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April 27, 2009

Sermons about Sex

This Florida church has landed in hot water for teaching a series on the biblical view of sex. Why? Because they meet in an elementary school. Evidently, it's OK to teach elementary students about homosexuality and condoms during the school week, but when a pastor advertises a series on what the Bible has to say about sex -- well, that is deemed "obnoxious and inimical to the best interests of the school board." Anyone else see something wrong with this picture? 

April 22, 2009

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April 21, 2009

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April 17, 2009

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April 16, 2009

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April 15, 2009

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April 13, 2009

Daily roundup

Relics of faith

Shroud If you're not sure the Resurrection all those Christians celebrated this past weekend really took place, then how about a little proof--the genuine burial cloth that wrapped the body of Christ and still bears His image. Or perhaps not.

The Shroud of Turin is perhaps the most famous "relic" purporting to have a direct link to the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And its fame has as much to do with the questions of its authenticity.

The Wall Street Journal has an article online about the shroud--its history, its relevance, and the upcoming public exhibition. The author, Peter Manseau, writes of the controversy:

But maybe so much focus on explanation misses the point. Belief -- any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force -- requires a partial abandonment of the rational. This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.

Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

(Image © AP)

Thought for the day

A Russian priest, Father Anthony, told me, "To say to anyone 'I love you' is tantamount to saying 'You shall live forever.'"

I am slowly beginning to learn something about immortality.

Our children are hungry for words like Father Anthony's. They have a passionate need for the dimension of transcendence, mysticism, way-outness. We're not offering it to them legitimately. The tendency of the churches to be relevant and more-secular-than-thou does not answer our need for the transcendent. As George Tyrrell wrote about a hundred years ago, "If [man's] craving for the mysterious, the wonderful, the supernatural, be not fed on true religion, it will feed itself on the garbage of any superstition that is offered to it."

Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet, pp. 110-11

April 09, 2009

Daily roundup

Posting will be light tomorrow because of Good Friday. Have a blessed Easter weekend!

April 08, 2009

Principles mean more than favorability to the Pope? Heaven forbid!

200px-BentoXVI-30-10052007 Pope Benedict XVI has sparked international outrage with his statements regarding his rejection of using condoms to fight the AIDS epidemic. From time to time I see this happen, and I never understand why people suddenly act outraged at teachings the Catholic Church has always held.

The Catholic Church rejects the use of condoms because they create a barrier to life within the marriage that is contrary to the natural order. But condoms distract us from the real problem. The Catholic Church doesn’t say an unmarried couple shouldn’t use condoms. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the Church teaches abstinence as the only legitimate way of protecting the physical and spiritual life of the persons in question.

Just like the economic crisis, the AIDS epidemic materialized from a moral problem. Whether a lack of control in spending, or a lack of control in sexual behavior, eventually the consequences of our actions surface.

Rebecca Hodes, head of policy, communication and research for the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, doesn’t understand the problem. In a recent statement made to the Huffington Post she demonstrated the very ignorance that brought about this problem and the weight it bears, when she separated our actions from their moral consequences. Her misplaced frustrations were exposed when she said, “[Pope Benedict’s] opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.”

The Pope holds so firmly to religious dogma BECAUSE of his love for the lives, both physical and spiritual, of those in Africa.

Continue reading "Principles mean more than favorability to the Pope? Heaven forbid!" »

Remembering death

Smoldering_wick For those of us, like me, who were raised as evangelicals, this is a very celebratory time of year. Last Sunday, many Christians celebrated the Triumphal Entry, the symbolic and prophecy-fulfilling time when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of his people and a road paved with palm fronds. This coming Sunday, we will stand in church and sing hymns and choruses announcing the risen Christ. Jesus seems to float effortlessly from triumph to triumph.

We evangelicals sometimes miss what our more liturgical brethren experience in the week between these two celebrations. The church that used to be on the campus of my alma mater holds a Tenebrae service each year. This service of "darkness" follows the path of our Lord to the cross. While different churches follow different patterns for this service, most follow the traditional symbolism of gradually darkening the lights in the church as the service progresses until, at the end of the service, the entire sanctuary is plunged into darkness. In our campus church, after a few minutes of darkness, someone would light a solitary candle to symbolize the hope of the resurrection.

