Category Archives: Discipleship

Quote: Reward in Good Character

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Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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8 Ways to Show Your Wife that You Love Her


I love my wife more than I can say. Unfortunately, I often neglect to say or show it. I may just be in the remedial class of romantic husbands, but a few years ago, I realized that I didn’t do nearly a good enough job telling/showing my wife what she means to me. Saying “I love you” is a good start, but I have discovered that actions speak much louder than words when it comes to making her feel loved. In fact, I’d argue that love is best shown through actio, rather than words. Jesus demonstrates this principle through his service and sacrifice for those he loved. Certainly words are necessary, but actions are vital. My biggest problem in showing my wife how much I love her is conjuring up clever ideas for showing it. Knowing what to do is a real challenge.

  1. Talking– Remember when you were dating and you used to sit and talk for hours without any effort? When was the last time you did that? Talking is important to most women, far more so than it is for most men, who typically talk less. They just don’t need to talk in order to feel close to their wives. This is not the case for women. Most women identify conversation as a major emotional need. Unfortunately, what was easy while you were dating can quickly become an enormous challenge. After marriage, it’s important to intentionally spend time talking to her. Ask her about her day, her feelings, and what she thinks about various matters. Paying attention to her, listening to her, and opening up to her means a lot. Of all the things you can do to show your wife that you love her, this is at the top of the list. Do it every day.
  2. Love Notes– This is my favorite. Telling your wife that you love her is one thing, but writing it down for her to read and reread is another entirely. For most women, words of affirmation are important. She may already know that you love/admire/yearn for her, but regularly telling her is a big deal. Writing love notes is easy to do, takes almost no time, and it means a great deal. It just makes sense to do it regularly. In addition, I often say the wrong thing in the moment. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth, the wires get crossed. Writing out your thoughts makes it easier to avoid the pitfalls associated with speaking off the cuff. Love notes can range from cards, letters, or post-it notes. In particular, notes that are written and tucked away where she will find them later are great surprise.
  3. A day away– Whenever I notice that my wife is particularly stressed, I plan a day out for her. I try to schedule these outings with one of her friends. I schedule a few activities for them to enjoy, like a massage, painting pottery, a visit to the chocolate shop, etc. The details mean a lot for these outings because they show that you have spent time thinking about her and planning the day. The most important part of showing your love for your wife is showing that you are thinking about her. For example, I paid for everything in advance or left gift certificates and love notes with the owners. Last time I put one of these days together, I was on a work trip. I had her girlfriend come by the house with a babysitter to watch the kids. The whole thing was a surprise. As gestures go, this one required a great deal of planning, time, and effort. Sometimes your wife needs time with her friends away from the kids, the house, and you. Recharge time is a huge deal and will mean a lot to her. I have also put these days together for her to take our daughter out for a “girls day” or our son for a play day. Obviously, these days have different planning requirements.
  4. The away day– My wife works hard and sometimes needs some quiet, down time. She likes getting out, but sometimes rest and relaxation are what the doctor ordered. For times like this, I take the kids out and leave her with a quiet house to herself. Typically, it’s necessary to do some big preparation in advance to ensure that the day is actually a gift. I usually get the house in order, catch us up on laundry, make snacks/food for her, etc. It’s no good leaving her home to relax, only to find that she opted to use the time to wash dishes, pick up the kids toys, and do laundry.
  5. Flowers– My wife doesn’t like flowers, because they die. She has trouble with the idea of buying things that we just throw away a few days later. I buy them sometimes anyway, and she likes them, but they aren’t her favorite. A year ago I happened on a solution to this problem. I read a few origami websites and spent a TERRIBLY frustrating evening figuring out how to fold flowers. It seems cheesy and I expected her to roll her eyes at the gift, but the time I put in meant a lot to her. I made one or two at a time over the course of several weeks, leaving them on her desk or nightstand. One afternoon I walked into her office to find she had put them all in a vase. Once again, the big thing is showing her you are thinking about her and spending time doing something just for her.
  6. Clean House– My wife and I split the workload in our home. We share in chores and childcare responsibilities. Now and then, I take an afternoon to thoroughly clean the house, wash the kids, and cook. When she comes home to a clean house and no chores, she loves it.
  7. Taking care of little things– A couple of years ago, I asked my wife about my habits that annoy her. It took some pushing to get her to open up about what I do that grates her nerves, but when she did, I found that the majority of the things on the list are little things, like changing the toilet paper roll when it’s empty, picking clothes up off the floor, or taking my shoes off when I come in the house. It seems silly, but changing these patterns was noticeable to her. In addition, they were easy habits to change. I had to put effort into remembering, but they made a difference. She noticed, which helped demonstrate my care for her. In addition, fewer annoying habits meant less for her to be upset with me over. Those little things add up quickly.
  8. Date Night– We try to go on a date every week. This isn’t easy, but it’s important. Marriage is maintained through quality time together. We can’t always find babysitters or spend the money for dinner out, but dating each other is a big deal. When we can’t get out we put our kids to bed early and eat dinner alone, play a game, or just sit and talk. Putting the effort in to courting your wife is a big deal. It tells her that she is important to you and that you don’t take her for granted. Planning a date as a way of showing her that you love her involves way more than just walking out the door. Admittedly, getting out the door for a date can be a challenge, but it’s not all there is. It’s important to take the initiative to line up childcare and take care of the “at home” details. If she has to go crazy lining these things up, it makes her evening less enjoyable. Further, it’s a big deal to research and plan the evening. Most of us have sat in the car trying to get our wife to say what she wants to eat or what she wants to do, only to have her respond: “I don’t care, whatever you want.” If this is how most dates turn out, then taking the initiative to plan the evening avoids the frustration of this conversation. Plus, planning shows thought, which is a big deal to many wives. The big goal is to make her feel special. Attention to the little things achieves that goal.
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Josh Duggar, Hidden Sin, and Why Christian Men Fall

