Sunday, December 12, 2010

O come, all ye faithful, to a debt-free Christmas

’Tis the season for giving and, for some, going further into debt.
With Christmas fast approaching, many Americans will bust out credit cards to buy gifts — and, consequently, many will overspend.

According to the Barna Research Group, 33 percent of U.S.-born Christians say it is impossible for them to get ahead because of the debts they carry.

Debt prevents Christians from fulfilling biblical commands. People of faith are called to support their church, help advance the gospel globally and aid the poor. No matter how well intentioned one may be, debt can hamper these and other personal goals.

The Bible does not call debt a sin but the practice is discouraged. The Apostle Paul says in Romans, “Give to everyone what you owe them … let no debt remain outstanding.” Proverbs says, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”

Some parachurch financial-counseling ministries argue that all debt is wrong. But not all debt is caused by irresponsibility. Some can be manageable. Most people cannot buy a car, own a home or finish their higher education without borrowing. It also is difficult to rent a car or buy online without plastic.

The real culprit is overspending.

There are times when legitimate living expenses exceed income. The easy remedy: Increase income or decrease expenses.

Other causes of overspending can be psychological and harder to fix. Some people spend too much because it provides emotional fulfillment. Others acquire more or nicer possessions to build their self-worth. Christian financial counselor Dave Ramsey says, “A whole bunch of us got all this stuff we really didn’t want, with money we really didn’t have, to impress people we really didn’t like.”

Americans are most guilty of overspending at Christmastime. We buy gifts for extended family, co-workers, even casual acquaintances. Parents go to great lengths to snag the latest toys, electronics and video games for their children.

There is nothing wrong with people of faith exchanging gifts at Christmas — as long as the real reason for the season does not get lost: the birth of Christ.

When I was a child, Christmas was simple. The gifts usually were practical — clothes, shoes or books. The excitement was more in unwrapping the surprise than the actual present. The greatest gift my parents gave me is teaching me to stay out of debt by being like Paul says, content in every circumstance, whether in poverty or in plenty.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Message to bullying victims: God is on your side

Recent headlines have propelled bullying and teen suicide to the forefront.

As a teenager, I was bullied because my father was depressed and sometimes behaved irrationally. Not wanting to be labeled as weak, I never reported any bullying to my parents or to school officials.

Eventually, the harassment got the better of me, and I beat up my tormentor, landing both of us in the principal’s office. For me, a fistfight was my final option. Sadly, many teens today feel suicide — or even homicide — is their only escape.

While my bully made sure everyone knew about my father’s condition, his audience still was relatively small. Today, with e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and social-networking sites, news travels faster and to a larger audience. (When I browse social-networking sites, I sometimes wonder if people have forgotten that the “www” stands for World Wide Web.) Also, my bully was confined to the school grounds, during school hours. With modern technology, bullying can be constant.

For many young people, their self-worth is defined by other people’s perception of them. This can lead to peer pressure and other dreaded decisions. The tarnishing of a reputation seems irreversible and so monumental to some that they would rather take their own lives than live with the consequences. Others may suffer from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Experts believe some students who committed school shootings were victims of bullying.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises victims to report bullying to an adult, not to fight back or bully others. It also suggests not to show fear or anger — which could encourage further incidents — but to walk away, calmly ask the bully to stop, use humor if possible and avoid situations where bullying is likely to happen.

The Scriptures tell us God created humans in his own image and “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” In the Hebrew Bible, the psalmist says, “I will praise [God] because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.” Songwriter Jeff Slaughter expresses it this way: “I am who the great I am says I am.” In other words, God made me, he says I am good, and his opinion of me is the only one that counts.

It is unlikely that we ever will eradicate bullies, but if young people can embrace this biblical principal, they essentially can render bullies powerless.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Like father, like son? It doesn’t always work out in the ministry

Evangelist Billy Graham recently celebrated his 92nd birthday.

The renowned evangelist has virtually vanished from the public eye, handing his ministry to son Franklin Graham. Since taking up the mantle, the younger Graham has made some controversial statements that show he is not his father.

Succession from founding father to child is common in Christian ministries.

Robert H. Schuller, known for the weekly broadcast “Hour of Power,” turned over the Crystal Cathedral pulpit to his son and then his daughter. Televangelist Joel Osteen inherited Houston’s Lakewood Church and its TV ministry from his late father, John Osteen. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s sons, Jonathan and Jerry Jr., took over leadership of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University, respectively, after his death.

Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.

Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.

Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.

The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.

