Character and Ego

james-houston.jpg,q1414797824.pagespeed.ce.PmOstDdssamaureen-dowd-tought-she-would-die-after-consuming-pot-candy-barOne of my spiritual mentors, Dr. James Houston, once said, “In the 20th century, character was replaced by ego.” One of my big criticisms in the last
decade of the 20th century was the character of Bill Clinton, or should I say the ego. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said over and over, with the Clintons, “It was all about them.

In the 20th century, character was replaced by ego.

I need to come clean. I am a character-first voter. Policy is important, but I want that policy connected to something other than political process. I want someone with good (not perfect) character who can make the right decisions under stress. I also want a man or woman who understands the need for grace when their character has not been sterling. It takes a lot of character to say you were wrong.

I want a man or woman who understands the need for grace when their character has not been sterling.

Mark200x200(1)-2Policy is something tangible seen outwardly. It is words on documents, laws, executive orders. Policy usually involves compromise and give and take. Policy is much easier to evaluate than character, and we should always be careful when we are judging another person’s character, the place from which their inner motivations come.

Having said that, we have a responsibility to humbly attempt to appreciate good character and depreciate bad character in our elected officials. To be consistent with myself, I have to use the same grading system for everyone in elected office. I can’t give some people a pass on bad character because I like their policy. I feel if I do, then I have a character issue.

The key word is humility.

Truman_58-766-09220px-MacArthur_ManilaBetween my parents and Jesus, I believe I have been given excellent resources to help me understand character. Perhaps above all else, character is exhibited in not being all about yourself. The key word is humility. My dad, a WWII Marine and life-long Republican, always admired Harry Truman for firing that, “Full of himself jackass Douglas MacArthur.” He just couldn’t stand arrogant leaders. I wonder how Dad would have voted in November.

My mom’s big character contribution was found in the idiom, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone then don’t say anything.” I found that one a bit of a naïve platitude. If everyone followed her admonishment all the time, I am not sure truth would ever get told. But still, people who can’t keep their mouth shut have a character problem.

Jesus simply raises the bar…

real-pictures-of-jesus-on-the-cross_3Donald_Trump_Pentagon_2017Jesus simply raises the bar on what my parents taught me. If you call someone a fool, then you will be judged. Love your enemies. Return evil with good. I could go on. Jesus did. To the cross. He lived it out. What character! As far as my life goes, I want it to all be about him. I pray for our president to have the same desire. Right now, it seems it is all about Donald Trump. Sorry, mom, that’s not a nice thing to say, but I had to say it.

–Pastor Mark, The Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

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Nostalgia–It isn’t what it used to be.

Mark200x200(1)-2Christmas time is a time to remember the best of the past. There was, hopefully, for all of us, a time when there was something “magic” in the season. We’re talking colors, smells, and sounds more than presents, or even the Christmas story. It is about warm and fuzzy feelings that produce wistful thoughts. Sentimental hearts and hopeless romantics are always in the market for nostalgia. What is difficult is to sort out the good and the bad related to nostalgic reflection. How much should we indulge, if at all?

There have been studies that have shown the positive effects of nostalgia, beyond the warm feelings. Included are a greater sense of happiness, self-esteem, and increased optimism about the future. It can help with stress and regulate moods. Plus, to do it with others who experienced the same things you did is a form of communal intimacy. All this seems good for the soul.

Put anything on a pedestal, people or eras of history, and you deny reality.

But there are also concerns. Many see deception written all over nostalgia. Take off the sepia-tinted glasses, and you will see that the good old days were just real days, both good and bad. And they were filled with things like racism, sexism, and naïveté towards the world beyond ourselves. The 1950’s bring back fond memories only for those who had it good. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that plays into this longing for a better time for some, but not for others. The tendency to photoshop selective memories is a form of self-deception. Put anything on a pedestal, people or eras of history, and you deny reality. We need less nostalgia and more honest (cynical?) readings of history. And stop avoiding the painful present by going to an idealized past!

And doesn’t it seem right to read “honest history” that is not filtered through cynical or nostalgic lenses but acknowledges that there is, in every age and every person, a mix of good and bad?

