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Faith | jonmower.com

Faith

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Floods

This morning the TV was on, and one of the morning shows was airing some footage of some recent flooding in TX. With a certain amount of alarm, Finn said something like: "God promised not to cause a flood again, but he did!" I thought that was a good example of taking God at his word while thinking critically about whether or not he has kept it. I told him that the promise was about destroying the whole world and that this was just flooding in TX.

I Want to Give Him Ten Dollars

Yesterday we were sitting at a stoplight at the end of a highway exit ramp where a guy was holding a sign saying he was stranded and needed some money. My first urge was to look away from him. Lisa, who was driving, asked if I wanted to give him something. I said sure. I pulled out a $5 bill and Lisa handed it to him. Usually, I don't just hand out money but instead try to buy a person some food or whatever, but this occasion handing the money seemed to be the best option. As we sat longer at the stoplight, I noticed that Elliot was watching the man. We went on to Burger King. While in the restaurant, Elliot said something like "When we pass that man again, I want to give him $10." (Elliot had brought his wallet with him including the ~$100 of several years of birthday money that he has been saving and wants to spend on a Gameboy). Both Lisa and Elliot teared up at the time (and I am doing so right now). I'm really glad that we chose to give to that man and that Elliot got to see us do it.

The Sheep and the Goats

The other day I reading the following in Matthew 25:

31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35' For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39' When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' 40 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' 41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' 44 "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' 45 "Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' 46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Reflecting on these verses, I asked myself the question: "How often in the recent past have I done any of these things...fed the hungry and thirsty, took in a stranger, clothed the naked? How often in my life? Of course, I've done these things, but is my life characterized by such? No. Are these the things I'm teaching my kids to do? No.

I need to change.

Devote Yourselves to Prayer

Today I was listening to part of 1 Corinthians 7 and heard this:

3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

What struck me was that Paul included this exception, it the midst of giving this advice regarding sex in marriage, for a time of devotion to prayer...a time when a couple would be so devoted to prayer that there isn't even time to spare for a bit of marital intimacy. Do you have that kind of prayer life? I don't. Makes me realize that I might be missing something.

Money

A friend recently asked:

...what are some real good christian rules for handling money? The usual riposte to the question is "tithing", but that somehow doesn't cut it. More severe souls advise to "give until it hurts", but this is not very useful to me because there are various levels of pain.

my current conundrum is that i can't decide how much i need to save for emergencies, sickness, or retirement, vs giving to charity. how much to set aside for education?

It's something I've been mulling the last few years too...without really coming to any good insights. I recently mooched the book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity" by Ronald Sider. Maybe that's a good place to start.

Any suggestions or insights?

Religion beat became a test of faith

From an article of the same title by William Lobdell in the LA Times (the story is long but worth reading):

I began praying each morning and night. During those quiet times, I mostly listened for God's voice. And I thought I sensed a plan he had for me: To write about religion for The Times and bring light into the newsroom, if only by my stories and example.

My desire to be a religion reporter grew as I read stories about faith in the mainstream media. Spiritual people often appeared as nuts or simpletons.

In one of the most famous examples, the Washington Post ran a news story in 1993 that referred to evangelical Christians as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Another maddening trend was that homosexuality and abortion debates dominated media coverage, as if those where the only topics that mattered to Christians.

I didn't just pray for a religion writing job; I lobbied hard.

First as a columnist and then as a reporter, I never had a shortage of topics. I wrote about an elderly church organist who became a spiritual mentor to the man who tried to rape, rob and kill her. About the Orthodox Jewish mother who developed a line of modest clothing for Barbie dolls. About the hardy group of Mormons who rode covered wagons 800 miles from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, replicating their ancestors' journey to Southern California.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism, with its low-key evangelism and deep ritual, increasingly appealed to me. I loved its long history and loving embrace of liberals and conservatives, immigrants and the established, the rich and poor.

