Monday, January 26, 2009

Gary Haugen of IJM in New Yorker

Gary Haugen, the president of International Justice Mission (an organization that I've written about before here on the blog and one that our church supports), was the subject of a full article in The New Yorker magazine last week. The reporter for the magazine does a great job covering Haugen's work, but is obviously conflicted about how she feels about Haugen's organization, shifting from admiration for their work to suspicion about their evangelical identity. Here are some money quotes from the article...
Haugen, who was educated at Harvard and at the University of Chicago Law School, is a forty-five-year-old evangelical Christian who believes that Christians have generally ignored the Biblical injunction to “seek justice, protect the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In 1997, he created the International Justice Mission to offer legal services to the poor in developing countries. Haugen believes that the biggest problem on earth is not too little democracy, or too much poverty, or too few anti-retroviral AIDS medicines, but, rather, an absence of proper law enforcement. Three hundred Christian lawyers, criminal investigators, social workers, and advocates at Haugen’s mission now work with local law-enforcement officials in twelve countries on behalf of individuals in need: bonded laborers, children who have been sold into prostitution, widows who have had their land seized, poor people who, like Mutungi, languish in jail for crimes they did not commit.

His office, in Crystal City, Virginia, resembles the corporate law firms across the Potomac: marble desks, dark wood, and a willed air of humorlessness which, he says, “is intended to ooze ‘serious.’ ” Few law firms, however, begin each workday by assembling for thirty minutes of silence and “prayerful preparation.” Employees who arrive at the office between eight-thirty and nine o’clock find the door locked, and a sign suggesting that they go get a cup of coffee. (Another prayer session is held at eleven.)

But Haugen is not that easy to pigeonhole. He is fiercely critical of Christians whose moral rhetoric is not backed up with action. He does not speak a foreign language, but he is proud that ninety per cent of the mission’s international staff are nationals of the countries where they work. And though he insists that the mission hire only Christian lawyers, investigators, and administrators—the group’s Web site asks job applicants to include “a statement of faith,” in which they describe their “spiritual disciplines” and their place of worship—the mission takes cases without inquiring about the creed of the potential client.

Let's thank God today for the declaration that Haugen's work is making about the heart of Jesus Christ toward those facing injustice.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Traywick on India

Brady Trayick, the pastor of Crossroad Community Church in Austin (an association church-plant) recently went to India and spent some time with church-planters who are passionate about reaching their nation for Christ. He sent out an email when he returned with some great thoughts on his trip. I share them with you here...
Several words frame my recent experience......Simplicity, Suffering, Passion, Urgency, Suck-it-up (okay, so not a word but phrase).

......the Indian church is rapidly reproducing itself and seeing the fruit we only dream about here......why? perhaps - because all of the trappings of materialism are cut away and they simply obey the Scripture. They tell their story, they tell His story, and they give account. Then they repeat the process.

Suffering seems shallow, empty, very hallow to even type about this: We have no clue, better yet - I have no clue of the real meaning of suffering. Truly their suffering is not 'theoretical', it is not a suffering of is real, it is visible, it is brutal.

......not the charismatic, I am so happy, I lift my hands to the Lord kind of passion - but real depth, breadth, kind of.....quiet strength that comes only after real suffering. You can see it in their eyes, hear it in their is authentic, validated by first hand experience - not possibilities.

......every trip to the "ends of the earth" only stirs my passion for my Jerusalem. My first inclination is to sell the farm and move the whole family tomorrow. I am confident that this will happen before God checks me out, Lord willing. Yet for now.....I am stirred with renewed passion that my Jerusalem needs the 'grace and mercy' of JC.

