Why the Secularization of America May Be Good Thing for Christians

Here’s a story from my life. I grew up in a great Christian home and had the fortune of being in a very active youth group in high school. I was involved in local and short-term missions, was helping lead weekly discipleship, and had some tremendous “mountaintop” experiences while camping. Then I went to college. My faith stagnated, my spiritual life suffered, my relationships turned toxic. By the end of my fourth year I was a mess of anxiety and depression, and had pretty much given up on God and my faith. All because I went to a secular state school, right? Nope – a good, well-respected, conservative Christian college. Continue reading

Thinking about discrepancies in Scripture

I highly recommend Relevant Magazine, both online and in print. This article is a bit shallow but raises interesting questions important for anyone studying the Bible. How you answer the question of “is the Bible inerrant?” – which leads to the question “well what do we mean by inerrant?” – will completely shape how you read and interpret Scripture.

While in seminary this was a challenge to me. I had never even heard of the idea that there were discrepancies in the Bible, and honestly believed that there simply couldn’t be. However when confronted with the idea that Jericho may have not had the enormous walls attributed to it, or that there were differences in some other historical accounts, I was a bit flummoxed. And if you haven’t thought about it, read the Gospels and consider what day Jesus was crucified on. Anyway, this article makes a good point regarding what we can and should mean by “inerrant”.

I think the sad thing that is brought out in this article is how, in many Christian circles, asking these kinds of questions is not permitted. Questioning details is tantamount to questioning Scripture. The argument goes that if Scripture isn’t fundamentally and literally perfect in every detail then there’s no reason to believe any of it (which is a huge jump). If we can’t have a Christian culture where asking questions about a fundamental resource for our faith is OK, then our faith is built on a shaky foundation.

article after the jump >>

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On Donald Miller and Christ outside the church

image: Amy Corron Power

Donald Miller recently wrote in his blog, “I don’t connect with God by singing to Him.” Well Don, I don’t either.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t sing to God. But I find that the only time I do is in church on Sunday for about 20 minutes. At times I find myself being drawn closer to God by music, including Christian music, but those songs somehow never make their way into the worship center.

Plus I don’t sing well. While I knew this all along, it became glaringly obvious to me when I attended a Reformed Presbyterian church in college. At RP services no hymns are sung, and there is no musical accompaniment. The congregants sing the Psalms a-capella, often breaking into multiple lush harmonies as the verses change. I just stood and listened. It was beautiful, but I was a spectator, not a participant.

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Standing in the hallway

once again I haven’t written in a while. once again due to feeling incredibly busy.

We had a speaker at our hospice a few days ago who talked about how social workers and chaplains tend to be seen as mildly irrelevant in hospice care. Many chaplains, for example, routinely carry caseloads of over 100 as well as on call duties. I know one chaplain who has over 100 patients and a church. That to me is insane.

Given the fact that I have about 80 patients, and only about 60 of those I see regularly, I should feel like I’m on a luxury cruise. However that’s hardly the case. Admissions happen on an almost daily basis, and these require quick attention even though the impulse is to put them off until absolutely necessary. A quick phone call to the family or patient can usually tell you how much of a problem there may be, so that can help to prioritize things.

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1 Corinthians 13:1-7, for a funeral


1 Cor 13:1-7 If I speak in the tonguesof men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

These words are often heard at weddings, not at funerals. But they are just as appropriate. In marriage we see the romantic side of love, the love of one for another. But in reflecting back over an entire life we can see how that love flowed out to others, to see the hard work that it did in tough times, and to see that love is not merely something that is felt but something that one does.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church divided. There were rival groups fighting for attention and power while more serious issues were being ignored. They were boasting about their wisdom and knowledge, but Paul was pointing out that their wisdom was futile. The church was “majoring in the minors” to borrow a phrase. Paul responds to a number of their questions about the order of the service and so on, points out where he sees them in error. And then it’s at this point that he points them to the “why” behind the “what to do”. Continue reading

Faith and Dying Well

I recently came across an article on a Christian site discussing why it is that Christians seem to have so much difficulty with end of life choices such as hospice care (unfortunately I can’t link to the article right now as I can’t find it again).

