Archive for March, 2014

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World Vision Revisited – Bad Decisions and hypocrisy

March 31, 2014

I have placed myself in a difficult spot with this essay.

Which is okay. I don’t write, preach and teach in order to address the easy issues or the pleasant situations. I write to bring about change and to prevent good things from being eroded.

But there are times I find an issue where I cannot determine a side I am completely comfortable with. World Vision has forced me into one of those corners and I may end up painting myself even further in.

A synopsis: World Vision announced last week they were going to allow people who were in gay marriages to be hired by their organization. They rationalized this decision based on geography and internal goals. First, geography: Since Washington State has declared gay marriage legal—and they are based in Washington—they felt they should comply with Washington law. This is not valid, since religious institutions aren’t required to hire anyone who cannot comply with their beliefs.

Second: Internal goals. They are attempting through this decision to be more inclusive of both their conservative and liberal Christian supporters. As hard as it is for most evangelicals to accept, at least half of Christianity is more liberal and many of these people accept gay marriage as a legitimate form of marital expression. Many of them also support World Vision.

Being more conservative on this issue, I do not agree. But I recognize that World Vision has supporters who are from both liberal and conservative camps. They want to be inclusive.

That was a big mistake. On polarizing issues like gay marriage, one cannot please all the people. The only way to do that is to be silent and let people assume which side you fall on. But more and more, Christian organizations are being asked by both sides of the gay marriage issue to pick a side. So World Vision thought they could craft a position statement that appealed to both groups. They stated:

“Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues,” he said. “It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.”

“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there,” he said. “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”

With this statement, World Vision wants both liberals and conservatives to support them. But since this is a reversal of their long-held policy against hiring gay Christians, there is no way for them to claim neutrality on this issue.

They should not have been surprised at the uproar this decision caused. Liberals, of course, were excited that this endorsed the position they already had. But conservatives viewed this as a slap in the face of their stand against gay marriage. It is understandable that conservative evangelicals were upset by this move. Since gay marriage is the most noticeable moral issue that most evangelicals agree upon, this has become the poster-child for the holiness movement. For a professing Evangelical organization to pull away from the “pack” like this, it feels like they have sold out their supporters.

Then, two days later, they reversed their decision. In a letter of apology, World Vision president, Richard Stearn stated:

The last couple of days have been painful,” president Richard Stearns told reporters this evening. “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”

“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we believe that [World Vision supporters] helped us to see that with more clarity … and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”

Wow! Let me count the mistakes they made.

  1. They erroneously thought they could engage the gay marriage issue by taking a middle ground stance. There is very little middle ground on a polarizing issue like this one, and they certainly didn’t find it.
  2. They put the lives of children at risk, callously ignoring a possibility that outraged supporters would withdraw support for children because of their decision. More about this in a moment.
  3. When people began to cancel their support for World Vision’s children, a number of people who support gay marriage offered to “adopt” those children. This number was smaller than the number who pulled away, so World Vision panicked.
  4. In their panic, they reversed their original decision. I suspect they did this to cut their already substantial financial losses.
  5. By reversing their decision, they have now alienated both sides of this issue, and both sides now feel they cannot trust World Vision.

As I reflect on it, I realize that at this point, no one should trust World Vision. They have shown little respect for their own children by putting them in harm’s way.

Suffice to say that I have never been a supporter of World Vision. I don’t like that they refused to participate in a study done to determine the effectiveness of feeding programs around the world. World Vision refused. So did Samaritan’s Purse. Only Compassion International was willing to put their reputation on the line to let their results become an open study. Therefore, that is the organization I support when I sponsor children and their food needs.

So, to sum up the first part of this essay, World Vision blew it big time. Someone ought to lose their job over this. I personally will not support the efforts of World Vision in the future. Are we clear on this point?

Now for the deeper issue. Is it morally defensible to cancel your avowed support of a child because you no longer support the organization? I do not think the Scriptures allow for such action, and I even go as far as to say this type of action is hypocritical.