So, how do we proceed? First, it would seem good to rate ourselves. On a scale of one to ten, with one being a cold cynic who hates nostalgia to ten being a warm memory maker–where are you? Aren’t we all just a little conflicted? Doesn’t it seem like some nostalgia, and it is, of course, going to be selective for each of our stories, is a good thing? And doesn’t it seem that too much living in the past, especially a past that neglects injustice towards others, is a bad thing? And doesn’t it seem right to read “honest history” that is not filtered through cynical or nostalgic lenses but acknowledges that there is, in every age and every person, a mix of good and bad?

The Christmas story is susceptible to nostalgia–the cute animals, angels, shepherds and wise men and all. 

Back to Christmas. The Christmas story is susceptible to nostalgia–the cute animals, angels, shepherds and wise men and all. But there is also a very evil king who kills babies. There is a cold Roman empire that could care less about this event that would change history. There was a warning to Mary that her son would cause her soul to be pierced. All to say, there were wonders to celebrate and horrors to contemplate in the first Christmas. Good and bad, just like today.

–Pastor Mark, The Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

A Haunted Christmas

The last Christmas I was not a believer in Christ was in 1976. It was what I would call a haunted Christmas. To understand why I use that term, I have to go back to the Christmas of 1973.

IMG_2265In the fall of 1973, I went to Europe as a college student to look for “the meaning of life” or something like that. I traveled by myself, dropping in and out of travel companions and also in and out of loneliness. I survived, with lots of adventures to tell. In the wake of this trip, I fully embraced an existential worldview–meaning, if there was any meaning to life, was found in my own self-determined actions. I accepted what had been growing in me, that I was an atheist. My memories of Christmas from that year (I returned from Europe a week before) were that it was all a joke, a hoax for weak people who could not deal with the reality that there is no God. Merry Christmas.

The next three Christmases (’74, ’75, ’76) were not so well defined for me. By the fall of 1974, I had started to become weary of the inner anger it took to hold onto my atheism. I wasn’t sure what was true or false, but I didn’t like who I was becoming. And so began a gradual opening of my mind to the idea of God. The more I opened my mind and heart to him, the more I began to be haunted by him. By haunted, I mean thoughts entered my head like, “I wonder if he is real?” “Why do I feel things like love and hate?” “Does he make demands of people?” and, “Is he personal?” These thoughts grew over those years. Christmas (and Easter) became haunted by questions of, “What if it’s true?” By 1976, I was so haunted that I really wanted to believe, I just didn’t have the occasion to.

That God does not exist I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget. Jean-Paul Sartre

What was going on? Why so haunted? I am not the first person to experience this. One of my existentialist heroes, Jean-Paul Sartre, said, “That God does not exist I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” Sartre was haunted by his desire for God and honest enough to admit it. British author, Julian Barnes says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Again, the mind won’t allow for what the heart yearns. Blaise Pascal frames the intellectual dilemma by saying that there will never be enough evidence to prove with certainty that God exists or doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no evidence. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says that secular space is “haunted by transcendence,” which tempts secular people toward belief. Tempted by belief–that is exactly what the Christmas of 1976 did! And as much as I was tempted by belief, I also doubted my doubts.

What wasn’t true had become what might be true had become what is true. Christ was born; he was born in me.

The fall of 1977 was the occasion for faith in my life. I committed all I could of myself to all I knew of Jesus Christ. That Christmas was different. It was not haunted, at least not in the same way. There was something new in the singing of carols and Christmas Eve service. What wasn’t true had become what might be true had become what is true. Christ was born; he was born in me. Merry Christmas!

–Pastor Mark, The Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

Love’s Pain

IMG_2264There are a few laws of love that trouble me. What has been called the law of least love is one of the most unfair things in life. It says that the person in a relationship who loves the least is the one who is in control of the relationship. In a marriage, the one who has lost their love is in control over the one who still loves. I have used this “law” to help people face up to the reality of a broken marriage. In other words, if you are the one who loves most, who has been faithful, you will be the one who feels the most pain. In fact, the one who loves least may feel no real pain at all. Can’t we all cry “not fair!”

Can’t we all cry “not fair!”

