God’s Generous Return Policy

We are obsessed with making progress, but the Bible reminds us it is often important to go back.

Returning does not resonate in 2018. Who wants to come back to something? We would rather push forward no matter what the cost, reach new heights, or at the least be a few steps farther along than where we started. Within this framework, to return is to regress or worse, to fail.

But returning can be beautiful. Great-hearted Odysseus, sitting on the shores of Ogygia, weeping, broken, with tears streaming down his weathered face as he looked homeward is a powerful picture of the beauty of the longing of returning. Odysseus wanted nothing more than to return to his home, his land, his child, and most of all his beloved wife; returning gripped him. Everything else became tasteless and colorless; even the beautiful nymph, Kalypso, with all she had to offer, became bland and washed-out.

Odysseus saw beyond the charms and allures of Kalypso. From an etymological perspective, his feat was even more pronounced because Kalypso comes from the Greek verb kalyptō, which means to conceal and, by implication, to deceive. Kalypso attempted to charm Odysseus, but she failed because Odysseus had a one-track mind. He was all about returning. Sirens, lotus-eaters, men, gods, suitors, nothing could get in his way. There is an insight here.

Returning is also an important idea in Scripture, especially returning to God. Perhaps we are missing what is most important in life because we have forgotten the importance of returning or even how to return. Like a lost ship at sea that eventually runs aground, we are stranded, isolated, and in despair not knowing what to do or where to go. We try to move forward, but since we have lost our orientation, forward may not mean progress. But here’s the good news: We can always return, and that is progress. …

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Pakistan Frees Asia Bibi from Blasphemy Death Sentence

Jailed Christian mother acquitted by Supreme Court after eight years. Violent protests erupt in major cities.

Today the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi of committing blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad, a crime punishable with death in the Muslim country, amid threats of nationwide paralyzing protests and “horrible” consequences to judges and army generals if the Christian mother of five was released.

In response, protests have already erupted in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, among other cities.

In their final judgment, reviewed by CT, reversing Bibi’s convictions by two lower courts and removing her death sentence, the panel of three judges ruled that Bibi was “wrongly” accused by two sisters with the help of a local cleric, based on “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses” that “cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecution’s version of facts.”

“Furthermore, the alleged extra-judicial confession was not voluntary but rather resulted out of coercion and undue pressure as the appellant was forcibly brought before the complainant in presence of a gathering, who were threatening to kill her; as such, it cannot be made the basis of a conviction,” they wrote.

“Therefore, the appellant being innocent deserves acquittal,” the judges concluded.

One even accused Bibi’s accusers of violating a covenant made by Muhammad with Christians in the seventh century but still valid today.

“Blasphemy is a serious offense,” wrote justice Asif Saeed Khosa, “but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous.

“It is …

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Why Science Can’t Tell Us How to Live

The quest to detach morality from divine revelation has only led to one dead end after another.

Can science tell us how we ought to behave? In Science and the Good, a book that crosses the boundaries of history, philosophy, and psychology, sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky examine nearly 400 years of scientific attempts to discover the sources and meaning of morality. That effort, they conclude, has failed. Science can tell us the way things are but not the way things ought to be. In the language of philosophy, it can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Hunter and Nedelisky define the scientific quest for morality as an attempt to use empirical methods to discover universal principles for ethical action. The scientists and ethicists engaged in it operate from the assumption that everything about life on earth can be explained by natural processes alone.

Before the dawn of the Enlightenment era, late-medieval scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas had produced moral theories based on theological, rather than naturalistic, premises. They believed that through observation of the created order, one could discover the purposes for which God had designed particular creatures or activities—and the moral laws that flowed from those purposes. But in the 17th century, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius and other political philosophers wanted to discover a moral code that could operate without invoking God.

With Christendom split into competing factions that were slaughtering each other over sectarian disagreements, Grotius and like-minded intellectuals doubted whether religion could create a universal moral consensus. Could science succeed where religion had failed? Instead of speculating about divine purposes for creation, Grotius thought, moral theorists should ask one question: …

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Is Trump Our Cyrus? The Old Testament Case for Yes and No

Christians’ eagerness to understand God’s will in real time can cause them to overlook fundamental biblical and divine principles.

Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t the first to compare Donald Trump to the ancient Persian leader, Cyrus. But he’s probably been the most prominent. Following the 45th president’s announcement earlier this year that the US embassy in Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister remarked, “I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory, so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great, Persian king 2,500 years ago. He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Trump may be compared to Cyrus because of his specific policies affecting the Jewish community gives his analogy a unique twist. But American evangelicals have compared Trump to the Persian ruler since the Republican primaries. (This claim even made an appearance in the recently released film, TheTrump Prophecy.) They argue that just as Cyrus, scarcely a devotee of YHWH the God of Israel, served as God’s agent by authorizing Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to the Promised Land and to rebuild the temple to YHWH, so the narcissistic and morally flawed Trump can advance the causes of the evangelical community—and by extension, the country.

