Can The Police Do What We Can’t?

We have a law and order crisis in America. Daily we hear about the tensions growing between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We hear about the over-reaction of scared police officers, the random shooting of police officers in response, and the burning and vandalization of neighborhoods by protestors. We are all aware of disorder in so many homes and schools. Disrespect and abuse of power is making it increasingly dangerous for families who simply want to live a good life. Many are wondering if pervasive mistrust is becoming our cultural norm.

Recently, I received a letter on the stationary of the “El Paso County Sheriff’s Office” that opened by saying,

“We are experiencing a major change in our society from a posture of respect for law enforcement to a volatile attitude of extreme disrespect. Thankfully, not everyone in our nation fits the category mentioned above, but there is a segment that does. Their malevolent thoughts and actions often are the seeds that spawn tragic events.”

The letter went on to say that authorities are removing “Sheriff” from the decals on official chaplain’s  vehicles for the safety of their volunteers, and that the “fire departments and search and rescue organizations are also changing their uniforms so their personnel will not be mistakenly targeted as law enforcement.”

In pastoral ministry, I see the rise of arrogance and self-exaltation, and the crumbling of mutual submission, trust, and common courtesy. I value living a submitted life and enjoying the security of submitting to authority. But when I have to exercise the authority God has given me, I get nervous, in this cultural environment.

Good parents feel it too. They are often frustrated by the fear that if they discipline their wayward children, the government will punish them. Too many of our children are learning how to manipulate parents, police, school personnel and other authorities. While police departments are having to deal with defiant, lawless, arrogant misfits who know their rights, well-intentioned parents are frantically looking to houses of worship or community centers to help them keep their kids safe and on the right path.

I long for better manners and the return of personal humility and shame when it comes to wrongdoing. My mother ensured manners in all her children with the power of a glance that we knew meant business, and my grandmother used to say, “shame on you” to me when I would go outside to play with messy hair or unkempt clothes. Now, being caught misbehaving produces defiance toward authority instead of humility and an expectation that our authorities are helping us right our wrongs.

With the dysfunction and disintegration of our nuclear families, kids are learning to play their warring parents against one another, and the police departments are being asked to enforce laws in public that parents can’t, or are not allowed to, enforce at home.

If parents find it difficult or impossible to enforce the rules around the house, it’s unreasonable for them to then blame a police officer for struggling to enforce laws in public with their disrespectful and disorderly children. Why would parents think that their child will be orderly in public when they can’t get their child to make their bed, brush their teeth, or carry out the trash at home?

It’s sad to see broken hearted parents weeping on television because a police officer was afraid of their lawless child and over-reacted — even when the parents did not understand how to get their child to obey the laws of their own home. I know it’s a generalization, but if parents can’t control their own child with civility, why would they think the police department can? It’s a pervasive problem we all share.

Understand, I’m not defending the abuse of state power by the police. But, I am saying that we can’t raise disrespectful, lawless hoodlums and expect the police to treat them like they are model citizens.

Seeing the parents of criminals weeping on television about their “wonderful” child being abused by the police when their rap sheet reaches from the podium to the floor concerns me. It might be true that the child’s offense is minor this time, but the officer’s actions might also reflect that the police officer just wanted an honest days work for enough pay to feed his or her kids, and ended up dealing with a defiant hoodlum.

If I were a police officer today, I would think twice about pursuing anyone who is of a different race than me so as not to be accused of racism, and I would hesitate to risk my personal safety or future with someone intoxicated or high.

I think police officers are having to make the same decisions to protect themselves. Crime rates are skyrocketing in areas where the police are under close scrutiny. High early retirement rates among police officers are getting the attention of even our politicians. And our police academies are having trouble recruiting cadets.

The mayor of Colorado Springs, when he was our district attorney, visited our church years ago and said that he never had to prosecute anyone who had been in church the prior Sunday. I know some churches have changed since then and are now promoters of victimization, hatred, and disrespect. But I am convinced a return to biblical New Testament Christianity and a renewal of emphasis on inner transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit would be more helpful than simple social activism. Spirit-filled people are respectful, turn the other cheek when wronged, and seek justice and mercy.

