Counseling/Pastoral Issues

Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently

Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ESV)

The peace of God does not come to those who do not practice Christian manners. I love the way Leo Tolstoy put it in one of his novels, “If you love me as you say you do… make it so that I am at peace.” Love needs to be communicated so that the other human being is at peace. The purpose of love is to establish your fellow brother or sister in peace.

Have you ever left a conversation feeling utterly drained and discouraged as a human being? Love ought to lead to peace and fullness, not emptiness. Love confronts at times and leads us to peace because now we know where our sins are. Love encourages and leaves us at peace because now we know that we are not alone.  This is the lesson for the Church. For Paul, peace was not so much a feeling, but the tangible manifestation of the grace of God toward us or of a human being towards one another.

Love shows concern for one another. Love, as David Powlison once put it, “Speaks many languages fluently.”

In life, a man or a woman will have at best two or three friends. He may have many acquaintances, but two or three friends (at most) that stick closer than a brother. There is a distinction between vulnerability and openness. You can be vulnerable with few people, but you can be open with many. Few are friends with whom secrets can be shared and deep confession can be made.

As we seek to build our community, we need to understand that some will gladly express inquire about your well-being, but others will go a step further and stay on the phone with you day after day; be with you day after day in time of need. Church community is not a community where everyone acts the same way in every circumstance. It is complex and multi-layered. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but some brothers are closer than a brother to you than others.

So, since not everyone will know everyone in precisely the same way and be a friend in every way, what is there to be expected of every Christian in general? As we become aware of new births, the death of loved ones, physical and spiritual trials that emerge in our lives and the lives of the saints, and many other circumstances, these are important applications to keep in mind:

First, we must all have a mutual desire to practice what we have learned together. You may listen to what your minister says week after week, you may discuss, even disagree, but in the end you must desire to practice the Christian faith together.

Second, you must show concern for one another. In your community, you ought to ask at least one person each week, honestly and directly, if they have any specific needs. Seek to know them and let them know that their needs are heard.

Finally, and much more could be said, know one another as much as it is possible. How do you know someone? You can know someone generally, or you can desire to know them more intentionally and intimately. Ask questions. Ask good questions. Learn to pay attention to experience and emotions. Learn to be a good detective of human beings. Be able to detect sadness, confusion, frustration, and anger. We do a fairly good job with our children. At some level, this should be translated to those with whom we engage and commune. Know just enough to be able to see such a person and inquire of such a person concerning their well-being if you notice something is not well.

Paul says that he celebrated when he found out about his congregation’s status. It made him rejoice in Christ that he know their needs and they know his.

This is common Christian courtesy that we so often forget to exercise. The reason we should act this way is because our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, acts this way toward us. He cares and is deeply concerned about our needs, passions, and what makes us who we are. Practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.

Paul’s Emphasis Is Not Justification By Faith

Paul’s Emphasis Is Not Justification By Faith

In Protestant theology we stress the centrality of justification by faith. This, certainly, is a good thing. We are justified by faith, not works. Dead people are not able to pay the penalty for sin with their own effort. It is only through faith in Jesus that we are no longer condemned before our heavenly judge. The emphasis on justification by faith, however, was intended to combat a particular crucial error in the Roman Catholic church, and not intended to carry as much theological freight as we often give it. Instead of centering on justification by faith, which is more limited in scope, Paul prefers to write about how we are united by faith into Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus died for our sins and was raised by the power of God. We, too, were dead because of our sins. But by faith we have been united with Christ: we are in Christ. So His death to sin is our own, His resurrection to life is our own, His being seated in the heavenly realms is our own, and His glorification is our own. Justification by faith is one fact of “union with Christ.” – Ed Welch

How To Talk About Death With Your Little Children

How To Talk About Death With Your Little Children

I have been asked this question a few times in my pastoral ministry. Here are a few thoughts for how to approach the subject of a death of a loved one with your little children:

First, make this a family affair. Gather the children as soon as possible to explain that a loved one has died. Conversations of such magnitude need to take place in a safe environment. If a child hears about the death from someone else it might lead to confusion and even anger.

Second, death is a horrible human reality. One of the consequences of the Adamic sin is death (Rom 5:12). We will all die, and likely we will see and witness many friends and family members die before we do. It is helpful to explain that death is an ugly thing and that as Christians we hate death. Taking our little ones to that familiar story of death in the Garden is a healthy way to contextualize the news to them. Death is first and foremost a theological issue, even if explained in the language of a three or four year old.

