Monday, June 26, 2006

Get Paid to Go to Church

"It doesn't matter how we get them in the door as long as we get them here."

--The Rev. Anthony Cox, co-pastor of United Pentecostal Church of Harvey, Illinois, where first-time visitors recently received $25 to attend the Sunday morning service. The church gave money to the first 75 adults aged 16 or older at each of their two services this past Sunday, with the only stipulation that the cash recipients stay the duration of the 90-minute service. Another church in Iowa has drawn visitors by giving away tickets to a Jerry Seinfeld performance, movie passes, and $10 gas cards.

Full Story:
Church bets wallet can be way into soul

H says:
This past Sunday, my church held a benefit concert to support an orphanage in Sudan. Tickets cost $20. I found it ironic our church was filled to capacity--people had paid to come to church!

Do we perceive something as more valuable if there's a dollar figure attached to it? In the case of the Illinois church above, visitors were getting something for going to church. At my church, attendees were also getting something: entertainment plus the good feeling of supporting a worthy cause.

If that's true, our dollar-dazed minds may be one reason some folks can't quite process the free gift of salvation. We wonder, "What's the catch? What will we owe?" and perhaps think, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Likewise, it's free to go to church (and many churches are quite entertaining for the whole family), yet many people just won't go.

Would love your thoughts on the perceived value of church. Why do you think people don't go to church?

Monday, June 19, 2006

In Defense of 'Til Death Do Us Part, Monogamy, and My Joint Bank Account

Marriage ain't what it used to be.

I called my bank last week to request a new ATM card for my husband. Our old cards had expired, and apparently, they'd sent our new cards separately, with his going to our old address. The bank representative cancelled his card then told me, "We'll send another card when your husband calls to request it."

I repeated her instructions, doing everything I could to keep my head from exploding. It seemed ridiculous that I, as my husband's legal wife, couldn't make a simple request for him on a joint bank account we've had for six years. Did the bank not recognizing the sanctity of my marital bond?

This is, apparently, some new bank security policy. Perhaps joint accounts don't signal "unwavering faithfulness and trust between all parties involved" to the bank anymore. Business partners have them to keep tabs on each other. Parents track their college students' spending with them. Even divorced couples have them (who knows why?). You could call these arrangements "joint accounts of convenience." They're joint for now because of a particular need. But at some point, that joint account likely is getting closed.

This got me thinking about the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA)--you know, that proposal that's been circulating in Congress for years that would define marriage as solely between one man and one woman. Some say it will preserve the sanctity of marriage.

I began to wonder, who's really a threat to marriage? Who's making it less than obvious that married couples have given each other full access to one another's lives--like truly joint-functioning bank accounts?

The FMA seems to point to the gay community as the culprit. An episode of The Simpsons, titled "There's Something About Marrying," focused on the issue of gay marriage and was criticized by many conservative groups. But I think some missed the brilliant points of the episode: 1) Rev. Lovejoy refuses to marry gay couples (and is strongly criticized for it), and 2) When Homer Simpson runs out of gay couples to marry, he posts a sign, "Will marry anyone to anything." That includes Brandine and Cletus, who are close relatives, and even people to inanimate objects (As Rev. Lovejoy protests Homer's actions, Homer pronounces the Rev. as married to his Bible).

Christian churches that support the FMA are a bit like Rev. Lovejoy: mocked for their stance on gay marriage, and told the biblical teaching on homosexuality is outdated and unjust by current American legal standards. Equally, those legal standard of fairness are moving government toward an increasingly Homer way of life: Anyone can do anything they please. While this approach is indeed "fair," where does it leave us as a society?

To me, the Simpsons episode was a poignant illustration that, left to the politics of fairness, marriage is in danger of declining further. I can already hear the deep sighs, "Oh, Holly my dear, are you really saying The Simpsons provides evidence of the decline of marriage? Surely you can't believe legalizing gay marriage really would lead to the same comedic ends as The Simpsons portrayed!"

Well, I'm not gonna provide The Simpsons as my primary evidence. I hold up, for your inspection, exhibit C: Canada. Just two weeks ago, the Canadian media uncovered evidence their country has secretly acknowledged polygamous marriages (unions between three or more partners). Religious leaders there had warned the legalization of gay marriage would lead to other claims on marriage, including polygamy. The evidence seems to show they were correct. What will our neighbors to the north do when a man wants to marry his sister? Or his dog? Will they continue to make their marriage laws even more fair?

This brings up another issue: Who gets to define marriage? According to the Christian church, marriage is for life. But is it fair to insist couples stay together forever?

