Family Matters and the Frustrating Church

famfightFamily reunions are a funny thing.  They create this bizarre mix of emotions that only occur in a family setting.  It is this tumultuous emotional churning of happiness and frustration, anger and joy that induces both laughter and temple rubbing.  Families make us feel the full spectrum of emotions, and they do so for one simple reason.

They matter to us.

The things we feel the deepest are felt so deeply because they matter.  The things that cause us the most joy and the things that cause us the most sorrow matter.  The things that cause us to soar to the heights of happiness and the things that make our bodies vibrate with anger do so because they are important to us.  If they did not matter, we would never – we could never – feel them on this same level.

For me that perfectly describes my feelings about my church at this moment.

I write this for those of you who go to church with me and for those of you may feel the same way about your own church at this very moment.  The single greatest source of concern, stress, and frustration in my life at this very moment is my church.  To be honest, there are moments that it is so frustrating and stress inducing to think about, that I wish I could just give it up and walk away from it all.

But I never could – it matters too much to me.

In the past couple of years our church has hemorrhaged people – going from a church pushing 150 to a church that struggles to break 60-70 each week.  It has cost me my career and changed the direction of my life.  It has affected me greatly, and I feel it deeply.  As our church dies, I feel like I die along with it.  The reasons people give for leaving have covered not liking the music, not liking the children’s ministry, not liking the preaching, personal conflicts, and wide variety of others.  The issues are hard to specify, making them hard to address – and it eats my lunch every time I think about it.  It stresses me, depresses me, frustrates me, and, at times, enrages me. But here is the funny thing, when I think of all of those negative things that the state of my own church makes me feel – it makes me think of one thing:

Family reunions and the turbulent landslide of emotions that can accompany them.

Do you know why what is happening in my church makes me feel that way?  I think it is because it matters so much to me.  It has to be, because only things that matter so deeply can make us feel so deeply.  What is the church if it is not family?  What is a family if it is not willing to stick it out in the toughest of times?  How can either survive if we so easily forsake them, so quickly give up on them, so rarely practice forgiveness, so often shy away from reconciliation, and so rarely pitch in?

I have to ask myself this question about my relationship with my own church – If it truly matters to me, then what kind of commitment am I willing to make to help this relationship work?  If I am truly being honest, I have to admit that there are definitely times when I have allowed those emotions to hinder my ability to lead and to worship.  I have utilized them as excuses for not serving.  In doing those things, I have become a part of the problem.

To my church, I say I am sorry; but I also say – you matter to me.  Even in the midst of the dizzying array of things I feel about you right now – you matter so immensely to me. You are my family even when I feel distant from you. You are kin to me.  It seems strange to say, but I am grateful for the frustration, the heartache, and the fear.  Those are all evidences of this strangely deep and beautiful connection I have with you.

I think it is a tragedy that so many people experience these feelings and so easily leave a church.  It is, I think a horrible precedent and so far from what the church is meant to be.If only we could open our eyes to the reality that these things we feel – good and bad combined – are all normal things for a family.  They are, in fact, symptoms of the reality that we matter to one another. We should not fear or flee these feelings.  We should embrace them, face them, and let them serve as a reminder of the deep deep connection we share with one another.

You are all my family – crazy aunts, obnoxious uncles, boisterous brothers, and all the rest.  It is a bond that I could not break if I tried, and I wouldn’t want to.

You matter to me.

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Life Together

600-00983799I am working on tackling a couple of more issues that I have been wrestling with – but in the mean time, I felt compelled to share what has been on my heart the past couple of days…

This week I went to visit friends of ours who were celebrating the birth of their first child.  She is a beautiful little girl and my wife and I noted that even as we entered the room, her dad had a mile-wide smile adorning his face.  It seemed like it was permanently planted there.  It’s been awhile since I have held a newborn which may have heightened my awareness in that moment, but as her daddy placed her in my arms, I was momentarily overcome by just how “special” this moment was.  The new dad told me that the very moment he first laid eyes on his child, he was keenly aware that everything was different – in a good way.  I remember that powerful feeling at the birth of both of our daughters.