Third, do not be afraid to use the word death. If you say that such a person has “passed away” or “gone to sleep forever” this may cause confusion or fear in the child. A child might go to sleep at night fearful that he will never wake up. Clarity is fundamental. Tell the child that death means we will never see grandpa or grandma again in this life.

Fourth, do not be afraid to weep with them. Sometimes children do not understand mom or dad’s feelings after the death of someone. Feel free to explain your feelings to your children. “I am crying because grandma died. I am going to miss her.” If they begin to cry, join them in their tears and comfort them.

Fifth, when children discover that a loved one has died, they may assume that you will die also. They may ask questions like: “Are you going to die too, mommy?” At this point, it is important to let the child know that most people die when they are really old or very sick. And then let them know–if it is the case–that mommy or daddy are not sick and are still full of youth. If someone close died of a very young age, let them know that it is not very common, and then point out the young people around him that are alive.

Finally–and I am aware that much more could be said–inevitably, little children will ask questions about what will happen to grandpa or grandma, or mom and dad after they die. As Christians, we need to stress that Jesus overcame death at the cross and resurrection. He died and was raised so that we might live forever. This is a wonderful time to remind them of the promises of Jesus. “Grandma is now in heaven with Jesus. She is at peace. One day when we die we will join her in heaven. Jesus says than when we go to heaven we will never die again; we will live forever.”

Our children do not need a fairy-tale narrative about death. They need a compassionate, biblical approach that is sensitive to their thinking as little ones and faithful to the narrative of the Bible.

Worry: Imagination Used in Futility

Worry: Imagination Used in Futility

“Anxiety was a way of life in the ancient pagan world. With so many gods and goddesses, all of them potentially out to get you for some offense you might not even know about, you never knew whether something bad was waiting for you just around the corner.”[1] But Paul makes clear that the God revealed in Jesus Christ will hear you when you call. Anxiety becomes sinful when it is not delivered into the hands of the God who answers us.  The way you stop worrying sinfully is by handing over your concerns to God. When worry is not followed by petition, it becomes chaotic and generally sinful. Paul is bringing these two similar mental activities to mind: worry and prayer. Worry uses the same faculties that prayer uses. In both our thoughts and words are present, as well as our emotions and imaginations. Ungodly worry is imagination used in futility. a Prayer turns our cares and concerns into fruitful reasons to trust in God. Worry without God’s intervention becomes a pagan habit. We become so consumed with anxiety that we lose our appetite or we make our appetite a god; or we become manically depressed; we make ourselves vulnerable to whatever items or false solutions take away our pain. We hide ourselves, whereas Paul says “reveal all your anxieties to God for he will hear you.”

Since worry and anxiety are such daily exercises of the human mind, Christians are then to react to worry as God would have us.

How Shall We Then Live?

We live by transforming and renewing our minds, according to the Holy Scriptures.

It’s all right to be concerned about a loved one’s health, a difficult financial situation, a conflict with your closest friend in the Church, but Paul’s answer to Euodia and Syntyche’s in Philippians 4 is to find a common mind by asking the Lord for one.

A few simple, perhaps obvious, but hopefully helpful applications to deal with our daily worries biblically:

First, we need to address our anxieties to God. Instead of a vague nervousness, name the worry and concern. “Our Father in heaven, I am worried about my son, daughter, and my relationship with this or that person. Name your worry in prayer. Leave the vague generalizations to those who worship false gods. Our God is deeply interested in hearing specifically about your concern.

Second, turn your worry into a specific request. Once you have identified your worry, then make it known to God. “My God, I am concerned for my son’s relationships. His friends are not leading him to godliness. Help me to communicate that gracefully to him, so that he would seek godly friends instead.”

Specific petitions refine us and cause us to think deeply about the things we pray for as we pray daily.

Third, Paul says pray with gratitude, with thankfulness that our God hears us and that unlike the pagan gods of the ancient world, He is not out to get us; rather He is near us to help us.

Celebrate the kingship of Jesus over our affairs in the body.  Let the world know that the way we go about solving conflict in the Church is with grace and gentleness, not with anger and bitterness, and then turn those concerns about relational or other problems into opportunities to ask for intervention from God himself.

Here is the bad news: You may be faithful in all these things, and still the one with who you are in conflict may continue to dislike you and act as if you do not exist. After all the pastoral intervention, that relationship may never be the same again. That’s the bad news! The good news is that by faithfully dealing with conflict as Paul instructs, God will be pleased with you. You will have learned to live through difficult circumstances by honoring God.

