Monday, June 8, 2020

Change the System As Well As the Citizen

Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
With all of the protests and unrest that's going on to highlight the injustices in our midst, I'm seeing different reactions from churches and clergy around the country. One reaction is to stay silent, retreat into the bunker of whiteness and try to wait this thing out. Another reaction is to go on the offensive and declare that this is all sin, to mischaracterize the protestors, many of whom are Christian brothers and sisters, and lump them in with the misguided or opportunistic groups that are causing havoc, destroying property and looting. Both of those reactions are not only harmful, in that they ignore or perpetuate the problem of injustice, but they are also sinful, in that they represent a failure to love one's neighbor. Focusing more on the people stealing shoes and televisions than the murder of a man made in the image of God is like running up to a police officer with his knee on the neck of a man to report a stolen car. 
On the other hand, I've seen churches take time to talk about the issue of racism and injustice, often awkwardly, with varying degrees of depth, but bravely risking criticism to tackle the problem of this particular sin - one that we don't name as sin nearly often enough. We should commend this, even as we lovingly engage and critique it. 
One critique I would, lovingly, make of some of the response to the sin of injustice and racism in America is against the idea that we should focus on just preaching the gospel, and not on creating solutions - legal and systemic solutions - to solve the problem. These pastors insist that racism is a "heart problem," and that the ONLY solution is to preach the gospel, to fill those hearts with the love of Christ that will banish the hatred of one's neighbor and inspire a new attitude towards race and those people who might look different, but are nonetheless made in the image of God. The assumption at work here is that racism or prejudice is primarily a problem of individuals being hateful towards others, not a systemic problem of unfairness and injustice towards people of color, specifically Black folks. The preachers who espouse this idea are generally well-intentioned, and envision a day when the landscape of our nation will look very different, with the Holy Spirit indwelling each citizen and guiding their individual interactions with others in love and humility.
The problem with this kind of thinking is not that it's necessarily untrue, but that it's not enough. It sounds like a wonderful vision, a whole nation of people loving their neighbors as themselves, putting the needs of others above their own. But as lovers of the Word, we know that the way to life is narrow, and there are only few who find it, while the road to destruction - spiritual, social, personal, and physical destruction - is wide, and the vast majority of us walk that road. We have to be honest with ourselves enough to know that despite our best efforts to share the Gospel and change the hearts of the people in our circles of influence, many will reject it, will either postpone it or outright reject it until their dying day. The Scriptures teach us that it is our job to sow the seed of the Gospel, but that God decides which hearts are going to accept it. In that parable, only a quarter of the "soil" that is sown produces lasting growth. The idea that every perpetrator of prejudice and racism will be saved from their sin and become a force for justice is just not enough to deal with the immediate and often deadly reality of the problem.
There are really two issues at work here, and the concept of "just preaching the Gospel" and ignoring needed changes to the law and systems only covers one of them. To be sure, one issue at play here is the "heart problem," and the Gospel is the only cure for this illness. There is hatred in the hearts of people that only the love of Christ can dispel. We should absolutely be preaching the Word and carrying the Good News to a world that is saturated in its wickedness. But the other issue is systemic, and no amount of preaching is going to solve this problem if it's not accompanied by a change to the system. The problem of racism in America is not located solely in its police departments. It is also protected and perpetuated in her banks, her courts, her schools, her capitols, and sometimes, unfortunately, sadly, in her churches. Even if every person in charge embraced the love of Christ and dedicated themselves to loving their neighbors, there would still be very little change if the laws, policies, and traditions that disadvantage other people are not abolished along with the hatred in their hearts. At best, redeemed and repentant people bound by a system of privilege and exclusion grieve over injustices even while they struggle to prevent them. At worst, unredeemed and unrepentant people exploit those systems to protect their own wealth, status, and power.
Is there any other sin that we treat like this? Do we say that abortion is just a heart problem, and the only solution is to preach the gospel until unborn lives are safe? Or do we lobby our government leadership, take our cause to the voting booth, protest in the streets, and donate to organizations that have proven successful in the matter?
Take the example of the Greek widows in Acts 6. There is a problem of partiality, exclusion, and possibly racism in the early church. The victims of this sin expose it by bringing the matter to their pastors, the shepherds who are duty-bound to protect them. The apostles didn't say to them, "This is a heart problem. What we need to do is just continue preaching the Gospel until the hearts change, and the problem will go away on its own." Instead, their response was two-pronged. First, they recognized, rightly, that the preaching of the Word was vital, and should not be disrupted or hindered in any way. Secondly, they understood that the problem the widows were addressing was systemic, and upheld by long-standing traditions and policies than advantage one group and disadvantage another. So they devised a systemic response. We'll create a team to deal specifically with the issue, a group of good men, full of the Holy Spirit, to make sure that this matter is henceforth handled with fairness to all. They dealt with the heart problem, but also with the systemic problem.
That's what we need to do today - approach these two-fold problems with two-fold attacks. We should definitely be praying and preaching the Gospel, because is the only way to drive hatred and racism out of the hearts of individuals. But we should also be taking our passion for justice and equality to the streets, the courts, the voting booths, and changing the fabric of our society, because that is the only way to drive racism out of the system.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Defining Terms

