Religion

Stephen Mattson 02-11-2015
 gst / Shutterstock.com

gst / Shutterstock.com

There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and there’s no such thing as perfect Christianity.

They don’t exist. One of the biggest lies Satan can tell you is that perfect spirituality can be achieved — it can’t.

There’s no perfect denomination.

There’s no perfect church.

There’s no perfect congregation size.

There’s no perfect style of worship.

There’s no perfect theology.

There’s no perfect children’s ministry curriculum.

There’s no perfect youth ministry philosophy.

There’s no perfect sermon formula.

There’s no perfect service sequence.

There’s no perfect leadership structure.

There’s no perfect interpretation of the Bible.

There’s no perfect strategy for evangelism.

Unfortunately, the idea of attaining perfect faith is perpetuated throughout Christendom. If you only attend this church more, pray more, tithe more, forgive more, sacrifice more, and ultimately do this or that just a little bit more — then you will attain blissful happiness, perfect harmony, divine communion with God, and a happily ever after eternity.

Graphic courtesy of Tiffany McCallen / RNS

Graphic courtesy of Tiffany McCallen / RNS

Meet the “Post-Seculars” — the one in five Americans who no one seems to have noticed before in endless rounds of debates pitting science vs. religion.

They’re more strongly religious than most “Traditionals” (43 percent of Americans) and more scientifically knowledgeable than “Moderns” (36 percent) who stand on science alone, according to two sociologists’ findings in a new study.

“We were surprised to find this pretty big group (21 percent) who are pretty knowledgeable and appreciative about science and technology but who are also very religious and who reject certain scientific theories,” said Timothy O’Brien, co-author of the research study, released Jan. 29 in the American Sociological Review.

Put another way, there’s a sizable chunk of Americans out there who are both religious and scientifically minded but who break with both packs when faith and science collide.

The Editors 12-15-2014

Videos of people of several religious backgrounds expressing their faith. 

A crowd recites the Pledge of Allegiance at a Kerry campaign rally in 2004. Photo via American Spirit via Shutterstock/RNS.

Reading religion surveys can seem like confronting the Tower of Babel: stacked questions, confusing terms, unscientific methodology.

It gets even crazier when results are contradictory. How does that happen?

Some surveys lean like the Tower of Pisa

The Pledge of Allegiance is a perfect example.

There’s almost always a flap over how many Americans do — or don’t — want the words “under God” kicked out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, on Nov. 19 a court in Monmouth, N.J., will hear the case of the American Humanist Association battling the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District to have schools edit out mention of God.

The humanists claim 34 percent of Americans agree with their view. But, wait. What about a survey conducted earlier this year by LifeWay Research, a Christian research agency? It found that only 8 percent would cut God from the Pledge.

Why four times the difference? Look to the poll language.

LifeWay asked: “Should the words ‘under God’ be removed from or remain in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America?” That’s a straight-up question with no preface.

The humanists’ survey, however, began with a bit of pointed Pledge history — before getting to the (loaded) question:

“For its first 62 years, the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase ‘under God.’ During the Cold War, in 1954, the phrase ‘one nation, indivisible … ‘ was changed to read ‘one nation, under God, indivisible … ‘. Some people feel this phrase in our national pledge should focus on unity rather than religion.

Angela Denker 11-11-2014
Jaret Benson / CreationSwap.com

Jaret Benson / CreationSwap.com

I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!

Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!

Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!

Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!


As the pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on — almost thoughtlessly — to our invitation cards and mailings as well.

It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: “All Are Welcome!”

And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, singles, 20-somethings — at times the church has been downright discriminatory.

A friend of mine once told me he was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches. They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay, the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."

Thanks be to God, my friend didn't give up his search or lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.

But too many of us have these stories: The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.

Fortunately, many churches became aware of the way they had been contradicting the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).

As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ‘ALL ARE WELCOME’ to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."

Stephen Mattson 09-30-2014
via CreationSwap.com

via CreationSwap.com

Faith is a journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress filled with mistakes, learning, humble interactions, and life-changing events. Here are a few things I would do differently if I could go back and start over:

1. I wouldn't worry about having the right answers.

There’s a misconception that the Bible is the Ultimate Answer Book and Christianity is a divine encyclopedia presenting the solutions to life’s biggest questions. In reality, the Christian faith is about a relationship with Christ instead of an academic collection of right or wrong doctrines.

