A Drug Dealer Led Me to Faith

After a childhood marred by substance abuse and a deadbeat dad, I made a friend who would change my life.

I was raised in a staunchly atheist household. We never went to church. We never had a Bible. We never talked about God. My father was such an ardent atheist that he demanded my mother spell my brother’s name, Mathew, with only one t to avoid any biblical resemblance. My father then named me Mark. Clearly he didn’t see the irony.

I heard about Christianity for the first time at a summer camp when I was nine years old. I was fascinated by the concept of God. Not enough to get me to attend church or read a Bible or whatever else “religious” people did but enough that I found myself going back to the camp every year, talking about God again, and then coming home to a very different life. You could sum up that life as follows: Stealing from cars, stores, the purses of my friends’ mothers—from anywhere we could, really—to get money for drugs, partying, and everything else you do when you don’t have God in your life.

The first time I did drugs, I was eight or nine years old. A guy from our neighborhood cooked up some hash and weed for me and some of my friends behind the local convenience store. By ninth grade, drugs were a daily part of my life. At one point, I took drugs that were laced with something dangerous, and my friends watched in horror as I lay in the middle of the street, eyes sparkling, skin gone cold pale.

What Do I Believe?

My parents divorced when I was eight years old. Shortly thereafter, I acquired a neuropsychiatric disorder called Tourette syndrome, which later developed into obsessive-compulsive disorder. I would adopt a habit—a twitch or a particular noise—and I would do it over and over again for months until another habit came along. I would pound …

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The Only Bright Spot in American Giving

Research highlights radical giving of poor and unpaid labor of women.

My brother and I grew up lower-middle income on or near military bases, where the needs of young service members and their families can be seen pretty acutely. Our family relied on the generosity of others, but my mom also involved our family in giving during the Advent season. She was active in the enlisted wives’ club on base and then later in the officer wives’ club, helping volunteer for people who had less reliable access to food and clothes than we did. We made meals, collected cans, and did what we could with our time.

This year during the holidays, while hundreds of thousands of American Christians will donate money and bags of canned food to local food banks, many will also volunteer their time in soup kitchens or elsewhere.

This volunteering often goes unacknowledged. While we are generally a generous nation, or like to presume we are, we have some funny quirks about it. For one, we like to quantify it and focus quite a bit on the dollars and cents side of things. So much so, in fact, that the British journalist and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once teased us, a century ago, about our ostentatious, and not-so-Christlike charity: “An American will praise the prodigal generosity of some other man in giving up his own estate for the good of the poor,” he wrote. “But he will generally say that the philanthropist gave them a 200-acre park, where an Englishman would think it quite sufficient to say that he gave them a park.”

This American focus on money is an interesting observation in light of the fact that we could give a lot more. In 2008, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, by sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia …

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The Great Call of China: Churches Poised to Become Major Exporters

Hundreds pledge lives to missions at ‘Chinese Urbana’ as red tape rises.

When 1,200 youth gathered for the first Chinese “Urbana-style” missions conference this fall, 300 pledged to become full-time missionaries.

“This is one of those historic moments,” said David Ro, director of the Wilson Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “There are lots of challenges ahead, on the mission field and in China. And yet God is doing something—while they are being attacked, they are still moving forward.”

The gathering was “a unique opportunity to witness the authentic demonstration of a vibrantly growing Chinese church under dynamic indigenous leadership,” said Nana Yaw Offei Awuku, a field ministry director with Scripture Union Ghana who spoke at the event. “The beauty of intentional intergenerational leadership was at its best.”

Held in Thailand, the conference was part of Mission China, a movement of unregistered churches to send out 20,000 missionaries by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal for churches that have yet to obtain legal status. And it may have run into a snag this summer when two young Chinese Christians—who traveled to Pakistan to teach Mandarin at a private school—were kidnapped and killed by ISIS.

The incident put China in a tough spot. As it seeks to expand its influence westward, its leaders need to be able to protect the 70,000 Chinese who were issued visas to Pakistan last year. But its atheist government also doesn’t want to be exporting Christianity.

“The Chinese authorities are in a very difficult position,” said Chinese religion expert and Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang. “[Most] didn’t realize that Christians had become active in west and central …

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Cover Story: Blessed Are the Handouts

Why some Christian poverty experts believe we should give cash to the poor, no strings attached.

One year, instead of buying my dad the usual unattractive necktie for Christmas, we bought him a goat. He loved the goat, mainly because it was not for him but given in his name to an impoverished family in Kenya.

Many of us know the holiday rite, by now as predictable as the turning of the seasons: making donations to the poor overseas on behalf of loved ones, aided by gift catalogs from nonprofits like Heifer International, World Vision, and Compassion International that reveal happy pictures of children hugging sheep.