I will say that not everyone who cancels their sponsorship is a hypocrite. Some people are just ignorant of what they’re doing. But if you read my rationale here and agree that it is not biblical to do so—and then do it anyway—that would be hypocritical behavior. So let me take three biblical principles and show how they apply directly to this situation.

In Mark 7, Jesus and the Pharisees are fighting it out over Jewish ceremonial law. At one point, Jesus begins a rant about their religious hypocrisy. In verses 8-13, he states:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Jesus addresses the issue of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe traditions. In this case, the command of God is for children to honor their father and mother. This includes helping them financially. But the Jewish leaders taught that if they would rather give the money to the temple instead of parents, they could declare the gift as Corban. Corban was a designated temple gift that superseded other gifts. In verse 13, Jesus reminds them that this tradition of the Temple actually nullifies what God has commanded.

God saw the child/parent relationship as a covenant. This is also true of a husband/wife relationship. If someone in a covenant relationship promises to act a particular way, and then acts differently, they are violating that covenant. This is a serious sin. The enemy of our souls loves to defeat people who break covenants.

When you agree to sponsor a child, you are agreeing to do that as long as they are a child. This is similar to any agreement between a child and a foster parent. Adopted parents, foster parents, stand-in parents, sponsoring parents–all of these parenting types fit into the covenant role with a child. If you cancel that sponsorship, you are reneging on the agreement you have with that child. Therefore, your actions are little different from the person who took money intended for parents and gave it to the temple instead.

Actually, I can imagine why some people would opt for Corban instead of parents. What if dad is an alcoholic? What if mom uses drugs? What if they both are violent? Does this mean we no longer have to help them out? I don’t think the Bible allows for an “out” clause in the covenant for those circumstances.

I fully understand why people are angry at World Vision. However, your original covenant is not with the organization, but with the child. I would recommend people continue to support their children and then let World Vision know you will not be supporting any other children and certainly won’t be helping with World Vision’s other projects. That would keep intact both your desire to distance yourself from World Vision and your commitment to the child.

Remember, Jesus also told us never to cause a child to stumble. When you support a child in a developing country, your gift allows that child to eat instead of die due to starvation. It also helps that child’s family. In addition, when several children are sponsored in one village, the entire village receives some of the funds. So when you drop support for a child, you are harming the child, its family and the village.

If you break your promise to that child–especially when the child knows you are a Christian–you are doing damage to that child’s view of Christ and Christians.

Jesus had these harsh words in Matthew 18:6 for those who do such things:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Finally, I can see someone who is still unconvinced. They may rationalize “I don’t think my promise to a child is the same as a covenant.” They may also say “I don’t think the teaching on offending children applies in this situation.” Hopefully then, you are a better Bible scholar than I, for I think both principles apply perfectly.

However, if you still aren’t convinced, let me give the final biblical reason why you shouldn’t end your support of these children. If you do, you’re breaking your promise.

The Bible has a word for a promise we make to another person. It is called “a vow”.

Here’s a few things the Bible says about vows:

Numbers 30:2  When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

Ecclesiastes 5:5:  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.

Matthew 5:33:  “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’

You do serious damage to your soul when you break a vow. If you make a vow, you are not let out of the vow because the person involved has problems or does things you don’t like. In this case, just because World Vision is not the organization you thought it was is not a reason to end your sponsorship of a child.

You have made a covenant with that child.

You are to set an example for that child.

And you have made a vow to that child.

If those reasons are not enough, then you should talk to the Holy Spirit about this.

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Blog is Moving

March 27, 2014

This is a heads-up for everyone who reads this blog.

In just a week’s time, I will be moving all the contents of this blog over to another site: theopengates.com

I will let the subscribers know when to move your subscription over so you can continue to get updates when I write.

Mike Phillips

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Examine the Layers of Communication

March 25, 2014

layersMy friend Charlie and I had to utilize all our geek abilities, but we finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP slowly. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.

Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.

Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.

This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication. As I said in the previous article, Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.

If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.

Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.

1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.

2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.

3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.

4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.

5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?” when we really thought we were being straightforward.

With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:

Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.

Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.

Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.

Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.

False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.” Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.

She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.

Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.

Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.

After looking at this list, you may wonder if there is any such thing as a simple single-layered communication. In fact, there are many ways we can communicate in single layers and the next article we will discuss how to talk to other people in this manner.

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Understanding Layered Communication

March 22, 2014

Years ago, a man who had been married many more years than I told me some advice about wives.

He said: “If she says ‘Go ahead’ in response to something you want to do–and you notice she isn’t smiling and her arms are crossed in front of her–it isn’t permission, it’s a dare”.

Funny. Wise. Layered.

I owe much of my understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication to one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the 20th Century: Dr. William Glasser. What made Dr. Glasser so helpful to our society is he could take complicated subjects and make them so obvious and simple to understand.

Perhaps he is best known for his definition of communication. He defined all communication between two people as this: “It is only information. If you think it is more than that, you are self-deceived.”

Since marriage represents the most intimate dynamics of communication, they are also the most dangerous. If I misunderstand something a stranger says to me, it doesn’t matter that much. But if I make the same error with my life partner, it can be devastating. And after 30-plus years of doing counseling, I can attest that most marriage problems are communication difficulties.

We need to understand three things in order to make all communication easier.

First, what you are hearing is just information.
Second, if you believe otherwise, it is your problem, not the other person
Third, the main difficulty we have with what we hear other people say is that they have layered their communication and we often do not know it.

Let’s look at a standard marital conflict that illustrates all three parts.

Let’s say Jim has had a hard day at work. He was given an impossible task by his boss and it wasn’t going well. He is tired, frustrated, feeling abused and disrespected, and needing to rest and recuperate.

However, as soon as he comes through the door, his wife tells him all about how bad their two boys behaved at the grocery store after work. She never asks about his day, never notices the look of exasperation on his face.

Jim honestly can see that his wife is frustrated. At the same time, he needs support and rest. So, he tries to communicate all of this to Tonya his wife and says, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She is hurt by this and storms off to make dinner, slamming cupboards and huffing.

She assumed something Jim was communicating. She assumed wrongly. He was giving information about his desire to avoid more drama and the need to rest. She assumed he was communicating something about their relationship and his lack of caring for her. He gave her information. The rest of what happened was hers.

Taken at face value, his statement is fairly simple. He doesn’t want to talk about the kids at that moment. He didn’t say he would never talk about it. He didn’t say that he couldn’t care less about her feelings. His communication was a case of simple information. Tonya did not understand this or accept it.

This leads us to the second truth about communication. Her emotional reaction was her problem. Any time we react to information being given to us we are responsible completely for our reaction. The other person is only responsible for the information they gave us. In Tonya’s case, she carried the frustration of being the only care-giver that day in the household. She was angry that Jim seemed to be reticent to help her. She assumed his motivations. All of these assumptions and reactions are her responsibility. If she had been wise–and we will talk about how to use this approach with any other person–she would have asked Jim why he didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. She chose to be hurt and that was her choice. Jim did not make her do that.

Now for the most complicated part of this scenario: Tonya reacted to Jim’s dual layers of information with a multi-layered communication response. I define multi-layered communication as any information which is layered with one or more of the following:

1. Emotions
2. Bitterness or resentment
3. Sarcasm
4. Physical body language instead of words
5. Unspoken assumptions
6. False beliefs
7. Distraction
8. Revenge or hatred

Let’s analyze Jim and Tonya.

Jim had two distinct layers of information:

1. He didn’t want to talk about the current situation at that moment
2. He was angry and tired and did not state this up front.

Jim made the situation a degree harder by not giving the second piece of information before the first one.

Tonya had several layers of communication which she put across using passive-aggressive behavior:

1. Anger at the boys
2. Frustration that she was the primary care-giver and Jim did not seem to be interested
3. A desire to hurt Jim for the perceived hurt Jim had laid on her.
4. Perhaps a deep-seated belief that people would not assist her when she needed it.

