AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1

7 KEYS TO LIFE-LONG LOVE: Valentine Advice for Women

7 KEYS TO LIFE-LONG LOVE: Valentine Advice for Women

“Dear Pastor,

Please help. My man has gone into a shell and I can’t get him out. He used to be attentive, warm, and affectionate, but now he lives in his own world.

Don’t get me wrong. I know he loves me. He works hard and pays the bills, and helps around the house, and takes the kids to soccer practice, but he’s just, I don’t know, gone somehow. He walks with God and has good friends, but he is distant from me, operating at an emotional remove; civil, but not engaging, polite, but perfunctory. I long for the connection we had in our first years together. Is he having an affair? I don’t think so, but something is wrong. What can I do?”

That lover’s lament is fictitious, but close enough to similar stories I’ve heard in counseling to make the point: long-term romantic success isn’t easy. Worse, many women have no clue about the things motivating their man’s behavior. (Hint: neither does Cosmo).

Thus, today’s Valentine advice for women: Seven ways to build long-term love.

First: Validate his need for masculine approval.

“One motive … compels men like few others,” wrote Patrick Morely, “It is foundational, perpetual, and insatiable:” A man’s need for his father’s affirmation. You might wish your approval would be enough, but it isn’t. If your man has unresolved issues with his dad that have caused pain for him, gently encourage him to seek peace and reconciliation.[1] If his father is absent, as is the case for many men, encourage him to let God be his father and let men of the church be his mentors. He will love you for it.

Second: Validate his need for accomplishment.

Every man has “an intense desire ‘to do,’ to master his world, to shape the course of events. Every man has a desire for significance, meaning and purpose; to accomplish something with his life, especially in his work. [2]” Validate that. Pray for him to find his purpose, be his greatest cheerleader in it, and celebrate each step he takes toward fulfilling it. He will thank you for it.

Third: Validate his financial pressure and don’t increase it.

The pressure to achieve a higher standard of living is relentless and stress inducing. The best thing you can do is understand the pressure he feels to provide you with the best of everything and let him know that a used car is OK, that cheap dates are just fine, and that you can wait for that expensive honeymoon until you’ve been working long enough to afford it. Do that and he will dig for ways to spend money on you.

Fourth: Be a loyal companion.

Men are notorious loners. They learn early to keep their guard up lest someone take advantage of a vulnerability. They need a partner in life that they can trust with their weaknesses as well as their strengths. That kind of trust takes time to build and is easily broken. Ridicule him or betray his vulnerabilities and you will lose him. Keep his secrets. Prove that he can trust you, that you will not take advantage of his vulnerabilities, and he will kill himself to show his appreciation.

Fifth: Speak his love language.

Most women can talk rings around most men. It’s just the way we’re wired. Unsurprisingly, many women say that their love language is words of affirmation and many men—most in my counseling experience—that theirs is physical affection. “Whatever there is of me resides in my body,” writes Gary Chapman in his bestseller, The 5 Love Languages. “To touch my body is to touch me. To withdraw from my body is to distance yourself from me emotionally.” You may have many reasons not to touch him, but he is only hearing one thing: “she doesn’t love me.” Whatever the language, learn to “fill his love tank” with it and he will reciprocate.

Sixth: Feed him.

But you knew that.

Seventh: Let him lead.

Laura Doyle, author of The Surrendered Wife, “used to think that communication was the key to a better marriage. But that wasn’t how it turned out … Even though I have a degree in communications, trying for years to “communicate” with my husband never got me the connection I craved, but the principles of surrender did. One of those principles is that a surrendered wife is trusting where she used to be controlling.”

Interestingly, Doyle didn’t plan it that way, but like many strong-willed, strong-minded women, she realized she had to make a choice to let her man be in charge. For example, men will not prioritize a task list like women or do things in the same order when they get to the task. She wants it done her way right now so, she does it now. The man thinks, “OK, I’m not needed here, won’t go there next time.” Soon, a pattern emerges and next thing you know the woman is leading and the man is disengaging from the relationship.

