Lessons from Francis

pope francis

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece titled “Explaining Trump.” It was my struggle to understand the success behind Trump’s political communications. With the end of his first visit to the United States, I thought it would be a refreshing alternative to consider communications  lessons from Pope Francis.  Surely if we can learn from “the Donald” then there must be lessons we can learn from “the Holy Father.”

I was able to follow Francis’ visit closely. I was on the south lawn of the White House when Francis was received by President Obama.  I watched his parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.  I watched his appearances before Congress, at the United Nations, at Madison Square Garden.


We can learn a lot of things from Pope Francis. I’ll mention three.


Speak clearly.  Francis was right about his English pronunciation.  It isn’t very good. Awful, really. But that didn’t hide a clarity of purpose.  Francis speaks plainly. His concepts are simple. The primacy of love. The beauty of life. The dignity of humanity. We should help those who need help. We should protect the vulnerable. We should empower the honorable. We should care for each other. And he speaks not just with words but also with deeds. Sleep in a simple room. Ride in a Fiat. Wear comfortable shoes.


We can all learn from this. Business, like life, is difficult. But it isn’t all that complicated. Amidst obfuscation all around us, clarity is refreshing.  Clarity energizes while it soothes. When we speak clearly and simply, people take notice.  They smile. Even more so when your clarity is not just in what you say, but how you live out each day.


Observe intently. Francis is observant. He engages with purposefulness. He sees the small immigrant girl being shuffled away in a parade and calls out to her. He looks into the eyes of a homeless person and then washes his feet. He laughs and jokes with the school children. He reaches out and playfully tousles a young person’s hair. When before a joint session of Congress, Francis said he was not there to “preach”, he was not there to “address,” he was there to “dialogue.” (Which is a very ambitious thing to do with this U.S. Congress!)


We fail to communicate when we fail to observe.  When we are self-absorbed, self-obsessed and otherwise self-occupied we fail to see, understand, and connect with those around us. We all would benefit from less communicating and more dialoguing.


Love recklessly. Finally, Francis is a reminder of the power of passion and love. I find it impossible to separate what Francis says and who Francis is from his passion, enthusiasm and devotion. There is a winsomeness to his heartfelt affection and concern for the “others”. And not just some “others.” All “others.” Francis is the antithesis of targeted communications. When you see him and listen to him you get the sense that no one – regardless of station – is beyond his reach.


We live in a world suffocating from exclusivity. We micro-target ourselves to the point of isolation. By defining our identity so precisely, we lose sense of who we really are.  By appealing to a targeted few, we appeal to no one in general.  We would all do better by rethinking our disdain for the “lowest common denominator.”  Perhaps the lowest common denominator is, in fact, our highest calling.


So there it is.  The next strategic communications plan for the next client.  Speak clearly. Observe intently. Love recklessly. It seems to be working for Francis.

Explaining Trump

Donald Trump

I’ve tried hard not to write this. The one thing this world may need least, is yet another article on Donald J. Trump. I go to work and there’s Trump.  I drive home and I listen to the radio and it is all about Trump. I go home and turn on TV and there’s Trump. I go on vacation to the places FAR away from Washington DC and there he is – TRUMP!  I confess to Trump exhaustion. He follows me everywhere. My wife and I can’t even talk about it.

So consider this a catharsis. A Trump exorcism. A purge. You may not agree with anything that follows. And if you don’t please don’t be angry with me. Know that I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable and somehow understand the unfathomable. No, I’m not talking about the origins of creation and the existence of God. I’m talking about the small, remote and horrifying chance of Donald J. Trump becoming president of the United States.

So let’s get started. How do we explain what is happening to us?

I would suggest starting with one of the best articles I’ve read to date on this phenomenon – a piece by David Gergen. It is about narcissism and leadership. It is very well written and well researched. I think starting with narcissism is a good and appropriate place when trying to understand and explain the Trump phenomenon. I would only add that while there’s a historical nexus between narcissism and leadership, there’s a human nexus as well. We all have our inner Trump. We all have our “Hey, look at me!” “Hey, ain’t I great!” “Hey, if you gave me that problem I’d fix it so fast it would make your head spin!”

So with our own “inner Trump” in mind, lesson one (and perhaps the most controversial).  Personableness can get you far.