Tonya only expressed the first layer and let Jim assume the existence of the other layers. Because neither of them had carefully dissected their own layers before communicating, they could not connect with each other mentally or emotionally. This is the type of fight that can linger for weeks, months or even years if not corrected.

In the next article, we’ll dissect the 8 layers and examine how to attempt to give other people information about each one.

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Cures for Class Envy

March 19, 2014

envyThere is enough money in this world to go around. But being fair and equitable has never been the point of money. The idea that people will voluntarily spread the wealth around is both wrong and naive. Unfortunately, no society has successfully regulated the accumulation of money; it probably cannot be done.

In an unequal system such as the world monetary condition, there will always be winners and losers. And just as it is wrong to think that this can change, so too it is a false syllogism to believe that those who have more money somehow deserve to be rich and those with less money are getting what they deserve.

I am guessing–but I believe I’m accurate–that more than 90% of wealth and poverty is not the result of justice or rewards for effort. Most of the people in our world who work the hardest are the poorest. Many who work the least are the most wealthy.

Therefore, class envy is inevitable. The Have-nots will always stare longingly at the Haves and would trade places with them if they could. The problem is, there are few people who propose workable solutions to this condition. And it is a problem.

More and more, those who perceive they are part of underclasses–and the makeup of this group varies with every society–are rising up to demand their ‘share’ of the equity of this world. The riots in London three summers ago, the “99%”, the property crime in upper-middle-class suburbs etc. all tell us that people are suffering from a Class Envy ailment.

Economists, philosophers, politicians, writers, bankers all fail to supply answers for this disease. This is the place for religion to supply the answer. And of all the religions that addresses wealth and poverty, only Christianity has a plan that works.

When I say that Christianity has a workable plan, I only mean this plan works for individuals. Collectively, we will always have a difficulty with class envy. There will always be strife among those who do not have the bare necessities of life. But if you want to live free of this envy in your own soul, here are three prescriptions the Bible offers us:

1. Contentment: The best known set of verses on contentment is found in 1 Timothy 6:6-11:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

In this passage, the word for “contentment” means to have “sufficient amount“. Yet Paul ties this concept with the idea of “godliness”. How can we make that connection in practical living? The person who devotes themselves to finding out God’s priorities for their life and arranging their schedule to meet those priorities will find that they don’t have time and energy to devote to those things that don’t fit into God’s priorities.

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time thinking about how I should dress for going out in public, for speaking engagements and for meetings I had with clients. I spent so much time on it that God had to intervene. In my regular prayer time with God, he confronted me on how important clothes were becoming. He asked me to go an entire year without buying any new clothes. At first, I resented being asked this–though I went along with it. But as I noticed my poor inner attitude, I learned this desire to have others notice me was a toxic attitude. By the end of the year, God’s input had produced a certain degree of contentment in me. I found I no longer cared much about what others thought concerning my clothes. I now buy some when I need them and usually don’t spend much time thinking about it. And I found I don’t notice other people’s clothing as much either.

2. New Supply Chain: When a person has committed to be a follower of Jesus Christ, he is expected to accept his Lordship over their lives. This means more than obeying God. It also has perks and amenities. If we are God’s children and we serve Him, then we should expect God will take care of all our needs. Paul says it this way in Philippians 4:19: “My God shall supply all of your needs according to his riches in glory.

One Christmas, my wife and I considered something we had never done before. We thought about going into debt. We weren’t getting paid very much from the church and we had four small children. We bought them each a gift from us and made one for each of them. That emptied out our meager savings. We realized we didn’t even have the money to buy a turkey. Three days before Christmas, Kathy and I spent time in prayer and asked God either to supply our needs or to cut down on them. When no money came in the mail, we went down to the store and for the first time in our lives decided to buy groceries with our credit card.

