Sunday, August 28, 2016

Christian's Second Most Important Book

The dominate culture in the US prizes freedom and choice above all else which has led us to have one of the most individual oriented cultures. Garret Kell's article entitled The Second-Most Important Book for Every Christian is a great antidote to the individual focus we are exposed to. What is the second most important book? Your church directory. The directory represents a vital community of belonging and service.

Do not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
--Hebrews 10:25, ESV

Friday, October 24, 2014

Personal Finance Advise

I have had a number of my younger friends ask for advice regarding personal finance. This post is an attempt to summarize what I have shared. If you want more in-depth information I would suggest checking out my goodreads "money” shelf.

People are more Important than Things: Don't Make Money an Idol

In the eternal calculus of life people are much more important that money or anything else we can possess. It's best to love people and use things, not the other way around. Money and possessions are good, a blessing, but it's very easy for us to develop an unhealthy relationship with money and possessions which turns something good into something destructive. Some "Bible Preachers" become confused and assume that being rich is somehow an indication of God's specific blessing and might even suggest that if you have enough faith, you will become rich. This is a great distortion of the Bible which often correlates material wealth with people who are against God. I Tim 6:10 says the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.  Jesus told numerous parables about how people were lose by getting tied up with things. I have seen first hand how when peoples's focus turns to the accumulation of wealth that their personal lives became much poorer and their character started to corrode.  Proverbs 30:8 is maybe the best short summary of the appropriate perspective for us to have, to be neither poor nor rich.  If you would like to understand what the Bible teaches about money, I would highly recommend the book Jesus and Money by Ben Witherington III.

Our modern consumer culture suggests that more stuff will make us happy. Yet, study after study has found that there is no correlation between money and happiness once someone is over the poverty line, that is to say they have adequate money to have a safe place to live, know they will have food to eat, and are able to cloth themselves. What's more, it turns out that numerous experiments have repeatedly discovered that spending money on others produces more happiness than spending money on self.  It would be easy for an entire post to be on this topic… maybe I will write more later. 

Action:
  • Looking at the philosophy of minimalism advocated by people like Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist blog who advocates clearing material clutter out of our lives so we can focus on what's truly important.
Make more than you Spend: Don't be a Debtor

You should never spend more than you earn. In general debt should be avoid, but especially unsecured debt such as credit cards. There are several reasons to in general avoid debt. First, is that being in debt means that we lose freedom and have obligations which  control us. This is why the Bible encourage us to avoid debt.  Romans 13:8 says "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another". Second, being in debt carries a huge psychological weight that most people under-estimate. One of the more stressful times in my life was when I wasn't sure if I could sell the house I owned for as much as I owed on the mortgage. The day I sold the house and paid off the mortgage felt like one of the most liberating days in my life.

Often times people will go into debt because they are unwilling to wait until they have been able to save enough money to make an outright purchase. While there are times I think going into debt is a reasonable thing to do, such as taking a mortgage out on a piece of property where the mortgage is for less than the value of the property, I think people should be very careful in taking on debt. Another place that might make sense to take on some debt is to fund investments in the future such as education or starting a business. But even when there is good long-term value in the investments, care should be taken to minimize long-term debt and be sure that they long term returns are worth the debt.

Action
  • Use debit cards rather than credit cards, or if you using credit cards pay them off each month.
  • If you are in debt, the make the minimal payment on all accounts which you owe except the one with the highest interest rate. Pay off that debt as quickly as you can, and then move on to the next highest interest rate debt until you have cleared all your debts. If the interest rates are about the same, pay off the smallest debt, and then move to the next biggest to feel like you are making progress.
  • Make a budget so can direct your money to where you want it to go rather than wonder where it went.

Be Generous, Remember that It’s All God’s

The Bible teaching that everything is God's, and that we are to be good stewarts of what He entrusts into our care. We should enjoy God's provision and take care of our needs, but we need to remember that it's not ours to waste, but rather to invest for good. The Bible calls for a 10% tithe to be given to do God’s work. The tithe was to be from our first fruits. In other words, that we don’t figure out what we need and give the leftovers to God, but that we set aside at least 10% for God, and live on what remains. 

Our spending and our sense of what is a need tends to increase as we have more money. In surveys done in the US, the number one reason for not giving more is because people felt they can’t afford to give more, yet the percent of income given by the very poor is more than 3 times the very rich.