That Kenyan goat launched a Christmas tradition for my family. Over the years, we’ve graduated from goats to dairy cows to water buffaloes. But there is a corollary to our tradition. While my parents would purchase a farm animal for the poor in a family member’s name, they would often give the same family member a cash gift to spend however they liked. It raises the question: Do we trust each other with cash more than we trust the poor?

Gift catalogs are popular not just because of their playful optimism (what could be more fun than buying baby chicks for little girls?), but also because they resolve an unspoken dilemma we feel about giving money to the poor. Money obviously gives recipients the greatest freedom of choice, but they might misuse it. A goat feels safer.

As an economist and a Christian, I too feel this dilemma. Part of it comes from seemingly competing New Testament values. While Jesus teaches us “give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30) and that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), he also created boundaries against manipulation (Matt. 12:46 ff., 16:23, Luke 23:8–9).

Likewise, Paul encourages Christians to “be generous on every …

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The Best Retelling of the Jesus Story Isn’t from Narnia or Harry Potter

Our culture has produced plenty of fine remakes, but nothing beats the Old Testament prequel.

The problem with well-known stories is that they grow dull through familiarity. When narratives become part of the cultural fabric—think Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, or Hamlet—they may retain their charm, but they will usually lose their edge. So creative people find ways of retelling them that capture the drama and basic storyline of the original, but with a twist. Move Romeo and Juliet to New York, and you get West Side Story. Turn Cinderella into a prostitute, and you get Pretty Woman.

The most obvious example is the best-known story of all. No matter how well we know the gospel, we can find new perspectives: Aslan dying for Edmund, Jean Valjean’s encounter with grace in Les Miserables, or Harry Potter taking the killing curse upon himself before the resurrection stone brings him back to life. But the best examples of fresh reads on the gospel come not from fiction but from Scripture itself.

Take the story of Joseph, for instance. As we are introduced to him in Genesis 37, Joseph, like Jesus, is favored by his father, honored in front of his family, and given a vision of the whole of Israel worshiping him. This prompts jealousy and hatred from his brothers, who conspire to kill him, even as he comes to serve them. Reuben intercedes for him, as Pilate later will for Jesus, but Joseph is eventually thrown into a pit anyway and sold for pieces of silver through the mediation of Judah (whose name, in its Greek form, would be Judas). Blood is presented to Joseph’s father—the blood of a goat, the animal which makes atonement in Leviticus.

The parallels continue in Genesis 39. After he avoids being murdered out of jealousy, Joseph finds safety in Egypt. As he grows older, all that he does prospers …

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‘Justice League’ Unites Its Heroes to Save an Erratic, Uneven World

DC’s answer to the MCU wants to show that surrounding darkness can only strengthen heroic light. It only kind of succeeds.

This article contains light spoilers for Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League.

DC’s superhero team-up film Justice League unites Batman, Wonder Woman, and new heroes onscreen. With relative ease, they overcome their different backgrounds and come together to save the world from an evil galactic overlord and his army of flying demons.

And that’s pretty much the story in full.

Justice League’s simple structure and quick pace may please more audiences than the first two installments of this DC film series, the often-maligned Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Both films strove to explore several meta-themes on a popular philosophical level; they sought to bring into the story-worlds themselves the very conversations fans share about superheroes, such as the reasons people reject or embrace Superman or compare him with Jesus Christ. But in place of these grander ideas, Justice League instead presents several fun characters with smaller journeys of their own—though its lightness loses some of the earlier films’ dramatic weight.

Officially, Justice League shares those films’ director, Zack Snyder. Few aspects of Snyder’s hallmark style actually feature in the final product, however. In his previous films, Snyder favored a “tear-down-and-rebuild” approach in which minimalist, struggling protagonists bulk up, confront critics, scream loud, and punch hard in the dark to become heroic in a world that doesn’t always respond favorably to them.

Many critics and fans, however, didn’t respond favorably: While some viewers argued that these stories’ darker worlds present greater moral challenges for their heroes …

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‘Wonder’ Reveals the Face of True Human Strength

What the box-office hit tells us about beauty, weakness, and the imago Dei.

Wonder opens with a boy wearing a space helmet. August Pullman is a child who lives in his imagination—as evidenced by Chewbacca and Darth Sidious showing up from time to time in his classroom. He dreams of being normal and longs to be unnoticed.

In the opening scene, we see a montage of his ordinary life: August playing video games, riding on the merry-go-round at the park, jumping on the bed. In every shot, he wears the space helmet. When he finally takes it off in front of his window, we recognize in his reflection exactly why he longs to keep his face covered. The image that stares back at us is a face stretched and scarred, eyes that seem weighted downward, a nose that protrudes unnaturally, and a mouth that looks as though it’s been built by surgical procedures. His bulletin board—covered entirely with hospital bracelets—gives evidence of a lifelong medical struggle.

Based on the best-selling novel by R. J. Palacio, the family flick Wonder stars Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay as their son, the main character. The film netted $27 million at the box office on opening weekend alone and has been accompanied by a popular social media campaign led by the Twitter hashtag #choosekind.