Yet both of us felt this was not the right thing for us to do at that time. I am not saying it is evil to use a credit card or to have basic food needs. But for us on that day, we felt we could not put it on credit. So we took the food back to the shelves and left the store. We drove down to the church so I could pick up something from my office. When we went back out to the car, there was an envelope on the front seat. It contained almost $200. To this day, we have no idea who put the money there. And from that day, it became a tad easier to believe God was going to supply our financial needs. And when we came to believe that, we stopped envying those who had more. The One who supplies my needs is richer than everyone else in the universe combined.

3. Live in the Opposite Spirit: Sometimes, it is not enough to just resist envy. More often than not, if we just try and gut it out, we’ll find that we aren’t that strong. Someone close to us will buy something or be given something that we want and the envy will rear its head.

No, for envy to be crushed completely, we should go on the offensive against it. This truth is painted beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:2-4 says,

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So how does giving to the needy help to do away with class envy?

Pastor Jack Hayford of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA tells of a time when he and his wife went through a hard season with their finances. He noticed as their bank account got slimmer, his attitude toward other people’s possessions became jaded. He resented and envied more and more.

As he was reading the passage above, it occurred to him that this is not primarily about giving in secret. It is about watching the attitude of the heart by taking care of what is happening inside. Since he was facing envy and resentment, he decided to take what money he did have and give some away. He took five dollar bills and filled his wallet with them. Every person in town who panhandled, he gave them five dollars. Every letter that came in the mail asking for money he sent them some. He found after about two weeks, his resentment was over and the envy was completely gone.

How did that work?

When we walk in the opposite spirit from a bad attribute, we are no longer in the control of that thing. If we feel like hating, loving our enemies breaks the power of hatred. When we feel jealous, being sympathetic pulls us out of jealousy’s grasp. And when we feel envy creeping in, charity will scatter it.

These three things will annihilate envy: Contentment, trust and charity.

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Phantom Affairs

March 14, 2014

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They discovered some of the alternative ways we can tie our hearts to another person without them being aware we are doing so. Let me outline the most common ways we do this:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original happenings. We must do this to be emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time processing past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but certainly widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. this explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people reading this assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, it is not as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat us well, affirm our value through their words and deeds, and give us comfort when we are emotionally distraught. When they do not receive these things from their spouse, they place even greater value on the person who is willing to give them these things. Though they do not approach them for a deeper emotional attachment, they remember how they gave us something desperately yearned for. Counselors find this happens regularly in the counseling office. Those we counsel with often form attachments based on appreciation for the help we give. Doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person magnifies the other past the point of help to a much deeper bond. This can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he could really be a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.

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Arminianism and Providence

March 4, 2014

This article by Roger Olson is very good: Arminianism and Providence

Roger does an excellent job of describing how and when God’s providence is active in the life of a believer. I especially love this observation:

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain.

This is a good read from a thoughtful theologian.

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What Needs to Arise from the Ashes of the Emerging Church

March 4, 2014

RipIn 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.

In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.

A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.

But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.

But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.

1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:

  • Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
  • Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
  • Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
  • Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
  • Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.

The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.

2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.

3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger  story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.

4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: This past year, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller have admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles three months ago suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.

Recently, our church decided we need to buy a building so our current ministries don’t die off. We are meeting in 7 different locations around the city doing the work we are called to do. As I met with various members of the church to discuss a move, I asked them one question: What do you value about our church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join our church because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives. The biggest fear that people expressed about owning a building is that we would get too big and lose that sense of belonging to one another. This response has made our leadership team sit up and ask tough questions. Primarily, we want to know if we can do this and stay close to each other. If at any point we decide that is not possible, we will give up trying to have a building.

Today’s Evangelical church  must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.

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What Does Work in Marriage Counseling

March 1, 2014

I won’t bother giving them fake names to protect their identities. I don’t have permission to share the details of their story and I’ve lost touch with them. But it really doesn’t matter; their story is universal these days. He worked too much and distanced himself from his wife over many years of being married. Every year, she grew more angry at him. She let that anger color her decisions and, as a result, she easily entered into another relationship. Her husband found out she was cheating on him and she freely admitted it. I do know the details of that initial fight and I don’t really have to share them here. It wasn’t any more dramatic than the confrontations in a million other relationships. Both of them spent a sleepless night wondering if they should contact a divorce lawyer. They both cried. They spent that night in different places, both physically and emotionally. But for some very unusual reasons, their story did not turn out like millions of others.