I understand if you might take issue with the premise that Donald Trump is “personable.” How can you label as “personable” someone who calls immigrants “rapists” and liberal women that he doesn’t like “fat” “ugly” and “stupid”? And then there’s Megyn Kelly.

But notice how Trump will, in the same breath, match every critique with a back slap.

Jeb Bush is “weak”, “low energy”, and “a puppet”. Bush is also a “good guy”, “wonderful man”, “I like him.”

Illegal aliens are “rapists”, “thugs” and “thieves”. Oh, but “I love Mexicans and the Mexican people.”

China is “sucking us dry” and at the same time “I love them too … they stay in my hotels!”

Perhaps the only thing that both friends and enemies agree on about Trump is that when you are dealing with him individually he is a very “genial” guy. At a personal level, “the Donald” is engaging, witty, and yes, even generous. Beneath his braggadocio is a certain folksy personableness.

This trait can get you far. And it isn’t new.

A lot of people loved the folksy, genial, Ronald Reagan even as he was vilifying impoverished mothers as “welfare queens” and ripping solar panels off the roof of the White House. Reagan was about the most anti-union president we’d had, yet he won the labor vote.  Why? Perhaps one reason is that he seemed so personable.

Second, Trump underscores the societal focus on the inflated self.  He is a logical outworking of our diminished appreciation of moderation, modesty and humility.  All three qualities were once considered attributes of character and virtue.  They were things we exalted. The strong, silent, self-effacing hero. Those days seem far away.  We have traded our John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods for the fast-talking, wise-cracking, over-the-top and modestly vulgar.

To be sure we have always had gadflies and the delightful fringe. We’ve seen value in the quirky and those on the outside who dared speak “truth to power.”

But we have eviscerated the moderate middle. In politics, we voted out moderates like Dick Lugar and Mary Landrieu. The moderate elected officials who had been successful – folks like Evan Bayh and Mitch Daniels – have simply walked away rightly figuring there are better things to do with their time than try and fiddle with the mess that is the American polity.

We have penalized the thoughtful and heaped praise on the cock-sure. When we vilify compromise, make all politics personal, and chase away the majority of people who have a real spirit of public service, what we get is Donald J. Trump.

Finally, Trump shows us the sad dysfunction of news media.

I have friends both inside and outside of the news media and if you get them alone for a moment, most agree. The news media is dying.  Or if not dying it is morphing into something unrecognizable. It is adrift, either caught up in its own pursuit of a political agenda (Fox vs. MSNBC), chasing the latest tweet, or simply devoid of a filter of decency and decorum.

It is good that years ago they built something called a Newseum. At least you can still find good journalism somewhere.  Trump is an avatar to the news media’s desperation for a story. He is a testament to its waning capability to challenge the inaccurate or absurd. What we see today is much worse than the yellow journalism of Hearst or the liberal bias of Cronkite and his cronies. It goes beyond the traditional “if it bleeds it leads” problem. It is a news media that is rubber necking in unimaginable proportions. And we are forced to watch.

According to legend, Joseph de Maistre once coined the phrase “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Perhaps. And perhaps that is the frightening reality that we have to face when we try to explain the current popularity of Trump.

A small footnote. De Maistre was no fan of democracy. He worked for Russian Czar Alexandar I. He believed hereditary monarchies were divinely sanctioned. He viewed constitutional government as beyond the capabilities of the average Russian.

If alive today, he’d probably be voting for Trump.


image of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons


JJuice cause

If you have raised a child there is an encounter you are sure to have dealt with. It is the incessantly curious moment.

It is that exchange where every statement you make is met with, “Why?” And after which, each subsequent explanation is met with another, “Why?” And so on. Why? Why? Why?

At some point the exasperated parent blurts out the one word to end all conversation:


“Because.” It is an interesting word. The verb “to be” combined with the verb “to cause”. Or as the old French roots would describe: “by reason of.”


I spend much of my professional life trying to figure out the “because” of things, specifically, the “because” of human thinking and behavior … the “becauses” of thinking a certain way, voting a certain way, giving to a certain institution, joining a certain, dare I say, “cause.”

One thing you quickly discover. Correlation is not cause. It is easy to determine correlation. That is, being able to show that if “this” happens it is very likely “that” will happen around the same time. This is most of the research you see. We sift through the numbers and we see correlations between one phenomenon and another. We even ascribe percentages to it. When this occurs or we take action “A”, then 12% of the time they open the email. But when we do something else and take action “B”, then 16% of the time they open the email. So we show correlation. But was the different action “B” the “be” “cause” of the 4% difference? It is very hard to know.

