Christian Parents and Schools Have 529 Reasons to Like New Tax Law

A Q+A on how college savings plans can now be used to pay for private K-12 tuition.

Parents now have another way to save for Christian school tuition—and this one comes with tax benefits.

Thanks to the GOP-led tax reforms, the 529 college savings vehicle—so named for the relevant section of the Internal Revenue Code—can now also be used to save money to pay tuition at any “elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school.”

CT spoke to George Tryfiates, director for government affairs at the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), to find out how it works. His office worked for months on this small section of the tax bill by visiting legislators, joining coalitions, and generating almost 9,000 calls to Congress, President Donald Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence from the ACSI community.

How did this come about?

Trump made such a priority of parental choice in education during his campaign that, immediately after his election, people began working on school choice proposals in earnest. All the ideas people have had over the years—education savings accounts, Title 1 portability, tax credit scholarships—got new life. So did expanding the 529 savings accounts.

How does a 529 savings plan work?

The 529 savings plans were created by a federal law but are administered by the states, so the benefits can be twofold—in other words, from both federal and state taxes (depending on the state).

Parents create and put money into a 529 account, which is then invested in stocks and bonds, more like a 403(b) or a 401(k) than a bank savings account. They can select their level of risk: perhaps choosing a plan that invests in higher-risk options with higher rates of return for a child in first grade, then switching to safer options such as bonds as a child …

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Rural Fish Bowl

Pastor Dad needs to be just Dad.

Growing up in a rural town, I came to understand the lack of privacy just by picking up the local newspaper. Our local gossip column was called “Out and About.” It kept everyone in the loop of how many ladies made it to bridge club that week and that Ida Hayes was absent due to a cold.

Holidays were always a little more interesting because of folks coming to visit. Every time my aunt came down from Kansas City, it was big news! I remember reading my pastor’s name in this section on a regular basis. He had been “out and about” delivering groceries, meeting for coffee, or praying for the meal at the fire hall fundraiser.

As he was my mentor, I was destined to do the same. As a young 20-something youth pastor, I went to the Assisted Living Center to have coffee and lead a Bible study. Sure enough, I would be in the news. I thought it was cool because I was meeting the expectations of the community and they all knew it.

Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that those expectations would be placed on my wife and my children. It has been a harsh reality-check and weight that I hate they have to bear. It seems like it’s magnified in a small town.

My daughter is a sophomore in high school and has always been very responsible, helpful, and smart. Teachers often tell us that she’s a leader among her peers. However, this past semester has been a challenge of a different kind.

Although she attends a public school, God and his provisions are often referenced in literature class. Every time religion or spiritual topics come up, many students (and even the teacher) look to her for the answers. After all, she is the pastor’s daughter so obviously she would be the expert on the subject.

Not only …

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Why the US Thinks Restricting International Adoptions Will Save Them

Experts debate State Department strategy to let the little children come less.

Last fall, America’s only active accreditor of international adoption agencies quit.

The Council on Accreditation (COA) protested that the US State Department was requiring “significant changes” that would likely reduce the already record-low number of intercountry adoptions, put small adoption providers out of business, and prohibit prospective parents from pursuing such adoptions.

However, the State Department argues that the changes in question aren’t changes at all. Officials point back to a 2008 agreement by the United States to adhere to the Hague Adoption Convention, an international attempt to regulate intercountry adoptions.

“We came to realize there were pieces of the regulation that were not being enforced,” a State Department official, who requested anonymity, told CT. Making sure the Hague laws are followed is crucial for helping foreign countries entrust their children to American parents, she said.

That was the motivation behind a set of proposed regulatory revisions which included a “country-specific authorization” in order to work in some countries, beefed-up training for adoptive parents, and a record of all financial transactions with foreign service providers.

The changes were meant to be part of “proactive efforts to maintain intercountry adoption as a viable option for children in need of permanency around the world,” the State Department stated in its spring report to Congress. For example, introducing country-specific authorization means that not all agencies have to get authorized for all countries.

But almost no one else in the adoption community saw it that way. A petition to immediately withdraw the proposed rules garnered more than 27,000 …

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The New View of Heaven Is Too Small

Our recent emphasis on “kingdom work” misses the real hope of the afterlife.

Heaven isn’t what it used to be.

