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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Confessions of a Pastor

I was a well-loved pastor at a local church of 200 or so members. I have a perfect family: a loving wife, Rachel, two strong daughters and two happy sons. I had a job that I had worked for 19 years and was convinced that it was God’s will for me. I had lots of love and support and had made some lifelong friendships, though fewer than I had thought.

The difficulty of the job was that I would often work long hours, missing evenings at home for one meeting or another. Many days, I would come home emotionally drained from counseling people through difficult times in their lives. When I didn’t have parishioners to counsel, often my coworkers would look to me for counseling. Because of the emotional drain, my relationship with Rachel suffered. I often lost my patience and my temper with the kids. I was running on empty and not sure how to recover.

I was miserable and a few years ago, I felt completely overwhelmed. I wondered how I had gotten so burnt out?

Everything I did, I tried to do my best.
Everything I did, I tried to be “good”.
How can being good be bad?

But, I knew that I could no longer live like this.
I had to stop and figure out...What was happening? Who was I anyway? Where was I headed?

So, I went to counseling. I told my counselor my story and heard it myself for the first time from my own lips.

I grew up with loving parents in a loving family in a lovely suburban home. I was surrounded by nature and had good friends. It was all pretty amazing. And, as a kid, I looked to my Mom. She was perfect to me. She worked hard to make sure we were provided for. She loved us; she hugged and kissed us; she cooked for us and cleaned up after us. She came to our games and cheered us on. She was perfect. Not Oedipus complex perfect, but Mary Poppins perfect (without the carpet bag).

Then every weekend, my Dad would be home with us. And, there he’d sit, in his recliner, watching TV, and not even noticing my Mom cooking and cleaning and serving him ice coffee.

Somehow, in my mind, my Dad became the captor and my Mom needed to be rescued. I was a kid, so I “rescued” by helping to set the table or cook or clean. Whatever I could do to help my Mom, I wanted to do. I was just a kid.

And, I noticed something, whenever I helped, I was praised and thanked. It brought a smile to my Mom's face. I brought a smile to my Mom's face.

"You are so cute
so helpful
such a good kid."

Those words felt so good to hear.
They fed the empty part of my soul.
I was "good" because she said so.

I couldn’t rescue my mom (especially since I found out much later that she didn’t want rescuing. She actually loved using her gifts and abilities to serve others), but I really liked getting those compliments.

That stuck with me. I learned to be helpful wherever I went, whenever I wanted some positive attention: in the classroom, on a team, with friends, at work and even at church. After I became a Christian at 15, I realized that church people really liked you if you were helpful. They said many of the same things my Mom had said.

In college, I started helping out with the youth program in a church. My senior year, I got hired as a part-time youth leader. I went on to get my master’s degree in divinity, so I could be a pastor full time. I became a youth pastor. Then, I became an assistant pastor. Every time, being a helper was rewarded. And, I kept hearing those compliments. And, I believed that I was “good” because they said I was good.

To me, those compliments were like helium in the balloon of my emotions. Over time, they would wear off, and I would feel like I was dragging on the floor, and I just needed a bit more of that helium. Sometimes I would go weeks with just enough small compliments to keep me feeling great about myself. Other times, when I’d screw up and hurt someone’s feelings or let someone down, when I was feeling lonely or unlovable, I would feel emotionally exhausted.

I learned that I needed a “hit” of affirmation to make me feel good about myself.

So, I would go to work and serve and be helpful. Most of the time, my strategy worked. I surrounded myself with positive, encouraging people and I tried hard to please them.

Sometimes, I just wanted someone to smile. Other times, I needed to know that I was the one they needed to help them, the one who finally listened to them or spent time with them.

I created this image of myself. I am a: Good Christian. Good person. Good friend. Good father. Good husband. Good pastor. I am Good.

My image was critical to my happiness. I clung to it. I believed it. I lived it. I made everyday choices based on it. I dreamt of being good and then I acted like it was true.

