Friday, June 30, 2006

Letting them go

I can't sleep. The reason is that I'm thinking about my kids. I call them "kids," but they are adults now. My eldest turned 29 two days ago and that, I believe, is one reason I can't help thinking about them, missing them, loving them. It might also have something to do with my youngest son landing his first job, getting his drivers license, and preparing for his final year of high school. It hits me: I have to let them go.

It didn't help that I was listening to a song by Andrew Peterson a few minutes ago. It's a song called "For the Love of God," and in the song he sings about driving all night to Pittsburgh with his little boys sleeping in the back seat next to their sister. As I listened to that lyric I thought back to all the trips we took in the family car when the kids were little. Oh, those trips felt so hard and insufferably long at the time! Now they seem like the stuff of heaven itself. Frozen in my mind is that rear-view-mirror-shaped snapshot of them in the "way back" (our term for the rear compartment of our station wagon). Those were the days before parents strapped their kids into car seats and safety belts, so on long trips we'd usually spread out a blanket or a sleeping bag in the rear and let them stretch out for the night. One of the kids would listen to a Kids' Praise tape on her Fisher-Price cassette player; another would read by flashlight; the other two would be fast asleep.

My wife & I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in a few weeks. All but 11 months of our 30 years have been years of childrearing. We also had two miscarriages, so we will meet two more of our children in heaven. There were times, of course, when we thought our kids would never grow up. Now my heart aches to hear the sound of children playing in the bedroom upstairs.

But, at 52, I am actually in a better place. I am incredibly blessed to be the father of four wonderful, unique, godly people. Each of my children is devoted to Christ and loves the church. Three are married, and I love their spouses. My oldest has two children and one more on the way.

And what is truly amazing is that we all love each other.

My wife & I have the privilege now of walking with our sons and daughters through important and faith-stretching times of change. Rebecca and her husband Scott (pictured with their kids above) will be moving in July to Gulfport, Mississippi, where Scott will be pastoring two Presbyterian churches. Also in July, David and his wife Lindsay (above) will be moving to Tallahassee for law school. Jennifer and her husband Tim (shown at Jenn's graduation from college) will celebrate their 1st anniversary in August and Jenn will start work on her MBA. And Michael will be looking at colleges this year and, Lord willing, heading off about this time next year to who-knows-where.

Phil Keaggy, one of my favorite Christian artists, has a song entitled "Blessed Be the Ties." In that song he talks about the irony of family life: the hard things of marriage and parenting turn out to be the sweetest parts of life. Here are some of the lyrics to that song:

Out of the single life into the family way,
So many scripted lines, so many roles to play;
Ever a pressure pressing, ever an undertow,
Why do the ties you've chosen slowly pull you low?

Over the things we love into the still unknown,
I had a dream last night I was finally left alone;
Nothing to tie me down, no one to kiss goodnight,
Never again to feel your whisper pull me to your side.

And oh, an emotion cries:
Oh, sing blessed be the ties.

Amen, I say...blessed be the ties.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Talk about a wrong turn...

Today I was supposed to meet a couple of guys for lunch at a restaurant near the Florida Mall. I've been to the Florida Mall a million times. I always take the same route to get there from my side of Orlando. But today I thought I'd be different and follow the Mapquest- recommended route. All was well until I was almost at the restaurant. Mapquest said turn right at this particular intersection. I turned right, but it was not the "right" right. Before I knew it I was on the Florida Turnpike. There was no exit in sight to let me turn around. So I drove for miles, all the way to I-4. Then I had to exit on the John Young Parkway, drive south to Sand Lake Road, go east to Orange Blossom Trail, then south to the restaurant. I don't even want to know how many miles I had to drive in a circle like that...all because I took the wrong right turn.

I think of Proverbs 14:12 - "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death."

Monday, June 26, 2006

If only...

This week I am thinking again about contentment. (For previous reflections on that subject, go here, here, and here.) I will be preaching on Philippians 4:10-13 this coming Sunday. In that passage of Scripture Paul says, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation" (vs. 12).

I am aware in myself of a constant tendency to think in terms of "If only's."

  • If only I didn't have so many bills to pay, I could live a lot more freely.
  • If only I were younger, I could do so much more for the Kingdom.
  • If only my kids lived closer, I could play a more important role in my grandkids' lives.
  • If only Orlando had more culture, I could enjoy living in Florida!
  • If only I didn't have to wait in this line, I could get a lot more done today.
  • If only my parents had been more affectionate, I would be a lot more secure and confident.
  • If only . . .
As I think about my "if only's," I see that they all serve to excuse me from doing something to redeem my present situation. When Paul wrote the book of Philippians, his situation was miserable. He was languishing in a Roman prison, unable to move about freely, chained 24 hours a day to a Roman guard. I wonder what prison food was like...probably horrible. He had no certainty about what he would wake up to the next day. He could be set free, or he could be executed. He had little contact with the people he loved.

In spite of his circumstances, Paul found reason to be content, "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." I get upset when somebody tracks dirt into our living room, for crying out loud.

