Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Insufficient Funds

Sex, Money, and In-laws - most surveys say these are the top three topics that couples argue about and I'd say that is true, even if the core issues behind all three usually are more related to pride, selfishness, and self-centeredness.  90% of the time when couples come in arguing about one of these things I can usually help them best not by whipping out slides and spreadsheets on how to do them well but rather to point them back to what is really at the root and needing to be discussed - we're really talking about MY money, MY freedom, MY pleasure, MY body, MY not being controlled, MY family, etc.  If both people's hearts are in the right spot and they just need guidance then I can help people with the nuts and bolts of how to relate within extended families but I'm about as qualified to instruct people in financial matters as I am in lovemaking.  I can tell you how me and my wife do things (just financially) but I'm no expert.

In fact I'm a financial idiot, not because basic math eludes me but because willpower does, and I can rationalize my way into anything.  This lead to a scenario that probably only happened 5-10 times over the course of the 9 years I was responsible for running the family's finances, but each time it was mortifying.  It seemed to happen more often to my wife than me, but it was standing in the check-out line of the supermarket with a buggy full of groceries and no way to pay for them.  A good hour of life has already been invested in selecting just the right items and then apparently rough approximations of remaining checking balances and maxed out credit cards don't equate to a return on that time investment.  So you have to walk out of the store either staring blankly at your wallet hoping it might console you or looking around hoping you don't know anyone in the store before jumping back in the car and driving home empty handed.  Then later on you reach in the pantry to get something you purchased before you are once again reminded of your blunder as just because you picked something out doesn't mean it made it home with you.  I share this not only so I can be openly mocked by the greater world but because I have a hunch I'm not the only one who has been there or somewhere close.  The good news is you don't have to stay there, as my family will never be there again thanks to getting together with a financial counselor.

Our guy sat down with us and walked through what it actually looks like to construct an exhaustive budget and live by it, how to set aside money each month in savings for expenses that aren't monthly, and how to use a cash envelope system so you are going to the store with cash instead of a debit card and hopeful thoughts.  What this means for us is no longer living paycheck to paycheck, building savings, eliminating debt, and most of all a freedom that comes from being in charge of our money rather than our money being in charge of us.  You may be awesome at all this stuff and if so good for you, read a different blog entry, but if you are like me then stop rationalizing or getting more information and get guidance and accountability.  If you are in the Charlotte area contact Kim and Loree Heimbach at http://www.newhopefinancialcs.com/ or 704-604-3485. If you aren't then check out http://www.daveramsey.com/coaching/find-coach/ to find somebody in your area.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's All Good

If you asked your average Christian what the single greatest threat to Christianity was you'd likely get answers ranging from Islam to Obama, to a Muslim Obama.  We usually think of the worst threats being external and either religious or political, when I believe the greatest threat to the future of Christianity in America really is a cultural issue that has been sneaking within.  Just because certain other religions disagree with us doesn't mean they are the real competition, and I believe Satan is happy as can be having major world religions just look at each other squabbling while religion itself is eroded away.  I also think vilifying either side of the political spectrum with religious arguments just contributes to the problem by making Christians look small-minded and focused more on agendas than a life changed by their savior.
Keep in mind that I believe enough in the sovereignty of God to think that Christianity itself can be killed off or that it is actually in danger, we aren't that powerful to screw it up.  What I'm talking about is on an individual level and especially for our children to pass on an authentic faith that will serve them as adults rather than weak superstition, rigid dogma, or assuming they have it all figured out when they don't have a clue.  I'm more interested in how to engage a teenager about faith or how to discuss my faith with someone who just doesn't see it as all that important.  What it comes down to is the term "Christian" has really come to lose a lot of its meaning, we can't just assume that when the term is used that people actually know what it means.  Its like the word "love," which can be used to mean anything from "I passionately love my wife and children" to "I really love chocolate ice cream."  Now people refer to themselves as "Christian" if they sometimes go to church, or kind of believe there might be a god out there somewhere, or if their parents are Christians, or if they just happen to be an American.  This makes it kind of hard for me as a counselor because I often have clients state right out of the gate that they are a Christian and for me that has a set of presuppositions that often aren't what they were implying.  It also means that talking to teenagers and young adults about faith involves a verbal jujitsu to get them to consider God at all much less allow themselves to be pinned down by any label or categorization.  