Who was Cyrus?

Cyrus the Great was the sixth-century B.C. emperor who made Persia great—indeed the greatest empire in history to that point—by taking over and expanding the empire of the Babylonians. Cyrus plays a critical role in the Bible’s story of YHWH’s relationship with his people Israel. All of YHWH’s covenant promises seem to have been dashed in 586 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies conquered Jerusalem, …

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How Should Churches Respond to Mass Shootings?

An interview with former FEMA Chief W. Craig Fugate in light of the Tree of Life Synagogue Tragedy.

Aten: What is your reaction to the national conversation that has sprung up about churches and houses of worship taking precautions against mass shootings?

Fugate: The minute we start talking about security in churches and houses of worship, we’re admitting we have a much bigger problem. Places of worship by their very design are to be open and welcoming, not restrictive and exclusive to keep people out. I think that’s going to be a fundamental challenge for faith-based houses of worship: what does security look like while you’re trying to be a welcoming center for people to come?

That’s going to be a hard question. It’s one thing when you’re talking about an airport, but houses of worship by their very nature are designed to be open. They’re designed to be welcoming. That’s going to be a challenge.

So the conversation really needs to be, how do we balance the relative risk against the very nature and the purpose of a house of worship? We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission? It’s not going to be an easy debate, and people are going to have to take into account that these are still relatively rare events.

To what degree must we deal with this at the front door of a house of worship, versus looking at this more holistically across the community?

Aten: What do you mean when you say that this is part of a bigger problem?

Fugate: I think the problem is that we’re not willing to talk about what makes sense on gun safety; everybody says that the Second Amendment is sanctified and you can’t touch it, but I think too often we use that to stop talking about the issue. Moments of silence are great, but they’re not changing …

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America’s Hidden Mission Field: Why We Need Rural Churches

Some rural churches are struggling, but many still have a lot left to give.

Most Christians in the United States probably wouldn’t think to send church planters to Loving County, Texas.

But according to the 2010 U.S. Congregations and Membership Study, almost nobody goes to church there. Only six of the county’s 82 residents had ties to a local congregation, according to the study, which collected data about the number of churches and regular attenders from religious groups in every county in the U.S.

Many of the least churched regions were in rural America—where about 14 percent of the U.S. population lives, according to Pew Research. Esmeralda County in Nevada, for example, had only one church with 23 people—in a county of more than 700 people.

Counties in Colorado, North Dakota, Vermont, Maine, and Nebraska are also among the least churched in the country.

And perhaps more surprisingly, other Bible Belt counties join Loving as being among the least churched places in the U.S.—like Mississippi’s Issaquena County, Virginia’s Dickerson County, and several counties in Kentucky.

Grant Hasty, pastor of Crossroads Community Baptist Church in Stearns—located in McCreary County, Kentucky—helped plant the church a decade ago. The core congregation is only about 60 people, but they make a big impact in a county where only 1 in 5 residents are connected with a church.

They run a restaurant that serves hundreds of free meals every week, mobilize summer volunteers to make local home repairs, organize a laundry ministry, and they’ve just started a tiny homes community for people recovering from drug addiction.

Hasty says they also hope to start several new local churches. “A big church won’t work in our area,” he says. “A lot of people …

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For I Needed a Place to Vote, And You Invited Me In

When your church is a polling place, Election Day is an opportunity to show hospitality.

For several years, I had been on the fence about my church operating as a polling place in our community. I was sick and tired of having my ministry work interrupted. Then, this last primary, we had an incident that turned me off to the idea completely.

Our church runs a preschool which results in a long line of cars for child pickups. When voting day rolled around, my preschool line clashed with the voting traffic. Worse, the two major political parties had set up tables at the entrance to our parking lot and were hounding parents to take flyers and participate in exit polls. At one point, our preschool teachers asked the pollsters to please stop harassing these young parents. The pollsters’ solicitations were causing the preschool drop-off line to back up and spill out into the main street, creating a morass of angry-toddler gridlock.

The pollsters did not respond well to my preschool teachers asking them to keep their solicitation limited to the folks on campus for the election. My sweet, gentle teachers were thanked for their trouble with a shouting match filled with curse words and threats. The end result was a full police blockade, replete with sirens, lights, interrogations, and all sorts of bad optics for my church and preschool.