What I discovered as an evangelical was that allowing myself to experience the grief and sorrow of Christ's betrayal and death made Easter Sunday exponentially more celebratory. Remembering for a short time that the world was dark, that the Hope of Ages had been crucified and lay dead and buried in a stone tomb made the wonder and joy of that empty tomb a few days later burst out of my heart in a way that Palm Sunday had never done.

Continue reading "Remembering death" »

April 07, 2009

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April 06, 2009

Daily roundup

April 03, 2009

What would Jesus walk on?

Ecopalm_247 The green movement has hit the second greenest Christian celebration, Palm Sunday, when fronds of green palm branches are waved by children and adults in church services only a few months after all the Christmas (or Chrismon) trees were taken down. This year, in a move that might make the Sleeths happy, a number of churches have gone free-trade with their palm fronds. Spending a few more dollars, they are buying palm fronds through a university project that promises sustainable farming and fair wages.

Gina's post on the Sleeths' book has generated a lot of discussion about the green movement and how (or if) it should intersect with our faith. What do you all think? Is the idea of free trade palms one you'd like to see in your church?

(Image courtesy of UMCOR/Lutheran World Relief)

April 01, 2009

Daily roundup

Going green for God

Go Green Yesterday I spoke on the phone with Nancy Sleeth, author of the new book Go Green, Save Green. Sleeth and her husband, Matthew, are the founders of Blessed Earth, "an educational nonprofit that inspires and equips faith communities to become better stewards of the earth." Her husband and daughter have also written books on the subject. (We don't yet have the books here, but review copies have been shipped to our office, so you'll be hearing more about them in the future.)

Matthew Sleeth was an emergency room physician who was becoming concerned about what he saw as an increased incidence of environmentally caused diseases (in one week on the job, he saw three women in their thirties with breast cancer), as well as what he heard scientists saying about the decreasing of living material on the earth. He left his job and the Sleeths became what Nancy calls the "poster family for the downwardly mobile." Once they had made drastic reductions in their own energy usage, they set out to help others do the same.

At the same time, the Sleeths were starting a new "faith journey." Nancy had been raised Jewish and Matthew Protestant, but aside from celebrating holidays, the family had little interest in religion. Nancy quips that in their house "the Fiddler on the Roof slipped down the chimney and laid Easter eggs." But her husband had discovered a Gideon Bible one day in the hospital during a slow day, and "he picked it up and read the Gospel of Matthew and his life changed." Nancy and the children soon followed suit. Thus, Nancy says, "Our stewardship journey and our faith journey were parallel."

The Sleeths believe that helping save the creation is a way to honor the Creator, and that the Bible makes a solid case for taking care of the environment. "It's old theology; it's nothing new," Nancy explains. "We're just reminding people." The response they're getting from churches around the country has been "amazing," especially now that Christians, like the larger population, are trying to save money as well as natural resources. That's fine with Nancy: "I don't care if it's motivated by economics, it's doing the right thing." 

Continue reading "Going green for God" »

I was so hoping this was an April Fool

Unfortunately, it appears to be true.

March 31, 2009

Daily roundup

March 30, 2009

Daily roundup

March 27, 2009

Secretary Clinton and a little refreshing truth

Clinton_Mexico "Give credit where credit is due," as the saying goes. Though I am reluctant to do so, I must say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten to the heart of the matter.

In a statement quoted in the Washington Post, Clinton said, "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade." This fact is rarely relayed by the media or in popular culture. It is important to catch drug kingpins, who are responsible for funneling copious amounts of drugs into the United States. However, we also need to recognize that drugs affect every segment of society. 

Prisons are a hotbed of drug use, but drug addiction and use are not limited to convicted criminals. Traditional American families are battling drugs in otherwise stable homes. Without these recreational users and addicts there wouldn't be a drug trade, and therefore we wouldn't have these border turf wars.

That's why it's shameful that society trivializes Michael Phelps's smoking marijuana at a party. This impulse to use an illegal substance is very kind of behavior that creates the demand these brutal cartels are supplying. 

I applaud Clinton for acknowledging that, whether or not inhaling is involved, illegal drug use contributes to the trafficking that is devastating our southern border. 

