How to Feel Joy (With These Five Little Words)

The key to a joyful life often seems mysterious or unattainable. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be as simple as listening and responding to five little words…


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I’m drying dishes and putting them away when I see it once again.

I open a cabinet door, place a cup on the shelf, and I notice the unopened Star Wars video game nestled next to a stack of cups. I think to myself, “I really should do something with that video game.” I close the cabinet door. And then I stop. The video game was given to my son at his sixth birthday party. We already owned it so, amidst the chaos of the party, I’d decided to toss it in the cupboard and figure out what to do with it later.

My son is now eleven.

For five years I’ve opened the cabinet door, noticed the game every time, and then closed the door again, telling myself I should do something with the game. It’s a silly story when it’s about a video game. But it’s not such a silly story when we do the same thing to our relationships and our passions and our dreams…

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The Real Scandal Behind the NFL Domestic Violence Controversy

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business. The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms…

NFL Domestic violence

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Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice gave his wife a right hook before he gave her a wedding band.

He knocked her unconscious and then dragged her halfway out of the elevator they’d been riding. Just far enough to keep the elevator door ajar and the security camera recording. Just far enough so the NFL could witness the totality of the brutality. When they saw it, they suspended him for two games.

Until the video went public.

Then the team cancelled his contract and the league suspended him indefinitely. In the wake of the news, more allegations of domestic violence amongst NFL players are emerging.

But really, none of this is terribly scandalous. Is anyone surprised that a sport rooted in violence toward others cultivates violence at home? Is anyone surprised that a billion dollar business will hide bad press until it can’t hide it anymore? No, the real scandal is in the results of an NBC poll: while 60% of football viewers disapprove of the way the NFL has handled the scandal—and presumably even more disapprove of domestic violence—90% of people will not watch less football as a result.

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business.

The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms and in our lives.

The real scandal is our tendency to ignore what we value and to live out something else.

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What Were You Made To Do?

What were you made to do? The answer to that question has the power to alter the arc of history. For good.


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The alarm sounds at 5am, and my heavy-gritty eyelids creak open. The kids still have two hours of slumber ahead of them, which means I have two hours alone with my thoughts and my keyboard and my craft. The prospect is thrilling.

And terrifying.

Because there’s something else nestled right next to my gleeful anticipation. It doubts and it gnaws. It’s my fear of the blank page. It’s my fear of drying up. It’s my fear of not being enough.

When I sit in front of a blank document, it can feel like my worth is up for grabs. And that kind of fear makes me feel incredibly vulnerable—it’s way easier to feel prolific and invincible. In the past, the fear has driven me back under the covers. Fear and vulnerability like a padlock, trapping my words inside.

But now I know, my vulnerability isn’t the lock on my words—it’s actually the doorway into everything I want to write about.

The Violence of Invincibility

We live in an invulnerable world. Somewhere along the way, we decided vulnerability is weakness, and we’ve banished it from the public square.

Waiters aren’t allowed to confess mistakes for fear of a lawsuit. If a doctor admits doubt, they lose the confidence of everyone they serve. When was the last time a politician admitted they were wrong before they were caught in the act? Pillars of virtue cheat their way to the top rather than embracing limitation and weakness.

We’ve replaced the public square with a winner’s circle.

And our homes aren’t much different—we’ve banished vulnerability from our living rooms and bedrooms and hearts. Marital conflict escalates as spouses litigate their love with cross-examinations and Exhibits A to Z. Our children take their cues, and they compete with each other for worth and value. On playgrounds, tears get stifled and punches get thrown.

Our strength and invincibility are, quite simply, tearing the world apart. In the end, the winner’s circle stands empty, and so do our hearts.

Who will show us the way out of this morass?

The answer might surprise you, because the answer is you.

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Why Sometimes Hope is Hopeless and Hopelessness is Our Best Hope

Hope can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be the worst of things. Because sometimes our numbered days are spent hoping and waiting, instead of acting and living…


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Last March, as the long, bitter Chicago winter wore on, my wife and I started hoping for something different. We began searching for houses in Nashville. Every morning, we’d check our weather app for the temperature in Nashville, and every night we’d scan our email for new home listings.  By the time we fell asleep, we’d be dreaming of an acre of wooded land in the temperate winters and rolling hills of Tennessee.

Summer has arrived in Chicago. We don’t look at the Nashville home listings anymore.