Why is that? Why is contentment so elusive? Because I am seeking contentment in the wrong things. I figure that I will be content when there's plenty of money in the bank, the grass is mowed, people around me are happy, the votes in Congress go my way, and my iPod still has battery life. All those things are transient, here one moment and gone the next. Paul's contentment was rooted in things that never change: God's love and enabling grace. He says, "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

So I find that I must train my heart to find contentment in God. Not in things of this world, not in people (even those I love the most), not in my performance or my ministry or my possessions or my dreams of the future. Some of the things that help me find contentment in God are the following:

  • Reading great Christian classics. For example, right now I am leading a group through Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. I love that book for its lessons on contentment.

  • Meditating on some of the great old hymns, like this one by John Newton (1779):
Though troubles assail us and dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail us and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The promise assures us, "The Lord will provide."

The birds, without garner or storehouse, are fed;
From them let us learn to trust God for our bread.
His saints what is fitting shall ne'er be denied
So long as 'tis written, "The Lord will provide."

When Satan assails us to stop up our path,
And courage all fails us, we triumph by faith.
He cannot take from us, though oft he has tried,
This heart-cheering promise, "The Lord will provide."

  • Turning off noise. I find that sometimes it helps NOT to listen to talk radio or music while driving, but simply to enjoy the quiet. I also enjoy just sitting on our back porch and enjoying God's world - its sounds, its sights, its peacefulness.
  • Recalling God's faithfulness in the past. When I think of all God has done, I cannot but be more confident and content in what He is doing now. Particularly, when I remember what God did to save me from my sin, bless me with a wonderful wife and family, and heal me from wounds of the past, I almost immediately feel more content.
  • Praying. It helps me when I take my discontent to God in prayer, confessing it as idolatry and ingratitude, but at the same time freely expressing my longings and desires to Him in some detail. It's important not to suppress our cravings. They are, as C. S. Lewis said, signs that we were made for another world. Carnell writes, "That we are haunted by unquenchable longings points to a goal for that longing -- in eternity if not in time." There is such a thing as a "holy discontent." When expressed in prayer, our longings and desires can actually draw us closer to God, the Source of true contentment.

What enables you to be content?


Car insurance - part deux

Well, I spoke too soon. Turns out Geico found a couple of things on our driving record that I'd forgotten about, and it sent our premium up a good bit from what they told me last week. The good news (still) is that I saved a bunch of money on my car insurance, but not near as much as I thought I did. Why is it that a small claim 2 years ago for an accident that was NOT my fault affects my car insurance premium today??? What acts of penance to I have to perform to get this off my record???

Friday, June 23, 2006

Car insurance bad news-good news

I knew it was going to happen, but I didn't think it would be this bad. Our son Michael got his driver's license last week so I added him onto our insurance policy. Our 6-month premium jumped from $1050 to $2518!! I couldn't believe it. Let that be a warning to all you whose kids are approaching driving age!

I was all depressed and then I thought I should shop around and see if I could find a better rate. So I went to Geico and found out I could save a bunch of money on my car insurance! Now it's only going to cost me $1286 for 6 months. Whew! what a relief.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Abandoned to God

My wife and I are in a small group at our church. Lately we've been studying Larry Crabb's book, The Pressure's Off. I'm not a huge fan of the book, but there are some good and important things in it that Christians (like me) don't spend enough time considering.

Like abandoning yourself to God. That was the main topic of our discussion last night. Larry Crabb says that to abandon yourself to God is like "jumping off a cliff into a dark abyss supported only by the rope of God's love" (pg. 187).

We came up with various ideas of what it means to abandon yourself to God. It means to trust God when everything around you seems to argue against it. It means to bring your will into conformity to God's will. It means to surrender your rights, your hopes, your dreams, and to accept who you are and where you are as God's plan for your life. I suggested that it means the same thing as "abandon ship" does to a sailor: to leave your place of false safety and jump out into the better, safer, but unpredictable arms of God. Or perhaps it's like bungee jumping: forsaking the bridge and hanging on with white knuckles to the goodness and wisdom of God, not knowing where He will take you but staking everything on His trustworthiness.

It's easy to write about this, but this topic takes us to one of the hardest places we could possibly go. Self-abandonment is 100% antithetical to common sense and worldly wisdom. It's painful and hard. Some of you reading this have been there. You know what it's like to have nothing and no one but God.

Self-abandonment was the way of the psalmist who wrote:

"My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation." (Psalm 62:1-2)

"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you." (Psalm 63:1, 3)

Listen to that again: "Your love is better than life." That sentence suggests that not to abandon oneself to God is to settle for less than life, less than true joy.

Francois Fenelon (1651-1715) was appointed archbishop in the French town of Cambrai in 1695. Later he was denounced by the Pope for "having loved God too much." He had this to say about the joys and pleasures of those who abandon themselves to God:

"They sacrifice themselves, but to what they love most. They suffer, but they want to suffer, and they prefer the suffering to every false joy. Their bodies endure sharp pain, their imagination is troubled, their spirit droops in weakness and exhaustion, but their will is firm and quiet in their deepest and most intimate self. Happy are they who give themselves to God! . . . placing our will entirely in the hands of God, we want only what God wants, and thus we find his consolation in faith, and consequently hope in the midst of all sufferings. What folly to fear to be too entirely God's! It is to fear to be too happy. It is to fear to love God's will in all things. It is to fear to have too much courage in the crosses which are inevitable, too much comfort in God's love, and too much detachment from the passions which make us miserable. So let us scorn earthly things, to be wholly God's."