Because I am a person of faith – I attribute it to God’s holiness.  It is a powerful thing.

Then yesterday I attended the funeral of a beloved old saint of our church. There we heard stories of his life – about a love for his wife that not even her death could silence, about his dedication to family, and about the many laughs he shared with friends.  It was a curious mixture of laughter and sorrow, of celebrating and mourning that only special moments like that can generate.  In that moment a strangely familiar overwhelming sensation came over me.

It was a moment not that different from what I had experienced just days before holding that newborn little girl in my arms.  It was a special moment – a holy moment.

Now you may not share my faith – but I would wager that you have shared a similar feeling. These are experiences that most of us have had or will have, and if not these specific experiences, then other ones like them…

Looking into the eyes of your bride/groom

A long conversation reminiscing with a senior citizen

A  long awaited reuniting with family or friends

Seeing the ocean, mountains, or milky way galaxy for the first time

Special moments raise up special feelings inside every one of us.  I attribute those feelings to God’s holiness breaking through the mundane.  You may attribute them to something altogether different.  In essence though, I think that for most of us, those moments are ones in which we are keenly aware of our humanity and our smallness in comparison to something so much greater than ourselves.

I woke up this morning dwelling on those two moments.  I couldn’t get past the awesomeness of them both.  I couldn’t get past the awareness that these special, “holy” moments are things that people everywhere around the world, in every religion, in every generation, even in every period of history have had.  These moments have made me feel very connected to God, but also to humanity.  Our humanity links us together in such a massive way.

I could blog on and on.  I could write about the issues that divide us and how trivial they are to the real problems we face; but more words on a page won’t change a thing.  I do believe in some words that can change everything though – words that if applied, regardless of your religion or lack of religion, can bring us all back together.  The power in these words are not that they direct actions for the masses – but for the individual.

Change starts with me.

The words are from St. Paul to the church in Colossus, and I hope, regardless of what you believe, that you can see the powerful truth in them…

“…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

That is a personal goal for me.  I desire unity, not only within the church, but with my fellow human beings.  “Brother” and “sister” should not be words that are reserved for people who share my belief structures.  Truth be told, I have a brother and a sister in real life – and we OFTEN disagree – but we never lose our familial bond.  We never lose our unity.

I, for one, refuse to live separate anymore.  In all things I say and do, I will show compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  I will bear with those I disagree with, and forgive those who wrong me (even if they don’t deserve it).  And above everything else, I will love without condition.  And I will do these things regardless of who you are, what you believe, or how you live. I may not be able to change the world – but I can change the “world” around me.

I will do these things because you are my brothers and my sisters.

I hope that some of you will join with me and that someday, we can share some of those “holy” moments together.  I imagine that, as we learn to live in unity, more and more of God’s holiness will break through, and we’ll have more and more of those overwhelming, awe inspiring moments to share.

Now, back to “wrassling” with some stuff.

Wrestling With Marriage

599499_10152720592175121_1641852240_nI started writing this about two weeks ago as author and pastor, Rob Bell, came out in support of homosexual marriage. (Read about it here.) Then this week the US Supreme Court considered the same issue – and boy, oh boy, did social media ever blow up.  Pink equal signs popped up all over Facebook and Twitter, posted by supporters of marriage equality.  These were swiftly followed by Christians posting red crosses in retaliation.  Debates ensued, and to be honest, I was appalled by much of the derogatory and stereotype driven attacks launched by some of my fellow believers.  That is a whole ‘notha post…

602090_558674541688_682346995_nI know what you may be thinking – but this post is not about homosexuality.  I plan on writing about this in the coming days, but still have to get my ducks in a row on that one.  Instead, this dust-up over marriage equality has me thinking about the very institute of marriage.  I have been asking myself some questions as I try to come to grips with what it is that I actually believe.

This is a post about process – how I am struggling to come to a decision myself.  It is not meant to sway your opinion to mine, nor to give you answers.  It is solely intended to show you how I process information in light of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  In light of my last post  (Room To Wrestle) my hope is to show people that Christians can think, and reason, and struggle – that we aren’t all closed minded, brainwashed fundamentalists.  So – deep breath – here goes… (this could be loooong)

What does the Bible say about marriage?