IMG_7337This week’s news has been dominated by the story of the Ashley Madison data dump. Hackers, who had stolen the account information of users of the Ashley Madison adultery dating service, released the information of hundreds of thousands of men and women who had signed up to find someone to cheat on their spouse with. The first name to pop up in the headlines was that of recently scandalized Christian marriage/morality crusader and former reality TV star, Josh Duggar. Social media, news outlets, and tabloid websites jumped at the opportunity to denounce the hypocritical actions of Duggar. In the last week, I’ve seen folks claim that all Christians are hypocrites, that Christians are the source of most social ills, that this is further proof that Christianity is a scam, folks have dismiss Duggar as a pervert, and all sorts of other vitriol. Folks who’d previously defended Duggar are conspicuously silent, many not knowing what to say after defending the man in past months. I believe that many Christians reach a point where they expect men to be sinless, instead of knowing that men can easily fall. We need to remember that Jesus is Jesus and we are not. No one is-except Jesus. I’m not trying to excuse the guy’s sins or dismiss him. Frankly, it’s not my job to deal with him. I’m neither his pastor nor his family. It’s unlikely he’ll ever read this. I will say that we need to acknowledge the seriousness of sin and judge ourselves by a higher standard than the world. We can’t wag a moralizing finger at the lost while whitewashing and excusing our own sins. It’s not right. Instead, we should take the opportunity to properly explain repentance and grace. More on that in a future post.

Personally, I’ve been watching the whole thing and feeling sorry for the man’s wife and kids, who will bear the public shame and humiliation of Josh’s actions. In addition, I’ve found myself thinking about how this happens. Whether or not ministers are statistically more likely to get caught cheating, it’s certainly news when it happens. As a guy who works in ministry, I pay attention whenever I hear about it because I’m genuinely bothered by it. For starters, it reflects badly on Jesus and His church. It also raises the specter of potential in my mind. Men that I like and respect have had these sorts of moral failings, so it follows that it could happen to me as well. I’ll admit that I’m very aware of the potential. I don’t think any of these guys planned to cheat on their wives or that they lived their whole lives as con artists, faking their faith in order to trap a wife and get a low paying pastor job. (Though, oddly enough I had a stranger accuse me of that once.) Rather, through observation, I’ve collected some common traits that make it easier for Christian men to fail morally.