What a risky prayer it is, to ask God to help us be wholly His. But, as Fenelon says, what foolishness not to! Let us not fear to be too happy. God's love is better than life. Let us scorn earthly things and "abandon ship" to be wholly God's.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Took my sons to "Sgt. Pepper" Saturday night

Every now and then, Hard Rock Live in Orlando puts on a "Classic Albums Live" concert featuring some - well, classic rock album - played song-for-song and note-for-note by talented musicians. This past Saturday I took my sons David and Michael to hear the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band album performed by a singing group that was backed up by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. It was great!

Sgt. Pepper, of course, is one of my favorite records (see my June 9 post) as well as an all-time rock music classic. I remember buying the LP as soon as it came out. I was 13. At first it was the strangest thing I'd ever heard, and nothing like the Beatles I had come to know and love. But the more I listened to Sgt. Pepper the more I loved it, and I love it still. The "Classic Albums Live" bunch did an amazing job reproducing the sounds and the feel of the music that helped shape me and the rest of my generation.

What was most moving to me Saturday night was not the music, however. It was the experience of taking my boys (ages 25 and 17) to hear songs that I first heard as a young 13-year old. They knew all the lyrics by heart, and could anticipate every change of key and tempo, because they love Sgt. Pepper too! Goes to show how in some ways the "generation gap" does not exist anymore. My kids love the same music I did when I was their age - and still do.

Music has been a strong link between my sons and me. I'm so thankful we have that in common. We're looking forward to the "Classic Albums Live" performance of the Beatles' White Album on September 1!

Friday, June 16, 2006

What husbands need most from their wives

Some married women out there are surprised to think that their husbands need something from them. I admit, many of us husbands act so cool, calm, and collected that our wives get the impression we don't need them for much beyond sex and a good meal every now and then. Women, I'll let you in on a secret: it's a facade. Inside, most of us are confused about who we are as men and crumbling under a deep sense of failure and inadequacy. We've learned a few tricks to keep those things well hidden and we invest a lot of energy in keeping up the act.

When I think of what husbands need most from their wives, I come up with two main things: respect and contentment. The first is something the wife gives her husband, and the second is something she is as a person, the spirit she radiates toward him and the rest of the world. As I talk with men, and as I listen to my own heart, I am convinced that these two things address the deepest needs of most men.
  • Husbands need respect because, as I said before, we are constantly struggling with feelings of self-doubt and failure. The curse God placed on the ground (Genesis 3:17-19) means that men must work hard for even a mediocre return. We've been designed for achievement and enterprise, but are frustrated by a world that does not cooperate with our plans. It is for this reason that God tells wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24). That word "submit" is hated and feared by many women today, but it shouldn't be. It doesn't mean letting your husband walk all over you. It doesn't mean having no opinions. As Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5:33, submit means "respect." Wives are to encourage, affirm, and (yes) admire their husbands. Every man is dying to know that he is competent and desirable, at least in the eyes of his wife. I can personally testify to the power of a wife's loving embrace and words of esteem at the end of a hard, draining day.
  • And husbands need their wives to have a tranquil, contented spirit. The apostle Peter tells women to develop "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:4). Yes, I know that the cover of Maxim magazine does not typically glorify gentle and quiet spirits. But men find irresistibly attractive a woman who is at peace within herself and who is confident and happy. A woman who loves life and accepts who she is and where God has placed her, is sexy. A man's world is filled with competition, injustice, stress, and responsibility. His wife has the incredible power to calm his heart simply by her own inner tranquility.
Now let's contrast these two things with what most husbands complain about when it comes to their wives. I've heard men say such things as:
  • "I can never do enough for my wife. I try to spend time with her and she says I need to work more around the house. I try to work harder and she says I ignore her. In her eyes, I'm always doing something wrong."
  • "My wife doesn't care about how she looks anymore. I come home, she's a mess, the house is a mess. What happened to the beautiful woman I married?"
  • "She's just like the people I work with: nag, nag, nag."
  • "My wife hasn't had a kind word for me in weeks."
As I talk with married couples, I find that many wives have developed the habit of being demanding and demeaning toward their husbands. Wives, this wears your man down to a pulp! It kills his heart. Just when he needs his wife to affirm him, she kicks him when he's down. Just when he needs her to calm him by her own tranquil spirit, she adds to his anxiety level and brings tension to an already stressed-out home. You may think that eventually your husband will get the message and give you what you're looking for. He will not; he will only move farther away.

Ladies, I cannot stress enough the power you have to make or break your husband. He is not as bulletproof as he appears.

So what can you do to both respect your husband and develop a gentler, quieter spirit? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Get seriously repentant about your controlling behavior. Ever since Genesis 3:16, wives' sinful propensity has been to "desire" - that is, desire to control - their husbands. Either by appearing weak and needy, or by being nagging and demanding. Get that plank out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck of sawdust from your husband's. (By the way, guys, Matthew 7:3 applies to us too.)

2) Every day, think of at least one thing you can affirm in your husband's character or activity, and tell him about it. Every now and then, write him a note or email thanking him for something he has done for you, for the family, for the world. Your husband will love knowing that one person thinks he's hot stuff. He's not hearing that from TV shows, from his boss and co-workers, or from his own tapes.