My wife was raised in the Catholic Church and had wanted me to join for years. I signed up for yearlong conversion classes at a Newport Beach parish that would end with an Easter eve ceremony ushering newcomers into the church.

By then I had been on the religion beat for three years. I couldn't wait to get to work each day or, on Sunday, to church.

William goes on to discuss several stories that he covered that began to take a toll on him:

  • the molestation scandals in the Catholic church and the way that both church leadership and common parishioners exacerbated the problem by supporting and protecting the perpetrators rather than the victims
  • lack of acceptance for misfits in the Mormon culture
  • Trinity Broadcasting Network's televangelists fleecing of the vulnerable with their prosperity gospel and living in luxury as a result: "TBN's creed is that if viewers send money to the network, God will repay them with great riches and good health. Even people deeply in debt are encouraged to put donations on credit cards."

His perspective evolved from...

...I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: "Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar."

to...

As part of the Christian family, I felt shame for my religion. But I still compartmentalized it as an aberration — the result of sinful behavior that infects even the church.

to...

On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn't belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn't go through with the rite of conversion.

I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?

I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.

to...

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

to...

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.

I thought this story was really interesting. It made me wonder how the church could be more successful and active in preventing and eliminating its characteristics that, in some instances, enable it to become a predator upon the weak rather than a source of love, hope, and support. I'm also especially intrigued by his observation that two people can see the same tragedies and hypocrisy or go through the same agonizing illness or loss...and one emerges with a faith that is strong while another's faith evaporates.

Confession

I was at a church recently where one of the elders was speaking, filling in for the minister who was out of town. During his talk, he confessed that in the past he gave in to the temptation of pornography. Even now, he hasn't completely overcome this struggle. He talked about some of his strategies for dealing with this issue...mostly through accountability with his wife and a good friend and avoiding situations where he might give in to temptation.

I was really impressed. In my experience in the churches of Christ, confession is one of the most ignored biblical principles. It's hard to admit your mistakes in anything other than the most generic sense of "we all sin." People walk around pretending they're perfect, and so people who can't hide it so well don't really fit in. I thought this elder displayed a great example of transparency and confession.

Spreading the Word

An interesting article in The Washington Post of the same title by Michelle Boorstein ran last Saturday. It examines a new "anti-proselytizing" policy at Georgetown University and the tension between "faith-sharing and intolerance." A few excerpts:

In adopting the policy, the Jesuit school joined a growing number of colleges and universities trying to spell out what constitutes acceptable evangelism in an America that is increasingly religiously diverse and less comfortable with absolutes.

John Borelli, special assistant for interreligious initiatives in the Georgetown president's office, was the main driver behind the new policy's language, which was announced in May. The difference is clear, he said, between evangelizing and banned actions, which include "moral constraint," and depriving people "of their inherent value as persons."

"It's not about the conversation being uncomfortable, it's about tearing down another person's church in order to show how superior yours is," he said.

Stephanie Brown, 22, who graduated from Georgetown in the spring, embraces the gist of the new edict: Respect other people's religious beliefs. The Kansas City, Mo., native takes seriously the Bible's edict to personally represent Jesus, so she doesn't want to offend anyone.

But as soon as she starts talking about the policy, which forbids "any effort to influence people in ways that depersonalize," the words seem to defy obvious translation. How do you express that Jesus is the only way to salvation without sounding judgmental? How do you deal with the question of what happens to a nonbeliever in eternity?

Terrence Reynolds, a Georgetown theology professor who chaired the advisory committee overseeing the development of the covenant, said the precise line between acceptable and unacceptable practices is not clear. For example, he said, what's the difference between saying that "Christ is the only way to salvation," and saying, "I believe if you don't accept Christ as the way to salvation, you will go to hell"?

David French, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who advised InterVarsity during this dispute, said the "haziness" around the policy could still chill evangelicals from speaking about their faith.

