Archive for July, 2019

A Cathedral of Crystal

Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday marked a new day for one of the most famous architectural landmarks in the United States and, really, in the world.  Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated its first Mass in what was once dubbed the “Crystal Cathedral.”

The Crystal Cathedral was the brainchild of famed televangelist Robert Schuller.  He moved to Orange County, California in 1955 to plant a church.  And oh, did he ever.  He launched his congregation at the Orange Drive-In Movie Theatre, where he preached from the roof of the snack bar to people as they sat in their cars.  “Come as you are; pray in the family car,” was his slogan.  From there, he went on to launch and build Garden Grove Community Church.  Though his new church building featured a more traditional sanctuary, it still allowed worshipers to remain in their cars in the parking lot and listen to worship if they did not wish to go inside.

By the 1970s, the church had outgrown its current facility.  Thus, in 1977, Robert Schuller joined with famous architect Philip Johnson to construct the Crystal Cathedral at a cost of $18 million.  What began as a drive-in movie theatre mission plant was now a world-famous megachurch.  During the 1980s, the TV program that Robert Schuller hosted from his Crystal Cathedral, The Hour of Power, was the most watched religious program in America.

But trouble and turmoil bubbled up when it was time for the church’s founding pastor to hand over the reins.  At first, his son was to become the new senior pastor.  Then his daughter led the congregation for a short time.  Then his grandson took over.  The tumultuous transition took a severe toll on the congregation, which had to file for bankruptcy.  What was once, arguably, the most famous worship space in America soon fell silent on Sunday mornings.  Yesterday, however, the Crystal Cathedral sprung back into action as a space for worship, although it has been remodeled and renamed by the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Orange as Christ Cathedral.

The story of the Crystal Cathedral is a cautionary tale of the kind of damage rocky leadership transitions can do to tender congregational ties.  It is also a cautionary tale, however, of the danger of having a larger-than-life pastoral personality displace the person of Christ in a congregation.  It doesn’t really matter whether the displacement takes place intentionally or unintentionally.  The effect is the same.  When the people in the pews become more enamored by a church’s leader than by the Lamb of God, when the leader leaves, the people will, too.

As a pastor, I know how difficult it can be to lead strongly while also pointing humbly to Jesus.  It can be difficult because people naturally tend to gravitate toward someone they can physically see, like a pastor, instead of someone they cannot, like the One who is now enthroned in the heavenly realms.  It can also be difficult, however, because there is a part of me that wants people to look at me and to me – to love me.  It is at these times that I must remind myself that the goal of ministry is not to get love for me, but to encourage love for Jesus.

John the Baptist once said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  This is a statement of how to do ministry, yes, but it is also a reality of ministry.  If you’re a pastor, like it or not, you will eventually decrease.  No one’s ministry lasts forever – except for Jesus’.  So, point people to the Minister and the ministry that will long outlast yours.  His ministry will stand, long after our world’s cathedrals of crystal close.

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July 29, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Do Children and Happiness Go Together?

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Credit: Emma Bauso from Pexels

“Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from Him.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.  Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-5)

These ancient words from the Psalmist used to be fairly uncontroversial.  But more recently, a flood of studies and stories have been published questioning whether or not it really is good to have children.  A 2011 study by Thomas Hansen, for instance, found that parents without children reported higher levels of life satisfaction than parents with children.  A 2003 study by the National Council on Family Relations found that couples who did not have children reported higher levels of romance and closeness in their relationships.  Finally, a famous 2004 study by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman found that out of 16 activities, taking care of children ranked above only housework and commuting in terms of enjoyability.

The sociologists, it seemed, had spoken.  Having kids was not all it was cracked up to be.  But new research suggests that what the sociologists once took away in their studies might be best given back.

In a recent story from The Economist, Letizia Mencarini of Bocconi University explains that “a new generation of research…suggests that children are more likely to make parents happy than was once thought,” though parents’ ongoing happiness is not merely based on the presence of children themselves, but on a multiplicity of factors:

Whether parents are married is one.  Single parents are usually less happy than married ones.  The age of the child is another.  Children under ten seem to bring more joy than those over that age.  And money matters a lot.  David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Clarke of the Paris School of Economics managed to isolate the financial strain of raising children as an influence on parental happiness.  They argue that it is the cost of raising kids, rather than children in the abstract, that reduces pleasure.

But the most important influence seems to be the pressure of work.  It has long been known that the difficulty of balancing the demands of work and home life increase exponentially when children arrive and this results in a significant amount of stress…

This research is interesting, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising.  All of these findings seem to correspond to pretty traditional views on marriage and family.  Married parents are important to the rearing of children.  The teenage years can be difficult.  Financial stability allows families room to enjoy themselves.  And family is to be prioritized over work, even if your workplace disagrees.  All of these things I already knew – not because a sociologist told me, but because my own parents did.