Hope is a wonderful thing when it feels like the wind at our backs, carrying us toward the good things we seek. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes—maybe even most of the time—we hope so we don’t have to change anything at all.

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BringBackOurGirls (When the Nigerian Girls Feel Like Your Little Girl)

To grieve or not to grieve? That is the question we ask, when we choose our news. Do we put the brakes on our heart, or do we allow our hearts to break?

nigerian girls

I’m procrastinating, so I tap the CNN app on my iPhone and I scroll through the newsfeed. I stop when I see the headline announcing a mass kidnapping of young Nigerian girls by a group of militants. Defenseless girls. Disappeared. Sold. Traded. Trafficked. Brutalized.

I stare at the headline.

My thumb hovers over it.

A feeling like mourning wells up within me.

I see an article just below it about a bug fix for the iPhone. My thumb twitches downward and hovers over the iPhone article. Meanwhile, I imagine my own little girl ripped from our home:

Her fingertips are just beyond mine as he pulls her out the door. I see her tear-streaked face. She looks at me frantically, expecting the protection I’ve always promised and her terror is mingled with confusion about why I’m not providing it. But they won’t let me go and the last thing I see as they pull her out of sight is the look in the eye of the man who is holding her. It’s a dead look. Whatever light was in him when he came into the world is gone. And now he is in charge of my daughter. In charge of taking her light away, too.

My thumb hovers.

A feeling like mourning wells up within me.

I feel the tortured days and sleepless nights in the years to follow. I feel the pain of not knowing where she is. I feel the unutterable anguish of wondering if she is being brutalized at this very moment. These Nigerian girls are not my daughter, but, in some way only my soul comprehends, they are my daughter. Each and every one of them.

My thumb descends, and I choose to read about the girls.

A feeling like mourning wells up within me.

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Marriage is Not a Convenience Store

What do an all-inclusive resort, a mobile device, a phone company, and marriage all have in common? We have come to expect the same thing from all of them: one-stop, all-in-one convenience.


Last August, my wife and I attended a conference in Honolulu. The hotel had three restaurants, two bars, six gift shops, a convenience store, a business center, two pools, and beach access. You could fly to Hawaii and have a perfect vacation, without ever leaving your hotel.

All-inclusive convenience.

As consumers, we have come to expect this.

An iPhone is a one-stop shop in our pockets: phone, email, text, iPod, maps, news, personal calendar, family calendar, eBook reader(s), weather forecasts, Netflix and YouTube, and the list goes on and on.

All-in-one convenience.

As consumers, we have been trained to feel entitled to this.

In Chicago, AT&T bundles home phone, mobile phone, internet, and cable service. They recently added home security. I wonder when they’ll add babysitting to the bundle. I bet they’re beta testing it right now.

As consumers, we’ve been sold a lucrative lie called convenience, and it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

Including marriage.

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Can We All Agree On One Thing About Beauty?

Tomorrow, my daughter and I will appear on the TODAY Show.

A friend of my son asked my wife, with the kind of skepticism only a fourth-grader can muster, “Why do they want Mr. Flanagan on the show?” My wife responded, somewhat skeptically herself, “I guess they think he has more to say.” The young lady just laughed, rolled her eyes, and returned to her play.

Kids will keep you humble.


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But I do have a little more to say, because the letter to my daughter wasn’t complete. Near the end of the letter, I wrote about the last question I ask her every night: “Where are you the most beautiful?” And her answer: “On the inside.”

Why do I use the word most?

Because the last question of the night is always preceded by another question: “Are you beautiful on the outside?” And her answer: “Yes.”

Yes, I’m beautiful on the outside and, at the same time, I can affirm I’m most beautiful on the inside.

Can We Agree?

We have to ask both questions of our girls and, frankly, of ourselves. Without both questions, we end up thinking dualistically about beauty, and we end up in unfruitful debates about whether makeup is good or bad, or whether women who wear makeup are really strong or actually insecure. We end up picking sides and fighting it out.

But this is not an either-or debate.

It’s a both-and conversation. And we need to treat it as such, because we need all women together on this one. In fact, if we hope to stand strong against the messages about beauty and worth bombarding us, we need all women and all men together on this one.

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Do You Matter?

It’s the question on the tongue of every human heart. For millennia, we have tried to prove we matter with success and status and stuff. But what if we finally decided there was nothing left to prove? What if we decided our worth was no longer in doubt? What if we decided “mattering” didn’t matter anymore? Maybe we’d be free to quit the game of proof and get into the game of life…

self-worth and purpose

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I’m writing a book.

