A Hopeful Apocalypse

Apparently, nothing says “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” like an assault rifle.

So the makers of “The Reliant,” a new-Second Amendment faith-based film are giving away an AR-15 this holiday season.

“How’d you like a chance to win a FREE AR-15 on Christmas Day?!” asks a promotional email for the film—which is sponsored in part by Smith and Wesson, along with the US Concealed Carry Association.

Not the typical sponsors for Christian holiday fare.

The movie—set in a dystopian future—features a family that survives with the help of Jesus and plenty of ammunition. It’s a zombie apocalypse without zombies—where the real monsters are your friends and neighbors.

Here’s how the film’s producers describe “The Reliant”:

The crash of the dollar precipitates widespread rioting and social unrest throughout the nation, leaving a lovesick 20-year-old girl struggling to care for her siblings in a stretch of woods bordered by lawless anarchy, wondering why a good God would let this happen.

There’s lots of shooting –and little Jesus—in the film’s trailer. And the film’s primarily an ad for the Second Amendment, according to some of its sponsors.

Their message seems to be: get a gun, so you can shoot your neighbors when the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

Maybe it’s a realistic message—given the fragile nature of our society.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail cell.

But instead of a garment, these days it feels like we are all cogs in a great machine. And if someone pulls the plug it will all grind to a halt.

And if we are all woven together, we might all go up in flames together.

Perhaps I’ve shouldn’t have read “A World Made By Hand” and “The End of the World Running Club.” Or perhaps I’ve been listening to too much Larry Norman, who wrote surprisingly catchy songs about the end of the world.

And maybe someday soon we’ll wish we’d all been ready.

If the end comes—or the end of the world as we know it, as REM and the preppers put it—I hope some of us have to offer than gunshots.

I hope more of us will be like Jacob, the protagonist in David William’s novel,
“When the English Fall.

”It’s the best book I’ve read this year.

Set in the near future, the novel tells the story of an Amish farmer named Jacob, who keeps a diary of “the crisis” – a catastrophic sun storm that crashes the electrical grid and leaves most of the world in chaos.

The one group mostly unaffected by the crisis: the Amish.

They till the soil, raise their cattle, plant their gardens, harvest their crops, and pray to their God.

When their neighbors need help—even among the “English” or non-Amish—they help. They gather up their extra food and give it away.

It is what God wanted them to do. So they do it.

“The deacons had talked through it, and the word to all of us was that we would help as we can, with what food we can spare and with our skills,” Jacob writes. “That is at is should.”

William’s book—which he wrote during the National novel writing month in 2013 and self-publish before getting a book deal–is part apocalyptic adventure and part commentary about modern society.

Jacob has an English business partner named Mike,  a big man who is angry about everything—the president, the Congress, the price of gas, his ex-wife, and all the chatter on the radio.

Jacob pities his friend, whose life is filled with bitterness and empty of blessing.

“Where we have the Sabbath, and the apples, and the oats, and the wheat, and the corn, he has the fights, and the anger from his radio, and the anger of his sons, and the bitterness of his broken life with Shauna,” writes Jacob.

And where the Amish have peace and order, Mike and the rest of the English have anxiety. Everyone always in a rush to get nowhere.

“Mike says the impatience is because of the internet, because everyone now wants everything the moment they want it. I remember this from when I was jumping around in the world. I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down into their rectangles of light. No one was where they were,” writes Jacob in his diary.

But kindness along won’t get you through the apocalypse. Before long, people figure out that the Amish might have some more food at home.

So the wolf comes to the door with a gun. And not all the Amish survive the encounter.

Still, they don’t shut their doors.

Mike and his ex-wife, Shauna, move in with Jacob and his wife, Hannah. Jacob and Hannah teach Mike and his family survive, sharing all that they have with them.

And their bishop—who had warned Jacob to steer clear of Mike, lest he be tempted to go astray—tells Jacob that opening his hope to Mike was the right to do.

“You must let him stay with you,” the bishop tells Jacob. “And the woman who was his wife, and his children. These are not times like other times, Jacob. Around us, the English are dying. They are dying. We give our food, and we give our skills, but we are so few, Jacob. Whenever the soldiers come, I hear things that tell me this. Every time, and it worsens. There will be so many terrible days ahead.”

When men with guns show up at their door—Jacob and his family don’t resist. They are saved in the end but at a great cost.