Is worry consuming you to the point where you can no longer see the end of the story? If so, refine your prayers, people of God, and make it known to God even now for He hears us.

[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone. Prison Letters.

  1. Some of these thoughts come from Gregg Strawbridge’s sermon notes on Philippians  (back)
Let’s Do Away With Small Talk!

Let’s Do Away With Small Talk!

I have a secret to share. I love talking to people. I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s stories. Human beings are fascinating. They have fears, wounds, and successes. To make things even better I have been called to listen to people’s stories for a living. And frequently, especially on Sundays, I get to share life-changing stories. People tell me their stories. It is really gratifying, because I can’t stand small talk. They usually indicate that you find nothing in my life worth listening.

For the extroverts like myself, small talks can be frightening. I don’t do silence well. I prefer elaboration. “Tell me more…” I keep saying as someone begins talking. I want to leave this conversation, however short, with a better understanding of who you are as a human being. So, here is my secret to get people talking: I ask them questions. I don’t mean “what time is it?” questions, I mean “what do you think of time?” questions. I want people to flourish whether in my counseling room or at a coffee shop. I want to know why your children matter and what specifically makes them matter to you.

Recently, a couple of comedians shared my concern. They got tired of small talk. And so they offered some advice:

One way to get beyond small talk is to ask open-ended questions. Aim for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers.

Instead of . . .
“How are you?”
“How was your day?”
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“What line of work are you in?”
“What’s your name?”
“How was your weekend?”
“What’s up?”
“Would you like some wine?”
“How long have you been living here?”

Try . . .
“What’s your story?”
“What did you do today?”
“What’s the strangest thing about where you grew up?”
“What’s the most interesting thing that happened at work today?”
“How’d you end up in your line of work?”
“What does your name mean? What would you like it to mean?”
“What was the best part of your weekend?”
“What are you looking forward to this week?”
“Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?”
“What does this house remind you of?”
“If you could teleport by blinking your eyes, where would you go right now?”

Go ahead. Answer the unexpected. Bring people into your story and help them open theirs to you. Let’s do away with small talk!

The Reality of Conflicts: Some Principles

The Reality of Conflicts: Some Principles

Church conflict is a reality. No church is immune from it. The question, then, is not how to avoid it, but how to react to it. Philippians 4 offers a sort of mini conflict-resolution seminary in verses 4-9. Here are some general thoughts.

First, conflict can lead to opportunities to enhance unity in the Church. If a brother challenges someone’s lifestyle, and the recipient of the accusation says, “you have no right to challenge me in what I am doing…my life is my own.” The one who is sinning, whatever the sin may be, is providing a divisive view of the church to the world. It is proper that sin is confronted, particularly heavy sins—we will discuss sins of ignorance in coming weeks—so that the church might recover that image of unity before the watching world.

Secondly, and this plays to certain personalities in the Church—especially those who do not like any type of confrontation—when conflict arises some are tempted to wish it away, or to deny that there is any conflict. Two people are not talking to one another, the silent treatment has been activated, and we act as if the other person doesn’t exist. We pretend that the conflict doesn’t exist. Or we tend to think that time will make it go away. “These responses bring only temporary relief and make matters worse.” a This is the escape response to conflict.

Thirdly, Paul refers to the exercise of gentleness in conflict. Whether after a day of meditation, you come to the conclusion that you are right or wrong—every Christian has been given a conscience to ponder after some analysis if his actions were sinful or not—you have considered whether your words or actions were hurtful done or uttered in a moment of weakness, Paul would say that you ought not to wait for the other person to act, but you are to take the initiative. “Look, what I said to you was inappropriate; please forgive me for those words.”

This is nothing revolutionary, but a call to consider that gentleness is not only a fruit of the Spirit, it is a fruit of restoration and reconciliation in the Church. Gentleness in these church conflicts is a requirement, not only from the one intervening, but also from those who are at odds with one another.

For those of us who have little ones, our houses can seem like the headquarters of conflict. Sometimes you can hear conflict arising, and it is how we react to that that is the key. Perhaps a simple catechism would be: “Children, who is lord of this home.” Answer: Jesus. “What does Jesus expect from us?” Answer: A gentle spirit towards one another. If we are to be in the kingdom, then we must become like little children. The problem is not that conflicts exist—that’s a reality—the problem is that we don’t know how to act when it happens. The Church is not the English Parliament where members get to speak above each other and hurl insults as they please. The Church is the House of God where the celebration of Jesus’ kingship and the gentleness of the Church provide for the world a taste of what is to worship the King of peace, Jesus Christ.

