Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Larger Than Life, Yet Relatively Unknown

"We've been closing the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station. Artists like Chris Tomlin help bridge the gap more and more."

--Matt Lundgren, worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. The quote is from a Time magazine article about Chris Tomlin, pictured right. Tomlin's songs are the most often sung contemporary music used in U.S. churches today, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), an organization that licenses music to churches. And, as the article speculates, this could make Tomlin the most often sung artist anywhere. Yet very few people--even churchgoers--have heard of Tomlin, the article asserts. Time writer Belinda Luscombe sums it up this way: "Tomlin doesn't want to be Prince. Music immortality is fine. It's just not the sort he cares about."

Hip Hymns are Him

Monday, November 20, 2006

Tell a Jewish Friend Jesus Came for Them

We have to change our belief that Jews need to be "converted" to Christianity. Jews will always be Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. We gentiles are the ones who are converted when we become Christians, or followers of our Jewish Messiah, Y’Shua.

--From Karen Covell's article "Chosen by Jesus," which appears in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Outreach magazine. The article discusses how Christians can more effectively share their faith with Jewish friends by putting the Gospel into a Jewish context. This includes acknowledging Jesus came first for the Jews, then the gentiles (Romans 1:16).

Chosen by Jesus

History of Hanukkah (The History Channel)

Judaism 101

Monday, November 13, 2006

Angels, Revisited

I blew it. Again.

I was in a hurry, pushing a cart full of groceries through the parking lot as fast as I could. A list of errands was running through my mind. Still had to stop at another store, pack for my weekend trip, and make sure my husband had enough clean socks and underwear to last through the days I'd be gone. With my mind focused on the tasks ahead, I was hardly aware of the man standing in front of my car. I heard his voice before I saw his face.

"Excuse me, ma'am. Could you help me with something to eat?"

He stood at some distance from me, probably well aware I might freak out if he came closer. And though he was safely at least a dozen feet away, and both my shopping cart and car were barriers between us, I'd still felt a rush of fear. His face was oily, and his faded black pants and t-shirt were rumpled and dirty.

"Sorry." I tersely dismissed him with that one word, then immediate returned to the task of loading the groceries into my car. I anxiously hoped he'd disappear.

And as soon as I said it, I regretted it. As he walked away, I felt a heaviness in my chest. I knew in my heart I needed to stop what I was doing, run after the man, and tell him I would get him some food. For goodness sake, I had a whole cart full of groceries right there, including some I'd bought to take to my church! Go find that man right now! my heart demanded.

But when I looked down at my groceries, I thought, I can't just leave these here and run after some stranger. I'll put them in my trunk first, then go find the man.

This is the point where I knew I'd blown it. I knew the man would be gone. I knew I'd look for him, and that I wouldn't find him. I knew he would disappear from that little parking lot, as if he'd mysteriously been zapped off the face of the earth.

I knew all of this would happen because it's all happened to me before.

About three years ago, I was driving by a different grocery store in Illinois. It was cold and drizzling, and I just wanted to get home because I knew it would start pouring at any moment. My husband and I had just bought a new car, and I was terribly nervous about driving it on a dry street, let alone a slick, wet one. I didn't want to be driving when the serious rain began. When it rains in Illinois, water falls from the sky in sheets, not droplets. Heaven help the person caught walking on the street during a storm--it's like having buckets of water forcefully thrown at you from every direction.

Heaven wanted to help an elderly woman that day. I saw her walking out of the grocery store and couldn't take my eyes off her. In one hand, she carried a few bags full of groceries, in the other, she attempted to keep her little umbrella upright as the wind tossed it backward. She could barely walk; she dragged one foot a bit as she inched down the sidewalk with tiny, strained steps. The signal on the street turned red, and I watched as she slowly moved in my direction.

Offer her a ride. Help her. The words in my head were as clear as if they'd been said by someone sitting in my passenger seat. The feeling I had was more than just a nagging conscience; I knew God was directly instructing me to help this woman. All I had to do was pull over to the curb.