Suck It Up
......we (I) need to quit whining! Christians need to get off of the couch and start telling their story, start telling His story, and then give an account. How much more 'equipping' do we need before we implode? We, (I) need to die to the American Dream and live with full abandon toward an eternal perspective. We need to engage people with the gospel at all costs and with all measures. Time is short!
Well said, Brady - thanks for the challenge!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: What Americans Really Believe (4/5)

I've reviewed one Rodney Stark book before on my blog - his amazing work on early Christianity called The Rise of Christianity. In this book, Stark continues his pattern of using great research to challenge the common misconceptions that people inside and outside the church have about the Christian faith. I really appreciated his insights in What Americans Really Believe because I hear all the wrong conclusions in the circles I run with all the time. Pastors tend to continue to spread summary statements like "We're losing this generation of young people" or "The church is shrinking in America" or "Mega-churches have low standards for their people" without any supporting data. This book is definitely not for everyone (hence the 4/5 rating) because it contains lots of data and lots of charts about American religious life. But for a pastor in the trenches, it was very helpful.

Here are my pick of the top ten points that Stark makes in this book...

(1) Weekly church attendance as percentage of American population has been consistent over the last 50 years. Now people may report that they attend weekly when they actually don't (called the Halo effect), but the data shows that the same percentage of Americans have reported they attend weekly over the last 50 years.

(2) Conservative, evangelical denominations have been growing rapidly over the last 50 years while more liberal denominations have been shrinking. While attendance has been consistent overall, it has not been consistent across denominations. Those who believe the Bible and teach the historical doctrines of the faith have been growing, while those who don't have been getting smaller.

(3) The percentage of Americans who belong to a local church (members) has increased from 17% in 1776 to 69% in 2005. Despite the common myth that America has gone from churched to unchurched over the course of our nation's history, the data shows the opposite. That separation of church from state (no government funding of churches) has helped churches become more competitive for members and thus increased the percentage of churched Americans.

(4) Across the board, mega-churches tend to be more conservative doctrinally and expect more of their members than small congregations. Despite the common belief that big is bad, larger churches seem to be growing because they are more committed to the gospel, not less, and because they ask more from their members.

(5) Most Americans believe in a real heaven and real hell, and that they will most likely be going to heaven. Americans are interesting in that they believe that God created hell, but that He won't be sending anyone there when they die.

(6) As Americans make more money, the percentage of what they give to their local church goes down. In other words, the poorest Americans give the highest percent of their income. People who make less than $20k a year give 6.2% on average, while those that make over $100k a year give 2.2% on average. I would think that this shows us that more wealth makes us more selfish and less generous.

(7) The percentage of Americans who don't believe in God has held steady at 4% from 1944 until 2007. Despite constant claims that more and more Americans are denying God's existance because of the increase of scientific knowledge, Stark's research shows that the same percentage of Americans are atheists today as were in 1944.

(8) Irreligious Americans are most likely unchurched but not atheists. Somewhat related to the last point, this insight helps those of us trying to reach people in our culture who are irreligious. The people who are irreligious are not necessarily hostile toward the idea of God, but more likely just turned off by the church.

(9) Level of education does not correlate with level of church involvement. This was one of my favorite findings in Stark's book because it puts to bed the myth that stupid, uneducated people are religious and highly educated people are irreligious. Instead, Stark's team found that the % of people involved in church varies little between those who did not complete high school and those with post-graduate education.

(10) People are 50% less likely to be divorced if they attend religious services at least twice a month. Despite all the research showing that Christians have the same divorce rate as non-Christians, Stark goes at the question not from the angle of what people believe, but what they actually do. Regular church-attenders are much less likely to get divorced.

Awesome stuff, huh? I'd love to chat about any of these if you want...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Same Kind of Different As Me (5/5)

Wow! This book is a tremendous read. Same Kind of Different As Me recounts the true story of two men whose lives become connected in a most unlikely way. One is a white, rich art-dealer from Ft. Worth (Ron) , and the other is a black homeless man who grew up in the cotton fields of Louisiana (Denver). They connect at a homeless shelter in Ft. Worth after Ron's wife, Debbie, feels the call from God to work at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Ft. Worth. Neither man's life would ever be the same.

The chapters rotate point of view between Ron and Denver, giving the story a quick pace and the reader insight into the two men's different worldviews. I appreciate the honesty and transparency of both throughout the book as they share the triumphs celebrated and scars endured on their different journeys.