Sometimes, there’s a reason common and classic wisdom is common and classic.  In this case, sociological research pointed to a lot of what a lot us already knew.  The question, however, is not whether we knew this, but whether or not we will live according to this.  Our society is rife with deadbeat dads, self-absorbed parents, and financial instability on the one hand juxtaposed against workaholism on the other.  No wonder we’re so vulnerable to being miserable.  The problem, it turns out, is not really our kids.  The problem is us.

The solution to our unhappiness, then, is not to adjust our fertility rates downward.  It’s to adjust our values, our decisions, and our commitments heavenward.  For when we do this, we might just find that even though the Psalmist was no sociologist, he was right.  Children are a blessing from the Lord.  May we be willing to address our own brokenness so we can receive them as such.

July 22, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Is the Internet Replacing the Pastor?

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Credit: Ben White on Unsplash

A new survey finds that fewer and fewer Americans are seeking guidance from clergy.  According to a poll released last week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research:

Three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time … While the poll finds a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.

According to Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame, part of the reason behind the reticence to speak with a clergy person can be traced to technology:

In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of “experts” apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own.  Think about the use of Google.  You can literally Google anything.  Should I have children?  What career should I have?  When should I make a will?  How do I deal with a difficult child?  In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self.  You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.

Professor O’Malley’s observations are not only true culturally, they are also true for me personally.  When I have felt ill, I have Googled my symptoms to see what I might have, which according to my searches, usually turns out to be a dreaded and deadly disease.  When I have needed to fix something around the house, I have Googled how-to guides to walk me through a project step-by-step.  It is not surprising that many people would do the same thing on issues about which they used to consult clergy.

And yet, this trend away from clergy consultations is not necessarily always beneficial, nor is it inevitable or irreversible.  This same poll also notes:

Nearly half say they’re at least moderately likely to consult with a clergy member or religious leader about volunteering or charitable giving.  About 4 in 10 say they’re at least moderately likely to consult about marriage, divorce or relationships.

There are things for which people still seek out clergy.

As a member of the clergy myself, this research certainly piqued my interest.  For those reading who are also clergy, this poll should serve as a reminder that we must be faithful, biblical, caring, and compassionate in our callings.  If we are sloppy in our pastoral care, distant in our conversations, theologically vacuous and trite in our comforts, or harsh and unsympathetic in our guidance, we can and will be replaced by a search box and some algorithms, which may or may not turn up good results.  For those who are reading who are not clergy, my plea to you would be to remember that the Church is not just a dispenser of information, but a place for conversation.  The value of sitting down with a pastor is that he may invite you to ask questions of yourself you may not think to ask if you’re just typing terms into a search box.  He is also commissioned to share with you not just his wisdom, but God’s Word.

One of the people interviewed as a part of this study, Timothy Buchanan, notes that the move away from consulting clergy is part of a broader trend:

People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help.  For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling … instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.

This is keen insight.  As access to information on a screen becomes increasingly easier, reaching out to find personal interaction can feel cumbersome and burdensome.  But even if googling stuff is faster and easier, this truth remains:  we need each other.  Internet searches cannot fix real world loneliness.

As a member of the clergy, then, my invitation to anyone who needs a pastor is this:  a pastor would love to be able to love and care for you.  That’s a big part of what got many pastors got into this business.  So, if you’re in need, don’t just read a blog – including this one – pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with your pastor, or, if you don’t have a pastor, with a pastor who is part of a biblically-based and Christ-centered congregation.  Your struggle or question or grief is important – because you are important.

Google may be able to tell you that.  But it can’t show you that.  So, reach out to a person who will.

July 15, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Depression, Mental Health, and Spiritual Health

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The statistics are scary.  U.S. suicide rates are on a steep incline.  Writing for Bloomberg, Cynthia Koons explains:

So many statistics say that life in the U.S. is getting better.  Unemployment is at the lowest level since 1969.  Violent crime has fallen sharply since the 1990s – cities such as New York are safer than they’ve ever been.  And Americans lived nine years longer, on average, in 2017 than they did in 1960.  It would make sense that the psychic well-being of the nation would improve along with measures like that. 

Yet something isn’t right.  In 2017, 47,000 people died by suicide, and there were 1.4 million suicide attempts. U.S. suicide rates are at the highest level since World War II, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on June 20, when it released a study on the problem.  And it’s getting worse: The U.S. suicide rate increased on average by about 1% a year from 2000 through 2006 and by 2% a year from 2006 through 2016.

While life may be getting better materially, suicide rates are also climbing precipitously.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34.  Ms. Koons goes on to conjecture why this is.  In her mind, the problem is rooted primarily in a lack of public funding for mental health resources to help those struggling with and suffering from depression:

Most people are at the mercy of their company’s health plans when it comes to seeking care; a person with fewer benefits simply wouldn’t have access to the best resources for either crisis care or chronic mental health treatment.  Even for those fortunate enough to be able to pay out of pocket, availability of providers ranges wildly across the U.S., from 50 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Washington, D.C., for example, to 5.3 per 100,000 in Idaho, according to research from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center.  And despite laws requiring insurers to offer mental health benefits at the same level as other medical coverage, many make it difficult to find appropriate treatment and limit residential care.

