Tag Archives: social work

worried about big legos

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During a week filled with worries about class schedules, family illness, nonprofit fundraisers, big decisions, and tax nightmares, I found myself most concerned Wednesday afternoon about whether or not I would have a chance in the “intergalactic battle” being created at my feet with enormous legos.

I needed to type out a quick note for his grandmother on letterhead before our session was over, and I asked him if he preferred I do it at the beginning or the end. He said he would start building his army while I typed the letter, and then I could build mine, and then the war.

Halfway through the paragraph-long letter, I caught myself looking down at my feet and thinking, “How am I going to beat him? He’s built a fortress around his robots, and he has soldiers lining the wall on the inside and outside! I need to get finished with this letter so I have a chance at all!”

He was talking the entire time I was typing, which was adding to my stress. “You know I’m going to beat you, Donald. This wall is impenetrable. And these robots can break through all of your walls. Are you getting scared yet, Donald?”

And I WAS getting scared. I found myself trying to type faster so I could get to work on my own fortress and walls and robots.

So for about fifty minutes on Wednesday afternoon, I was laying on the floor in my office with an incredibly brave nine-year-old, who recently found his mother dead in her bed and called the police, worried about whether I had enough mega blocks to make an army big enough to contend with his.

I didn’t, of course. He won, not that I was trying to go easy on him; I wanted to win, but he beat me. We began to talk about his planning, his bravery, his skill, his initiative. These were all the things which led him to beating me in our intergalactic war on the bamboo rug in my office.  There were all the things which also led him to cope in miraculous and hope-affirming ways with the loss of his mother and a world turned upside down.

And it would be his lesson in these things which made me consider my class schedule, family illness, nonprofit fundraisers, big decisions and tax nightmares with the eyes of a nine-year-old who is much braver and stronger than I.

Every conversation is  privilege with answers waiting to be found by all involved. If it doesn’t feel that way, our arrogance is leading.

djordan
Pine Tree

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what are we doing?

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In the middle of multiple meetings lately, either starting with coffee because it is far too early or in the morning, or starting with coffee because it is far too late in the evening, I find myself in the middle of multiple meetings.

There are papers and computers and skyped-in video faces and clicking pens and reshuffled papers and dogs under the table because that’s the way it works when we are meeting whenever and wherever we can.

And I find myself often in these meetings wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into. I will either have a dining room filled with two bodies and one skyped-in face arguing and agreeing and praying our way through to a more hopeful and sustainable work in another country with real people with real skills and dreams and aspirations, or I will find myself in a dining room looking across a kitchen, a living room and a den filled with students and adults who are learning what it means to follow Christ into their own city. We talk about what truama-informed care looks like, what it means to view others through a lens of strengths instead of through a lens of shortcomings, and what we are actually doing when we are serving in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods a few miles from my home.

And I look at both of these groups, all people I am falling deeply in love with and flying highly in respect with, and wonder what in the world we are doing. Who let us be responsible for these tasks, and who knows we are learning as we go? I often feel as though I snuck into a grown up world, and the bouncers didn’t catch me, the Deans didn’t notice, and the bosses didn’t pay attention before putting me in these positions.

So knowing that I am leaning into the work at the same time as I am learning it, I find myself most amazed at what God insists on doing through my own ignorance, unpreparedness, and incompetence. We take seriously the discipline of learning and asking and pushing and working, but the generosity of God is the only thing which actually moves us from point A to point B.

And so we keep moving. From dining room table to living room floor, we lean into whatever it means to live out the kingdom of God in León or in Jackson or in wherever in God’s name we end up living something out. We pray we do it well knowing all the while that we are quite a mess.

I went to the grocery store last week in my pajamas and saw three people I know, but not well enough to make a joke about being in my pajamas. I went to a service with church two weeks ago and in a rush had only trimmed half of my beard.

I am what I am, and we are what we are, and while we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, we are doing what we know to do and working to do it better, more effectively, more educatedly, more honestly, more humanly day by day. We are reading and studying and listening and praying our tails off, but we have to move now. It’s worth filling up dining room tables and living room floors for, I would say. It is in breaking bread and coming together that God let’s us know what is next.

We don’t know what we are doing, but he does. And as long as we are diligently working to learn and seek and know more about what we’re doing, he makes the kingdom come. We merely jump in.

djordan
Pine Tree

Donald is privileged to work with a ridiculously awesome staff at Area Relief Ministries, a local non-profit in Jackson, Tennessee working to alleviate suffering, promote dignity and foster hope in a multitude of ways. He also serves on the Board of Directors with three other very talented and influential individuals for El Ayudante, Nicaragua who seeks to work with the Nicaraguan people to transform the nation. These meeting often end up happening in Donald’s living room and dining room, which make living at Pine Tree worthwhile in and of themselves. Check out Area Relief Ministries and El Ayudante | Nicaragua online.

