Monday, September 2, 2019

Do we really practice what we preach?

Recently I had a conversation with someone who was recently divorced. Their marriage was in rough shape for many years, and regrettably, there were many mistakes made by both spouses. The person I spoke with said, “You probably think I’m a horrible person. I know what people are saying about me.” I assured them even though I had heard the stories going round, I didn’t think they were a bad person.

I shared that after all of my many years of being in ministry and after thousands of hours of counseling people, I know that in those situations no one is fully to blame and no one is fully innocent. I responded that I have the ability to withhold judgment and that I can form my own opinions. I referenced the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8 and pointed out the way Jesus handled that situation.

The whole conversation got me thinking. Are we truly like Jesus or do we lean towards being more like the Pharisees, who we can’t stand? After reflecting on that long conversation, I wondered: How well do our churches welcome spiritually wounded people? Would we accept the woman the crowd wanted to stone, or would we have judged her? How do we view and respond to people who blatantly sin?

Could your church really embrace someone with a tainted reputation? What about you, personally, could you? How do you view people who stumble and fall? Do you look down on them harshly, feel superior to them, or simply shake your head in disgust? Or, can you truly love on them the way they need to be loved?

It’s easy to deceive yourself, assuming to yourself that you offer grace as much as you believe in grace. And it’s easy to say you are non-judgmental. It’s another story to practice all of that. Almost everyone thinks they are more grace-centered than they are. So, how can you tell if you really are a person who extends more grace than criticism?

For starters, grace oriented people do not see the world in terms of “Us and them.” It’s all “Us.” We are all basically the same, despite our many differences. The moment you begin the separate yourself mentally from the riffraff and the more you see the faults in others, the less grace is truly reigning in your heart. Have you ever asked yourself, how was Jesus mistaken for a drunkard and glutton and are people ever confused about you because of the people you associate with? Jesus never loved from a distance, why do we think we can?

Also, people who have more grace than others do not feel the need to correct other people. If your first thought when you see someone struggling is to think through what advice you could offer, you probably are unintentionally judging them. People need acceptance more often than they need advice. Is there a place for advice and correction? Sure. But your advice is not a starting point when others are down. A listening ear, a warm hug, and friendly smile can often do more than all of the “right answers” we might offer.

In the story of the prodigal son, do you know what the real difference was between the father and the older brother? The older brother was more interested in comparing while the dad was deeply interested in connecting. The telltale sign of the judgmental person who thinks they are grace-centered is how often they compare others to themselves and them feel better about themselves afterwards.

I feel a bit jaded by most church-goers. We can quote the Bible, have a ready answer, and basically be know it alls -- while doing very little. And when it comes to being able to help people who have been drug down by sin, we keep our hands as clean as we keep our distance. In other words, we know all about how Jesus ministered, in our head, but our hearts are hard. I wonder what would happen if we let Jesus swing the gavel or wear the judge’s robe for awhile and we just picked up the servant’s towel for now?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Demystifying the myth of the perfect family

We love them, we brag on them, we get frustrated and embarrassed by them, we go to bat for them and we go a little batty because of them. Families, we are all a part of one, even the ones that are coming apart.

Do you really know of anyone with a perfect family? You probably know a few people who try to portray the “picture perfect family” in public -- I can only guess how exhausting carrying on that charade is.

I like to joke that our family-tree is a stump. My great-grandfather was illegitimate, which back then was quite a scandal, but he kept his mother’s maiden name so really I don't know what our last name should be. Over the years we’ve lost relatives to AIDS and others to pills -- I could go on, but the dysfunction certainly didn’t end with my great-grandfather's upbringing. It’s funny how every family has the punk with a chip on their shoulder, a crazy uncle or the loony aunt or the cantankerous grandparent, though no one ever sees themselves personally as the weak-link. Even still, we typically have a difficult time admitting our family’s imperfections to others.

So much of our identity is wrapped up in our family of origin, maybe that’s why we struggle with being more transparent about the skeletons in our closet. I’m at peace with being part of an imperfect family and I hope to help you, here, come to grips with your family as well.

What’s wrong with masking our problems anyhow? Shouldn’t we portray strength and vitality? Isn’t that how we find love and acceptance from others? The only problem here is, being hypocritical is not how we receive those traits, and, if we are selling a lie we will always doubt the authenticity/integrity of the relationships we have others who we’ve been misleading about ourselves. Talk about a vicious cycle.

Besides, imagine you are an unchurched person or maybe you have been out of church for a while and you are getting back into the swing of things, either way, imagine you begin to participate with a church where everyone seems just so perfect. How well do you feel like you fit in at that point? The same could be said of the pastor. If your church leadership pretends they have a perfect family, how will those in the church (in the real world) ever be able to relate to you?

