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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Giving God the (Olympic) Glory: Christian Athletes to Watch in PyeongChang

These athletes walked with God along the arduous road to the Olympics.

Winter Olympic sports take strength, grace, speed, precision, and incredible courage. For many of the athletes we’re about to see in PyeongChang, South Korea, those qualities are bolstered by their faith in God, which has seen them through their darkest hours and hardest struggles. Here are just a few of the athletes who have shared about God’s role in their Olympic journeys.

Maame Biney, speedskating (USA) @BineyMaame

Just before her 18th birthday, Maame Biney became the first African American woman to qualify for the US Olympic speedskating team, winning accolades from one of her heroes, Apolo Ohno. For the bubbly teenager, it’s been a long road from her native Ghana, which she left at the age of five to live with her father, Kweku, in the United States.

Both Biney and her father thank God for her phenomenal success. Kweku Biney believes it was God who first drew his attention to a sign advertising skating lessons, which inspired him to ask Maame if she wanted to try—though he sometimes regretted it when his little girl woke him up early on Saturdays to go to the rink. As Maame herself posted on Instagram after her win at the Olympic trials: “If God hadn’t given my dad the strength to wake up, and take me to practice, I wouldn’t be here today.” In her emotional post, she also thanked her church family for their “prayers for safe travels and successful competitions.”

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, figure skating (USA) @Scimeca_Knierim

A couple on and off the ice—they were married in 2016—the Knierims won the United States’ only pairs spot at this year’s Olympics. But their victory wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. Not long …

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Understanding God’s Control When You’re a Climate Scientist

A geophysicist on balancing God’s sovereignty over nature with human understanding of weather.

Thomas P. Ackerman navigates a world of difficult questions and tense conversations. A geophysicist at the University of Washington and director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, he is at the forefront of research on geoengineering, a science that focuses on manipulating the environment to, among other ends, combat climate change. Ackerman thinks a lot about ethics as he researches how making clouds more reflective could compensate for a warming planet. He shared how a life spent trying to understand the climate has contributed to his understanding of God.

People often think of God as bringing the rain or the seasons. What does climate science say about God’s control?

One of the sections of the Bible that I’ve turned to the most often is the end of the Book of Job [38–40]. God talks to Job, and there is this beautiful series of scientific questions. And God says to Job: “Do you understand this? Do you understand this? Do you understand this?” And the answer of course, to all of them, is “No, I don’t understand them.” And Job ends up concluding, “All of this is too wonderful for me”—that the knowledge of God is beyond his knowledge.

I resonate with Job. There’s this sense that people have that science makes you less in awe of the power of God, and that’s just frankly a bad idea. People say, “Do you think God is in control?” I say, “Sure. Let’s talk about how God controls the weather not whether God controls the weather.”

This is where it really gets tricky: What’s the role of prayer in physical systems? Let’s take hurricanes. People see a hurricane trucking up the coast. They …

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God Came to Me in My Cancer

At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I experienced what Augustine called “the sweetness.”

I am at the office, pacing at my treadmill desk and flipping through my latest research, when my phone rings. “Hello, this is Kate.” It’s Jan from the doctor’s office. She has a little speech prepared, but my mind is zeroing in and out. I can hear that she is talking, but I can’t make out the words. It is not my gallbladder, I catch that much. But now it is everywhere. “What’s everywhere now?” I ask. “Cancer.” I listen to the buzz of the phone. “Ms. Bowler.”

The treatment at Emory begins at the end of October. I am tired most of the time, but I feel driven to catalog everything and wring every bit of time for all it’s worth. I start to write. In bed, in chemo chairs, in waiting rooms, I try to say something about dying in a world where everything happens for a reason. Whenever there is a clarifying moment of grief, I jot it down.

And then, in a flurry, I shoot it off to The New York Times, not thinking too much about whether it’s any good but sending it because I have been infected by the urgency of death. Then an editor there sees it and puts it on the front page of the Sunday Review. Millions of people read it. Thousands share it and start writing to me. And most begin with the same words. “I’m afraid.”

Me too, me too.

“I’m afraid of the loss of my parents,” writes a young man. “I know I will lose them someday soon, and I can’t bear the thought.” “I’m afraid for my son,” says a father from Arkansas. “He has been diagnosed with a brain tumor at forty-four, which would have been devastating enough if he had not already lost his identical twin brother to the same disease …

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To Defend Mideast Christians, Can Advocates Critique Islam?

Diaspora leaders in America disagree on how to improve religious freedom back home.

What’s the best way for Middle Eastern Christians in America to help fellow believers back home? A single misspelled email address inadvertently revealed the breadth of this dilemma for activists in the diaspora.

The mishap sparked a spat this summer between two prominent US Arab groups: the Arab American Institute (AAI), a polling and policy organization led by James Zogby, and Coptic Solidarity (CS), which champions the religious freedom of Egyptian Christians and other minorities.

Zogby, who has a Lebanese Maronite background, was a scheduled participant in CS’s annual Washington conference, which leaders often use to advise DC’s foreign policy establishment on Middle East issues.

But two days before the June 15 conference, Zogby unexpectedly withdrew.

Zogby explained in an article weeks later that he withdrew after receiving word that some controversial anti-Muslim “hate groups” would be at the conference and that the title of a panel in which he was participating had been revised to suggest that violence and impunity are endemic in Muslim and Egyptian culture.

“The best way to reinforce the message of the haters of Christians in Egypt is by giving them the ammunition that Copts in the US are working with Islamophobes in Washington,” Zogby told CT. “I felt it important to call out CS for what I strongly believe is a wrong-headed and potentially dangerous path.”

Stunned by Zogby’s withdrawal and his public criticism, CS wrote an angry response, accusing Zogby of a “dhimmi mentality,” a reference to the secondary status of non-Muslims in the historic caliphate.

“He intentionally tried to hijack our event and tarnish our reputation,” Lindsay Griffin, …

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