A long time ago there was a guy named Aristotle. He came up with four ways to think about or look at “causes.” A couple thousand years later, Aristotle’s approach still has value when we think about identifying “cause” in politics, marketing, and social change.

First, there is the material cause. This was the cause determined by the “material that composes the moving or changing of things.” This is the easiest of “causes” to observe and perhaps the most simplistic. It is also the least meaningful. A window broke because a rock went through it. Broken window. Cause = rock. A car engine quit because it ran out of gas. Immobile car. Cause = no gas.

You could say they “caused” the window to break and the car to stop. But were simply materials. They don’t “do” anything. They just enabled something.

It is exactly the same when we ascribe societal or behavior change as the result of a device (iPhone) or an app (GoogleMaps) or a service (Amazon). We say these things are change agents. To be sure change has happened “because” of these things. But they are only a material cause and only give a shallow answer to the “be” “cause” of change.

Second, Aristotle spoke of a “formal” cause. The formal cause results from the arrangement of things. Good examples are the harmonic of a particular musical scale that produces a pleasant sound or the algebraic formula that “causes” an arch to support weight.

Now this gets a bit more interesting. We see it in everyday life. We pay a lot of attention to the “position” of a product or service, whether it is in the supermarket or on a Google search page. Why? Because the “formal cause” or arrangement of things changes an outcome. If you’re selling something you want it to be at the end of the aisle. We pay to have our search term higher up on a page. Yes, these marketing formulas for change work, however often we’re not exactly sure why.

Let’s go further.

Third is Aristotle’s “efficient” cause. This was the cause prompted by a person or change agent. The artist Michaelangelo was the “efficient cause” of the Pieta. You might even say that Hitler was the “efficient cause” of World War II.

Again, we see parallels in assessing the “be” “cause” of developments in business and politics. Einstein. Edison. Jeff Bezos. Elong Musk. Barak Obama. We ascribe to them all manner of causes and changes in politics, society and business. Efficient cause goes beyond substance (the rock or gallon of gasoline), beyond form (the harmonic or equation) to the person or persons who were able to imagine and effectuate change.

Applied to everyday communications, the efficient “cause” are the influencers, the early adopters, the activists, networks and communities that can either make something relevant or irrelevant. So we identify the change agents and chase after them.

Finally there is Aristotle’s – well – “final” cause. This was the ultimate cause. It was and remains the most controversial. It is the cause that is determined by the intrinsic purpose and nature of a particular thing, event or being. As described (in Wikipedia!) it is the cause prompted by “the purpose for which things became.”

Now that’s a phrase to chew on.

Finding the “final” cause of things is the most difficult (and dangerous) but not surprisingly it is the one I find most fun and rewarding. It is finding the “be” “cause” of thinking and action that is due to the intrinsic nature of a person’s being and doing. We talk about it at our agency as the relevant cause. It is looking at things through the eyes, hearts and minds of people and trying to make sense out of the “why” of their attitudes and behavior. And while there, to sift through all the complexity and find out those relevant cause(s) for action.

So the conversation with the little child never ends. After every statement, phenomenon, action, event, or campaign comes the inevitable question: “why?” If we can answer the “why” and find the (be) cause behind those things, we are wiser and can make better decisions about things in the future.


Well … because!

The Tradesman

Ever watched a tradesman? Anyone, regardless of gender, who is truly skilled at his or her trade. I have. Sometimes I’ve even had the good fortune to work with them. From carpenters and electricians to cooks and artists.


Tradesmen are both beauty and art in motion. To watch them is to watch wisdom applied to a practical task. They move with grace and confidence. They are disciplined and discrete. They are not just skilled, they are wise in what they do.


Those of us in business could learn a lot from the tradesman. Here are a handful of tradesman skills I’ve tried to incorporate into my own communications planning work.


Be observant. The tradesman sees things that other people don’t. They see the angle that isn’t square. They smell the scent that suggests mold. They notice the coloration that indicates a leak. They notice the things we’d never even think of looking for. Too often we have neither the patience nor predilection for the art of observing. We’re too focused on “doing.” And in so focused on doing, we risk not seeing the things most important.