The need to control is generated by impatience, sometimes, and fear, but not trust. The Apostle Peter wrote: “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope (or trust) in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear,” (emphasis added).[3]

Ladies, don’t let the words “submissive” and “master” throw you off. In our context it means follow the leader. If you’re in a relationship with an abusive man do not submit to it and do not make excuses for him. But if you’re a woman who is destroying her romance by over controlling her relationship I encourage you to let go of your fear, trust God, and let your man lead. You will be amazed at the results.

Happy Valentines Day!

[1] Patrick Morley, What Husbands Wish Their Wives Knew About Men, p. 16 & 30.

[2] Ibid, pgs. 35 & 46.

[3] 1 Peter 3: 5-6

POSTMODERN PATH TO JESUS

POSTMODERN PATH TO JESUS

Don Everts and Doug Schaupp tell what skeptics taught them about their path to Christ.

“Evangelism is a process and God is the author of it.” I learned that proverb the hard way in the 1980’s when, as per my seminary’s requirements, I tried each week to lead total strangers to Christ using a four-step presentation of the gospel. I was never any good at it.

If you love people and want them to know Jesus, but can identify with my evangelistic frustrations, you will benefit from Don Everts and Dough Schaupp’s, I ONCE WAS LOST: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus. The book helps us find our place in God’s process.

People aren’t projects nor are they targets, but creatures made in the image of God with all the curiosity that entails. But Everts and Schaupp explain that the gospel suffers from bad branding that has quenched that curiosity.

“Christa doesn’t trust Christians because she was once told she’s going straight to hell. A professor told Ryan that the Bible is full of mistakes. Bonnie read The Da Vinci Code and thinks the church is one big conspiracy. Julie was invited to a church outing but felt like an outsider the entire time.”

Everts and Schaupp worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on college campuses. The book comes from the stories of 2000 mostly millennial people who came to Christ over the course of ten years.  Though everyone’s story is unique, the authors identified five thresholds most post-moderns pass through on their way to the Kingdom: Trusting a Christian; Becoming Curious; Opening Up to Change; Seeking After God; Entering the Kingdom.

Each threshold has a chapter and includes advice on how to help our friends cross that threshold, as well as some common mistakes like my favorite: giving five-gallon answers to six-ounce questions.

“The better we listen, the better we can serve those on the journey. If someone hasn’t even crossed the first threshold, for example, we can stop handing them copies of More Than a Carpenter and realize they are at a place where considering the claims of Jesus isn’t the issue; just trusting a Christian is the issue.”

Nothing is more rewarding than introducing a friend to Jesus Christ and watching that relationship grow. I ONCE WAS LOST will help you do that.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

YOU MIGHT KNOW A NARCISSIST IF: Defining & Dealing with Difficult People

Are you dealing with an average, run-of-the-mill jerk, or a bona-fide, nth-degree narcissist? Paul Meier and Eleanor Payson may be able to help you.

Psychiatrist Paul Meier, M. D., founder of Meier Clinics and author of over seventy other books, published a best seller back in the nineties titled, Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You: Advice for Dealing with Difficult People. The book breaks people down into three categories: First degree, second degree, and nth-degree jerks. It includes advice on how to identify and deal with the average jerk (1st degree), and the jerk within–how many people did you cut off in traffic this morning?—as well as the narcissists (2nd degree), and sociopaths (nth-degree) among us.

Meier’s is a great book, user-friendly, mostly non-clinical and entertaining vocabulary, and illustrations that strike home.  Eleanor D. Payson’s 2002 book, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With the One Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, is less so, but still helpful. Payson, who holds an M.S.W. and has been a licensed marital and family therapist for over thirty years, addresses issues faced when dealing with narcissists in chapters entitled: “Seeing the Emerald Forest for the Emerald Trees,” on identifying people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and “Follow Your Yellow Brick Road,” on finding the boundaries of self.