Though each of them did go for counseling at some point, they never went together for marriage counseling. And they never got a divorce. They eventually solved the problems in their marriage (for the most part) even though they both unveiled other secret sins. By telling their story I am not saying they are better than other people. But their choices do shed light on an alternative approach to marriage counseling.

I can just picture many of you waiting breathlessly for the formula to their solution. I want to be cautious at this point. Though they stayed married, it cost them way more than either would have  agreed to pay that first “fight night”. The rest of this article is not for the faint of heart. There: You have been warned.

I don’t remember if they practiced all these principles in their desire to change, but I know they at least embraced the first two. These are five things I see in  marriages that overcome problems like abuse, adultery, neglect, hatred and substance abuse. I list them in order of importance and the first ones are the most difficult.

[Disclosure: Other than from the Bible, I learned most of these principles from a series of books by William Glasser on the subject of “Choice Theory”. I mention this because several readers of this blog are MFTs and could really benefit from Dr. Glasser’s observations and practice. I am also beholding to Dr. Ed Smith and the therapy method taught in “Healing Life’s Hurts” and the practice of TPM.]

Here then are five principles that will yield the healthiest motivations to preserve a marriage:

1. Choose THIS marriage. The most poignant question Dr. Glasser asks in his first counseling session is “Do you really want to be married to your spouse?” If either spouse hedges on their answer – or comes out and says “no” – he ends the counseling relationship. He contends that no one will convince a person to be married to a particular person if they really don’t want to be. Here is what I add to that. Many people who don’t want to be married to a particular person still want to be married. They like the thought of marriage: the comfort and companionship that it can have, the intimacy it seems to promise, the stability of a family. God created the first marriage and said it was not good for man to be alone. But he also knew that once a couple are joined for any length of time in marriage, they form bonds that only death can truly separate. Therefore, people may like the idea of being married, but loathe the thought of being  married to THIS person. That has to change if the marriage will work.

In the Bible, when Jesus talks about divorce, his primary concern is remarriage. His teaching on marriage goes right back to Genesis. He recalls for them that a man is to leave behind his birth family (father and mother) and cling to his wife. In our traditional marriage vows, we say “forsaking all others”. The “all others” means mentally dismissing the idea of a future spouse as well.

Divorces happen…there are many people who decide they cannot live with that person any longer. But would people change their approach and attitude if they believed this was their only opportunity to get married? What if this is your only chance and there are no real alternatives? Would that make a difference at how you worked at solving the problems in this marriage? Of course it would. But that is not how most people live. We live in a world of “alternatives”. If you don’t like what you have, there is always an alternative.

The couple I referenced at the beginning of this article decided if they didn’t make this marriage work they weren’t going to get married again. Waking up to that reality motivated them to get things fixed. For those who accept a biblical format for marriage, the best motivation for working on marriage problems is a choice to stay married to THIS person…not just a commitment to marriage as an institution.

2. Soften the Hard Heart: In the last article, I mentioned the pastor who used our counseling appointment to announce his intention to divorce. After I reined in my anger, I asked him to explain his motivations. He cited chapter and verse to justify his biblical grounds for divorce. That’s when I told him: “Those are reasons you want a divorce. But as far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one ground for divorce. You have hardened your heart”. Jesus teaches us why Moses allowed the people of Israel to get a divorce. As far as we know from historical documents, the nation of Israel was the first culture to develop a concept of divorce. Why? Jesus explains: “Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses permitted divorce”. That’s it in a nutshell. There are many things that break a covenant between a man and a woman. Adultery, violence, molestation of children, lying, abuse, neglect, abandonment, yelling, belittlement, substance abuse, eating disorders, withdrawal of sex, lack of passion, workaholism – they all contribute to huge rifts in marital closeness. But with all that, there still is only one reason people divorce: Hardness of heart.