Growing up, my family insisted that if we received a gift of money, that a small portion of it was set aside to be given to a charitable endeavor and some put into savings.  Later in life I was exposed to a variety of Christian teachers who advocated 10% of income should be given away, 10% saved, and the remaining 80% is what to live on. I think the 10/10/80 is a good starting point, though I think the percent giving and saving should increase as income rises. Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger makes a very compelling case for a graduated tithe. Rathar than a giving a percent of income, he encourages a mindset of stewardship: everything is God's. Rather than our income being "ours" to spend on ourselves, it is God's to be used for what is important to Him. Sider suggests that as our income grows above the poverty line, that an increasing large percentage should be given away.

I would agree with Sider that as our income increases we should spend a decreasing percentage on daily consumption, but beside giving money away, saving/investing for the future are also appropriate options. The money saved and invested is not necessarily for ourselves. Having money in savings allows us to response not just to un-expected personal needs, but also help out others.

Action
  • If you aren’t giving 10% of your income away, I would strongly encourage you to make a plan (e.g. cut expenses) so you have money to give away.
  • If you are giving away 10% consider adopting a  graduated tithe
  • Consider opening a donor directed charitable giving fund such as Fidelity’s Giving Fund (Schwab and several other companies offer similar programs) This allows you to donate money at the time you received it (getting the tax benefit) but give money to an appropriate charity as you decide what is a worthy cause.
Saving for the Future: Don’t be Foolish

Life is filled with surprises. A wise person saves money to smooth over the difficult times. The Bible is filled with stories of how wise men saved during prosperous times which enabled them and their community to thrive when the days were more difficult. One of the most striking stories was how God used Joseph to save an entire region from an extended drought. 

While droughts don’t usually effect us as directly as they did Joseph, we have our modern challenges. Our transportation breaks down, a surprising health issue, a good friend in need. Having savings can allow us to raise to these sorts of challenges without falling into debt.

I think it’s very important to remember that what you are saving isn’t yours, it’s God’s. The money in your savings may very well be for your needs in a time of trouble, but it might also be for someone you come in contact with. By remembering that God provided the abidance that allowed you to save, you will avoid to  temptation to put your trust in the saving rather than in God.

Action
  • If you have no savings, identify what expenses you can cut so you can set aside 10% of your income
  • Set a saving goal. I would recommend at least $1000. Conventional wisdom suggests that you should have several months of your essential living expenses in savings
  • Once you have several months of living expenses saved, work on long term investments discussed below.
Long Term Investments

I encourage everyone to start saving for the long term as soon as they are able. The longer you save, the more time your money has the opportunity to grow due to market gains and compounding interest.  Generally people split their long term investments between cash, bonds, stocks, property, and in some cases a business. The general rule of thumb is that the best returns come from the stock market, but the stock market is also the most risky.

Long term investments could be used in several ways. The first is to fund the later portion of your life (retirement)  when you aren’t working due to age related health issues or because there are things you would rather invest your time in. How much should you save for retirement?  There is no correct answer.  Financial Samurai’s How much should my net-worth be based on income could be helpful as you consider this question. Retirements isn’t the only reason to make long term investments. Long term investments can also be used to start a business, launch a non profit organization, or become an endowment for a foundation.

I would recommend using a passive investment strategy.  It is tempting for people to want to do something more.  Many people think a more active management will result in better return.  Some people do a ton of research in the attempt to pick the very best stock. Other people outsource this work to a financial advisor they trust or a well respected mutual fund that is actively managed.  I would recommend not doing this.  First, active management results in fees which eat into any gains you might have made.  More important, while many people can beat the general market over the short term, the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street documents there are only two big named investors who have beat the general market over the long term:  Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch. You are much more likely to win a large lottery than you are to beat the market over the long term. It's very possible to beat the market for a modest period of time, but in the end, the market will do better than whatever strategy that you choose.  That's because no one can successfully time the market.  People have a tendency to believe that they are able to choose when to buy and sell to maximize profits.  The extreme version of this are day traders.  The truism "Past performance is no guarantee of future returns" is critical. No one can predict the future and so you only think (in correctly) that you know the best time to take an action. The final bit of advise I would give is to "keep disciplined".  Humans natural fears of lose often drive people to buy high and sell low.  They buy high because they see huge gains made by everyone else and they fear losing out and so invest just as an issue peaks.  Then the bubble bursts, the stock falls, and it looks like they are losing all sorts of money.  Eventually panic sets in and the stock is sold after it has lost value.  Investing in the stock market needs to be done for the long term. The market goes up and down over time, but it continues to gain value over time. It's best to put your money in, and then do your very best not to track the changes except for the purpose to rebalancing your investment allocation.