With this election coming up, even in the midst of this pandemic and all of the uncertainty it creates, I'm seeing the same rhetoric and fervor popping up all over, and it reminds me of the 2016 election in some scary ways. Once again, I'm hearing people complain, and with reason, about the quality of the candidates, especially from some people who are disillusioned with Trump, and might be wiling to use their vote to oppose him, but are not necessarily all the way into "Blue No Matter Who" territory.

The main thing I hear from my Christian brothers and sisters is that they feel the conviction to vote pro-life, no matter what, and that voting for a candidate who supports laws that allow women to get abortions is too much for their conscience, regardless of whatever else that candidate might stand for. For a lot of Christians, the pro-life stance is the sine qua non for any candidate or any platform, and everything else falls away in importance when they step into that voting booth.

Before I get too far, let me begin by saying that I am absolutely anti-abortion and in favor of any reasonable measures that can not only reduce the number of unborn babies that are killed, but also protect them and their mothers throughout their lives.

However, as Christians, we rarely ever have conversations about what a pro-life position is, or what it means to say "I'm pro-life." Even thinking about writing this, and doing a simple search for Bible verses about life, or protecting life, or the sanctity of life, the only lists I get are ones connected to abortion and life in the womb. For a lot of outsiders, there's a lot of inconsistency in our definition of pro-life. And by outsiders, I mean not only non-believers but also believers who feel like they are pushed to the margins when their (often Biblical) beliefs in justice and peace are rejected by the majority of Christians. For many, our definition of pro-life only covers unborn life, and leaves the breathing, walking, and talking out in the cold.

But pro-life and anti-abortion are not the same thing. Here are some (hopefully) helpful illustrations of the difference.

If you vilify Democrats for supporting so-called euthanasia, but support politicians who say that senior citizens should be "willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren," or pundits who say that it's okay to open the economy without meeting basic safety criteria, because most of the people who die from it were "on their last legs" anyway, the you might be anti-abortion, but you're not pro-life.

If you can watch the death tolls from Covid-19 break right on through 80,000 without slowing down, but still insist on opening the economy and putting more people at risk, just because you want a haircut or you miss free refills on Diet Coke, you're not pro-life.

If you can hear about the state execution of a convicted criminal, whether or not you support the death penalty, and your heart is filled with the urge to rejoice and post funny memes about the electric chair instead of lamenting the fact that another life has been taken by sin and it's offspring, you're not pro-life.

If you oppose free birth control for everyone, for whatever reason, whether you think it encourages premarital sex, or because people should be responsible and buy their own, or because those are your tax dollars and you hate freeloaders, you're not pro-life. You might not even be anti-abortion.

If you can hear, with callous indifference, requests for house arrest or other accommodations from thousands of inmates in prisons across the country where the Covid-19 infection rates are above 70%, because you figure that they deserve what they get for committing simple assault or misdemeanor marijuana possession, you're not pro-life.

If you can cite our favorite Bible verses to oppose abortion, like Psalm 139:13-14, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well," but forget that it also means Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Ahmaud Arbery are fearfully and wonderfully made in God's image, you're not pro-life.

If you can see video evidence of a man or woman, usually Black, beaten or killed by a police officer, or by a random white man who thinks he has the right to command citizens like police officers and attack them like Batman, and you need to withhold your sympathy and lament until you ...

