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.

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July 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Faith and Authority

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Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

I find people’s faith stories fascinating.  Take, for instance, Rachel Meyer, who, in an article for the Huffington Post, chronicles her struggle of how she might be able to pass down her faith to her son.

She opens her piece by talking about a man she dated when she was in her early 20s.  When she asked him whether or not he believed in God, he responded, “I believe in ME.”  “I knew in that instant,” she writes, “it would never work between us.”  Why?  Well, she continues:

I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology.  I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world.

Her spiritual world, however, is not what many would expect.  She sums up her creedal commitments by rattling off a litany of things she does not believe:

I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it.  I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks.  I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy.  I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion.

For the record, as a confessional Christian, I don’t believe in many of those things, either.  I do believe in original sin.  But I’m not big on pathological shame.  I do believe in hell.  But I don’t believe that bodily desire gets us there.  I believe that rejecting God’s resurrected Son gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered per se, for He is spirit.  But I do believe that He became incarnate as a man and invites us to approach Him as our Father.  I don’t believe in shutting out LGBTQIA+ people – or anyone else, for that matter – but I do believe we must take seriously the sexual contours outlined in Scripture and consider that perhaps they are there for the sake of our safety and thriving.  I most certainly do believe in the substitutionary atonement.  And I most certainly loathe white supremacy.  It is inimical to the very nature of who the Church is to be – the redeemed “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).  A good portion of the fun of figuring out what you think about nationalism is figuring out how to define it, as this podcast from Arthur Brooks reminds us.  But regardless of how you define nationalism and what you think of it, I most certainly believe that I am a member of God’s household before I am a citizen of any nation.

But behind our individual instances of agreement and disagreement lies some bigger questions:  How does one decide what to believe?  To what authority does one turn to shape one’s beliefs?

There is a canon of beliefs that Rachel Meyer wants to hand down to her son:

I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral.  I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals.  I want him to learn that Jesus – like Buddha and Muhammad – was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.

Okay.  I agree that selflessness is critical – even to the Gospel itself.  Gentleness is a member of the Spirit’s fruit.  And concerning ourselves with justice in society is beautifully prophetic.  But why are selflessness, gentleness, and social justice in while the substitutionary atonement is out?  Rachel never quite answers these questions.

In the end, Rachel seems to have cobbled together a faith that is not based on much of anything besides her own affections and aversions.  What she likes in faith, she keeps.  What she doesn’t like, she trashes.

The humorist Anne Lamott once told the story of a priest friend of hers, Tom, who would say, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Tom is right.  To be a person of faith is to be, among other things, a person under divine authority.  Only a fool would believe that their own opinions and preferences would always match up with God’s commands and revelation.  This is why, for millennia now, Christians have turned to the pages of Scripture to discover God’s commands and character, even when His commands and character unsettle us, puzzle us, or even offend us.  We approach the pages of Holy Writ humbly, wondering what we have missed, what we must learn, and how can change.

If your God always agrees with you, then it’s safe to assume that the “god” you believe in is really just a thinly veiled version of you, which means that your god can’t help you, challenge you, stretch you, or save you because he is you.  So why bother with him at all?

Perhaps Rachel has more in common with her old love interest than she lets on.  “I believe in ME,” he said.  It sounds like she could say the same thing, too.

June 24, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Growing Homes and Envious Hearts

Not long before our second child was born, my wife and I decided that it was time to upsize the square footage of our home.  Kids, it turns out, come with lots of stuff.  Our first home was a testament to that.  Closets and corners were packed with everything from diapers to clothes to lots and lots of toys.  We wanted enough room to spread out and stretch out a bit.  So, we put our home on the market and moved into a new, larger home, which, as you probably have already guessed, now has closets and corners packed with even more kids’ stuff.  No matter how much space you have, you always seem to find stuff to fill it.

The move toward larger homes is a decades-old trend.  Joe Pinsker, in an article published last week for The Atlantic, writes:

American homes are a lot bigger than they used to be.  In 1973, when the Census Bureau started tracking home sizes, the median size of a newly built house was just over 1,500 square feet; that figure reached nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015.

This rise, combined with a drop in the average number of people per household, has translated to a whole lot more room for homeowners and their families: By one estimate, each newly built house had an average of 507 square feet per resident in 1973, and nearly twice that – 971 square feet – four decades later.

But according to a recent paper, Americans aren’t getting any happier with their ever bigger homes.  “Despite a major upscaling of single-family houses since 1980,” writes Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, “house satisfaction has remained steady in American suburbs.”

Larger homes, Mr. Pinsker reports, are not making for happier families.  Why?  It’s not because we don’t like the extra space.  I certainly appreciate the space in my home – and so do others.  It turns out that our happiness has very little to do with the amount of space we have in our own homes.  Instead, it has to do with the amount of space our neighbors have in their homes:

The largest houses seem to be the ones that all the other homeowners base their expectations on … Bellet sketches out an unfulfilling cycle of one-upmanship, in which the owners of the biggest homes are most satisfied if their home remains among the biggest, and those who rank right below them grow less satisfied as their dwelling looks ever more measly by comparison.