One of the simplest passive investment strategies is called the three fund portfolio. Originally developed by John Bogle who started Vanguard Group. Money is split between very low overhead index funds which track over overall US stock market, international stocks, and bonds. Given today’s global market, some people use just two fund, a US total index and a bond index fund.  A general rule of thumb seems to be the percent in the stocks should be 120 - your age.  So if you are 30, 90% should be in stocks, with just 10% in bonds / cash. Once every six months determine if your percent allocation (stock, bond, cash) is what you want and if not, do exchanges to get the ratio where you want if to be.  If you don’t own your home, you might what to consider a forth fund for your portfolio which tracks real estate. If you own a home this might not be necessary since many people have a significant portion of their net worth tide up in their home.

Action
  • If your employer offers 401K or 403B plan, take advantage of the plan so long as their plan allows the money to be invested in low overhead index funds. If you can afford it, make the maximum tax deductible contribution you can.
  • If you can afford to save more money contribute to a Roth-IRA or traditional-IRA.
  • If you already have long term investments which aren’t following a passive investment strategy, consider selling them and reinvesting into a passive investment portfolio.

Insurance

The number one reason for families to final for bankruptcy, to be homeless, etc are medical debts. No one can predict medical health. Someone can be apparently completely healthy one day, and find themselves in the hospital racking up tens of thousands of dollars of expense each day. I think it is fairly irresponsible not to carry medical insurance in our current society. Often times people look for plans which have low deducible. While low deductible is nice, I generally encourage people to pay much close to attention to the catastrophic coverage and the medicine benefits. Whenever possible I encourage people to select plans which cover 100% of the expensive once a deductible is reached. With serious conditions, it is very possible to have $1M work of medical expenses in a year. A plan which coverless 80% of expenses come means $200k that is owned by an individual. I also encourage paying close attention to the medicine coverage because for most people, they spend more money on the medicines than on the doctor visits.

Buy a House?

Part of the classic "American Dream" is owning one's own home. In the past, home ownership has been one of the most powerful ways for family to build wealth, but is far from a gaurentee these days. Part of what fueled the mortgage crisis was people purchasing homes they couldn't afford assuming that the value of the house would continue to rise and that in the future they could re-finance based on the increased value of their home. Like all purchases, I think no one should purchase a home whose cost is more than they can afford.

There is often the question buy or rent. The first exercise I think everyone should do before answering this question is compare the cost of a home to the cost of renting.  The total cost of the house should be calculated (mortgage, property taxes, upkeep, insurance, interest deductible from taxes) and compare that to the he cost of renting something of equal size. In several markets, renting ends up being cheaper.

There are several reasons to consider renting rather than buying. The first is freedom. If you want to move there isn't the hassle of having to sell your home. Switching residence can be done more easily, be it to change the size, quality, or location. There have been a number of studies which have suggested that people who rent have actually been more financially successful because they have been more willing to move to advance their career or find good jobs, People who owe their own homes tend to be much more reluctant to move. Another advantage of renting is that you are often freed from having to deal with many of the hassles associated with home ownership: the maintanance to counter the inevitable decay and breakdown experience by all physical objects.

There are several reasons it can make sense to purchase a home, even if renting a place is less extensive at the present time. First is that home ownership can be  a hedge against inflation. In many markets, it is reasonable to assume the price of rents will continue to raise. If a home is purchased with a fixed mortgage the cost of the mortgage stays the same, even though the price of everything else is rising. A second on reason to purchase a home is to have the ability to have / create a space than meets your specific needs. Third, the home can be a leveraged investment if the value of the home grows more quickly than the mortgage interest.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hospitality Delivered: Hints When Providing Meals

I have written early a bit about the important Christian practice of offering hospitality. Often this hospitality is in the form of opening our homes to others. We we can also extend hospitality beyond our homes by providing meals to others.

In the last 30 years I have been both a recipient of, and a provider of meals delivered to the home. Reasons have varied, the joy of a new birth, the pain of losing someone dear, a life overwhelmed by chemotherapy or other trauma. Providing a meal to doesn't have to be complicated, just do whatever you can. That said, I think there are a number of things we can do to make the providing a meal deliver the most benefit.