Continue reading "Secretary Clinton and a little refreshing truth" »

March 26, 2009

Daily roundup

John Calvin, rock star

John-calvin Which theologian is setting the world on fire right now? According to TIME, it's the one celebrating his 500th birthday this year.

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

Reggie Kidd analyzes this piece at Common Grounds Online (bringing in a quote from our own Catherine Larson). Meanwhile, Tim Challies reports on a recent "John Calvin Mini-Conference," going into greater depth about Calvinist theology.

(Image courtesy of Theology Forum)

March 25, 2009

Serving Our Own

Last Sunday my church in Silver Spring, Maryland, announced a new ministry of support for people who have lost their jobs, seen their work hours reduced, or seen a reduction in demand for their services. 

"Our Lord exhorts us to be encourages to one another, to uplift each other in prayer, & to provide practical support to those in need," noted our church bulletin. "During this time of economic uncertainty and job insecurity, Atonement is commencing a ministry of support as a comfort and encouragement to those experiencing career challenges."

"If you own a company, provide a service, sell a product, tutor, consult, or have a skill that you would like to employ," the bulletin went on, "we are preparing a referral list for internal distribution." The list will then be made available to church members and regular attenders.

This is a wonderful way of serving our own people in need. I hope other churches will pick up on the idea.

’A True Call for Revival’

Dr. Henry Blackaby offers these words about what it means to experience true revival, specifically how it means a "call for repentance" among God's people that he claims few of our spiritual leaders are giving despite the obvious need. He proposes that "revival has always been, and remains to this day, God dealing with the sin of His own -- not the world." [Emphasis mine.]   

It strikes me that we Christians spend a lot of time talking and blogging about the "sins of the world" and a lot less time considering how our own sin is contributing to the mess our nation is currently in -- whether it's economic, moral, spiritual, or political. Have we become so much like the Laodiceans that we cannot see our need for the Lord to correct us? Blackaby offers this observation:

"This lack of recognition of God's people to see their present spiritual condition frightens me. The continued neglect of dealing with the sin of God's people is both obvious and appalling. Have we moved so far from God that we remain content in our sin? Do we not fear the judgment of God? Week after week, wherever I go, I hear no mention of our desperate need of God. There's no spontaneous concern or cry to God. It's simply not on the minds and hearts of God's people -- at least where I am and where I travel." 

He then outlines five steps which Christians need to take in order to bring revival to America (you can read the full article for his list, and for the Scriptures undergirding each step). In Dr. Blackaby's mind, "the immediate need for revival among God's people is 'life and death' for our nation." Do you agree? 

March 23, 2009

Care For Children of Divorce: What Is Your Church Doing?

Dad and daughter.jpg As you may recall, Elizabeth Marquardt has conducted research that confirms that children of divorce suffer from loneliness. As she puts it, "Growing up, the children of divorce feel lonely, set apart, adrift, too often misunderstood." What you might not have known or thought about is that those same children might be sitting in a pew next to you, feeling that sense of loneliness and estrangement.

Marquardt is sharing information with readers about how churches can start to combat this problem. She's offering free copies of her DVD, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, to churches and parachurch organizations.

Marquardt also offers information about an outreach program, Divorce Care for Kids. Are any Pointers or Pointificators familiar with the program?

(Image courtesy of ToTheSource)

March 20, 2009

First Church of Nobody

This is a phenomenon that has always fascinated me: atheists gathering together in a church-like setting to talk about -- well, I'm not exactly clear on that part. I can understand that some people would choose not to believe in God, for varying reasons, but it seems a little strange to meet regularly to talk about it, or to passionately evangelize for the cause.

Yet as this Washington Post article points out, the human need for community and companionship cannot be evaded even in the most self-centered of religions.

Richard Lints, a professor of philosophical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass., said the humanist desire for greater community is understandable. He believes God "hard-wired" humans to need it.

But he said he doubts humanism can sustain itself in the local congregations Epstein envisions because community is not a natural part of humanism, where the individual is the ultimate source of meaning. If humanism becomes concerned with the "greater good," and a sort of natural moral order that implies, it starts to resemble religion and humanists will back away, he said.