As it should be for Christians struggling with any issue like this, the Bible is the first and primary source we go to.  If you are not a Christian, I don’t expect you to agree with this – but those who follow Christ submit themselves to the authority of scripture first and foremost.  The Bible does give some directives on marriage.  As I consider those directives, I am always thinking about context of the passages, intended audience, and (this is the big one) how equally we apply those scriptures today.

To be fair, the Bible never gives a direct command that marriage is a male/female union – but it is STRONGLY inferred.  When the Bible speaks of marriage it is always in the male/female context, but not always equivalent to marriage as we view it today.  Culturally, Old Testament marriages were arranged by parents and the marriage was done without the participation, sanctioning, or approval of religious leaders.  Marriage was neither a civil nor religious union – they were private affairs.  Once married however,  a couple had numerous religious directives to follow.

Old Testament laws and examples often treat marriage like an exchange of property, and in some instances, a result of the conquests of war.  There are plenty of examples of men of God having concubines, and multiple examples of polygamy.  In Deuteronomy 22 a command is even given that a virgin who is raped must marry her rapist (after he pays her father 50 sheckels).  In Exodus 21 a slave owner can force male and female slave into marital relationships.

Needless to say – those concepts of marriage would not fly with the masses today.

The New Testament also talks about marriage.  Jesus spoke out against divorce except in cases of marital infidelity and said that to remarry after a divorce is to commit adultery. His directions on divorce are some of the most clear-cut, strongly stated directives on marriage in the whole of scripture.  He also stated that, for those who could do it, it was better to remain unmarried.  This is a sentiment echoed by Paul in his letters.  Paul writes about marriage roles with the man being the head of the household and the woman being submissive to the man, and that believers should not marry unbelievers.

Just like the Old Testament, these are not marriage directives that we fully apply even within the church today.  Also, there are many Old and New Testament directives that we write off due to cultural relevancy and intended audience.  To think that there is not room for interpretation is a pretty prideful statement and would call into question the places where we do use these interpretive tools.  It at least deserves our consideration.

So where does that leave me?  Well, it leaves me wondering.  I wonder how we (Christians) can be so outspoken about defending the sanctity and Biblical standard of marriage on this singular issue of homosexuality – and yet ignore just about every example and directive given by the Bible in regards to marriage.  Pastors regularly marry believers to unbelievers.  Divorce rates in the church mirror those outside of the church, many of those being for reasons other than infidelity.  We regularly allow and actually officiate marriage ceremonies for divorcees.  So I ask myself, how sacred do we really hold marriage?  How diligently do we apply scriptural guidance and follow scriptural examples on marriage?

Fortunately, in my heritage at least, after we approach scripture, we turn to tradition, reason, and experience.

What does history/tradition say about marriage?

The institution of marriage predates recorded history and is evident in cultures all around the world – with each culture holding its own traditions and definitions.  The first recorded marriage contracts date to nearly 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.  Needless to say, marriage in its varied forms has existed outside of Judeo-Christian cultures for thousands of years.

The Roman empire’s views and traditions of marriage dominated much of Western Civilization until the rise of Christianity.  In pre-Christian Rome, marriages were personal agreements that did not need the approval of either government or religion.  Marriage ceremonies took many forms – from informal unions involving no ceremony, to more elaborate affairs, thrown by those who could afford it, complete with witnesses and priests .

The Decretum

The Decretum

The rise of Christianity in the Roman empire brought with it changes to the Roman views of marriage with scripture becoming the defining ethic.  In 1143 AD a Benedictine monk named Gratian formalized marriage for the church in his law textbook, Decretum Gratiani.  This work formed the foundation for the Christian view of marriage throughout the 12th century. In 1215 the Catholic church declared marriage to be one of its seven sacraments (an outward and visible sign of divine grace), but it wasn’t until the 16th century that they declared that weddings should be performed in public, by a priest, and in front of a witness.  At this period in history the Roman Catholic church was both the predominant religious and governing body in the world. Because of this, marriage was legislated by both the church and the government because for all intents and purposes – they were one and the same.  Marriage as a sacrament was rejected by the protestant church (sadly in my opinion) – but the tradition of the church marriage was upheld through the split.