... find out the victim's criminal history going back to elementary school, or ...

... get a drug test on the victim, or ...

... see the victim's resume and examine their work history, or ...

... know for sure what happened in the fifteen minutes before the video that shows the victim being hunted and killed, or ...

... confirm their citizenship status, or ...

... take a look at the victim's birth certificate, green card, church attendance record, photo ID, high school diploma or equivalent, work references, or any other credential other than the image of a Holy God indelibly stamped on their body and soul, or ...

... ask Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" ...

... you're not pro-life.

Sunday, May 10, 2020


Lord Jesus,
Heal our souls now, the souls of the saved and angry, the souls of the lost and hopeless, the soul of our church, of our nation, of our world.
Comfort Maud’s family and friends now, give them sleep and nourishment for their bodies, rest and sustenance for their minds, and comfort and life for their spirits. Replace the loss of love that was created in their lives by the forces of evil, with your perfect and eternal love. Bind them to your heart and will now, no matter how much they might question you. You’ve done it for people less worthy and less needful, and we know you can do it for them.
Work your mercy in the hearts of Maud’s killers. Break their will and pride and make them reckon with the murder they have committed. Give them the courage and decency to confess and plead guilty, and spare their neighbors and countrymen the pain of a broken justice system.
Inspire our churches to preach the whole gospel, the good news that you have given us the keys to the kingdom. Move us to unlock the doors to peace and justice for all, to truly have all things in common, to use our riches and power - financial and social - to right the wrongs around us. And indict us, convict us, and, Lord, punish us when we ignore them. Focus our minds and hearts on justice, not only cosmic justice that requires only faith in you to accomplish, but temporal and earthly justice that requires us to put our faith to work.
Heal our nation. Gather the remnants of your people here, your children in this land, some true, some scattered and misguided, some apostate and needing repentance, and mobilize us into an army, much smaller that we would expect, but much stronger than we could ever imagine. Use us as your tools, your weapons, your agents, to tear down the idols of racism and superiority and preach your holy name to the lost and hurting by loving them with a love that only you possess. Selah.
And Lord Jesus, please, please, with all my heart and everything I have, please, run alongside my son while he’s in these streets, run with my nephews, with my students, my neighbors. Give them boldness and courage, but also wisdom, and keep their eyes focused on you, never looking to the right or the left. Run with them through the valley of the shadow of death, because there is evil all around them. Give them courage to stand up to evil, Lord, but please don’t let them do it alone. Bring forth your people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to stand with them. Protect them from harm and hatred and use their lives for your glory.
In Jesus’ name and for His sake,

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Test the Spirits

All throughout Trump's presidency, there's been a lot of division, with people on both sides just entrenching themselves in their political affiliations. Whether that's Trump's fault or our fault is sort of a moot point, but I suspect that it's a combination of the two, and the only thing we can control for the moment is ourselves. It especially bothers me to see Christians fighting among themselves, taking political positions that either supersede or downright contradict the message of the Gospel, just to support their "side." Voting for Trump or Republicans is not a sin - I can't find any word on that in the Scriptures - and neither is voting for Democrats, despite what anyone tells you. On the other hand, identifying yourself as a Republican or Democrat first and a Christian second, reshaping your faith and bending the Scriptures to agree with your politics, instead of the other way around, is a form of idolatry. It's okay to vote for Trump or to agree with his politics, wherever a clear understanding of the Scriptures allows you to do so, but I see Christians resorting to deception and delusion trying to make it seem as if the man never makes a mistake, never says anything wrong or stupid, never lies, and it's embarrassing. Equally embarrassing is the "blue no matter who" Christian, who is willing to ignore a candidate's personal history of immorality or their stances on subjects lie abortion or religious practices and freedoms. There's a whole new world out there that opens up when your politics flows from your Christianity and not the other way around, when you can support Trump, but also admit, "Okay, well, that was stupid or inappropriate," when you can support a Democrat, but also challenge them on their positions that violate God's Word.