The men who robbed them are killed – and it breaks Jacob’s heart. To take another’s life is a betrayal of all he believes—even if it saves his life.

What good it is, he asks, to save your life if it costs you your soul?

Eventually, Jacob and his family have to decide whether to stay and risk being part of more bloodshed—or setting out of the road, in search of a place where they can live their faith without compromise.

Both have risks, Jacob’s daughter Sadie says. If they stay, they may life. But many people will die. And the Amish will no longer be faithful.

 

““And if we go?” she says. “Then the story of our journey will be told and remembered. Of our setting aside what we have, and not resting in the shadow of the sword. It will be harder. Some of us will not live. More, I think. But it would let us live our plain way, and be a witness.”

How does it turn out? You’ll have to get the book to see.

it’s worth a read—if nothing else, because it offers a Christian alternative to agun fights with our neighbors at the end of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Communion of Saints: Part Two

 

 

In her early forties, my mother went looking for God.
She began with a systematic search of the Protestant churches in our hometown, often taking my sister in tow. Mom, a lapsed Catholic, tried the Lutheran church, the Christian Missionary Alliance, and even First Baptist—where she and my younger sister learned to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

When she got home, she decided we all needed to learn it. She also tried to get us to come to church with her. But we protested, and my Mom’s sojourn with the Baptists was short lived.

Then something happened which changed our lives forever. In the spring of 1978, Joey Clark invited my brother Paul to church.

Joey’s church—the Evangelical Covenant Church of Attleboro—was having a Sunday school picnic and Joey wanted Paul to come with him. Lured by softball, hot dogs, and the chance to spend an afternoon with Joey, Paul went along. He had such a good time that the next week, Paul ended up at Sunday school. One by one, my family followed Paul—first my mom, then my sister, then me, then even my older brother became evangelicals.

My dad was the last to come. Not long after my mom started attending the church, he drove by the place to give it a look over. He saw the word “evangelical” and that was enough.

“I’m not getting involved with a bunch of holy rollers,” he said. And that, at least for a time, was that.

The local Covenant Church had been founded about 70 years earlier by a group of Swedish immigrants, who called themselves “Mission Friends.” They worshiped in Swedish and sent much of their money to support missionaries in China and Africa.

By the time we met them, the “Covenanters” as they were now known, had already outgrown two buildings and settled into a stylish, modern building along Route 152, a stone’s throw from the on-ramp to Interstate 95. The church was built mostly by volunteers—when we first arrived, there were still construction pictures hanging in the fellowship hall.

Anything I know about Jesus, I learned first from the people of the Attleboro Covenant Church.
***
Most teenaged boys are unlovable: awkward half-men, half boys, full to the brim with self-doubt and testosterone, with bodies still emerging from the cocoon of childhood into adulthood. As an outsider among my peers—nerdy, overweight, more Neville Longbottom than Harry Potter—I was particularly unlovable. Yet the people of the Covenant church welcomed me with open arms, though they hardly knew our family.

Not only did they welcome me, they also taught me something remarkable—that God liked me.

I learned that lesson first from Ruth Cederberg, my first Sunday school teacher. Aunty Ruth, as we called her, was tall and always impeccably dressed, and she treated us like family from the first day we met her. Aunty Ruth taught eighth grade Sunday school.

Our project for the year was painting a mural of Noah’s ark in the back stairway leading from the fellowship hall to the youth room. I painted what were supposed to be giraffes but ended up looking like some strange alien creatures, with yellow bodies and odd -shaped heads. Aunty Ruth thought they were perfect.

I don’t recall any lesson from that year in Sunday school except for this one: God liked us. He was our friend, and was kindhearted toward us. That belief, and an unwavering trust in the Bible, was the bedrock on which Aunty Ruth’s faith and the Covenant church—like all evangelical churches—was founded.

It’s a remarkable and perhaps crazed idea: that God likes us, that the Creator who spoke the universe into being and flung the stars into the heavens billions of years ago also knows each of our names.

And all of our sorrows.

***
The phone rang at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of October 22, 2006. When the phone rings that early, it’s never a good sign.
I lay in bed as my wife got up to answer the phone and braced for the worst, sure that my mother was dead. She’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of sixty, seven years earlier, and over the past two years her health had declined drastically.