We need a 21st century revival so our police officers will no longer be scared of the citizens they are charged to protect and serve. I do want law and order in our homes and communities, but it has to start with the internal restraint of evil in our hearts which is stirred by an understanding of the Scriptures and God’s conviction of sin. The outcome produces manners, shame about our own wrongdoing, and better behavior. Spiritual revival leaves the police with little to do. And the result would be that the cars and uniforms of our public servants can once again be marked and be a source of pride and dignity in our communities.

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The Honor of Pastoral Service

Julie’s despair was mounting as her two pre-adolescent boys were becoming increasingly demanding, her husband was working out-of-state, and the strains on her time seemed beyond her ability to perform. She had worked at a local para-church ministry for years and was a committed Christian with supportive friends, but a dark cloud of hopelessness was growing in Julie’s mind.

While at work Julie increasingly spoke with her coworkers about the relief being in Heaven would provide. One day she told a woman who worked closely with her that she had decided to take her own life. The woman reminded Julie that she loved her two sons and would never want to be without them. Julie’s response alarmed the woman. She said she planned to take them with her.

As Julie walked to her car at the end of the day, her co-worker called the police and reported to them that Julie was suicidal and threatening the lives of her children. When Julie arrived home, the police were there and, as required by protocol at the time, took Julie to our local hospital for a psychological evaluation.

Oddly, the hospital cleared Julie within a few minutes. Later that evening while the children lie sleeping, she shot both of them to death and then took her own life.

Within a week three coffins—one large and two small—were stationed in the sanctuary of our church. I performed the funeral as Julie’s husband, the father of their children, sat shocked on the front row. After the burial, he sold the house and left town.

A few weeks later one of my friends in the police department told me that he was at Julie’s house that day and had taken her to the hospital. He said typically they place people on a 72 hour hold for evaluation, but in this case they didn’t. He did not know why.

Another friend, who worked in admitting at the emergency room at the hospital, told me that when they brought Julie into the hospital, a friend of Julie’s happened to be overseeing the psychological evaluations that evening. She reported overhearing Julie and this women talking and laughing together in a hallway around a corner. Afterwards, the woman in charge filled out the paperwork reporting that Julie was fine and released her to go home . . . resulting in the deaths of the two children and Julie’s suicide.

I did not blame the hospital, but I thought they should be informed of the situation and consider improving their systems to ensure this didn’t happen again. Yet when I contacted the hospital administration, they received my concern as a threat and issued a public statement that all legal requirements were met. Later our local news reported that I had accused and blamed the hospital for the tragic event. The public perception was that I was grandstanding.

I backed off because I knew the hospital was concerned about liability—which was not my intent in contacting them. I also wanted to protect the confidences of the people who shared privately with me, and to avoid feeding the press a sensational and grizzly public confrontation between a pastor and our local hospital. I was simply seeking an improved system at our hospital, knowing that another Julie would one day arrive at their door.

That was over 10 years ago and I still carry it. Since I did not respond, the story died in the press, leaving the appearance to the public that I had baselessly accused our hospital. Julie and her children were buried in our local cemetery, and the hospital quietly improved its systems a few months later. I called Julie’s husband from time after that to see how he was doing. He just wanted to leave the pain of the past behind and build a new life. The families that left the church because they believed the press account—I’ve not heard from since. But I, as a pastor, feel gratified that our systems were quietly improved after the glare of the press was lifted, and to my knowledge, there have been no cases like Julie’s since.

This is the honor of pastoral service. There are typically facts behind pastoral decisions that cannot be publicly known, but the goal is to improve the lives of others, apart from grandstanding or glory. It’s an honor to serve; it’s the way of Christ.

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Is Trump the Antichrist?

I received an e-mail from a journalist asking, “Ted, do you think Donald Trump is the anti-Christ?”

I chuckled thinking that in my lifetime someone, somewhere has accused every President and Pope of being the Antichrist. And now, with fear being generated from terrorism and political confusion, it’s inevitable that people will start thinking in terms of the end times again.

In my response to the journalist, I explained that there are many antichrists, and then gave him four Scriptures to examine:

  • “Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come” 1 John 2:18.
  • “And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Anyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist” 1 John 2:22.
  • “ But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here” 1 John 4:3.
  • “ I say this because many deceivers have gone out into the world. They deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body. Such a person is a deceiver and an antichrist” 2 John 1:7.