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the illusion of the one thing

clock and time and counseling

Privileged, I sat and listened to seven different people today, varying in ages and colors and backgrounds and struggles, all sharing the clouds in which they find themselves. I saw myself in them today, all of us looking for the one way of thinking about it or labeling it or diagnosing it that would set them, set me, set all of us free. If that one thing was found, they could get the right medicine or the right outlook or take the right action or make the right choice to fix it all.

“Fixing it all” is of course the goal they hurried in with, and the goal I hurry in most places with. It is, of course, the goal that all of us most often run into the cloudy situations with. Tell me the one thing that will fix all of this.

We scramble and wrestle and our ears turn red and our voices raise and tears fall and our heart rate takes off. Everything in us is trying to churn together to locate, isolate and intervene on that one thing.

Our inevitable not finding it leads to our heartbrokenness, growing frustration and often to our hopelessness.
And there is in the places where we sit quietly, listening to the clock tick, watching the moth walk across the window, feeling that part of our sock that isn’t fitting right, we begin to let go the illusion of the one thing. And we take a breath, and we see that in the middle of the cloudy struggle, there is still a ticking clock. Still across the window a walking moth, still a tangled sock buried deep down in our boot.

And in those moments, we realize the cloudy struggle isn’t all that is true. And there, our hope begins.

djordan
Pine Tree

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dinner at the coffee table

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I don’t know why it has all come together in my brain this way.

Growing up, I remember being furious that this rule was put in place, even in middle and high school, that I MUST be present at the dinner table at least three or four nights a week. If I went out after that, that was one thing. If I ate or not was another thing, but my presence at the dinner table was required three or four nights a week. (I don’t remember which, so obviously it wasn’t as traumatic as I would like to pretend.)

As with many things I now reflect back on from growing up, I hated this rule at the time, and yet now I wouldn’t trade anything for it.

And a few nights ago, I joined some incredible friends from present day around their coffee table for dinner. At our home growing up, when I was huffing and puffing about having to be home for dinner around a table, we would every now and then sit around the coffee table, the same one I now have in my den, and eat pizza and watch TV together. I remember being angry that my parents could guess what was going to happen on the TV show, and I was likely more angry about this because I wanted to be anywhere but there at the moment.

But a few nights go, legs crossed over pillows on the floor, eating while sitting around their coffee table, I found myself in a kind of time freeze. The four year old daughter of my friends was pretending to make meals or be a drummer with her metal bowls and plastic whisks, and we were eating sushi with chopsticks out of styrofoam sakura to-go boxes.

There was much that reminded me, though, of growing up. The space for imagination and casualness, and play and informality. The insistence of good food even though it was spread out across a coffee table reminded me of how much has changed, and how little has changed at the same time.

And today, I’m in a counseling session with a family who can’t pay the bills so they share a home with another family. Four parents, five children, three minimum wage jobs, exponential stress. They were sitting in my office, a mom and dad, completely undone by the situation, and parenting skills to reflect the same. As they were talking, I found myself returning to the living room coffee table a few nights ago with incredible friends learning to be good parents, a four year old playing kitchen, and myself wondering how things will be remembered ten years later.

For all of us.

And most of all, I found myself glad that someone made me sit down for dinner three or four nights a week, no matter how unbelievable and unrealistic a request it seemed at the time.

djordan
Pine Tree

 

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the class who shows up | on the 5th annual homicide-loss walk

After five years of standing in line watching men and women, propped up babies on hips and grandparents escorted with walkers, this year was different altogether.

It is both encouraging and discouraging to see the crowd grow year after year at the Commemorative Walk for survivors of homicide-loss. It’s been my privilege to listen to and learn from these men and women in a weekly support group, but to see them walk through candlelit paths holding photos of their murdered husbands, sons, grandsons, wives, mothers and grandmothers is altogether horrifying and holy at the same time.

And it has been every year these last five years since the very first walk. It is always holy in the way honestly telling the honest truth is always holy and almost always horrifying.

But this year, there was something new for me as I stood in the evening’s mist.

Looking into the line of men and women with faces barely glowing from the candles in their hands, I saw my students. The clock strikes nine every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and my students are faithful to be patient with me in class as I dance onto tangents, threaten with grades and bribe with food. They have listened to me grow awkwardly teary about the histories of movers and shakers from the margins of the field whom God has used to bring kingdom change across the globe. They have held on as we’ve acted out counseling sessions, as we’ve debated the reasons for poverty and welfare, and as we have pushed the questions of power dynamics and our goodwill to the limits. They always show up.

