Saturday, December 29, 2007

Generation Exodus: Why are Young People Leaving the Church?

At 17, I stopped attending church. I’d had doubts about Christianity for a few years, but I didn’t feel safe asking questions at my church. I figured I’d face condemnation for my “lack of faith.” In my 20s, whenever I found the rare Christian who’d converse with me, he or she seemed ill-prepared to offer a basic definition of Christian faith, much less a defense of it. Worse, some Christians dismissed my questions with a condescending, “I’ll pray for you.” For nearly a decade, I remained disconnected from the church.

So I wasn’t surprised when a recent study by LifeWay Research—an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention—found 70 percent of respondents had stopped attending church by age 23. Of those “dropouts” (as the survey called them), 58 percent noted at least one church- or pastor-related reason for leaving. The most frequently cited reasons were "church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical" and "I didn’t feel connected to the people in my church." Additionally, 52 percent said "religious, ethical, or political beliefs" contributed to their departure.

Two of my friends who’ve left the church offer some of their thoughts:

“The church says, ‘Don't ask questions—read your Bible for the answers. Don't think—pray.’ Many people buy into this teaching, even though it insults our intelligence. The church creates prejudices, forcing us to judge people because they don't believe in Jesus Christ or because they consider the possibility of truth beyond Jesus and Christianity. God forbid anybody ever entertain those thoughts.” —female, 21

“Christians seem to want to remake the world in their image. I don't understand how they selectively pick and choose from the Bible. The Bible includes commands not obeyed in today’s society. Christians dismiss the instruction to not touch pig skin, yet proclaim gays are contradicting God's plan, going to hell, and destroying society by wanting to marry. I don’t understand why one instruction is advice to be ignored out of common sense and the other is God’s written law on the subject.” —male, 34

A large part of my friends’ pain and anger is the result of silence within the church. Too often, we don’t discuss social issues with each other. We don’t share our doubts or personal struggles. We don’t even talk about our understanding of Christianity—perhaps we’re afraid others will judge us for our limited knowledge.

Above all, we don’t acknowledge problems that plague the church. In examining the generational exit from the church, I asked several friends to share their concerns and irritations. They were eager and excited to respond. While I don’t agree with every idea offered here, I think communicating and listening to each other is vital to our health as a church body. May we read their comments with thought and with respect for their willingness to share.

“The American Christian church seems focused on a few issues—such as abortion and homosexuality/same-sex marriage—that, while important, shouldn’t be all-consuming. The church and its people should focus more on poverty and compassion. We’re so busy trying to make converts by saying how bad the world is. The world has always been bad! The early church led people to Christ by caring for them, both materially and spiritually. We need to follow their example today.” —female, 40

“A major problem with today’s Christian church is we perpetuate the myth we’ve attained perfection and have somehow transcended the struggles everyone else around us faces. We even fool ourselves into believing this myth. The apostle Paul exhibits brutal honesty when he says in Romans 7:21, ‘I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong’” (NLT). —male, 30

“At church, I'm least myself—not most myself, or my best self. ‘Morality’ always seems tied to individual repression (don't smoke, don't drink), rather than to group responsibility (help the homeless, eradicate poverty). I believe Christians should be interested more in the military support of Israel than in whether or not I want a cigarette.” —female, 34

“The church has done a horrible public relations job. Being a Christian means pursuing a life of contemplation, refusing to accept injustice as a societal norm, and believing a loving higher power—and not our own human deeds—guides a believer’s fate. At some point, someone’s behavior must have created the perception that Christians are nothing more than superstitious and judgmental. That person certainly wasn’t Jesus.” —male, 34

“The most annoying aspect of today's Christian church is the prevalence of intolerant, closed-minded, and dogmatic views. Unfortunately, the people who hold such views tend to be the most vocal Christians, drowning out more moderate voices. These vocal Christians take extreme positions, such as denouncing Halloween as devil worship or celebrating the war in Iraq as God's punishment for our country's tolerance of homosexuality. They proclaim anyone who doesn’t agree with their views is going to hell. In doing so, they show no tolerance for other religions and points of view. Ironically, they’re quite similar in their intolerance and hypocrisy to some of the very people they loathe: Islamic fundamentalists.” —female, 34

“Christians, as a whole, are judgmental. We've forgotten God told us our place isn’t to judge. Not only do we judge non-believers, but we judge each other for the most irrelevant matters. Rather than judge, we need to love unconditionally. Rather than look down on people, we need to care for them as Jesus would. He forgave us, so what makes us better than someone else?” —female, 28

“It bothers me some Christians believe God cares about every thing they do. A friend told me she liked Joel Osteen, so I decided to watch his show. I quickly had to turn it off. In essence, Osteen said: ‘Welcome God into every aspect of your life. Pray before you go into a store. If you buy the wrong items, it’s because you didn’t ask God to be with you during your shopping trip.’ Sorry, no. I do welcome God into my life and want him to help me make life decisions. Buying tan versus brown towels at Target, however, doesn’t count as a ‘life decision.’ ” —female, 34

“What's wrong with the church today? In the words of G.K. Chesterton, ‘I am.’ I am because I'm the only one I can change, and sometimes I refuse to give myself to God. I get in the way of the gospel with my bad example and my failure to be a light in the world.” —male, 23

“I’m frustrated that many Christians seem brainwashed: When they sign up for Christ-following, they often subscribe to all the traditional political and moral viewpoints of the Christian church without checking if those perspectives are truly biblical. I hope Christians will search the Word and listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance, rather than follow without using their minds.” —female, 27

Back to my story: About seven years ago, I met Penny, a 50something secretary and an exuberant Christian. I’d been miserably disconnected from the church for almost 10 years, so Penny was like an oasis in the desert for me. She was transparent and humble. She was honest about the shortcomings of the church, and quick to identify her own role in these. She never portrayed herself as someone who was perfect or superior, but rather as someone who daily relied on God. Most important, she was always willing to talk about her beliefs and my questions. She was the personification of 1 Peter 3:15, ready to give an answer with gentleness and respect.

Penny was everything I wanted to be: a real person with real faith. God began changing me through my conversations with her. I reconnected with the church, and, thankfully, I discovered many more Christians just like Penny.

Admitting our doubts, questions, and frustrations about the church can be difficult, even painful. Yet I believe such discussion is necessary: We can’t become more Christlike unless we first identify how we’re not like Christ. Let’s get this conversation started.

To ponder:
1) What concerns or frustrates you most about today’s Christian church?

2) What encourages you most?

3) How can we—as individuals and as a church—promote honest, meaningful conversation?

Friday, December 28, 2007

All Roads Lead from Google (to H-n-T)

Have you checked out the 2007 Google zeitgeist? It's a report on the most popular Google searches for the year.

Makes me happy to know folks are still interested in God: On Google's "Who is ... " list (people typed in the words "who is" followed by a name or other word), God took the top spot. Jesus ranked No. 4. Satan was No. 10.

I've put together my own little list of Google searches that led to H-n-T. My methodology for compiling the list was pretty simplistic: What were some popular searches I remember seeing on my Site Meter data?

Some of the top Google searches that led to H-n-T:

Miraculous healings

The Secret versus The Bible

Secular songs for worship

Bible verses on physical fitness

Prosperity according to the Bible

Other interesting Google searches that led to H-n-T:

Why do some people have a harder life than others?

Can you worship God in the wrong way?

Christians are arrogant.

Can a good Christian watch TV?

Is God in control of our lives?

To ponder:
1) Consider the first group of popular searches. Why do you think people were motivated to search for these topics? (For example, maybe people searched for "secular songs for worship" because they thought those songs might attract visitors to their church, or perhaps they wanted to worship God in a new way, or ... )

2) Consider the second group of searches. How would you respond to the questions? How would you respond to the statement, "Christians are arrogant"?

Golden Opportunity: One Christian Perspective on 'The Golden Compass'

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Golden Opportunity
The Golden Compass provides a new way to think and talk candidly about the church.

To ponder:
A character in The Golden Compass describes the Magisterium’s function this way: "They keep things working by telling people what to do … Some people know what's best for them, and some people don't. Besides, they don't tell people what to do in a mean, petty way; they do it in a kindly way." Yet in the movie, the actions of the Magisterium are anything but kindly.

1) Do Christians sometimes push their views in ways that are wrongly motivated? What are some wrong motivations? What are some good motivations?

2) If you've seen or read The Golden Compass, how do the characteristics of the Magisterium compare to today's Christian church? What can Christians learn from Philip Pullman's criticism?

3) Have any mainstream movies, books, or music sparked a conversation on spiritual matters?

Monday, December 17, 2007

REWIND: What's in a Name?

My friend Mark sent me an Associated Press story about a young woman named "Mary Christmas." For real.

Name origins and meanings have long intrigued me. It perhaps began in fifth grade, when my teacher created an "All About Me" bulletin board. Each week, a different student would post photos of themselves and lists of their interests. The display also included the student's name origin, which the teacher looked up and posted for us. My classmates' names meant all kinds of wonderful things like "angel," "king," "conqueror," "beautiful one." Of course, I expected my name would be good, too. Imagine my surprise during the first day of "All About Holly" week, when I read my name meant "prickly, poisonous shrub." Guess who got teased all week long? ("Hey, Prickly!" "Stay away from Holly, she's poisonous!")

Still, I'd much rather live down a name than have to live up to one. Case in point: my friend Jessie. Most people don't know her real name is Jesus, and if I were her, I wouldn't tell, either. How on earth do you live up to "our Lord and Savior"? I suppose you can throw people off by using the Spanish pronunciation, Hay-SOOSE (though whenever I hear that name, I always want to say, "God bless you," and hand them a hanky. Culturally insensitive am I.). Then there was the guy at my college named Christian. Ironically, he's an atheist. Naturally, he went by "Chris."

Perhaps my brother, Michael Paul, has the best name combo of all. Michael means "one who resembles God." Whew, what a name to live up to! But the name Paul, which in Latin means "small or little," lightens that burden. My own personal translation of my brother's name: "one who resembles God ... a little."

At times, I'd rather label myself as a "Michael Paul" than as a "Christian." The word Christian, of course, simply means "follower of Christ." Unfortunately, I've heard plenty of other definitions: holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty, too-good-for-this-world-of-sinners. Plenty of Christians try hard to live those things down, but I can understand why those labels persist. It seems we Christians sometimes want to define ourselves as perfect, flawless, even sinless. We're often guilty of dividing the world between Christians and non-Christians, then proclaiming that "non-Christian" means "worthless, rejected, bad." Sometimes Christians forget that they, too, have a sinful nature. Sometimes Christians forget that they make mistakes, that they hurt others. That, even though we've accepted God's gift of forgiveness, we Christians still sin.

We also need to remember that those who aren't Christians are Michael Pauls, just like us. God made them. God loves them as deeply as you and me. They resemble God, and he wants them to know they're his kids, too.

The Christmas family from that AP story says their name keeps them in check. They are constantly reminded they're representatives of the holiday. And that reminds me I'm a representative, too--of Jesus Christ. When I meet someone who defines "Christian" as "holier-than-thou," I've got to remember two things. First, something happened to create those feelings of hurt and rejection. And second, I have an opportunity to extend love and kindness. My actions might give them a reason to reconsider their definition.

To ponder:
When is the word "Christian" a blessing to you? When is it a burden?

2) Think about your recent interactions. How might others be defining "Christian" based on how you represented Christ?

3) For fun, look up your name origin. You can use a search engine by typing your name along with "name meaning," or try

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Holly-Day Story: 'Angels, Revisited'

This year, I'm thinking about how the term "holiday season" has become so apropos for our society. Meaning: We can hardly call it Christmas anymore because there's very little of Christ in it.

I'm praying that God will change my focus. The following true story, which I wrote last year, has made me pause and think many times. Maybe God can use it to move me--and others--one more time.

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.

Three years before, I'd been 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, and a homeless man to wander on, 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.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Ever-Elusive Problem-Free Church

In response to my latest blog at Today's Christian Woman, a reader asks:

“[At two churches I attended], there was so much backbiting and slandering the pastors that it split both churches. We were really bothered by this behavior and regretfully, we left the church and have not attended for about 3 years. … I have thought of visiting another denomination, but my husband says that this type of problem is in most churches. Is this true?”

I replied:

I do believe there are problems in every church for a couple reasons. First, the ideal church should be a place where the broken go for healing and comfort. So church is set up to be a place where people bring their problems.

Second, even when life is treating us well, we still carry the problem of sin. Try as we might to be Christlike, we Christians still have the choice to sin. We can choose to be jealous, prideful, arrogant, bitter, selfish and intolerant at any time we like. Unfortunately, we all make that bad choice sometimes. We expect church to be a safe place where we can be loved exactly as we are ... yet sometimes, we don't treat others how we'd like to be treated.

Third, we tend to develop close relationships in church, so inevitably, we'll be let down or we'll let someone else down. And that's true of all relationships--even with our closest family and friends, there are days when we just don't like them.

I've had two distinct church experiences: "plugged in" and "disconnected." I attended one church for more than two years, and managed to never connect with one person! It didn't seem like a friendly church, and when I made attempts to meet others, I always felt disappointed. I never developed enough trust to be in community there.

At my current church, I made a decision to plug in and stay connected, no matter what. The environment of friendliness and transparency (modeled by the pastor) initially made it easier to be friendly and transparent myself. But I soon found that, even in a great church, people are people. Many people at my church have disappointed me at some point, and I know I've let many down myself. Sometimes I get so mad, I'm tempted to leave--the idea of anonymity at a new church becomes mighty attractive. Somehow, I've stuck with my decision to stay plugged in.

To complete my lil' analogy: I now know how it feels to be disconnected. It's like I'm dead: I can't grow, I can't move, and I'm just stuck in the same place. Conversely, when I'm plugged in, I'm connected to an energizing source. Sometimes my output exceeds what's being put into me. Sometimes I blow a fuse. But if I stay put, I trust God's going to fix it--he's the one at the fuse box. He always flicks the switch before I pull my plug, and I figure he's probably using problems and conflict to built perseverance into me.

When I get angry at someone, I pray as honestly as I'm able, "God, I really hate this person. I can't stand being around them, and I hate going to church because they're there. But I figure you've got them at this church and in my life for a reason. Please help me see them in a new way, and give me some way to love them. Help me to see the faults and sin in myself that are preventing me from loving them like you do." It's probably the most difficult prayer for me to pray, but I've seen God do mind-blowing stuff when I pray it. I've had people approach me immediately after I prayed and say, "I have this character flaw, and I think I might have hurt you because of it. Would you pray with me about it?"

Honestly, even if there was a perfect, perpetually happy church, I wouldn't want to go there. I'm neither perfect nor perpetually happy, so I wouldn't fit in very well! The hardest part about being in community is acknowledging that we're equal--our own flaws are just as bad as everyone else's, and we all hold the same sinfulness.

To ponder:
1) How would you respond if someone asked you this?

2) I love the word "perseverance" because I see the word "sever" in the center of it. I imagine "sever" would like to separate itself, but it is bookended by two other pieces that press in on it and hold it in place.

What is it that presses in on you and holds your relationships together when you feel like giving up on others and going it alone?

3) Consider this portion of the definition of perseverance: "to maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement."

Read Hebrews 12:1-3 and 1 Timothy 4:15-16. In regard to these passages, why is it important that we persevere? Where should our focus be? How does perseverance affect both ourselves and others?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Generation Exodus

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Generation Exodus
Why do so many young people leave the church?

To ponder:
1) In your opinion, what are some factors that contribute to young people leaving the Christian church?

2) What concerns or frustrates you most about today’s Christian church?

3) What encourages you most?

4) How can Christians—as individuals and as a church—promote honest, meaningful conversation?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Letting Go of Anger: Why So Hard?

"... the problem is that anger is so exciting, so enlivening, that forgiveness can seem like a limp surrender. If you have ever cherished a resentment, you know how right it can make you feel to have someone in the world whom you believe is all wrong. You may not be up to admitting it yet, but one of the great benefits of having an enemy is that you get to look good by comparison. It also helps to have someone to blame for why your life is not turning out the way it was supposed to."

--Barbara Brown Taylor, in Gospel Medicine (Cowley Publications). In 1995, Baylor University named her one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.

Why We Love This Deadly Sin

From Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

Where's Holly???

Yes, indeedy--I disappeared for a whole month! I can hardly believe it myself

I am alive and well. I've been off having some adventures: I played paintball for the first time with one of my gal pals. (Ouch. Two scars.) Spent a weekend at a
monastery. Viewed some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

During Thanksgiving weekend, I played the just-released Rock Band "virtual reality" video game. (Yes, I tried all the instruments--guitar, bass, drums, and microphone. Yes, I do rock.) And I managed to win the first-ever Vicente family poker "tournament," consisting of my parents, brother, sister, husband and me. I psyched out my opponents by clinking my chips together for the entire game, and badly singing Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler." (In truth, I think I just annoyed everyone away from the table.)

In between, I managed to get accepted to Biola University's master's in Christian Apologetics program. (No, I won't be the oldest student there.) The program offers direction on how to defend the Christian faith. I'll be taking biblical history classes, perhaps an archaeology class, and definitely a bunch of philosophy-type courses. The latter will address such scintillating questions as, "If God is real and is good, why does evil exist?" I'm tremendously excited, and will keep you posted on the cool stuff I learn.

I haven't forgotten about H-n-T; in fact, I have notes on about 10 topics I'm itching to write just for this blog. In a couple days, I'll post the link to my latest Today's Christian Woman entry. In it, several friends offer responses to this question: "What do you find most problematic or annoying about today's Christian church?" You won't wanna miss it.

Until then, above is a link to fabulous piece about anger. I'm posting it, ironically, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. First, I'm learning I can't be grateful when I'm feeling entitled to anger. And second, I'm personally thankful for all the good words God has given to others that help me learn and grow. Thank you, God, for all the good words in my life!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Halloween-Loving Christian?

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

A Halloween-Loving Christian?
Maybe it’s OK for me to enjoy this controversial holiday.

To ponder:
1) Do you engage in any Halloween-related activities? What are your reasons for participating or passing?

2) Think about your favorite non-church entertainment: maybe it’s pop music, romantic movies, social dancing, or even Halloween. What are some of the "yucky candies" that come along with this treat? Pray for discernment: Ask God whether he will remove the bad candy or give you an alternative. Or, perhaps 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.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Harry Potter Author Says Christianity Inspired Her Books

"On any given moment if you asked me if I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes - that I do believe in life after death. But it's something I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that's very obvious within the books."

--J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Last week, Rowling said Christianity had inspired her books. Rowling was raised in the Anglican tradition and is currently a member of the Church of Scotland. Some Christian writers have long noted religious references in the Harry Potter books, while others have denounced them as bathed in the occult and inappropriate for children.
J K Rowling: 'Christianity inspired Harry Potter'

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Disney Strikes the Word "God" From Movie Ad

"Who do they think gave Moses his power? Tinkerbell?"

--Frank Yablans, CEO of Promenade Pictures, which is releasing The Ten Commandments, an animated movie, this Friday. In a press release, Yablans commented on the request by Radio Disney executives to remove the words "Chosen by God" from their radio ads for The Ten Commandments movie.

Radio Disney: Remove God From 'Ten Commandments' Movie Ad

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What I Believe: An Open Letter to Sean and Best Seller

I recently received two comments, one in response to my post on The Secret, and one in response to my most recent post on yoga:

Sean wrote:
<<We are part of god. One person is not a god as such. God has infanant potential. We are extentions of gods ever expanding potential. As for what would happen if every one used the secret well for startes we all do. But if we all knew how we would be fine because we are all one we all together with everything in the universe are god.>>

Best Seller wrote:
<<Is it wrong for a Christian to practice yoga because it has roots in Hinduism? I do not think so, since Yoga involves physical & mental exercises designed to bring the mind in tune with the body. To have a stress free life, Yoga is very helpful.>>

Dear Sean and Best Seller,

I'd like to take a minute to discuss some core beliefs of Christianity. I'm writing this open letter because I'm sure there are others who hold opinions similar to your own. I hope this will provide some understanding about why I don't feel The Secret and yoga are practices Christians should engage in.

Best Seller, I went to your website to see how you might define yoga. From your site:

<<YOGA means UNION WITH DIVINE or SELF REALIZATION OF DIVINE WITHIN YOU. Of course, it has many other meanings too. The word YOGA came from the root word YUJ to YOKE or JOIN. So YOGA teaches one to JOIN THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL [JEEVATHMAN] WITH ABSOLUTE SOUL [PARAMATHMAN OR GOD].>>

For starters, the focus of yoga as defined above and on your site is to complete actions that will bring us into oneness with God. Christians, however, don't believe our personal actions bring us into relationship with God. Because of our sinful, imperfect state, we are separated from God. We don't believe we can personally release this sin (what we call "sin" you might call "negativity," though Christians don't believe humans can release themselves from their inherent sinful state).

Instead, Christians rely on the actions of Jesus Christ to be released from the consequences of our sinful nature (the consequence being eternal separation from God).

In biblical times, God gave those who believed in him a set of laws to follow. These laws weren't intended to make people perfect; in fact, it was impossible for any human to keep all the laws all the time. God also provided a means for the people to be forgiven when they broke his laws. The laws were to show the people that they were indeed sinful--they could never be as good and perfect as God. The laws also showed God was graceful and always willing to forgive. So it wasn't about making people see how bad they were. It was about showing humans how good and kind God is.

This reminds me of a news segment I viewed about a woman whose husband was killed by a drunk driver. The woman forgave the driver, and even became friends with the driver. In watching the story, I wasn't focused on the wrongdoing of the drunk driver. I knew the driver hadn't intended to kill anyone, though the driver was certainly guilty of murder. Rather, I was focused on the goodness of the widow, who had offered forgiveness for a seemingly unforgivable crime. Similarly, biblical law was given for people to recognize their sinful nature, while placing the greatest focus on the goodness of God.

Back to the Bible: The people stopped truly loving and worshipping God, and began to just pay lip-service. They thought they could live however they wanted, then just perform some simple actions to get right with God. (It would be like that drunk driver unremorsefully saying, "Here's your insurance settlement money, but it was really no big deal--your husband was gonna die someday anyway. Now at least you've got some cash. Are we done here?") God wanted the people to know it was only by his benevolent grace that they could have a relationship with him. And God got tired of their empty words--he wanted their true love. So he sent his son, Jesus, to earth in human form to remind his people of their sinful nature and his benevolent grace.

When he was on earth, Jesus proclaimed himself to be deity: the Son of God. Jesus gave his life in a way the people of the day would understand as the means to forgiveness--and thus, renewal of relationship with God the Father. Jesus then proved he is deity by coming back to life and ascending into Heaven.

Christians believe it is only because of Jesus' actions that they can have a relationship with God. This makes sense to me. I am a human who will die someday. I do not have the power of a deity; I'm not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. In The Secret, some are said to possess a greater ability to employ The Law of Attraction. In Hinduism, some are said to achieve nirvana faster than others. In other words, both say some humans are more god-like than others. True Christianity is realizing all humans are equally sinful, and can be equally forgiven and receive the same relationship with God.

Since I don't believe I'm deity, how could I, as a human, come into touch with deity, other than through another source of deity? For me, Jesus is that source. He is deity equal to God, so he has the power to bring me into good standing with God the Father.

The idea that humans contain deity, and thus are able to be one with God (or, in Best Seller's terminology, the Universal Soul), thus runs contrary to the core belief system of Christians. I do not believe I am God, or that I contain deity. I don't believe I am able, by my own actions or merits, to become one with God.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe Jesus' actions justify me before God. In other words, I can have a relationship with God because of what Jesus did, and because I've put my trust in his actions. I can show my love and gratitude to God through prayer (and other spiritual practices), obedience to and worship of God, good deeds, and kindness to others. But these actions won't bring me into relationship with God--as I said, I simply must put my trust in Jesus' actions.

If I were to believe doing yoga would bring me closer to God, it would be like saying, "Jesus, your actions didn't really take care of everything. I still need to do yoga, because I trust it will bring me closer to God." As I've said many times, there's nothing wrong with Christians stretching, relaxing through deep breathing, and meditating on the goodness of God and the Bible or doing such meditation through prayer. Best Seller, I hope you can see how it would be problematic for a Christian to believe yoga (or any other action) is the means to becoming closer to God, or the way to attain forgiveness for sin.

If you have any questions about why Jesus had to be crucified, the significance of his death and resurrection, the ideas of the three-in-one God (Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit) or other questions about core Christian beliefs, please feel free to email me. I'll do my best to answer or will ask a more experienced Christian theologian to address your questions.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Big Mac and Bradys Better Known than Bible

A national survey conducted by Kelton Research found Americans know more about Big Mac sandwiches and The Brady Bunch than the Ten Commandments.

The survey was commissioned to promote the animated movie The Ten Commandments, in theaters October 19. Of those surveyed, 25 percent could identify all seven ingredients of a McDonald's Big Mac sandwich, and 35 percent could name the six children from The Brady Bunch. But only 14 percent could accurately state the Ten Commandments. In fact, 60 percent of those surveyed couldn't remember at least five of the 10.

For more about the study, the upcoming movie, and tips on how to remember the Ten Commandments, check out

Monday, October 08, 2007

So Yoga Isn't the World's Greatest Exercise?

Yoga means bringing together mind, body and spirit, but in Western yoga, we've distilled it down to body. That's not even yoga anymore. If the goal is to look like Madonna, you're better off running or spinning."

--Shana Meyerson, a Los Angeles yoga instructor, in a Time magazine article on the rise of yoga-related injuries.

Holly sez: A couple years ago, I wrote about my personal objections to yoga. Essentially, I don't practice yoga anymore because its spiritual elements clash with my Christian faith. Specifically, yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice that pays homage to gods and is intended to bring practitioners into alignment with the universal mind (to reach enlightenment). My personal spiritual focus is on worshipping the one true God and pursuing the things he wants in my life. I don't believe in the universal mind or that I have the ability to reach a god-like state of enlightenment.

Since I had a lot of sources that agreed with my interpretation of yoga (ie. being a Hindu spiritual practice that supposedly connects mind, body, and soul), I didn't think my ideas were all that controversial. Prominent Hindu yogis have publicly stated yoga is more than exercise. So I was somewhat surprised when my little story started showing up on websites, blogs, and discussion boards. Some people said I was yet another example of Christian intolerance (I expected that). Many--including some Christian websites--said I was a crazy person who didn't understand yoga was merely exercise.

Even before I became a Christian, I knew yoga wasn't merely exercise. I used to be involved in my New Age practices, and I was long drawn to yoga for its spiritual component. I didn't even know about the Hindu connection back then, but I liked the idea of using the body along with the mind to "empty" myself and reach a state of numbness.

After I became a Christian, I still didn't know yoga was a Hindu practice. But I sensed something felt wrong when I went to yoga class. So I looked into it, and when I discovered the Hindu spiritual connection, my discomfort immediately made sense. Then I wrote about it.

Over the years, I've seen many defensive comments on how American yoga is just good exercise, and nothing more. I understand why people don't want to believe it has a spiritual component. Surely there are some American yoga classes that are merely stretching classes. The label "yoga" is hip and current; it provides a better selling point than "stretching," which sounds like a low-impact class for senior citizens or pregnant women.

Perhaps Americans don't like their exercise to be spiritual. Our country isn't overrun with Christian exercise programs, despite being a nation whose citizens largely identify as Christians. Exercise is supposed to be physical, with measurable benefits like muscle definition, weight loss, and lower blood pressure. Like the separation of science and religion (the former which identifies itself as measurable and verifiable), perhaps we think physical exercise should be separated from spiritual exercises like meditation and prayer.

Mostly, I think folks feel the need to defend yoga because it is extremely accessible. There's something for everyone: Yoga can be practiced by the very young and the very old. The stretches are good for people with physical limitations as well as professional athletes. It's a low-impact workout that can be started without any pre-conditioning, which makes it available to those who are overweight and/or out-of-shape. So, when some nasty writer like me comes along and says, "Hey, this isn't a good practice for Christians for these reasons," it makes sense folks would get mad. I'm attacking the unifying character of yoga, in essence stating it isn't for everyone.

People may not accept that yoga originates in Hinduism and is still considered their spiritual practice. It doesn't make the statement less true. But I've got some new news to get those defenders of yoga spitting fire again. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), yoga isn't the all-around exercise some folks want it to be. (ACE is a national nonprofit organization that tests exercise products and programs, and creates the standards for fitness instructor certifications.) The study found yoga doesn't improve cardiovascular health. Though there are some strength benefits, it's no match for weight-training for building muscle. Weight-training makes people much stronger more quickly than yoga. And yoga doesn't burn many calories--you'll get better weight-loss results from even low-impact aerobic activities like walking. Says John Porcari, who headed up the ACE study, "People’s expected benefits need to be in-line with reality. People often try to make yoga into this all-encompassing thing. Americans have changed yoga and tried to morph it into programs that will hit every aspect of fitness, but it was never designed that way.”

According to the study, yoga is a good addition to other exercise because it best provides flexibility, balance, and relaxation. So does stretching. I've been adding stretching to my workout for years, and I can honestly say the only thing that's missing is the "yoga" label and the Hindu spirituality.

To ponder:
1) The American idea of separating church and state often seems to extend beyond government issues. What are some ways you've seen this idea in action?

2) Some people called me intolerant for refusing to do yoga due to the spiritual element. To me, it's much more intolerant to deny there is indeed a Hindu spiritual element.

How might you feel if people used a Christian spiritual practice, such as communion or the Lord's Prayer, and denied it had Christian roots? (For example, if a large group of people claimed communion was more about getting a good boost of nutrition and could be utilized without any spiritual connection.)

3) What does the word "tolerant" mean to you? Is it necessary to keep mum about something you know is true in order to be tolerant? Is is necessary to keep your beliefs and opinions to yourself in order to be tolerant?

4) What are the benefits to being tolerant? What are some possible negative effects of being overly tolerant?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Plucking the Stray Grays

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Will dying my hair affect future generations' self-image?

To ponder:
1) Do you (or will you) dye your gray hair? Why or why not?

Do you consider this issue to be on par with the debate over working mothers?

Do you think there's a double standard when it comes to the perception of men with gray hair?

Is discussion about this topic--to dye or not to dye--overblown?

Pictured: Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; author Toni Morrison; singer/musician Emmylou Harris.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

REWIND: Are You Smart Enough?

I have a prayer journal that sits on my nightstand. It's usually pretty dusty. That's because I rarely write in it. I only pick up a pen when something is pressing on my heart and head so much that it's literally causing heartache or a headache. When I need a reminder of God's presence in my life, I'll re-read what I've written in my journal. It reminds me God both listens and responds to my deepest concerns.

I recently read some of my old posts here on H-n-T, and realized it's good to remind myself of what God's taught me, too. In January 2006, I wrote, "Are You Smart Enough?" It's personally poignant right now because I'm applying to a Christian grad school program. I'm praying that--if I'm accepted to the program--God will use the experience to make me "wiser or saner or more truthful," and not just a "smarter" kid who knows a few more facts and figures. Check out this H-n-T REWIND, along with some new thoughts to ponder at the end.

From January 2006:

Time magazine recently dedicated a huge amount of space to a special section on maximizing brain power. There were articles on keeping mental performance peaked through exercise and healthy eating. Articles on how to mentally exercise your brain. A piece on the controversial future of nootropes--so called "smart drugs"--that enhance mental performance. Of course, I ate up every word. Doesn't everyone wish they were a little smarter, a little quicker with the poignant example or snappy retort?

As I flipped through page after page of advice on getting smarter, I noticed a one-page essay, "What's So Great About Acuity?" by Walter Kirn. I decided to read it last--if at all. How could editorial blather make me any smarter?

After I read it, I wished I'd read it first. It made me realize I put too much value on mental prowess (and the success--and worth--I often associate with it). Kirn observes:

"... people dream of aping their computers, which grow measurably more agile every six months. Not wiser or saner or more truthful, those immeasurable human qualities that are extolled by priests and poets, but just better at handling elaborate graphics, say, or performing multimillion-variable calculations."

His last line hit me between the eyes: "... it's not what one can do that matters but what's worth doing."

And I realized, smart doesn't equal wise. Or trustworthy. Or compassionate. If all I'm doing is seeking to fill my head with facts and figures, am I missing out on God's purpose for me--doing the things that are worth doing?

To ponder:
1) Consider these two definitions:

Smart: Characterized by sharp quick thought.

Wise: Having the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.

Which one do you think most people desire? Why? Which one do you think is more important, or are they equal? Why?

2) What are some things you consider truly "worth doing"? When you do these things (or if you did them), how does it make you feel? Does a task need to make you feel happy or better about yourself in order to be worthy?

3) What's the difference between seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake, and seeking knowledge for a specific purpose? Which do you tend to do? What has your purpose been?

4) Holly sez: "Most people can become smarter by reading, studying, discussing, etc. But, while studying might aid wisdom, it seems wisdom itself can't be obtained through our own efforts." Do you agree or disagree? If you agree: Is there any point in pursuing wisdom? If you disagree: How does one obtain wisdom?

Monday, September 03, 2007

It's Judgment Time!

A new game show, Without Prejudice?, seems to encourage that we judge quickly, lest we be judged first. It began airing a couple months ago. I try to keep informed about pop culture and was intrigued, but this was one of those times when I had to question, Is this show gonna mess with my head a little too much? So I didn't seek it out, until this week, when the Game Show Network held a Without Prejudice? mini-marathon. I decided to watch the last 15 minutes of one show, just to take a peek.

The show’s suggested premise is: Can regular people suspend their prejudice long enough to judge others fairly? But, of course, this is reality TV. The actual motive is more like: Let’s incite emotion by having everyday people share the most prejudice beliefs they hold!

Five "regular” folks are selected as judges. Then five "average" people are selected as contestants. As you know, reality TV has a different concept of what constitutes regular and average. There's a transgender contestant, one judge who repeatedly insists everyone loves porn, an early-twentysomething who's been married three times, and an aspiring musician who plans to legally change his name to "Penny Arcade." The judges decide which of the five contestants they'll award with a prize of $25,000, based on the contestants' comments about their upbringing, jobs, personal relationships, and beliefs on pre-selected controversial topics. The judges sit in a seperate room from the contestants. (Hmm ... being judged from a distance ... by a force that can reward you or give you nothing ... and this force doesn't have a relationship with you and doesn't interact with you ... .)

Homosexuality and gay marriage are among the favorite discourse on the show. Of course, I use the word “discourse” loosely, too, since discussion never probes too deep or runs on for more than a minute. The show does devote plenty of time to guessing “Who’s gay?”—this seems to be a side game within the game. Both contestants and judges are questioned about their sexual orientation, as if this should provide an explanation for every thought and opinion they express.

In one episode, a judge who identifies himself as a Christian says he won’t vote for a gay contestant because he doesn’t agree with the homosexual lifestyle. The Christian expresses his beliefs well enough, in a matter-of-fact manner. He’s not sipping on haterade in the judges’ box. Still, the image of a Christian judging a gay man, telling the contestant he’s not good enough for the reward … . I feel for both men. How is the Christian supposed to communicate God’s plan for marriage in an eight-second sound bite? How is the gay man supposed to take away any idea except, Christians hate me because I’m not like them?

I’m repulsed. And yet, I’m hooked. I end up watching more episodes for nearly three hours. I feel disgusted when one judge says he doesn't like black people and won't vote for a black contestant. Then, the self-proclaimed racist ends up selecting a black man as the prize winner. Am I supposed to cheer, believing deeply held racist attitudes have been changed thanks to a 90-minute game show? Don’t think so. I'm instead left feeling this racist judge has insinuated the black contestant is the rare exception within the black community—that most others would indeed live up to the bad qualities that "cause" his racism. It's like receiving the undesirable comment, "I don't see your skin color," which, unfortunately, usually translates to "I like you, so I'll ignore the color of your skin because I can't deal with it."

(Gotta say I’m shocked groups like the NAACP and YWCA have partnerships with this show. I could be wrong—and hope I am—but seems that rather than promoting discussion, Without Prejudice? will encourage people to air their judgmental views publicly. One judge proudly states that he’s just voicing publicly what others are too afraid to say. Does society really benefit from a public podium where people judge one another?)

This also reminds me of friends who’ve said, “Holly, you’re not like most Christians.” When I ask them what they mean, they explain, “Well, you’re not judgmental. You seem open-minded.” This always makes me wonder, Am I wishy-washy on my beliefs? Am I soft peddling Christianity? Rational thoughts take over and I realize my friends probably have met a Christian or two who hurt them. Or, perhaps, they expected some Christian to live up to high standards, then felt letdown when the Christian failed. Or, perhaps, a Christian said something completely true and tried to do this with love, but it was taken with offense. Discovering the source of a friend's frustration with Christians takes effort, time, candidness, and honesty. I’ll never know what caused my friend to have negative feelings toward Christianity unless I continue the conversation.

Real conversation doesn’t happen on Without Prejudice?—in fact, judgment begins even before a word is said. At the beginning of each show, the judges must eliminate a contestant based on how they say their name, age, and current residence. The show's host refers to this as first impressions. One judge chose to off a contestant from Texas because, the judge reasons, Texas is a judgmental state. I want to jump out of my seat and yell, “How on Earth can you judge a state? That’s ludicrous!” I suddenly want to audition for the show, if only to say, "My name is Holly. I'm 33. I live in California. What part of that statement makes you want to hate me?"

Then it hits me: I'm now judging the judges on this television show. I've become the one who, from a distance, passes judgment on the lives of people I've never met. And that was the idea all along, wasn’t it? I hit the off button on the TV, disgusted by the ugliness of my own judgmental heart.

Me, Prejudiced? A Game Show Plays Jury (The New York Times review)

To ponder:
1) Do you believe you judge others? Why or why not?

2) Why do you think we tend to judge each other?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

More Thoughts on Faith (Or Lack Thereof)

As promised, here are some verses and some thoughts I've had about faith, in light of last week's post:

1) Jesus was amazed by profound faith.

The Roman Army Commander (
Matthew 8:5-13)

A Roman army commander went to Jesus because his servant was paralyzed. He asked Jesus to heal his servant. When Jesus told the army commander he would go heal the servant, the commander basically replied, "Jesus, all you have to do is say the word and my servant will be healed."

Matthew 8:10:
"When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, 'I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.' "

Holly sez: Sometimes, I assume my faith must be super strong and unwavering if I'm a "real" Christian. And when I don't trust God or question him, I start to think, "Hmm, maybe I don't have a legitimate relationship with God. Maybe I'm a phony." This verse is encouraging to me: It leads me to believe profound faith is indeed a rarity. Jesus--the son of God, who is deity--is astonished at the depth of this man's faith.

It also indicates my faith doesn't need to be the most profound in town to be real. Jesus compared the Roman commander's faith with all the people in Israel, but didn't condemn Israel. He didn't reply, "This Roman commander is the only one I'm going to favor--the rest of you suck." Like the Israelites Jesus encountered, I have a relationship with God even though my faith isn't equivalent to that Roman commander's.

The Israelites were supposed to be God's people, the ones who recognized God and worshipped only him. God was their God. Yet, Jesus observes that none of God's worshippers (including Jesus' closest followers: his disciples) had as much faith as this Roman army commander. The army commander wasn't one of God's people; he was an outsider who, amazingly, recognized God's power in a deeper sense than God's own people. Similarly, I may meet people who aren't Christians who deeply believe God is real and powerful, and are eagerly waiting to learn how to connect with him.

Great faith is a gift from God.

1 Corinthians 12:7-9:
"A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. ... "

Romans 12:3b:
"Use good sense and measure yourself by the amount of faith that God has given you."

Holly sez: Ouch--that second verse is an ego buster! I’m not so great when I think about my life in these terms.

The remarkable thing here is that great faith is deemed a gift from the Holy Spirit. It isn't something we earn after so many years clocked as a Christian, or for so many service hours doing good works.

I should obey God and serve him simply because I recognize he is deity, and I'm not. Then, if God chooses, maybe he will increase my faith in time. Or maybe I'm meant to continue depending on the great faith of others. Maybe my lack of faith is a constant reminder I must value each person's place in the
body of Christ.

3) Sometimes, those seemingly closest to Jesus lacked faith.

Jesus Goes to Nazareth (
Mark 6:1-6)
When Jesus visits his hometown, he couldn't do many miracles there because these people--who knew him as a neighborhood kid and had watched him grow up--couldn't believe he was deity.

Jesus Calms the Storm (
Mark 4:35-41)
The disciples are in a boat with Jesus when a fierce storm kicks up. They're freaked out, and they wake Jesus, telling him they're about to drown. Jesus tells the storm to be quiet, and instantly, it stops. the disciples are still afraid--even after Jesus calms the storm

Mark 4:39-41:
"[Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, 'Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?' They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!"

Holly sez: Sometimes, I view God a little too much like a human buddy or confidante. That familiarity makes me forget he is deity, the Creator of the universe.

I love these stories because there have been moments when I knew God had done something amazing, yet I still had doubts about his role in it. Remember the "
box of faith" I wrote about? Even as I saw God fill that box with one CD after another, I still doubted he would do what he'd promised me.

A few years ago, an agnostic friend told me he'd believe in God if God would just do something miraculous in his life, like give him a vision or speak to him directly. I questioned my friend, "Would that really make you believe God was real? Or would you think the voice or vision was your mind playing tricks? Even if you got a physical miracle, would you pass it off as good fortune or coincidence?"

I do believe God uses miracles to draw people to him. But, as demonstrated by the disciples' behavior after watching Jesus calm the storm, seeing isn't necessarily believing. Rather than proclaiming, "Jesus really is the son of God!" they questioned, "Who is this guy?!?"

4) Faith isn't just a product of circumstances.

James 1:2-4:
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."

Hebrews 11:6:
"And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

Holly sez: Prosperity and security don't necessarily build faith. Nor do adversity and trouble. Both, at times, caused the Israelites to turn away from God.

I see some great faith in churches in Africa, where food is scarce and life is brutal. And in the persecuted churches of countries like China and Iraq, where people are murdered because of their faith. But, lest we believe faith only grows in times of trouble, consider the rapidly growing churches of South Korea. The government is tolerant toward Christianity. The South Korean economy is booming, yet prosperity doesn't seem to have lured Christians there into a false sense of self-reliance like us Americans. And there is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work: divine healing, stories of miraculous protection, large numbers of church members speaking in tongues. (Not that Christian life there is all roses, as you may have gathered from the
kidnapping of South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. The last of these missionaries are returning to their country tomorrow. Two had been killed.)

While God has used both good and bad events in my life to strengthen my faith, it isn't the event itself that's changing me. I think my faith is strengthened when I simply recognize God: "God, I know you're there, and I know you are good."

In either good or rotten circumstances, I'm tempted to say, "I can rely on myself. I don't need God." This is where I think both prosperity gospel and those who overemphasize poverty can get it wrong: They get too focused on circumstances. Our focus should be on our relationship with God. In marriage vows, the line about "for better or for worse" illustrates how the relationship is the focus. All types of events may occur in a couple's life together, but if they remain focused on the relationship, they will remain strong in spite of everything around them.


1 Thessalonians 3:10:
"Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith."

To ponder: How often do you look to others for strength when you lack faith? How often do you offer the comfort and support that comes from your faith (your belief and trust in God) when others falter?

Romans 14:1-3:
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

To ponder: Does this verse mean we should "live and let live"? Read all of
Romans 14. Pray for discernment between "disputable matters" and important issues where God would have you speak up.