For me it helps to have a starting point of what it is that someone actually believes rather than me making random assumptions one way or the other, but it seemed like it kept coming back to one coherent set of beliefs that really weren't Christian but couldn't be otherwise categorized.  Finally the great University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill produced a sociologist named Christian Smith who has written a book that has defined exactly this set of beliefs I keep running into.  In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers he writes about a concept he refers to as moralistic therapeutic deism which to me helps elucidate the belief system that our culture serves up in heaping doses through every form of media until it becomes just the atmosphere we walk around in.  Maybe the saddest part of the study revealed that for most teenagers the interviewer was the first adult in their lives to ever ask them questions about or engage them in discussion about matters of belief.  Most parents rely on church, youth group, or their own sterling example to be sufficient for helping their teens know everything they need to know about faith.  The belief system of Moralistic Theological Deism (MTD) can best be understood by the following five belief statements:
1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Now some of you may read those and think, "well that's pretty much what I believe," or "what is so wrong with that?"  It isn't a problem except that it isn't even close to Christianity even though as my religion professor referred to it, "It tastes like chicken" meaning it is close enough to resemble orthodoxy to make its way inside the church and gain widespread acceptance.  When most teens, along with most public figures and celebrities talk about Christianity, this is what they are talking about.  It would take way too long to break down exactly what the theological differences are but I'll hit some of the high points.  MTD sees God as "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process." Some major things are missing or perhaps purposely excluded because they make us as Americans uncomfortable, like the depravity of humanity.  If the only people who make it to heaven when they die are "good" people then we are all in trouble, because Jesus will be standing there all alone.  We like to use the term good, because then it is up to us and we can just send Jeffrey Dahmer, Bin Laden, and our ex-husband to Hell while we and all our friends and family get to be good as determined by us.  If however we think we can really be "good" then it follows that God would want us to be that, except that the cross is a blaring reminder that we are all screw ups in need of mercy and grace rather than rock stars getting cheered on by a god who just wishes he were as awesome as us.
MTD also assumes that everything in this world is all about us as humans, whatever makes us happy, while Christianity says that the entire created world is about God and his glory and honor.  We like to rewrite things with us as the central focus, but in Christianity there is no room for that - God isn't focused on our happiness that comes and goes, if anything he cares more about our holiness, but ultimately he is focused on everyone experiencing just how huge he is and being humbled in the process.  There are great benefits we receive when we see God accurately but the cost is having to see ourselves accurately as well, because if it is all about God and not us then he gets to decide reality and not us, he gets to judge and not us, and he gets to decide when and how he involves himself in our world.  He isn't a genie to be rubbed so we can get bailed out of crises but ignored when we think we are good, he is the King of kings and Lord of lords to be worshiped and obeyed.

Where is the good news in all of this?  MTD leaves you feeling self-righteous, important, and good enough but ultimately unfulfilled because it is hollow.  We all want something to devote our lives to that is bigger than ourselves because at the core we all know we really aren't that important and even when we define good for ourselves we don't live up to our own standards. All the conflict in our lives stems from seeing ourselves as the most important thing, it is outrage that we aren't being treated the way we feel we deserve because of our greatness.  Without a God that forgives us exactly because we can't make it right on our own and are hopeless without his mercy we will never be able to truly forgive another person - unless you know what it is like to be forgiven the best you can do is ignore or try and rationalize the harms against you.  Without a God who is greater than us and the collective opinion of others we'll never develop a stable sense of worth and value.  And if we don't understand God's unconditional one-sided love that benefits us while we have absolutely nothing to offer him we'll manipulate every relationship we have trying to get what we want and expect from people.  

So maybe rather than asking stupid questions of our kids, coworkers, and friends like "Are you a Christian?" we can begin asking what their thoughts and beliefs are on God and what he wants in their life.  We need to stop blithely accepting labels thrown out that have no meaning and actually engage in real dialogue or we'll both be nodding and have no idea how far apart we really are.  I think one reason we avoid the deeper conversations is we don't feel confident in what we believe because our entire culture presents a different picture.  It's OK to talk about a loving God who wants you to be happy that is there for you in a pinch but knows when to scram so you don't ever have to feel bad.  But popping someone's bubble and letting them know that they aren't their own God, that the world religions have vastly different and mutually exclusive belief systems, and that trying hard to be good just polishes the facade and  you invite criticism and ridicule.  Laying out the beliefs of MTD should help us engage our culture in a relevant way, open up dialogue, and provide hope for people who as try as they might can't squeeze fulfillment and purpose out of a false gospel.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Keeping Score

Lots of couples keep score in marriage, I'd wager to say that most everyone who has ever been married has kept score at some point and probably routinely.  By keeping score I mean holding on to some sort of measure of fairness in the marriage based either on number of times the other person has screwed up, number of times they have let you down, or how long it has been since a desired action or behavior has occurred.  Men are quick to accuse their wives of this as they are usually pretty good about ignoring the 49 things fully accomplished on the to-do list and focus in on why exactly the toilet didn't end up getting cleaned when they have never been the one to get urine anywhere other than in the bowl.  But then I have also found that most every husband on the planet can give you how many days/weeks/years/minutes it has been since the last time their wife had sex with them, data which they are pretty sure is scientifically reliable but almost always errs on the side of exaggeration.  Most of this comes from always having a front row seat to observe what we are doing but only occasionally seeing what they do, knowing full well how many times we held our tongue but only having access to the data of when they don't.  Whether it is how many times I have done the dishes because you forgot or how many times you have said you are sorry in the last year or the last time I felt like you called me at work and didn't have a complaint from me we all seem to have a running internal scoreboard that is constantly updated.  The problem with this scoreboard is that it is rarely even remotely accurate and even if it were it all is a push for fairness in a marriage - and fairness is something that should have been crushed in Kindergarten but seems to survive for most of us.