When I see Christians so deep in the weeds trying to defend a candidate that they have to damage or abandon their Christian testimony, it reminds me of the chief priests right before the crucifixion. Pilate was hesitant to execute Jesus, but not so much that he would go against the mob. He tried to reason with them. John 19 tells us that he asked the people "Behold your King .... Shall I crucify your king?" and the people, even the chief priests, the ones who knew the prophecies, who were the protectors of the faith and the Scriptures, who just weeks before had been praising this messiah, but turned on Him when He didn't agree with their politics, all shouted back at Pilate, "We have no king but Caesar."

The American church had better be careful that we don't see Christ defamed and blasphemed by our political leaders and shout back, "We have no king but Caesar." Their words came back to haunt them when their temple was torn down by the very entity they pledged to and elevated above the true savior.

But maybe it's not deception mostly that makes Christians defend their political favorites to the point of absurdity; maybe it's more delusion, or maybe even a kind of voluntary ignorance. One thing I can say for sure is that along with this blind political obsession, I also see a whole lot of exclusion when it comes to sources of information. One side refuses to even entertain any information from so-called liberal sources, and the other side refuses to hear anything from a so-called conservative source. We even come up with clever (and stupid) nicknames for the sources we don't like, just to further entrench ourselves in our own beliefs, which may or may not be Christian or even reasonable.

This practice is actually a very dangerous logical fallacy called "genetic fallacy." Basically, this is dismissing information based on a disdain for the source. Like I tell my students all the time in evaluating sources, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Even a source that goes against your politics or beliefs possesses the truth sometimes, and that truth deserves recognition. I John 4 calls on Christians to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world." The passage even gives us a test, that "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." There could be some debate about whether God also sends truth through people who do not confess Jesus Christ, although there is precedent in the Scriptures for exactly that. But I see Christians attacking other Christians, refusing to even listen to those who confess Christ, and looking to virtually excommunicate anyone who disagrees, not with the Scriptures, but with their politics.

Some people would say, but the Bible also says in Colossians 2, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ." Absolutely right. We have to be careful about what ideas we accept, and which ones we reject. However, can I just ask, in the way of a gentle rebuke, how can you be so sure that the politics that you're fighting so hard for, the philosophies that you are so unwilling to question, even some the ideas that are being preached in your church are not the "hollow and deceptive philosophies," especially when they are so obviously the product of "human tradition"? If you're so unwilling to even hear any other point of view that you get angry at the suggestion or call for the excommunication of anyone who disagrees with you, then doesn't it sound like you're the one who's been taken captive?

I know it's counter-intuitive and even scary to listen to sources and people that we have long thought of as anathema, but how can we "test the spirits" without engaging them? Paul wasn't afraid to reason with the Areopagus, nor Jesus with the pharisees. Peter engaged the opposition so well with his reason and his ability to listen that they ended up complimenting Jesus, because they remembered that He had taught Peter. When that same Peter had been fishing all night, catching nothing, and watching a whole day's work go down the drain, Jesus told him to cast his nets on the other side. Peter thought this man was crazy, that he knew better, that there couldn't possibly be anything of value over on that other side, but since he was out of options, he pulled up his nets and dragged them over. He only knew he was talking to Jesus when those nets came up so full he could barely move them. It might feel like that when we even consider listening to sources that go against our politics, but my experience has been that there's a lot of truth on the other side, if we would just have enough faith to drag our nets over there.

And listening doesn't mean agreeing. It means listening. It means trying to put aside biases and test the spirits, whether they are from God or not, whether they carry truth or not. It means even testing the spirits inside us. The Scriptures are clear that there is a spiritual war going on inside us just as much as outside. That means we have to test not only the spirits outside of us, but the ones within us as well. The next time you try to listen to an opposing viewpoint and that bile rises up in your chest and your instincts shout "heretic" and "heathen," take a second to test that spirit and ask yourself whether that instinct is godly or worldly. Is that animosity coming from a spirit of truth, from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that helps us to separate truth from falsehood? Or is it coming from the sinful nature that wants us to hold on to our hatreds, our false superiority, our lies, and our pride?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