Undeterred, the journalist pressed further saying he wanted to know if Trump could be the one Antichrist referred to in the book of Revelation (see Revelation 19 and 20). I told him that certain Christian Bible teachers continually point to current events believing they prove that the return of Christ is imminent; yet many of their predictions have not come true. Then I told him that Jesus’ comment in Matthew 24:14 makes me think we have more work to do here on the earth before the Antichrist will surface.

Jesus said,

‘And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.”

This verse has been taught two different ways:

One emphasizes the word “nations” could also be translated “people groups” or “ethno-linguistic groups,” which are groups of people who have their own ethnicity and language. In other words, for this Scripture to be fulfilled, there has to be a witness for the Gospel within every people group on the planet, and then the end will come. As a result, many stragic churches and missions organizations have made lists of the remaining unreached people groups and identified them for focused prayer, evangelism, and church-planting. Because of these efforts, the list of unreached people groups is getting smaller. But there are still unreached groups.

Another interpretation of this verse is that the Gospel will circle the globe, and then the end will come. Advocates of this position emphasize how the Gospel launched in Jerusalem, spread throughout the Middle East, then expanded to Europe and portions of Asia and northern Africa, then to the Americas, the rest of Africa and Asia, and is currently growing rapidly in China and India, with the expectation it will return to Jerusalem through Chinese and Asian missionaries. Thus, the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout (around) the whole world.

The modern Sunni – Shia conflict in the Middle East that is terrorizing the region and much of the world is a strong geographical, political, and theological barrier between the Chinese and Asian Christian missionaries and Jerusalem. If this interpretation is correct, it would highlight the significance of this conflict as an attempt to slow or block the completion of this biblical prophecy.

Both of these interpretations are closer than ever to being fulfilled. However, today neither of them are complete. Thus, it’s my guess that the end times figure, the Antichrist from the book of Revelation, is not currently on the scene. As a result, for this and many other reasons, I don’t think Trump is the Antichrist.

I concluded my email exchange with an dissatisfied journalist. Just as many friends of mine have been disappointed that the Lord has not yet returned, so this journalist seemed dismayed that his story idea lacked foundation. (I hope he doesn’t find someone that will agree with him about Trump and use his material as a basis for an upcoming article.)

I do believe that we are in the last days, and that the return of Christ is closer than it’s ever been. I also believe that we don’t know everything about the second coming of Christ, just like the first century Bible scholars who didn’t recognize Christ the first time. Thus, my admonition is that we all need to live our lives as if Jesus is returning today, but plan our lives as though he will not return in our lifetimes. That way we will conform to Jesus’ command to always be ready, while avoiding foolish speculations that keep us from fulfilling our present duties.

(All of the italics and bold emphases in above Scriptures are mine.)

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The Value of Taking A Gap (TAG)

I have become a Free Methodist (not a United Methodist). For those of you who don’t know, the Free Methodists are Spirit-filled evangelicals who have a high view of Scripture and education. The American schools they are affiliated with are Azusa Pacific University and Seminary, Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, Central Christian College of Kansas, Greenville College, and Spring Arbor University—all highly respected schools.

The Free Methodist Convention in Orlando last year voted to receive me as an Elder in the Free Methodist Church. Immediately after that confirmation of my calling, I started looking for a way to serve. I only noticed one missing component—they did not have a program for the students in their colleges and universities, or for the young people in the Christian community in general, to take a gap year. This is a time for young adults to develop Christian depth, along with life-experience, adventure, and fun outside of the formal classroom.

Studies have shown that when students take a gap time away from home just after high school or sometime during their college or career training, it allows them to mature and find direction for their studies. Then when entering or returning to college, these students are more mature, more responsible, and have more life experience than their peers. The popularity of gap intensives is increasing worldwide, and it’s no wonder. According to research conducted and compiled by the American Gap Association, students who participate in gap programs enjoy these benefits:

  • 90% are likely to return to college

 

  • 60%of gap year students say their gap year impacted the choosing of their major

 

  • 88%are more employable upon graduating college

 

  • And, 75%report being happy or extremely happy, following their gap year experience.

 

In addition, the positive effects of participating in gap programs are shown to endure throughout the college experience as reflected in gap year students’ improved grade point averages.

Of course, I believe there is no better place than the Colorado Rockies to set aside some time for Christian discipleship and fun. Thus, St. James Church has decided to start the process of offering a gap program, now called the Colorado TAG (Take a Gap) Intensive.