For the first sixty years of her life, my mother rarely sat still. When my wife, Kathy, was expecting our first child, my mom recounted how even when she was nine months pregnant, she still enjoyed mowing the lawn in the middle of summer. She finally quit when a neighbor, also pregnant, came out and told my mom to go back inside and put her feet up. Apparently, all the other pregnant women in the neighborhood had put her up to it. “You’re making us all look bad,” the neighbor told my mother.

But MS had left my mom confined to a wheelchair; unable to do even the simplest tasks for her self. She’d been hospitalized several times, and we thought she wasn’t gone to be with us long. So we’d prepared for this call.
After a few minutes of talking on the phone, Kathy called up to me.

“It’s your Dad,” she said.

On the way down the stairs, I began going through a mental checklist of things to do—plane tickets to buy, appointments to cancel, people to call—so that I could go and be with my dad in the aftermath of my mom’s death.
I took the phone, and for the time in my life, I could not recognize my father’s voice. His words were seared with pain.

“Paul’s dead,” he said. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Paul’s dead.”

Over the next few minutes, the story slowly came out. Paul and his wife, Chitadelia, were staying with her parents, who live in a small village about seven hours from Manila. Early that morning, Chitadelia had gone to the market with her mother, while Paul went for a run. A few hours later, when Chitadelia came home, she realized Paul had not returned. A search was organized, and his body was found near the side of the road. His heart had apparently given out.

When the call was over, I held my wife and wept. Then my son, Eli, called down to me: “Daddy, can you lay down with me?”

He wanted me to sing him a song—the same song I’ve sung him almost every night of his life. It’s a Swedish hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

Often sung at the Covenant church during baptisms and funerals, it was written by a young Swedish woman named Lena Sandell, not long after her father drowned in a boating accident. Sandell was with her father in the boat and was unable to save him.

The song begins with this verse:
Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

But the verse that still moves me to tears every time is this one:
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord his children sever,
Unto them his grace he showeth,
And their sorrows all he knoweth.

That morning, I lay in bed, held my son in my arms, and knew that even in this darkest hour, God had not forgotten us. And, as I would learn over the next weeks and months, neither have his people.

It’s a lesson I’d learned many times.

One of the first times was in the early 1990s. By this time, I’d left behind my hometown and moved 1,100 miles west, to Chicago, and had become a card carrying Evangelical.

I’d had a born again experience, coming forward to give my life to Christ during a youth conference; graduated from an evangelical Christian college; been a counselor at a Christian camp (nothing like the camp portrayed in the film Jesus Camp); spent two weeks in a mountain village in Haiti on a mission trip (we painted walls at a school, hauled cement blocks, and played soccer with school kids); spent many long winter nights as a volunteer at a homeless shelter; played guitar in a church worship band; lead three Bible studies for college students; and even studied New Testament Greek in preparation for going to seminary.

But as I walked up the stairs to Grace Covenant Church in Chicago on Easter Sunday, my life was in shambles. I’d spent most of the night before drinking at the Irish Eyes, a pub in Lincoln Park neighborhood. I stumbled home around two in the morning, but despite the alcohol coursing through my veins, sleep never came. Fortified by a pot of coffee, I found my one and only tie, put it on over a dress shirt and pants, and went to church.

Two years earlier, Kathy and I had been married on the campus of the Christian college we attended. Our friends and family packed out the chapel, and many of my friends from Habitat for Humanity, where I worked, were there as well. My friend Olumide Adeolu, a Nigerian exchange student who volunteered with Habitat, was there as well, dressed in some of his finest clothes from home.
But our marriage was troubled from the start. Kathy was 21, and had graduated from college two weeks before the wedding. A few months after we were engaged, she told me she thought we were rushing things. She wanted to take some time to herself, to get established in her own life before getting married. She wanted to marry me, but not so soon.

Fueled more by hormones than common sense, I talked her out of waiting and on June 4, 1988, we were married. A year later, we separated, and spent the next few years in limbo, trying to decide what to do. We didn’t want to live together; we didn’t want to get a divorce.

This was not the way things were supposed to go.

For about six months, I’d been hanging out in the back pews of Grace. A few people knew my story, but I kept much of it to myself. I wanted to be anonymous for a while.

Gerry Klatt stood at the top of the stairs as I came in. Gerry and her husband, Fred, both in their early sixties, were always immaculately dressed, and a smile broke across Gerry’s face as she saw my tie. Most Sundays I came to church in jeans and sneakers, with my long hair tied back in a ponytail. She grabbed hold of me as I reached the top of the stairs, and held me close.

