Category Archives: Faith

Why Religious Conversion Is More Than Joining a Church

A Muslim man once confidently told me that everyone born in the United States is a Christian, unless his family is Muslim or Jewish. I did not ask him what that means for people from Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, or Baha’i families, nor did I ask what it meant for people who intentionally convert to one of these religions later in life.

A convert is, simply, a person who has been converted – that is, a person who has chosen to be altered or transformed. In religious conversion, a person who believed certain things about God and existence comes to believe other things and adjusts his or her life accordingly.

I know little about the way other religions view conversion or the expectations they consider appropriate for converts. If they are anything like those placed on Christian converts, they vary widely from group to group. Among the many groups that claim allegiance to Jesus, some require only a verbal profession of faith. Others expect regular church attendance, participation in instructional classes, and personal accountability in an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor.

Whether a simple confession or many months of intensive training, most Christian groups see the process of conversion culminating in the admission of the prospective convert into the church family, usually at baptism. This, I think, is a mistake, which does not serve the convert or the church, and does not align well with the biblical data on the nature of transformation. Continue reading

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Nostalgia and Faith: Can They Coexist?

No one needs faith for something that has already happened. Faith, by its nature, requires a future component, a measure of uncertainty. In situations where there is no uncertainty – the package has already arrived, as promised, the test has been scored – faith is superfluous.

Does this imply that people of faith, like myself, will not be nostalgic, since nostalgia is about the settled past and faith is about the unsettled future? I hope not, because I sometimes wax nostalgic, particularly around the holidays. I remember winter mornings when my brother and I would run out on the front porch in our bare feet to retrieve the foil-topped bottles the milkman had left. We’d pour ourselves a glass, then chew the frozen milk crystals that collected on the top.

Such memories are pleasant to me. Nostalgia is not about times of loneliness and sorrow, but about times of peace and camaraderie. The past I remember seems simpler, gentler, and more manageable. Unlike the future, the past never incites fear.

When the term “nostalgia” first came into use in the 17th century, it denoted a kind of mental illness. The doctor who coined the term described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” It was thought to be a type of home-sickness – the term coming from the Greek roots for “returning home” and for “pain.”

In recent years, however, social scientists have discovered various benefits that accompany nostalgia. Continue reading

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Why Your Christmas Celebration Should Be More Exuberant

The Church has historically celebrated twelve days of Christmas, beginning with the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, and lasting until January 5. The very next day is the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Roman Church, the feast days include the Feast of St. Stephen, of St. John the Apostle, of the Holy Innocents and more.

But consider what has happened in modern times. The celebration of Christmas has been turned upside down and backwards. In the past, Christmas Day began a twelve-day period of feasting, celebration, and worship. Now, Christmas day is the final and, perhaps, only day of celebration. By December 26th, the wrapping paper is discarded, the unwanted presents returned, and people are back to haunting online and brick and mortar stores for bargains. In other words, they’re back to life as usual.

The Christmas celebration ends too soon, but it also begins to soon – just after Halloween. Christmas’s center of gravity has moved from worship to spending, with the result that people worry more and celebrate less. The big questions revolving around Christmas no longer have to do with God but with economic forecasts for the shopping season. Analysts do not know whether the Savior’s birth will save us from sin – they may not even care – but they are hopeful it will save us from an economic downturn. Continue reading

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Invited to the Dance of Grace

In 2018, MarketWatch reported that the average Christmas shopper racked up $1054 of debt. If that average shopper made minimum payments on his or her credit card, it would take approximately six years to retire their Christmas debt.
It seems, according to statistics reported in Investopedia, that experts expect the average American to spend more this Christmas than the average American expects to spend. This means that millions of American who are still trying to pay off debts from previous Christmases will once again be adding to their debt load.
The old adage, “You can’t spend what you don’t have,” turns out to be less than the whole truth. Unless our payments are late, card is maxed, or credit is revoked, we can spend what we don’t have – for a while.
Is credit extended in other areas of life? For example, can a piano student play beyond what she has practiced – can she play on credit? If she has put in 50 hours of practice, can she play with 200 hours of experience? Can she borrow on what she does not yet have?
What about in the spiritual realm? Can I spend compassion that I don’t have? What about wisdom? Discernment? Will I have endurance that I have not bought through the testing of faith in times of trial? Is there any credit extended in the spiritual realm or is it strictly pay as you go?
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Man Forgives His Brother’s Killer

The reporter’s “cultural” explanation also fails to explain similar acts of forgiveness. Who can forget the forgiveness offered by Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to the white supremacist killer Dylan Roof? Then there was the multi-colored Jamrowski family in El Paso who forgave the man who went to Walmart to kill Latinos. And some of us remember Corrie Ten Boom, who forgave her Nazi guard after the deaths of her sister and parents and her own terrible mistreatment in Ravensbrück.
People don’t understand it – this remarkable forgiveness. Some are angered by it. But sooner or later people will come to recognize it. It is the mark of the forgiven people of Jesus. Continue reading