In modern church culture we recognize the marriages of people of our own faith as well as the marriages of people of different faiths and people of no faiths.  We recognize marriages that are performed by an ordained member of the clergy, a justice of the peace, the captain of a ship, or any other licensed secular official. We recognize marriages that have nothing to do with a commitment made before God.

So here is where I am with this – Marriage is historically and traditionally a very diverse thing.  It has existed and still exists outsides of the confines and definitions of the Christian church.  We recognize those non-church defined marriages as legitimate marriages.  That leads me to two deeper questions:

Who owns marriage?

Obviously, as Christians, we believe that ultimately God is sovereign over marriage.  He “owns” it.  The problem is that not everyone recognizes the same god as we do.  There are even those who recognize no god at all.  As Christians, we should be diligent in being obedient to God in all things, including marriage.  The question though is do we have the right to force obedience on those who share different beliefs than us?

The fact that government is involved in marriages at all is a HUGE part of the problem.  The government has asserted authority (ownership) over defining and legislating marriage.  In essence, this seizure of marriage by the government removes any sacredness from marriage and makes it totally about a legal contact – a right that is given and withheld based on the government definition.  Our government in the US was designed and purposed for protecting the rights of the people.

I’ve never understood how people can fight so vigorously to defend personal rights that affect them, and fight with the same vigor to have the government withhold rights from those they disagree with.  A government that withholds rights is a scary thing and the practice of denying rights a very slippery slope.

So if not government, then what about the church?  If marriages are taking place all over the world with different definitions and by different means, and they have been for thousands and thousands of years, does the church really “own” the right to now impose its definition on everyone, regardless of what they believe personally?

Let’s be clear, declaring what we believe and forcing people to live by our beliefs are different things.

I would argue that church “owns” the right to define marriage by Biblical standards in as much as we are talking about marriage between those who submit to the authority of God and his Word.  This “ownership” does not extend to defining marriage for the entirety of the world’s population.  We are called to be influencers of culture, but not to be slave-masters of it.

The reality is that modern marriage has become a three-fold thing (at least in modern western culture).  There is the element of marriage as a legal contract legislated by a government.  There is the element of marriage as a binding and uniting oath before God.  There is the element of a personal contract between two individuals.  Each of these elements are influenced by different motivations and purposes and submit to different authorities. They each are really completely different things.

If I can accept that, practically speaking, marriage has both secular and sacred elements then I have to ask…

Can the church practice what it believes to be true/right while also allowing freedom to those who disagree?

The question all this leads to for me is this – “Is it possible for the church to operate within its own definitions of marriage – to apply its marital standards to people who adhere to its teaching – while also allowing others freedom to operate according to their beliefs?”.

Don’t we already do this is many other areas?  Doesn’t God operate this way with humanity?

The Bible lays out guidelines that followers of God should adhere to in marriage – and thus the Christian church should follow those guidelines. Other faiths have different guidelines and standards that they apply to their marriages – and we accept that people of those faiths operate within those guidelines even if/when they differ from our Christian traditions.  If a church or religion does not want to extend the “sacrament” of marriage to someone who cannot or will not adhere to those standards, then they should have the right to do that in adherence to their guiding statutes.

If we believe that last statement to be true, then shouldn’t we also believe that our standards shouldn’t apply to everyone else? A church/religion can take a stand for what it believes in while also allowing others to exercise freedoms – God exemplifies this in how he acts/interacts with mankind throughout all of history.

I am in no way saying that the church shouldn’t stand up for what it believes in – but as I see it, what we talk about when we talk about marriage and what the government talks about when it talks about marriage, are not the same thing.  We may be using the same word to describe it – but they are separate concepts.