But this night, lining the sidewalks where women and men who have become dear to me walk through their glowing candles and make clear that their murdered loved ones will not be forgotten, my students showed up. As tears filled my own eyes, I lost my breath in thinking that these very students were standing physically and symbolically right on a dangerous line. They were being both witness to the hard and horrible and hopeless truths like rampant homicide in a community, and were also making a symbolic promise that as social workers who are Christians they will join in the kingdom work to make peace on earth as it is in heaven.

My prayer for those students and any of my students, is that some day in the not-so-distant future there will be professors of Social Work or Theology or Education or Business standing up in front of their own classes telling the names of my students, and talking about how they pushed in from the margins to make peace and to change the world with and for Christ and his kingdom.

And when I hear those stories told, I’ll remember the way their faces glowed this night.

djordan
Pine Tree

RELATED POSTS | what they are teaching me | what they are teaching me 2 | when others tell their stories

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the truth in aspirations

One of the guiding tenants of my profession, social work, and what must be a guiding tenant of the Christian faith as we are made in the image of a creative and compassionate God, is one of the lines from Saleeby’s strengths perspective which suggests that we must take the aspirations of others seriously.

We are trained, of course, to allow this to shape our imaginations in our work with clients, families and communities, no matter what the problem at hand is. At all costs, we take seriously the aspirations of those we serve.

In the case of this story, they are beautiful aspirations which allow others the opportunity to live when they are realized. It is, for me, a reminder of the serious truth in the aspirations of children, and it is a a challenge to take seriously every child’s aspirations, even if they are small, because we can also, as the guiding strength’s perspective says, assume that we do not know the upper limits of the capacities of others.

Enjoy.

djordan
Pine Tree

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divine proxy | intro to a series

The notion is not a new one, but it appears to be one seldom discussed explicitly, unless I am missing the entire conversation altogether (please let me know if I am). I want to spend a few posts on the idea of divine proxy. I hit the concept in “Congregation as Expert; a New Way Forward” during the “Culture and Crises” lecture series. It’s something that lurks behind practitioners in the helping fields, especially those practitioners who are Christians, as we falsely imagine that we are the changing force in the lives of our clients.  It’s something that lurks in church offices and behind the desks and efforts of those who try to help and change situations being faced by others.

Today, the idea itself could use explanation, however brief.

Divine proxy is the idea that when someone is speaking from authority, whether professional or religious, whether self given, institutionally given, or transcendently given, they are then interacted with, heard or perceived as becoming the official voice of the source of the authority.

So, …

a therapist who speaks on matters of relationships can become the final authority on a specific relationship.

a pastor who speaks on matters of moral or spiritual issues can become the actual voice of God on specific matters with individual people.

So, …

if a therapist has a misguided view, or is offering a personal, cultural or biased view on someone else’s specific relational situation, the someone heeds the advice as fact, and acts accordingly whether or not everything in them says otherwise and the result is damaging and more disabling. Or maybe they do heed advice even though they feel otherwise, and it is helpful and healing and the person comes to know that to be true later. Or, the person finally hears what deep down he or she knew all along about the situation, and they are set free because the professional speaking offers a more authoritative voice than the person views his or her own voice as being.

If a pastor has a misguided view, or is offering a personal, cultural, or biased view on someone else’s specific moral or spiritual issues, the someone heeds the view as fact––from God rather than from the individual––and acts accordingly whether or not everything in her or him says otherwise and the result is damaging and more disabling. Or maybe the advice is heeded even though the individual feels otherwise, and it is helpful and healing and the person comes to know that to be true later. Or, the person finally hears what deep down he or she knew all along about the situation, and finally freedom is experienced because a pastor speaking offers a more authoritative voice than the person views his or her own voice as being.

We can quickly see how the influence of authority gives incredible weight, whether someone turns a back and walks away from the perceived authority and the authority represented forever, or someone follows the authority because it is seen as direct from the authority source, and therefore should be heeded.

While it may sound pointless or semantic, the issue quickly becomes incredibly personal and incredibly immediate. I think about people who experience great healing because a pastor sees the presence of divine proxy, and takes great caution to express anger and action toward injustice and evil.  I think about the latest story coming out of a megachurch about a spiritual abuse and misogyny that is only headed because the pastor has an unquestioned direct link to God, and questioning is called disloyalty to him…and God. I think about other church experiences where people continued to go home to abusive homes because the pastor says the wife should act more like Jesus to make the husband come around.

