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I turn 45 this year. I’m just old enough to send my first son to college in the fall, and just young enough to tour college campuses beside him with the distinct feeling that it wasn’t that long ago that I was a college student. 

Most days, I feel decently youthful. But what makes me feel old  is when I say to my kids, “When I was young. . .and then (fill in the blank).” Cell phones didn’t exist. There was no email. We had to gather in front of the TV at just the right time to watch our favorite sitcoms. We went to a store to rent videos on Friday nights. We had to go to church twice a day on Sundays (but could slide in a few minutes late on Sunday nights because of a ritual called the song service). Trump was just some guy who made a cameo in Home Alone 2

One of my childhood stories that makes my boys most incredulous is that from my earliest memory until I moved out of my parents’ house, my younger sister and I shared not just a bedroom, but a bed. Even as a child of the 80s, my other friends thought this was strange. But it was just the way of my world — and my mom told me I was lucky because growing up she had to share a bed with two sisters. At least I only had one other person to contend with for space.

Only fourteen months apart in age, my sister and I were built-in companions. My memories of bedtime are many. My dad would tuck us in and say our prayers with us, often lying on the bed beside us, and closing his eyes for “just a minute.”  We each had a bedside lamp clamped to our side of the bedpost, and we’d read side-by-side before falling asleep. And often, after the lights were out, we’d play:  “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” I still complain that too often my sister talked me into scratching first, and then would pretend to fall asleep so she didn’t have to hold up her side of the bargain.

This idea of scratching someone’s back with the intention that they’d do the same for me — I’ll do you a favor and then you owe me — carries over into many aspects of life. At its best, it’s a fair arrangement. At its worst, it leads to resentment, unmet expectations, and bitterness.  

In my work with school leaders, I’ve been doing some reading and research on trust, particularly as it relates to intentions and hidden agendas. The book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything by Stephen MR Covey, talks a great deal about the importance of examining and refining our motives. “Intent is a matter of the heart,” Covey writes. “It’s something you can’t fake — at least not for long.”

The work of identifying and improving intentions — and avoiding hidden agendas — would benefit those of us in the church as well.

For the last nine weeks, I have been facilitating a Colossians Forum course. The premise of the group is to gather a group of people with diverse opinions to discuss a complex issue (such as politics or sexuality) without the expectation of coming to a consensus.  Recognizing the division and polarization present in our society and our churches, the focus of the group is on growing our love for God and empathy for each other while practicing the skills of listening and discourse. Our goal is to leave the room each week maintaining a unity that goes beyond the issues.

I won’t lie; the task is hard. Even as the leader of this group, I find it difficult to let go of my desire for influence and certainty, but even more difficult to let go of my hidden (or not-so-hidden) agendas.  While I admire the premise of the program, my human nature yearns to keep score and to win people over. Though not the point of our gathering, in the dark corners of my heart, I’d like to know that people agree with me and that something I’ve said has made an impact. I’d like it if we came to an answer — and that answer was mine. 

One of Covey’s recommendations for refining our intent is to choose abundance and avoid a scarcity mindset. He argues that it would benefit us to adopt the belief that there is truly enough — enough love, enough room, enough grace — for everyone. As a mom of three hungry teenage boys who tend  to fight over dessert, I have witnessed the reality of a scarcity mindset. There is only so much pie and whoever gets to it first, eats more. But when we bring this scarcity mindset to our relationships, it breeds bitterness.  

If having an agenda or a stipulation for our love is dangerous and if keeping score puts us in a scarcity mindset, this can be broken by generosity. Not just sharing our desserts, but love and acceptance without control or expectation.  

When it comes to our churches, our meetings, our communities, our relationships, choosing abundance liberates us from a zero sum game. Because abundance is a mindset and something that we can create, Covey encourages us to ask, “Do I believe that if I love other people, my own supply of love will be replenished or diminished? Do I believe that there’s room for other people to see things differently than I do. . . And still be right?”

I don’t pose these questions flippantly. I struggle with them. As a firstborn child, with a desire to be noticed and to be right, I’m well aware that having pure motives and choosing abundance is not my natural tendency. 

My friend and pastor, Stephanie Smith, recently wrecked me with a sermon on the Good Samaritan. Stephanie asked us to envision the good Samaritan as the person we’d least expect. What if the Good Samaritan was an enemy? What if the good Samaritan was someone who, deep down, I believe is unredeemable? What if there really is way more abundance than we “could ever as for or imagine?”  

My book, Enemies in the Orchard, was written to delve into the issue of confronting our enemies up close. But though I’ve written an entire book about radical grace and forgiveness, it doesn’t mean living into these values has gotten easier for me. Actually living into those values requires humility and a pliable heart.  It involves tearing down the scoreboards in our minds and avoiding transactional thinking when it comes to our energy, time, and love. It means grasping for more of Jesus’s upside-down ways of thinking. 

 It might also involve some back scratching without expecting anything in return.

Header photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash
Come as you photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Pie photo by Ram HO 🇲🇽 on Unsplash

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.


  • RZ says:

    Loved your book, Dana. Your train of thought here is likewise transformative. We obsess over being right but God smiles when we do right for the right reason, ” tearing down the scoreboards of our minds.” All forms of governance, churches included, require power-sharing, MUTUAL flourishing. It is often better to give (in) than to receive.

    • Henry Baron says:

      Your last sentence makes me wonder: can – and should – “giving in” be an option when it comes to such issues as “inclusive vs. exclusive love” or democracy vs. autocracy?

  • Wes and Joyce Kiel says:

    Wes and I both enjoyed your book and its premise; so thank you for that. As the eldest child in both our families we also know the struggle with being right. We had quite a discussion with part of one of Covey’s questions “…And still be right?” It would be wrong for me to say I agree with someone when it’s not what I believe. I can understand, after listening to how they came to their conclusion, but still not agree they are right. I can endorse (love) them but not their position.
    We both agree how difficult it is to separate the person ( people involved in groups, as in political party, global warfare etc)from the issue. Do we ever know the whole story?

    • Henry Baron says:

      A strong “yes” on both Dana’s book and your conclusion on holding to what you believe, if based on a careful and prayerful reading of Jesus’ teachings and actions.

    • Dana VanderLugt says:

      Yes — exactly. I struggled and struggle with that part of the quotation, too. I often come back to a powerful Nadia Bolz Weber essay when she mourns school shooting victims, and then realizes she must mourn the shooter, too — even though her human nature wants to fight any mention of forgiveness or redemption for him. It is really, really hard — and I certainly hope this rambling blog post didn’t appear to give any easy answers. Thanks for your comments.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    So good, as always. Thank you!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Well, ya did it again, Dana: wrote elegantly down to earth, welcomed us to re-consider. And just when I was sure I had all the right stances, you, you, I don’t know.

    • Dana VanderLugt says:

      I wish we knew. I really like certainty. But it gets me in trouble, too. Maybe I have a little too much hope for certainty.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    I wonder. When Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for them, it was not about debating issues, even important ones. Did he want us to recognize each other’s fellow humanity, to appreciate each other’s struggles? Seems like a better place to meet and begin any dialogue than to focus on issues. Having not read your book, perhaps this is something you address. Thank you for this piece and for all your work to help us come together in these divisive times.

  • RZ says:

    One more thought: Anger ( also known as righteous indignation) is a healthy and essential emotion. BUT, it is designed to be temporary!
    Does anyone recall that Ann LaMott quote?
    ….. something like anger/hate is like drinking more poison hoping that somehow it will do harm to your enemy.

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