3) Look nice for him. Dress like a woman! Watch What Not to Wear on the Learning Channel and follow their instructions! (I know, I know. You think I'm a chauvinist. So be it. I'll take my hits.)

4) Live within your means. Stick to the family budget. Don't be someone who is constantly talking about what you don't have. Make the things that you do have last as long as possible. (Except clothes...see point #3!)

5) Read The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. You may not like Dr. Laura, but she's usually right...especially when it comes to what husbands need from their wives.

6) If you struggle with insecurity and feelings of inferiority...if you fear sex or have unhealthy associations with the subject...if you don't understand men or are not even sure you like men -- talk with someone who can help you get to the bottom of those things. There has got to be a qualified pastor, counselor, or therapist in your area who can walk you to the roots of such feelings. Be assured, these insecurities are keeping you from loving your husband with the abandon he needs and deserves. Don't put it off...you are damaging both your husband and yourself by running from your pain.

7) Last but not least, go to God. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). Your weakness as a wife is an invitation from God to draw near to Him and lean on Him. You will not succeed as a wife without a vital relationship with God. To enter that relationship, you must admit your sins and failings and trust - really trust - that Jesus died on the cross to save you and give you a new life.

Now that I've written about what husbands and wives need most from their spouse, tell me what you think. Do you agree? Disagree? Have any other angles that might help our readers?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

What wives need most from their husbands

It has been revealing to read the comments on my marriage posts (see my "Couples Counseling: A Retrospective"). They confirm a pattern I see again and again as I meet with couples. Generally, wives complain about their husbands being distant and detached, while husbands complain about their wives being demanding and demeaning. With those two pairs of "D" words guiding me, I will post my thoughts about what wives need most from their husbands, and what husbands need most from their wives. Let's start with the first of those two topics.

It seems to me that what wives need most from their husbands are two things: passion and forward-thinking leadership. Again and again I hear wives say things like:
  • "He's so content! Nothing I do or say upsets him. Sometimes I wish he'd get really angry, just so I know he's alive!"
  • "My husband doesn't take initiative with me; he just reacts."
  • "My husband is passionate about his work. He leads high-level meetings, he makes decisions affecting hundreds of people, he sets goals and has dreams for his company. Why can't he do things like that for our marriage?"
  • "I don't really matter to him. He would be just as happy without me."
  • "I wish my husband desired me like he did when we were dating. I'm worried that he's having an affair."
Comments like these from wives tell me that somewhere along the way, their husbands started retreating from them. Perhaps it was in reaction to their wives' unhappiness or nagging. Perhaps it was a learned response to their own insecurities. Whatever the reason, they are now detached and distant from their wives. In a word, they are passive. It's the sin of Adam, and it haunts every man in some way.

Husbands, our wives need us to be men of passion and leadership.
  • Passion not just when it comes to romance (although that would be wonderful), but passion about life in general. They want us to care deeply about issues facing the family (like school choices, family devotions, priorities, time commitments, a budget, home repair, and the like) as well as issues we ought to care about personally (like our own health, our hobbies, our commitment to God, church, and community).
  • And leadership, which does not mean ordering family members around and acting like you have it all figured out. Loving, Biblical leadership means anticipating conditions in the future and making sure the marriage is ready for those conditions. It means knowing your wife and helping her reach her fullest potential as a person in God's image. It means partnering with your wife to create goals and action plans for the future. It means making sure that the home is God-directed rather than focused in on itself.
One reason we men lack passion and demonstrate weak leadership in the home is that we've been told over and over again that men, and the things men care about, are bad. TV sitcoms constantly bash husbands for being chauvinistic, dumb, and insensitive. The feminist movement has made us feel that the preeminent values are tolerance, sensitivity, kindness, and dialogue. "Male" values like achievement, success, and conviction have been caricatured as so much Archie Bunkerism.

I'm not trying to get us men off the hook, but women need to understand that there are few positive role models of godliness for men. Most of us have no idea what God calls us to be or do.

Having said that, men, our wives are dying for us to care...to care about them and to care about important life issues. One reason they get demanding and demeaning is that there is a vacuum of passion and leadership in the home. They hate that. They need us to stand up and be men.

Here are a few suggestions for how you as a husband can provide passion and leadership in your marriage:

1) Tell your wife what you need her to do for you. Tell her what you want. This can be something as trivial as a movie you want to see on Friday night, or something as important as a career move you'd like to take some day. She will love knowing that you need her and are not self-sufficient.

2) Share your emotions with your wife. For most of us, this takes focused concentration. If you're like me, you don't even know your own emotional state much of the time. That's wrong! When you come home at the end of a work day, sit down and tell your wife what you thought and felt that day. Tell her about people who made you mad, things that got you excited, actions you took that you're proud of. She will love that you are revealing yourself to her. If she makes you angry, tell her so (without attacking her, of course). She needs to know that you respect yourself enough to stand up for yourself.

3) Date your wife. Imagine you are courting her again, and treat her special. You don't need me to spell this out for you. Listen, if you are not dating your wife, you are killing her heart. It's no wonder she has shut down ever so slowly. When it comes to sex, you've got to broaden your definition of the sex act. For your wife, sex starts when you wake up in the morning and doesn't end with your climax. Reach into your heart and find the romantic in you again.