A friend of mine’s favorite Sunday school song growing up was “Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit,” the first verse of which goes, “Dwell in me, O Blessed Spirit, Gracious Teacher, Friend Divine. For the home of bliss that waits me, O prepare this heart of mine.” But my friend, Laura Smit, who is now a theology professor at Calvin College, notes that this song is now revised in the hymnal to read “For the kingdom work that calls me, O prepare this heart of mine.” Apparently, those revising the song worried that speaking of the “home of bliss that waits me” leads to otherworldly passivity. Rather than prepare our hearts for the “home of bliss” in the age to come, we should focus on “the kingdom work that calls me.”

This revision reflects the broader trend of evangelical scholars and pastors countering a wispy, ethereal view of heaven, separated from our present life. Rather than use “rapture” movies to scare non-Christians into faith so they are delivered from the burning earth, these evangelicals insist that Christian hope is not for the annihilation of the earth, but the restoration of all creation to service of the Lord. Our heavenly hope is that the Lord sets things right, and heaven comes to earth. Our kingdom work now anticipates the new creation to come, in which we reign with King Jesus in the renewed creation.

I embrace the main features of this counter-narrative to the rapture account. Redemption restores God’s good creation. Heavenly hope involves a material, embodied restoration. Heaven and earth will come together as Christ’s kingship is recognized by all creation. Moreover, we …

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God’s Message on ‘Ash Valentine’s Day’: True Love Dies

When the first day of Lent falls on a romantic holiday, love and death meet up.

Today, on Valentine’s Day, while the world is bedecked with schmaltzy red and pink hearts, I will stand before kneeling members of my congregation and tell them that they are going to die. This, without a doubt, is among the most punk rock things I have ever done.

For the first time in 45 years, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, a liturgical feast day commemorating not one but two martyrdoms. The holiday—in old English, hāligdæg, or “holy day”—has been scrubbed of its bloody beginnings and now finds its chief significance in market share and revenue generation. (Houston Asset Management tracked 2017’s Valentine sales as just over $18 billion in their yearly “Cost of Loving” index.)

With its declaration of human finitude and mortality, Ash Wednesday is always counter-cultural, but when it falls on the very day that chalky candy hearts proclaim “Be Mine,” “Wink Wink,” and (my favorite) “U R A 10,” the contrast is particularly stark.

Though I generally never turn down any excuse to eat chocolate, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the way we Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, with its trite mushiness and overcrowded restaurants (not to mention the inevitable pro- and anti-Valentine’s Day hot takes). So there’s a goth little rebel in me that relishes the opportunity to preside over such a radically alternative event. As a priest, I’ll remind my congregation that however much we ignore the human condition, we are, in fact, dust and to dust we shall return (Ecc. 3:20).
Themes of love and death are entwined chronologically in this “Ash Valentine’s Day,” and they’re deeply connected …

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Christian Unity in Ashes

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for Christians from many traditions to come together and recognize our need for Jesus.

E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

A Day for Humility

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

We each live subject to the human constraints of death, weakness, sin, shame, and pain. The ashes remind us that we are but fleeting flowers in a field, here today and gone tomorrow. The rest of the year we may be tempted to mask, hide, deny, or run away from our constraints. Perhaps, we think, we can undo our weakness. Or maybe …

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Baptism Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive

Despite our different methods, we’re all immersed in the same Christ.

The first time I heard the phrase “the waters that divide” as a way of describing baptism, I didn’t get the joke. It had never occurred to me to think that way. Admittedly, I was christened as a baby and then baptized at age 14, so in some ways, my own life embodies this “division.” Yet for all our disagreements on baptism, and for all the draconian ways in which our ancestors sometimes dealt with them (drowning, for instance), the most striking feature of the baptismal waters is not the way they divide but the way they unite.

Baptismal liturgies vary widely, and each makes its own contribution to our understanding of what baptism means. In my church, we baptize people by immersion in a tank. It draws attention to all sorts of things that baptism enacts: our plunging into and identification with Christ, the washing away of our sins, our drenching in the Spirit, our burial with Jesus in his death, and our rising again to new life in his resurrection.

At the same time, there is much we miss. We don’t pour or sprinkle, so we lose the imagery of anointing with the Spirit, of having him poured over us, of being sprinkled with the blood of the covenant. We don’t baptize in rivers, largely because rivers in London are very cold, so we lose the symbolism of what some church fathers called “living waters”—not to mention the image of our sins disappearing downstream, never to be seen again. We don’t have a font at the back of the church, so the weekly ritual of walking past baptismal water on your way to worship, with all that it says about identity and new creation, is absent. Reflecting on different methods of baptism can help us grasp different dimensions of its meaning. …

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What to Give Up for Lent 2018? Consider Twitter’s Top 100 Ideas

Last year, Trump ranked between Facebook and hope.

