What Dostoyevsky’s Prostitute Can Teach Us About the Cross

Crime, punishment, and Christ’s easy yoke.

The cross of Christ has sometimes been compared to the electric chair or other forms of execution, meaning we are wise to remember that it was an instrument of death in the ancient world. The cross is also often used to prompt us to give ourselves sacrificially for him and others. But comparisons to other forms of execution can miss the deeper biblical teaching about the cross. And the cross is much more than an object lesson in how we should live. It’s very shape, it turns out, is not incidental to its deeper biblical meaning nor to the very nature of God who hung there.

To get at the deeper meaning, we can turn to the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, especially one scene in the middle of Crime and Punishment. The lead character Rodion Raskolnikov had brutally murdered an elderly pawnbroker and moneylender, Alyona Ivanovna. When Ivanovna’s half-sister, Lizaveta, stumbled upon the scene, he murdered her as well.

Raskolnikov later meets a young woman, Sonia, who has been compelled by poverty to become a prostitute to support her family. He is immediately drawn to her, and after he learns that Sonia had been friends with Lizaveta, he feels compelled to confess his murders to her. He finally musters up the courage to do so, but only indirectly, leaving her to work out for herself that Lizaveta’s murderer is the man speaking with her. When it dawns on her what he has just confessed,

She jumped up, seeming not to know what she was doing, and, wringing her hands, walked into the middle of the room; but quickly went back and sat down again beside him, her shoulder almost touching his. All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not …

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The Palms, the Temple, and the Nations

What made Jesus explode in the Temple on Monday is actually related to his Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday.

The black Baptists of the South are not known for their adherence to a liturgical calendar, but we do know Palm Sunday and Easter. Palm Sunday is the tremor before the earthquake of our resurrection celebration, the birth pangs. Palm Sunday, then, is not the time for the best songs, suits, or dresses. The palms and shouts of hosanna are a preparation for something greater, the acclamation that Christ is risen.

But as the Palm Sundays have stacked one upon the other, more questions linger. What did Jesus want to teach us when he entered Jerusalem astride a donkey to the shouts of hosanna? Did he do it so that we would have a nice liturgical action of palm-waving to entertain the kids on the verge of Eastertide?

Immediately following Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem amid waving palm branches, Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that his next stop is to clear out the Temple. What does the clearing of the Temple have to do with palms and the parade from earlier? Last and most importantly, what do these two events have to say to us as we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in churches divided by race and class?

The Temple and palms do speak with a common voice. They reveal God’s vision for peace between the ethnicities and our reconciliation under the universal kingship of Jesus. To hear that common voice, we must pay close attention to the Scriptures that Jesus uses to interpret his actions on that fateful on the first two days of Holy Week.

Beyond Humility

Palm Sunday begins with Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem instructing his disciples to bring him a donkey to ride into the city. The gospel writers make it clear that this royal gesture is a dramatic enactment of Zechariah 9:9. The section quoted in the Gospels …

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20 Truths from Small Church Essentials

Just because a church is small, doesn’t mean it’s broken.

Karl Vaters’ new book Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250 has just released and it’s a great read for pastors and leaders of smaller churches. Karl has been a small church pastor for 30 years, is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us (2013), and travels extensively to churches and conferences to speak about leading a small church well. Below is what I found especially helpful.

1.Church leaders often wring their hands over the “problem” of small churches, and how to turn them into big churches. Like most prejudices, however, our problems with small churches aren’t what they seem. Just because a church is small, doesn’t mean it’s broken (pg. 10).

2.Just because we don’t have a kickin’ worship band does not mean we’ll settle for passionless worship (pg. 43).

3.On average, about one-third of the big church principles can be applied in a church of 200 and about one-fourth in a church of 100 or fewer. To know which third to keep, I have to understand how big churches and small churches are different (pg. 50).

4.In bigger churches, the individual people and their personalities have a smaller impact on the whole. The challenges are more about crowd dynamics than personality quirks. That outspoken, sometimes embarrassing church member who might shift the entire mood of the room in a small church causes no more concern in a big church than how to answer that awkward email the pastor gets every week. The impact is much smaller (pg. 59).

5.Small churches need to prioritize relationships, culture, and history (pg. 62).

6.In bigger or newer churches, the culture …

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What Will You Do Each Day to Make Our World—and Those Around You–Better?

What if we challenged ourselves to shift our focus from self-improvement to fostering community?

As what all too quickly happens, the New Year pizazz motivates us to make some positive changes or accomplishments with our lives and year ahead, and then quickly dims into tiredness, excuses, or disappointments as only about 8% of us actually keep our resolutions. But what if we were to have a different focus this year which might last the whole year through?