Another law of love, for which I don’t have a name, is a cousin to the law of least love. It is the law that says the more love you feel for another person, the more your pain will be when they are gone. I recently walked through the death of a spouse with a really close friend. He and his wife had decades of proven and faithful love for each other. Memories of togetherness through the different phases of life, a scrapbook of feelings that go deep–the deeper the love, the deeper the pain. And then, she is gone. The more intense your love, the more intense your pain will be. Is that fair?

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cs-lewisC.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves, explains this law of love, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” Not loving has a huge cost.

Not loving has a huge cost.

The options of not giving or receiving love are less pain but also less love in our lives. Through love, we become vulnerable not only to pain, but also to joy, deep community, and intimacy–some of the essentials for what it means to be human. When Patty and I had three children, it was in the context of love. But deep down we knew that someday, one of us five would have been at the memorial services of the other four. That is the pain that comes with love. It is just part of the deal. I still want love.

real-pictures-of-jesus-on-the-cross_3Now here is the amazing thing. God submitted himself to this law of love. God loved the world so much that he became the man Jesus. And it was, as you know, very painful. The more intense your love, the more intense your pain–even for God. He knew it would be painful, but his love was greater.

–Pastor Mark, The Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

Porn is Not a Moral Problem; It’s a Human Problem

Mark200x200(1)-2I guess if I had a problem with pornography, I wouldn’t admit it. I love being a pastor and I fear it would be too big of a secret to manage in a healthy way. But I have a history with pornography — regarding how I view it. This history has come by walking with men who have been honest with me about their struggles. I have moved from a place of condemnation to compassion for those who are users.

I have moved from a place of condemnation to compassion for those who are users.

I once held the belief that pornography use was a moral failure. Wives would talk to me in tears regarding their husband’s porn use. I would meet with the husband, and as he looked down he would admit his error and promise his wife and me to stop. I began to notice this usually drove the behavior down deeper into his soul, without any real healing or hope for healing. Well, sin does that. It makes us feel bad, but feeling bad does not change us.

Sin makes us feel bad, but feeling bad does not change us.

As I grew in my understanding of the nature of pornography use, I began to see the correlation between this and other addictions. Shaming people, making them feel bad about themselves, gives life to the hidden sin. When we think we are cutting off the oxygen supply to the sin we are part of causing more acting out. I began to see that men need huge doses of compassion, not condemnation.

Here is the truth — pornography hurts people, it robs them of their humanity. It hurts the wife who doesn’t feel loved because she can’t compete with airbrushed babes. How dehumanizing. The one person who God has given her to build up her tender self-image (including body image) is tearing her down.

Here’s the truth–pornography hurts people, it robs them of their humanity.


porn-coverThe user himself (I know women also use porn, but stats show it is still mostly men) is dehumanized, as with any addiction, he has become enslaved to a master that is never satisfied. Self-deceit is always present. The recent Time Magazine cover story on porn reports that pornography causes erectile dysfunction in young men who overuse. According to research, men who use are often less able to enjoy sexual intimacy with their wives. Normal sexual expression becomes boring compared with image interaction.

It hurts the women who allow their bodies to be photographed and are objectified and dehumanized. And the mainstream body image “pornification” we see in ads of men and women selling whatever has the effect of dehumanizing men and women in general. We find ourselves rating people simply on their bodies without considering their stories and value as humans.

Research is still in process regarding porn and will be for years to come. We don’t know what will be revealed — and that should make us pause. We do know there is a link between viewing porn and treating people like objects, particularly men treating women in less than fully human ways.

Compassion, not condemnation, is the right response.

Compassion, not condemnation, is the right response. Jesus had compassion when people were dehumanized either by sin or by human rules. Porn is a sin, not primarily because the user breaks a rule but because he breaks God’s heart. God loves human beings and is against anything that dehumanizes them.

–Pastor Mark, the Imperfect Pastor

Editor’s Note: For help with pornography addiction, visit New Life.com to connect with counselors, workshops, and life recovery groups. New Life also hosts workshops for spouses. Celebrate Recovery offers Christian 12-step support groups across the nation.

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

The Problem With Perfect

Mark200x200(1)-2Every good thing has a shadow side. Find your strengths and look around. You will find your shadow nearby. Striving to do our best is a good thing. Striving to be perfect is not. It will cause you to be less than your best self, less perfect, ironically. It will greatly diminish your ability to love others and yourself. How does this work?