What I thought was positive, became negative. I wound up thriving on other people needing me. I wasn’t happy unless I was successful at helping someone else feel happy. I was driven to help, to rescue, to save.

I was simply acting out what I had learned all those years ago. If you want people to be happy with you, help them to feel happy about themselves.

This in turn led eventually to me losing my job. Not that many people knew the why behind the what, behind my actions.

A couple of years ago after some intense times with my counselor and even more intense time with God, I realized that the reality is: God did call me to be a pastor. But, on the human side, I chose to be a pastor because I wanted to feel good about myself by helping other people feel good about themselves. At this, I was very skilled. But, it couldn’t last. The foundation couldn’t last. So, God tore down that foundation and had me start over building a new life on a new self-image.

I am only good in Christ. I am weak and His power is made perfect through my weakness.

(Part 2 of this confession can be found here)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Our Family Rules! and Our Family Rules.

"Our Family Rules!" My oldest daughter, Anna, said the other day that she has the best family ever. This is especially encouraging since this has been a tough year and a half for us. In the past 18 months, I secluded myself for an extra few hundred hours (on top of regular work hours) while I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I graduated with my doctorate of ministry degree, I lost my job, our family left the only church any of of us have ever really known, we started a home church and our children changed schools majorly disrupting their social lives. Only a few of those friendships have withstood this upheaval, so they are still in the transition time of building new friendships.

I'm glad that she feels our family has been the rock that it needed to be to offer her the security and confidence to go through this difficult time.

But, that's not what I am writing about today. Today, I want to tell you about our family rules. As in The 10 Commandments of the Zirilli family.

It was suggested that it might help bring some sanity to our home to have some set of basic rules, guidelines for our lives. A reminder to us as parents and to our children what life in the Zirilli home is all about. So I decided that we should have a family meeting to discuss what our family rules should be.

As you might imagine, I was really excited about the awesome potential!

I explained that if we had a set of rules that was constant, it would be easier for everyone to follow the rules and discipline would be more cut and dry. "Sounds great doesn't it!"

Our kids hated the idea and immediately shot it down. Katie, my very practical 14 year old declared, "It will just give us more random stuff to get in trouble for. No thank you."

I was taken aback. I guess I approached that subject all wrong! So, I dropped it and tried to figure out what God was saying and if my enthusiasm was off or my delivery.

Then, I found these pictures online and decided to try again, with a more positive spin.

Contemporary Living Room design by Los Angeles Interior Designer Jill Wolff Interior Design

"What do you think about doing something like this."

Katie pipes up, "Can we paint on the wall? ... Then, I'm in!"

"But what do you think about the idea?" Not satisfied with their enthusiastic response, I wanted to put a damper on it right away. (Why do I do that?!?)

So now, we just need some time to think it over and keep throwing out ideas and mulling them over. In a couple of months, we will hopefully have our list, our design layout, and then we can paint.

I'll keep you posted on how it goes!

Does anyone else have Family Rules? What do you wish were your family rules? Katie's first suggestion was, "We do whatever we want."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lent Has Begun, But it's not Too Late to Fast!: More on How to Make Real Lasting Change in Your Life

           If you want to make a change in your life, fasting is a great way to do it. It can help you to build your will power and focus on what is most important in your life. It is a great way to reorient your life.

           You know that Jesus died for your sins and that you’re forgiven and accepted by God and that’s wonderful! And yet, you desire more, to live in such a way that God is pleased and people will see your life and praise God for what He has done.
            God wants us to be transformed in heart and mind. Our job isn’t to transform ourselves. That’s His job and His desire for us! “As we pay attention to the nudges of the Holy Spirit, we become disciples of Christ. Our task is to do the connecting, while God does the perfecting,” (Jan Johnson from Simplicity & Fasting, p.5.)

                                                      What Fasting Is Not

Fasting is not work. Fasting in itself doesn’t please God and is not something to check off our “To do…” list.

Fasting is not a way to get God to do what you want Him to. God is not obligated to act simply because we fast.