0) When dropping off a meal, be sensitive to the family needs. Sometimes the very best thing is to hand a bag/box filled with the food you are providing to the family at the door, not even go inside. Sometimes when dropping off food, the family would like nothing better for you to come inside and spend some time with them. Take your lead from the family. Make it clear that it's a priveldge to provide a meal and they are under no obligation to ask you in. but if you don't have another obligation that you need to get to, that you would happy to spend some time with them.

1) Make sure you know of any dietary restrictions or food allergies so the people you are providing food to can eat it.  Some people might need you to avoid peanuts, food containing gluten, foods that have a high glycemic index (diabetics) etc.

2) Deliver food in disposable containers. Best if the containers can survive microwave and/or oven use. This saves them the hassle of having to clean the dishes and the sometimes difficult chore of returning the dishes.

3) Consider bringing the main dish in two containers. One that is for the first night, and a second which could be used the first night if they are extra hungry (or have a guest), put in the refrigerator to use the following night, or can go strait into the freezer. [Put a date, and name of the item on the container so it's not a mystery in the freezer.]

4) Select food which doesn't have to be eaten immediately. It's great to deliver a hot meal, but sometimes the recipients aren't able to enjoy it immediately. So make sure the food will be good reheated. Even better, select food that will freeze well. For fresh items that won't freeze, make sure that it will do well if stored in the refrigerator for a day. For example, if you provide a salad, provide salad dressing in a separate container which can be added just before the salad is eaten so the greens don't wilt.

5) Within your knowledge of the family and what food others have brought, bring something a bit different that you believe the family will like. Getting lasagna or a casserole every night will get tiresome.

6) Leave a card with a description of the main dish and the recipe (or a URL to the online recipe) or the name of the restaurant. If they really like it, they don't have to track you down.  Having the list of ingredients is also helpful to people who have food allergies.

7) If you have the privilege of bringing food more than once, ask "Would you like the same thing again, or try something new?"

8) Consider bring a dessert. Yeah, it's not healthy to eat dessert every night, but when we are bringing food, there are other considerations. Home made is nice, but store bought is just fine. Ice cream is a legitimate dessert :)

9) Consider bringing flowers, candies, wine, or something else that compliments the food. Need to know the people to have an idea of what would be appreciated.

For some additional ideas, and especially for people coordinating meals, check out Bethany's tips for bringing new mom or anyone else meals.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 
Romans 12:9-13

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rule of Reciprocation


A month ago I happened upon a short story on NPR about the rule of reciprocation. The human inclination to reciprocate has been used by canny individuals and organizations throughout time to extract factorable actions from others. Over the years I have worked for companies that have different standards about gifts received from vendors and business partners. Some employers forbid any gratuity. At the time I thought this was extreme and unnecessary, but I now have an appreciation, even respect for such a firm policy.  I find myself wondering how much an inexpensive meal might have influenced my decisions. I want to say it hasn't, or only minimally, but how can I know?

One of the examples cited in the NPR story was the Hare Krishna passing out "free" flowers and then asking for a donation. I can still remember the first time I saw a Hare Krishna doing this in an airport: a tired traveler was trying to get through the airport as quickly as he could, a Hare Krishna moved to block the traveler's path, nearly forced a flower into his hand and then requested a donation. What happened next surprised me, the frustrated and angry traveler pull out his wallet and gave a donation even though he clearly didn't want the flower nor did he want to support Hare Krishna.

Yesterday we were walking in Haight-Asbury district and a "monk" told my daughter that he liked her haircut, placed several books in her hand saying they were a free gift of enlightenment, and then asked for a donation. She wasn't carrying any cash and said so. He turned to me, and asked for a donation. I said I had no money for him. He tried to guilt me into giving him money suggested that I likely drove a Volvo and had plenty of money. I was unmoved. He took the books back from my daughter and looked for his next victim. It wasn't a free gift or a genuine desire to share a blessing. This is an attempt to manipulate us into giving him money. Shame on him. 

I started to think about other encounters I have had over the last few years and realized that I have become much less influenced by reciprocation. It used to be that when I was given a gift and I didn't have a gift to give in return would often make up an excuse, and then as quickly as possible go out and purchase a "gift" to return. I rarely feel that today. I used to fight for the bill when sharing a meal with a friend. With some friends and family members it was a competition to see who could get the server to give them the bill. In the last year I have lost most of this compulsion. Most meals I still offer to pick up the tab, a way to demonstrate my appreciation for the time we shared, but if my dining partner suggests splitting the bill or offers to pick up the tab I don't fight about it. Am I becoming someone is so selfish that reciprocity has not impact?  I don't think so.