Rather than wasting time, energy, and resources on superficial theological issues — I would focus more of getting to know Jesus. Never let a desire for “being right” obstruct your love for Christ.

Wedding-related businesses graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center/RNS.

More Americans today say religion’s influence is losing ground just when they want it to play a stronger role in public life and politics.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds 72 percent of Americans say religion’s influence is declining in society — the highest percentage since Pew began measuring the trend in 2001, when only 52 percent held that view.

“Most people (overwhelmingly Christians) view this as a bad thing,” said Greg Smith, associate director of Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project. “That unhappiness may be behind their desire for more religion and politics.”

Growing numbers want their politicians to pray in public and for their clergy to endorse candidates from the pulpit. And nearly half of Americans say business owners with religious objections to gay marriage should to be able to refuse wedding-related services to same-sex couples.

There are three ways to look at the findings, released Sept. 22:

 

Cindy Brandt 08-18-2014
via CreationSwap.com

via CreationSwap.com

It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.

Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.

Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.

I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.

I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.

I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.

It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.

Joe Kay 08-11-2014
MJTH / Shutterstock.com

MJTH / Shutterstock.com

I was privileged to attend the ordination of a friend recently. For the first time, Michelle got to say the blessing over the bread, to break the bread and to give it to all of us with her hands.

Many tears, much joy.

As she handed me a small piece of the bigger loaf, I was reminded of how we, like the communion bread, are in the hands of others for so much of our lives. And how religion can be a thing of so much good or so much pain, depending upon whose hands it is in.

In the right hands, it’s a pathway to the divine. In the wrong hands …

It’s important that we always differentiate between religion and God. The two are distinct. God is always much bigger than any and all of our religions.

Cindy Brandt 08-11-2014
Robsonphoto/ Shutterstock.com

Robsonphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I went to the mecca of evangelicalism for college — beautiful campus in the suburbs of Chicago, where I received a scholarship from none other than the Pope of Evangelicalism, Billy Graham, for my work in street evangelism. As in, speaking to random strangers on the street in order to convert them to Christianity. Post graduation, I became a missionary, the Protestant equivalent of achieving sainthood.

I look back on that girl on fire and marvel at her earnest faith. If I could, I would reach back and massage the tense knots out of her high-strung shoulders, weary from carrying the weight of her neighbors’ eternal destinies. I would wistfully explain to her that the first person she tried to witness to, that gentle, drunken, homeless woman named Kathy, needed more than my rehearsed Roman Road to salvation. Then I would break the Temporal Prime Directive and reveal to her that one day she would become more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing.

The truth is, I’m just better at being evangelized. It’s probably how I was so easily converted at the tender age of 12. The young Christian is expected to learn how to share their testimony: their story of how God changes your life. By the time I was in my twenties, I had given my testimony a bajillion times.

But my own story often bored me.

Tom Ehrich 07-15-2014
iluistrator and Visual Idiot/Shutterstock.com

iluistrator and Visual Idiot/Shutterstock.com

If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?

We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.

In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?

So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.

Cindy Brandt 07-15-2014
soliman design/Shutterstock.com

We can respond to online discussions with love or hate. soliman design/Shutterstock.com

The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence. 

There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight. 

Lisa Sharon Harper 07-14-2014
Irish countryside, Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock.com

Irish countryside, Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock.com

“If, as Christians, we believe that peace is rooted in Christ, then how we build that peace within us, in one way, is through the disciplines of solitude and silence; through spending time with God. Solitude is not necessarily extremely easy process, because it will bring to the fore all sorts of things that are within us. We will get to know ourselves in a fuller way. In solitude, where you know that God is with you, you can just be with God, and there is no need for a mask. Also, your humility might grow because you will see yourself as you really are — in a way that needs to be healed and transformed.”

 
Christian Piatt 06-30-2014
via Wild Goose on Facebook

via Wild Goose on Facebook

We’re headed home from Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of artists, activists, musicians, and theologians, in Hot Springs, N.C. It was hot, rainy, and messy. My suitcase smells like my fifth grade gym locker.

I can’t wait to go back next year.

The speakers are remarkable; many of them are walking the talk they’re offering, which is an unfortunately rare phenomenon. The music is fresh and exciting, the art is created before your eyes, and there is an energy of hopeful expectation that renews your soul, flushing out the broken-down-ness of daily life.