4) Read John Eldredge's book, Wild at Heart. It will help you reconnect with your own heart and encourage you for being a man.

5) Research and plan (with your wife) an annual getaway for just the two of you. Spend some money on it. Or if you don't have much money, be creative. But take an annual retreat to have fun, to reflect together, and to look forward. Your wife will love knowing that you care enough about your marriage to make sure this happens at least once a year.

6) Initiate getting some marriage counseling. Almost all of the time, it is the wife who initiates this. It is the wife that reads the marriage books. It is the wife that begs her husband to join a men's group or get therapy. Men, that is intolerable. We should be the first ones to call the counselor. God says WE are the head of our homes. The job of the head is to take care of the rest of the body. If the body needs attention, the head is supposed to get it the help it needs. A good marriage counselor or pastor can help you succeed as a husband. Why delay?

7) Last but not least, go to God. The Bible says, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13). It also says, "For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him" (2 Chronicles 16:9). Your weakness as a husband is an invitation from God to draw near to Him and lean on Him. You will not succeed as a husband without a vital relationship with God. To enter that relationship, you must admit your sins and failings and trust - really trust - that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save you from those sins and give you a new life.

In my next post, I'll share my thoughts on what husbands need most from their wives. I invite your comments.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"Searching": My thoughts on Don Miller's book

In previous posts, I reflect on several chapters in Don Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. Overall I believe this is an important book for Christians to read. I don't agree with all of it. I think Don sets up a false dichotomy between the relational and the propositional, as if you have to choose one or the other. It's really "both-and." You have to know what you believe and why you believe it, not only who you believe. In John 8:32, Jesus did not say, "You will know me, and I will set you free." He said, "You will know the TRUTH, and the TRUTH will set you free."

In spite of this, Miller's book moved me to see Jesus and his love for people with greater clarity, to read the Bible with a fresh curiosity, and to look at evangelicalism with a more critical set of eyes.

If you want to read everything I wrote about Searching for God Knows What, here's a handy index (I invite your comments too!):

Searching for God Knows What
A Box of Letters
Community
Jesus
Wednesday's Word #1
Wednesday's Word #2
Evangelism
Examining the Heart

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Examining the heart

I read some more this morning in Don Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. In Chapter 13 ("Religion"), he says,

"...working out our salvation involves a very careful searching of the heart, asking time and again what we really mean by attending church, what we really mean by reading the Bible, what we really mean when we worship God" (pg. 204).

In the Bible God is constantly calling us to search our hearts. It says "test yourselves" (2 Corinthians 13:5). It says "Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord" (Lamentations 3:40). David knew how difficult it is to understand oneself; therefore he prayed, "Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind" (Psalm 26:2). One of the main things we're exhorted to do whenever we celebrate the Lord's Supper is examine ourselves before we eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28).

Like Miller, when I really examine my heart I wonder "how much of my faith I apply in a personal way, deep down in my heart on the level where I actually mean things" (pg. 201). Honestly, many times my motives for spiritual activity and the disciplines of the Christian life are entirely self-centered. I want people to like me. I want to be admired. I want God to like me. I want to feel better about myself. I want to atone for some past sin. I want to have a good day. I want blessings for the future.

None of those motives will do. As Miller writes, "The tough thing about Christian spirituality is, you have to mean things. You can't just go through the motions or act religious for the wrong reasons" (pg. 203). Why? Because being a Christian means having a relationship with God. And God doesn't really care about outward show. He knows me too well to be impressed by my religious activity. Instead, He wants to know the real me (now there's a thought) and wants me to know Him, to relate to Him from my heart. He wants me unveiled in my dealings with Him and others - being genuine, authentic, transparent. When it comes to my own justification, He wants me to get that from Him, not from the things I do to please Him and impress others. His favor is free. I don't have to perform; I just have to believe in Jesus and I'm acceptable...no, more than acceptable - I'm His delight.

As I understand Christianity, I agree with Don Miller when he says, "[Christianity] is a thing of the heart. It's intimacy with Christ, wrestling with the truth of the soul rather than a dog and pony show in the center ring of a circus" (pg. 203).

So what will it mean for me to examine my heart on a regular basis? It will mean reading the Bible more slowly and carefully, not just to check off my to-do list but to hear God speak to me personally. It will mean asking myself questions during the day, questions like: "Why did I say that? Why did I just do that? Why didn't I speak up? Why did I say too much? Why am I engaged in this ministry? Is it for God's glory, or mine? Am I truly concerned for that person, or looking for a pat on the back? Did I do that out of love, or vanity?"

Examining my heart will mean confessing - to God and others - when I realize my motives were lousy. It will mean listening to God as He speaks through circumstances and encounters with other people, instead of being agenda-driven. And, hardest of all, it will mean digging deeper into my own heart, looking at the things that bother me, move me, anger me, worry me, and re-feeling the pain of past mistakes and memories so that I am not seeking healing in anything or anyone but Christ.

What will examining your heart mean for you?

Friday, June 09, 2006

He's almost 64

I suppose you've heard by now why Sunday, June 18, is significant for the human race. Besides being the Lord's Day, and Father's Day in the US, it's the day Paul McCartney turns 64. You're a lot younger than me if you don't know what's so great about that.