Have the right tools.  A tradesman always seems to pull from their bag or sack just the right device to address that particular assignment. Moreover, their tools become an extension of themselves. They have the trowel that has just the right angle, the hammer that is perfectly balanced. Too often we sell or use things or tools because we have them, not because they are the best for the particular assignment. We grab what is available as opposed to what is most useful.


Be efficient. I once saw a tradesman put up a framed door from start to finish in 30 minutes. Nothing was rushed or hurried. There was no wasted movement. Every sequence was in place. Each action purposeful. Every cut was precise. Every angle was square. It was breath-taking. Too often in our passion to act, to constantly innovate, to “fail fast”, the flurry of activity suffocates efficiency. When we do we waste everyone’s time, including our own.


Be ready to improvise. At a build in Central America several years ago, I saw a tradesman reconstruct a broken ceramic electrical outlet with a rusted kitchen knife, a flat-head screwdriver and a half roll of electrical tape. It was the strangest contraption I’d seen and I doubt it would have passed a safety inspection. But it allowed us to continue working and finish the job while someone went to buy a new outlet. Too often we have trouble thinking creatively, particularly if “improvising” doesn’t look pretty or present well. We have a hard time adjusting to the reality of the unknowable.


Finish jobs completely. The sign of a good tradesman is that after the work is done, there’s no evidence they’ve been there. They spend as much cleaning up as they do creating. They spend as much time fixing the small, final imperfections as they do the big construction. Too often we head off for another assignment before the job at hand is complete. In not finishing, we not only leave the opportunity for a project to unravel, we miss the chance to step back and enjoy the view.


Observant. Ready with the right tools. Efficient. Unafraid to improvise. Taking time to finish and reflect on a job well done.


We should all approach our work like a skilled tradesman.


Drill Bit Cutting Through Wood by Charles Knowels Via Creative Commons

I am not a scientist.

Earth creative commons
My wife said something profound yesterday. She does that a lot, actually. She’s a therapist. She has a knack for human insight.

We were in our typical morning routine, propped up in bed with our iPads reading the news and checking Facebook. Staring at her iPad Sanderijn said, “Isn’t it strange that every time people ask one of the Republican candidates for president about climate change they answer ‘I don’t know … I am not a scientist.'”

She went on, “Why is it climate change is the one thing they feel they are not qualified to have an opinion on?” She thoughtfully added that these guys don’t seem to respond similarly when asked about other areas of policy.

Which got me thinking. Imagine a presidential candidate who says …

I don’t know about education policy because I am not a teacher.

I don’t know about foreign policy because I am not a diplomat.

I don’t know about military intervention because I am not a soldier.

I don’t know about tax policy because I am not a CPA.

I don’t know about crime and punishment because I am neither a policeman nor a judge.

I don’t know about health care policy because I am not a doctor.

I don’t know about moral values because I am not clergy. (ok, Mike Huckabee maybe but that’s whole different story).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if candidates showed the same humility on other policy issues that some candidates are showing on climate change?

Oh, and by the way, 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity.


Earth Day Image is used under CC 2.0


Place of Worship


I go to one.

Church, that is.

I hear that going to church is becoming increasingly rare.  That’s according to the latest survey by Pew Research. They say the number of people going to church is dwindling.  Ok, they say it is dropping like a stone, actually.  The biggest drop off appears to be millennials, including millennials with young children.

I think that’s too bad.  I feel it is too bad mostly for reasons of faith and belief.  But there are practical reasons as well.

So for all the “nones” out there, even if you feel that church isn’t for you, I’d ask you to reconsider.

Let me give you three practical things you (and your children) can learn from going to church.  Or, for that matter, the mosque or synagogue.

First, at church you learn how to sit still for an hour.  This is an extremely practical skill.  It gets you ready for all those dreadful meetings and conference calls you will have to endure at work.  And for your children it is an absolute God send (pun intended). I teach a lot of kids and let me tell you, we’re losing the art of “sitting still.”

Sure, your kids are going to tell you that they are bored.  Hey, depending on what church you go to you might even be bored.  But haven’t you heard?  Being bored is a good thing.  In fact, all the latest studies show  that people’s besting thinking and creativity comes through boredom.

Go to church. Sit still. And yes, get bored. You’re best thinking depends on it.