I touched on this idea here: http://pilferedwisdom.blogspot.com/2011/08/compromise-key-to-marriage.html in talking about the myth of compromise, but fairness doesn't just infect decision making, but our general stance towards the other person.  Either they are doing a sufficient job at pleasing me (Because my happiness IS the supreme ruling force of the universe to be striven after by all, not the worship and glorification of our creator and savior...) and I feel like the scales are balanced, or I am doing the lion's share of the work, responsibility, and sacrifice and therefore I am owed a debt.  But if doing things for the person we love and have pledged our life to produces resentment or an invoice then what are we saying about them but that they are really just an object and not a person to be appreciated and loved?  Love doesn't expect to be paid back, an exchange does, and if you are part of an unchristian, legal-document, formal contract arrangement then your work and effort needs to be compensated, but if you are loving someone then just shut up and do it.  If loving someone who can't love you as well in return makes you foolish then Christ is the biggest fool of all.  Maybe you are a part of a relationship with your creator and savior who knowing full well you couldn't begin to pay him back for the lavish love he decided to pour out on you still decided to enter a relationship with you and will never back out.  If so and you call yourself a follower of Christ then love deeply and foolishly and pray that your idiocy brings God more glory.  If you exist in a world where you are what is most important than by all means squeeze every bit you can out of your spouse, use them up and spit them out, guilt and manipulate them into giving you what you want and throw them to the curb when they stop producing.  If loving someone causes resentment because you don't feel paid back then you need to reassess whether you even know what the word "love" means, because apparently you are treating them like a retirement account - you put stuff in and invest so that eventually you can get even more back out.  

I've had a relatively easy and trauma free life but I've often thought that Viktor Frankl must have had a hard time biting his lip as a therapist when people came in to complain to him.  Probably could have gone like this:
Client: "Yeah, my wife is getting fatter and I'm just really not attracted to her any more.  It's just not fair, I make lots of money and she just lays around eating bon-bons all day..."
Frankl:  "Hmmm, yeah I had a wife once.  Her, my mom, and my dad were all murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp I only survived because I was a doctor so I was useful.  They needed my psychiatric skills to calm down the cattle that were being lead to the slaughter.  I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
While I am pretty sure this never happened, he did have the ultimate trump card for peoples complaints and in a way the Bible gives similar advice - gratitude and appreciation are pretty important and you only get them with perspective.  Are you worried?  The Bible says when you stop to appreciate what you have and how God has always provided for you it gives you the perspective to trust him.  Are you in an unfair relationship?  The Bible says if you are in relationship with Christ it is far more lopsided and unfair than any other relationship you have but you like it that way.

You see, when people tell me they just want fairness they don't really mean it, they want more and better, even more than they deserve.  You want fair?  The average family income in America is $31,000 a year, so it would only be fair to be given that to work with as a couple.  But then internationally you are considered statistically in the "rich" category if you make $8,000 a year so really it's "unfair" you have so much money.  One in four women and one in four men will be sexually abused at some point in their life, so fair means you should have to throw that into your marriage and see how that affects things.  22% of wives are abused by their husbands, as high as 42% in other parts of the world so fair would say that you should spend at least a fourth of your marriage cowering in fear of retribution.  30-60% of marriages involve an extramarital affair, etc, etc.  The truth is you don't want fair because your wife gaining weight is a burden the vast majority of the world would have a hard time sympathizing with you for as 925 million people do not have enough to eat.  Bickering about who has to clean the house you actually own when warlords and corrupt governments make that difficult in some places, who should get to drive the "newer" car when people walk miles to the nearest semi clean water, and how often your husband wants to have sex with you when millions of women and girls around the world are sold into sex slavery and forced to have sex with 40-110 "men:" a day seems like we could all use a bit of perspective.  Because it is only with a healthy perspective that we can see the immense blessing that our spouse is and how blessed our lives are, and it is only by deciding to stop manipulating our partners to get what we want that we open ourselves up to truly loving them.

Best line from a sermon I've ever heard was "Fair died on the cross."  We don't want fair, we don't want what we deserve, we want some counterfeit myth of the perfect husband or wife we were promised by a deluded society. 

Fair died on the Cross