The light turned green. I can't stop for her, my head rationalized. There's no parking lane on the street. The cars behind me will honk. She'll think I'm a lunatic and will be scared--what if I give her a heart attack? I came up with a dozen excuses as my foot moved from the brake to the accelerator. I watched her in my rear-view mirror as I drove past. There was still time to stop for her.

I turned at the corner. I've got to get home before the rain starts pouring down.

And then it hit me: I hadn't stopped. Nearly every part of my body had urged me to stop. My foot had been resting on the brake. My left hand had been ready to flip on the turn signal. My arms had been ready to turn the wheel. My heart was thudding so strong and deep I could hear it in my ears. Yet I hadn't stopped.

I pulled over and turned my head to look over my shoulder. I couldn't see the old woman anymore. The rain began to pour down.

I hadn't stopped. I'd said "no" to God. I began to bawl and howl like an injured animal.

And I knew I had to find the old woman. I had to make things right. I had to get her out of the pouring rain. I had to do what I should have done in the first place.

I sped around the corner. I figured I'd find her right away. At her snail's pace, she couldn't have gotten more than 100 feet from where I'd turned. I drove past the intersection where I'd seen her. Not there. I drove another block. I drove down the side streets, then through the parking lots of nearby businesses. Even as I searched, I knew I wouldn't find her. I knew God had offered me an opportunity, or rather, a test. And I'd failed it.

I bawled all the way home, trying to comfort myself with the thought someone else had picked her up, or that she'd found refuge at a bus stop or under a store awning. Those thoughts didn't soothe me. I prayed, "God, I missed what you put right in front of my face. But I'm going to be aware now. I'm going to listen when you ask me to do something. I won't blow it again."

For the next several weeks, my actions played over in my mind like a CD stuck on repeat. I begged God, "Please give me someone to help! Please give me something to do for you. Please let me make up for my inaction." I thought about Jesus' illustration of the
three servants who were given different amounts of money to invest for their master. And I thought, "I'm the foolish servant who buried the master's money and didn't even earn basic interest from the bank." In the weeks that followed, I looked everywhere for an opportunity to help another person. I held every door open, told everyone who sneezed, "Bless you," extended kind greetings to every passerby. Every day, as I drove by the intersection where I'd seen the elderly woman, I looked for her. Nothing gave me peace.

But as the days passed, the memory gradually faded. I got caught up in work and my never-ending to-do list. I'd almost forgotten about the old woman when I read an article, "The Test," in Today's Christian magazine. In it, a man shared his memory of an elderly homeless man who'd visited his church. The homeless man had come in during a Sunday service and asked the congregation to help him get some food. No one offered to help him. So he walked back out empty-handed. As soon as he'd gone out the door, a few church members ran after him to offer their assistance. But he was gone. He'd seemingly vanished. Afterward, the senior pastor got up and told his congregation:

"Something terrible happened here today. We missed an opportunity to prove ourselves, and I fear we may never receive it again ... I believe we received a visit from an angel today. My mother taught me, when I was just a boy, that God sends his angels down to look after us and to guide us … but he also sends them to test us, to see what kind of people we really are. I think we were tested today. And I think we failed."

I bawled three years ago when I read that story, and I ache as a read it again today. Because I know I've been tested many times now. Many times I've "passed"--I did what I knew God was asking me to do. I'm thankful God softened my heart and opened my eyes during those moments. When I help someone, I almost always feel wonderful afterward. I feel connected to God and to humanity. I feel more like a person, and less like a machine that's programmed to never deviate from its routine.

Last week, I was a robot, following my usual pattern of ignoring people, rushing to complete chores, and strictly sticking to schedule. With a fat wallet, a full belly, and a cart full of groceries, I turned my back on a hungry person who simply asked for something to eat.

