For Youth Workers Post


Will Penner

It’s All in the Attitude

“In the Habit” session for use with devozine meditations for April 18–24, 2016.


“The image of a glass that is half full or half empty illustrates that the exact same reality can be experienced in completely different ways by different people. The same holds true for every life event. Recently, my father died. While some people chose to focus on their grief, others focused on the positive legacy he left and their faith that he is now in Paradise for eternity. It was exactly the same event, but different people experienced in in different ways. If that is true for an experience as pivotal as the death of a loved one, imagine how vivid the difference can be about every other situation in our lives.” —Will


Will PennerWill Penner has been in ministry with young people for more than two decades in Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, public and private schools, and as a popular speaker at youth retreats, camps, and conferences. He has served as the editor of both leading professional journals of youth ministry and has authored or edited numerous youth ministry curricula and books, the latest of which is It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry. But most important, he is the husband of his amazing wife, Christine, and the father of five fantastic children, ranging in age from seven to twenty-four.


  • magnifying glasses, one for each person (or each small group, if your group is large)
  • Print-Friendly Version of this session


  • Think Positive,” by Luke Britnell, is not theologically deep; but it’s a catchy little song that’s all about having a positive attitude. Play it as group members arrive.


Have group members walk around the room with the magnifying glasses, noting what they notice through the glass that they didn’t notice without it. It’s OK if they’re a little silly. Be sure that everyone gets a chance to look through a magnifying glass for at least thirty seconds or so, focusing on a number of different things. Then bring the group together to discuss:
       What did you notice with the glass that you didn’t notice without it?
       In what ways did your natural personality dictate what you chose to focus on? (You may want to ask the question more pointedly: Did those of you who are naturally silly look for funny things? If you are naturally pessimistic, did you tend to focus on something critical? Did anyone who is naturally optimistic notice things to be excited about?)
        How did hearing others talk about what they were noticing affect the choices you were making about what to focus on?


Scripture: Matthew 14:22–33

When Jesus went up the mountain to pray alone in the evening, the disciples boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. John 6:15–21 records that the boat was a few miles from the shore, so the idea of Jesus walking out to the boat on top of the water was not only unusual but also incredibly frightening to the disciples. After all, while they knew there was something special about Jesus, they simply didn’t have the life experience, faith, or creative imagination to understand how big of a deal Jesus actually was. They knew he was important, but they definitely didn’t understand that he was God incarnate.

Peter, who always seems ready to jump out of his comfort zone and demonstrate his allegiance—usually without completely thinking it through—finds himself with doubts at just the wrong moments. This is not much different. In Matthew’s story, Peter also walks on the water; but as Peter’s fear creeps in, he begins to sink and cries out for help. Jesus rescues him, but denounces his lack of faith.

One of the most interesting components of this narrative is how Peter’s focus changed. While he was excited about going to Jesus and focused wholly on him, he was able to do something seemingly impossible: walk on top of water. The moment he began to focus on obstacles and fear instead of on Jesus, he began to sink. Peter’s experiences during the first part of his water walk were very different from his experience during the second part, all because of what he chose to focus on.

Our minds are like gigantic magnifying glasses that bring into focus whatever we point them at. When we choose to focus on the positive, the number of positive things in our lives seems to increase, and our experience of life becomes far more positive overall. Conversely, when we choose to focus on the negative, the number of negative things in our lives seems to increase, and our experience of life becomes far more negative overall. Thinking positive is not lying to ourselves or those around us or pretending we are happy when we’re not. It’s choosing to find the positive in every experience and focusing on it. It’s trying to find how God is at work in and around us all the time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola practiced a discipline he called the Awareness Examen, in which he looked back over his day searching for times of desolation and consolation. In times of desolation, he felt blocked from his active, conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit’s movement; in times of consolation, he was acutely aware of the presence of God. Most of us are better at recognizing God at work in our past rather than in our present. Ignatius claimed that through disciplined practice, our awareness of God grows to the point where we can actively recognize the presence of God in the moment rather than only in retrospect.

Take a look at the context of the Bible passage. Matthew, Mark, and John all record the account of Jesus’ walking on water following the story of the feeding of the multitudes. When the people followed Jesus to hear him teach, the disciples wanted to send them away because they were grumbling about being hungry and the disciples couldn’t see how to feed them. They were focusing on the obstacles. When Jesus helped people focus on the possibilities, not only did everyone get fed but they also had leftovers. The gospel writers also record that Jesus’ walking on water happened on the way to Capernaum, which is the city in which, among other things, a paralytic was brought to Jesus for healing. The paralytic’s friends refused to see a full house or a solid roof as obstacles. Cutting a hole in the roof, they lowered their friend on a mat so that he could encounter Jesus.

When we focus on the possibilities rather than the obstacles, amazing things happen. We often act as if we’re perpetual victims of circumstances that are out of our control, but the truth is that our attitudes are always under our control. Life is only about ten percent what happens to us; it’s at least ninety percent what we choose to make of it.


Invite group members to pray with you:

“God, we know that no matter what is going on, you are always in the midst of it, though we often fail to recognize your presence. Please attune our senses so that we become more aware of your movement in our lives. Help us to focus on the positive and to accept your invitation to imagine the possibilities. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.”


  • “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right” (Henry Ford). “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” (Charles R. Swindoll). Sayings like these speak volumes of truth, yet some people feel as if they’re trite. Look up some sayings that don’t feel cliché to you, but speak to the power of your attitude in a way that is meaningful to you. Post them in places where you will see them regularly.
  • Read Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, and try incorporating the practice of the Awareness Examen into your life. Write about how your experiences of God change.


—from devozine In the Habit (March/April 2016). Copyright © 2016 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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