God Made Our Brains to Need Others

Both science and Scripture invite us to share our suffering.

As psychiatrist Curt Thompson has written, “To be human is to be vulnerable.” Suffering disinters vulnerability, illuminating a feature of our humanity we’d often rather ignore.

Some of us are forced to confront our vulnerability when tragedy strikes, when natural disasters hit, or when relationships crumble. For me, vulnerability crept up from within my own flesh and bone. Nearly nine years ago I became ill with a disease that would come to dominate my adult life. Everything turned out so different from what my 20-year-old self imagined. But in a life of changed plans, disappointments, and medical bills, the biggest surprise has been the joy.

I know it sounds strange. Chronic health conditions bring pain, suffering, and frustration—circumstances we feel powerless to control. My autoimmune disease continuously forces me into a position of vulnerability before others, allowing others to see the powerlessness I would rather keep hidden. In the exposure of learning to receive love in my most broken places, I have found the deepest joy.

Joy has come in unlikely venues, like the dingy cottage where my husband and I moved after placing his seminary education on hold to attend to my declining health. Due to joint pain, I struggled to walk across our home and do basic things like cook dinner or clean up the dishes. In the midst of my shame and humiliation, small acts of compassion stood out that much more.

One day a friend stopped by after she finished work to say hello. As she sat next to me on the couch, all I could do was weep. I was drowning in the sorrow of uncertainty, worried my life would never improve, but she wordlessly comforted me by coexisting with my suffering. By letting her see me undone, I realized …

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Bivocational Ministry as an Evangelism Opportunity

One-third of American pastors are bivocational.

One of the most vital yet understudied streams of church ministers is the bivocational pastor. This is that pastor who, either out of necessity or intentionality, works as both the pastor of a local church and in the secular marketplace.

Already, more than one-third of all American pastors are bivocational, and this number will probably grow.

Bivocational ministry offers a great opportunity for evangelism. Bivocational pastors are uniquely positioned to live out their pastoral calling as the lead missionary to their local community. As a well-equipped and gifted emissary of the gospel, these ministers can lead their congregations by demonstrating the power of evangelism to build the local church.

In a mission field that has rapidly become the most unchurched culture in its history, bivocational pastors are on the frontlines of gospel witness.

In focusing on how bivocational pastoring can facilitate effective evangelism, I will first argue that full-time ministry can potentially hamper cultural engagement. In light of these challenges, I will outline the role of bivocational pastors in leading the church into a season of fruitful evangelism.

The Challenge of Pastoral Evangelism

Evangelism is the work of testifying to the world of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ with the aim of converting those who aren’t trusting in Christ to repentance. This, of course, demands that we actually engage those individuals and communities we are trying to reach with the good news.

For most people, the proximity that we find in a work environment is an important outlet for evangelism.

Ironically, despite their call to lead in evangelism, church pastors are limited in this respect. Even as full-time pastors may desire to reach those who don’t …

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Willow Creek Chooses Co-Ed Pastors to Succeed Bill Hybels

Megachurch becomes biggest in America to appoint a female lead pastor.

Since “no one person can replace” Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels, the influential megachurch has named two people: its current executive pastor Heather Larson and teaching pastor Steve Carter.

Hybels announced on Saturday that the pair will succeed him as lead pastors when he steps down in October 2018.

The historic transition will make Willow Creek one of the largest churches in America with a woman in the lead pastor position, as well as the only major evangelical megachurch with male-female lead pastors who aren’t married.

“When we saw this shaping up, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Can our congregation have a lead pastor that’s a woman?,’” said Hybels, speaking from Willow Creek’s central campus in South Barrington, Illinois, one of seven locations in the Chicago region that draw a collective total of 25,000 worshippers each weekend. “And because this is a deeply held value in our church, we said, ‘No problem.’”

Larson will be lead pastor, overseeing Willow Creek’s 400-person staff and $77 million budget, and Carter will be lead teaching pastor, continuing to preach most weeks.

The news comes amid Willow Creek’s six-year succession plan for the megachurch, which was founded in 1975 and has grown to rank among the 10 biggest in America. The 65-year-old pastor joins a wave of greying leaders who have opted to go public with their leadership transition, as Hybels first disclosed at the church’s 2012 Global Leadership Summit.

“We know that no one person can replace Bill,” Larson said in an interview on the Unseminary podcast last year. “That has led Willow to talk about moving to more of a team approach …

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Whatever Became of Repentance?

How we can change the angry cultural debates online and in church.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have posted 95 theses, or “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,” on the door of All Saints Church. The professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg was proposing an academic debate about indulgences—the practice of doing good works or offering money in order to remove punishment for sin.