“Happy Easter,” she said, the smile still beaming on her face. “Now if we could just do something about that hair.”

The previous year had been difficult for Gerry. Fred was having heart problems and one night things got so bad that a call went out on the church’s prayer chain (a telephone tree for sharing prayer concerns) that Fred had almost died.

Since Gerry didn’t drive, she took the bus every day out to the suburbs to see him in the hospital. He was home now. But the thought of losing him was never far from Gerry’s mind. She and Marnie, another woman from church, had become very close: Marnie’s husband, Richard, who had started coming to church just a few years earlier, was dying of cancer. One Sunday, not long after Easter, the two of them would stand at front of the church and give thanks that God had preserved their lives so far.

It was like seeing the resurrection firsthand.

Grace had been through a resurrection of its own, starting a few years before I arrived.

The church had once been thriving. But years of slow decline followed, and so by the 1980s, only a handful of faithful souls were left.

A young minister named Stuart McCoy was assigned to the church as an interim pastor. His job: shut down the church with as much grace and dignity as possible. Once it was shut down, the building would be sold off and the funds used to start a new church somewhere else.

Fred Klatt had other ideas.

“Keep the doors open,” he told Stuart.

Stuart, a recent seminary grad, didn’t have a plan to fix what was broken at Grace. But he had a sense that God had called him to the church.

And he decided to heed Fred’s advice.

He and his wife, Holly, started inviting some of their friends to church, along with students from nearby North Park University. The church’s older members were thrilled to have some new, young faces in the pews.

“That was a lifeline,” says Stuart. “It helped give people a vision of what the church could be.”

Other changes came slowly. A few songs led with a guitar and piano to supplement the hymns. A slightly less formal worship style. A few tentative steps to reach out to their neighbors, led by a former missionary turned college professor, who had joined the church.

Over the next few years, the church grew, filled with young families and well as folks from the neighborhood.

One of the high points of each service was a time of sharing prayer concern, where people talked about their praises and struggles from addiction and infertility to cancer and struggling marriages, and found God’s peace in the midst of their hard times. Many of us, including my wife and I, found hope and healing at Grace.

“In some ways, we lived up to our name,” says Stuart, who served as Grace’s pastor for more than a decade.

As the church became healthy on the inside, the congregation gained the strength to reach out to the world around it.

Grace became a home to future missionaries, who were doing their training at a nearby seminary, and then supported those missionaries once they were on the field. A ministry for refugees—including more than two dozen former “Lost Boys” from Sudan—was started by some social workers in the church.

Some men in the church began running “Fed with Grace,” a weekly food pantry, out of the church basement. Grace even planted a new Spanish-speaking congregation, which shares their building.

Grace will never be a big church. Their building is modest-sized—with seating for about 175 if everybody squeezes in—and land-locked in the middle of a vibrant urban neighborhood. (There’s not even room for a church parking lot.)

But it remains a thriving outpost of God’s kingdom.
A place where people find healing and hope.
And sometimes a miracle or two.

***
About six years into our time at Grace Covenant, Kathy and I had another crisis.
With our marriage intact and growing, we’d begun to think about having kids.
We tried, in the normal ways that married couples do, to start a family.
Nothing happened.
After about a year, we went to visit a doctor. The news was not good. We were infertile.

It was unlikely, as my doctor put it, that I would ever father biological children.

And we might as well give up.

We could go see a specialist –but that was a waste of time, he told us.
This particular doctor didn’t have many people skills. So we ignored his advice.
Instead, we went to several specialists, tried all kinds of treatments and tests—but nothing worked.

Then our friend Leith Fuji gave me a call.

Leith was serving as the interim pastor at Grace. Stuart had accepted a call to another congregation out of the East Coast and bid us a fond farewell. Leith—then a missionary in training—was willing.

How would it be, he asked, if the church prayed for us during a Sunday service?

We’d already been doing lots of praying—especially with our small group, a collection of young couples who met every week at the home of our friends Denise and James Hopp.

By this time, I was prayed out.

Fine, I told Leith.

But we have a medical problem, I said. So it’s not going to work. But go ahead and pray.

So he did.

As did many of our friends. We stood at the front of the church and they prayed for us. Our friend Laurel, normally mild manner, was particularly insistent, telling God that he needed to get a move on and send us a baby.
We all wept that day. And hugged.

And hoped a little that our prayers might be answered.