If you’re dealing with a true sociopath–think Saddam Hussein–you don’t need a self-help book; you need an escape route. But how do you know if you’re in a relationship at work, or at school, or at home, with a 2nd degree jerk or even, as Payson might say, a person truly afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A few clues from Meier and Payson (pronouns interchangeable):

Narcissists are highly controlling, focusing attention on themselves most of the time. He has a grandiose sense of self-importance, truly believing in his “special” status, and isn’t afraid to let others know it. She’s also vindictive, remembering every slight, intent on ultimate payback. He almost never apologizes or takes responsibility for being wrong. His ego is too fragile for that. And he always has a blame-shifting explanation for his abusive behavior. She operates with a quid-pro-quo mindset, a flatterer who enjoys helping and protecting popular, successful people, as long as they understand that “they owe her.” He lacks empathy, but more than that, he is cold and ruthless when challenged. She is never vulnerable, never open with anyone about her shortcomings, but can be quite sexually seductive and even exploitative. He doesn’t believe rules apply to him and he uses others to advance his own agenda.

Narcissists, or 2nd degree jerks, are not to be trifled with, and if you are prone to co-dependency you will need more than a self-help book to deal with them. But these books are a good place to start. Meier, who holds degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, writes from the biblical worldview and therefore communicates more hope for change. He has seen the power of the Cross of Christ at work in narcissists and their victims. Payson is less hopeful, but still helpful in identifying not only the abusers among us, but also the coping mechanisms best suited to stopping their harmful behaviors. Both books are worth adding to your summer reading list.

PRACTICE THESE THINGS

Three Principles for Success in 2016
Believing that God’s principles for life exist won’t do anything for you. You have to commit to them. You have to put them into practice.

IRON LADY is a film about the late Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain. Meryl Streep gives a brilliant performance, as usual, but the movie had conflicting effects on me.

First it was a bit depressing, because it shows Thatcher as an elderly woman, struggling with dementia, living in flashbacks of her years in politics. And given that the producers are no friend to her conservative principles, the film gave short shrift to her successes emphasizing instead the upheaval caused by her policies as well as the strain her leadership style put on her relationships. Comments like, “When I’m out of politics I’m going to run a business, it’ll be called rent-a-spine,” did not endear her to her friends, much less her enemies.

However, the film couldn’t completely hide her achievements. Thatcher’s principled leadership helped bring down the Soviet Union, rescued the UK’s economy and kept Great Britain from becoming a 1980’s version of Greece, among other things.

In the process of telling that story the movie highlighted something that Jesus said and that the Bible teaches on practically every page: Believing in principles is one thing, but it’s the practice that changes things.

Jesus summed it up nicely in Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Emphasis added).

We can break down what he said into a four-part formula.

1. God has given us principles to live by.
2. We cannot be passive about them, noncommittal. We have to put them into practice.
3. We can expect a crisis.
4. We will reap a harvest.

Three Principles for a Successful 2016

Financial Security – Work hard. Spend less than you earn. Give away a tenth. Save a tenth. Do it for a long time and you will experience prosperity. (See Luke 6:38; Proverbs 6:6-8).

Successful Relationships – Look for the good in people and they will look for the good in you. But be discerning. Not everyone is worthy of your confidence. (See Matthew 7:1-2, 6.)

Leadership
(See Proverbs 18:13 & 15)
I love the way the late Stephen Covey formulated these: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The Bible is first and foremost the revelation of God’s plan, through the sacrifice of his son, to rescue his highest creation from the penalty, power, and presence of the most destructive force in the universe: sin. But in the process of that revelation God gave his people bushels of principles for living life on a sin-cursed planet. Tom Minnery, in Focus on the Family Citizen, explained it this way, “[When] I was younger, I tended to believe that certain principles were true because they were in the Bible. But year by year, as I have read much of the social research, I have come to look at this a new way–that certain principles are in the Bible because they are true. They are true and helpful for all people, regardless of whether they accept or reject the Bible’s central claim. ”

The Bible is a book of principles, all kinds of principles for all kinds of life situations and God has been very gracious to give them to us. Put them into practice for 2016 and you will see their fruit for the rest of your life.