So it’s not pointless, and it’s not semantic, and it’s worth the time to consider, even if it’s only mine. So, the first time for a series on mosthopeful.com. We’ll see what happens.

Next up: divine proxy | stories of the phenomenon

djordan
Pine Tree

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when others tell their stories

It often takes only a few minutes into a counseling session for me to realize that I have no way of speaking solutions into the room. A story begins, a tear drops, and people began to share with me the kinds of things I would never be brave enough to speak out loud to another…or myself for that matter. And after only a little bit of training in graduate school, I learned that me offering advice isn’t the craft of therapy to begin with.

And it also doesn’t take long to realize the kind of disrespect or arrogance that my solution-speaking or advice-offering would actually be suggesting. It seems, when I think about it for a moment, that in no situation would I ever allow someone who has talked to me for thirty minutes, once a week, for a month, tell me what to do with my life or how to orient my grief or what to do in my marriage.

And yet the role of counselor or therapist or even pastor sometimes has those connotations attached.

So in a kind of powerlessness, when others begin their stories, begin to tell the truth about the life they have been living in and wrestling with and learning from since birth, my only option is to switch into the mode of curiosity. And in that curiosity, I become another human being in the room, asking questions that the person sitting across from me may never have asked before even to themselves.

And in the magic of the room, new things are learned. New things are learned for my own life and for the client’s life.

Good helping doesn’t come from being the answer-man, but rather from being the questioner, a facilitator of the insight that is buried within the person who has come in seeking counsel. And more often than not, as two human beings sit in the room listening to each other in spaces that don’t judge, don’t lie, don’t have other agendas… people find their ways.

There is a deep, dangerous humanity in offering to simply bear witness to the grief, pain, fear, horror, loss, confusion or despair of another. And in staring it in the face, we both become, together, a little more human.

djordan
Pine Tree Dr.

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we can assume

I remember once, as a scared-to-really-break-the-rules child, maybe twelve years old sitting at the dinner table, and having made an assumption. I can’t recall what it was about, because to this day, that isn’t what lesson was made clear to me at the table.

What I do remember, though, is that once I had made the assumption, my mom asked me: “Donald, do you know what happens when we assume?”

You all know how this goes. I had not heard it before, so mom made me break the word down from the back to the front.

“me.”

“u.”

I couldn’t do it. I remember my eyes getting very big, and mom, with serious face, saying, “you need to say it.” “I can’t.” “You need to say it. What’s the other word?” “I can’t.” “Donald…”

“ass.”

Then a read face, then giggles, then I’m scared for breaking the rules again.

***

Several years later, in grad school, I was taught one of the golden sets of, yes, assumptions, that we as social workers are to carry like a carpenter carries a hammer. Known as Saleeby’s Strengths Perspective, those who are close to me have no doubt heard me repeat it as a mantra, probably (hopefully) most often for myself. One in particular comes to mind most often: 

Assume that you do not know the upper limits of one’s capacity to grow and change, and take individual, group, and community aspiration seriously.

Almost daily with clients, with today as no exception, as they come into my office and sit down on the couch, my own arrogance and ignorance trumps my skill and I find myself assuming that I know someone’s upper capacity to grow and change.

A drunk.
A lazy parent.
A greedy slumlord.
A bad kid.
A messed up family.

Paranoid.
Depressed.
Perpetrator.
Manipulator.
Narcissist.
Insecure.

There is an incredible gift I’ve been offered by those who love me well, and love me most, and that is the gift of assuming they do not know my upper capacity to grow and change. And because of this, they take my aspirations seriously. And because of this, I am often able to meet my own aspirations.

And so, in my work as in my life, the challenge is to assume I do not know the upper limits of others’ capacities to grow and change, and to therefore lean into their aspirations with great expectation. This results in treating people with dignity and respect, and assuming that I don’t know all there is to know about another. Not after the first, fiftieth, or five-hundredth time meeting them.

So, we can assume that we do not know the upper limits of one’s capacity to grow and change, and we therefore take individual, group, and community aspiration seriously.

And thanks for making me say it, mom.

djordan
Pine Tree

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The best first class ever, and what they are teaching me

I debated before my very first classroom teaching experience whether or not to pretend like I knew what I was doing. Whether or not to tell the truth when we began that they were joining me on a journey that was the first of its kind for me, or “Don’t let them see you sweat,” as I’ve heard people in leadership say to me before. It never settled well with me. We all sweat. Why shouldn’t they see it?