Then we went back to the treatments. And more failure. At some point, our insurance company decided that they’d made a mistake in approving our treatments—and stuck us with a $7,500 bill.

After a few months of long phone calls—and few dozen faxes—the insurance company agreed to hear our appeal. As I was walking out the door to head to the appeal meeting, the phone rang. On the other end, was an apologetic middle manager from the insurance, telling me that there was no need to come the hearing. She’d looked at our file and approved all the payments.
Still, she said, that was it. No more treatments—unless we wanted to pay out of pocket.

We were done.

Then something unexpected happened. Kathy stopped me in the kitchen one day, with a puzzled look on her face.

“I’m late,” she said. “Probably nothing but I’m late.”

A few weeks later, she was still puzzled. And a bit annoyed.

“I’m still late,” she told me.

So she went out one afternoon to the drug store and got a pregnancy test. We knew it would be negative—but she wanted to check.

Not for a minute did we get our hopes up.

Then the test came up blue.

A few days later, Kathy stood up in church, during the time of sharing prayers and concerns.

“I have no idea how this happened,” she said. “But I’m pregnant.”

About six months later, our oldest daughter, Sophie Grace was born on the day after Christmas.

God had been kind to us and answered our prayers.

We have some dear friends, who also prayed for a child, and their prayers were not answered. I’ve got no answer for why we experienced a miracle and our friends did not.

All I know is that our church carried us when we had no faith and prayed our daughter into existence.

They carried us again after my brother died, with small acts of kindness and signs of grace.

Our friends surrounded us with God’s love.

Less than an hour after my parents learned of my brother’s death, their church sprang into action. That call had come at about four in the morning. By six their pastor, Kent Palmquist, came to the house and prayed with them. Dozens of people brought food, or came to the house just to sit with my parents and talk with them.

At my workplace, colleagues prayed for us and picked up the pieces left behind when I took off for home to see my parents. Our pastors at the time,

Dwight Nelson and Brian Zahasky shared our tears. Friends brought meals. My friend Chris Becker walked in and gave me a hug on the morning we found out Paul had died.

Other friends cashed in their frequent flier miles so we could all make it home for the funeral.

All these acts of kindness are holy. They are sanctified with God’s presence—transformed from the ordinary and commonplace into expressions of grace. That grace fills every moment.

Toward the end of her book, “Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement,” author Lauren Sandler experiences a similar revelation during a visit to a megachurch in Colorado.

Though she vehemently disagrees with the politics and social positions of church members, she allows members of a small Bible study to pray for her. The group asks God to bless Sandler’s book and her travels. That small act transformed the way Sandler sees
evangelical Christians.

Afterwards, she writes that the small group convinced her “that they are capable of translating Jesus’s legacy of agape into their everyday lives.”
“Tonight,” she added, “they have demonstrated the simple concept that powers and sustains this movement: they have shown me the kindness of strangers.”

Forty years ago, my family came to a church as strangers; curious to find out more about God but suspicious of church people. We found kindness and a warm welcome—a celebration that we, like the prodigal son in the parable, had come home.

We found the communion of saints.

In the end, the evangelical movement isn’t built on politics or marketing. It’s not built on the charisma of megachurch pastors or celebrity authors and the powerful heads of institutions. It’s not built on money or power.
Instead, it’s built on friendship – God’s friendship with his people, their friendship with one another, and their friendship with their neighbors. And on the day to day faithfulness of ordinary people, who offer the world the kindness of strangers.

The Communion of Saints: Part One

 

This blog post is all Scot McKnight’s fault.

In the spring of 2004, Scot and I were having lunch at Tre Kroner, a tasty neighborhood café at the corner of Foster and Spaulding on Chicago’s north side.

At that time, Scot was a professor at North Park University across the street. I was an editor at The Covenant Companion, a small but feisty denominational magazine.

“You should start a blog,” I told Scot over a lunch of salmon quiche and Diet Coke. “You’d be perfect.”

“What’s a blog?” he asked.

“It’s like letters to the internet,” I said. “Trust me—you’d be great at it.”

Things worked out OK for Scot and his blog.

That same lunch, Scot had an idea for me.

“You should write a book about evangelicals,” he said.

His idea—put together a modern version of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”—Randall Balmer’s journey into the evangelical subculture of the 1980s. The focus—that there’s a lot more to evangelicals than politics.

For 12 year’s I’ve tried to sell that idea.