The community at the center of the Post's report was initiated by the humanist "chaplain" -- a rather paradoxical title -- at Harvard. And he offers a rather paradoxical reason for bringing fellow "believers" together: "Salvation is here on earth. . . . We have evolved over 14 billion years without purpose. Now we want purpose, we need to build it into our own lives."

If humanism were true, the purposelessness of life would indeed be the universe's greatest tragedy. Yet real purpose is not something that can be created from within.

March 19, 2009

Daily roundup

March 18, 2009

’Just don’t kill the baby’

Bristol Tripp Pastor/blogger Rob Harrison has the best analysis I've seen of evangelicals' response to Bristol Palin, and to unwed pregnancy in general. It's so good I wish I could repost the whole thing, but I'll settle for a couple of excerpts.

I'm reluctant to give props to David Frum, who looks more like a giant wooden horse every time I see his byline, but he did a much better job than [Jon] Swift on this issue in an article he wrote six months ago for Canada's National Post.  He opened his piece in a manner Swift would no doubt approve—"Whoever imagined that we would see a Republican convention rapturously applaud an unwed teen mother?"—but then went on to actually think about what that really meant, and what it really tells us:

That moment confirmed a dramatic evolution in American politics: the transformation of the pro-life movement from an unambiguously conservative force into something more complex. . . .

The pro-life movement has come to terms with the sexual revolution. So long as unwed parenthood is considered disgraceful, many unwed mothers will choose abortion to escape disgrace. And so, step by step, the pro-life movement has evolved to an accepting—even welcoming—attitude toward pregnancy outside marriage.

As I wrote about Frum's article at the time, though I think "welcoming" is an overstatement,

Frum has captured and crystallized something of which I was aware—in my own attitudes and approach to ministry, no less than in the lives of others—but which I hadn't consciously thought about. Put simply, when pro-life concerns cross with the concern for other issues, the tie goes to the baby.

The truth is, Frum is (if you'll excuse the pun) dead right on this subject.  Sure, time was that conservative Christians in this country stigmatized teen pregnancy and disapproved of it as hard as we could; and then folks started pointing out that we weren't really discouraging teenagers from getting pregnant—all we were doing was driving them into the ungentle hands of the abortion industry.  Collectively, we took a look at ourselves and realized that the critics were right; and over time, we by and large decided that we could live with teenage pregnancy and teen single motherhood—just don't kill the baby.

That's the message on which most evangelicals in America have settled, when it comes to kids like Bristol Palin:  just don't kill the baby, and we'll do what we can to support you and help you out.  Why else have we started crisis pregnancy centers all over the place?  We didn't have a utopian choice here, we had the choice of two evils; we stared it dead in the face, thought about it for a while, and picked the lesser one.  This is the bargain we made, and I believe it's done more to reduce the abortion rate in this country than any government policy, even as it's boosted the rate of illegitimacy.

Continue reading "’Just don’t kill the baby’" »

But he looks so normal

Tchividjian The Associated Press's coverage of Tullian Tchividjian's appointment to succeed D. James Kennedy shows just how stereotyped Christians are by the media. After proclaiming that Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, could be a "softening" influence on Coral Ridge Presbyterian, the writer seems quite puzzled to discover that the new young pastor actually believes the same things Kennedy did. After all, "his hair is spiky, his beard sometimes scruffy, his skin tan."

I guess he missed the seminary class on "How to Look Like a Proper Evangelical."

(Image © AP)

March 17, 2009

Daily roundup

March 16, 2009

Top 10 Reasons to Go to Church

Church1914 Bill Shuler, the pastor of the Capital Life Church in Arlington, Virginia, posted the following on the Fox Forum:

1. It’s a way to get a healthy glow without makeup.

2. Elvis started out in a church choir … so can you.

3. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the rest of your life–which are better than the IRS or FBI.

4. In this economy, it might be good to be hooked up with Someone who can turn water into wine. . . .

Read the rest here!

(Image © FourthChurch.org)

RE: The Coming Evangelical Collapse

If you followed the links in Gina's post, you may have decided that MIchael Spencer’s predictions are overly apocalyptic -- like this:

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants...This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good. Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

But if current trends hold, there are, no doubt, troubling times ahead for Christians (but haven't there always been!).