Second, at church you learn the concept of giving and philanthropy.

In my faith we practice tithing or giving ten percent of our income.  This always leads to the question, “Is it ten percent of “gross” or ten percent of “net”? I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that many boomers like me who were brought up in church saw Mom and Dad drop their envelop in the plate and were instructed at a very early age to do the same.

The idea of generosity, particularly for the poor and disenfranchised, is common across many faiths.  But church teaches you how to make this a habit, how to weave it into your lifestyle at an early age.

One of the many challenges charitable organizations face today is the decline of the institutional donor. The new generation of donors are “situational” donors.  That’s ok, but not great.  It is hard to imagine great organizations like Red Cross or American Cancer Society being built by situational donors. Church teaches you that you should give back and support causes even when there’s no earthquake in Haiti or drought in the Sudan.  That you should give all the time.  Regularly.  Dependably.  So that organizations that are doing good work can actually do good work.

Finally, church makes you think about big things.  At least it should. Mine does.

When I say big things, I mean really big things. Understanding good.  And bad.  Purpose. Meaning.  Destiny.  Love.  Sacrifice. Truth. Mortality.

Heady stuff.  Big stuff.  The most important stuff in life, really.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us would admit these aren’t the things we spend most of our time thinking about.  We spend most of our time thinking about whether we left the iron on.  Or something like that.  And we think about stuff a lot.  At work we recently did a national study on what people think about most.  At number one was “friends and family.” That’s encouraging.  But at number two – by a wide margin – was “money.”  People think twice as much about money and finances as they do about life’s meaning and purpose.

I think that is too bad. Understandable, but too bad.

Church helps correct that.  Every Sunday here come all those really big things again.  Origin. Purpose. Meaning. Morality. Destiny. Good and Evil. Truth. Mortality.

It isn’t that church is the only place where a person can learn how to sit still, practice philanthropy and search for meaning.  But its track record is pretty good on all three fronts.  And you might even stumble over some of that faith and belief stuff.

So think about it.


Place of Worship via flickr under creative commons 2.0


 imagine maik_sv
“I just can’t imagine …”


That, my friends, is the problem.  We don’t imagine, and when we don’t imagine, we don’t do.  Imagining and imagination are a critical first step to change.  Imagination is what enables us to make something that is foreign or non-existent relevant in our lives.  It is through imagination that we are able to “see” what is possible and in internalizing possibilities, we make new things happen, both in ourselves and in others.


I won’t do the obvious.  That is, I’m not going to quote that song by John Lennon.  (And BTW, I don’t think all the things he wanted us to imagine would be necessarily a good thing.) But I do think he hit on something that many great people have in common. And I’m talking about everyday great people, not just the famous ones. They have an imagination.  In fact, I suspect that it might even be impossible to do great things, unless one submits, indulges or engages the imagination.


I was reminded of the power of imagination at a recent lecture on hypnotherapy.  (My wife is a therapist and this was part of her continuing education classes.) The instructors had studied under Milton Erickson, considered one of the godfathers of medical hypnosis and therapy. They noted that hypnosis is typically used in therapy is to help someone change some behavioral challenge, often an addiction, disorder of fear.


They noted that the reason hypnosis can promote behavior in individuals lies in the simple fact that “imagination is more powerful than will.”  In many respects, that is what hypnotherapy is all about: enabling people to imagine themselves or others differently.


People set goals. They muster will power.  They make resolutions.  They join support groups. They feel they can “muscle” their way through.  But then they find they can’t.  Why?


Because despite all of our willpower (or lack thereof), somewhere deep in our subconscious we are not able to muster up the idea that we can actually do things like quitting smoking or over-eating or easing anxiety.  Too often we lack the idea of the possible.  We lack the ability to truly imagine and believe that life could be other than what it is.  And so we end up back in the life they’ve learned to expect for ourselves.


Great things, great accomplishments, require imagining they can be. It is not just thinking big.  It is the ability to see, and see clearly, a different path. I believe that was what Rev. Martin Luther King, meant when he said he had a dream. Because in imagining and dreaming he was able to take those first steps to change.


But let’s not just use our imagination to simply help ourselves accomplish the things willpower can’t.


Let’s help others imagine those things that willpower alone won’t allow them to do.


Imagination can be contagious.  And liberating.  And when it spreads, everyone is better for it.