Today, I feel that old familiar pain of heartbreak. I hurt, knowing I left an old woman to walk in the cold rain three years ago, and a homeless man to wander on last week, with his stomach still empty. I hurt, knowing my lack of compassion perhaps made those two people feel a little less loved and cared for by God. I hurt, and I welcome the feeling. I hope it lingers for a long while because it reminds me of who I am--a child of God, with billions of brothers and sisters who are hoping some "stranger" will offer them the tiniest bit of kindness. They pray God will send them someone who can give them enough hope to get through one more day.

Today, I'm a little bit more human.

To ponder:
Do you believe God tests us? How has he tested you?

2) What are some typical excuses people use to avoid helping someone in need?

3) Most of us have had some bad experiences when we've helped others: Maybe you've given money to a con artist, or perhaps someone you've helped has returned your kindness with a lack of thanks or even cold words. Perhaps that bad experience makes you to hesitate to serve others now. Read the true story, "You Ain't No Better Than Me." Then think about the person who conned or insulted you. How did their actions differ from the way you expected them to react? How do expectations sometimes hurt us, especially in regard to the lessons God's trying to teach us?

4) Think about the typical human motives for helping others. Compare this to Jesus' motives for dying for the world. What might have happened if Jesus had made his decision whether to die based on typical human motives, and if he had used typical human excuses?

5) Make a list of 10 ways you can help others. Here are a few to get your creative juices flowing: bringing canned goods to a food drive, helping an elderly person put groceries in their car, saving pennies for the local school, babysitting a child for a couple hours to give a parent some free time, having lunch with someone who is lonely.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Modest Marriage Proposal: Ode to Britney & K-Fed

Have you heard? Britney Spears filed for divorce today, citing irreconcilable differences with her husband.

News travels fast. I heard about it in the grocery store. As I waited in line to pay for my items, I overheard this conversation between a mother and her grade-school-age daughter:

MOM: I heard Britney is dumping Kevin Federline. Won't that make you happy if it's true?

DAUGHTER: Yeah--I hope she does dump him!

"Dumping." I'd never before heard that word substituted for "divorce."

Living in Los Angeles, near the heart of the entertainment industry, divorce is about as normal as breakups between teenagers. It's not uncommon around here for a marriage to last a few months, or even a few days.

In honor of Britney and K-Fed's dissolution, and the fact today is election day, I offer these modest suggestions to the U.S. government and all you voters. I'll collectively call them Proposition M:


1) Instead of applying for a marriage license, couples who intend to marry would file an "Intent for Lifelong Partnership" application. For the purposes of taxes, power of attorney, property rights, etc., the U.S. government would not yet recognize the couple as being married. Businesses, however, would recognize partners as dependents. Thus, businesses would offer benefits to their employee's dependent throughout the Intent for Lifelong Partnership application process. One-time filing fee: $10.

2) Each subsequent year, couples would file for an extension on their "Intent for Lifelong Partnership" application. The U.S. government would continue to view them as two individuals who were working toward marital partnership, and would not extend any marital rights or obligations to the couple. Annual filing fee: $25.

3) During the second year of the couple's application process, and before the start of the third year, they additionally would need to undergo the following medical tests: a general physical, full blood chemistry, chest X-ray, screen for AIDS and common STDs, and a psychiatric evaluation. Test results would be made available to their partners, as well as filed with the federal government. Why? So couples would begin to learn disclosure and trust. And because the U.S. government says so. Fee to file lab results: $50.

4) During the third year of the couple's application process, and before the start of the fourth year, the couple would be required to have a pre-marriage sabbatical--to spend a total of three consecutive weeks apart from each other. This allows the couple time to contemplate their resolve for the Lifelong Partnership, and if the partnership is legitimate, will result in a greater appreciation for each other and a longing for one another during the time apart. Affidavits to verify time was spent apart would need to be filed within 30 days of the end of the sabbatical. Filing fee: $100.

5) After the fourth year, but before the start of the fifth year of partnership, the couple must file an "Intent to Stay Together Forever" application, in addition to their Intent for Lifelong Partnership extension. Filing fee: $150.