What if we challenged ourselves to shift our focus from self-improvement to fostering community? What if each day this year, we woke up with this challenge running in our veins, motivating us to make a positive impact right in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities?

And what if this challenge was fueled by a deep love for Jesus and a desire to show and share his love with others?

This is something the Billy Graham Center is all about—showing and sharing the love of Jesus in this broken and hurting world. It’s a place I’m grateful for as both a world hub of evangelism training and a team to be serving on. This team of outstanding professionals love Jesus and desire to make him known as we train and inspire others to carry out the Great Commission, reaching our world with the love of Jesus in winsome and creative ways.

As I was chatting with a close friend recently, I was inspired by one way her family had found to share the love of Jesus in a very creative, yet simple way to those around them. It is through a daily challenge to focus on giving instead of receiving. So often in the busyness of life, we are just trying to get from one activity to the next.

Instead of hoping for all the lights to be green, the closest parking spot to be ours, or the fastest checkout lane to open up as we head to the counter, what if we looked for opportunities to give instead? …

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Bill Hybels Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Former Willow Creek Leaders

John and Nancy Ortberg, others confront megachurch with its own #MeToo moment. “The charges against me are false,” says Hybels of former friends’ “collusion.”

When the #MeToo movement arose this past fall, Willow Creek Community Church sprang into action.

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help.

A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends.

A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.

The group includes John and Nancy Ortberg, well-known pastors and authors who are both former teaching pastors at Willow Creek and longtime friends of Bill and Lynne Hybels. It also includes Leanne Mellado, a former Willow staff member who is married to Santiago “Jim” Mellado, the former longtime head of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) and current president and CEO of Compassion International.

At issue are allegations of pastoral misconduct by Bill Hybels, a bestselling author and founding pastor of one of America’s largest churches.

“The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms,” according to the Tribune. “It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.”

Bill Hybels has denied the allegations and says his former …

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How Larry Norman Became the Elvis Presley of Christian Rock

His music inspired a generation of Jesus freaks, but he never shook the suspicion of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In 2014, John Darnielle, of the band the Mountain Goats, gave his first novel an obscure title—Wolf in White Van. In the book, the protagonist described watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network many years before. Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch were discussing Satanism in rock music with an “expert” guest. The hosts were shocked to learn that demonic messages were hidden everywhere—even in albums from so-called Christian artists. To prove his point, the guest produced a vinyl LP, which was placed on a turntable and played backward. Supposedly a mysterious phrase could be heard: “Wolf in White Van.”

Why was this phrase so nefarious? Surely it didn’t help matters that the song it was taken from, “666,” was about the Antichrist. But the larger worry was that the artist, Larry Norman (1947–2008), was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Such suspicion dogged the career of the man who was called the “Father of Christian Rock.”

For decades, Christians have been obsessed with the prospect of hidden messages, both in the Bible and outside it. I confess I spent considerable time in my teenage years listening for purported backward masking on Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Rush records. What possessed earlier generations of evangelicals to spend so much energy on conspiracy theories—to focus less on the songs themselves than what they sound like played in reverse? Why did so many Christians assume that rock ’n’ roll music was the Devil’s handiwork, plain and simple?

My curiosity led me to a man who, once upon a time, seemed to be the source of all the trouble. Thanks to his estate, I was granted access to Larry Norman’s considerable archives. …

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Commentary: The Lord’s Prayer’s Hard Plea

Does God lead us into temptation? Do we have to ask him not to?

As most Christians know from painful experience, temptation is as easy to find as it is hard to resist. Every day, in a hundred ways, we face pressure to cut corners, mistreat others, and gratify our wayward desires. Sometimes we grasp the danger and paddle mightily against the current. Other times we sink into sin as if relaxing into an easy chair. But frequent failure leaves us demoralized and ashamed.

Temptation already feels like an unfair fight. So why would God ever ratchet up the difficulty?

This hypothetical lies at the heart of Pope Francis’s recent remarks on the Lord’s Prayer. During the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). Speaking on Italian television last December, the pope wondered whether “Lead us not into temptation” should instead be translated as “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

The trouble with the common translation, in the pope’s reading, is that it pictures God pushing us toward sin rather than pulling us away. After all, we wouldn’t ask him not to lead us into temptation if he weren’t capable of doing just that. But surely, argues the pope, a righteous and loving Father would never place his children in the path of spiritual peril. “It is Satan,” he says, “who leads us into temptation; that’s his department.”

On the whole, the pope’s theological instincts are not unsound. He is correct to absolve God of blame for temptation, which ultimately flows from our unclean hearts. As James reminds us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, …

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How a Humble Evangelist Changed Christianity As We Know It

Churches were divided. Believers eschewed cultural influence. Liberal modernism was on the move. Then God made Billy Graham.