Gifts seem to have an increasingly small influence on me, but I am also finding myself feeling freer to give gifts. I find myself worrying less about how people will perceive me, and more on my attitude when receiving and/or giving a gift. I wrote a bit about the dynamics of giving a couple of weeks ago in the post Compassion or Control.  Today feel less guilt when I don't offer help to someone on the street than I did a couple of years ago, but it's not because I am becoming more uncaring, just that I don't feel called to help that one person at this time. That isn't to say that I don't offer help. Fairly frequently when asking "Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat" I will pause and offer a quick prayer for the person and their situation. Often I will be moved to say "I don't have a spare dollar, but I have a debt card, lets take you to XYZ and I will buy you a meal".   But if I don't have a sense that I need to do something, I am content.

After years of studying the Bible, learning from Jesus' life, learning more about God, I have come to truly believe in grace. That is unmerited favor. That there is NOTHING I can do to make God love me. That anything good that has happened to me is not because I am good or done something "right", but because God is good, kind, merciful.  So when I am given something "for free", I receive it with thankfulness, without the expectation that I can pay the person back. Likewise, I am feeling increasingly free to give where I feel led, be that my money, time, energy, and attention and to not worry so much about the response I get. I think this is a good thing, even if it sometimes violates others expectations.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:32-36

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Compassion without Control


A week ago, a photograph went viral which showed a nypd officer's act of kindness.  Like many people I was touched by the officer's act, as well as the response of many people to the picture that had been taken.  Since the picture was taken a more detailed story came out, indicating that the shoeless man's story is a bit more complex. Cynics might say, the act of kindness was foolish. I think this would be a mistake.

I often feel a tension when I see someone who appears to be homeless or otherwise in need.  I don't want to be a fool, to be taken advantage. I don't want to empower or encourage bad decisions, but I would like to really help them. I am happy to pay a cost if it would make a difference. Sometimes I think I shouldn't give people help directly, rather I should give my time and money to one of the many organizations that serve marginalize people on the theory that they are more likely to see to it that the money actually helps a person. Yet, I think this is  this is at best an incomplete solution.

I am seeing that when I am confronted by people in need, it isn't just about the person or their apparent need. This is also about my heart. The question is "Can I give without strings attached?  Can I let go of the results, give up any sense of control?" A phrase that I recently heard (though I haven't read the book so I don't know if it taking about exactly what I am) is love without agenda. I find that I have a very hard time doing this.

So how do I resolve this tension? My answer recently is with prayer, by being sensitive to how God is moving my heart. The truth is that I can't know how a gift, act of service, any help I provide might be used or what it will accomplish. I can't see the future. What might appear good right now, might have unintended negative consequences down the road. Likewise, something that seemed to do good right now might not have a good long term effect. I find Ephesian 2:10 to be a great comfort:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
This suggests to me that there is more at play that just my ability to assess a situation and make a good decision. That God himself is providing opportunities to love and serve. The question is not "what will the outcome be", but "is this something God is asking me to do now".  A focus on pleasing God rather than seeing a specific outcome, trusting that God knows what He is doing, and that I have the honor to participate in His grand work. What may appear to be folly right now, but produce untold blessings in the future. Imagine with me that the prodigal son in Luke 15 was a real person rather than a parabolic character. We can be appalled by the prodigal's conduct, and that his father enabled such bad decisions.  Yet, that story has also  served to be a source of great encouragement and wisdom for nearly 2000 years.
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:9-10, NASB)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Darwin Awards… Maybe We are Stupid Too.

For numerous years the Darwin Awards have documented the amazingly profound stupidity of some people. I know many people who like to read these stories and laugh and cry at the sheer stupidity reported. Why do so many of us seem to like the Darwin Awards? I wonder if it lets us feel a bit smug, a bit arrogant, a "I  know I am better than those idiots.  Yes, that's a pretty low bar, but I know I would never be that stupid."

I have been wondering if we should offer some sort of new award. One that we all qualify for. I am not sure what to call it.  Maybe "I'm with stupid, because I can't get away from myself." What got me thinking about this was seeing a post by an old acquaintance warning that cops in a local county were ticketing people for not wearing seat belts. My reaction was "Who is so stupid that they don't wear a seat belt? Don't they know that seat belts save countless lives?" Alright, not countless, the upper bound is around 12,000 people/year in the US plus much larger number that would have been spared injuries… this is a significant number.  I wrote a snarky response.