This stay-in-place, work from home, social distancing lifestyle has taken its toll on us all. Even we introverts who either welcomed the excuse for social distancing or just didn't see much of a difference from their normal lives are starting to miss the occasional anxiety-inducing thrill ride that is interacting in groups of more than four people. For extroverts, it must be so much more of a loss, or so they tell me.
Early on, I went through a brief period of resentment and suspicion about the new normal. I was upset about the loss of congregational gathering for church services and other events with the body. I felt that the government told us to shut down our churches, and we complied without so much as a question. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't trying to buck the system, and I want to love my neighbors too by protecting them from the virus, but there was something about the quickness of it all that took my breath away and made me think about how easy it is to change the foundational traditions of the church.
I was venting at work, and one of the sisters graciously talked me back off the ledge. She mentioned all the ways that she sees church happening all over, just not in the sanctuaries, and how our American church is starting to look more like the early church, who, for different reasons, also operated out of homes, in small groups, and didn't dare make a show of their numbers to the world. Because of her words, it occurred to me that we've gotten so used to our large assemblies, our comfortable sanctuaries, our sound systems and air conditioning, that we've come to think that's what church is. I can't even count how many times I've heard someone say that the church is the people, the body, and not the building, and yet as soon as someone took away the building, I felt as if the church had been taken with it. All around the world, strong, faithful brothers and sisters have been doing real church without the luxury of beautiful buildings and without the safety of large numbers, making their bonds stronger through adversity. But the prospect of spending one Easter without colorful dresses and sharp suits, without top-flight musicians playing my favorite hymns and a crowd of people to sing them (so that I don't have to), and I'm sulking in my living room like Elijah in his cave. And just like Elijah, it took God whispering in my ear to make me realize that most of the church has had it a lot worse for a lot longer, and has grown closer to Him and each other other through it all.
Then Easter came, and it wasn't so bad. All the kids and the grandbaby were in the house for the first time since the lockdown. We watched our church service on the computer and had our own communion love feast. We hunted eggs and played games for the rest of the day. We called some of our church members that we hadn't seen in a while. 
We did church.
There was something about that image of the empty tomb that resonated with me this year in a way that it never has before. In that tomb, Jesus was locked away, cut off from his disciples, from his family, from his friends. It was only three days, but it must have felt like a lifetime. Before that, He was in jail, awaiting the sentence that He already knew was going to be the worst possible outcome for Him, and the best possible one for us. Before that, He had spent a long period of solitude in the desert, preparing His heart, mind, and body for the unthinkable task that lay ahead of Him. He knew what it was to lose His freedom, what social distancing was like. After all, when He needed support the most, none of His friends would even acknowledge Him, let alone come within six feet.
And then He rose. The angels opened the tomb, and He walked out into blinding sunlight, and the universe changed forever. After a short period of seclusion, now there was a church, there was a temple in each one of us, there was a path straight into God's very presence that hadn't existed before.
That's how it can be when we step out of our tombs, if we make it so. When we emerge from this quarantine and social distancing, we can keep this longing for connection with the body with us. We can shift the focus off the steeple and onto the people. With God's help, we can emerge as something new - an American church that worships and loves with the same kind of sincerity and devotion that the rest of the body around the world has taught us for the last century or so.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Lessons Learned on the 9th Grade Retreat

Last week, I got recruited, or drafted, depending on how you look at it, into chaperoning the 9th grade retreat. It's a huge affair, bigger this year than ever before because of a huge influx of freshmen, over 200 in the class of 2023. This creates a whole lot of positive changes, but also some logistical challenges when it comes to getting all these students onto buses, sorted into cabins, and escorted all over campgrounds to participate in outdoors activities. Just to paint a picture of what we were dealing with, imagine 9th graders out in the countryside of Umatilla, Florida, shooting bows and arrows for the first time. The thing is, I don't actually teach 9th grade, so if I knew any of these kids, it was purely by accident.

The theme of the retreat was "Trust" - trust in God, primarily, but also venturing out of your clique and trusting other peers to be good friends, trusting teachers and administration to have your best interests at heart, and trusting your family for unconditional love. Every activity had a lesson attached, and, while I'm not sure how many of those lessons found a home in the hearts of those kids, I know that I learned some valuable lessons over the course of those three days.

1) I learned that 9th grade boys are like squirrels who got into a cocaine stash, and then decided to go on a pub crawl that ended with a tasting tour of all of Starbucks most caffeinated beverages. The decision-making processes are bizarre, and everything is a competition. Sometimes it's healthy competition, like who can row the canoe fastest, or clear the most tables after lunch, or hit the farthest targets with an arrow. Often it's terribly unhealthy and immature conversations, like who can push someone into the most people in line for food, who can make the biggest ball out of brownies, and who can make the loudest noise with bodily functions after 11 pm. That last one had a clear and uncontested winner. I got so fed up that I had to look inward and ask myself if I was like that at that age. I think I may have either blocked out those days, or revised them in my memory, because I don't remember being that annoying. On the other hand, I did get beat up a lot, so I must have been getting under someone's skin.