Also, imagine the embarrassment when your “perfect” family does something that goes public. In our age of social media, pretty much everything is eventually public. By the way parents, I highly encourage you to keep abreast of your children’s social media posts. There are plenty of things your kids post on Twitter and Facebook that need your attention ASAP.

At this point, the temptation is to cocoon yourself and cut off contact with the outside world. That’s fine, except you’ve just cut yourself off from your source of help. Yes God is the ultimate help and His Spirit is our ultimate comfort, but how do you think He most often ministers to us? It’s usually through others.

There are plenty of Biblical passages about how we should treat each other and interact within our families. Still, there is not a single example that I can find in the Bible of a perfect family. That’s not an excuse for any of us to mess up, it’s simply the truth that families are made up of imperfect people and we all could benefit from a little extra grace. Having high standards about family is good, but don’t confuse having standards with our ability to live them out perfectly.

To keep your sanity and be spiritually healthy, maybe consider admitting to your family’s inconsistencies. Reach out to others and ask for help. Somewhere between arrested development, teen-rebellion, mental health issues, addictions, infidelities, and criminal activity, we all share more in common than we let on.

I want to encourage you if you feel like your family is in a mess or is a mess: You are not alone, no one has a perfect family! You’re not alone, so please don’t alienate yourself either -- ask for prayers, advice, counsel, accountability, or whatever else might help. Please, please, please do not feel embarrassed by your situation and don’t allow any embarrassment to immobilize you or separate you from your friends, those fears come from satan and not from God.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Avoiding Toxic people

The paradox of community (as well as with many of our core relations) is that in order to have stronger, truly authentic bonds we find it is necessary to separate ourselves occasionally from specific people. The Bible lists several types of people who are toxic and should be avoided for our own spiritual health.

For example, Romans 16:17 says to avoid divisive people. I Cor 15:33 says bad company corrupts good character. The book of Proverbs has several people we are told to avoid, even drive away, such as fools and scoffers. Somewhere Jesus said something about shaking the dust off... So yes, we find a litany of certain quarrelsome, wicked, strifeful characters in Scripture of whom we are told to steer clear of -- but it’s not always easy defending yourself from hurtful people, especially when you lack cooperation from people who do not respect your stance.

For instance, I’m sure when I say we need distance from some within our circle of relationships, the question pops up, “But isn’t this judgmental, not allowing these people in our lives?” No, it’s not. Actually, it is being wise and obedient. Besides, judging is about assigning eternal punishment or reward, like determining where someone’s soul goes after death. But, when you see someone who is toxic, you aren’t judging their soul, you are making a judgment call about their constitution which is based on the fruit they bear. You can’t protect yourself or identify a wolf otherwise.

“Where is the grace in this?” is another perplexing question. Distributing grace never requires placing yourself in harms way to gratuitously allow evil to thrive. If someone is harming you, emotionally wounding you, shaming you, blaming you, bullying you, etc., you don’t have to be a doormat to practice the Christian faith. Like Eccl 3:5 clarifies, there is, “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing...”

I’m a firm believer we should own our feelings. I also believe it’s fair to articulate your feelings. Expressing your feelings should never be mistaken for an entitlement to wound others around you. And, whenever you attempt to establish healthy boundaries, I promise you, you will meet resistance, often in the form of hurt feelings, brash feelings that will sting your ears.

You see, the problem with some people who take liberties with everyone else’s emotions, the “takers” want to control you, and when they can’t, like the old adage says, when they can’t control you they’ll try to control how others see you. They’ll demonize you and paint you out as the villain. Sadly, some people will push you too far, and when they see an “ugly side” to you, then they portray themselves as a victim to anyone who will listen.

Why is it that the bully gets more of an audience, why do people usually sympathize with the problem person instead of the mistreated one? Because after we take a stand for health and stability, it makes the rest of our circle uncomfortable, even nervous. Why? Because they feel weak for not calling out the problem themselves, and, if you can stand up to the buzzsaw-bulldozer-intimidator, you won’t have any problem defending yourself from them should they ever try to push you around. In other words, by your actions, you've shown a certain strength they are envious of.

Has someone unapologetically wronged you? Are you hurt, even mad? That’s understandable. Consider Eph 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,....” Do not allow the hurtful person to rob you of your sleep or to occupy too much space in your heart and mind or to tempt you to vengeance. Try to resolve your anger, pray for that person, and if and when they repent and become healthier, be open to possibly restoring the relationship -- if that is best. If they refuse to be rational, repent or grow, remember what Frost penned, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

You can only change yourself, you can’t change the toxic person and they might never decide to be a person who is able to enjoy a healthy relationship with you -- but that’s their choice. Moving forward with your life after you’ve been wounded, your relationship will look different, and it might not ever be the same. That’s okay. You can love and forgive people without opening yourself up to further pain or whatever mistreatment they might want to inflict on you.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Why are we jaded about "church" when it comes to the topic of money?