On the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band record album of 1967, the second song on Side 2 was "When I'm Sixty-Four," written and sung by Paul to the accompaniment of a clarinet quartet. (I still have my Sgt. Pepper album in a box somewhere in the house.) I've read that John Lennon hated the song and didn't want it on the album, but now it's a favorite of many and I'm sure you'll be hearing it a lot for the next week or so. Here are some of the lyrics:

When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine,
Birthday greeting, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out 'til quarter to three,
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

You'll be older too -
And if you say the word
I could stay with you.

Here's some boring trivia about the song for those of you who, like me, enjoy boring trivia about the Beatles:
  • It was the first song to be recorded for the Sgt. Pepper album. Track 1 was laid down on December 8, 1966. (I was 12!)
  • It appears in the stupid animated Beatle film, Yellow Submarine.
  • It was featured in an Allstate Insurance commercial, with John Lennon's son Julian singing the song.
  • McCartney reportedly came up with the melody at the age of 15, when he was a member of the Quarrymen.
  • It was the theme song for the 1982 film The World According to Garp, starring Robin Williams.
  • Paul meant the song as a tribute to his father, who had been a band leader back in the 1920s. His father was 64 when the album was released.
  • An episode of Alf (February 12, 1990) was entitled "When I'm Sixty-Four."
  • In an interview, John said about this song, "I would never even dream of writing a song like that."
  • Paul was 24 when he wrote the song.
In just twelve years I'll be 64. That's a staggering thought! I'm already losing my hair. I'm somewhat handy but I don't recall ever mending a fuse. Suzy and I have had a couple gardens and I don't mind digging up weeds for a while. We've never been to the Isle of Wight, but I'm glad to say Suzy needs me and feeds me. Hopefully, by God's grace, that will still be true when I'm sixty-four.


Couples Counseling: A retrospective

I just took a class at Reformed Seminary in Orlando in Couples Counseling. The class lasted five days. I posted my reflections on each day's material. If you're interested in seeing what I learned and want to make a comment on anything, here's an idex to my five blogs on the subject:

Married Singleness
Avoiders and Controllers
Manhood and Womanhood
The Benefits of Marriage Counseling
Affairs

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Affairs

Wednesday was the final day of the Couples Counseling class I audited at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. I am very glad I took this class. Interestingly, just today three different people called me asking for counseling for them and their spouses. There's a lot of need out there, and I'm thankful for the insights this class has given me.

Day 5 dealt with the dark side of marriage: separation, divorce, affairs, and domestic violence. I want to reflect a little bit on affairs. Our professor shared an alarming statistic. 25% of men, and 15% of women, have had (or are presently engaged in) an affair involving sex. Add to these numbers another 15% of both men and women who have had some kind of inappropriate "emotional affair" with someone besides their spouse. That's a lot of people.

This topic hits close to home for me because some of my closest friends have ruined their marriages through adulterous affairs.
* I think of the guy who discipled me in the early years of my Christian journey; he later had an affair with his secretary, left his wife and four children, got a divorce, and married the secretary.
* I think of one of my closest seminary friends. He and I were from the same hometown. He met someone online and ended up having an affair with her. He left his wife and two sons for her.
* I am thinking of several pastor friends who have destroyed their wives, children, and churches because of sexual and/or emotional affairs with women in their church.
* I think of several couples I counseled and married, who are now no longer married because one or the other of them succumbed to an affair.

Why does this happen? Usually, the "infidel" (who I will assume to be a man for the sake of this discussion) develops a growing attraction to a person of the opposite sex whom he knows at work or within his circle of friends. He appreciates her skills and her looks. He begins to feel drawn to her, to flirt with her, and to fantasize about what a relationship with her might look like. She represents escape from the work that his marriage requires. She feeds his insecurity and doesn't require anything of him. So they open their hearts up to each other more and more, crossing the line of appropriateness and honor. They get emotionally and perhaps sexually entangled. They begin to hide their relationship from others; they deceive their friends and respective spouses. They work hard not to get caught. An addictive cycle of shame and excitement about the affair intensifies the relationship. Interestingly, at some point one or the other of them may try to get caught because it takes too much emotional energy to maintain the masquerade. When the truth is brought to light, the anguish, anger, and pain of broken marriage vows must be dealt with...if possible. For some couples, thankfully, the grace of God enables repentance, forgiveness, and healing. For many others it's too late.

I've seen firsthand what affairs do to the women, men, and children affected by them. No amount of pleasure or escape is worth that.

As with most sinful patterns of behavior, it's the early warning signs of an affair that must be taken seriously. When a husband or wife feels unhappily married, he or she is vulnerable to an affair. An available, interested person of the opposite sex shows up and - wham! - it looks like an easy way out of the pain. It seems a way for a man to feel competent and attractive, a way for a woman to feel wanted and valued. This is when one must be willing to follow Joseph's example and flee (Genesis 39:12). Don't stay and ponder it; don't play with it. Run!

Have you learned anything from your own or others' experiences you'd be willing to share about this subject?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The benefits of marriage counseling

Today was Day 4 of my Couples Counseling class. It was more practical than the other days. The professor took us through some basic things to keep in mind as we counsel people.