Finally – this leads me to wonder – how in the world can we argue when we aren’t even talking about the same thing?  No wonder we get nowhere in the argument.  Christians are arguing to defend their faith from a perceived attack (yup, whole ‘notha post needed for that one), while those supporting gay marriage are arguing against a government that withholds a freedom from millions of people. Totally different debates there…

For me, this issue isn’t as simple as “The Bible said it, I believe it, end of story.”  There’s too much room for interpretation of scripture in this; and too much diversity in belief and practice throughout our history and tradition to write it off that easily.  It is something that we all need to research and struggle with.  I just wonder if there isn’t a common ground that can be reached –  a place where the church says, “This is what we believe and why we believe it.  We hope you believe it too, but if not, well then, we love you anyway.”  And somewhere in that statement is a freedom for people to decide how they want to live, not have it mandated or shoved down their throat by a church or government action.

I wouldn’t respond well to that if I were on the receiving end.  I would wager that you wouldn’t either.

No matter where your wrestling leads you, I hope you will always operate out of love, seek first to understand rather than to be understood, pursue peace, be kind, and always give grace.

That was heavy – so I leave you with this…

Not That Different…

I was reading in 1 Corinthians 12 this week about how we are one body made up of many parts.  It is the idea that the church is supposed to be a place with incredible diversity that functions with incredible unity.  Parts come in all shapes and size, colors and design.  The functions of these parts are equally diverse.  Somehow, in the midst of all this diversity, unity is achieved.

The unity of the human body comes from a singular purpose – the betterment of the body.  In the context of this scripture this relates to the functioning of the church.  It is a truly beautiful thing when it happens.

I can’t help but wonder how much more beautiful it would be if we applied this concept to humanity in general.

We live in a world where our diversity segregates us on both macroscopic and microscopic levels.  Think about it – we tend to separate ourselves by race, religion, economy, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and politics.  We separate ourselves on issues – pro-life or pro-choice, pro gun or pro gun control, conservative or liberal, and countless other divisions.  This list of segregations go on and on.  We surround ourselves with people who think like us, act like us, and often, even look like us.  We manufacture groups of “us” and “them” We just believe that we are far too different to ever function in unity.  The only interactions between “us” and “them” is in arguments.  (Thank you Facebook.) No minds are changed, no compromises made, and no resolution achieved.  Each segment looks out for its own interests, concerned with meeting its own needs, functioning in ways that serve only its purposes.

It is a flailing mass of body parts. No wonder it feels like no one is getting anywhere.

It is easy to be this way when everything is an “issue”.  Issues are faceless hordes of mindless zombies that have no heart and soul.  Issues are stats on a page informed by our own limited world views and experiences.  Issues are media-fed stereotypes that feed on our fears.  They allow no space for humanity, no room for diversity of thought, and ultimately, remove the need for true communication and understanding.

Zombies make for good TV – but they are not real.  There is no such thing as an “issue”.

What is real? People.

Hidden behind the facade of “issues” are real live human beings – people with hearts and souls. These are individuals with stories and experiences of their own.  These are people that feel the way they feel and believe what they believe not because they are stupid or ignorant, but because of their unique situation in life.  They have been through things that you have not and been influenced and informed by a different environment.  Behind every issue are people who just want to be understood.

Behind the issue of illegal immigration are masses of hard working mothers and fathers just trying to escape violence and give their children a better life.

Behind the issue of abortion are countless women dealing with trauma and uncertainty.

Behind the issue of welfare are families stuck in a cycle of poverty that they lack the resources break free of.

Behind the issue of the war on terrorism are the faceless innocent victims killed in remote villages and the families of mourning soldiers.

Behind religious debates are people raised up with a faith as a core part of their existence.

There are people wrapped up inside every issue:

  • Gun Control
  • Same Sex Marriage
  • Foreign Aid
  • Health Care Reform
  • COUNTLESS OTHER “ISSUES”

Divided by circumstances and issues – yes.  But we are also united by something greater than that which divides us.  We are united by our humanity. After all, are we really that different?  I found this quote from Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi that sums this idea up beatifully…416850_290471434354171_217514361649879_803039_217490730_n

This morning in Iran a mother woke up and fed her children breakfast before sending them off to school.  A liberal democrat got dressed and headed out the door to work, hoping to make enough to make this month’s mortgage payment.  A Muslim man sipped coffee while talking sports with his buddies.  A card carrying NRA member bought milk and bread on the way home from work.  A welfare recipient father played catch with his daughter in the backyard.  An illegal immigrant family sat down for a family dinner. A homosexual couple laughed at an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Take away the issues, and I think we may be more alike than we realize.  Maybe there is no us and them – maybe it is just US?