There are times when people are strangely transparent. Unsolicited, folks will frankly confess their infidelities, petty crimes, or simply share gory details about a recent illness (of which you’d rather not have heard about and you leave the conversation feeling rather awkward), but, just ask someone how much money they make or what they currently have in the bank and they will unravel like a cheap sweater.

If you don’t believe me that asking about money is offensive, just ask the next person you talk to. We are often scolded and told, “Don’t you dare talk about religion or politics...,” when you get together, “you’ll just upset everyone!” In reality, the real lightning rod topic is money.

Similarly, consider the uproar that ensues whenever a community has to set the town’s budget or they decide to build a new structure, like a school. Divers opinions clash, people get upset, and everyone knows how best the money should/shouldn’t be spent -- everyone apparently is an instant expert.

Everyone (also) gets embarrassed when it comes to disclosing their personal finances -- the key term here is “personal.” Think of people, other than those in your own household, and try to name a few of which you know their annual income. I can’t, after all, it’s none of my business, and the point is, we don’t divulge this kind of information to each other regardless of how close we are.

On a related note, why is it that most churches have enough “Jesus” but never enough money? I rarely preach about “giving” for a few reasons. Maybe this brief vignette will help illustrate why:

I recently heard about a married person who had been trying hard for over 20 years to get their spouse to join them at church on a Sunday morning. “Well,” the other one said, “the only thing churches are really interested in is my money, so no thank you.” Over time though the “faithful” one finally wore the other one down, and the invited one acquiesced and agreed to go with. Putting on their “Sunday best” even though a non-member, the other went along. I bet you can guess what the pastor happened to preach on that Sunday. That spouse left church that Sunday, and poor excuse or not, hasn’t darkened the doors since. I doubt they will ever again, until their funeral that is.

So does this mean churches shouldn’t ever broach the subject of money? After all, Jesus talked about money and the Bible has many passages dedicated to the subject.

I think money, tithing, and how we treat our resources are spiritual matters. But, for our churches, they are probably best addressed over a cup of coffee, in a small group study, or some other informal/relaxed setting besides on a Sunday morning. Unfortunately, our congregations weekly send the message to “visitors” we are more interested in their money than any other topic every week when we pass “the plate” every Sunday and “take up” the offering, or when we dedicate an entire month of sermons to next year’s budget.

We already have enough obstacles to evangelism these days, so let’s not put up another costly roadblock when it comes to reaching people who are already (rightfully so) cynical or jaded. Yes money is a matter of spiritual maturity and we need to be honest and open about our church’s fiscal needs as well as the snares of money, but not at the expense of alienating lost souls.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Top 10 list of what I miss about the Midwest

#10. Streets laid out in a north south east west grid

#9. The Chicago skyline from a distance 

#8. The distinction in seasons, even if winter spills over into late April and Indian Summer lasts throughout October

#7. Prairie landscapes

#6. Bonfires & pigs roasting in the ground

#5. Freight trains stretched out as far as the eye can see

#4. Ethnic diversity

#3. The most incredible Sunsets on the planet 

#2 Food you can’t find anywhere else, especially Portillos

#1. Straightforward Midwesterner bluntness. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Traditional values being suppressed & why Hijacking words works better than censorship

When you think of the word “profession,” you probably think about a career, an occupation, or a job. A Professional then is the opposite of an amateur. But did you know, originally the word profession was about verbalizing your religious vows? Many words evolve naturally over time, usually the change is benign. Currently, we are in the midst of a wicked cultural shift and key words that once represented certain values are being hijacked.

Words are powerful, after all “in the beginning” the universe was spoken into existence. Words have the power to shape our thoughts, attitudes, and our actions. Words matter.

As if from within an Orwellian plot, stealthy characters have stolen certain words from us and transformed them into something alarming. At one time, these words had carried a certain meaning, and suddenly it seems, they mean something completely different today. Traditionally these words resonated deep within us, reaffirming values and virtues, holding sway over us. The grunt work of getting us to accept the validity of these words was accomplished long ago, so harnessing these words with a subtle sleight of hand was nothing less than genius.

For example, the word “celebrate” once meant rejoicing over achieving an accomplishment or reaching a milestone. Now, “celebrate” refers to accepting alternative lifestyles that once were deemed repulsive. Consider the current phrase “Celebrating diversity.”

