Posts filed under ‘Current Trends’

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.

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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

Death Is Not a Part of Life

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When the gritty reality of death threatens to destroy the creature comforts and status-saturations of a decadent life, the resulting tension can be enormously uncomfortable.  This tension was on full display last week in an admittedly scintillating article from the tabloid newspaper The Sun, which declared in a headline, “To Infinity & Beyond: From ‘young blood’ transfusions to apocalypse insurance – weird ways tech billionaires are trying to live forever.”

The article chronicled attempts to cheat death by such luminaries as Jeff Bezos, who is funding research to try to find a “cure” for aging, and Peter Thiel, who is rumored to have interest in transfusing blood from young, healthy people into those who are elderly in an attempt to make them young again.  Though these schemes sound, on their face, cockamamie, they are also oddly understandable.  Death is intransigently menacing.  So, it feels natural to want to try to figure out a way to deal with it – to face it down, to cut it down, and to turn it back.  But try as we might, death always seems to find a way to do to us what we want to do to it – to face us down, to cut us down, and to turn us back…into dust.

Two weekends ago, a heart-rending article appeared in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times by a self-avowed atheist mother who lost her four-month-old infant son.  Amber Scorah’s description of her struggle is potent:

Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life.

What I had not prepared myself for was death.  Grief without faith.  Which is to say, death without hope …

My son was almost 4 months old when he stopped breathing at day care.  It was his first day there, the first time I had left his side.  Neither the doctors nor investigators could tell us why it happened …

Days passed, days in which nonsensically I lived while my son did not …

If belief were a choice, I might choose it.  But it’s not.  I don’t trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it’s not something we know.  If we can’t even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die? …

This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.

Amber’s memoir is impossible to read without getting choked up.  Here is pain, raw and real.  But her pain, in many ways, poses only more questions.  If there is nothing beyond this life, and this is just a fact of life, from where does our hatred of this fact come?  After millions of years of evolutionary progress, hewed out by unrelenting broadsides from death, why can’t we just get over life’s end already?

Perhaps the reason we can’t get over life’s end is because we shouldn’t get over life’s end.  Perhaps our hatred of death – whether this hatred be in the form of a tragic loss like Amber’s or in the form of awkward attempts to bankroll immortality by the world’s super rich – betrays a bias against death that is appropriate, right, and even natural.  Perhaps we are hardwired to know, deep down, that things are not supposed to be this way.  And no amount of atheist and evolutionary philosophizing and rationalizing can convince us otherwise.

Amber tries to salve her longing for life by devoting herself to the study of this life, or so she claims.  She writes:

Asked about death once, Confucius answered, simply, “We haven’t yet finished studying life, so why delve into the question of death?”  The question of my son’s death – the mystery of it, why he vanished – remains without answer.  And so I ask the questions of life:  What force grew this little child?  How did those limbs form themselves from nothing inside of me?  Why did I have the power to make him, but not to bring him back?  

While claiming she has devoted herself to the study of this life, she manages to lapse right back in to pondering her son’s death.  Death, it seems, finds a way to successfully stalk her life.

Jesus once said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  He was, like Amber, a student of life.  But He was also, like Amber, stalked by death.  And so, Jesus claims to be the answer to the billionaires and grieving mothers alike who struggle with death – He can face down, cut down, and turn back death.

Try as we might, we can’t quite seem to normalize and naturalize death – which just might mean that the claim that Jesus makes of being resurrection and life is worth our investigation.  It just might mean that Jesus is not so much calling for us to suspend disbelief for the sake of the supernatural as He is calling for us to admit what we already intuitively know is very natural – that death is not a part of life, but an enemy against life that must be defeated.

We can’t help ourselves.  We hate death and want life.  Jesus promises to defeat death and give life.  And if His promise is true – and I believe that it is – then He is the answer to our irretractable longings.

June 10, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Pursuit of Something Greater Than Happiness

I’ve heard it more than once from someone who feels weighted down by life’s doldrums: “I just want to be happy.”  Happiness, it seems, is many people’s decisive goal and good.  And who can blame them?  Our nation has as its sacrosanct trinity life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We hold it as self-evident that we should be able to do whatever makes us happy.