What causes division amongst US is not the lack of sameness – it is the lack of desire to understand.  Understanding takes more effort than arguing.  It means swallowing pride, listening (REALLY LISTENING), practicing empathy, and sometimes admitting we are wrong. Mind you, understanding and agreeing are not the same thing.  Understanding is about information that broadens our perspective, informs our opinions, and more than anything – tempers our attitudes and tongues with compassion.  Understanding may not lead to agreement, but it does lead to respect. Together, respect and understanding breed unity.

I wonder what we could accomplish as a body of humanity if we functioned with respect and understanding?  What world problems would be annihilated?  What injustices would be conquered and what wrongs made right?

To become that sort of world starts with me.  It starts with you.  It starts as individual humans decide to get past issues and build relationships with those on the other side.  It builds as we stop investing ourselves in argument and instead invest ourselves in fostering environments of respect.  It thrives when we lay down our passions for “rightness” and pick up humility, compassion, and sacrifice.  Argue less and engage more.  Withhold attacks and extend peace. Think people – not issues! It changes everything when my world becomes less about me, and more about you.

We are not that different.

High Five

I promise – no long post today.  No rants or rages.  I just had my spirits lifted by an anonymous stranger while sitting in my local Panera.  I received thumbs up,  a rousing encouragement, and – get this – a legit high-five from a total stranger!  It is a story too good not to tell!

Crazy man you ask?  (Him, not me you cotton headed ninny muggins)

Nope.  I was just sitting here, by myself, reading the Word and this guy walks by on his way out.  He does a double take as he passes – stops – turns around and comes back. The following conversation transpires…

Him – Great job brother!  You’re doing it right! (he says with both thumbs up) Are you on fire?

Me – Oh – what?

Him – Are you on fire for the Lord!  On fire because you are in the word!

Me(laughing) Oh! Absolutely!

Him – Keep it up!  The kingdom needs you!  (he then smiles, high fives me, and walks out the door).

A breath of fresh air to start what I thought was going to be a hectic day.  A pep talk to start the morning.  All wrapped up in a smile and a high-five.  It has challenged me to be an encouragement for those fighting the good fight – to lift up spirits with a simple kind word and smile.

God’s people should be walking, talking, living high-fives!

I Am Not A Wonderful Counselor

You can keep the hats… and the tie

Pastors wear multiple hats, many of which we aren’t thoroughly qualified to wear.  People come to me for advice and/or guidance on parenting, addictions, relationships, and much more.  How in the world I completed my ordination requirements with only a minimal amount of training in counseling baffles me.  The only real advice every given to me on the matter of counseling was, “Don’t get in over your head, and always know when to refer someone to an expert.”  While I understand the importance of this advice, it has its own problems.  First, people are often (wrongly) looking to me to be the expert.  I think most pastors feel and succumb to that pressure at some time or another. Secondly, I am almost always “in over my head”.  I am not an expert on parenting, relationships, emotional disorders, addictions, marriage, or really anything else.  I find this to be especially true when it comes to premarital counseling.

There are tons of resources out there for pastors engaging in premarital counseling – and they are helpful.  They guide a couple in discussion on everything from goals and finances, to sex, parenting, and communication.  While I am grateful for these helps – I often go into these counseling sessions, just hoping the couple doesn’t want to veer too away from the topics and guidance of the book, lest the ill fit of my counselor hat be exposed.  Fortunately, in the couple of dozen weddings I have done this far in my ministry, everyone has pretty much stayed the course.

Until now…

I recently started premarital counseling for an older couple who have lived together for the past 8-years.  I know everyone brings their own baggage into relationships – but let’s just say, this couple’s baggage is more like freight on an ocean-going cargo ship.  I knew from the first words out of their mouths that I was in over my head.  After a couple of sessions, I had no doubt that they truly loved each other, but was completely perplexed as to how I could best help them prepare for marriage.  I quickly discerned that on top of problems with communication,they were dealing with deeply rooted issues.