Luther was disturbed by how indulgences encouraged people to pay for forgiveness rather than repent. Instead, Luther argued (as the first thesis notes): “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

That is as hard to swallow today as it was then. We are not the first to notice how absent the theme of repentance is today. Karl Menninger’s 1988 bestseller Whatever Became of Sin? could have easily included a sequel, Whatever Became of Repentance?

It only seems absent, however, because today we are quick to point out the failings, the foolishness, the prejudice, and the evil of others. When a leader or a group transgresses against the reigning political orthodoxy (whatever it might be at the moment), there are angry calls to retract or repudiate what has been said, along with demands for re-education or dismissal. We take some “sins” very seriously and insist the offenders “repent.” We just don’t use those words.

To honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we Christians might insist anew that the whole life of the Christian is indeed about repentance. Jesus began his ministry with such a call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17), and repentance is the key note in the early church’s …

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The Cynic’s Guide to Sin

We’re not surprised when people fail us. But should we be?

Wickedness should not surprise us. A robust view of sin prepares us for the reality that institutions grow corrupt, politicians fudge promises, and even within the church folks gossip, cheat, and lie. Pastors fall. None of this is new.

It’s important to maintain a healthy realism about humanity’s moral potential. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out after World War II in Creed or Chaos?, “The people who are most discouraged are those who cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment.” The brutality of the war, she said, was “the utter negation of everything they believed.” Meanwhile, those who held a doctrine of original sin were better prepared to cope—sinners acting like sinners was no crushing blow.

Still, much of the news in 2017 has threatened to push my realism in the direction of cynicism. Everywhere I look, I find myself tempted to offer the most cynical take on my neighbors. Their votes? Myopic self-preservation. Their social media posts? Virtue-signaling. Their silence? Cowardice. When they change their minds? It must be cultural capitulation.

Even within the church, there seems to be an increasing temptation to believe the worst of others. On edge and distrustful, we are tempted to wash our hands of each other altogether. Why risk the struggle for unity in the body when we’re just going to get burned?

Included in Scripture as a sort of minority report, the Teacher’s philosophy feels right for such cynical times: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecc. 7:20). Fools abound and prosper, the righteous die, and on top of that, even the “righteous” …

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I Never Became Straight. Perhaps That Was Never God’s Goal.

Why I embraced the Bible’s sexual ethic before I understood it.

This is not a story of being gay and becoming straight.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to the beginning. My parents met at a gay nightclub in San Francisco. My mother just wanted a safe place to dance. My father was the security guard. He abandoned my mother and me after abusing both of us physically. I didn’t even know he existed until I was 10, by which time my mother had remarried.

Growing up, I had no bedtime I can remember. I was allowed to watch horror movies at a young age. When it came to sex, nothing was hidden. There were jokes and stories and, when I was 10, I helped my mother clip images from an adult magazine for a bachelorette party.

At 14, I met my first boyfriend. We laughed at each other’s jokes, watched similar shows, and got along easily. But before long he and I broke up, as teenagers do.

A year later, I met my first girlfriend in an AP European history class. She was a senior, beautiful and popular. Since I excelled in the class, she asked me to come over and help her study. When we met at her house, something was different. Conversation flowed easily, rapidly, unexpectedly. I was struck by her beauty. The attraction felt like what other girls described feeling for a boy.

Over the next week, I began wondering, “Is it okay to feel this way about a girl?” I was vaguely familiar with the notion that church folk condemned such things, but as I tried puzzling out why, I came up empty. Little could I imagine ever understanding the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, let alone submitting to it.

The First Kiss

I set myself a goal: Before this girl went to college, she would kiss me. I lied about my sexual history, placed myself strategically in her path, and …

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An Innocent Black Man Forgave the Crooked White Cop Who Framed Him

And that’s good news—but not cause for ignoring larger patterns of injustice.

Forgiveness can get a bad rap. Especially when race is involved. In a nation built on the backs of enslaved Africans—and on the white supremacy that justified it—no interaction between a white man with power and a black man without it is ever just an isolated, inspiring story about the power of forgiveness.

Yet that’s the premise of Convicted: A Crooked Cop, an Innocent Man, and an Unlikely Journey of Forgiveness and Friendship. Told through the first-person reflections of former “bad cop” Andrew Collins and the innocent black man, Jameel McGee, who spent four years in federal prison due to Collins’s wrongful arrest of him, the book follows their unlikely friendship—forged in the furnace of forgiveness.

McGee was living in poverty-stricken Benton Harbor, Michigan, when he asked a relative’s crack-carrying friend to give him a ride to the store to buy milk for his baby son. Waiting nearby was narcotics officer Andrew Collins, who routinely planted evidence and falsified his police reports to help secure convictions of poor black men like McGee. His motive? Looking good to fellow officers.