Although it’s never clearly stated in the movie nor in the book by the same name, Auggie likely has Treacher Collins syndrome. His older sister, Via, tells her boyfriend that both her parents carry the rare gene that, when combined, made his facial differences possible. “Auggie won the lottery,” she says.

Every child with a disability has won some kind of lottery. “The lottery” is how my husband and I have always talked about our son with Down syndrome, whose condition is much …

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Inclusive Leadership: What We Need to Be Effective Leaders in Today’s Diverse World

Are you close friends with someone who is significantly different?

As a PhD student studying inclusive leadership,* I’m exploring how leaders effectively assemble a diverse team of people and then ensure their different perspectives are included and valued.

I’m curious to know…

  • How can a team of missionaries from different parts of the globe effectively work together to reach others for Christ?
  • How can the actions of the head of an NGO communicate that the locals are real contributing partners whose opinions matter?
  • How can a pastor lead a church towards including people from many different ethnicities and walks of life?

As a Christian, I see this way of valuing and including human variety as something grounded in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the unity and diversity of the Body of Christ. After reminding the Corinthian church that many different people together make up the Body of Christ, he chastises them for being jealous of others or dismissing someone else’s contribution. Each person’s unique giftings, culture, gender, personality, and background all add something to a group that no one else can.

I suspect if I stopped writing at this point, most Christians would walk away nodding their heads, “Yes! Each of us is a unique creation of God and is important for the healthy functioning of the community.”

If only it were that simple.

Just turn on the news, peruse Facebook, read some Twitter posts. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. There aren’t a lot of places where we can witness healthy dialogue around God-given differences. In today’s ever-increasingly connected world, clarity on how diversity can be generative is still often elusive. Even in the church.

It has become a cliché that the most segregated …

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One-on-One with Tracy McKenzie on the Truth about Thanksgiving and What It Means for Us Today

The Pilgrims did not think of their autumn 1621 celebration as a Thanksgiving Day as much as a kind of harvest festival.

Ed: Several years ago, you wrote a great book called The First Thanksgiving, where you talk about what the Pilgrims were really like, that first Thanksgiving, and what we can learn as Christ-followers. What are 1-2 historical “facts” that you debunked?

Tracy McKenzie: The two most important misconceptions that most of us hold concern (1) how the Pilgrims conceived their 1621 celebration, and (2) what brought them to New England in the first place.

The Pilgrims followed a strict ‘regulative principle’ in their reading of Scripture. They believed that the Roman Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Anglican Church, had added to Scripture by creating ‘holy days’ not commanded in the Bible, and they were determined not to commit the same offense.

As they understood it, God’s word commands only one regular holiday—the Sabbath. Apart from that, they believed that the Old Testament authorizes the irregular celebration of Days of Fasting and Humiliation in response to God’s extraordinary judgment, as well as the irregular celebration of Days of Thanksgiving in response to God’s extraordinary blessing.

They thought of both of these irregular holidays as solemn occasions marked by extensive prayer and worship. Because of the extensive feasting and games that took place, it’s almost certain that the Pilgrims did not think of their autumn 1621 celebration as a Thanksgiving Day as much as a kind of harvest festival. Nor would they have ever approved of regularly scheduling a Thanksgiving Day for the same time each year as Americans have done for the last century and a half.

With regard to the matter of why the Pilgrims came to be in New England in the first place, the …

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The Generous Soul

Why overcoming the Scrooge in all of us begins with gratitude.

One of my not-so-winsome Christmas traditions involves complaining to family members about the relentlessness of The Christmas Carol. Every year it seems there is another spin-off or remake of Charles Dickens’s classic. While I love the story, I am fatigued by the repetition. Ebenezer comes to his senses every December 25 but then reverts to being all Scrooge-like again in time for the next holiday season. Dickens penned this story 174 years ago—maybe it’s time for a new Christmas classic.

Still, even with my grumbling, I keep reading and watching The Christmas Carol or its variants most years. Some inner force draws me there even as my cortex complains.

Maybe one of the reasons that Scrooge has survived so long is that Dickens speaks to some primordial inner conflict that all of us know, and perhaps this inner conflict is even more ubiquitous than the movies and books and plays that I mutter about each Advent. The conflict between miser and benefactor, between thrift and munificence, is so familiar to each of us and powerful enough to keep us watching and reading Dickens year after year.

One part of us, like the miserly Scrooge, wants to live with fists closed, accumulating possessions even if it hurts others, focusing on our own goals and achievements, protecting ourselves by shutting out relational risk and the pain of the world. But another part, a better part, sees more complexity in the world, recognizes blessings, holds palms up to heaven, and gives time, empathy, and money to others as a reflection of gratitude for all the gifts life offers, including the gift of life itself.

If Scrooge persists in order to remind us of this inner tension, then perhaps I should be more patient, and even grateful, that …

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