I thought about piled more on… commenting that not using a seat belt was almost as stupid as smoking cigarettes, something I know several people who would see my comment do.  Saying something would be ok though, the data about negative consequences from smoking is clear and staggering. Before I added this comment,  heap even more judgement on, I think God prodded me, pointing out that not only was I being arrogant and judgmental, but that I am no smarter. I regularly do things I know are stupid.  I wish it wasn't true,  but I can be just as stupid and irrational as the next guy. I have just been lucky that my stupidity hasn't ended my life, gotten me a ticket, or resulted in some chronic condition… yet, I think.

So what stopped me dead in my tracks? What did God whisper in my ear?  "Yeah, you would never do something stupid like that.  You wouldn't let your weight get to an unhealthy level or let your life get so sedentary that basic exercise wipes you out.  Need I continue?"  No need. I am perfectly capable of making a fairly long list now that I have gotten started. The next that came to my mind "I won't be so stupid to put off going to the dentist, because I am pretty sure there is a cavity that will need to be filled and that will be unpleasant. No, I would rather wait a year or so until I have a killer tooth ache, I have to go in and have an emergency root canal which is an order of magnitude more money and pain."  I could go on, but you get the point. And these are just things directly related to being a good stewart of my body.  Of course, I am comfortable talking about these things because I finally realized my stupidity and have been working to change them.

Recently I have enjoyed sharing a fascinating study that has been repeatedly performed with identical results. That giving money away often makes people happier than spending it on themselves. The punchline that I love is that after at least one of these studies, the participants were gathered together at the end of the day. The results were shared. People told stories from their day which confirmed the results. Just before leaving, the participants where asked the question "If you could choose which group  you would be placed in, which would it be?"  78% said, "The group that can spend them money on themselves." My immediate reaction to this is "How could they be so stupid? They just participated in a study that demonstrated that they would be happier if they gave the money way!!" And yet, how often do I do something equality stupid… where I have data, facts, truths, that I know are correct, but I take actions that are contrary to them. My daughter sometimes says "I am not so smart", typically just after she found herself doing something that she knew wasn't going to work. I often say "What and I going to do with you?" and then I try to comfort her and remind her that I will always love her, no matter what stupid thing she does. But I could just as easily be saying "I don't know what to do with me" because I regularly do things I know are stupid, just like my daughter. I am just better at hiding them than she is.  There are a number of  books that explore the dynamic of how people find themselves doing things that they know are stupid or wrong such as Mistakes Were Made and Vital Lies, Simple Truths.

So what do we do?  How do we see our own self deception and stop it. Well, knowing it is there, and having the humility to admit it may be good, but that doesn't fix the problem. Do we spend a bunch of time introspecting?  I don't think that works too well. Jeremiah 17:9 states that "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?". This suggests that self examination is likely to have limited success.

Jeremiah suggests there is an answer in the following verse:  “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds." My first observation is that God does understand what's going on. It is possible for Him to reveal the truth to us. In Philippians 3 Paul encourages his readers to press forward  in view of God's love. And then there is this short phrase, "and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you". Paul has confidence, that if there is a problem, God will bring up it. Thankfully, it seems he brings our attention to the most important things, not everything. A good friend is fond of saying that she is never surprised when sin in her life is pointed out. What surprises her is how little is pointed out… that God is gracious with us and only bring up things that need attention now, rather than crushing us with a complete and full understanding of our sin.

So, how does God reveal a different attitude? Sometimes it's something dramatic like a vision or a dream. Sometimes, it's like a breeze, whispering in our ear. Maybe a particular verse in the Bible comes to mind and we realize it's talking about us rather than someone else. Maybe it's when we stop and look at what we actually have done and the results from those actions. I am amazing how easy it is to repeat actions that consistently don't produce the result we hope for, yet we continue doing the same thing, with an irrational hope that somehow it will go better the next time.

Most often though, I think we hear God's voice through our  community and friends. From people who seek and speak truth. The more we embrace community and transparency, the more likely it is that we will get the help we need. We need people who will speak into our lives. It's too easy for us to blind ourselves to the truth. And the scary thing is that once we start to deceive ourselves,  ignoring what we know to be true, all too often we do this more and more. A little step, at little step, and eventually we find ourselves completely lost. The first chapter of the book of Romans talks about a slide into insanity which starts simply be refusing to be grateful.