Although I am certainly open to the idea of making more resources available for depression, it should also be noted that one of our most publicly preferred paths of care – that of medication – seems to be not only ill-equipped, but virtually non-equipped to handle our current crisis.  As Ms. Koons notes:

The use of antidepressants in Australia, Canada, England, the U.S., and other wealthy countries didn’t lead to a decline in the prevalence and symptoms of mood disorders despite substantial increases in the use of the drugs from 1990 to 2015. 

In light of this, perhaps we need to consider not only the clinical causes of depression, but the cultural ones as well.  Here’s what I mean.

21st century Western culture has sacralized the values of achievement and freedom.  Achievement is a value that can look virtuous – stories of self-made people impress us to this day – but can often lead people to trade what is truly virtuous – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – for what is merely selfish – the lust for things like riches, success, and fame.  Likewise, our culture’s vaunted value of freedom often collapses into its dark twin of individualism as people begin to engage in personal licentiousness instead of being devoted to their community’s liberty.  Instead of living together in a free society that respects and learns from disagreements, we demand agreement with and celebration of our individual choices and proclivities, even if they are manifestly immoral and damaging to our social fabric.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people wind up deeply depressed.  Emptiness is the inevitable end of every self-obsessed pursuit.  We simply cannot fill ourselves with ourselves.  We need something – and, really, Someone – outside of us to fill us, which is why the apostle Paul writes:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him. (Romans 15:13)

In our frenetic search to find medical preventions and interventions for depression, let’s not forget the spiritual voids, which our culture often willingly creates and celebrates, that also contribute to the depressed state of our society.  Yes, people who are depressed need a good doctor.  But they also need a Savior.

Let’s make sure we offer both.

July 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

What If The Culture War Is Lost?

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Credit: Aaron Burden

Over my years in ministry, I have had many conversations with people who are frightened by the path Western society seems to be walking.  Secularization and hostility to Christian claims seem to be on the uptick.  In a recent article for First Things, Sohrab Ahmari described our current situation as a “cultural civil war” and claimed that we must “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”  In order to achieve this “Highest Good,” Mr. Ahmari calls for an offensive attack against the secularizing forces in society based in a realpolitik, claiming that “civility and decency are secondary values” in our fight.  Our opposition, he explains, does not practice civility and decency, so why should we?  In Mr. Ahmari’s view, the “Highest Good” can only be achieved only through baser means.  Any other path is naïve, idealistic, and dangerous, he argues.

Frankly, I do not share Mr. Ahmari’s view – partially because I don’t think we can forfeit what is moral now for the sake of winning a fight and expect to be taken seriously when we try to point people to what is moral later, and partially because I do not believe this is a war we can win, at least using standard political tactics.  This does not mean that we do not argue for Christianity in the cultural mainstream, but it does mean that we should be thinking about new ways to argue for Christianity now that, at least in some areas of the country, we have been pushed to the fringes – if not outside – of the cultural mainstream.

This past week, Alison Lesley, writing for World Religion News, told the story of Wayne Cordeiro, a well-known pastor from Hawaii, who took a recent trip to China.  Christians there are severely persecuted and can be imprisoned simply for owning a Bible.  Ms. Lesley tells the story of a secret Bible study Pastor Cordeiro led with a group of Chinese Christians:

The group was short on Bibles. When Pastor Cordeiro asked them to turn to 2 Peter, he noticed that one of the women had handed her Bible to another leader while managing to recite the entire book.

When he asked her about it during a break, she replied, saying that prisoners have a lot of time in prison.  Pastor Cordeiro then asked if the Bibles were confiscated in prison.  She replied saying that while the Bibles are confiscated, people smuggle in pieces of paper with bits of Scripture on them.

She added that people memorize these scriptures as fast as they can because even if they take the paper away, they can’t take away “what’s hidden in your heart.”

The response of these Chinese Christians to persecution is astounding and admirable.  They have no constitutional protections, no social capital, and no legal resource or recourse to push back against an oppressive and atheistically oriented government.  Yet, the Church in China continues to grow because Christians there understand that Christianity can be lost on a culture while still thriving in the hearts of individuals.  No matter what is happening societally, they can still hold God’s Word in their hearts.

I pray that I never find myself in the same situation as these Chinese Christians.  Yet, I also take comfort in the fact that the Church can withstand any cultural confrontation.  Even if Christians lose their comforts in a particular culture, they never need to lose their souls because of any culture.  Culture wars may be lost, but the battle for our salvation has already been won.  As we struggle in our culture, let us never forget this promise for our souls.

July 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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