But this begs the question:  What does make us happy?

If you believe behavioral scientist Paul Dolan, being a single woman without children is a highway to happiness that too few have travelled.  In an article for The Guardian, Sian Cain reports:

We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up: unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.  And they are more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness …

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said the latest evidence showed that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness – particularly marriage and raising children.

The article goes on to explain that men benefit from marriage more than women, mainly because men take fewer risks, earn more money, and live longer when married.  Conversely, women who are never married, according to Professor Dolan’s research, are healthier and live longer than women who are married.

On their face, Professor Dolan’s conclusions sound open and shut.  But the waters become muddied as the article continues:

The study found that levels of happiness reported by those who were married was higher than the unmarried, but only when their spouse was in the room.  Unmarried individuals reported lower levels of misery than married individuals who were asked when their spouse was not present.

Other studies have measured some financial and health benefits in being married for both men and women on average, which Dolan said could be attributed to higher incomes and emotional support, allowing married people to take risks and seek medical help.

Wait.  What?  So it’s not that unmarried women are happier than married women per se, it’s that they’re less miserable?  Less misery does not equate to being happy any more than having fewer cancer cells after chemotherapy equates to being healthy.  Moreover, other studies show, as this article admits, that marriage does bring certain benefits, including better health.  So, which is it?  Are unmarried women healthier or sicklier?  Are they better off or worse off?  The evidence, at best, seems inconclusive, which means that one can’t help but wonder whether Professor Dolan is following the evidence or manipulating it as he formulates his conclusions.

Beyond the evidentiary and interpretive questions surrounding Professor Dolan’s study, there is an even larger philosophical question we must consider:  Should happiness really be our goal?  I’m not arguing that happiness is not good; I’m just not sure it’s ultimate.  Many of history’s most compelling figures – from Socrates to Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Winston Churchill to Jesus Christ – sacrificed personal happiness for lasting impact.  Dionysus, it turns out, may be a great addition to life, but if you make him the goal of life, you might just forfeit the very happiness he purports to promise.

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, personifies Eros, which is romantic and sensual love, as saying, “Better to be miserable with her than happy without her.  Let our hearts break provided they break together.”  Sometimes, misery that loves its company is better than happiness that is shallowly self-indulgent.  And this is true not just of erotic love, but of every kind of love.  Just ask the parent who stands by a wayward and wily child or the child who cares for an aging and ailing parent.  They will testify to the righteousness of and strange fulfillment that comes from a willingness to endure misery for the sake of love.

The biblical word for love that endures misery is “longsuffering.”  God is willing, the Bible says, to suffer long with His rebellious people because He loves them.  And in Jesus, He is willing even to suffer long for His rebellious people because He loves them.

Hopefully, your love is not miserable.  In fact, if it is, I would encourage you to seek help.  Just because love that is willing to endure misery can be good doesn’t mean that it is.  Have someone speak into your life who can tell you candidly whether the misery you’re experiencing is nobly selfless or just plain stupid.  With this being said, I am thankful that I have a Savior who was willing to be miserable on a cross for me.  That, oddly enough, brings me great happiness – and thankfulness.

June 3, 2019 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Women and Babies: Let’s Choose Both

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It’s been a watershed week for abortion law in this country.  Last week, the state of Alabama passed legislation outlawing abortions, except in cases where the mother’s life is endangered.  Just three days later, Missouri passed a bill that outlaws abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy.  These restrictions follow on the heels of a series of “heartbeat bills” passed this year in Ohio, Georgia, and Mississippi, which ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable.

These bills have sparked angry debate as a yawning chasm has opened over the issue of abortion.  Governor Kay Ivey, who signed Alabama’s bill into law, tweeted last Wednesday:

Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act.  To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.

On the other side, progressive firebrand and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted shortly after Governor Ivey:

Ultimately, this is about women’s power.  When women are in control of their sexuality, it threatens a core element underpinning right-wing ideology: patriarchy.  It’s a brutal form of oppression to seize control of the 1 essential thing a person should command: their own body.