Schuller’s son retired after disagreements with his father about what Schuller Sr. described as “different ideas as to the direction and the vision for [the] ministry.” Schuller Sr. relinquished leadership but never gave up control. The congregation recently filed for bankruptcy and many attribute the diminishing success of “Hour of Power” to the church’s inability to find a comparable replacement for Schuller Sr. His daughter now is senior pastor.

Joel Osteen took over after his dad’s death and critics note that his message deviated sharply from his father’s. John Osteen’s preaching style was more aligned with the Pentecostal charismatic movement while his son often is accused of being more of a self-help speaker. Still, the younger Osteen has increased his father’s flock almost fivefold and developed his own brand.

There never will be another Billy Graham. To expect otherwise may be unrealistic. The challenges of a new generation dictate the need for new leadership. Family-line succession can help preserve the spirit of a ministry, but new leaders should be allowed to bring new ideas and directions.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don’t ban politics from the pulpit

For the third year, the Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging religious organizations to challenge government censorship of pulpit speech as elections approach.

In September, ADF called on pastors to preach about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office on a day designated as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Participating clergy were instructed to mail their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service.

The hope: Prompt the IRS to file a lawsuit, which then would result in existing legislation being contested.
Almost all faith groups are exempt from federal income taxes. According to the IRS, under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations with tax-exempt status are restricted in how much political and legislative activities they may conduct.

The Revenue Act of 1954 contains an amendment — added by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson — stating that charitable organizations may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Some argue that tax exemption is a government subsidy, opening the door to some federal oversight.

The ADF disagrees.

“Churches are exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”

The Johnson amendment is being broadly interpreted to mean that ministers may not speak on politics from the pulpit. The consequence: Many pastors are self-censoring their sermons to avoid the risk of losing the church’s tax-exempt status.

As a pastor, I prefer not politicking from the pulpit because it shifts focus from the gospel, which is the primary purpose of preaching. However, placing limits on the pulpit is not only a violation of free speech and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but it also has troubling repercussions for all faith groups.

The fear among religious leaders is that pulpit censorship could escalate to a restriction on speaking on social issues that spill over into politics. As an example, in 2008 the LDS Church’s support of California’s Proposition 8 spurred calls for the religion to lose its tax-exempt status.

For evangelicals, the Bible is a guidebook for daily living. Christians are expected to base their decisions, including social and political convictions, on biblical principles. A pulpit sermon has its basis in the Scriptures and thus sometimes deals with moral and social ideology. The preacher’s goal is not to persuade parishioners to adopt his or her personal views or to sway political votes, but rather to present the Bible’s position in hopes that congregants will align their beliefs with biblical precepts.

The IRS has yet to take the ADF’s bait. While pastors are not permitted to oppose or endorse a candidate from the pulpit, we still have the right to preach sound biblical principles and to urge congregants to become involved in the political process. Ultimately, people of faith should be allowed to vote their own convictions.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spiritual leaders should speak about their own struggles

Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., is the latest minister to find himself caught up in a scandal. According to CNN, four young men filed civil lawsuits accusing Long of coercing them into sexual relationships, allegations he has denied in a statement issued through his attorney.

Over the past few decades, many spiritual leaders have fallen from grace. Usually, this scatters the flock and destroys the ministry. There is no justification for a spiritual leader abusing his or her authority, but the church should be able to withstand even the worst of scandals.

In many churches, the pastor is placed on a pedestal and deemed to be perfect. This perception of righteousness is sometimes created by the pastor.

Some clergy believe the only way to lead people of faith is to make them think they are sinless. While a minister should refrain from doing things in the presence of others that may cause them to stumble, they should never give the impression that they are without sin. I often remind worshippers that, while I am a pastor, I am still human and therefore susceptible to sin. This is not meant to be an excuse for my shortcomings, but I believe I have a responsibility to make it clear to my congregation that I struggle with some of the same sins so their faith is not shaken when I fall short.

There are times when the perception of perfection is created by the parishioners without the preacher’s help.

Some people of faith believe that God only calls those who have achieved a higher standard of righteousness. One need only study the lives of some of the greatest characters of the Bible to see this is not the case: Moses had murdered a man, yet God choose him as his prophet to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered to cover up his sin, yet he is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart.”