The book reads so much like fiction that many times I had the thought in the back of my mind that there is no way these events occurred in this way. I guess the ever-increasing reports of forgery and plagiarism in the publishing industry makes me suspicious of everyone's claims these days (so sad - check out the latest account here). But, the flip side is that this is simply a very well-written book about actual events. I am thankful to God for having read this book because it reminds me about God's heart for all people, rich and poor, and our tendency to judge people quickly before we ever get to know their story. Everyone has a story - maybe we just need to spend more time listening so we can see what God is up to in the lives of those we meet.

Thanks, Ron and Denver, for reminding me to open my eyes to all that God is doing in each person's life. May God give each of us a heart of compassion and love for others.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Book Review: Sea of Glory (3/5)

My sweet mother-in-law gave me a novel for Christmas called Sea of Glory, a fictional account of four chaplains who worked together on a transport ship in World War II that was sent to the ocean floor by a German U-boat. The crux of the story is the heroism and selflessness displayed by the chaplains when the boat was going down. All four men gave their life-jackets to other men on board who had left their jackets down below instead of bringing them on deck. This part of the story was incredibly moving to read and made me appreciate even more the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on my behalf. We say all the time that "Jesus died for us," but this story is a great reminder that someone freely laying down their life for another is the greatest act of love. I enjoyed reading the background of each of these men and seeing how they came together out of theologically diverse traditions.

All that being said, I would only give this book 3 out of 5 stars in my rating because of some glaring weaknesses. First, the story was just not written that well. The material is naturally captivating, but the authors could have spent more time writing with passion and not just recounting events. Second, the fictional accounts of the events on board the ship make these four chaplains seem completely unreal. Who talks like these guys do in this book? Were they perfect guys? They never argued, had conflict or disagreed with one another? All hard to believe. Finally, the theological differences that these guys held is minimized to the point of absurdity. Of course they could work together and get along, but the authors want us to believe that they never disagreed about how to counsel the soldiers on board. The Judea-Christian tradition has similarities, but the differences are significant. I just wish they had spent more time building tension in the story rather than giving us unrealistic portrayals of the events on the ship.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Keller on Humility

Keller has a great article in Christianity Today about humility and the gospel. As usual, he shows us how the gospel is central to every part of the Christian life. A key quote:

There are two basic narrative identities at work among professing Christians. The first is what I will call the moral-performance narrative identity. These are people who in their heart of hearts say, I obey; therefore I am accepted by God. The second is what I will call the grace narrative identity. This basic operating principle is, I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.

People living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may superficially look alike. They may sit right beside one another in the church pew, both striving to obey the law of God, to pray, to give money generously, to be good family members. But they are doing so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, resulting in radically different personal characters.

What narrative identity am I working from? I hope the second, realizing that all that I have is by the grace of God that I have found in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Reading Scripture in 2009

You might remember that I read through the Bible in 2008 in 90-days (in the first three months of the year). I highly enjoyed the experience and felt like I grew in my personal discipline and appreciation for reading the Bible as a whole narrative, not just as disjunctive pieces of literature. This year, in 2009, I have committed to slow down my Bible reading to a two-year pace and to read a different translation, The Message. I've read parts of Peterson's paraphrase over the last few years, but I would like to read it from cover to cover. I'm going to follow this 2-year Bible reading plan that takes you through the psalms, proverbs, and the NT more than once during the two years while you are working your way systematically through the OT. Pray that I will stay disciplined over these two years and that my ears will be open to hear God's voice each day. May God captivate your heart and transform your mind through His Word in 2009...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Christmas Thoughts from Douthat

One of the thoughtful bloggers that I read regularly is a guy name Ross Douthat who works for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. He is a believer and writes insightfully about faith in today's world. He writes primarily about public policy and politics, but he includes posts now and then about his Christian faith. I especially liked his Christmas day post about the difference the incarnation makes in our daily lives. He writes in response to Christopher Hitchen's recent article stating that the discovery of Jesus' body wouldn't change anything. Douthat is right-on in his response. Check it out here.