According to a recent survey referenced here (CNN has more), the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians is 75 percent, down from 86 percent in 1990. Perhaps more disturbing is that the only result found consistent from state to state is “an increase in the number of people expressing no religious affiliation.” With the increased social acceptability of “having no religion,” this is a trend that will prove challenging to reverse.

Spencer lists seven things foreshadowing the coming evangelical breakdown, the most significant, in my mind, being, “We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.”

Continue reading "RE: The Coming Evangelical Collapse" »

March 13, 2009

’The coming evangelical collapse’

This dire prediction has been making the rounds for a few days now, in two slightly different forms (here's the original blog post). It keeps popping up in e-mails, Facebook pages, and pretty much everywhere else I look. What do you think of it? A likely event, or a fate that's preventable?

March 12, 2009

A new ball game

Connecticut's grab for power over the state's Catholic churches (referenced here) has been shot down after outraged protests by Catholic voters. But it's worth reading up on the issue to understand just what was involved in this attempt, in case something similar happens again. A good place to start is Kathryn Lopez's interview with Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage. Here's a sample:

LOPEZ: Critics point out that it is allegedly being pushed by same-sex-marriage opponents. Is this really about the gay-marriage debate?

BROWN: It certainly doesn’t pass the smell test. Gay-marriage activists have been very open about going after the LDS church because Mormons donated money and time to Prop 8. This certainly appears to be part of that same strategy, although Michael Lawlor, for one, has been pretty openly contemptuous of the Catholic church for some time — something insiders at Hartford know, but his East Haven constituents may not.

LOPEZ: It’s hard not to flash back to the Proposition 8 debate in California — which is really still going on, isn’t it? There seems to be less debate and more retribution on this issue.

BROWN: I do think we need to be realistic: Unless we find a way to organize lay Catholics and join with other people of faith to protect our liberties, we are going to be a huge target in blue states with a newly resurgent Democrat party — one of whose key base groups, gay-marriage activists, believe they are the civil-rights battle of the century and that opposition to their views is henceforth as illegitimate as racism.

These are not your mama’s liberals. It’s a new ball game.

But I also believe this as passionately: Every crisis is also an opportunity. Appalled as I am, I’m also looking forward to playing some brand new ball.

March 11, 2009

Send them to Vermont

The next time the kids in your church ask you to help send them on a mission trip to, say, France, or to some obscure country you never heard of, tell them you'll write a check for them to go to Vermont, instead. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (also referenced in a recent roundup), more than a third of all Vermonters say they have no religious beliefs--the highest number in the country.    

The study has not even been officially released yet, and I've already heard commentators on TV criticizing the methodology. But even if the authors are off a bit, I've become more and more convinced over the last few years that mission-minded kids (and adults) ought to volunteer to go, not overseas, but into the nearest U.S. inner city to help the poor in some constructive, life-changing way (i.e., not just give them another handout), or into more secular states to plant churches, or volunteer with youth sports teams, or open their homes to college students who have had enough of life in dorm brothels.   

Those who read to the end of the article will see that the only reason the U.S. is not more secular than it is is because of millions of immigrants, who bring their religious beliefs (mainly Catholic) with them. As for native-born Americans--clearly we have our work cut out for us.

March 10, 2009

Daily roundup

Welcoming the genocidal

Jill Stanek has a post up at her blog about a black Baptist church that invited Planned Parenthood to teach their kids about teen pregnancy.

There are those who argue that conservatives keep voting for those whose policies are against their own best interests. Even if that were true, we'd have nothing on those who extend a hearty welcome to the group that's trying to wipe out their race, one baby at a time.

March 09, 2009

Daily roundup

March 04, 2009

Daily roundup

March 03, 2009

Daily roundup

Godparenting for Dummies

Baby_godmother_loves_me One of the greatest blessings in my life is two adorable little girls whom I get to call my goddaughters. But although I love being a godmother, I'm still figuring out the nature of the job. I look forward to the day when they're old enough for me to introduce them to my favorite books, take them toy shopping, and do all kinds of other fun things. But I know there's a lot more to godmother duty than that.

Kathryn Slattery shares some helpful tips in this article at Guideposts.com:

Books on the subject are surprisingly hard to find. I also talked to friends, godparents and godchildren alike, to learn from their experiences. And what I discovered was fascinating.