It made me think, Why don't more married couples get counseling? I have yet to meet a husband and wife that could not use a bit of counseling every now and then. It could come from a pastor, a trusted older friend, a mentor, or a professional. It doesn't matter; we all need counseling because we all need help. Plus, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure - who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) The Bible is replete with verses that speak of the benefit of counsel...and the foolishness of neglecting to get it. One example will suffice:

"For waging war you need guidance,
and for victory many advisers."
(Proverbs 24:6)

I guess couples that don't get counseling think they are not fighting a war. Well, they are. We all are. Marriage is like the streets of Baghdad; there are IEDs everywhere - things like stress, disappointment, hurt, grief, resentment, self-contempt, poor communication, memories from the past, kid problems, money problems, and many others.

During our almost-30 years of marriage, my wife and I have been through periods when we turned to the support and perspective of a counselor. These people were gifts of God to us. I'm thinking of a therapist in St. Louis who helped us navigate the swirling waters of seminary life and childrearing. Then there was the deacon/counselor in our church in South Carolina whose wise counsel helped us through the stresses of a growing church and teenagers. Then there was the fellow pastor in Gainesville, Florida, who helped us persevere through several years of difficult ministry. We have found that we are constantly waging wars too dangerous to try to handle on our own.

When I think of the benefits of marriage counseling, the following come to mind:

1) A counselor can help you understand what is really going on under the surface of arguments and conflict, so you're not focusing on the wrong things.

2) A counselor can help you say things to your spouse that need to be said, in a safe environment.

3) A counselor can hold you accountable to promises you have made to each other.

4) A counselor can remind you that God is with you and will not let you go.

5) A counselor can listen to your ranting and raving if need be, without condemning you for it.

6) A counselor can help you rely on God rather than on yourself or each other.

7) A counselor can help you understand why you do and say the things you do, clearing the path for gospel transformation.

8) A counselor can help you and your spouse repent of sinful patterns of relating that are eating the heart out of your relationship.

Now, if you are a couple who doesn't need such things, fine - don't get counseling. But if you do (and I kinda think you do), don't put it off any longer. And don't say you can't afford it, because you can't afford not to.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Good news!

Our daughter Rebecca and her husband Scott have accepted a call to Gulfport, MS, where Scott will pastor a Presbyterian church reborn from devastation by Hurricane Katrina. Scott is a godly man gifted in preaching, pastoring, and evangelism. Rebecca is a great mom, homemaker, and administrator who can nurture both people and projects. They are a wonderful team and have their heads screwed on straight about family, kingdom, and ministry. Yay God! Bless 'em with vision, love, community, courage, and an outpouring of your Spirit!

Manhood and womanhood

Today I resume my reflections on the class I am taking in Couples Counseling. Day 3 was a tough one in that the main topic was what it means to be a godly man and godly woman. I liked listening to the second half a lot better than the first.

Talks on godliness that I've heard (and given) usually take the form of "Here's what you need to do to be a holy person...get busy." Today's class was different. The emphasis was more on being than doing. After all, that's the emphasis of the Bible: we live out of who we are. If I as a man live self-centeredly, it's not just that that's wrong...it violates my masculinity. God has created me as a man to take initiative, to be passionate about life and love, to take risks, to sacrifice for my wife and family. When I fail to do those things, I am living below my identity and cheating myself out of the joy that is mine as a man. I will be happy and fulfilled only as I am faithful to my unique calling as a man.

Similarly, when a woman tries to control her husband or manipulate him through helplessness or some such thing, that's not just wrong behavior...it violates her femininity. God has designed her as a woman to be tender, to nurture, encourage, rest, respect, and trust in her husband. When she fails to do these things, she is living below her identity and cheating herself out of the joy that is hers as a woman. She will be happy and fulfilled only as she is faithful to her unique calling as a woman.

All that's well and good. But the question we still want to ask is, "So what do I do with that information? How can I be a godly husband or wife?" Here are a few things I want to ponder and apply, with God's help, as a husband and father (and I'll tack on a couple of things for the women out there too):

First, men need to stop being silent and passive. Far too many of us remove ourselves from tension; it threatens us. Here is something I wrote down that I think is true of most men: When faced with mystery, we flee, avoid, or withdraw, choosing the comforts of "management" instead of taking initiative to relate, listen, understand, and lead. Put another way, we want to "fix it" rather than enter into a woman's world and love her in the tension.

Second, a man needs to take responsibility for his wife's problems. Now this is really challenging. It doesn't mean that every problem a wife has is her husband's fault...but almost. Here's a strong statement that I want to meditate on some more: You can tell how well you are being a husband by the countenance of your wife. So often, a woman develops a sinful pattern of thinking or behaving because her husband is failing to love her as Christ loves the church.

Third, a man needs to study his wife. To "know" her in part means to understand what makes her tick, both as a woman in general and uniquely as a person. (This is what Peter meant when he wrote, "Husbands...be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life," 1 Peter 3:7.) Reading and knowing our wives helps us predict how things will affect them, prepare them for trouble ahead, and provide them with needed security and protection. (One way I fail in this area is allowing my family's home life to get too busy and chaotic. Suzy needs me to recognize ahead of time when the stress load is getting too heavy and do something to relieve the pressure, so that we have enough time with each other and with our son. I forget so quickly how my schedule affects everyone else in the house.)