I think when I walked into the room, I still had not made up my mind. They were seated quietly (this once), waiting to see what the shape of the class would be. I was just as curious as they were.

“Well, I tried to decide whether to pretend like I know what I’m doing with you folks, but, I feel like I should come clean: This is my first undergraduate teaching experience. So there. Now you know.”

Apparently, my mouth had decided the game plan but had not remembered to inform my mind.

“Uh oh…” someone said, then the room laughed, and then we began one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. Definitely the best first class ever. Admitting that I would likely sweat that very first day allowed us to sweat together, and made something very communal, spiritual and human possible and present in the room.

We engaged for the next semester in a class about “faith-based social service,” and the wheres, hows, whys, and whats of how the church and people of faith bring the good news that God through Christ will make right all things cursed by sin, bringing his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Things you can get fired for talking about. Things like the human heart, sex-trafficking, homelessness, planned poverty, economic injustice, christian arrogance and ignorance, poverty, greed, pride, loneliness, mental illness, individualistic idolatry, systemic injustice, abuse, trauma, and on and on and on.

“As far as the curse is found,” the old hymn reminds us. And it’s found far beyond only our human hearts and inside our churches, but in our broken communities waiting to see and hear the good news all the same. The big and broad good news that has more to do with everything else than it has to do with us.

And as a class, we began to engage these issues, tried different typologies out on them, dressed them in different best-practice approaches, and delved into scripture to see what it is we work toward and how we are called to work toward it. Throughout, we explicitly tried to guide our discussions and studies with a few questions that we would ask of each other, authors of the texts, practitioners in the field, and pastors in our churches:

1. Is it a bad either or?
Are these bad either/or scenarios that we are working within? Have we picked a side on something that may not (although it very well may) be a real either/or situation? How can we back up enough to see this clearly?

2. What are the assumptions?
What assumptions are we working from but ignoring as we move forward? Have we questioned these assumptions, and are we okay with them if we are building on them? How can we notice these assumptions? Who or what can be engaged to reveal them to us?

3. What are the power dynamics?
What power dynamics are at play, and what are they costing us and those we serve? Are we being honest to notice them, or are we trying to convince ourselves that they don’t exist? Whose voice and eyes can help us see them, and readjust?

4. Where did this information come from?
Where did this information come from? Is it valid? Is it biased? (Yes.) So where is the other side of the bias, and have we considered it? Are we looking for the truth, or looking for something that defends our current stance?

And finally,

5. What is absent but implicit?
Built out of the narrative therapy tradition that has stolen my imagination, this question is important and fresh. What have we left out of our questions, our conversations, our research, our planning, our programming and our praying? And what can its absence reveal to us about how we may be thinking wrongly or ignorantly about the issues? Whose voice, opinion, insight or criticism are we ignoring, and what does that reveal about us and our work?

When the class would be engaged in discussion, and a student would offer one of these questions to help push us into more clarity, I would feel my insides jump for joy. More than any solutions or approaches we came to as a class, or read about in our texts, the impact for Christ and his kingdom that is likely to be had will come from a student being guided by the curiosity and humility that these guiding questions encourage. So when they were thrown into the conversation by the students themselves, I would immediately envision them running organizations, pastoring churches, or working in businesses in the future, throwing out these same questions from the field, the pulpit, or the boardroom.

It makes me beyond hopeful.

And then, the best of all, toward the end of the semester, I was challenged––called out––by a student when I made a comment beginning with a phrase I had warned them to be wary of. In talking about a particular issue, the words, “Well, it all boils down to this: …” came from my lips.

I didn’t hear them. But my students did. One spoke up from the back, “But Donald, does it really? Does it really all boil down to that?” Much like that first class, we all laughed, someone says, “Uh oh….” and we continue with a more honest, more appropriate, more life-giving conversation than ones stifled by a person in the front informing everyone of how complex and nuanced issues “all boil down” to something that they of course do not and cannot. I had been called out, and it was the most rewarding experience of the entire semester.

So to those students, the best first class I will ever have, I give my deep thanks! You have taught me to be comfortable with what I do and do not know. You have taught me that laughing at myself and the clumsiness of the process creates space for honest dialogue and true progress. You have taught me that respect comes in the form of accountability and honesty, not position or title. And you have taught me that making room to be called out can be most rewarding.

And you have taught me that there is much to be hopeful for as you enter the world with the good news of Christ and his kingdom. The practice fields, the pulpits, and the boardrooms you operate in will be graced with a fresh humility and curiosity that will always be pregnant with the hope of all things being made new.

I look with great anticipation toward your futures.

djordan
Pine Tree Dr.

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