Our goals are to encourage our students to have an authentic relationship with Christ, an appreciation for the authority of Scripture, and an understanding of the importance of the local church and Sunday morning worship—all in a life-giving, non-judgmental environment.

On Saturday, July 9th, a few 18-24 year-olds will arrive in Colorado Springs from around the country to experience our first TAG intensive. They will experience three weeks of the best of Colorado (hiking, camping, climbing, rafting, etc.) along with life-giving Christian discipleship and life skills training.

If you know a student who might benefit from attending this summer’s three week Colorado TAG Intensive, log onto Saint James Church. In the upper right hand corner, click on Ministries and then from the drop down, click on Colorado TAG Intensive and explore our site. Or you may log on directly to Colorado TAG Intensive, or call Aaron Wright, our Colorado TAG Intensive Director, at 1(334) 202-1512.

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Could Islam Become Peace-Loving?

(Some of this blog is reprinted from my blog, “Is Allah God?”)

Pundits, politicians, and a few scholars say Islam is a peace-loving religion. When they say it, I detect a tone of rosy optimism that subtly reveals they are either hoping it’s true or trying to spin reality in order to appease moderate and non-practicing Muslims.

But many believe that in order for Islam to be authentically peace-loving, it would need a reformation similar to the one Christianity experienced 500 years ago that provided the theological underpinnings for western civilization. The pundits, who sincerely believe what they are saying, are seduced by their lack of belief in spiritual power. The reason Islam cannot experience a reformation is that the spirit behind Islam will not allow it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the popular author of the best-selling book, Heretic, Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, has hope. She is urging the Islamic world to have a reformation similar to that of Christendom. She wants Islam to:

  1. Amend Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.
  2. Amend the supremacy of life after death.
  3. Amend Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.
  4. Amend the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.
  5. Amend the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

I do not believe this will happen. Christian reformation happened because the practices of the Church had veered away from Scripture and the reformers were demanding a higher view of Scripture in both faith and practice. In other words, our reformation facilitated an emphasis on the Scriptures and thus, the life-giving Spirit of God. The opposite is the case for Islam. When Muslims adopt a higher view of the Koran, they are radicalized, not for representing the love of God, peace, respect for others and forgiveness, but for a harsh demand of obedience to Allah and annihilation of those who don’t comply.

For there to be a reformation of Islam comparable to the Christian reformation, its adherents would need to grow away from the tenets of their faith and adopt a lower view of the Koran’s teachings. In other words, they would need to separate themselves from the spirit of Allah and turn, instead, to the Spirit of life. When Christians become devoted, they increasingly adhere to the teachings of the Bible that encourages them to love, forgive, turn the other cheek, be healing, and be kind. When Muslims become devoted, they tend to go a different direction.

Certainly we’ve seen that not all of those who claim to be Christians are immune to demonic ideas themselves. But our historic mistakes have not been representative of Christ or the New Testament, Spirit-filled life he offers, even though some Christians will try to use the Scriptures to defend their own atrocities. President Obama was right when he reminded Christians at The National Prayer Breakfast of what we as Christians do when we are not operating in the life-giving Spirit of God, but are religious ourselves. He said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Jesus experienced this when Satan tempted him in the wilderness by using the Scriptures against him. God’s good work within the human heart is a spiritual uplift, an enlightenment, an ascent to a higher way of thinking. It lightens the load of life and provides encouragement. It is not the religious bigotry that some wrongly promote.

An open hearted reading of the New Testament offers God’s solution to wickedness in the human heart and removes the opportunity for outside evil influence, if and only if we submit to the Lordship of Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit. If not, we’ll find ourselves hating and warring just like all who follow the “god of this world.”

Bottom line, any time we human beings depart from the Spirit of the one true God who is loving, redemptive, forgiving, healing, and kind, we find ourselves manifesting our own fallen natures influenced by the deadly god of this world. But this is the opposite of our Christian faith. Christian reformers had only to point to the Scriptures to teach us this. To what do Islamic reformers have to point their followers?

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The Planned Parenthood Shooter

Yesterday Robert Dear from North Carolina killed police officer Garrett Swasey, a former athlete turned police officer, near the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs. Though the two were within yards of one another, they saw the world very, very differently. At the same moment, only two miles away in the comfort of my office, I was also experiencing a different world.