In other words, we’re satisfied with what we have until we see what somebody else has.  In this way, our dissatisfaction with our homes isn’t really a home problem.  It’s a heart problem.  It’s a struggle with envy.

Envy is a sin that’s virtually as old as, well, dirt.  When Adam is first fashioned out of dirt, it is envy that brings him down when Satan tempts he and his wife with the specter that they can “be like God” (Genesis 3:5).  “Instead of being created from dust by God,” Satan says, “you can be sovereigns with glory like God’s.  Why live in a Garden when you can reign from heaven?  I’m pretty sure heaven has more square footage.  Wouldn’t that be nice?”  Satan hooks Adam and Eve by appealing to their envy.  And so, in envy, they try to stage a coup against God.  But instead of becoming more like God in majesty, they become mere mortals who die.

In the Ninth Commandment, God commands: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exodus 20:17).  The desire for something that someone else has – including the very specific desire for someone else’s home – is nothing new.  But it’s also nothing helpful.  Which is why God warns against it.

As Mr. Pinsker notes in the conclusion of his article, there are good reasons to be satisfied with where you live, even if where you live feels a little small at times:

“The big house represents the atomizing of the American family,” a historian of landscape development told NPR for a story on gargantuan American homes back in 2006.  “Each person not only has his or her own television – each person has his or her own bathroom … This way, the family members rarely have to interact.”  It’s comfortable, in a way, but maybe also lonely.

Square footage that is gained may translate into closeness that is lost.  So, tonight, make sure you give your spouse and your kids a hug that last a little longer than usual – no matter how big or small your home is.  After all, your foundation, frame, walls, windows, doors, and drywall don’t really make your home.  They do.

June 17, 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 4 comments

How the Church Can Change

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“The God I know is not concrete or specific,” wrote Bishop John Shelby Spong in the opening to his famous and controversial 1999 book, Why Christianity Must Change or DieHe continued by outlining a litany of grievances against Christian orthodoxy.  For instance, calling God “Father” bothered the bishop, who labeled this title as “so male, so dated,” and accused Christianity of using this title to “consistently justify its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity.”  He also took issue with the idea that God would be omniscient, writing:

The Bible, the Church’s sacred textbook, portrays the God of antiquity as acting in ways that violate both our knowledge and our sensibilities today.  If an all-knowing God had really made many of the assumptions that the Bible makes, then this God would be revealed as hopelessly ignorant.  For many biblical assumptions are today dismissed as quite simply wrong.  Sickness, for example, does not result from sin being punished.  Nor does a cure result from our prayers for God’s intervention or from the sense that we have been sufficiently chastised so that the punishment of our sickness might cease.

The only solution, in Bishop Spong’s opinion, was to give up on Theism in search of “another God language.”  In other words, everything in the Christian faith, right down to God Himself, had to change.

Bishop Spong’s two-decade-old sentiments continue to influence our contemporary conversations.  Take, for instance, the comment from California Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi who, when debating the different ways in which people address same-sex attraction, said, “The faith community, like anyone else, needs to evolve with the times.”

The argument that the Christian faith must change is regularly bolstered by the assertion that the Christian message already has changed.  “Christians used to support slavery,” one person might say, “and they changed their view on that.  So why shouldn’t they change their view on ____________?”  One can fill in the blank with whatever fashionable cause célèbre they want.  The divinity of Christ.  The ethics of human life.  The call to love the marginalized.  The contours of human sexuality.

It is true that some Christians have changed their views – not only on slavery, but on other things as well.  But this does not mean that the teachings of Christ have changed.  Christ, for instance, did not celebrate oppressive systems like slavery.  He came, instead, to bring us out of slavery into a new exodus, accomplished by the cross (cf. Luke 9:31).  Christ, then, never changed His view on the evils of slavery.  Christians, however, have been changed by the teachings of Christ.

There are two ways to understand how change in the Church should work.  Either the Christian faith itself should be revised to keep up with the times or Christians themselves can be refined as they study timeless truth in Scripture.  The first understanding makes the faith subservient to the times and its narcissistic celebration of self.  The second understanding makes Christians subservient to the Scriptures and their forming work throughout the centuries.  The Scriptures make it clear which understanding of change they support:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)

Christians should continually be “transformed into Christ’s image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).  It would be a tragedy if we were the same people today that we were a decade ago.  By God’s grace and the Spirit’s power, our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should all be growing.  Christians should change.  The Christian faith, however, should not.

The motto of the Reformation was 1 Peter 1:25: Verbum Domini manet in aeternum.  “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”  The Reformers did not want to change the faith, but they did want people to be changed by the faith.  Their goal was to proclaim and explain the faith as it stood – and as it still stands – in the Word of the Lord to the blessing and benefit of all who would receive it.

So, as the Church continues to change, let’s make sure the right thing in the Church is changing – us.

May 27, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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

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