2) The difference in maturity between freshman boys ad freshman girls is large enough to be incalculable. While the boys are trying to see who can poke each other in the eye first, the girls are off to the side trying to make Tik-Tok videos of themselves dancing and building friendships that will last a lifetime, or until they like the same boy. At the very least, the girls are manageable. They may not want to try all of the activities, but there were a lot more adventurous ones than I thought there would be, even if they did squeal about everything in nature. Speaking of nature, many female eyes were rolled at the boys acting like black-footed albatrosses in their mating dances, trying to attract the girls attention with the limited social tool kit that their short life experience has amassed. One pair of real bachelors tipped a canoe full of girls right into the brackish lake by repeatedly ramming them, after repeated warnings from both me and the lake master on his rescue boat. They were utterly surprised that they didn't get a round of laughs and the coveted "snap."

3) For all of the bravado and risky behavior of the boys, for all of their annoying silliness and inexplicable decisions, these kids have problems. When the time came for the boys and girls to split, and the real heart to heart discussion began about what it means to be a man, what it means to trust God and people, what types of things bother or challenge them, it started out with some of the boys repeating the school talking points, but evolved into a mass confessional. There were boys stepping forward, in front of about a hundred of their peers, and opening up about their lives. Some of these boys are dealing with their parents' divorcing, and knowing all of the illicit details of the breakup. They've lost respect for their fathers because of infidelity, or their mothers for the same. They've lost loved ones to the ugliest diseases, and this after they've been told all their lives that God loves them and wants the best for them. Some of them feel farthest away from God at a time in their lives when they should feel His love all around them, almost physically, attending a Christian school, involved in church, literally surrounded by Christian teachers and counselors. They're just entering their high school years with a heightened sensitivity to the competition and pressure to perform flawlessly at school, often in the overwhelming shadow of very successful and wealthy parents. Some of them are cutting themselves and having suicidal ideation. They're like little islands of depression and anxiety in a sea of Christian love. 

The encouraging thing about the whole experience, the jewel of hope in all of that despair and angst, was watching that huge group of boys rally around each kid that got up and shared, and cried, and broke down as he spilled his secret shames and fears. While a boy was talking, they were quieter and more attentive than I had seen them all weekend, with a focus that I didn't think was possible for them, and when he was finished, they practically leaped out of their seats to form group hugs around him. All of the crassness and unfounded bravado they had exuded all day dissipated, and instead they showed love with abandon. They connected through their pain and worry and supported each other like brothers. After hours of being frustrated and annoyed with them, this one experience showed me that they have the capacity for maturity, even if they don't always tap into it when it's convenient for me.

At the end of the three day retreat, after hours in the sun on the lake, after what seemed like an eternity in the biting cold evening with the wrong attire, and after a 5 hour return trip, I stepped off the bus back on campus four pounds lighter from avoiding camp food the entire time, with sunburn on some weird overlooked places, lips chapped and splitting, and a sleep debt of about 65%. But I also came back with an understanding of what these wild boys are going through every day, and what their antics are meant to hide from the rest of us. I came back with a mission to pray for them and to look more closely for opportunities to offer a word of encouragement and hope, even if I have to force it through a veneer of annoying behavior.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

In Defense of Therapy

When I was separated from my first wife, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want the church to know. I was a deacon, after all - things like this shouldn’t happen to me. I worked at a Christian school connected to my church, so telling someone at work would have been the same as telling someone at church, we were all basically the same staff then. I somehow had hope that this would all go away, so I didn’t tell my friends, out of some stupid fear that it would cause problems once this marriage was back on track. The only person I told was my sister, and, like the crusader she is, she booked the first flight from Minneapolis to Miami and got herself involved, talking to me, talking to my ex-wife, suggesting books and videos and all kinds of resources. It didn’t do any good for the marriage in the long run, but at least I had someone on my team. And telling just one person made me bold enough to get some actual, professional help. I found a marriage counselor, made an appointment, and asked my ex-wife to come with me, or if she couldn't make it, to let me know when to reschedule the appointment.