In the same way, the word “privilege” has been altered. It once stood for an honorable or special possession. Now, when we hear it, it carries the notion of being overbearing, forceful, and autocratic.

“Spirituality” once held tightly to a view of the supernatural, it signaled the truth that we are mortals and we derive our meaning and purpose from God, to Whom we naturally should submit to. Not so today. Spirituality is whatever you want to be: Warm fuzzies, good vibes, or happy thoughts. You simply create your own reality, and BAM, you are one with the universe...

Another big one is the word “tolerance.” At one time, tolerance indicated a respectful attitude, one that considered the opinions of others with which we disagree. No longer. Tolerance now implies all views have to be considered equal, regardless of how bizarre or perverted they may be, and these contrary views have to be accepted by all. And, have mercy on the soul that is labeled “intolerant” in today’s relativistic society.

I’m sure the same can be said of “fairness,” “equality,” and “normal.” Forget restraint, frugality, or hard work. Now to be fair and have equality, everyone else deserves what you have regardless of effort, hard work, or merit. And everyone deserves to be treated not just the same, but better than you. Fairness is no longer fair, it’s a word that is used to leverage power over anyone who is deemed more successful.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to observe how the word “sexuality” has been taken apart, killed, and reanimated like a freakish frankenstein creature. Biology, DNA, and common sense have been discarded and now feelings or preferences rule the day. This of course corrupts the word “family” as well.

The reason for reframing these words is to persuade us to change our views or to silence our objections. If we disagree with the way these words have been changed or if we call attention to the charade, we are labeled as intolerant bigots, homophobic, or hatemongers.

Be sure of this, we will see the rise of censorship and the increase of listed hate crimes over the next decade, specifically targeting Christians. Unless we do something radical we will be forbidden by law from proclaiming the truths of the Christian faith or stating what our core beliefs are. We won’t be allowed to use the word sin or label any activity as sinful, for soon it will be a criminal offence.

It’s time to say what we mean and mean what we say and reclaim the true meaning of these words I’ve highlighted and probably many more. We don’t have to be judgmental, legalistic, harsh, or cruel to stand by our virtues and values, the ones that have shaped our hearts and souls for generations -- but we do have to profess what we believe if we want to make a difference.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Liberation from sin: Name the secret, break the power

You know right from wrong, and you know the grip certain sins can have on you personally. Sin is fun, often quite enjoyable. I don’t have to list out here every gory sin for you, but it should be no surprise that sin can become all-consuming. Sin, just like quicksand, seemingly sucks us in the more we fight it. Is there any hope, especially the deeper we sink into the sin that has engulfed us?

On top of the fact that we find our sin pleasurable, as you already know, sin can embarrass us. Which is why we usually hide our sinful activity from those who matter to us. Whether you’re skimming money off the top, hooked on pornography, or neck-deep in an affair, I doubt you are posting anything about it on Facebook for your family to see. Therefore, the last idea that pops in our mind is telling someone about our sin-struggle. Yet, telling someone you trust is actually one of the most important steps you can take to find freedom.

What we need most is the thing we usually avoid, which is why what James writes in 5:16 seems counterintuitive, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Why/how does this awkward step of confessing our sin make a difference?

Naming the secret breaks its power over us. Satan traffics in secrecy and humiliation. Satan uses lies and manipulation to keep us enslaved. Verbalizing our sin to another unshackles us from the hold it has on us. How does telling others our dirty little secrets help? We, normally, don’t want to disappoint those we care about. By telling them what we've been up to, they have an opportunity to encourage us, advise us, and keep us accountable.

Confession isn’t about rule-keeping, it’s about being supported by like-minded people who want the best for each other. James says it’s about being honest with other believers who will pray for us, intercede for us, strengthen us. Satan wants to alienate us, so he whispers in our ear “if they really knew what you were into...” Don’t fall for that.

Confession doesn’t deepen our shame, it erases it. Most people share similar struggles, like I Cor 10:13 states, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man....” Therefore, when we reveal what we are trapped in, others can empathize, since many people have had one type of struggle or another. In other words, nearly everyone understands where you are too.

Just like the way mold thrives in dark damp corners, sin grows when it’s hidden. Which is why bringing sin into the light is vital. Consider what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:7-14, “7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Compare this to what we read in John 3:19-21, “19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Dreaming your sin problems will go away on their own, putting off addressing it, and thinking you can control this on your own is simply delusional. Whatever darkness that is swallowing you up alive, you need to tell someone who loves you, someone you trust, someone who will pray with you and for you. Please remember, when you name the secret you break its power, and when you break its power you will find freedom. May you be healed and whole, and enjoy the blessings of fellowshipping with other imperfect people who stumble but don’t give up either.