Imagine via flickr under cc 2.0


Thoughts from a laundromat


I ruminate a lot.  I’m pretty sure this isn’t a good thing.


One definition of “to ruminate” is “to think deeply.”  But another definition is “to chew one’s cud.” I think a lot of my ruminations fall into the latter.  The “chew your cud” category.


My mind is a lot like the front-loading dryer we have downstairs.  You stuff it with ideas – or in the case of the dryer, wet clothes – and you hit “spin.”  And off it goes!


 All those things – ideas, worries, plans, thoughts, concerns, mysteries, relationships – all tossing around my head like a mess of socks, underwear, t-shirts, jeans, and the occasional pair of Tom’s shoes. ‘Round and ‘round and ‘round.  There’s the whirring and modestly rhythmic sound of buttons and zippers clicking and clacking.  Then the occasional “clunk” and “thud” of those Tom’s shoes.  Bedump! Bedump! Bedump!


And then something happens.  I forget for a moment.  I go upstairs to watch a football game.  Maybe go for a run.  Take a nap. Have a meal.  A glass of wine.  Maybe two.


But eventually I find myself back at the downstairs front-loading dryer.  I see that the clothes have stopped spinning.  They’ve been sitting there for awhile actually.  An afternoon?  A day? A week? So I pull out a polo shirt.  And I realize that it is one crumpled, wrinkled mess. Hideous.  I can’t wear that! I can’t even fold it up.


So I do what any other person too lazy to iron clothes will do.


I turn on the dryer again.  And back they go.  All those things I think about.  Ideas, worries, plans, thoughts, concerns, mysteries, relationships.


‘Round and ‘round and ‘round.  Bedump! Bedump! Bedump!
Thoughts at the laundromat via flickr under CC 2.0

The Gospel of Mom


The Gospel of Mom

I’ve told many stories and written many posts about my Dad. Folks who know me – particularly my family – have heard these stories many, many times.

I’ve rarely written or told stories about my Mom.

And that is just the way I think my Mom would like it.

Many people write about their Moms and Dads in saintly terms. But for those who were fortunate enough to know my Mom, few would argue that Joyce Johnson, daughter of Ola and Clarence, big sister to Dale and Beth, wife of “J. E.” Johnson, and mother of Steve, Janet, Jim and Jerry, was as close to the model of true Christian living as this world has ever seen.

My mother taught me many, many things. All were taught by example. She gave few lectures. When around her you watched, you marveled, and you began to understand what words “character”, “virtue”, and “love” meant.

Among other things, Mom showed me the way of:

Extreme humility. My mother’s humility was breathtaking. It was so vast and deep it is even now hard for me to capture into words. In every thing, in every aspect of daily life, she put herself last. The most horrifying thought for her was that she might be an inconvenience to others. For Mom, it was never about her. She always focused on “the other” whether that be family (most often) or anyone else that might be within her tender reach.

Constant service. My mother was constantly serving. The only time she sat down completely for a meal was at a restaurant. Whether at her home or someone else’s house, she’d sit long enough to be polite but soon slip quietly away to fill a glass, replenish a plate, wash a dish, prepare for the next course. There was a fascinating calmness to it all. Even in daily life, Mom’s movements were measured, efficient, and meaningful. She was constantly in motion, working in a simple, methodical and purposeful way.

Quiet resolve. Before there was “no drama Obama” there was my Mom. Underneath her generous, quiet and humble attitude was a rock-hard steeliness and resolve that defined indomitable. Once set, her direction never veered. She epitomized “endurance.” Nothing caused her to waver – neither the burden of physical pain nor the lure of physical comfort. Whether it was past the well-meaning entreaties of her children and family, or the challenges posed by new places and new faces, Mom’s course never faltered.

Understated bravery.  Mom was brave.  Not in the way that Hollywood likes to define it.  But in its truest sense. She dared to do things that frightened, intimidated and outright scared her.  From crossing the Pacific on a rusty military boat, alone with three children, two of whom were in diapers to moving to a new state, and a new community, alone, after losing her beloved husband of forty plus years.  She faced things she feared without fanfare, fuss, or complaining.