Blame

Selfishness

Anger

Holding on to past hurts

Of course these are some of the real problems they were facing – but they had them so wrapped up in singular issues that they couldn’t really distinguish them.  They wanted to solve issues and incidents instead of digging deep into the real heart of the matter.  Even more troubling was their unwillingness to be introspective.  Each wanted only to deal with how to fix the other person.  When I would confront one of them on a matter, they would feel like I was taking sides, while the other would feel victorious – and vice versa.  I felt stymied and like we were talking in circles – and I left each session well beyond frustrated.  The prep for these weekly sessions had taken up the bulk of my thoughts:

Was there some magic speech I could give that would turn a light on for them?

Was there some poignant exercise we could do together that would make it all click?

Was there a book or aid I could get into their hands that would solve all their problems?

I stressed over this.  I thought long and hard, and researched for hours on end.  I read through countless resource books on counseling and relationships, sifted through dozens of websites, and listened to more than a few podcasts from relational counselors.  What I found out was what I already knew – I was ill equipped to help them deal with their junk.

Everything I told them, they questioned.  Every piece of advice I would give made them feel like I was taking sides, or that I just didn’t understand their point of view.   One party even sought out another counselor for themselves – telling him that I “didn’t have their back.” I truly feared going into our latest session together – so much so that last night I did something that may shock you…

I prayed.

And God answered.

His answer was so simple, I was ashamed of myself for not thinking of it.  Use the Word.  The phrase that rolled in my mind all night was, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” It hit me, I didn’t have to be an expert on any counseling issue – I just had to present them with the model for relationships that God has given us, and allow the Word of God to work in their lives.  They could argue with me and throw my inadequacy as a counselor in my face.  They could say I didn’t understand or that I was biased for or against either of them.  But they couldn’t dispute the truth of the Word of God.

So in our last session, all we did was read the Word together.

We read from Luke 6:37-42 and talked about the importance of living by the standard of expectation we set for our spouse and about the importance of examining our own heart and motives before we identify what is wrong in the other person.

We read from 1 Corinthians 13 (the Love chapter) – and talked about the model of real. unfailing love, and how we are required to live that out NO MATTER WHAT – NO EXCUSES.

It was like a light turned on for both of them.  This wasn’t some young inexperienced counselor trying to psychoanalyze them into relational health. This was THE Word of God speaking light into the darkness of their relationship.  For the first time, we had conversations where each of them truly listened to what the other was saying – and even if they didn’t agree, they reacted in a way that was respectful, controlled, and striving to understand.  One of them even stated, “Man, there’s just no way around this is there?  No excuses left.”

Most importantly, we all came to the agreement that none of this was about solving issues; but that it is all about personal spiritual transformation.  Solving issues only solves things until the next issue comes along; but spiritual transformation makes dealing with each issue in a Spirit directed, love-filled way possible, and ultimately creates the healthy relationships we all strive for.  We have a long way to go together – but we are moving forward – not through the latest and greatest counseling resource – but solely through the power and guidance of God’s Word.

ALL of this because of the power of God’s Word.

I am not a wonderful counselor, but today I learned that I don’t have to be. My job  is to introduce couples to the Wonderful Counselor through the power of the Word.  I can do nothing on my on – my words are empty and powerless; but God, through His Word, changes lives.  Never again will I don the hat of the counselor – it doesn’t really suit me.  BUT – I will keep wearing the one that says Pastor – and I will shepherd people towards Him.

Lord, I am sorry for forgetting

How truly powerful Your Word is,

How it speaks to us

How it guides us

How it challenges us

How it transforms us

Thank You Father

For Your life-giving Word

That is a lamp unto our feet

And a light unto our path.

Sucky Love (great title, huh?)

From leftofselfcenter.com

I had every intent of blogging about baseball today.  I was excited about it even.  Then today happened – and I’m just not feeling it.  I was purposefully trying to stay away from blogging about anything regarding my faith this week – but when living out that faith consumes your life, it is hard to think of anything else.