 

  1. Ken Sande, Peace Maker, 23  (back)
Temptations

Temptations

I don’t have a fancy title for this short post. The word says it all. “Lead us not into…” Temptation is inevitable. The question of how to answer it is key. I spoke with a friend today about the nature of temptation. We discussed that its devilish taste has a short edenic flavor, but shortly thereafter it leaves a perpetual bitter taste in your mouth. Temptation is always stronger around sins that have been previously indulged. Those sins that you have overcome have a way of seeming very attractive when it presents itself again.  We are called to flee those environments, but at times we find ourselves going just far enough to get a bit of that old taste thinking that it will provide satisfaction, and then once again we find ourselves miserably confronted with the taste of death.

The roaring lion is patient in his strategizing. He screwtapes us into believing that our rationale is perfect. We are sin logicians by nature and the more we perfect that art the more we are treasured by the father of lies.

Taste not. Handle not. Touch not. Deliver us from evil.

Recidivism and Sexual Abuse: How should the Church Respond?

Recidivism and Sexual Abuse: How should the Church Respond?

Stephanie Smith observes at RNS that the question of  recidivism, that is, “The tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior,” is a hot topic today offering a few different schools of thought. The conversation is more nuanced than many in the Church admit. A few key points to consider when re-offense (recidivism) rates are discussed:

1. Treatment options for those who have committed sexual offenses against children is a young and changing field. Although we know that the sexual abuse of children has been occurring throughout history, the idea of providing treatment to offenders is new and is largely untested with very little accompanying research. Much more remains to be learned about the effectiveness of treatment for child sexual offenders.

2. Recidivism studies require that the offenders have been caught and adjudicated within the time period being studied (five years, fifteen years, etc.). Many reported cases that will result in conviction might not be fully adjudicated within that time frame of the study due to the length of time involved in investigating and prosecuting such cases. Furthermore, the delay in the judicial process is also impacted by the fact that most abuse survivors do not immediately report the abuse.

3. Recidivism studies require accurate data regarding reoffending. The fact that child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported offenses makes it extremely difficult to collect accurate data on the recidivism of offenders. For example, the fact that there has not been a new report of abuse regarding a certain offender does not necessarily mean that the offender has not reoffended. It may simply mean that additional victims have not reported the offense.

4. Any study under discussion needs to be reviewed thoroughly to ascertain how “sex offenders” are defined. Are we looking at a broad or specific category of sex offenses? For example, are we considering only offenses against adults, or just offenses against children, or a combination of offenses against adults and children?

Again, Stephanie Smith makes this point:

It is important that we distinguish between the different types of sexual offenders when addressing the issue of recidivism. For example, pedophiles represent a smaller number of offenders convicted for sexually abusing children. However, they tend to have higher numbers of victims and higher recidivism rates than any other type of sex offender. On the other hand, researchers have identified some sex offenders who assault adults that eventually stop perpetrating.  Thus, studies that do not distinguish between pedophiles and adult rapists do not accurately reflect the risks to children. (emphasis mine)

Churches, instead of becoming a place of protection, have become easy targets for sexual offenders. “Offenders are drawn to faith institutions initially for the same reason that they are drawn to schools, youth sports and other youth-oriented activities. It’s the easiest way to gain access to children outside their own families.”  It is important to stress once again that the issue of recidivism requires a certain ability to distinguish between offenses. We make a tremendous mistake if we believe that we can deal with all sexual offenses the same way and if we deal with sexual offense the same way we deal with adultery or other such sins. Further, we need to develop a more robust response from church leadership in such cases so that  leaders in the church are prepared to deal with such issues as soon as it happens.

May God give us a spirit of wisdom and may this God avenge his little sheep and those growing under this psychological burden and pain, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven.