Universal kindness. In my fifty-eight years of living, I cannot remember or recall my Mom saying an unkind word about anyone. Ever. It is an incredible claim but amazingly true. To be sure, there were things people did that she disapproved of (and I know there were times when I fell into that category!). And occasionally she would let you know that. But even then, her words were so tempered, her manner so understanding, her objections so qualified and understated you had to search and be attentive just to realize that she felt something amiss.

Unshakable faith. Mom’s faith in Jesus was simple, direct and unshakable. It is said that there are five Christian gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the life of the Christian. People rarely read the first four. I was blessed with the fifth gospel. The Gospel of Mom. With Mom there was no need for complicated systematic theology. We are all equal, all created in God’s image. We are called “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And the reconciliation of justice and mercy lie in the person of Jesus Christ.  A life of grace, forgiveness and sacrifice.

Unfathomable love. You can wrap all of the above up in a single word. Love. Never have I seen or experienced human love that rivaled that of my Mom. This was particularly true of the love between her and my Dad. Mom’s love was the perfect mixture of adoration, passion, respect, kindness and devotion.

Thousands of years ago God reached out and gave of himself to redeem humanity. In the form of Jesus, God gave us a real living breathing reflection of God’s true nature. So I believe it only appropriate and a fitting interpretation of God’s will, that Mom was called Home at the same time we celebrate God’s ultimate gift.

Mom left us yesterday, Christmas Eve 2014.

I spoke with her briefly that morning.  Amidst all the pain and difficulty of her final hours, Mom’s last words to me were “Merry Christmas!”

That said it all. Uplifting humility. Abiding faith. Enduring love.

“Merry Christmas,” Mom.

You were God’s greatest gift to so many of us.

We will miss you.

Mom on the couch


Nice to see you

“How are you?”

It is perhaps the most asked question in life. It is a question asked between everyone from common strangers to  intimate family members.

Think about it. How many times a day are you asked “how are you?”  Now count the number of times a day you ask that of others. “How are you?”

In some rare cases we actually want to know the answer!  But most times not. It is just a thing we say. And nine times out of ten we get the standard response.


Occasionally we’ll get a “great” or “awful” which often is very problematic because we then feel obliged to follow up as to  “why” and are now committed to having a real conversation which we never intended to have because we really didn’t care how they were doing we were just using as a placeholder for hello.

“How are you?”

I recently started an experiment. When asked “how are you?” I started to respond with a phrase I often heard  my father say and it went like this, “Well, I’m doing better than I deserve.”

This really throws people off.  It is not the ordinary “fine”  and has the effect of causing people to think and react.  Typically, reactions fall into one or two camps.

There’s the group that will challenge the “better than I deserve” response.  Sometimes quite forcefully.

Now I’m sure most of those who object to the unusual “better than I deserve” response to the standard “how ya doing?” question are well meaning, well intentioned and wanting to be helpful and supportive.  They see (or hear!) the “better than I deserve” phrase as one of despondency. I sense they interpret it as someone who questions their own self worth and so is in need of a bit of affirmation. Their response seems to be …

“Oh that’s not true.  I don’t know you but you seem like a nice enough guy.  I’m sure you’re deserving of a lot of good things. I know that I am.  Everybody is deserving of good things.  So cheer up!  Take a little credit for yourself!  Run a victory lap and be proud of all the good things that are happening to you.”

Then there are those that “get it.”  At least get it in the sense of what my Dad originally meant.

For him the “better than I deserve” response was an expression of gratitude. We have so much, even when we have little.  We are so blessed, even when things are pretty crappy.  Just the joy of “being” and experiencing life is an undeserved privilege.And then there are all the stupid, silly and sometimes downright mean and awful  things that we’ve done that we have somehow gotten away with! If we were all accountable for everything we did and got what we “deserved” for the completely dumb things we do I doubt many of us would survive past our teens!

I know that is true for me.

I remember complaining to my Dad once that “life isn’t fair!”  I will always remember his response.  “You better be glad, son, that life isn’t fair.  Because if we all got what we deserved we’d be in big trouble!”

Months ago, my daughter wrote down the toast she made at her little sister’s wedding. It has been by far the most popular and widely read thing on the Juicebar.  Ever. It was about expectations and the joy of not having any (expectations, that is). Seeing everything, good, bad, and indifferent, as a blessing.

So if you ask “how are you?” and if I respond “better than I deserve,” know that I believe this to be a very, very good thing.

Nice to see you” by Just Ard is licensed under CC BY 2.0