Every Friday morning at 9am, I sit down to continue working on it, and every time I sit down I’m hit with the same sinking feeling. It comes in the form of a question: What if these words don’t matter? It’s a crippling thought, a dreadful feeling that keeps me looking back at the sentence I’ve just written, questioning, doubting, sinking deeper and deeper into the rhetorical quicksand.

What if my words don’t matter?

A question that disguises another question: What if I don’t matter?

But last Friday, something different happened. As I began to sink into the quagmire, I heard the still, small whisper of grace: Kelly, you don’t write a book because you think it will matter—you write a book in spite of the fact it probably won’t matter.

You do what you love because the desire has been written on your heart, implanted in your soul, and engraved into your DNA. You do it because you aren’t you unless you do it.

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Why Broken Lampshades Are the Best Gift This Holiday Season

Lampshades can emit tremendous beauty. Even broken ones. Maybe we’re all like broken lampshades, and maybe we don’t need to wait to be fixed in order to be beautiful…

Domestic Object 005

Photo Credit: swirlingthoughts (Creative Commons)


Every therapy office has a waiting room. Waiting rooms are an important part of the therapeutic experience—they contain those rare moments of peace and quiet before entering the psychotherapy room. Moments of decision, when we decide what parts of our story we will share with the person we have chosen to trust.

But I wonder if sometimes the waiting doesn’t end in the waiting room.

We enter into the therapy room and immediately begin a waiting of a different kind. Waiting to be fixed. Waiting to be cured. Waiting to be repaired. Waiting as passive recipients of a remedy—a word or an experience that will leave us finally feeling whole. We have put our lives on hold until we feel, finally, perfectly put together. We wait to truly begin our lives. We are waiting until we feel properly fit for purpose and meaning.

I think this happens in psychotherapy offices all the time.

But I wonder if we also wait like this in our hearts and homes and neighborhoods and nations and in our world.

Advent—the liturgical season leading up to Christmas—is meant to be a season of waiting, but I wonder if we’re all waiting for the wrong thing. I wonder if we are all waiting until we feel like we have it all together—afraid to really put ourselves out into the world while we still feel so cracked and broken.


I have three lamps in my office. Each of them has a lampshade the color and texture of old parchment paper. They emit a warm, even glow and people who peak into my office on a dark winter afternoon will often remark on the sense of peacefulness evoked by the lamplight.

My lamps create beauty.

And they appear to be pristine themselves—perfect, whole, untarnished, classy. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: they’re all broken. The lampshade on my desk is marred by water stains, which are rendered invisible when the light is turned on. The lampshade on my side table has a gash across the back of it. And the shade on my newest lamp—the floor lamp—was torn in assembly before I even had a chance to turn it on.

My lampshades are stained and ripped and torn. My lamps are a mess.

And they are beautiful.


We’re all ripped lampshades.

We’re all stained by life, ripped by experience, and torn by pain. But there is good news: we don’t need to wait to be beautiful. We don’t need to wait to be fixed or cured or somehow redeemed in order to be an inviting light in this world.

On U2’s most recent album, Bono sings: “You don’t know how beautiful you are. You don’t know, and you don’t get it, do ya? You don’t know how beautiful you are.”

Perhaps the best gift we can give ourselves this holiday season is to know that we are all broken lampshades. Broken people. Stained, ripped, torn and beautiful people. If we could cling to the grace of this, perhaps we would step out of the waiting rooms of our lives and step courageously into this world—into marriage and parenting and friendship and into quiet moments in which we keep only our own company.

Maybe we would discover that our rips and tears are like a prism, reflecting the light within us in unique and beautiful ways. Maybe in this discovery we would become a gift given to others, as well. Broken and beautiful givers of light, inviting others into the peaceful glow of the light we cast.

Let’s be ripped and torn together this season. And let’s know precisely how beautiful we are.

QUESTIONS: Is there something you’ve been waiting to begin. How could you step into that new part of your life now, before you are completely whole? Share your thoughts in the comments section.          