Today I expect to start hearing projections as to why this gunner targeted Planned Parenthood, and why he chose to shoot and ultimately kill and injure people in our community.

As my wife and I were falling asleep last night, we spoke at length about the way people see situations so differently. I see this contrast in perceptions regularly, even among the people of our church. Different people see situations and others differently based on their own values, experiences, and educations that filter their perceptions.

In addition, we all have, to varying degrees, cognitive distortions, which are thought patterns that cause irrational or exaggerated conclusions. Whoever this shooter was, I’m sure we’ll learn more about his cognitive distortions that caused him to justify, in his own mind, the tragedy he created yesterday. And with each one, we’ll shake our heads wondering how he could possibly think that way.

I teach a class on Sunday nights on Renewing Your Mind: How To Change Your Brain. A portion of that class deals with our seeing things realistically and then responding responsibly. Therapists that emphasize how behaviors are influenced by our thinking (Cognitive Behavioral and Reality Therapists) often use a list of cognitive distortions to help clients identify their own cognitive distortions so they can respond to life more rationally.

Two week ago I wrote a blog entitled “What? That’s Not What Happened!” listing a few of these cognitive distortions.

As Gayle and I were talking last night, we reviewed how our awareness of cognitive distortions can help all of us think through events and choose our responses with greater wisdom. In the context of yesterday’s craziness on the first day of this Christmas season, I thought a more thorough review might be helpful for all of us (This is my adaptation of the checklist by David Burns from Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy)

  1. Polarized thinking: When we look at things in absolute — all or nothing categories, we are typically thinking too simplistically. Things are seldom exclusively good or bad, black or white, right or wrong. Instead, there are exceptions, explanations, and nuances that cause most people and situations to fall into a gray area between the extremes.
  2. Overgeneralization: When we overgeneralize, we use words like always, never, everyone, best, and worst. Generalizations are seldom, if ever, true. There is typically at least one exception. 
  3. Discounting the positives: When we  discount the positive accomplishments or qualities of ourselves or others, and focus only on the negative, we or they feel insignificant and powerless.
  4. Jumping to conclusions: (A) Mind reading – we assume that we know what other people are feeling or thinking. When we do this, we think we know the motivations of others. Since we rarely understand our own motivations, to presume to know the motivations of another is a significant projection that is seldom accurate; (B) Fortune Telling – we arbitrarily predict the outcome of events or future development in the lives of others.
  5. Magnification or Minimization: We blow things way out of proportion or we shrink their significance, which distorts their value.
  6. Emotional Reasoning: We draw conclusions based on how we feel, assuming our feelings reflect some reality.
  7. Should Statements: We judge others using words like should, shouldn’t, must, and ought. “Have to” is a similar offender. These are sometimes necessary for personal application, and we may sparingly and cautiously use them in reference to those within our chain-of-command, but they can reveal a major distortion of personal significance when used randomly toward others.
  8. Labeling: We draw comfort by simplistically seeing people and situations in categories, boxes, silos, classifications, or stereotypes. This leads to sexism, racism, bigotry, and other generalizations that do not take into account the uniqueness of individuals or specific situations.
  9. Personalization: We assume that what people are doing or saying is about or because of us, when in fact it might not have anything to do with us.
  10. Blame: Our greatest potential for choice is between some event and our response to it. We choose our responses. They are not forced upon us, which is why we are responsible for how we choose to respond. So when we blame, we are giving more power over our lives to others, and denying our own abilities.

It’s too early to know why the Planned Parenthood shooter did what he did. But now we have an opportunity to comfort those who have been hurt by his actions, pray for healing in the lives of those involved, and do everything we can to learn from this horrific tragedy how to respond to actions and views we disagree with in constructive, godly ways.

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Leveraging Your Money

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season. All day yesterday, while I was enjoying my family’s Thanksgiving celebration, my phone kept beeping with an endless stream of e-mails beaconing me to buy online now so I could save huge amounts of money. It seems every retailer and benevolent organization is aimed at extracting funds from me in light of the generosity this season elicits. In response, I’ve made this the only time of the year I teach about money. Why? Because we all want to give and spend wisely. So, here is my plea: give cheerfully and generously as your heart leads, and remember to leverage your money for you and your family’s future instead of foolishly spending it.