The first time Ruth Bell saw her future husband, he was dashing down the dormitory steps two at a time. Now there’s a young man who knows where he’s going! she thought. But in fact Billy Graham had no idea where he was going; no idea that he would travel the planet preaching the gospel to more people than anyone in history. Ruth’s second impression, however, was spot on target: “He wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met.” This desire, more than anything, set him apart. In an era when evangelicals lived expectantly in the shadow of the Second Coming, Billy Graham was odd in hoping the Lord would tarry: “I sure would like to do something great for him before he comes.”

The Lord did tarry, and Graham made the most of it. If there were a Mount Rushmore for English-speaking evangelists, Graham would be the fifth in granite, alongside Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Sunday. For the most part, it’s easy to imagine why huge crowds pushed and shoved to hear them preach. George Whitefield—short and cross-eyed, with the voice of a tornado—cavorted, posed, and wept on outdoor platforms as he brought Bible dramas to life. Charles Finney had terrifying eyes that drilled out soft spots in the soul, his fiery preaching about the wrath of God going straight to the exposed nerves. Billy Sunday was charming, with jazzy suits, movie-star looks, and a smile that lit up auditoriums. But up on stage, after joking and mugging and flattering the VIPs, he would throw down his hat, rip off his tie, and jump onto the pulpit—sometimes waving a large American flag—attacking sin and beseeching sinners to come to Jesus.

Dwight Moody’s appeal is harder to figure. Of grandfatherly …

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Changing Direction – Reflections on the Chicago River at St. Patrick’s Day

When we follow Jesus, we do what the Chicago River did in 1900: we change direction.

My husband and I live in downtown Chicago. Since I work at Wheaton College, people often ask, “Why don’t you live in the suburbs? Isn’t it a hassle to commute every day?” And from those who live in another state and only know the city fromknow the city the news, we often hear, “Is it safe to live in Chicago?”

Living in the city was an intentional choice for us. We wanted to rub shoulders with men and women from all different backgrounds who might be open to hearing about God’s love and his invitation into a relationship. Plus it’s fun! We love the hustle and bustle of the city, the cultural variety of people who live here, and the great activities that happen throughout the year.

As just one example, every year to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the local Plumbers’ Union dyes the Chicago River green. This tradition is more than 50 years old and draws over 400,000 spectators to the banks of our river. Some years are a little more interesting than others. In 2013, we stood by the Wrigley Building and saw a flying leprechaun! Admittedly, most of the people who gather are just there to party, but it’s a tradition that we love to attend.

What makes the whole process most amazing to me is where the plumbers put the vegetable-based dye: at the mouth of the river by Lake Michigan. Then the dye flows back through the city, slowly turning the river green. Your see, the Chicago River flows backwards, away from the lake. Until the dye starts to mingle with the water, you don’t really see the direction the water is moving. Once that emerald color starts to mix in, you can begin to trace the currents moving west.

This reversed flow is because in the 1800s as the city boomed, …

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Faith in Russia: What Does It Mean?

Many Russians, be they Orthodox or Evangelical, will understandably view their homeland with affection, loyalty, and patriotism.

After brief instructions from the Lutheran Archbishop Dietrich Brauer, we processed up the center aisle of the St. Peter-and-St. Paul Lutheran Cathedral in Moscow, launching the 500th Anniversary observance of the Protestant Reformation.

Robed in gowns and hats of all colors and shapes, leaders of various Christian groups gathered in this important Moscow celebration: Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, but there were no Russian Orthodox representative in the procession. As we passed the front row moving toward the raised platform, I saw an Orthodox priest standing.

Even as we gathered around the altar for prayer, he remained apart. Later, I learned that while he would attend the service, he would not join in procession or prayer: according to the ancient Orthodox rule, a priest who prayed with heretics would lose his priesthood.

This is Russia. A country in curious shifts and alterations more mysterious than the Trump/Putin insults and bravados. I live with memory of a state, the Soviet Union, ruled by atheists insisting that the Communist and Marxist dictum of “no God” be their country’s mantra.

But it is wrong to assume that atheism rules, indeed, if it ever did. Make no mistake, this is a religious and, in fact, a Christian country, if one were to define a country by what its people believe. The Pew Foundation noted that 74 percent of Russians identify as Christian. However, even with this remarkable percentage of self-confessed Christians, Russia is dynamically secular, with a definite separation of Christian witness from its civil life, apart from official Orthodox ceremonies.

Its Varied History

To catch up on recent moves by Putin, a quick review of the role of faith in this grand country …

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