As a hospice chaplain for seven years I can say the following:

  1. most of my patients and families have some kind of faith background, and I would guess that it is about 90% Christian
  2. about half of my Christian patients are Roman Catholic
  3. of those that can tell me, most of my patients are not afraid of dying and neither are their families.

That said, I would say that obviously not all Christians die poorly, and a good number are quite accepting of God’s plan and, even when there is a very real fear of the dying process, that fear is tempered by the hope of Heaven.

However this is only a sample of those who have already chosen hospice. It would stand to reason that patients and families that are in some way afraid of dying or the dying process don’t consider hospice at all. One would think that this group is mostly atheist/agnostic and so on, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve had atheists on service before, and they look at death as a release from their pain and struggle and accept it as part of life. On the flip side of the coin, there are many Christians who struggle with decisions at the end of life and hang on even when recovery is impossible. The “why”s in these cases are plentiful I’m sure, but faith itself itself can be one. Continue reading

When Prayer is Trivial

While driving out to my first visit today I ran through the presets on my radio as I usually do. Not finding anything of interest music-wise I jumped to the Christian talk station to see what was on there. The speaker (don’t remember who, but he’s well known and I think nationwide) was talking about the need for us to pray in order to maintain our connection to God. He laid out several other benefits as well, but then made a bit of a quizzical move. God apparently wants us to pray, but God doesn’t want to be bothered with “trivial prayers”.

Prayers for mundane things – he used the example of picking out his clothes – are trivial in that they aren’t about important matters, or about things we can take care of ourselves. He got a laugh about his comment about his clothes-picking skills, but I was a bit perturbed.

I did a quick little search for “trivial prayers” on Google and got an interesting list of results: nonbelievers who said that any prayer was trivial or that prayers for personal gain were trivial, as well as people who called their own prayers trivial because they didn’t seem to be about important things. I even ran across a video of a minister teaching that God doesn’t want our “help me! help me!” prayers or petitions at all.

I brought this up to my client that I saw today, an elderly man with heart failure who prays the Rosary daily every day he can. He too was surprised and not very happy with the comment. He said, “Any prayer is important to God! Something that seems trivial to someone else can be very important to me. Say I cut my finger and I pray that it gets better. You could say ‘just put a band-aid on it, don’t bother God!’ But if that cut gets infected I could lose that finger. Prayer is all the more important to me!”

I replied, “I think the only kind of prayer that is trivial is one that isn’t said.”

And it was probably the smartest thing I said all day.

Works and Grace

This morning I was having breakfast and skimming through the latest Christian book catalog that came through our mail when my son noticed the title of one of the books was on learning to “pray better”.  He asked, “How do you pray better?  Don’t we pray good enough already?”

I think this question goes to the heart of a lot of the problems we face as Christians, and maybe especially as Americans.  We have such a tendency to find ourselves, no matter how much we talk about grace, looking at our faith as a matter of how much effort we put in to it.  Sometimes that work is actual “work” – penance, good deeds, giving financially or of time. All these things in themselves are good, but we can easily fall into the trap of seeing these things as preliminaries and prerequisites for God’s grace to happen.

The Protestant mourns for his fellow Catholic brother, whom he sees as “works based” regarding salvation. Yet Protestants are just as trapped by the need to “do more” and “do better”. A glimpse through any Christian book catalog or bookstore shelf of popular Christian “inspiration” will prove my point. So much seems to be about doing more, doing better, gaining and striving. I think this comes out also in theology with the insistence that one’s theology be “right”. I remember growing up that faith wasn’t just about knowing Jesus, but knowing Calvin. You had to know the right things in the right way – not just Biblical truth but the correct interpretation of Biblical truth.

This, I think, is just another form of works. Grace is something we accept without any merit on our part, and to make that grace beholden to anything we do (and I think belief can be a form of works as well) negates that.

Can I pray better, read more, give more? Surely. I stink at all of these. But I gave up worrying for Lent.

What are You Fasting From?

Ok, maybe my grammar is a bit sketchy title-wise, but I like it.