God’s perfect will for all of us is partially revealed in three key verses:

  • John 10:10 where Jesus said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life”,
  • 2 Corinthians 8:9 where Paul writes, “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich, and,
  • 2 Corinthians 9:8 where he also writes, “And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.”

These and other powerful Scriptures reveal God’s will for us, but I’m always reluctant to teach them because others abuse them. Paul addresses our response to abusive leaders when he writes, “After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face.” But since God’s Word is true, I realize I shouldn’t allow those who misuse these Scriptures keep me from encouraging fellow believers to be blessed by obeying them.

So I met with a group of businessmen from our church and we reviewed the Scriptures relating to this subject, (see Deuteronomy 28:12, Malachi 3:8-12, Matthew 6:24, 23:23, and 25:29, Luke 6:38 and 16:10-12, John 10:10, Acts 20:35b, Galatians 6:7, 2 Corinthians 9: 6-11a and 11: 19-20, Hebrews 7, 2 Timothy 2:20-21). Then I asked them how, from their experience, God blessed them and others they’ve known who are givers.

As you might imagine, the men gave me a long list of ways God has multiplied their giving through the years. Three ideas stood out to me as they spoke:

  1. Tithers become increasingly responsible. The highest earners in the world are paid well because they are reliable. They have safe hands and can be trusted to get the job done. They are stable, dependable, and faithful to complete tasks. People who are responsible are obviously positioned to earn more than those who are irresponsible.
  2. Tithers develop marketable skills. When God wants tasks done here on earth, he calls on people who are capable of doing them. God inspires givers, they said, with a desire to do quality work, and with the desire to learn and improve their skills. People who are competent earn more than the inept.
  3. Tithers develop social skills. These men reported to me that through the years they have observed that when people give to their local church, their social skills improve. It’s an interesting observation, but they said when people consistently invest in their local church, the group dynamic they are investing in gives them motivation to improve their manners. And of course, a person with manners has an advantage over the one who is socially unacceptable. Thus the giver who has developed social skills has greater earning potential.

These men also described supernatural favor with others in key positions, how God gives opportunities to givers, and the flow of good ideas that are evident in givers, all naturally resulting in increased income. I gathered from their discussion that God is very pragmatic in the ways he blesses those who give.

So my conclusion: If every one of us would tithe 10% to our local churches in response to biblical principles, invest 10% of our income in financial investments, improving our skills, or earning a marketable education, and then live on the 80% that’s left, we would leverage our funds so well that, relatively quickly, our investments would produce more income than our labor, and we would have “ . . . everything we need and plenty left over to share with others.”

(If you would like more on this subject, you can order my booklet, “Serve God, Uses Money” on Amazon.com)

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What? That’s Not What Happened!

Improving Our Perceptions

Perception is reality, or so it seems. I’ve served as a pastor for thousands of people over the past 40 years, yet I continue to be amazed when I hear people recount an experience or recite something they heard someone else say with a slant that reveals more about them than the actual story. Why do we do this? Because all of us see through the filters of our own knowledge and values, and we judge based on our perceptions.

And since our perceptions are distorted to some degree, we all need good churches and friends who can speak deeply, and sometimes confrontationally, into our lives.

I once spoke with a woman who was making damaging decisions for her family. She reminded me of the second half of the Bible verse, “A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish women tears it down with her own hands” (Proverbs 14:1). I gently tried to point out to her the direction her decisions were taking her and the outcome they could produce in her family, but she rejected my comments and refused to see her situation apart from her own perception. She’s now alone, divorced, and estranged from her children.

Through the years, I’ve observed many wise women who’ve learned the skills necessary for building a stable and strong home and family. And through the years, I’ve also observed many women who have unwittingly torn down their own homes and families. In most cases, the foolish ones never know what they did and typically they blame others for their family’s demise. (Others, no doubt, share the blame, but we all must ask what our part is—how do we help to build or heal rather than contribute to the destruction.)

This idea applies to men as well. It applies to all of our lives, families, and relationships.

In the class I am teaching on “Renewing Our Minds, How To Change Our Brains,” we are learning about Paul’s exhortations to think certain ways and how this actually changes our physical brains and, as a result, our behaviors. Along with biblical insight, we are discussing materials from reality and cognitive therapists who emphasize how our behavioral responses reflect our thinking.

Below are a few of the cognitive distortions we’ve discussed in class that impact how we see ourselves, our circumstances, and others that may cause us inadvertently to harm those we care about.