I can give examples of every one of the above problems that people have endured only to stay married and to prosper. I know a woman whose husband molested their two oldest daughters. He went to state prison for his actions and her church insisted she divorce him to protect the kids. She did not want to. She refused to hate him or to give up on him. He even filed for divorce at one point, but she resisted. Her oldest daughter refused to speak to mom again unless she divorced her dad. Was she being an idiot? Some people think so. But she had compassion, love and acceptance of him. She wasn’t denying his crime or his sin. He paid for what he did and he still carries the weight of how he hurt his girls. My point in mentioning this is that no one could fault her for getting a divorce. And she really isn’t a co-dependent person or weak-willed. She just didn’t want to harden her heart that far.

How do you deal with a hard heart? You soften it with two decisions. These are what I spend most time working on with counselees. First, let go of the bitterness for how you have been treated. Stop reserving the right to feel wounded, victimized and in emotional pain. Let go of the right to enact emotional revenge. Second, forgive the person. This does not mean  you excuse them. You simply choose to say they do not have to “make up for” their failures and sins.

3. Confront your own story: We all have aspects of our marriage story that focus on how we have been hurt. But if that is all you can see when the marriage is failing, then you are missing the other part of the story. Don’t rely on your spouse to tell you either. They are carrying their own hurt, so they will not be all that accurate in describing your problem. No one wants to hear the statement, “do you know what your problem is?” But we all need to hear what our problem is. As a counselor I have great hope for the person who comes to me during marital difficulty and says “I need to fix me”. Those people are the ones who stay married. The ones who say “I want you to fix my partner” do not stay married very much longer.

4. Give Yourself Time to Reconcile: As with most “solutions” in life, we spend way too much time causing the problems and allocate so little time to solving them. As I watch the clean-up going on in the Gulf from the oil spills, everyone legitimately wants the oil to stop flowing this second. British Petroleum’s stock is plummeting because people expected the flow to be capped overnight. Revelations are coming out about how many things went wrong to cause this disaster. This won’t be cured for a while yet. The clean-up will take years. By that time, most of us will have mentally moved on to the next disaster and the next one after that. That is often how we treat marriage counseling. We want it fixed today!

If you have 20 years of problems, it won’t get fixed today. We vastly overestimate what can change in a week. But conversely, we completely underestimate what can change in a year. I even recommend in the most serious marital problems that people creatively separate and start dating from scratch. I highly commend the book “Reconcilable Differences” and the suggested time chart of putting a marriage back on the right track. Don’t rush things and don’t despair. Rushing and despair only muddy the waters more.

5. Ask God for “perspective”, not “rescue”. As I said last time, God cannot save your marriage. That is your job. But if you want God to partner with you in this, you must let him do what God does best. God sees the inner heart of every person. That includes our own heart. Just as in the third step we must see what attitudes and beliefs have caused us to act improperly, so we also need to see our spouse as God sees them. Why does God forgive them? Why does God appreciate them? Why does God spend time with them? What does God see in them? This is so crucial at that point where you cannot say anything good about your marriage partner.

My wife and I have times of struggle like every couple. This is not the venue to give examples of that. But one solution we have found is when we are feeling stymied by the bad course our marriage takes, we sit down separately and ask God to show us the good qualities of the other person. I do remember that horrible day when Kat came up with 20 things and I only had five. That only meant she was listening with more conviction than I was. I was still bitter and used my time to tell God how rotten she was being to me. God didn’t agree, so I wasted my time. But if you come to counseling with the attitude of hearing God about your spouse, things will change. They really will.

The couple who saved their own marriage at the beginning of this article did so over a period of several years. I don’t know all the details and I don’t have any idea how many times they wanted to give up. But now they both help other couples find the same path. These principles work much more effectively than the confusing and ineffective process of three-way counseling.

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