In the Old Testament, God made provisions for the priests to atone for their own sins before they made sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is clear that God knew the priests would sin. The New Testament tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, the presumption is that a preacher only delivers sermons on issues he or she has overcome. God uses the minister to speak to his people. The pastor is flawed and therefore there are times when the message is meant for the pulpit as well as the pew. Furthermore, a sermon is supposed to have its basis in the Scriptures, so it is not hypocritical for a preacher to speak on issues he or she is still struggling with; it is God’s word not the minister’s.

Our legal system demands that we presume Long did not commit these despicable acts until proven otherwise. If the accusations are indeed true, God will forgive Long but some of his membership may not. I hope that no matter the outcome, New Birth, a church that has done a lot of good over the years, will continue to thrive.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Forget tattoos — faith must be more than skin-deep

City Church in Anaheim, Calif., celebrated its first birthday — and its success in doubling its congregation to 200 worshippers — by having members get tattoos of the red-heart church logo.

Pastor Kyle Steven Bonenberger told his flock, according to the Los Angeles Times, that God “tattooed your name on his heart” and it was time for an everlasting commitment to him and the church.

Every Christian is indeed indebted to God, but the pastor’s statement is flawed and lacks biblical backing.
The Scriptures teach that an eternal commitment to God is made only through faith by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection as an atonement for one’s sins.

While tattoos may be permanent, they are not everlasting. Christians believe the soul is the only part of a human that is immortal; when the body disintegrates, the tattoo will vanish.

In the early Christian church, some Jewish believers were incorrectly teaching gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised to be justified by God. The Apostle Paul taught that this external action — once mandated by Mosaic law — had no bearing on one’s salvation and, in fact, could pervert the gospel and make believers think they had a hand in their justification.

In Galatians 6:13-15, Paul says, “they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. ... Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”

In his statement, Bonenberger also seems to be encouraging an everlasting allegiance not only to God but also to City Church.

The church is to be a bridge to God, but some people of faith elevate the establishment above deity. One of 12 City Church members who agreed to get inked was quoted as saying, “City Church has really done a lot for our family, so I thought it would be a nice way to pay them back.” Clearly she feels indebted to City Church but says nothing of gratitude to God.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with having an affinity for one’s church and committing to lifelong membership. Spiritual leaders encourage it. “Church-hopping” — jumping from church to church — is a problem. I never considered branding as a solution; it certainly would force one to think twice before “hopping” to the next congregation.

Many churches resort to gimmicks to increase and retain members. Gimmicks are temporary and do little to
cultivate deep faith.

The way to show a commitment to God is not through an external marking but rather an internal one. The Bible says that man is concerned with the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

People of faith can’t dodge immigration issue

Rep. Stephen Sandstorm, R-Orem, unveiled a Utah immigration bill last month that is similar to Arizona’s controversial law.

While the bill clarifies that law enforcement may not consider “race, color or national origin,” officers need have only a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is undocumented. Many worry this could lead to racial profiling and harassment, particularly of Latinos and those with accents, regardless of their citizenship status.

Clearly there are no simple solutions to the divisive and complex immigration problem. Legitimate concerns on both sides must be addressed. But the current patchwork solutions do little to fix an immigration system in need of an overhaul.

People of faith cannot ignore the sticky issue. In Exodus 22:21, God said to the Israelites, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him.” In the New Testament, Jesus, a Jew, broke social norms and interacted with a Samaritan woman. In Matthew’s Gospel, he tells Christians to care for “the least of these among us.”

We are a nation of immigrants that always has been a refuge for those seeking a better life. We should not abandon our values because the immigration challenge seems insurmountable.

The scope of that challenge shows up in estimates pegging the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States at about 11 million. In recent years, the number of deportations has risen sharply. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Murray branch says about 50 to 60 detainees are flown back to their original countries each week.

While some deportations result from an illegal immigrant committing a crime, the process can be launched after a simple misdemeanor or traffic violation.

Innocent victims of deportation often are children.

A child born in the United States is granted citizenship regardless of their parents’ residency status. If a parent is deported, family members usually remain in the United States because they have a more promising future here.
Another group that receives no sympathy are children brought to the United States illegally by their parents. These children grow up as Americans and may discover their illegal status only later on in life. But these individuals run the risk of being deported to a country to which they have no ties.

Amnesty is not the solution. Providing those here illegally with automatic citizenship would lead to a surge in illegal immigration and is unfair to the millions awaiting legal entry. But we cannot blindly deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country. Besides being expensive and logistically impossible, this approach lacks compassion and does nothing to combat the problem.