I believe the biggest threat to marriage is the glossing over of " 'til death do us part." Look up the word "marriage." Unless you have access to your great-great-grandmother's dictionary, you likely won't see the words "forever" or "lifelong" in the definition. You might even see the words "dissolve" and "divorce" accompanying the entry.

It seems the new marriage standard is "happily ever after." If one partner doesn't feel happy on a given day, they can simply dissolve the union, then seek another ever after. There's a plethora of jokes about the duration of celebrity marriages, and many people laugh when they hear about stuff like Britney Spears short-lived Vegas nuptials. No one blinks when Hollywood couples discuss prenuptial agreements--as if financial loss would be the biggest tragedy if a marriage vow is broken. Isn't it sad our society defines marriage as temporary, dissolvable, a joke?

Biblical considerations about homosexuality aside, what about committed gay couples? Would recognizing their unions pose any greater threat to the institution than Britney's minute marriage? Are Christians being unreasonably unfair in defining marriage as a heterosexual union?

Let's look at the messages coming from the gay community. On a PBS special supporting gay marriage, one top leader in the movement proclaimed the real issue was the right of gay divorce. Property and individual rights need to be protected, he said, when relationships dissolve. By this spokesperson's definition, marriage is, again, about individuals. Fairness.

Regardless of how we want to

define it, marriage is hardly

fair. It's about sacrifice. Giving

up our own individual rights.

Regardless of how we want to define it, marriage is hardly fair. It's about sacrifice. Giving up our own individual rights to meet one another's needs. No one wants equality in marriage; sometimes we need to get more from our spouse, sometimes we need to give more. And it can be a great joy when we're called on to give.

There's a sentiment in the gay community that doesn't measure up to total commitment: a lack of regard for monogamy, even among committed gay couples. Gay male couples seem to differentiate between emotional and physical monogamy. Some would say that's a fallacy cooked up by right-wing, religious conservatives. But my perception doesn't come from the right--it comes from published studies about gay sexual fidelity (many by gay researchers), and direct from the mouths of gay male friends. Being physically faithful simply isn't necessary or desirable, they say, and many gay men believe it's impossible.

Sexual monogamy protects each partner physically and emotionally. As a heterosexual woman, I can't say I know exactly what a homosexual man needs or thinks. But I can follow simple logic: If one partner's had a bad day, comes home seeking emotional support, and finds his lover is out painting the town, there's eventually gonna be trouble. The security of monogamy goes far beyond the sex act itself.

In that Simpson's episode, Rev. Lovejoy warns, "Homer, your impulsive marriages are going to lead to a lot of divorces." Maybe that's what happened when, after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, homosexual couples went running to the alter. Seven months later, some of the first gay married couples were filing for divorce--a short marriage, even by Hollywood standards. As one couple explained on their divorce paperwork, "Our interests have grown in different directions." My take: Maybe they married to swoop up the right to which they felt entitled. Again, the evil side of fairness at work.

Personally, I don't think it's fair when others' light approach to marriage makes the institution seem less valid. Less faithful. Less strong. I don't think it's fair when children--who hold our hope for a better society in their hands--are given the idea they don't have to work hard at marriage. Divorce is a heavy emotional and financial drain on society. Researcher David Schramm has estimated divorce (and its direct and indirect economic consequences) costs the United States $33.3 billion per year, or $312 per household. That's not fair to me and other taxpayers.

It wasn't fair when my bank didn't acknowledge the jointness of my joint bank account. But, out of fairness, I hadn't yet defined my idea of marriage to the bank. Maybe I'd better start getting my definition out there, before others define it for me. After all, what's fair isn't always what's right.


What's Next? Marrying Your Dog?

Polygamy Allowed 'Limited' Status

First Gay Marriage, Now Gay Divorce

To ponder:
1) What problems do you see with the idea of fairness in government? In marriage?

2) How do you define marriage? Do you think marriage is accurately defined by our society?

3) If you could create new laws about marriage/divorce, what would they be?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why Bother God?

This is perhaps my favorite piece because it reminds me just how much God cares about his kids. I wrote it as an editor's note for the June/July 2003 issue of Campus Life magazine (thus the teen-oriented language). Hope you enjoy it. -H

Some people might tell you not to pray about ordinary stuff. After all, they say, there's famine, murder and war all over the world. Why bother God with little things like school exams and first dates? Or pajamas?

A pair of pajamas usually wouldn't mean anything to me. But recently, it felt like the most important thing in the world.

My sister's birthday was coming up. She's in college now, thousands of miles away from me, so this year's gift had to be special.

After weeks of browsing, I found the perfect gift: sky-blue pajamas, complete with an embroidered moon on the t-shirt top. These PJs would be much cooler than the old, high-school gym sweats she liked to sleep in.