I never fasted in my life, save for bloodwork or the occasional operation. Most of this came from my Presbyterian/Calvinist upbringing, which saw fasting as something a bit too “Catholic”, which is code for works-oriented. It was spiritually good but unnecessary at best, idolatrous at worst. Lent tends to be interesting at times because, as I’m the hospice chaplain in a secular company, I’m seen by some as this pillar of sacredness. Especially by our Catholic staff. It freaks them out when on a Lenten Friday I pull out a ham sandwich and dig in. It has provided some opportunites to teach what I know about grace and works.

But I’m rethinking things a little this year. Not so much about abstaining from food or drink or whatever. I understand why fasting from things that are pleasurable is supposed to connect us with the suffering of Christ. However there have been plenty of folks who, rather than fast from something, try to increase the good that they do. I think that’s a good way of looking at things and not quite so self-centered. But I was thinking today that if I’m going to fast, I’d rather fast from the things that pollute my life…worry, fear, self criticism. Life without chocolate only promotes misery and desire. But life without worry for 40 days? Hallelujah! What would it be like to not be afraid for 40 days, or critical of myself or others, or anxious? What can be more enriching and spiritual than that?

So I’m going to fast from worry. What are you fasting from?


The term “calling” is a serious topic, both for ministers and the people who call on them.  It implies not simply a “hiring”, but an endowment of purpose beyond what the minister and the congregation have.  It brings in a third party, the Holy Spirit, who acts as the one who inspires and confirms the direction of this person to that place for those people.  It’s pretty strong stuff.  It often brings up a lot of reflection and anxiety on the part of clergy: “What am I called to do?”  “Is this my own desire or God’s?”  “How can I be sure?”

Perhaps the most troublesome is the question that occasionally comes up after a call to a position of ministry, “did I just mess up?”

After I graduated from seminary I was “called” to a position right away.  It seemed ideal – it was a church I knew, where I wanted to work, doing what I wanted to do.  It was like a gift was just dropped in my lap.  To confirm my call the senior pastor and dozens of others laid their hands on me and prayed over me.  It was  a spiritually and emotionally charged moment.  I felt like everything was right.

However very soon I discovered that everything was not right.  I immediately was bashing into other leaders in the church who didn’t want to hear what I had to say.  I felt marginalized.  I found myself not in agreement with how things were done but had no outlet within the church to hear me out.  After a while, it got so bad that my wife actually quit attending the church where I was an assistant pastor!  I remember thinking, “did I mess this up?”  I wondered if I had mistook God’s calling for my own desires.

Looking back at it now I can see that I was called to that place for that time, but that the calling wasn’t what I expected it to be.  I don’t think that God makes mistakes, nor do I think that this was somehow out of God’s plan.  I was called to be there, but I think it was to show me that I was called to do something other than what I intended.  God used me, and when that particular call was over He called me back out again to hospice ministry.  That doesn’t invalidate the prior call at all.  In fact, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m called to do now if I hadn’t been called into that mess.

I faced a similar paradigm shift last week.  I found myself really struggling, both in CPE and my job.  I felt stuck, frustrated, tired and emotionally drained.  When I started CPE over a year ago, someone asked how long I was going to do that.  I thought I could do it as long as I could foresee.  I didn’t see any changes on the horizon, and didn’t really see the need to change.  However as I began growing through CPE, I found myself getting worn out with the status quo at work.  I wasn’t “feeling it” anymore.  I still had passion for my work, just not passion for that part of my work.  Like I told the group, “I’m just tired of all the ___ dying.”  One member of the group later commented that it looked like I was in mourning.  Indeed I was!

With the help of my CPE supervisor and the group I was able to see that I really was just stuck in this corner, unable to turn left or right.  I needed to see that I had lost my passion and needed to refocus.  In the past my instinct was just to try harder and push through.  However there was no more pushing through.  I had to back out and try a different direction.  In doing so, I was able to see a new focus for ministry: the people I work with.  I’d already moved into much more of a managerial role, and needed to cut loose some of what I was holding on to.  When I did that, I found renewed energy and depth.

Had my calling been wrong?  Absolutely not.  God put me there for that purpose for that time.  And I could not be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t been there.  My calling changed, and now I can even see that it is not a huge a change.  The hard part in making that adjustment was seeing that I needed to make it – I couldn’t try harder, it was done.