The talking points for both sides are set.  The arguments are entrenched.  The legal battle is being staged.  And there’s plenty of animus to go around.

Personally, I uphold the value and dignity of life, whether that life be in the womb, out of womb, young, or old.  So, when a third-world despot subjects his people to disease and starvation, I shudder.  When another story of another school shooting makes headlines, I am angered.  And yes, when a child’s life is taken at the hands of an abortion doctor, I am grieved.

All of this does not mean, however, that I am unsympathetic to women who, when they darken the doors of an abortion clinic, are often confused and scared of what having a baby will be like.  Neither does this mean that I am unsympathetic to women who, after having and abortion, often struggle deeply with feelings of guilt and regret.

As with many debates in our current culture, caricatures that fall largely along “either-or” lines have been developed for the sake of simplicity and tribal identity – either you care about the wellbeing of women or you care about the life of the unborn.

I care about both.  And I have a hunch you might, too.

The Psalmist calls us to “defend the weak” (Psalm 82:3).  Babies in utero are most definitely members of the weak.  It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to defend them and to speak up for them.  But women who are pregnant and scared, along with women who have had abortions and are ashamed, can also feel weak.  It is critical, therefore, that we love and help them by offering hope for joyful lives beyond their most frightening moments.

We should care about both babies and women, for, ultimately, we are called to care for all.  In a political moment where anger burns hot, loving both babies and the women who carry them may just be the one thing that is hard to hate.

May 20, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Venezuela’s Long Fight for Freedom

SEE IT: Armored military vehicle plows into protesters as violence breaks out in Venezuela

Credit: NTN24

In a scene reminiscent of the slaughter at Tiananmen Square, last Tuesday, a Venezuela National Guard vehicle ran over a group of protestors who were supportive of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, after he called upon members of that nation’s military to rise up against President Nicolás Maduro.  Nicholas Casey reported on the situation for The New York Times:

It was the boldest move yet by Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s opposition leader: at sunrise, he stood flanked by soldiers at an air force base in the heart of the capital, saying rebellion was at hand …

In the streets, anti-government demonstrators clashed with forces loyal to the president amid reports of live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas. A health clinic in Caracas took in 69 people injured during the day. An armored vehicle rammed protesters, but it was not immediately clear how many people were hurt … 

Since January, Mr. Guaidó has run what amounts to a parallel government, counting on support from more than 50 countries, including the United States, even as Mr. Maduro remains the country’s leader. Despite Mr. Maduro’s low popularity, however, the opposition’s momentum has been sapped as Mr. Guaidó has failed to depose the president or solve the shortages of food, medicine, water and power that plague the country’s 30 million people.

Venezuela is in trouble.  And anyone who has been watching knows that Venezuela has been in trouble for a very long time.

President Trump has been a strong supporter of Mr. Guaidó’s opposition movement, decrying Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian rule.  As news of the protests broke, the president tweeted:

I am monitoring the situation in Venezuela very closely. The United States stands with the People of Venezuela and their Freedom! 

The freedom of the Venezuelan people is indeed critical.  How to attain such a freedom, however, is complicated.  When President Maduro first came to power in Venezuela in 2013, some people saw him as a national savior, following the disastrous presidency of Hugo Chávez.  They were most certainly wrong.  His crimes against his people are many and well-documented as he has continued his predecessor’s legacy of economic and humanitarian oppression.  As is often the case, politicians who promise to save a nation often only wind up becoming authoritarian and crooked.  To use the famed axiom of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt.”

Ultimately, freedom cannot be given by any man, whether that man be Nicolás Maduro or Juan Guaidó, for freedom is not the property of any man.  But freedom can be celebrated and protected by every man.  This is why the framers of our Constitution were not so interested in enumerating the powers of our government as they were in limiting the powers of our government.

Venezuela’s struggles remain.  And it will take humble people who hold power lightly – instead of dictators who wield power recklessly – to begin to truly address the country’s ills.  The exercise of power must yield to the practice of compassion.  Venezuelan lives depend on it.

May 6, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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