DEAR READER, As many of you already know, my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is now available free in PDF format. (It will soon be available in Kindle, Nook, and iBook formats but I wanted to honor the Season by delivering this gift to you now.) If you are not yet a subscriber, you can simply click here to subscribe. Your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook for free. If you are an existing e-mail subscriber, your e-mail of December 11 contains a link to download a free copy of The Marriage Manifesto! I have so much appreciated your outpouring of praise and support for the book in the last few days. You have given me the gift of your readership, and I’m glad to be able to give this gift back to you. Warmly, Kelly

How to Find the Promised Land (In Less Than 40 Years)

Popped red balloon

Photo Credit: Kat…B (Creative Commons)

Few of us consider ourselves to be leaders. But I think each of us is called to lead someone. That can be an intimidating notion. But it doesn’t have to be. You have all the tools you need for leadership. In your heart…

Summer is dwindling in Chicago, and the shadows are long in the early-gathering dusk. My five-year-old son is in the back yard, bouncing a large balloon above his head. I look on as the red orb drifts toward a rosebush and I can see it coming—the loud pop of balloon on thorns and the even louder little boy, mourning his shredded prize.

As the tears flow I walk casually to his side. I pat him on the back. I reassure him there are other balloons—it’s not the end of the world, and we should be grateful for what we do have. But all my soothing only enrages him and now I’m angry he won’t accept my wisdom and guidance.

But why should he?

Why should he listen to this calloused adult? This big-indifferent creature who is apparently clueless about the grief in this moment? Why should he listen to anyone who can’t relate to the pain he is in?

And he’s right. Because if Daddy cannot touch this place of grief in his own heart, how can Daddy know the means of deliverance?

Leadership is Always Deliverance

People don’t follow leaders because they are hip or fun or friendly. People follow leaders because they want to be delivered out of bondage into the freedom of the Promised Land. From loneliness into companionship, from poverty into affluence, from sorrow into joy, from obscurity into influence, from dependency and submission into empowerment.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” As leaders, our only real authority is our intimate knowledge of the bondage itself and the ways we were delivered into freedom. When we lead, our authority is our experience of the freedom-journey.

Maybe this is why the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years? Perhaps it wasn’t all about their opposition and rebellion. Maybe it was a failure of leadership. Maybe Moses couldn’t lead because he had experienced a life of privilege and then of exile but never of slavery. How could a man who has never experienced the slavery of his own heart efficiently lead a bunch of slaves to the Promised Land?

A Daddy Leads His Little Boy

As my son weeps anguished tears, mourning over the sudden loss of his prized possession, I try to find his place of bondage in my own heart. I try to find the place of loss. I know this beautiful boy is my prized possession and an image flashes through my mind—a sudden darting of boy into street, cars racing past, and my prized possession broken and shredded. Lost.

His grief wells up in me, and suddenly my eyes are wet like his. And I know that leadership in this moment is not a lesson in letting go or gratitude. Leadership is an embrace—a steadfast reassurance of I-am-with-you.

Deliverance Always Begins in the Leader’s Heart

As a leader, you must first walk the lonely journey into the substance of your own soul. You must find the place of bondage in your own heart—the loneliness, restlessness, frustration, emptiness, loss, helpless dependency, or whatever.

And you must trust that your most personal experience is also most universal.

Because the people you love and lead do have the same conflict in their hearts, and they are starving for a leader who knows the experience and is prepared to lead them out of it.

The preparation is simple, but it may be painful:

You must feel the place of bondage in your own heart, rather than running away from it. This is your preparation for leadership: you must become intimately familiar with the place you want to leave. It is the only way to truly understand those you are called to lead. And they won’t respect your authority if you don’t understand them.

Having experienced the slavery, you will then learn how to walk out of it and into the freedom of the Promised Land. Having walked the walk, those who look to you for leadership will trust the authenticity of your calling. And they will feel real hope.

Finally, your calling as a leader is to clearly communicate the nature of the freedom-journey. You are called to spread the message of hope and point the way toward the Promised Land. In vulnerability with your spouse, a late-night cuddle-talk with your child, a cup of coffee with a friend, as referee in the neighborhood soccer game, or in an encounter with the aching eyes of a stranger.

It’s that simple. And it’s that hard. But I think if you’re willing, you and the people you love and lead won’t have to wait 40 years to glimpse the Promised Land.

Questions: What do you think about this view of leadership? What do you think are the keys to leadership? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

DEAR READER, Thanks for your patience as UnTangled has transitioned to a self-hosted blog. So far, the biggest problem has been the commenting system. But based upon the comment response to the last post, it seems that issue has been solved. Please let me know via Facebook or Twitter if you are still having trouble commenting on the blog. And feel free to give me feedback about other elements of the blog. I’m excited to use the versatility of the self-hosted blog to bring you my new e-book and to find ways to get it to you for free!


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