  • Maximize/Minimize: In Matthew 23:24 Jesus warns against “straining at gnats, but swallowing camels.” He is referring to us filtering events. For example, we take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation; or we maximize what is insignificant while minimizing what is truly significant.
  • Polarized Thinking: In polarized thinking, we see things simplistically. Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Polarized thinking avoids gray areas and nuances. It’s easier to have this kind of certainty, but it’s seldom accurate.
  • Overgeneralization. All generalizations are false. When we overgeneralize, we often come to a conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence rather than accepting that everyone and every situation is in a continuum of change. When we overgeneralize, we overuse words like “always” and “never.”
  • Jumping to Conclusions. This cognitive distortion causes us to think we know what others are feeling or their motivations. We think we know, but in fact, we are simply presuming to know.
  • Personalization is a distortion where we believe that everything others do or say directly relates to us.
  • Blaming. We hold other people responsible for our decisions or our happiness. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our emotions and responses.
  • Fallacy of Change. We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

So how do we change our perceptions to make them closer to reality? How do we change them so we can respond to others in a more Christ-like way?

We intentionally grow in Christ, renew our minds, and develop quality friendships.

If we think about it, we can identify our distortions. Others have been pointing them out to us for a long time—either verbally or through their actions. But if we don’t know, we should ask someone we trust.

I have often said that if our enemies are the first ones to tell us the truth, then we don’t have any authentic friends. If we have friends, they can help us see more clearly what our distortions are so we can make changes to improve our lives and relationships. If we don’t have friends, we can start taking steps in our local church and community to make friends that will help us build healthy, stable lives and relationships.

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The Four Questions

I discovered four questions in William Glasser’s Choice Theory several years ago that have helped me identify solutions in my life, and I’ve used them to help others do the same. In public meetings and private counseling sessions, I’ve found these four questions initially get some laughs, but then they challenge all of us to think intentionally about creating more satisfying and productive lives for ourselves. As we grow in Christ and in wisdom, our answers to these four questions can help us develop the lives we want.

1. What do you want? For most Christians, their answers are connected to their faith and calling. But I encourage them to think beyond that, about their desires to be physically safe, secure in their relationships, and accepted and respected by others. It always makes Christians smile when I ask them about the amount of money they want (because, of course, everything is more convenient when they have more money), and how much influence they think they need to be happy. I also ask them whether they have enough control over their lives at home or at work (or maybe on Facebook) to experience the significance they desire. I ask them how much freedom they want in contrast to the amount they have and if their desires for adventure and fun are being met.

Asking people what they want always leads to engaging conversations. People come for counseling because they are unhappy with something in their lives. Giving them permission to identify what they want often causes them to contemplate their answers seriously.

Because we Christians are trained to serve Christ first, others second, and ourselves third, we are sometimes deeply dissatisfied but don’t understand why; after all, we are faithful Christians and that, we believe, should suffice. But if we are unhappy, dissatisfied, or empty inside, we need to talk that through in a non-judgmental setting or we might make some horrible mistakes. This leads to the second question.

2. What are you currently doing to get what you want? Sadly, most of us do things that do not lead us to the life we really want. If we live according to instinct or as a reaction to others, our lives often become the opposite of what we intended. So I ask people to realistically assess their behaviors. And that leads to the third question.

3. So, how’s that working out for you? This question always makes people laugh (or cry) because they did not come for counseling because everything is ok. They came because something is not lining up with the life they envision for themselves.

For most of us, some of our behaviors are helping, and some are not. I tell people that negative things happen naturally, but good things require intentionality. If we need to make changes, it actually does not matter where we are in life currently, what matters is the trajectory we establish to go forward toward what we want.

At this point we discuss how everything in their lives affects everything else in their lives — that their spiritual life will give them ideals, motivations, and power, but then they have to make choices that will impact their thoughts, their emotions, and their behaviors. And these four elements (spirituality, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) can work together to get them where they want to go if they are intentional.