Sorting through the packs of pajamas, I found one in the right size. Only one. Problem was, the package had already been opened. The packing material was missing and the pajamas were badly wrinkled.

My heart sank. I couldn't give her an imperfect gift.

It seemed silly to feel such sadness over a pair of pajamas, but I knew my feelings were about more than a mere gift. I really missed my sister. So I wanted to give her something she could use every day—a daily "hug" from me.

And I had nothing.

As I made my way down the aisle toward the store's exit, something caught my eye. There, sandwiched between some packages of white socks, was something in a shiny plastic bag. As I drew closer, I could see the contents were blue. I picked the bag up.

Tears filled my eyes. In my hands, I held an unopened package of blue pajamas, in the right size. Without a second thought, I thanked God. Again and again and again.

Are there bigger things in the world than taking tests, going on a date, or finding the perfect gift for a loved one? Of course. But the gravity of other issues doesn't change how certain "little" things can feel huge. God cares about everything in our lives—he even knows the number of hairs on our heads (Luke 12:6-8).

I believe God knew my need to feel connected to my sister. And that pair of pajamas?

Just ordinary? Yes. Important to God? Very.
Campus Life, June/July 2003

To ponder:
1) What "small" things do you pass over when you're praying? Why do you think you don't pray about these things?

2) Consider your relationship with someone close: a friend, family member, spouse or significant other. What little details do you share with them? Think about this the next time you're praying.

3) If you find it difficult to talk about your worries, try to observe someone else doing this. The next time someone shares with you, listen carefully to the things they're saying. Observe how, just by sharing this with you, they feel comforted. Then when you pray, tell God you'd like to be more open to talking openly with him, and that you want to feel his comfort.

8 Steps to a Better Friendship with God

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Secret Life of Holly Vicente Robaina, AKA "H"

H-n-T has hit the big 5-0! Fifty posts, that is.

To celebrate, I'd like to reveal my true identity. My name is Holly Vicente Robaina. I've been a professional writer since 1995, and have been writing for Christian publications for four years. I served on the staffs of Campus Life and Today's Christian Woman magazines. Currently, I'm a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman, and I freelance for several print and online publications. I've recently had pieces in Today's Christian (formerly Christian Reader), Christianity Today online, Campus Life, and Adventist Review online.

I'm launching a companion site to H-n-T with links to stuff I've written. It's a passive site, meaning it will just offer information about past articles. H-n-T will remain an active place where we can dialog about faith.

And who is T, AKA Teeriffic? That shall remain the great secret.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Federal Marriage Amendment Stalls Out in Senate

"[Gay marriage] is the one issue I have seen that eclipses even the abortion issue among Southern Baptists."

--Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which would define marriage as solely between a man and a woman, was brought before the Senate again on Wednesday. A vote was taken on whether to end debate and bring the actual FMA to a vote. That proposal was rejected by a 49-48 margin, 11 votes below the 60 required.

Currently, 45 states have passed laws or amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriages. One state, Massachusetts, has legalized same-sex marriages.

Senate Rejects Gay Marriage Amendment

Politics of the Altar

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Want to Truly Take a Stand? It Requires Getting Off Your Duff

Paul W. offered these thought-provoking words that are well worth repeating. You can check out his full comment here:

"We mistakenly believe our avenue to change the world is to elect people who will do the work for us. We think we can stand up for our moral convictions (Republicans) or stand up for the poor and needy (Democrats) by political means. While this approach might help, it never excuses us from teaching, healing, feeding, and loving the people we meet everyday, as Jesus himself did.

"If our world does not change, it is our fault--not the elected officials, not the right-wing conservatives, not the homosexuals, not big business. We are His avenue to change the world, one individual at a time."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Christianity Isn't a Political Party, and Jesus Isn't a Republican

When my friend Peggy was a little kid, her young mind determined that all Christians were Republicans. At that tender age, she didn't realize the word "Republican" referred to politics. Since kids can't yet grasp the concepts of governments and political agendas, the correlation made perfect sense: Her parents and their friends were all Republicans. They were all Christians, too. Thus, "Republican" must equal "Christian."

One day she overheard that a family friend was a Democrat. This puzzled her because this adult--we'll call him Mr. Smith--attended their church. The troubled little girl shared her concern with her father: "Dad, I'm worried about Mr. Smith because he's a Democrat. Does that mean he's going to hell?"

(And here's the second punch line: Little Peggy grew up to become a Democrat.)