The tradition of god-parenting among Christians is an ancient one going back to the days of the early church, when believers were persecuted—and when life expectancies in general were much shorter than they are today. 

While modern-day believers in America are not persecuted as the early church once was, it could be said that the healthy growth and development of our children's faith is threatened as never before by the cumulative effect of society's ills: widespread divorce; broken homes; rampant materialism; both parents working out of economic necessity rather than choice; lack of parental supervision; parental mental illness; alcohol and drug abuse; parental physical, sexual and emotional abuse; and the desensitization of our children to violence and sex via unsupervised viewing of inappropriate television, videos, movies and the internet.

In other words, kids today need all the help they can get! Over and over I was astonished to hear from clergy and laypeople alike that good god-parenting could make a powerful difference.

Read more here. And if you have any ideas to share from your own godparenting experience, please leave a comment below. I can use all the help I can get, too.

(Image © BuyAthletic.com)

February 27, 2009

Lenten Thoughts: Repentance, Confession, and Forgiveness, Part Two

I think one of the most challenging verses in all of Scripture to me is James 4:17. He writes, “Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” It’s such a simple, straightforward statement. But it reaches out so far.

“Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” We hesitate, rationalize and equivocate. He tells us plainly.

I think it’s easy enough to pat ourselves on the back when we’ve swallowed down the words that we shouldn’t say, when we’ve wrestled our selfish thoughts to the ground, but this? Oh, it’s so hard.

It reminds me what a huge gap there is between me and the perfect standard God requires. I have committed sins. But I have also omitted goodness. I have neglected the words of praise someone needed; I’ve idled away my talents; I’ve not been generous when God has prompted.

I think in our day and age, we want to shrug and laugh it off.  But there is a time for sobriety. And in this same passage where James states this so plainly, he also tells us how we should treat our sins of commission and omission: “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

It’s the picture of repentance, true repentance. And it’s a good place to begin before we ever come close to thinking about the wrongs others have done to us.

February 25, 2009

Lenten Reflections: Repentance, Confession, and Forgiveness, Day One

Rouault Before I left for Rwanda to write As We Forgive, I was reading a book called The Keys to My Neighbor’s House, by journalist Elizabeth Neuffer, who covered the atrocities of both Bosnia and Rwanda. She writes about returning to interview perpetrators. When I read this I couldn’t get it out of my mind: “What’s most chilling when you meet a murderer is that you meet yourself."

That’s not a popular thought, but it is a sobering one. And it’s a perfect place to begin my Lenten reflections.  

There’s this stubborn thing that honest people know. I don’t mean honest in the sense of never telling a lie. I mean the people who are willing to not gloss over their own flaws. I mean the people who are willing to judge themselves not by the measuring rod of others, not even by the measuring rod of the face they present the world, but by the measuring rod of what’s in the heart.

The prophet Jeremiah put his finger on it: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus picked up the theme. He said:

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

If I tell myself that I never could have done what the killers in Rwanda did, that I never could have done this or that, I kid myself. Apart from God’s grace, the murderer I’m interviewing could be me. I don’t want to look into the murderer’s mirror, but I need to. But for God, his eyes are my eyes. And even more chilling, on the days when I think angry thoughts about others, Jesus says that murderer’s heart is my heart.

Sackcloth and ashes: these need to be mine.

A Primer for Lent

As a neophyte to the liturgical calendar, I was honored when my pastor asked me to compose a devotional on Lent. As I researched the observance, I stumbled across some excellent "textbooks" on the subject from those whose eyes have had a little longer to adjust to the bright and rich world of Christian tradition. If you, too, need a primer for Lent, here are a few excellent places to start:

  • "On Keeping a Holy Lent" by Craig Higgins provides a basic history of Lent and casts a vision for how we can make the observance count in a modern context
  • Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson peers into the paradox of Lent: that true fasting can lead to richer feasting
  • "Nothing for Lent" is a 40-day devotional by Prison Fellowship International that connects the sorrow and joy of Lent to the life that can spring forth in prison.

And, if you're interested in my stab on the topic, you can read it here at Common Grounds Online.