We must call on lawmakers to find a more palatable solution: Comprehensive reform that addresses the reasons for illegal immigration, secures our borders, tries to keep families together and works with law-abiding individuals currently living and contributing to our communities to seek a path to citizenship.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Anne Rice is right about some ‘Christians,’ but wrong about the faith

Best-selling author Anne Rice recently declared last month on her Facebook fan page that she “quit Christianity and being a Christian.”

The Interview With the Vampire author said she found it “simply impossible … to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group.”

According to the Christian Post, Rice, born and reared a Roman Catholic, explained that she does not fit into organized Christianity because she is not anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat nor anti-science.

The Bible sometimes takes unpopular stances on controversial societal issues. Furthermore, the Scriptures teach that those who profess to be Christians should align themselves with biblical beliefs.

But God did not intend for the Scriptures to be used as a tool to condemn and judge others — a fact that seems to have been missed by many in the faith. Jesus often called the religious leaders of his time hypocrites because they were quick to point out others’ flaws while neglecting their own.

While Christians cannot ignore portions of the Bible that do not mesh with society, they must remember the gospel message is rooted in love. Even when a stand is taken, it should reflect the characteristics on which the faith is built — love, humility and the like.

Gandhi often is quoted as saying “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This appears to be the fundamental problem Rice and many others have with Christianity: They have come into contact with self-professed Christians who, sadly, are nothing like Christ. Also, the media’s portrayal of Christians emphasizes fringe groups who have become self-proclaimed representatives of the faith.

But Rice’s characterization is stereotypical and grossly exaggerated. The “quarrelsome, hostile” religion she describes is limited to a few; no movement is devoid of extremists. Most Christians are just as disturbed as Rice by the gay-bashing, anti-feminist types who ascribe to Christianity.

Abandoning the faith is not the solution. Christians who oppose extremists must debunk misconceptions by speaking out. This will dilute the hostile and hateful factions.

Rice’s decision is unfortunate. She states that while she no longer is a Christian, she remains a follower of Christ. She reads the Bible and prays every day, by herself. Going to church does not make one a Christian, but Hebrews admonishes Christians not to “give up meeting together.”

Undoubtedly Christianity has its problems. The Bible teaches that Christians are meant to exemplify Christ, but no one is perfect. Anyone who abandons the faith because of the imperfection of its people misses the point: A Christian should follow Christ and look to him, not other Christians, for an example.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Putting in a good word for getting a Bible in every language

This article was published in June 26, 2010 Salt Lake Tribune.

Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Last Languages Campaign is aiming for a lofty goal: See the Bible translated into every one of the world’s 6,909 spoken languages by 2025.

Wycliffe, the largest Bible-translation organization, estimates more than 350 million people do not have these Scriptures written in their language.

The estimated 2,200 languages that remain without a Bible fall mostly in the area Christian missionaries commonly refer to as the 10/40 window. This is a rectangular region of the Eastern Hemisphere that extends from 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator, stretching from North Africa across to China. This region boasts the largest population of non-Christians and is reported to be home to most of the world’s poor.

Translating the Bible is an endeavor that began almost 2,000 years ago. The original Old Testament text was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The first English translation appeared in the 14th century. Translating the Bible is an arduous task because of the vast differences that exist in languages and cultures. But many of the languages that still do not have a biblical text have the added challenge of being nonwritten. Translators, therefore, must first develop an alphabet before even beginning the Bible work. Additionally, primers must be created to teach many people to read their language; otherwise the written Scriptures are of no avail.

While technological advances have hastened the process, Wycliffe acknowledges its ambitious goal will require vast monetary resources and missionaries willing to transplant themselves to some of the poorest places on the planet.

Christians believe the Bible is God’s word and that through this medium the Almighty most often speaks and provides guidance and instruction for daily living. The Apostle Paul declared, in 2 Timothy 3:16, that “ all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” That’s why Christians are admonished to study the Scriptures regularly.

While some Christian converts must wait decades before the Word is available in their language, some Western Christians take the Scriptures for granted. A 2000 Gallup poll showed barely a third (37 percent) of Americans read the Bible at least once a week.

I heard a story from a Bible translator working in a remote area in East Africa: After years of toiling, a translation finally became available in the indigenous language. Word spread around the villages that the missionaries had completed their work and would be distributing New Testaments. Hundreds walked for miles and the demand soon outweighed the supply. But the people could wait no longer. They began to divide up the newly bound and printed Bibles so that each person could return home with at least a portion.

The Bible teaches that God’s word can transform lives. Christians who believe this should be committed not only to their personal study of it but also to ensuring that it be available to everyone.