  1. A sense of infallibility: I once interviewed at a church where the previous pastor had left when he ran off with a Sunday School teacher he had been cheating on his wife with. One thing that I learned about him during my visit was that he frequently spoke in sermons about being sinless. He literally claimed that he no longer committed sins. The problem with this mindset is that at the point where he began to experience temptation to commit adultery, whether he wanted to confess it or not, he couldn’t without acknowledging that he was, in fact, a sinner. I’ve talked to ministers who suffer with guilt and shame, wishing they could seek help, but feeling trapped because of their sense that they can never acknowledge any of their sins to anyone else. If a man gets trapped in a pattern of sin, one that he cannot deal with through confession and discipleship, it will generally get worse and worse until it’s exposed. I would argue that this is a result of a…
  2. Poor understanding of our need for Jesus: Jesus died for my sins and the sins of all people because we couldn’t live perfectly ourselves. When I sin, I confess it and turn in a different direction. God didn’t pick me because I’m awesome, or good, or smart, or anything else. I belong to Jesus because he recognized my wretchedness and saved me from it. He did this specifically so he could be glorified because of His tremendous grace and mercy. When I forget that I am a wretched man or try to depict something otherwise to the world, I forget or fail to understand my need for Jesus. That need should dominate my decisions and relationships. My preaching and teaching should openly acknowledge my wretchedness and need for Jesus. If I publicly acknowledge my sinfulness regularly, then I don’t need to hide it. From all appearances, Duggar was struggling with sexual sin from a fairly early age. He didn’t seek help in overcoming it, likely because of the shame associated with sins of that nature and because folks assume that we should instantly defeat temptation and be done. Proper emphasis of our need for Jesus and the folly of self righteousness would have created an environment where confession would have been easier. Freedom to speak about it keeps me from falling victim to…
  3. Weak accountability: Men who operate in a vacuum, with no oversight, can easily fall into sinful patterns because no one is watching. He begins to develop the sense that no one will ever catch him. Accountability, in the form of oversight from others and regular meetings, where the man is free to speak openly about his struggles, is vital to preserving morality. In particular, men need to be held accountable when they have…
  4. A marriage that isn’t top priority: It’s easy for marriage to fall lower on the priority list, behind work, children, image, success, etc. The only thing that ought to rank higher is my commitment to follow Jesus, which in turn governs my relationship with my wife. Specifically, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. When spouses fail to meet each others emotional needs, affairs become more likely. Imitating Christ in marriage means serving each other mutually, caring for each others needs. Willard Harley wrote 2 excellent books on the topic, Love Busters and His Needs, Her Needs. I’d highly recommend them both to any married couple. Disclaimer: This isn’t to blame the situation on wives. Each man’s sin is his own. It’s rather to point to a real factor that leads to affairs and offer a tool to ensure it never happens.
  5. Radical Honesty: There are several people in my life, including my wife, several pastors, and a few other men, with whom I practice radical honesty. I tell them every rotten thing I think or do. Sin grows in the dark. The more I hide, the more likely I am to fall into sin. Maintaining several relationships of radical honesty is vital to safeguarding integrity.
  6. Maintaining Good Boundaries: If I were a sleepwalker, I wouldn’t ever go camping at the top of the Grand Canyon. I’d be afraid of walking off a cliff while sleeping. I’m not a sleepwalker, but I am a sinner. I sometimes do sinful things in moments of colossal moral sleepwalking. Because of this, I do not do counseling with women in places where I cannot be interrupted. I don’t spend lots of time alone with women who aren’t my wife. I maintain strict rules about where I go and with whom. This keeps me from moments of stupidity.
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Alcoholics Anonymous and Discipleship