How to help kids ’get it’

Kids.jpg A new BreakPoint column about young people and worldview, by John Stonestreet, executive director of Summit Ministries, contains some helpful insights that relate to the conversation Anne started yesterday.

I often hear students describe their experience of Christianity in these terms: “I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but I don’t really get it”; or, “I prayed the prayer when I was four, but I don’t think it stuck”; or, “I committed my life to Christ when I was 15, but I am not sure it stuck.” . . .

Often, our approaches to youth ministry sanctify adolescence. Whereas teenagers have the capacity—and thus, I would argue, the calling—to think deeply and broadly about their culture, confront evil and injustice, and champion the truth, they instead are encouraged in their adolescent narcissism. We present a neutered Gospel, only about them and their needs, lacking vision (Proverbs 29:18).

Read more here about why Christian kids aren't "getting it," and how we can help make sure they do.

February 24, 2009

A Lenten poll

Thanks to everyone who participated in our poll about watching the Oscars. And the envelope, please? (That's not mine -- I swiped it from Travis.)

Total Votes: 347

3.2% - 11
Religiously
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17.6% - 61
Occasionally
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6.6% - 23
Just long enough to see the dresses
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62.5% - 217
Wouldn't watch it on a dare
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10.1% - 35
Other

All lowbrow-ness aside, I think it's nice that we have a bit of a mix there. It's just my own personal theory, perhaps, but it always seems to me that any group of Christians is stronger and more balanced when it has some variety within the ranks in matters of taste and culture.

On to the new poll, which is on the righthand side of the page: How do you observe Lent? If you'd like to share more about that than the poll allows you to do, feel free to use the comment section below!

February 20, 2009

Optional orthodoxy

Archbishop-canterbury-wide Following up on Steve's theme . . .

Over at IRD, Jim Tonkowich has a thoughtful piece about the March Atlantic's story on Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Jim argues that the Atlantic article ought to be read in conjunction with First Things’ reprint of a 1997 Richard John Neuhaus piece titled "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy."

Jim writes,

In “The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy,” Fr. Neuhaus notes that Williams and others are not thoroughgoing relativist[s]. They propound normative truths.

These truths, however, are not embodied in propositions, precedent, ecclesial authority, or, goodness knows, revelation. They are experiential truths expressing the truth of who we truly are—“we” being defined by sex, race, class, tribe, or identifying desire (“orientation”).

As a result:

… [D]isagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a Church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, “Yes, but they are not me!”

Since Christian orthodoxy challenges all such self-justification, it becomes “an intolerable personal affront” in such settings. This is why Neuhaus began the article by stating: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

Hence the war in the Anglican Communion and many other parts of Christendom. For progressives, “my experience” is the measure of truth. Orthodoxy is tolerated, but only as one option among many. The toleration ends, however, when it asserts normative theological truth and moral truth—two things considered oxymorons. These impede progressive goals such as the normalization of homosexuality. As a result orthodoxy must be suppressed.

Read more.

(Image courtesy of the Atlantic)

Whither the Lutherans?

The nearly five-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has just released a set of recommendations concerning the "ordination, consecration, and commissioning of people in committed, same-sex unions." The report, produced by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, is the culmination of a long discernment process initiated by the ELCA Church Council.

For the most part, Lutherans are a conciliatory bunch. They typically prefer not to draw attention to themselves, and avoid conflict the way most non-Lutherans avoid lutefisk. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that the task force has recommended what they perceive to be a "middle way" regarding the controversy.

Instead of taking a definitive position on the matter of actively gay clergy, the task force has proposed a "local option" approach, leaving it to the denomination's 65 synods to determine for themselves whether to allow such ordinations. To do this, the ELCA must eliminate language in its existing policies that requires that sexual intimacy for clergy be within the context of heterosexual marriage.

The decision to make no definitive decision is likely to exacerbate the heretofore slow decline in ELCA membership. One need only look at the ongoing disintegration of the Episcopal Church in the United States following its decision to consecrate an actively gay man as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire to see where the Lutherans might be headed.

The task force's recommendations will be debated and voted upon in August by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the biennial legislative body of the denomination. The decisions made by that assembly will go a long way in determining the future of one of the largest denominational bodies in the United States.

February 19, 2009

Daily roundup