6) Within 60 days of the fifth anniversary of the original filing of the Intent for Lifelong Partnership application, the couple must submit to a Proof of Authentic Relationship interview, to be conducted by an authorized U.S. government marriage officer. Additionally, the couple must present documents to authenticate their relationship, such as joint financial holdings, life insurance documents showing each other as the beneficiary, photos of their relationship, affidavits from friends and family stating the couple was indeed legitimate, and personal material such as love letters and birthday cards. Interview fee: $250.

7) After completing all application requirements, the couple would file for a Marriage License within 30 days of the sixth anniversary of their original Intent for Lifelong Partnership filing date. The union would then be recognized as a "Marriage" by federal, state, and local government, and be subject to the privileges and obligations of full married status. At this point, the couple could request tax deductions for dependents born or adopted during the Intent for Lifelong Partnership application process. Marriage License fee: $500.

8) Once a Marriage is granted, it would not be dissolvable except in cases of "spousal abuse" (to be defined and decided by the courts). However, couples may file a "Divorce" application at any time for any reason, with the understanding they would be subject to stiff financial penalties. Divorce application fee: 50 percent of the couple's net worth.

Fiscal Effects: There's a reason for the progressive fee increases in my fictional Proposition M: Divorce is expensive. Researcher David Schramm has estimated divorce (and its direct and indirect economic consequences) costs the United States government $33.3 billion per year, or $312 per household. So I figure if folks want to make a vow, they can put their money where their mouth is! Potential financial impact: If celebrities continue to divorce at their current rate, and are assessed the 50 percent net-worth fine, the U.S. national debt would be completely erased in 8 years--sooner if Brangelina ties and unties the knot (just kiddin').

Think Proposition M sounds ridiculous? Except for the last bit about divorce penalties, the above requirements were inspired by real laws: the U.S. government's "Fiance Visa," a process required for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to marry a foreign national. Except it can take a lot longer to complete the Fiance Visa process and costs a whole lot more. The process includes many applications, many fees, many tests, time spent apart, deadlines, and personal probing. I know it, because my husband and I went through it. (We even sent the government handmade cards we'd made for each other from our first Valentine's Day together. Sadly, they weren't returned.)

My husband and I are still together--we've been married six years. We joke that we've outlasted most Hollywood couples. We did have a lot of time to think about marriage while we were filling out applications and standing in line at immigration offices. But a lengthy, government-saturated application process isn't necessary to restore marriage to its old glory. It's thought--teaching youngsters to use their God-given brains--and good ol' fashion commitment that will breathe new life into marriage.

Our country is at arms over the issue of same-sex marriage; some say this would destroy the institution. But when I hear a mom and her daughter referring to marriage--even Britney Spears' sickly little union--as "dumping," it seems marriage may already be on its deathbed. Britney Spears fans are cheering her decision to leave Kevin Federline. On the evening news, I heard one magazine interviewer praising her decision as a great career move. Many media outlets have said Britney and Kevin's marriage was already over from the start.

Maybe we need to be more concerned about how future generations view marriage as temporary. Maybe we need to cheer on married couples--especially celebrities--who hang in there. Maybe we need to make divorce a less viable option.

Or maybe we really do need a Proposition M.

To ponder:
1) How do you define marriage? What are your views about divorce?

2) Do you think celebrity marriages/divorces influence the general population's views on these subjects?

3) Write your own Proposition M. To do this, consider the ideas you'd like to get across (example: marriage should be a lifelong commitment). Then come up with a set of rules/laws you believe would help spread your ideas about marriage.

4) Aside from creating federal laws about marriage, what are some ways to save the institution? What can you do personally? How can you influence young people?