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God and the “Do Not Call Registry”

People in our church received phone calls, reputedly from the IRS or law enforcement, to inform them they would be arrested within the next few hours because of their tax debt. After setting their hair on fire with threats of arrest, the caller offered to put the fire out. They could avoid arrest and jail time by making the minimum payment required by the IRS. A means for delivery of payment was detailed.
Those calls are, of course, a scam. The receiver’s Caller ID has been “spoofed” and the number of the real caller hidden. A fake, and frequently local, number appears on the caller ID. I’ve even received a call the phone display indicated was coming from me.
The FCC encourages Americans to hang up as soon as they realize they’ve answered an unwanted call. Even better, they recommend not taking the call at all, unless one recognizes the number on the Caller ID.
I registered our phone on the “National Do Not Call Registry,” thinking that would give me some leverage with telemarketers, but we still receive numerous calls each day, often from spoofed Caller ID numbers. I used to stay on the line, wait for a real person, and then tell them that I am on the ‘Do Not Call” registry and politely ask that my name be removed from their database.
That used to work. Not anymore. The last few times I’ve waited for a real person to whom I could make my request, the caller hung up as soon as he heard the words, “I’m on the …” I didn’t even get the chance to finish the sentence. A lot of good it did to get on the registry. Continue reading

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Religion Is Not a Shortcut

When religion is transformed from a response of faith in the God of heaven into an instrument for getting things done on earth, it is disfigured. It may retain the accoutrements of true religion – ritual, liturgy, personal prayer, offerings – but its essential nature has been altered. It preserves “the form of godliness,” as the Apostle Paul put it, while “denying its power.”
For as long as people have been religious – which is to say, for as along as there have been people – this has been a problem. When God ceases to be “the Beginning and the End” and becomes the means to an end, religion becomes a merely human tool.
There are illustrations of this phenomenon in the Bible itself. One particularly revealing instance happened early in the history of the nation of Israel. The Hebrews first identified as a distinct people group during the centuries they spent in Egypt. After their escape from Egyptian oppression and their migration to a suitable homeland, Israel operated under divinely given laws, summarized in what we know as the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments themselves were engraved on two stone tablets and kept in a specially made and ornately decorated box known as the Ark of the Covenant. (Think Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The ark, which was considered sacred, was only to be moved by religious professionals and was never to be directly touched.
As sometimes happens with items of treasured status, people began to think of the ark superstitiously, as if the box itself possessed inherent power. So, when Israel’s war against the Philistine kingdoms began to go poorly, someone floated the idea that the ark could be used to rally the troops, bring God’s favor, and win the war.
The immediate effect of bringing the ark into battle was everything Israel’s leaders had hoped for. Their soldiers were inspired and their enemies were intimidated. But it is dangerous to try to use God as a means to an end, no matter how important the end. The Philistine armies crushed Israel’s troops, forced them to retreat, and captured the ark.
Continue reading

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Do you have a religious preference?

“Do you have a religious preference?” That is what the nurse asked after leading me to the exam room where I was to meet the doctor. There were other questions I wasn’t expecting, questions health care professionals ask nowadays, like: “Do you feel safe in your own home?” But it was the question about religious preference that struck me.
It sounded so odd. “Do you have a religious preference?” as if religion was sold at Baskin-Robbins and comes in thirty-one flavors. Maybe I should have asked her to put down the religious flavor of the month.
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Why Bother? The Problem of Prayer

Why should people bother to pray? For many people, both religious and irreligious, this question does not seem to have a satisfactory answer. They still pray when desperate – who doesn’t? – but even then, they can’t see the sense in it. If God already knows everything that is going to happen, if he has already decided what he is going to do, our prayers are irrelevant.
One way Christians have responded to this problem is to say, “We don’t pray to change what is going to happen but to change ourselves,” but this answer seems quite inadequate. If nothing changes because of our prayers, then, perforce, the person praying does not change either. If prayer can change the person praying, then it can change other things too. Continue reading

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The Millennials Migration from the Faith

Another young, prominent Evangelical Christian has left the fold. Joshua Harris was 21 years old when he wrote, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Since being published in 1997, his book has sold over a million copies and has been hailed by conservatives for its guidance in navigating relationships with the opposite sex. Last year, Harris renounced the book. This year, he renounced the faith.

Harris joins other high-profile Evangelical millennials in the flight from faith. Non-Evangelical millennials are also leaving – a recent study suggests more than half are already gone – but they are more likely to drift from the faith quietly, not buzz the deck as they fly away. When people like Harris – people who have made a name for themselves precisely because they were Evangelicals – leave the faith, they make headlines. Depressing headlines.

Why are we seeing this exodus of young Christians, Evangelical and otherwise? Why is it happening now, at this point in history? Can anything be done to turn it around? Continue reading

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