. “The outward expression of empathy is courtesy.” Stewart Butterfield.  Somehow, a lot of folks have come to think that the challenges and injuries that they have experienced justify their striking out at others who see life differently. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one heals themselves by wounding another.

Empathy isn’t complicated. It starts with a desire to understand another human being.  In the words of C. JoyBell C., “empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people.” Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another. True empathy requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things from the perspective of the other person.

I like the way Brene Brown expressed it: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” Unfortunately, most of us aren’t really listening when we think we are, especially when the other person holds a different viewpoint from us. “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” Carl Rogers.

There are powerful professional advantages to empathy. For example, empathy is the key to great sales and marketing. An old adage, though somewhat dated, remains true: "If you want to know what John Smith buys, you must see the world through John Smith's eyes."

Years ago, I learned another benefit to empathy in an unlikely setting: law school. By its nature, the legal profession tends to be adversarial, so it’s easy to think there is no place for empathy in that world. 

Rex E. Lee, my law school dean, was an extremely effective appellate attorney. He personally argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as Solicitor General of the United States and in private practice. He taught his students that empathy would make them better advocates. He said: “You must fully understand both sides of the question before the court. If you can’t articulate your opponent’s side of the case as readily as your own, you really don’t know the strength or weakness of your own position.” His counsel has helped me in numerous situations over the past 40 years.

Are you looking for a wonderful way to create empathy in a one-to-one setting? Here’s a great idea from one of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Covey. He espoused the idea of the Native American talking stick as a way to listen empathically. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes this technique: 

The idea is that only the person holding the stick gets to make their point and they continue to speak on this point until they feel they have been fully understood by the listener. The other person is only permitted to speak insofar as they need to clarify what they’ve heard, or to demonstrate that they have understood the speaker. Before stating his or her own point, Person #2 must restate Person #1’s position to Person #1’s satisfaction.

Once that has occurred, Person #2 may state his or her own position, and Person #1 in turn must restate Person #2’s position to Person #2’s satisfaction before the conversation may move forward. 

As soon as Person #2 feels they had been understood, they pass the talking stick back to Person #1. After this occurs, Person #1 can begin again to explain their current thoughts.

Covey’s Indian Talking Stick principle is a powerful communication device for resolving disagreements and for exploring the possibility that there may be a superior answer that neither one of them held before. The best way forward may not be “your way” or “my way,” but a third way that arises from truly listening to and understanding each other.

Whether we use Covey’s talking stick approach, or we just slow down and start really listening to each other — even those we disagree with — we urgently need to find more empathy, individually and as a nation. I pray we can.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: What Makes a Gift "Great"? - Part 2: Giving More with Less


WEDNESDAY WISDOM:  What Makes a Gift "Great"?  

Part 2:  Giving More with Less


“You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”  Kahlil Gibran


As an estate planning attorney, I have from time to time been privy to, and in some cases a facilitator of, some very substantial charitable gifts.  I applaud the generosity of those who make such gifts, and I appreciate the tremendous good they accomplish.

But my deepest fascination in the world of charitable giving is with people who have relatively little and yet make meaningful, life-altering gifts.  The Oseola McCarty story is a prominent example.  Another is the widow and her two mites in the New Testament.  I had always pictured that woman as being elderly and alone, until I encountered another depiction — that of a young widow with her brood of small children who, in Jesus’ words, “cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury” because she donated “all she had.”  The image above definitely changed the way I looked at that event.  But whatever her age or circumstances, her story has touched millions of hearts over the centuries.

There is another tender account of a destitute widow in the Bible, this one from the Book of First Kings in the Old Testament, who also “cast in all the living that she had.”  That woman, known as the widow of Zarephath, likewise showed exceptional faith and generosity.  In addition, she demonstrated that rendering service is another way to make a Great Gift. 