That was the last straw. These preschool parents were one of my primary mission fields. Many were unchurched, and I desperately wanted these folks to visit our church service. I had no patience for these vitriolic, toxic secularists getting in the way of my favorite gospel opportunity.

Over the last few weeks, my church has been deciding whether we should continue supporting this community need. I, for one, had made my decision. Here is the subject line of an email I recently wrote to …

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Rethinking Our Relationship with the News

Both religion and politics have complicated it. How do we start fresh?

It was one of the ugliest presidential elections in US history. On one side was a candidate who was smeared in the press as too sensitive to be a man and too brutish to be a woman. Fake news stories, planted by opposing forces, claimed the candidate supported a march toward war. Of course, it was hard to know what to believe; this same candidate had previously used every means possible to limit press freedoms and keep important information away from public eyes.

On the other side was a man widely rumored to have abused his power to sexually assault at least one woman young enough to be his daughter, a rumor his opponent happily exploited for personal political gain. It was claimed that if this man were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”

It was the election of 1800. The candidates: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Fake news and consequent distrust of the media are nothing new. Politicians and power brokers have for centuries used the press and the gossip grapevine to manipulate the public. What is new is the speed and volume of information constantly bombarding our senses from a million different sources. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, and consequently to retreat to spaces filled with people who think and feel like we do. Media scholars refer to this as an “echo chamber,” where our existing opinions are reinforced and we are free from the discomfort of opposing viewpoints.

In our digital world of viral content and up-to-the-second breaking news, the stakes are higher, to be sure. But as Christians, we should see this as a call for greater discernment, not an excuse to disengage from the conversation or, conversely, keep adding fuel to the fire. …

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What Went Wrong with Nadab and Abihu

The odd Old Testament episode is a sharp reminder of our need for Jesus.

It’s been a bad year for pastoral scandals in the church. Whether Roman Catholic cardinals or high-profile Protestant pastors, it’s been devastating and sobering to read about sins and abuses by those entrusted to preach the gospel and shepherd God’s people.

Besides the horror of the abuses themselves, the sharp contrast between an outwardly successful ministry and the apparent darkness within is deeply discouraging. If our spiritual leaders cannot be trusted, who can?

I’m reminded of the shocking deaths of Nadab and Abihu by divine fire in Leviticus 10. At this point in the Hebrews’ journey to the Promised Land, things are going swimmingly. The Tabernacle is built. Moses has the instructions for the sacrifices. Aaron and his sons are being consecrated for ministry. On cue, God’s glory appears, and fire consumes the burnt offering; the people are overjoyed (Lev. 9:24). But that joy suddenly turns to shock and sorrow when Aaron’s sons try to offer up fire to the Lord—and flames burst forth and consume them instead (10:1–2).

Most read this and naturally balk, asking, “Why is God so harsh? Isn’t this just another sign of an arbitrary, angry, erratic God?”

The natural question isn’t always the right one, especially when taking the whole narrative context into account. This is the merciful God who redeemed Israel from Egypt, met them at Sinai, gave the covenant Law, forgave their infidelity with the golden calf, and instituted the priesthood and sacrifices precisely so sinful Israel could enjoy his holy Presence. We should ponder instead, “What went wrong?”

Leviticus is light on explanation, but there are a few narrative clues. For one, the fire …

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The News Won’t Set You Free (Even If It’s ‘Christian’)

How round-the-clock headlines distort our focus on eternity.

These days, Christians may be tempted to join the 24/7 news cycle to push back against the ignorance, distortion, and bias they see emptied into the public square.

That’s what the Christian Broadcasting Network recently opted to do with its new CBN News Channel.

I understand the desire to offer even fuller coverage, but I can’t help thinking our impulse to join reveals an essential worldliness, marching to the beat of secular headlines and falling in with the fears of a fallen realm.

It means that we have not recognized that the larger enemy is precisely that 24/7 news cycle.

Christianity does not exist in some Absolute Present, as CNN and Fox News and Twitter do. Its home is in eternity. We don’t live within the world’s shifting judgments but in truths that are under no ultimate threat. Of course, we recognize that much of humanity does not acknowledge or even recognize these truths, and we do have a responsibility there.

Twenty years ago, in How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, I tried to show how the sheer dailiness of the news product distorted everything: politics, science, religion, elections, values, worldviews, culture, and social relations. This dailiness was more damaging than any bias, since it went unrecognized, seeming only natural.

Now, the news cycle has grown even more ever-present, with constant updates pinging us around the clock on our phones, computers, watches, and other devices. But my concerns are still the same: We cannot counter the distortion of dailiness we see in the news by the same means of constant coverage that produced them in the first place.

(Remember, the news comes to us daily, hourly, minute by minute, only because the industry’s …

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