The scripture is filled with passages that talk about how if we don't use what is given, that not only do we not get more, but we often lose what we already have.  I have seen this happen in many people's lives. Several months ago I was talking with a friend who was just waking up after a couple of years of profound self deception. During this time he had engaged in conduct that he, and everyone who knows him was shocked by. He imperiled everything that he thought was valuable. What shocked me more than the depths he had fallen into was how he had completely lost track of some very basic truths. Things I had seen him live out, things I had seen him teach others. Yet, as I was talking to him one evening, stating things I had heard him say in the past, he was surprised. He said "I have never thought about it that way before." WRONG!  He had. But he had forgotten. What was going on? He didn't use it, so he lost it. What he had was taken away. Thankfully, that's not the end of the story. Over the next several weeks he continued to seek others input, to seek God's face. Several weeks later I saw the beginnings of a changed man. Someone who had a long road ahead of him, but a road that would not just restore him to the place he was before his fall, but ultimately would take him to a place of deeper understanding and maturity. There are profound, very painful consequences from what this man did. I have no idea what the full ramifications will be in this life, but I am confident that in the end of time, God will bring healing and comfort to all effected. That every tear will be dried.

One of the things I noticed in this man's life, and in mine as well… that when were we are actively involved in a community with others who are committed to transparency and speaking truth, that we did better. That those first, small steps  away from truth were often adverted when the correction was relatively easy, and the consequences were slight. A very good reason to cherish and cultivate relationships with people who are committed to truth, to honestly, and have the courage to speak lovingly into our lives. This has also been a good reminder that it's important to be willing to initiate those uncomfortable conversations if we see  those who are dear to us are starting down a path that won't end well.
and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:24-25

Friday, May 18, 2012

Attitudes & Dating

I have had countless conversations over the years with friends about how hard the "dating dance" is and how there are so many potential pitfalls. From these conversations it is clear that my friends so much want someone who will cherish them, someone to share the joys of life with, but finding that person is so difficult and painful they can sometimes wonder if it is worth it.  I encourage them to seek to understand how God might want bless them, be it though  singleness or marriage. What's most important is to be open to what God is doing.

I have often noticed my friends struggle more than is necessary because they are seeking romance but really want intimacy. But even when my friends have known what they are looking for, there are still plenty of struggles. I often hear my friends wrestling with:
  • Why can't I find someone I want to date?
  • Why don't people want to date me?
  • How can I avoid being taken advantage of, how can I be sure I don't give away too much?
Often I suggest to my friends that they need a mind shift, a new approach to dating. An approach that moves things from the realm of chemistry and instant connection into the realm if intimacy and friendship which can be the basis for a wondrous relationship. I think there is a new perspective which addresses all of these questions.

Don't Be a Consumer...

The question "what are you looking for?" in relation to who to date is understandable, but can put us in the wrong mindset. I have noticed some people looking at potential dates almost the way they would look at cars. Comparing price, features, style, etc. I believe the advent of online dating services have fueled this tendency. Statistics from For Love or Money: Does Online Dating Really Work? indicate that 73% marriage partners still meet the "old fashion way", but I think online dating services have changed many people's expectations, even those who don't meet their future spouse through a dating site. There are countless profiles one can peruse. These sites give the impression that there is a huge, an almost unlimited number of possible dating / marriage partners. These sites provide an illusion that if we are willing to wait, we will be able to find exactly what we are looking for.

Most of us believe the more choices we have, the happier we will be, because we will be able to choice what is perfect. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. Barry Schwartz throughly explores this issue in his book The Paradox of Choice. What he, and a number of other researchers have found is that if you give people more choices, they tend to make worse choices, and they tend to be less content with choices they make… especially if they believe the will be able to change their mind in the future. This was nicely summarized in Dan Gilbert's talk Why are We Happy. Applied to dating and marriage, if you are getting involved with someone, but are thinking in the back of your mind, "Maybe this is the right person, maybe they aren't, there are other people if this doesn't work out" you are less likely to see the relationship go well. I am not advocating to going back to arranged marriages, or that you have to marry the first person you date, but I will suggest how you approach the relationship may have much more to do with how successful the relationship is than picking the perfect person.