Fasting is not a reason to complain. We need not tell others unless it is in obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and usually with the intention of drawing attention to what God has done, not what we are

What Fasting Is

Fasting is a discipline. It is abstaining from something in order to cause ourselves to miss it and feel the loss of it.

Fasting reveals our true self. It leads us to realize and repent from the shallowness of our faith and the depths of our sin. It allows us to deal with God with more honesty and with more vulnerability.

Fasting is a means to an end. The feeling of missing something here on earth, can make us more attuned to the eternal. We can realize the importance of the spiritual things in our life all the more clearly.

Fasting is about denial. We deny ourselves something we want like food or something we prefer like TV in order to empty ourselves, so that we can then focus on our deeper hunger for spiritual things, those things which really matter.

Fasting, then, is feasting. We reorient ourselves so that we can truly feast on the things of God and live life fully as Christ-likeness becomes our motivation

The Bottom Line

Fasting is a way we separate ourselves from the world so that we can engage the world as messengers of God. “We learn to love the world God so loves without running on the fuel it runs on – unlimited varieties of foods, media and words,” (ibid, p.9.)

               Scriptures to Study

Matt 4:1-11 – How can I share Jesus’ food?

John 6:48-51 – What is Jesus teaching us about food and life?

Luke 9:22-25 – Meditate on Jesus’ words, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

If you desire to be more attentive to the Holy Spirit and to His leading, join us as we pray for God to specifically make His will clear and give us faith to believe.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Importance of Friendships: More on How to Make real Lasting Change

I was 17 years old. I had been clean for 8 months. I hadn’t used in all that time and I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to stay clean. I was feeling stronger than I had since I started using. I was confident that the battle was over and that I would be free from now on. At least I hoped I would be.

Then, it happened, that season of my life when I fell back in with certain friends and found myself hanging out behind the school out in the field where I had started using. To them, it was just a game, but to me it was a battle. I hated what was happening to me.

In the beginning, I still felt pretty strong, like I could handle being around them, they weren’t even my close friends, just people I ran around with. I didn’t think that I would fall back into it. I thought I could handle it.

Then, in a time of difficulty, I was struggling with some emotional stress and I gave in to the pressure. Everyone else was doing it, or so it seemed. I caved. I just used once, and I realized it right away and I stopped and I thought I had it under control. But, soon, it was once or twice a week. Then, it was almost every time I was out there. I had lost complete control.

Whatever our temptations are, hanging out with the wrong crowd or the right crowd can have a huge impact on us. If you struggle with an addiction to alcohol, don’t spend time in a bar. When you struggle with an addiction to gambling, don’t go to Las Vegas. Obviously. 

But, it goes beyond this.

Think about it. There is power in those relationships. There is power in the culture or the movement of people in and through our lives. Who we are with influences how well we follow through with what we want. As it turns out, our will power is affected by those around us.

The last two days, I have written about how to make real and lasting changes in our lives. If we are able to block future temptation and able to strengthen our will power "muscle", we will still struggle to make lasting change unless we change the people we spend time with.

How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers!” Kind David wrote in the first line of the first song recorded in Psalms. So that’s not news, but we still need the reminder. The people we are around inevitably affect what we do.

In that true story from when I was 17, what I was talking about was the tendency I had to use foul language. It started behind our school out on the soccer field. I would get angry at an opponent for some reason or other, my temper would rise and the curses would fly. After soccer season was over in my junior year, I decided to stop cursing all together and did pretty well. I thought I had it under control. But, as soon as my senior season started, I couldn’t resist. I got frustrated, lost my temper and the cursing inevitably followed.

I never used drugs, got addicted to cigarettes or got into drinking, but the patterns are the same.

Even more benign habits are influenced by our environment. If you have the privilege like I do of having a good relationship with your parents and get to go back to the home you grew up in, your experience may be similar to mine.

I walk in the door of my parents' home and three overwhelming urges rise up in me. I am compelled to grab some snacks, put up my feet in the recliner, and watch TV. It is like I am a teenager all over again. I could happily sit there day and night stuffing my face and watching my IQ drop.