Today I found myself wondering why love is so hard to grasp.  Love is an overused word that in our modern culture – is cheap and meaningless (or at least it seems).  The Biblical example of love – the kind of love that God is – the kind of love that Jesus exemplified – the kind of love that we are called to live out – is, for some perplexing reason, very very hard.  What perplexes me more is why in the world is it so hard for Christians?

If we believe in Jesus, if we have been educated and bear witness to the sacrificial love he exemplified for us – love that gave up the glorious splendor of heaven, love that bore our afflictions, love that sacrificially gave up life – then how in the world can we not get the point?  The point is that we are called to live out that love in this world.

That love looks like sacrifice.

That love looks like humility.

That love looks like forgiveness.

That love looks like suffering.

That love looks like reconciliation.

That love looks like redemption.

And far too often, that love doesn’t look like the people who are supposed to look and act like Christ.

We give up on relationships far too easily.  It is easier to break it off than work through the hard stuff.

We forgive far too infrequently – and rarely without condition.  “I’ll forgive her – but only if…”

We value our “rightness” over our relationships.

We are quick to defend ourselves, but slow to drop our weapons

We are concerned with our own suffering and unwilling to suffer for the benefit of another.

We seek personal justice rather than holistic reconciliation.

We remember the wrongs done to us – but are blind to the wrongs we do to others.

We are long for position and despise submission.

We earnestly point out the wrongs in others, but become enraged when our flaws are revealed.

I could go on and on – but you get the point.  I am guilty of it. You are guilty of it. We ALL are guilty of it – and to make matters worse that’s all true with the people that are EASY to love – friends, family, neighbors.  If we screw this “easy love” up so badly – how in the world can we ever even hope to adhere to God’s command that we should love even those who despise us?

I have so many relationships that are in shambles at the moment – relationships that I value, that I cherish, that I am searching desperately for ways to mend. They are in shambles for one reason and one reason only – we suck at this love stuff. Not THEY suck and I have it down -but WE suck at this love stuff.  That perplexes me because the alternative to love is hate – and that carries some painful baggage – baggage that not only destroys relationships – but ultimately tears the fabric of creation apart.

Courtesy flickr.com

Why is the world such a wreck? Because WE suck at this love stuff.

Why do people suffer? Because WE suck at this love stuff.

Why are there poor and hungry people? Because WE suck at this love stuff.

Yet – most people agree, Christian and otherwise – that love is the answer.  (Not just in the ’60’s either).

You would think knowing that love solves everything would be motivation enough for people of all creeds, cultures, colors, genders, politics, and economies to figure out how to get it right.  But again – WE SUCK at this love stuff.  If we truly believe that in the end, love wins – then bring on the end!

And Christians (all 10 fingers pointing at myself here) – we of all people should be ashamed.  We claim intimate knowledge of the God who is LOVE and relationships with His Son who is LOVE incarnate and we suck just as bad (if not more) as the rest of ’em. The truth is – if we are truly followers of Christ – or “little Christ’s” as the name implies – then we should be defined by the very characteristics that defined him.   More than anything else, His defining characteristic is love – supreme, perfect, sacrificial, never-failing love.  Love that is without defense, quick to forgive, seeking reconciliation even at the risk of our pride and/or rightness – love that gives up everything – EVERYTHING for no other reason than love itself. It’s a love that doesn’t make sense – passionate, wild, unrelenting.

I want that kind of love.  Love that is patient and kind.  Love that is neither self-seeking nor easily angered.  Love that always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres – that NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER FAILS.

So I am praying that God would perfect His love in me – because left to my own devices, I am a failure in love.  I can’t fix other people, but I am learning more and more that I am broken.  I need God to fix me.

Father, perfect your love in me.

Help me to love like you.

Unconditionally.

Passionately.

Wildly.

Unrelenting.

With humility and forgiveness.

With patience and trust.

With sacrifice and submission.

With a desire for reconciliation

And a purpose of redemption.

A servant to all

A master to none

Defenseless yet strong

Enduring

Persevering

Unfailing.

Help me to love like you.