5) It seems young people don't hear much honest talk about marriage or divorce. If you've been through a divorce, do you often talk to your kids and younger people you have influence over about it? What do you say? If you find yourself at a loss for words, consider these questions: How did you feel through the divorce? What have you learned? If you could change something about your marriage or divorce, what would it be? Looking back at the marriage and divorce, what would you do differently?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Episcopal Church Uses Popular U2 Songs for Worship

"Are we worshiping Bono? Absolutely not. No more so than we worship Martin Luther when we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
--Paige Blair, an Episcopal priest in Maine, who uses U2 songs for worship music.

This story has run worldwide, and interestingly, several renditions of the piece make it seem as if using secular music in worship is a brand new phenomenon. It isn't new, but I don't think it's widespread, either. I bet the media coverage will result in more churches using mainstream music in their services.

Side note: In 2003, Sparrow Records, a Christian label, released In the Name of Love. The album contains 13 covers of U2 songs by various top Christian contemporary artists including Jars of Clay, Delirious?, Sixpence None the Richer, Tobymac, and Chris Tomlin. The album was created as a fundraiser for World Vision, specifically to fund its AIDS programs in Africa.

Episcopal 'U2-charist' Uses Songs in Service

Worshiping God to Secular Tunes: How Hoobastank Takes Me to the Throne

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Halloween-Loving Christian? That's So Halloweird

My Favorite Hallowday

An essay by Holly, age 32

I love Halloween. I am a Christian, and Halloween has long been my absolute favorite holiday.

I know, my favorite should be Christmas or Easter, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the reason for our salvation. Or even Thanksgiving, when we're thankful for the gifts God's given us. At the very least, I could pick some patriotic holiday, like the 4th of July, or Cinco de Mayo, or St. Patrick's Day.

Yet I choose Halloween. The "Devil's holiday."

My love for Halloween began long before the major marketing of all things ghoulish that we see today. I can't remember a single year of my life when I haven't worn a costume. As a toddler, I was a pink bunny in footed pajamas. My mom sewed fabric ears and inserted a wire hanger inside to make them stand up. She drew whiskers on my face with her eyeliner. My brother, Mike, was a hobo--another Mom-made costume. No store-bought garb for us! Mom painstakingly stuck individual coffee grounds to my brother's face with honey to create a stubbly beard on his hairless, 8-year-old chin. I still get a kick when I look at the picture of us, me proudly showing off my bunny suit, Mike scowling about the strong smell of coffee.

Dad gave us clean pillowcases to hold our loot. Each year, at least one parent took us door to door collecting treats--sometimes one parent stayed home to give out candy. Every house on our block had their porch light on, and all adults in the neighborhood were prepared with pounds and pounds of candy to satiate the sugar appetites of the costumed kids. Since my parents knew everyone in the neighborhood, they let us eat the candy (and homemade popcorn balls, cookies and cupcakes) without even glancing at it. We pranced around on a sugar high, laughed like hyenas, and stayed out way past our bedtime--even past Mom and Dad's. It felt like we walked for 100 miles collecting candy. (It was two street blocks!) When our sacks became too heavy for our little arms to lift, Dad slung them over his shoulder. Exhausted yet exuberant, we trudged home together.

My parents let us stay up a little later so we could sort and count our candy. My brother and I would then trade some treats so we'd both get the most of our favorites. He was the better negotiator; he could convince me his one Snickers bar was worth three of my Pixie Stix. Then we'd let Mom and Dad have the first pick of our candy. Dad didn't like candy, so it was a safe bet to offer him the best of our best. Mom, on the other hand, loved dipping into our loot. I always winced when she reached out her hand, afraid she'd want my one and only Chick-O-Stick. But Mom never took the good stuff. She'd always go for the ones I didn't want, like the Raisinettes and Junior Mints and black licorice. Yuck! Back then, I thought it was because my mom only liked gross candy. Now, I know she picked the gross candy because she loved me.

Crazy folks ruined Halloween for us--and for future generations of children--when they poisoned candy and stuck razor blades into fruit. But all was not lost. My childhood church jumped in to save the day by creating a Harvest Festival: a fall carnival which just "happened" to coincide with Halloween. Here, kids could still wear costumes. We could collect and eat candy. We still got all the benefits of hanging out with our parents, even that then-unknown influence of seeing adults serve and care for us. That annual church event took the sting out of not being able to trick-or-treat on the streets, and it gave us kids something to look forward to at church.