Once again, you can follow in real time what Twitter users say they are giving up for Lent, which this year begins Wednesday, February 14.

Last year, food items were three times as popular to abstain from as technology items or personal habits, according to 73,334 tweets analyzed by OpenBible.info’s Stephen Smith during the week of Ash Wednesday 2017. Alcohol ranked No. 1 for the first time since his project began in 2009.

The creator of the Twitter Lent Tracker was most curious how high Donald Trump would rank last year among perennial favorites such as social networking, alcohol, and chocolate. The President ended up finishing No. 22 in 2017, up from No. 82 in 2016.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research offered a chance to compare Twitter’s serious vs. sarcastic sharers last year via its study on what Americans who observe the Lenten season before Easter say they actually give up.

Of note: 3 in 10 Americans with evangelical beliefs (28%) say they observe Lent; of these, 42 percent typically fast from a favorite food or beverage while 71 percent typically attend church services.

Catholics remain the most likely to observe Lent (61%), with 2 out of 3 fasting from a favorite food or beverage (64%).

Overall, 1 in 4 Americans observes Lent (24%), according to LifeWay. Most American observers fast from a favorite food or beverage (57%) vs. a bad habit (35%) or a favorite activity (23%).

Hispanics are the most likely ethnic group to observe Lent (36%), and are more likely than whites to abstain from a favorite activity (34% vs. 17%) or a bad habit (50% vs. 30%).

Twitter’s top five Lenten choices have proven consistently popular since Smith began tracking Lent in 2009. Here is how the top 5 ideas of 2017 have trended:

Smith charts …

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The Unexpected: A Ministry to Widows in the Ukraine

The Kiev Symphony Orchestra cares for widows and orphans.

Wes Jansen and I walked the empty Saturday morning streets of Kiev, turned down Shevchenko Street and into the National Arts building, heading up to the fourth floor. The door opened and we stepped into a room of some 250 women. Most seemed older than my 75 years, but I learned most were younger.

A tough life can add on its years.

This was a Saturday morning Bible study, but not your average group. They were widows who were brought together by a symphonic orchestra and chorale.

It all began years ago when Americans Roger and Diane McMurrin founded the Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Today, led by Canadians Wes and Kim Janzen, it tours Europe and North America. Now well known in Ukraine, professional musicians have joined. The message of the gospel struck a chord with them, and one by one the musicians and singers came to personal faith in Christ.

As their music flourished and their fame spread, the musicians noticed in Scripture that the Lord had a special place for widows and orphans. Out of years of deep struggle, first under Soviet Union rule and now living with war on their eastern front, many widows find poverty is the norm.

And it is here that the story takes an interesting turn.

These musicians took it upon themselves to bring special care to widows and then orphans. Today in Kiev, 309 widows are supported by friends around the world and cared for by St. Paul’s Evangelical Church.

It took a few minutes for me to understand the nature of this group and what this represented. I watched from the rear of the room as Kim dismissed the first group. They quietly filed out of the concert hall, taking the stairs to the first floor. How they exited mattered, for only as they stood to the inside of the stairs could the next …

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250 Child Soldiers in South Sudan Begin Recovery with World Vision

The world’s newest nation remains its most fragile state.

With the help of World Vision, more than 250 South Sudanese children will have the chance to return to school, reunite with their families, and receive counseling after years of being forced to serve as soldiers and domestic workers during their country’s civil war.

The New York Times reported this week that 87 girls and 224 boys were freed in the second-largest release by armed groups since the conflict began, and several hundred more are expected to transition in the coming weeks.

World Vision, which has worked in South Sudan since 1989 and currently reaches 1 million people displaced by the conflict, received the children on Wednesday and will oversee their recovery and reunification.

“We are particularly concerned about a number of the girls being released who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence,” said Mesfin Loha, interim national director at World Vision South Sudan. “We will get them the support so they have a sense of hope again.”

With high levels of poverty, widespread displacement, and lack of education (70 percent of South Sudanese children are not in school—the highest proportion in the world), youth in what World Vision ranks as the world’s most fragile state are particularly vulnerable targets for the armed groups.

The United Nations has coordinated the release of almost 2,000 of 19,000 children recruited and kidnapped since the civil war began in 2013.

World Vision’s reintegration program gets support from the UN Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. Moving forward, World Vision case workers in the city of Yambio will work with children in recovery, offer school and vocational training, and provide interim care for those unable to locate their families.

“South …

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