But the most important part of the whole four-day event lies in the unexpected moments. Sometimes I would walk along the main dirt road in the middle of the grounds, lined with tables, tents, and makeshift gathering spaces, until I saw something interesting going on and just joined in.

In one moment you’re debating the theological implications of the American food-industrial complex. Half an hour later, you’re laughing with new friends in the beer tent. And then, just when the sun sets and you’re sure you lack the fortitude to go one any more, the music on the main stage cranks up and the very earth beneath you vibrates.

Suzanne Ross 06-25-2014
Bible, Sabphoto/ Shutterstock.com

Bible, Sabphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??

That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.

Stephen Mattson 06-23-2014
Smiling child,  mimagephotography / Shutterstock.com

Smiling child, mimagephotography / Shutterstock.com

It’s easy for the faith of children to go unnoticed. But here are four spiritual things kids do better than adults:

They Ask Questions:

Nobody asks more — or better — questions than children. “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” and “Why?” are expressions patented by kids everywhere. They’re obnoxiously curious and want to know everything about everything.

They aren’t afraid to ask the most difficult and messy questions. Too often we mistake spiritual maturity for certainty, and lose our thirst for discovery. Kids remind us how to approach God — truthfully, stubbornly, inquisitively, and tirelessly.

 
06-05-2014
The kidnapping of the school girls was a crime for sure, but one against humanity and not against any perceived god as mentioned here; “It’s a blasphemy against God, and people of faith of all traditions should renounce his words” - Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners. Mr. Wallis, a Christian, made a joint statement with a Muslim, Dalia Mogahed. Chairman and CEO of Mogahed Consulting; “As a Christian and a Muslim we believe in a god who hears prayer. A god of justice. People everywhere should pray against the work of these men.”
Joe Kay 06-02-2014

A grandfather and grandson play chess. Image courtesy imtmphoto/shutterstock.com

You can smile at someone, but you can’t really smile with someone until you’ve cried with them, too. Shared their pain, their doubts, their questions, their uncertainty, even their despair. And their joy as well, those moments when your eyes fill with tears for a different reason. You end up smiling together with tear-stained cheeks. And those smiles matter the most.    

Kevin Eckstrom 05-22-2014

Supporters of gay marriage rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 27, 2013. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

What a difference 10 years makes.

In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Six months later, with dire warnings about schoolchildren being forced to read “Heather Has Two Mommies” and threats of legalized polygamy, so-called “values voters” passed bans on same-sex marriage in 11 states and ushered George W. Bush to another four years in the White House.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the cultural and legal landscape could hardly be more different. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, and federal courts have struck down bans in 11 more states. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages after ditching a central portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act last year, and 44 percent of Americans now live in states that allow same-sex marriage.

After four same-sex couples filed suit Wednesday challenging Montana’s ban on same-sex marriage, neighboring North Dakota is the only state that isn’t facing a challenge to its gay marriage ban — at least not yet.

So what changed?

by Michael Fleshman

Hudreds gather at Union Square in New York City on May 3 to demand the release of Nigerian schoolgirls, by Michael Fleshman

The brutal abduction of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has stunned and outraged the world. A violent organization called Boko Haram, and its leader Abubakar Shekau, took credit for the kidnapping more than 300 female students from their classrooms at gunpoint, from a government-run school in Chibok, on April 14. In his subsequent video, the smiling terrorist leader told the world they would sell the teenage girls “into the marketplace” or forced marriages; in his latest, he claims the girls have converted to Islam. Shekau has claimed that God told him to do all of this. That is a lie. It is an abomination. It is a blasphemy against God, and people of faith from all traditions should denounce his words.

Invoking the name of God to justify human barbarity is a painfully tragic and an ongoing occurrence. If hearing these lies about God breaks our hearts, we can only imagine they must also break the heart of God. As the Qur’an warns, “Who is more unjust than he who lies against God?” This kind of blasphemy often derives from extreme religious fanaticism that can be found in all of our faith traditions — those who pervert, abuse, and use the language of religion for fear, hate, and power. These self-proclaimed religious leaders must be utterly denounced as false and human abominations of religion and must be publically condemned and held accountable by faith communities around the world.

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