As Collins attests, “I had become a monster, not out of greed or zeal or my questionable tactics or lack of integrity. No, I fell into the abyss because I was weighed down by pride.”

This can be frustrating to read. True, Collins was caught and received a 37-month sentence (later reduced to 18 months.) The innocent McGee spent four years in prison. But even after his release, the phony drug conviction shackled him. Demoralized, jobless, penniless, and homeless, he would sleep in a relative’s car, enduring freezing Michigan nights. He was nearly suicidal before a loving aunt pointed …

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The Mainliner Who Made Me More Evangelical

How Frederick Buechner changed the course of Russell Moore’s life.

Years ago, I found myself sitting at the dinner table of one of my literary heroes, Wendell Berry, on his farm in Henry County, Kentucky.

At the end of the evening, Berry made it clear it was time for me to go by saying something along the lines of, “Well, it’s been good to have you.” I couldn’t leave, though, without telling the agrarian novelist and poet how much his writing had meant to me—while attempting to sound like a Christian academic rather than a giddy fanboy. His response was less a thank-you than a benediction.

“Isn’t it something, how we get what we need at just the right time?” he said. “The right book comes along at just the right time. The right friend comes along at just the right time. The right conversation comes along at just the right time. It’s grace.”

His words left me bursting with gratitude, but not only—or even primarily—for Berry. As I left his farm, I couldn’t help thinking of two authors who came along right when I needed them: C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner.

Lewis won’t come as a surprise to most of my fellow conservative evangelicals (even though we occasionally disagree with some of his theological positions). Many of us have the same story—of walking through the old man’s wardrobe into mere Christianity and an intellectually defensible Christian theism. But Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) is a little harder for some in my tribe to get. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like one of us. He came to embrace his Christian calling not at a Billy Graham crusade, but in the Sunday services of New York modernist George Buttrick. Buechner studied for ministry at Union Theological Seminary, haunt …

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Atheists Again Get Pastors’ Best Benefit Ruled Unconstitutional

Freedom From Religion Foundation wins first round of rematch over $800 million clergy housing allowance.

Once again, a federal judge has declared that the longstanding clergy housing allowance violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Offered only to “ministers of the gospel,” the 60-year-old tax break excludes the rental value of a home from the taxable income of US clergy. It’s the “most important tax benefit available to ministers,” according to GuideStone Financial Resources.

It’s also the biggest: American ministers currently avail themselves of the tax break to the tune of $800 million a year, according to the latest estimate by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

Wisconsin district judge Barbara Crabb first ruled against the housing allowance in 2013, finding that the second part of Section 107 of the IRS tax code provides “a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.” Her ruling “sen[t] shockwaves through the religious community,” the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability stated at the time.

But an appeals court overturned her decision in 2014, ruling that the atheist plaintiffs from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) was not sufficiently harmed by the tax break to challenge it in court.

The most “fascinating turn” in the legal fight was when the Department of Justice defended the housing allowance by arguing that atheist leaders qualify as “ministers of the gospel” and could claim the exemption for themselves.

However, the IRS disagreed. The FFRF changed how it compensates its leaders to match the housing allowances that churches give pastors, and sued again when its co-presidents were denied the tax …

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Hypocrisy on Display in Hollywood and in Politics: Responding with Anger and Humility

Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy. Even the thought of it makes most of us cringe.

And boy was it on display this week on the right and on the left.

For example, Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual harasser and an abuser of power. Yes, Weinstein created a foundation to support “…women’s rights, more women directors, the National Endowment of the Arts. I’m going to finance a lot of it privately.”

It appears that was not all he was doing privately.

Weinstein spoke of women’s rights while depriving them of their dignity.

As the father of daughters—actually, as a human—I’m disgusted.

Now, he is more than a hypocrite, but he’s been outed as a hypocrite, with a decades long track record of sexual harassment and assault. Weinstein, one of the most influential producers in Hollywood—whose company is responsible for major films including The King’s Speech—and a prominent Democratic donor, issued an apology and resignation almost immediately. However, the situation remains ambiguous moving forward.

In a parallel plot line that could be straight out of Shakespeare, this week witnessed an equally precipitous fall by Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. An outspoken critic of abortion, Murphy was revealed to have not only been involved in a long-term extramarital affair, but had actually pressured his mistress to have an abortion.

As someone who cares about the lives of women and unborn children, Murphy infuriates me with his hypocrisy.

What Rep. Murphy’s resignation is for the right, Weinstein’s is for the left. Both of these are painful reminders that sin and depravity do not follow party lines, but are ingrained in the human condition.

What we are seeing here is hypocrisy, pure and …

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