These habits can change, of course. And, I have managed to escape my parents' home on numerous occasions without losing a single brain cell.

But, it takes introspection, an awareness of our habits and weaknesses. And, we need to know how the people around us influence us.

Then, we need to make choices. Who will we hang out with? Who will be our closest friends? And what circles will we travel in? Where will we volunteer? With whom will we worship? What organizations will we join?

Each decision will influence who we associate with and those people will influence us.

If you want to lose weight and you spend time with someone who is working hard to get their finances in order. Their practice of self-control will help you with your practice of self-control.

The same is true if you are with someone who wants to quit smoking, eat better or exercise more. Talk about it together, encourage one another and don't give up.

Church can be a great place for developing those relationships. Church is designed to be a place where we surround ourselves with people who desire to love and obey God. If you desire to grow spiritually, God designed church for you to have the encouragement that you need.

Make sure that the people in your church are people that you want to influence you spiritually. 

The key is not to find a church of perfect people. But, find a church of people who like you desire to grow spiritually, are honest about their sins and failings, and are willing to take risks to obey God.

Whether you choose to go to church or not, if you want to grow more self-controlled, surround yourself with people who share your desire.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Monks, Ninjas and Jedi Masters: More on How to Make Real lasting Changes

Like a skill, will power can be learned. But, it is more like a muscle. It must be exercised in order to stay strong and it can get fatigued.

Ever notice that when you have had a stressful day at work, it is likely that you will lose your temper on the drive home or at the kids over dinner. Your will power muscle is strained. You have spent all of your will power at work and have none left for the rest of the day.

Ever notice that when you are tired, hungry, worried, or lonely, that everything is more difficult. Trying to do homework when you feel this way takes twice as long (if you can focus on it at all.)

They did an experiment where people had to trace a geometric pattern without lifting their pencil. It looked simple but was frustrating to no end because there was no possible solution. Maybe it was something like this:

This was an intense test of their will power. How long could they keep trying to solve the puzzle before giving up?

But, to set up the experiment they had to have some people who had used up some of their will power before the test began and some, as a control group, who had not.

The set up: 67 college students were tested one by one. They were asked to skip the meal before coming to the experiment which they were deceptively told was to test their taste perceptions.

Every student entered the room to the aroma of freshly baked cookies. Before them on the table was a bowl of chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes. Half of the students were asked to ignore the radishes and only eat the cookies. This, as you can imagine, took little or no will power.

The other half, however had to exert enormous self-control as they ignored the chocolate chip cookies and only ate the radishes.

After five minutes, the food was removed and they were told that they had to wait fifteen minutes before their palates would be cleansed enough to continue the experiment. “While you are waiting, please work on this little puzzle,” insinuating that the puzzle should be relatively easy. They were handed the impossible puzzle.

Those who had enjoyed the cookies, looked relaxed and peaceful. They spent an average of 27 minutes working on the puzzle before they rang the bell signaling that they had given up.

Those who had used their will power to resist eating the cookies, looked miserable, grumbling and complaining from the very beginning. They worked on the puzzle for an average of only 8 minutes before giving up!

Will power is a muscle. When you use it up it gets tired and you will give up sooner.
But, since will power is a muscle, you can flex it and exercise it and it will get stronger.

Well, I can’t guarantee that we’ll all become monks, ninjas or Jedi masters, but we can all strengthen our will power muscles.

If you use your will power to exercise every day, you will have greater will power when it comes to smoking less, drinking less, doing homework more, and eating better.

If you set budget goals with your money, making detailed logs of every penny spent, using greater will power over your finances, you will have greater will power to exercise more, smoke less, drink less, and watch less TV.

Good habits spill over into other areas of your life. Flex your will power muscle in one area and every area of your life will benefit.

It's a little strange to think about. Force yourself to practice an instrument for an hour every day, and you may lose weight and get out of debt.

So, begin. Where you begin is less important than just making sure that you do.

(Check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg for more info about these experiments and in general about how to make lasting change.)

Here is the next blog in the series: