Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Misplaced Faith: Christians & the 2008 Presidential Election

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

Misplaced Faith
Is faith the most important issue in the 2008 presidential race

To ponder:
How does a presidential candidate's faith influence your vote?

2) Which issues are most important to you in this election?

3) What other information will you use to determine your vote?

4) What do you think about the "God-o-Meter," which was created by and Time magazine?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Real Church Hurts

Real Church Hurts
By J. Brooke Fenwick

Real church hurts

When Sunday morning worship gets stale

Because Sunday morning isn’t churchReal church hurts

When you realize that there is more than that weekly sermon

Because that sermon isn’t enoughReal church hurts

When you finally give up on finding the perfect place that scratches your spiritual itch

Because such a church does not existReal church hurts

When you get past the pre-packaged, “We’ve got all the answers” theology

Because a church that claims to know it all is lyingReal church hurts

When you get past the superficial smiles and discover real people you don’t like

Because you are one of those peopleReal church hurts

When you learn to humbly wash the feet of the arrogant, proud, and hypocritical

Because Christ set the exampleReal church hurts

When you commit yourself to being there for those who are not there for you

Because Christ never leaves nor forsakesReal church hurts

When you start to strip off the protective layers, making the real you known

Because Christ already knows you better than you know yourselfReal church hurts

When you are forced to look past your prejudices and see the heart of another

Because Christ looks past outward appearance and sees the heartReal church hurts

When you choose to lay down your life for someone who doesn’t deserve it

Because Christ did that for youReal church hurts

Because Christ hurts

And we are His body
Real church hurts

Because real love hurts

And it is by this love that the world will know that we are His

To ponder:
1) Do you agree with Brooke's assessment? Why or why not?

2) Do you find it difficult to be real with people? Is it more (or less) difficult for you at church?

3) Were there specific portions of Brooke's poem that seem particularly true in your life?

4) Holly sez: As a teen, I expected my church to have all the answers about God. Many Christian adults acted like they did. These days, I'm content to be in a church that's willing to have questions about God--as long as it is ever pursuing answers in its efforts to draw closer to God.

What are some questions you have about God and faith? Do you feel more frustrated or more excited when you discuss these questions with others?

Friday, January 11, 2008

H-n-T Celebrates Two Years of Blogging

Happy (belated) Blog-iversary,

To celebrate, I've made some small changes to H-n-T's appearance--kind of like the blog gets a new outfit for its birthday! I'm sad to take out some of the site's beautiful bold colors, but the changes will hopefully make the text easier to read. Let me know your thoughts on the blog's new appearance.

Here's a look at another great year for H-n-T:

H-n-T turned 2 on January 8, 2008.

H-n-T had 62 posts in 2007.

According to Site Meter, there were 3363 visits to the blog in 2007--nearly 2000 more than last year.

December 2007 posted a record high, with 526 visits. (This was the first time there were more than 500 visits to H-n-T in a single month.)

To see the topics readers were most interested in on H-n-T, check out "All Roads Lead from Google (to H-n-T)."

Holly chose “Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?” as her favorite post of 2007. What was your favorite post this year? Post your comments here, or e-mail Holly at

Many thanks to everyone who read, pondered, commented, and forwarded posts on H-n-T in 2007!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Offering My Best: H-n-T's Pick of 2007

Below this post is my favorite story from 2007, “Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?” It originally appeared on my blog for Today's Christian Woman. Here's a bit about why I chose it as H-n-T's Pick of 2007.

When I wrote “Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?”, I had an epiphany: I really need other people! That's because the story almost didn't happen.

I felt moved to discuss race and the church on my TCW blog, but I was afraid. I shared these fears with a writer buddy, Jim. He knows me well enough to be extremely blunt: Jim told me to grow a backbone and write whatever God put on my heart!

His words made me resolved to write on the topic, but then I stalled, thinking, Do I really have anything to say that might bring about positive thought and change? Or am I just going to open old wounds and tick people off? Being controversial for controversy's sake ain't my thing. I wanted to write something meaningful. And it seemed I had nothing meaningful to say.

Then along came my dear friend LaTonya, a professional writer and editor who also blogs. She spent hours discussing the story with me, and even more hours editing it. Her help was particularly meaningful because she gave me permission to write about an experience I'd had at her church. (Perhaps the scariest words I can say to someone are, "Can I write about you?") It was brave of her to allow me to discuss such personal material.

As I was writing, I mentioned this story to a few friends. Word got around to a few more friends. Everyone who heard about it was thrilled to offer their observations and insight. Upward of 20 people contributed ideas and feedback on the piece. I must've made a dozen revisions before my TCW editors even saw it.

Initially, all these revisions made me feel tremendously discouraged. I was shocked my writing needed so much help! After all, wasn’t I supposed to be good at this stuff? At one point I thought, This sucks—this story isn't even mine anymore!

That's when it hit me. The story never was mine. This was a story about unity, not individualism. It was a story about community, not independence. I wouldn't have written this story without the pushing, encouraging, discussions, stories, and prayers of my friends and my editors. What an amazing illustration of what happens when the church is unified and purposed. And how ironic that a story about church division would provide an illustration of church unity. My writer friend Jim summed it up thus: "God knew what he was doing when he set up this ‘Body of Christ’ business, eh!"

It seems appropriate to reprint a story which caused such a great spiritual epiphany during the season of Epiphany, which began January 6 and continues up until the start of Lent (February 6). Epiphany celebrates the early moments when Jesus was revealed as divine, beginning with the visit from the Magi. Dennis Bratcher, a Nazarene ordained minister and a visiting professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, describes it thus:

"The term epiphany means 'to show' or 'to make known' or even 'to reveal.' In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing 'reveal' Jesus to the world as Lord and King."

While the Bible doesn't specify who the Magi were, we know they came from a great distance, and they are widely considered the first non-Jews who acknowledged Christ. Epiphany is thus a celebration of inclusiveness, when we recognize Jesus came for everyone. Bratcher describes it as "a time of focusing on Christian brotherhood and fellowship, especially in healing the divisions of prejudice and bigotry that we all too often create between God’s children."

I hope “Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?” will provide some interesting thinking for you. I am thankful for the epiphany I received from it: I work best when I'm functioning within—and in conjunction with—the body of Christ.

To ponder:
1) Have you had any spiritual epiphanies this year?

2) Do you feel connected or disconnected in your church? What has caused you to feel this way?

3) For some interesting reading on racial reconciliation and the church, check out Ed Gilbreath's blog: Ed (pictured) is the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. He worked at Christianity Today for years, and is currently director of editorial for Urban Ministries, Inc. (Plus, he's a good friend, an amazing writer, and an all-around way cool guy.)

H-n-T's Pick of 2007: "Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?"

Several years ago, my friend LaTonya invited me to a gospel concert at her church, a predominantly African American congregation. Admittedly my first thought was, Will I be the only person there who isn’t black? Before I could voice my concern, LaTonya told me she’d invited several mutual friends, people I knew were of various ethnicities. Still, I was rather fixated on how out of place I was going to feel.

At the concert, the tiny section of LaTonya’s friends stood out in the nearly homogeneous sea of faces. Maybe I was imagining, but I felt eyes fixed on me. I later told LaTonya my fears about being "The Other" in the room. Her words stick with me to this day: "Holly, I feel that way everywhere except my church." Then it hit me—LaTonya had been incredibly bold inviting me to her concert. At the place where she fit in comfortably, where she was "The Every," she’d differentiated herself by bringing her ethnically diverse group of friends.

Questions filled my head. Why had I felt out of place—in a church?! Did I not recognize that I was part of the body of Christ, and that the body is diverse? How could I be so clueless to not see that my buddy LaTonya regularly felt like The Other?

Unlike LaTonya, I’m usually The Every, a gal who’s used to fitting in just about everywhere. I have a mix of Caucasian, Filipino, Mexican, and Native American ancestry. I’ve been a member of Asian and Chicano social groups, and I proudly wear my “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” button on St. Patrick’s Day. I feel comfortable around people of every ethnicity.

That is, until someone makes me feel I’m The Other. I’ve been told “You’re not really Asian” and called pocha (a slur describing a Mexican woman who’s lost her culture). When I was in third grade, a skinhead shouted at me, “Don’t you wish you were white?” Just a few years ago, a complete stranger in a store snarled, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” as we both waited in the checkout line. The hurtful message sent to The Other is: You’re not like us. You don’t belong.

You’d hope folks wouldn’t be made to feel like The Other within the Christian community. Unfortunately, hurts happen here, too.

When LifeWay Christian Resources began promoting “Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally—Racing to the Son,” its 2004 Vacation Bible School program, members of the Asian-American community noted stereotypical images such as rickshaws, take-out boxes, and karate uniforms, and called the material racially offensive. Despite a protest petition and a letter-writing campaign headed by an Asian pastor, LifeWay defended the curriculum and distributed it.

And just a couple months ago, a North Carolina church made headlines after three white members in blackface lip-synched to hymns at a church function. The church initially defended the performance, asserting it was meant to celebrate gospel music, not intended to poke fun. Soon after, the pastor issued a public apology to those who’d been offended, but didn’t condemn the performance itself.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says we dismiss others’ legitimate hurts because we feel entitled to our behavior. We err when we trust our own assessment of whether something is hurtful, when we think, They shouldn’t be hurt. I wouldn’t be. That’s like telling The Other, “It’s your fault for not being like me.”

I’ve been thinking about how Jesus embraced The Other in his society: women, children, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors. And how early church leaders struggled over whether to include Gentiles. I'm beginning to realize how difficult reaching out to The Other is, because in doing so, we often set ourselves up for the same rejection and pain The Other feels.

My friend Brooke, who’s white, recently voiced concern about an online Christian video he felt reflected racist attitudes toward African Americans. The response to his concern? Comments from church leaders such as “Give me a break” and “Lighten up.” If only more Christians would recognize Brooke’s concern is for the whole body of Christ: “If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy” (1 Corinthians 12:26, CEV).

This inclusive attitude was demonstrated when Youth Specialties, a branch of Zondervan, realized earlier this year it had published a racially offensive skit in one of its books. Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties, immediately offered a public apology. At great expense, Zondervan pulled the book from shelves, revised and reprinted it, and offered to replace previously purchased copies with the new edition. Their quick response and sincerity drew wide praise from the Christian community. Personally, their actions make me want to stand and cheer!

As a church, we need to recognize the wounds of The Other, and not dismiss their pain. To “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:28-31) is a profound undertaking, because it requires a respect and consideration that doesn’t come naturally. It begins with submission: giving up my rights to meet another’s needs. “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another” (Ephesians 5:21, THE MESSAGE).

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Problem with the Church Is ...

Last month, I posed the question, "What concerns or frustrates you most about today’s Christian church?" Several of my friends offered a response to this question. Here's mine:

The problem that most concerns me about today's American church is our lack of community. We don't support each other. We don't have authentic, transparent relationships with one another. We don't ask each other for help.

I think this stems from American individualism. Individualism is a good thing, of course, but it can quickly move into the mentality of self-sufficiency--and the expectation everyone should be completely self-reliant.

I heard this heartbreaking story recently: Some years ago, a friend who is a professional chef had been feeding a homeless man who was mentally ill. The man started following her everywhere, and she continued to feed him and extend friendship to him. A leader from her church found out about this and told her she needed to stop doing this immediately, or she'd never get rid of the homeless man. She was shocked: Here she was using her talents in the way the Holy Spirit had moved her, and a church leader was telling her to stop. She found this sentiment of "the Lord helps those who help themselves" was shared by many of her church leaders. She ended up leaving that church.

I hear this echoed by singles who feel they are overlooked in their churches. In many churches, programs are largely focused on families with children. I sense a lack of empathy for the loneliness and isolation singles can experience. The solutions offered by the church often are the over-simplified "let Jesus be your comfort" or pesky match-making where there's little concern for compatibility ("You should meet my co-worker's brother's roommate--I think he might be a Christian!")

I continuously hear Christian women talk about loneliness and pain, and express sadness there's no one to share their feelings with. First problem is, there are those who'd condemn them for not reaching out--because "they don't make the effort, it's their own fault." Second problem is, there are those who'd condemn them for not completely depending on God--since they’ve expressed their need human comfort, "they surely must not trust God." Thus, we keep quiet about our hurts and loneliness because we’re afraid we’ll be judged for expressing these feelings. It is a vicious circle.

To be extremely blunt:

It is a cop-out when we blame people for their hurt and doubts. It is a cop-out to analyze someone’s feelings and say, "They're just young and rebellious; they'll grow up," or "It's a decision they have to make for themselves," or "God will reveal himself to them."

When we make excuses for our own inaction, this is sin--often selfishness and arrogance. Who are any of us to judge whether someone else needs our help? When we are told to love one another, this doesn't mean "love only the emotionally healthy who are self-reliant" or "love only Christians who are just like you."

As the body of Christ, we are responsible for the other members of the body. And we will be called into account for our inaction. It's true each person must choose whether to follow Christ. While I can’t make this choice for another person, I am responsible for sharing Jesus’ story. I do believe I'm going to be harshly judged by God on Judgment Day--and I expect every Christ-follower will be, too. I believe God will show me many people's lives, and how I added to the trail of hurts and rejection that made those people turn away from him. It makes me sick to my stomach because I know there are people I need to call right now. And I haven't done so because the conversations will be painful and the relationships difficult.

Getting to know people is hard. I find it almost impossible to let anyone see me vulnerable and real. But it is possible, and it is required of us. God most often reveals himself through human conversations and interactions. God help us to never become so comfortable as individuals that we're unwilling to do the uncomfortable work of building community.

To ponder:
1) What are some obstacles to building community?

2) What are some obstacles that churches face? Are these different than the obstacles to building friendships at work or in our neighborhoods?

3) Where is it easiest for you to make friends (ie. work, church, neighborhood, through your kids' activities, at the gym)? Do you think it is more difficult or easier to have authentic friendships at church?