One last thing: a man needs to establish and guard priorities. As our professor put it today, "A man's wife is worlds more important than his children. Almost all parenting problems arise from a failure of a husband to love his wife." Whew! That's worth chewing on for a while. So many husbands and wives give up their dates, their sex life, their ministry opportunities, their worship life, and their fun for the sake of their kids' lessons, teams, parties, schools, jobs, friends, comforts, and appointments. I know some married people who hardly ever go out together, yet their kids have the best of everything. It's time for us men to put a stop to that and passionately pursue our wives as our highest priority besides God himself.

I said I would tack on a few observations for the women reading this. Godly womanhood means being tender instead of controlling...candid rather than merely "nice"...quiet rather than contentious...and restful rather than frantic. When a wife is "quarrelsome and ill-tempered" (see Proverbs 21:19), her husband does not want to move toward her. He's too insecure. We men need the respect and affirmation of our wives - it helps us do OUR job well. (Speaking from a man's point of view, women, I would encourage you to read The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. She has nailed it when it comes to explaining what men are looking for from their wives.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Rumor Has It...it's bad

My wife and I rented Rumor Has It a couple days ago. It's a 2005 film directed by Rob Reiner, starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner. I knew it'd be a date movie and I actually like a bunch of those . . . but not this one. It wasn't as bad as Failure to Launch (one of the worst movies of all time in our opinion), but it was close. I expected better from Rob Reiner, known for such good movies as A Few Good Men, Misery, When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride, and more.

Here's the premise (if you can follow it!): Supposedly, the events in the famous movie from the 1960's, The Graduate, really happened. So Kevin Costner plays Beau Burroughs who, unbeknownst to almost all the human race, happens to be the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate. Shirley MacLaine plays Katherine Richelieu, the Mrs. Robinson character, who as you know seduced the Dustin Hoffman character. Mrs. Robinson's daughter - who also had a fling with the Dustin Hoffman character - died of cancer or something a few years ago but HER daughter Sarah Huttinger, played by Jennifer Aniston, the granddaughter of the Mrs. Robinson character, figures out that both her mother and her grandmother had affairs with the Dustin Hoffman character. So she tracks down Beau Burroughs, thinking that maybe he's her father, and ends up sleeping with him. The whole time she's "in love" with Jeff Daly, played by Mark Ruffalo, who hasn't had an affair with anyone and who, when he finds all this out, acts very hurt and sad but eventually gets his girl back. Uh-oh, I just spoiled the movie for you.

Besides this unbelievable story line, every actor except for Shirley MacLaine plays his or her role with hardly any emotion at all - especially Costner, unquestionably one of the worst most-admired actors around.

There is little redemption in this movie. People are valued merely for their looks and their money. The Mark Ruffalo character for a while stands up for integrity but ends up selling out. Women come off looking especially bad, as they let men use them and don't respect themselves enough to see through their advances to the lust beneath. Men use women for pleasure and status.

The movie does illustrate a Biblical truth, however. Patterns of thinking and behaving are generally perpetuated in a family from one generation to another. God punishes "the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" of those who hate Him (Exodus 20:5). Unless grace intervenes (and because of the gospel it can and does), children generally adopt the sinful propensities and coping strategies of their parents. Sadly, the women in Rumor Has It are looking for the father who never really loved them, and sex is their means of getting him. Men are looking for someone who will let them off the hook morally so they never really have to be men. It all smells of Eden after the Fall.

Friday, June 02, 2006

No class yesterday or today

In my last two posts I shared about the Couples Counseling class I am auditing. The class met twice this week and will meet three times next week. So I'll resume sharing my reactions on Monday.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Avoiders and controllers

Day 2 of Couples Counseling was excellent. The professor presented a helpful way of seeing how sin has affected men and women in different ways, distorting our masculinity and femininity and causing problems for marriage. I've spoken quite often about the effects of the Fall upon man and woman in relationship to each other. But this class gave me a new grid to see the potential damage husbands and wives can do to each other when they are unaware of these effects and are not well grounded in the grace of Christ.

I'll generalize by saying that both men and women have inherited certain dispositions and insecurities thanks to the curse that followed Adam and Eve's sin. Women were hit hardest by the curse in the area of their calling to nurture relationships. They lost a sense of relational peace and security, and ever since have compensated for that loss by control. To avoid the thing they fear the most - loneliness, abandonment - women tend to control those with whom they are in relationship, either passively or actively (i.e., by being either helpless or emasculating).

We men, on the other hand, were hit hardest by the curse in the area of our calling to achieve, to make a difference. We lost a sense of significance, and ever since have compensated for that loss by running from responsibility and relationship. To avoid the thing we fear the most - failure, insignificance - men tend not to engage. We are tempted to be either passive avoiders (the typical distant male) or aggressive avoiders (the typical macho or even abusive man).

What's interesting is what happens when a man and a woman get together in a committed relationship! She's seeking control, he's seeking safety and disengagement . . . they both need grace! That's why any human relationship - but especially marriage - is a partnership of grace in which both people are constantly repenting and humbling themselves before each other and before God, realizing the damage they could do to each other if not for divine intervention! Paul says in Galatians 5:15, "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other." How true this is in marriage and in any community, because of our sinful propensity to escape the curse through some means other than Jesus Christ!

Do your observations of men and women (and yourself) line up with the above?