Child Protection Policy Approved by the PCA

Child Protection Policy Approved by the PCA

Here is the powerful declaration made by the 42nd General Assembly of the PCA that ought to be considered by each denomination as they deal with the Church’s silence on this important subject:

OVERTURE 6 – “Child Protection in the PCA”

Whereas our Lord Jesus demonstrated his righteous anger at his own disciples, rebuking those who would do anything to prevent children from coming unto him, saying “to such belongs the Kingdom of God,” (Mark 10:14) and condemning those who would harm children, saying “it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6); and

Whereas an epidemic of child sexual abuse exists in our culture, with the vast majority of such children being harmed by someone they know and trust, wounding children physically,
emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually with lifelong ripple effects; and

Whereas the silence of the church – when we fail to appropriately address “rape, incest,
sodomy and all unnatural lusts” (WLC 139) by not reporting disclosures of child sexual abuse, or not caring for those who disclose child sexual abuse, or not proactively taking steps to prevent child sexual abuse – is a fundamental failure of servant leadership, rendering the church complicit and culpable before the Lord, driving people away from the safety, healing and hope of Jesus Christ; and

Whereas Scripture warns leaders against the “careless exposing, or leaving [those in their care] to wrong, temptation, and danger” (WLC 130), and every jurisdiction acknowledges that child sexual abuse is a serious felony and has its own mandated reporting laws;

Therefore, be it resolved that we exhort all church leaders to become informed and to take an active stance toward preventing child sexual abuse in the church by screening staff and
volunteers, training them in child protection, and actively maintaining child protection policies pertaining to our obligations to love our children and protect their rightful interests as God’s image-bearers from the devastating actions of abusers (Matthew 18:5-6; WLC 129-130); and

Be it further resolved that we remind all churches that the heinous crime of child sexual abuse must be reported to duly appointed proper representatives of the God-ordained civil
authorities, in accordance with local laws, and that we must cooperate with those authorities as they “bear the sword” to punish those who do evil “in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered . . . to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever” (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; WCF 23.3); and

Be it further resolved that we urge all church leaders to use their influence for the protection of children, by any and all godly means, including preaching and teaching against the heinous sin of child sexual abuse, warning anyone with knowledge of these sins to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11), and by supporting victims who often suffer in silence and shame without the vocal and compassionate support of the church; and

Be it further resolved that we direct the Permanent Committees and Agencies of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America to review their policies, procedures and practices in the area of child protection, including their response to child sexual abuse disclosures, their faithfulness in reporting child sexual abuse to duly appointed proper representatives of the God-ordained civil authorities, in accordance with local laws, their care for survivors of child sexual abuse, and their future plans to help educate the PCA on child sexual abuse, and all other areas of response consistent with Scripture and the Constitution of the PCA, and report to the 43rd General Assembly through the Administrative Committee, after it has referred the matter to and received a report from the Cooperative Ministries Committee; and

Be it finally resolved that the 42nd General Assembly urge all members of the PCA to renew our allegiance to our Lord Jesus by loving our children as he loves our children, “for to such belongs the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14)

 

Grieving for the Church’s Response to Sexual Abuse

Grieving for the Church’s Response to Sexual Abuse

Boz Tchividjian grieves and so should we.

This past week I found myself grieving. I learned that a former volunteer of a large church was convicted of sexually victimizing three boys under his supervision.

I grieve that when the parents of one of the boys told a pastor about the abuse, he chose not to report the crime to the police and strongly discouraged the family from doing so. I grieve that the failure to report this dangerous sexual offender gave him two decades of freedom to find and victimize more little ones. I grieve that not even one pastor from the church came to court to support the brave victims who eventually came forward and testified. I grieve that many Christian leaders all around the country who don’t hesitate to express open condemnation for abortion, universal healthcare, and the firing of reality television stars who make derogatory statements about gays and African Americans are suddenly silent when it comes to open condemnation for other Christians who choose not to report child sexual abuse to the authorities.

I grieve that there are individuals within certain Christian communities who deliberately choose to remain silent out of a fear of alienating those who have the power to cancel speaking engagements and turn down book contracts. I grieve that friends of those responsible for not reporting this crime would rather spend their days (and nights) vilifying and marginalizing those who have stepped forward to express outrage then grieve over such a horrific failure. I grieve that Christian communities that preach humility and love are often unteachable and too eager to be defensive and condemning when rebuked, regardless of the consequences to human souls. I grieve that many within the Church prefer the sounds of conference speakers, blog posts and tweets about theological nuances to the cries of the abused and marginalized.

I grieve that much of the Church is asleep and doesn’t even realize it. I grieve that it is so hard to find Jesus in the midst of all this. For too many precious souls, inside the Church has become like Narnia – always winter, but never Christmas.