WHEN A WARRIOR FALLS

When a pastor’s phone rings late at night it is never good news. That was true one year ago this week, when Marilyn, the wife of my friend Hank called from the local emergency room, clearly in distress. I jumped in the car, heart racing, uttering the only prayer I could manage: “Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” I knew from past experience that when the nurse had me turn left, into the staff lounge, instead of right, to the exam rooms, that Hank was gone.

I have lost so many youngish friends and family like this, suddenly and without warning, that making sense of it has been a lifelong endeavor. You know the deal: a few seconds one way or the other, a decision to go left instead of right, a slight medical miscalculation, fragmentary details that tip the balance between life and death. That huge two letter word IF. Who can calculate the odds? And what does it mean?

Some things can only be understood by faith. I want to share my conclusions about that shortly, but first I want to remember my friend Hank.

Hank the Warrior
Hank gave a talk at our 2014 men’s retreat on success and told us about several occasions with various companies where he had been given the privilege to, “resign to pursue other opportunities.” He said that most of us would share that privilege and told us how to handle it: “Never lose your confidence. Get up, brush yourself off, and say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and get back in the game.”

For that and many other reasons, I saw Hank as a warrior. Not a Seal Team Six kind of warrior. Hank was a spiritual warrior, an Ephesians six kind of warrior.

Eph. 6:10-12 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Hank was the kind of guy that the world could just throw stuff at and he could stand there and take it, and not lose his cool, and not betray his Captain, Jesus, and then lead.

For me and our church he had so many of those spiritual warrior qualities that a Church and a pastor need: A cool head, sober judgment, sound theology, engaging personality, the gift, with Marilyn, of hospitality, the abilities to teach, and lead and administrate. Hank was a good and faithful steward of everything that was and is our church, and all that with the heart of a servant. Because of that he was my personal friend and mentor, a guide stone when I was clueless, and a true partner in faith and ministry.

So what do you do when you lose a man like that? What do you make of it? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
That Hank and you and I and every other follower of Christ serve the Creator of the universe in the Great War between good and evil. Jesus is our great Captain and we serve at his pleasure, in life or by death. He chooses the day we depart.

That He loves us beyond anything that we could ask or imagine.

That He takes care of his widows and orphans. How well I know this.

That in his own life of poverty and service, and unjust and brutal death, Jesus has identified with all who suffer, with all who are taken “before their time.”

That His resurrection proves that this life is not all there is. That Hank now lives in a world more real and so glorious that when we see it, all of life on earth will seem a mere shadow.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
What the Apostle Paul wrote in the last few days before his martyrdom:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8 NIV)

Remember that he goes to a reward, to be with his Captain. Remember to long for Christ’s appearing.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

I know that Hank prefers his current location over this world. And I have this great fear that I’m going to outlive everyone that I love. But that is up to my Captain. Either way, I will keep doing what he made me to do.

When a warrior falls remember to keep doing what your Captain made you to do.

Hank became an elder at our church in 2005 and I wouldn’t let him resign until 2014. Our board meets twice a month and begins every meeting by praying; first for the needs of people, then the various ministries of the Church, and finally for ourselves and the things before us a board. We go around the table and pray.

It’s easy for prayers like that to become perfunctory, like saying grace at meals. Sometimes you’ll hear yourself or another man drop into a pattern and you wonder if he’s “checked out.”

Hank developed a pattern over that last year, a close to his prayer that sounded a common theme, but it was never perfunctory. In fact it was so urgent within him; it was coming from such a deep place, that it became at once a riveting call as well as a benediction from my friend. It went like this:

“Father, no matter what we are able to do as a Church, no matter what we get involved in, never let us lose sight of Christ. Always draw us back and keep us centered on Christ and his Cross; the salvation and grace that come through him alone.”

And now dear friends, we cannot tell you how much we long for you to have the same hope and to follow the same Captain that Hank now knows face to face.