Ready for a test? Are you a perfectionist? It is not a compliment, you know. Here are eight questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I anxious a lot – related to tasks and people?
  • Am I a person who experiences joy each day?
  • Am I impatient with myself and others?
  • Do I reach my goals and still not relax?
  • Do I over-function in ways that lead to my body getting sick?
  • Do I take time to celebrate victories?
  • Do I appreciate others for who they are, not just for what they do?
  • Do I take time to cultivate thanksgiving in my heart?

I’m reading a book on church history entitled, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Early Roman Empire. Don’t read it unless you love history (you will grow very impatient). The point the author makes was the patience of the early church that drew people to the Christian faith. People knew there was a God who was in charge, therefore they could be patient in waiting for his activity in the world. Further, they knew that God was patient and that they were called to practice his patient character.

Is patience attractive? Does it draw others? I think so. I’m married to a very patient person. I know the joke, “She has to be to be married to me.” True enough. But I see her practicing patience daily, and it’s attractive and winsome. She is like Jesus. She has a relaxed concern for others. When she’s at her best, like Jesus, she has a non-anxious presence, and that’s attractive in an anxious world.

Grace is the face of love when it meets imperfection.

One question I like to ask myself and others is, “Is it OK to not be OK?” Usually, the answer is yes, followed by a deep breath that says, “Wow, I guess I can breathe.” We are not perfect, and it’s OK. We are not perfect, and we are loved. Grace is the face of love when it meets imperfection. God’s face of patient love is turned toward you and me.

–Pastor Mark, the Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)

We Need to Talk

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In general, when someone says, “we need to talk,” it sounds threatening. My summer reading has led me to a book called Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. For those who love to communicate by text and email, we need to talk–more, and if we fail to do so, the best of our humanity is being threatened.

sherry-turkleLet me come clean. I am not the first to embrace new technology. I have a suspicion that’s combined with the fear that I won’t be able to “get it,” so I tend to ignore it. I am a slow embracer, always wondering if there isn’t a hidden cost. I still don’t have a Kindle, preferring the feel and smell of real paper. So Turkle’s book confirms my suspicions. There, I’m clean.

Technology is atrophying the best of what makes us human.

59114_turkle_book_photoSherry Turkle is not a Luddite evader of all things technological. She has spent the last thirty years studying the relationship surrounding technology and human relationships. She teaches at MIT sociology and psychology. What she is discovering is not encouraging. Overall, her point is technology, especially as applied to social media (smart phones, texting, email) is atrophying the best of what makes us human. In particular, she highlights research which shows a dramatic drop in empathy within young people who use social media instead of face-to-face communication. A decrease in empathy, the capacity to understand how someone else feels, and a rise in anxiety.

Research shows that deep down, social media makes people feel more isolated.

There are many ironies around this. Research shows that deep down, social media makes people feel more isolated (there is growing evidence how Facebook also contributes to unhappiness). It’s a way of trying to have more control and less anxiety around conversations, only to be checked by a device we can’t live without and which, research says, increases our anxiety with feelings of, “am I missing out on something?” and “do people like me?” People want cleaner, less risky, and less demanding conversations because of anxiety, but they end up, by overusing technology, in more anxious places.

Anecdotally, she notes how Steve Jobs would not allow tablets or smartphones at the family dinner table, encouraging his family instead in having real conversations about life, books, and history. How ironic. Other research shows that one of the greatest indicators of health in family relationships is time spent at the dinner table–in real conversation. We do in fact need to talk to be our best selves.

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Every so often I remind myself and others that control is more elusive than we think. In fact, control is an illusion. Wake up to reality. It is something we strive for, but the more we strive, the more disillusioned we will ultimately become–and, I would add along with Sherry Turkle– the less human. The pursuit of control just doesn’t work in human relationships. Instead, we have to go through the clumsy and messy face-to-face encounters with others who are as needy and unpredictable as we are.

God came in the person of Jesus Christ to have face-to-face conversations.

Think of it this way. God gave Israel what we now call the Old Testament. But when that got twisted into a book of rules some used to control others, or just ignored, he came in person, to have a prolonged conversation, in the person of Jesus Christ, face-to-face. Sending a text message would not do. We need to talk.

–Pastor Mark, the Imperfect Pastor

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19 NKJV)