Her husband had died, and she and her son faced the grim reality of starving to death, victims of a long, grueling famine.  She was making a small piece of bread for her son and herself with her last bit of flour and oil, and then afterwards they would lie down together to die.

Into this tragic setting the Lord sent the prophet Elijah, himself starving from hunger.  He asked the widow to make the bread and give it to him.  He wanted her not only to donate her remaining flour and oil, but also to actually bake the loaf for him.  The scripture recounts that she did as asked and gave away her last morsel of food.  In response to her gift and her service, she was blessed miraculously — she never ran out of flour and oil during the remainder of the drought.



This story illustrates the principle that giving of ourselves can magnify — or even supersede — giving our financial resources.  Our monetary donations are far more powerful when they are accompanied by gifts of our time, talents, and physical labor.  Or even if we have no money to give, we can give our service.  The widow of Zarephath baked a small loaf for a hungry man of God.  The little drummer boy in the Christmas carol, who thought he had no gift to give that was fit for a king, played his drum for the Christ Child, playing his best for him. I like to think of these offerings as a form of “philanthropic sweat equity.”

When we render service for a worthy cause, what is best for us to give?

Each of us has certain capabilities and skills that can be considered our Unique Abilities, things we’re really good at and that seem to flow easily for us.    These talents feel natural to us and we enjoy doing them. Sometimes when we’re using these gifts, we feel energized and more alive.  When we’re operating in our natural areas of strength, our “philanthropic sweat equity” donations of time and effort can have far greater impact than our normal efforts.

My friends Yale Levey and Ryan Ponsford of Gateway for Good and Main Street Philanthropy have catalogued 16 useful talents or skills that can leverage or amplify a person’s service to a charitable organization, beyond money.  Do any of these Unique Abilities apply to you?  Could you make a significant difference for your favorite causes or charities by giving in some of these ways?


  • I am a helper. When I volunteer my time, talents or treasure, I am living my higher purpose.
  • I am a listener. I get energized when talking to new people and hearing their stories.
  • I am a professional. I enjoy sharing my experience, business acumen, and wisdom with others.
  • I am a connector. I make introductions and help new relationships thrive.
  • I am a creator. I recognize the need for tools or processes that make things better.
  • I am an influencer. I can describe a vision and people follow my lead.
  • I am a craftsman. I enjoy doing projects and working with my hands
  • I am a teacher. I have a unique ability to communicate in a way that people can understand. 
  • I am a host(ess). When people get together, I provide an environment for the best experience.
  • I am a great story teller. I can hear a story and re-tell it in an energizing and compelling way.
  • I am great with technology. If you need help with your tech issues, I’m the one.
  • I am artistic.  I create visual images that touch people and move them to action.
  • I am available. I make time to be available and I’m happy to apply my time in ways in which I can be of most value.
  • I am an organizer. I enjoy ensuring everything has a place and is well organized.
  • I am a facilitator. I have a skill for helping others think through issues and come to conclusions.
  • I am imaginative. I like to find creative ways to express information or deliver messages.


Can you find your unique talents, skills, and strengths in this list?  And when you do, how can you benefit your favorite charities more effectively by focusing your service in the areas of your greatest strength?  

When we serve using our unique abilities, we can make miracles happen. The desperately poor widow of Zarephath combined service in her unique area of skill — baking bread — with a miniscule donation of flour and oil. With no money but with an enormous endowment of faith and service, she blessed both the prophet Elijah and her family, immediately and long term. 

We can make exceptional gifts to the charities of our choice when we give of ourselves, using our unique talents, skills, and strengths, EVEN WHEN WE HAVE LITTLE OR NO MONEY.  As I wrote in my previous Wednesday Wisdom article, “the dollar amount of our charitable gifts doesn’t matter.  What makes a gift GREAT is not its size, but its character.”  I challenge all of us to identify our personal gifts and talents, and then give them away in a cause greater than ourselves. 

Shakespeare wrote: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”  To me, giving more with less is the key to miraculous gifts and lasting joy.