This year, I wore a costume, as usual. But instead of being the eager kid reaching for candy and popping chocolate bars into my mouth, I was the adult passing out treats at my church's Harvest Festival. I smiled, watching kids and adults play together. Destiny, a teen, plunged her head into a basin filled with water and apples. Trevor, an adult who was running the clothespin drop booth, gave everyone a little side show by clamping clothespins all over his face. And little girls and boys lined up to get their faces painted by ... me!

I didn't get to play the games at this Harvest Festival. I was too busy to eat a piece of pumpkin pie or even grab a chocolate bar. But I did get to appreciate the feeling of community. Now I understand, as an adult, that Halloween--at its best--can remind us it takes a village to raise a child. That might sound cheesy, but I believe most childless adults rarely experience this feeling. Though I don't have any children yet, serving at the Harvest Festival made me understand how important it is for every adult to serve and care for every child. I looked at all the adult volunteers serving the children, and all the children playing with the adults. I saw adults playing the carnival games, having some much needed fun. I saw kids who felt loved and appreciated. No other holiday feels this child-adult interactive to me, or this mutually beneficial to grown folk and kids. (When else do both 4-year-olds and 40-year-olds put on goofy outfits, play silly games, and eat handfuls of candy together?) Even the adults who weren't volunteering were offering a mighty example to the children just by playing the games: They proved that fun and joy can be lifelong experiences. And I knew this joy, from our little church Harvest Festival, was exactly what God intended for us to experience.

I am a Christian, and I love Halloween. I've read many an editorial instructing Christians to shun this "night of evil." I well know the history of the date, I've heard the reasons some Christians avoid any Halloween-related event. I know how the church-at-large has oft tried to redeem Halloween from its pagan origins, but unlike Christmas and Easter, it hasn't succeeded in Christianizing it. With all the terrifying costumes in stores and bloody horror flicks released this time of year, am I being too idealistic about Halloween? Maybe. Truth is, if God asked me to stop all observation of Halloween, I would. He hasn't. I think he won't.

Maybe we don't need to Christianize Halloween--to make it a religious holiday--in order to enjoy it. I think of how my mom used to eat the gross candies, knowing I'd probably eat them just because they were there. And that I wouldn't enjoy them a bit--they'd potentially even ruin the candy-eating experience for me (a yummy apple Jolly Rancher followed by black licorice--gross!). In my mind, God has picked all the grossness out of Halloween for me--its dark past, the evil ideas it still contains, the scary images. He's reminded me he makes pumpkins. That he created creativity and imagination. That he loves when I show love to others as a volunteer at my church's fall carnival. That he's God, and he can use even Halloween to love on his kids--of all ages.

And that's why Halloween is still my favorite.

To ponder:
What are some things we attempt to Christianize? When is this a good thing? When is it a bad thing?

2) Do you believe God can give you good things from sources like secular holidays, mainstream music/movies/books, and stuff that's not "Christian"? Think of a blessing you know came from God that was delivered via one of these sources.

3) Check out Luke 10:30-35. Jesus uses a Samaritan (Samaritans weren't part of the Jewish people--in fact, they were pretty indifferent to the Jews) for his illustration. Why do you think Jesus chose to use a Samaritan in particular? Consider the people in your life who aren't Christians. What are some contributions they've made to your happiness and well-being? This week, you might even let them know you're thankful they're in your life.

4) Consider something that isn't "Christian" that you really like: maybe it's Top 40 music, action movies, or even Halloween. What are some of the "yucky candies" that come along with this treat you enjoy? Pray for discernment: Ask God whether he can remove the bad candy, give you an alternative, or whether he's leading you away from this thing. Be honest in telling God the aspects you love, and the ones that are spoiling it for you.