Alcoholics Anonymous and DiscipleshipThrough my work as a chaplain and as an addiction counselor, I’ve learned a great deal about and from Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s often said that AA is simple: Go to meetings, find a sponsor, and work the 12 Steps. The challenge that many folks face when they start going to AA meetings is that they don’t want to get a sponsor or work the steps. Alcoholics often struggle with interpersonal relationships and authority, which makes finding someone to have an honest relationship of accountability with daunting. It’s not uncommon for alcoholics to try to go it alone for long periods of time without ever reading the AA Big Book or working the steps before finally breaking down and finding a sponsor. The most common reason alcoholics eventually enter a relationship with a sponsor and work the steps is that they recognize that their drinking and destructive patterns will destroy everything in their lives if they don’t overcome it. Desperation to escape slow death at their own hands drives them to reach out to another recovering alcoholic to get help in achieving lasting sobriety. Working with someone else, who has overcome similar struggles, works. They understand each other based on shared experience and are able to point each other toward spiritual growth, which is the most important component of the AA approach to recovery.

As a pastor, I’ve long been aware of the Biblical roots of the AA approach to recovery. The alcoholic acknowledges that they can no longer control their lives, turn control of their lives over to God (who is more powerful and able to control their lives), they then confess their past moral failings and seek to make amends with those they’ve wronged. This is essentially the Biblical path to salvation: acknowledge that we are sinners, turn our lives over to Jesus, confess our sins after a fearless moral inventory, then do our best to make it right, while continually striving to overcome our sins. Sponsorship is discipleship. Discipleship is when a believer finds someone- a more mature believer to help them train, grow spiritually, and overcome sin in their efforts to be imitate Jesus. The unfortunate reality is that despite the fact that AA sponsorship is an imitation of Christian discipleship, it is far more common in AA groups that discipleship is in churches. Christians just don’t look for relationships of accountability and spiritual training in an effort to grow in Christ and overcome sin. The desire to overcome moral failings isn’t present in churches in the same way that it is present in AA. This is despite the fact that discipleship is the basic method of spiritual growth and training presented in the Bible. It is how Jesus grew believers and how the church grew disciples for centuries.

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Click to Read Previous PatchingCracks Post: Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training

I’d suggest that the reason for the lack of discipleship in the modern western church is simple: we aren’t overly concerned with overcoming sin, growing in holiness, or imitating Christ. It’s important to enough to many believers that they might read a few books a year and attend church to listen to sermons, but this is often seen as “good enough.” Serious training to grow spiritually just isn’t often yearned after amongst believers. This is the same reason that there are around 4.4 Bibles for every household in the U.S., but only around 26% of the folks who own Bibles and identify them as important, read them. The folks working the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous see their addiction as a death sentence, so they find folks to disciple them in their spiritual growth as a means of escape. It is far too common for Christians to see overcoming their sins as an optional add-on to the faith or something they ought to do in the same sense as they ought to floss and lose weight. They do not see sin as a road to death or as utterly offensive to God. This general disinterest with overcoming sin is reflected in the literature the church consumes en masse, which tends to focus on how to be happier or more wealthy. Books dealing with imitating Jesus and obeying his commands are far less common and seldom approach the Christian best sellers list. It is often the case that when we preach/write about sin, it is focused on “wicked” groups outside of the body of Christ, rather than on our own failings. The church is content to point to the sawdust in the eyes of others, while ignoring the log obscuring our vision. We are pleased with Jesus as Savior, but uninterested in Him as Lord. Until following Jesus becomes the burning desire and priority in our lives, the church will continue to neglect discipleship. We must learn to detest our own sins and see overcoming them as escaping from death.

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Sermon Link: From Rubble to Return

This week’s sermon on Nehemiah 10, dealing with the Jewish people’s community commitment to obey and submit to God’s law after returning from exile and restoring the walls of Jerusalem. The message looks at the Hebrews’ repentance, compares it to repentance in modern believers, and talks about how God provides restoration through faith in Jesus. 

Preached by Erik Sietsema at Big Sandy Community Church of God in Montana On 8/16/15. 

http://patchingcracks.sermon.net/main/main/20467287

Click the Image To Listen to the Message

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