"People talk about all kinds of other stuff -- politics, sports, all kinds of contentious things. Then someone bring up Jesus, and suddenly . . . "

But there is a difference when it comes to matters of faith, Borelli said. "You're talking about one's convictions as one relates to God," he said. "So you're talking about something profound to our being, our position of faith, to our relations with God. That would be the qualitative difference."

In the National Review Online, French invoked Martin Luther King as he questioned Borelli's logic:

In other words, talk about God — since it is "profound" — impacts people more and should receive less protection. Yet isn't the entire concept of free speech designed to protect expression that can truly impact (and, yes, change) individuals and cultures? When Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," it was so powerful precisely because it related to "one's convictions as one relates to God."

I took Borelli's statement a different way. Not that religious speech deserves less protection because it is "profound," but that religious speech has more potential to inflict harm because it is more significant than other, more mundane issues that spark controversy like politics, sports, etc.

Admittedly, it's hard to precisely define religious speech that is acceptable vs. that which is harmful., but it probably isn't too hard to call it when you see it. Hopefully, these restrictions are more the Fred Phelps of the world who spew hate rather than love.

An Excluded Minority

One of Jesus' primary missions was to minister to the downtrodden, the outcasts of society, the excluded...tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners. Driving around town the other day I noticed some construction workers standing across the street from the construction site smoking, probably because they're not allowed to do so at the work site. Then I noticed a couple workers standing in the back door of a store across the street from the post office and they were smoking. I've often seen people "hiding" there smoking. An article in today's Free Press describes an effort to ban smoking in all Michigan work places, including bars, restaurants, and casinos. It occurred to me that smokers are modern day outcasts. Don't get me wrong. I don't smoke and never have. I don't enjoy being around people who smoke. It seems like a nasty habit to me. That's kind of the point. But this observation about smokers as outcasts prompted to wonder if there are any special ways that churches can minister to smokers. I came across a recent article from the Minnesota Christian Chronicle that examined this issue:

Bud Moore doesn't go to his St. Paul church much anymore. Moore says he never thought he'd be a "backslider," but one of his habits has gotten in the way.

"I'm a smoker, a heavy smoker," he said. "I know most of the people at my church don't care about that, but there are some that look at me like a leper."

Some churches are looking for ways to make smokers feel more welcome to their congregation, some even putting ashtrays outside the buildings while others offer counseling to help kick the habit.

A recent study from John Hopkins University in Baltimore found that religious-based smoking cessation programs, whether at schools or churches, have a much better success rate than someone quitting on their own. The study found that nearly twice as many smokers were able to quit for the long-term than those who received no support from their church or pastor.

While smoking cessation programs are cropping up in small numbers, many churches are choosing to leave the touchy topic to those in the medical field.

The Centers For Disease Control estimates that 44.5 million people smoke at least one cigarette a day.

The Barna Research Group in Ventura, Calif., breaks down the CDC's numbers in a report that estimates that 39 percent of the unchurched smoke, while 20 percent of born-again Christians smoke.

The United States isn't the only place where smoking and the church are an issue.

Grady Higgs, a U.S. missionary who ministers to South America and Russia said that while in America smoking is just seen as a bad habit, in many foreign countries, Christians view it as a disgrace to their belief system.

"If you lit up in front of a church, in some of the churches I visit you would discredit your testimony in a heartbeat," Higgs said. "But, it's not like you'll go to hell for it, but you'll just smell like you've been there and back."

Bush and Jesus and freedom

A few days back David Kuo had an interesting blog post with the same title. First he quotes David Brooks' quoting Bush:

Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: "It's more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn't exist."

Kuo takes issue with Brooks and Bush. An excerpt:

God does give us freedom. But that gift of freedom is not a freedom based on a form of government - it is the freedom to live as individuals with total, complete, and utter free will. It is the freedom to choose or to reject God, the freedom to choose or to reject God's gifts. THAT is God's gift of freedom. To confuse that gift with a form of government reflects both theological and political naivety.

I agree with that perspective. This sparked some conversation with a friend.

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