This concept is always a relief because it communicates that no one is trapped, victimized, or without power over their future. We have God-given abilities to move our lives in the direction we want to go, but we must be intentional. If we are random, we might be the ones creating misery in our own lives. This idea leads to the fourth, very helpful question:

4. What can you do, that you are not currently doing, to get you what you want? At this point, biblical principles come to life in a powerful and meaningful way. We always have choices to make that can move us forward and help us achieve what we truly want. None of us are ever trapped. Regardless of our current situations, we can make choices that will move us in a positive direction.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the directives of Scripture help us set priorities and motivate us to improve our lives. But very often we have difficulty identifying the practical steps necessary to achieve our goals. These four questions can help us create a path that leads to the deep satisfaction and happiness we’re seeking.

These questions give us direction about who and what we should love, and where we need to place boundaries. The answers to these questions establish how we should spend our time, our money, and our energy. The answers to these questions tell us whether we need to receive an additional degree or certification, lose weight, exercise, or memorize the Scripture.

The point is these four questions give us a framework for intentionally achieving what we truly want in our lives. Our spiritual lives give us power and motivation; these four questions help us discover a methodology for getting there.

More next week.

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The Blame Blog

I gave my life to the Lord in June of 1972. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed learning the Scriptures, functioning in the body of Christ, and growing in relationship with the Lord. But to my surprise, as the years passed and I became stronger in my faith and my walk, I discovered I had inadvertently surrendered Jesus’ Lordship in my life to others.

I lived a successful life until 2006. My spiritual growth was healthy and my relationships were strong. My wife, Gayle, and I enjoyed a loving relationship, and we enjoyed raising our five children together (and continue to delight in our relationships with them to this day).

But in 2006, I crashed. When I crashed, I did what I thought was right and surrendered all of my accomplishments, personal power, and influence to others. For the first time since childhood, I became totally dependent on others. Now I reflect back on that season of dependence upon others as the greatest mistake of my life. I believe that in hoping others would do what I was ultimately responsible to do, I forfeited Christ’s Lordship and as a result, so many, including myself, suffered horribly.

As a result, the church I now pastor, St. James Church, is thriving under the philosophy that each of us is responsible to become stronger, more capable people in Christ. This philosophy is developing a unique church in a national culture that accommodates blame, weakness, and victimization. We stand apart from those who give people excuses for the failures in their lives as being the result of disappointing or dysfunctional relationships, trauma, pain, and/or past experiences. Instead, we have learned that in Christ we can be filled with the power of God and renewed in our minds, which gives us the motivation to overcome the impact of past traumas and to grow in competence and strength. As a result, we can then discover effective tools or steps that enable us to live in freedom, and to thrive and grow in the Lordship of Christ, rather than under the power of alternative lords.

For example, if I say, “My boss makes me so angry,” I am saying that my boss is lord over my emotions, not Christ. It may be true that my boss might do things that I don’t like, but I don’t have to give him or her power over my emotions, I do have other choices.

If I say, “I have an addiction problem because of a trauma I suffered 10 years ago,” I am saying that I am incapable of overcoming that trauma, that my trauma is now lord over me, and I will be identified by it and victimized by it the balance of my life.

We don’t have to be that weak. For example, it might be true that trauma has impacted us in a significant way, but that does not mean we must surrender to the effects of that trauma for the rest of our lives, making that trauma lord over us. We don’t have to be defined by our traumas. That is, we don’t have to surrender to the lordship of trauma when Jesus is, in fact, our Lord. Identifying trauma may help us understand certain behaviors, thoughts, and difficulties, but we can make choices to disempower trauma’s lordship and establish Jesus’ Lordship over us.

When I learned that a traumatic childhood experience resulted in some incongruity that I dealt with as an adult, others assumed it was an excuse, a way of evading responsibility. I never saw it that way; instead, I saw it as information which gave me the understanding I needed so that, empowered by Christ, I could overcome the effects of that trauma and live a healthy life. I’ve done that.

So my word of caution is: if you are talking to a pastor, counselor, or friend about an issue in your life and they allow you to blame your situation on another, dismiss their counsel. Then go talk to someone else who will explore your options with you. If their intent is to help you get to a better place, even with the facts as they are, then you will be empowered to make good decisions and improve your situation. You can’t control others, and you can’t change your past, but you can control, or gain control, over yourself, your choices, and your responses. And you can improve your future.

As soon as you blame others, you are acknowledging their lordship over you, and you’ll find yourself powerless and victimized.

But you always have options. The Lord will never allow you to be in a situation where there is no way of escape. He will always point us in the direction of healing.

More about this next week.

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