The counselor I went to was a great man, who was not only licensed in marriage and family counseling, but also held a law degree, and he was able to give me great advice on pretty much every aspect of what I was going through. Better yet, he had an honest and blunt, but caring, demeanor, like Dr. Phil. I still watch that show regularly today, like I did back then, and there was something about the similarity that made me feel like I had picked the right person. He was direct, sometimes harsh with me, in a way that men can be with other men and still have respect and even love for each other. That first session, I came in prepared with all kinds of documents and information, and he dismissed all of it and spent the hour getting my head right about what was happening. The statistics for a marriage ending in reconciliation after separation, he said, were astronomically slim, almost infinitesimal. He had never personally seen it happen, after decades of practice. That cut me pretty deep, since I thought that I was really pulling out the big guns just by signing up. In light of that fact, he suggested that I reassess my goals. He said that it was okay if my number one goal was reconciliation, but that if it was my only goal, this would probably only end in destruction, when there were other ways to win in this situation. By the end of the session, we had come up with three goals that I was most focused on achieving, and all of them equal in importance. First, reconciliation of the marriage, and improvement on it, instead of going back to the same thing. One question that he asked, that I genuinely hadn’t thought of in all of my desperation, was that if she were to walk back through the door when I got home, and declare her intent to never leave again, but our living together was as bad as it had ever been, would I consider that a win? I had to agree that it wasn’t, and that I didn’t want to live that way. The second goal was the create stability and safety for my kids, to protect them and nurture them as much as possible through whatever was coming next. The third goal was mental and emotional health for myself. In the end, I couldn’t achieve all of those goals, but two out of three ain’t bad.

Another thing we established in that first meeting was that I had to focus on what was best for my children. Their mother was already talking about splitting up the week and creating a custody arrangement, even though she had just moved out, and no divorce papers had been filed. My counselor cautioned me that this was a bad idea - bad for the children, as well as a further hindrance in any kind of reconciliation. He advised me to protect them and protect myself, that she might want to make a lot of changes, and that she might even ask me for help in certain things. His advice was not to help her with any money or any other thing that would make this separation easier for her or would put my stamp of approval on it. Let her feel the separation from me and everything that it entailed, before she made up her mind to divorce. As for the children, she could definitely have time with them, obviously, but the idea of changing their home and shaking up their lives in such a dramatic way was out of the question. I agreed totally with the logic of his advice, but I was weak at the time, and probably had not been good at asserting myself with her in the first place. However, the idea of causing harm to my kids overrode any of those fears. Ultimately, I followed his advice, mostly, and I heard about it from him when I didn't follow it. It didn't save my marriage, but it saved my dignity and sanity, and it saved my kids from a lot more stress and confusion. They eventually came to some of the sessions with me , even though their mom never did.

If you’re going through this kind of stretch in your marriage, where one or both of you are talking divorce, where there are real problems like adultery or abuse or addiction, my advice, based on both research and experience, is to get the right people involved. Don’t go around telling everybody, but tell somebody, or, more importantly, tell the right somebody. Tell your best friends, tell your pastor, get a counselor on board, but don’t keep it to yourself. If you’re under the impression that keeping it a secret is going to make it more likely to just blow over or fizzle out, you’re wrong. There really isn’t any problem that I can think of that gets better through neglect. If you think that you can handle it on your own, you can’t. If you could, then your marriage wouldn’t be falling apart, would it? On the other hand, if you think that getting people involved is a guaranteed solution to a failing marriage, you’re probably wrong about that, too. But it’s not really about saving the marriage at some point. Living with the pressure of infidelity or impending divorce or abuse, and living with it alone, with no help or comfort or counsel from the outside, could literally kill you. For me, those times were lonely because of a wife who had completely checked out and abandoned me, but lonelier because I had to go through it every day, in front of students, colleagues, parents, church members, and friends, as if nothing was wrong and my life wasn’t falling apart and my kids weren’t crying themselves to sleep at night. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, then get people involved. Even if it doesn’t save the marriage, which, statistically, it probably won’t, it will more than likely save your mental health, and maybe even save your life.