Whenever Peggy tells that story, she reiterates this occurred when she was a child. But we all know the real humor comes from the truth within the joke: Many adults believe Christians have a specific political agenda, more specifically, a conservative Republican agenda. Andrew Sullivan, a Time magazine columnist, recently dubbed this stereotype as "

Sullivan and others have tried to demonstrate Christianity isn't a political party. But many have bought into the stereotype. When the term "religious right" is used, everyone knows it's really Christians--and not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or other religious practitioners--that are being referenced. Even "evangelical" is used to connote "conservative Republican." Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, told PBS's Frontline, "I think there is a fear among many Americans about the word evangelical, evangelicals, because they associate that term with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition."

How did the word evangelical--from the root "evangel" meaning "good news," and referring to Jesus' Great Commission to share his teachings and promises with the world--become political terminology? There's a long, tedious answer to how this stereotype developed. But that's far less important than considering: Why are we Christians letting ourselves be defined as a political machine?

A friend once told me he wanted to explore Christianity but had one reservation. "I don't feel comfortable with the church's stance against gays," he told me. He's a heterosexual male who was raised in the church, and now feels his liberal leaning doesn't fit in with the Christian faith. A perceived political agenda is keeping him from seeking Christ.

Sadly, it's not entirely perception. There are plenty of adult Christians who feel one must have certain political leanings in order to be a good Christian. One must be a Republican. One must be a conservative (whatever that means). One must be pro-life without reservation. One must oppose gay rights completely. Sometimes these views come direct from the pulpit.

That definition of a "good Christian" doesn't fit most of the Christians I know. As little Peggy might have asked, "Does that mean they're all going to hell?"

Lest I be hellbound for answering "nay" to some of the above criteria, let's consider what Jesus might have been interested in if he was walking among us today. He'd surely address poverty, calling for more social programs and international aid to feed the 15 million children worldwide that die from hunger each year. He'd reach out to prostitutes and drug addicts, and embrace people most of us are afraid to touch or even acknowledge. He'd give comfort to AIDS patients and to women who've had abortions. He would speak out against hate crimes. He'd support the preservation of his Father's creation (AKA the environment).

Some argue Jesus would be a liberal today, deeply concerned about righting social wrongs. Personally, I doubt Jesus would register with any political party. During his time on earth, his primary "agenda" wasn't feeding or healing--it was forgiveness. Above all else, he wanted everyone to know they could have a relationship with God. His last words to his disciples were to spread this news. Our primary objective then, as Christians, is to share that love and forgiveness with everyone: welfare moms and A-list celebrities. Skid Row residents and billionaire tycoons. Even Democrats.

Jesus also was specific about his secondary objective: reaching out to others. Rather than working through political channels, I bet Jesus today would approach each of us individually and ask us to give our best resources to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the hurting. In fact, that's exactly what he instructs in Matthew 25:37-40:

Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?" The king will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." (CEV)

In sum, Jesus' political views would be shaped by the Jewish laws he deemed the most important: 1) to love God, and 2) to love people. Today's politicians talk about economic progress, individual rights, equality. Jesus taught about humility, giving up one's rights, being a servant--ideas far more radical than any political school of thought ever has offered.

Our faith does influence our politics, just as it influences every aspect of our lives. This Tuesday, June 6, please prayerfully go to the polls and let your individual voice be heard. I plan to take my biggest Bible and to wear tons of Christian jewelry in hopes a TV camera crew will pull me aside and ask for my opinion on the Christian vote. Just so I can tell them, "I didn't have enough time to call all the Christians in the country and get their input. But I did call my mom. Wanna hear how she voted?"

To ponder:
In your conversations with friends who aren't Christians, what are their biggest complaints about the church? What generalizations do they make about Christians and the church?

2) We sometimes create "rules" for how a Christian should think, speak, and act, possibly because it allows us to measure our own spiritual success. For example, one rule I had for myself was to read at least one chapter from the Bible every night. It began as a way to create a good habit, but soon it turned into a chore. I'd pat myself on the head when I did it, and mentally kick myself when I didn't. Eventually, I realized it wasn't about my relationship with God--it was about me feeling good about myself.

What are your rules? Do these rules improve your relationship with God, or do they just make you feel like a better person? Have your rules hurt your relationship with other Christians?

3) Many years ago, I felt disappointed when I learned a Christian woman was working at a Planned Parenthood clinic. I couldn't understand why a Christian would want to dispense birth control to people who weren't married, or discuss abortion with pregnant girls. After hearing the woman talk about her work, I realized God had placed my friend in that very difficult job. She was a compassionate Christian who had the unique opportunity of comforting scared young teens.

Think about a time you felt disappointed or angry with someone because they did something that didn't seem appropriate for a Christian. Did you discuss your feelings with them? Did you treat them differently?