The final way a consumer orientation will lead you wrong is that it can set your expectations too high. You start to have an expectation that this wonderful person you have found will make your life better, they will fulfill you. The relationship will go well because you found someone great. This is doomed. No matter how special or wonderful the other person is, that if you are looking to them to complete you, to meet all your needs and desires, you will be sadly disappointed. You are designed for life in a community. You are designed to be in relationship with God. There are many things that only God can provide. You will get nothing but grief if you decide to remove all the other avenues God might use in your life by saying "my date or my spouse, they are my provision". Furthermore, if you have troubling finding that one person, or the person you found fails you, it's very easy to turn the consumer thinking around and wonder if the reason you have having trouble is because you aren't a good "product", e.g. that you aren't worthy of love. The best ground to start a relationship with someone else is to be confident in God's love for you.

… Be an Investor

A very common issues I have seen a number of friends struggle with, especially though who are trying online dating is a fear that they are going to be taken advantage of, that they will give away things while dating that they shouldn't. One response to this in some Christian circles toward avoiding "dating", and to embrace "courtship". I have often seen people taking a "courtship" perspective, while avoiding some pitfalls of modern dating, run headlong into others. A fear of being taken from, of lose, demonstrates a perspective which is rooted in taking rather than giving. A key truth is that people can't steal something you are freely giving. I have seem people (typically men) who are reluctant to invest in a relationship unless they are sure that the other person is going to reciprocate their interest. This self protection almost always results in a failed relationship because it shows a lack of courage, and an unwillingness to love unconditionally. I think the secret to good dating relationships is to be focused on giving rather than taking.

I encourage my friends to ask the questions"What am I bringing into this relationship?" and "what am I investing into this relationship?" This is a focus on service, and looking for opportunities to grow, to learn, to care for someone else. My experience is that relationships where one or both of the participants viewed the relationship as a context to learn and grow in love did well. That's not to say that the dating led to marriage, or marriage didn't have their struggles, just that if the dating relationships ended, both people tended to part as friends, that the marriages were able to push through the tough times, and that the couple would say that the dating relationship was a force of good in their life. For me, this perspective was instilled by the teaching and example of the leaders of the church I attended in college and as a young adult. Much of what I was taught got turned into the book Spiritual Relationship That Last which was written by two of our pastor / elders. If I was to select a single sentence from this book, to extract the key to a successful relationship, it would be "... is not to find the right person, but to become the right person: a person who has learned to practice Christian love at the most intimate level"

Rather that viewing dating primarily as a way to determine if a person is your future mate it is much better to view your dating relationship as an opportunity to learn to love someone, to grow, and to help your date to grow. Dating relationships provide wonderful opportunities to develop relationship skills. Dating provides opportunities to influence each other. To encourage each other, to challenge each other to grow. Dating provides time to learn about someone. During the early stages of a dating relationship I would suggest that we need to strongly resist the tendency to ask "is this the person I will marry?". Rather, just enjoy learning who this wondrous person is. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. God is doing something special with them. What an adventure to get to see the arc of their life. Maybe you will get to share life's journey as a spouse, maybe as a friend... but whatever the outcome, the time spent dating someone isn't wasted. The time will come when you will have to decide how a relationship will evolve, but there are many good outcomes, several of which don't involve marriage.

When we feel attraction toward someone else, it's hard to know if we are actually investing in them, loving them, or if we are largely being driven by our emotions and desires. Our hearts are best revealed when what we desire is denied. Our response to a relationship ending truly reveals our heart, but that's too late. I sometimes encourage people to do a thought experiment. Lets say a young man is struggling through his feelings toward a young lady. I ask him to consider how he would response if after a bit the women he is attracted to shares that she feels that she has been called to go to Siberia as a missionary in the next year, and he didn't. I will ask the young man "If you are confident that she is called to this ministry could you set aside your personal desire for her as a romantic partner, join with others to provide financial support, pray for her daily, encourage her to follow strongly after the Lord, even though that takes her to a distant country?" I might even challenge him to imagine he knows a godly man who was also called to Siberia. I ask "Could you introduce them knowing they might get married which would be a blessing for them, giving both a partner in a tough ministry." If the answer is "I don't think I could do that" I ask the question "Why not?" This is the sort of love we are called to have.

Earlier I recommended several books about dating.  The two books that I think are particularly relevant to this post are  The Marriage Builder by Larry Crabb and The Meaning of Marriage by the Kellers. These two books explore the issues I have raised in much more detail.

As for me, this is a season of singleness. A time to take care of my daughter and to figure out what's next in life. Of course not dating doesn't mean you can't invest in other people's lives.  I still get the pleasure of  spending time with new and old friends, hearing their stories, and maybe helping them along the way. Being in community is precious.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, [dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9