First I called the “The Army of the Lord.” Then later, “The Communion of Saints.”

The point of the book was this: that friendship—with God, fellow believers, and our neighbors—is at the heart of the evangelical movement. That when they aren’t voting, evangelicals do a lot of good, often behind the scenes. And that the talking head evangelicals we see on TV are only a tiny slice of the evangelical world.

And what drew many of us–or at least what drew me– to the evangelical world was kindness and grace—not anger and judgment.

No one wants to buy a book like this.

Especially not after the election of “He who must not be named.”

But I still want to write about this topic.

And I don’t need a book contract to write about it.

A contract with help, because there’s reporting I still want to do. But for now, I can post what I have so far.

And you can read it for free.

So without further ado: Welcome to the Communion of Saints.

Part One:

The last time I talked to my younger brother was in mid-October 2006.

Then, like now, the culture war in America was going ballistic.

In Colorado, James Dobson then-president of Focus on the Family, was battling gay marriage. In South Dakota, voters rallied against an abortion ban, which outlaws all abortions except those to save a mother’s life. On the New York Times bestseller list, renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed that religious people are at best delusional, and at worst child abusers.

Dozens of other writers argue that America is slipping into a theocratic dark age. On college campuses like Brown and Georgetown, evangelical student groups were being told they were no longer welcome. Even Rosie O’Donnell was in on the act, comparing conservative Christians in America to Islamic fundamentalists.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Iraq continued to disintegrate with more than 2,000 American soldiers, and who knows how many thousands of Iraqi civilians, dead. The one thing that both sides in the culture war seemed to agree on is that Iraq is a disaster—either a well-intentioned attempt to fight terrorism and depose a dictator gone awry or an ill-conceived act of American imperialism that backfired.

And somewhere in Colorado, a male prostitute has been telling television reporters a supermarket tabloid-style tale about three years of supplying methamphetamines to—and allegedly having sex with—Ted Haggard, the head of the NAE. First dismissed as a political smear campaign, Jones’s confession turned out to be not far from the truth. The story will soon topple Haggard from the NAE and from his post as pastor of the 15,000-member New Life Church in Colorado.

But, inside the doors of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, all was quiet on this October day.

The brainchild of founding pastor Bill Hybels, Willow Creek was named for the movie theater in nearby Palatine where the church’s first services were held in 1975. When the church started, Hybels was a twenty-something former youth minister, whose first pastoral task was canvassing the neighborhood around the church, along with a group of volunteers. They carried surveys with them, and asked neighbors if they went to church. If not, Hybels and his volunteers, asked why. The most common answers— “church services are boring” and “churches are always asking for money”—helped shape the format of Willow Creek’s early services. The music was upbeat, the sermons delivered with humor by Hybels, who dressed in casual clothes. Dramas helped reinforce the main point of the sermon.

The services were aimed at what Hybels called “unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary”—people who were curious about God but suspicious of Christians, and designed to let new people investigate the church at their own pace. No one asked for money during  services or asked newcomers to do anything.

The idea was to take Christianity out of its packaging—hymns, pews, stained glass, religious artwork, fixed liturgy—and see if the message could still ring true.

Critics labeled it “church-lite.” Hybels called it “seeker sensitive.” Whatever the name, the approach worked, and within two years the church had outgrown the movie theater and bought 100 acres of land in South Barrington for their own building.

By the mid-2000s, Willow Creek’s campus had become part office complex, part theater, and part mall. The main auditorium, with state of the art sound, lights, and multimedia, seats 7,000. A small auditorium, which houses services for most of the church’s life, seats 5,000. There’s food court, a bookstore, and offices for the more than 100 support groups and outreach programs the church offers—everything from marriage enrichment and youth groups to ministries that feed AIDS orphans in Zambia and restore used cars for single moms. One wing of the building houses offices of the Willow Creek Association—a network of more than 10,000 churches who use Willow’s resources and approach to doing church.

I was at Willow Creek, on assignment for Sojourners magazine, to interview Kay Warren and Lynne Hybels, two of the most influential women in American Christianity. Almost single-handedly, they’d changed the public agenda of American evangelicals by convincing Kay’s husband, Rick, author of the Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church, and Lynne’s husband, Bill, to become involved in fighting the AIDS epidemic.

But Kay’s plane was late and Lynne had a last minute change of plans—her first grandchild had just been born, and grandchildren trump journalist every time.

As I waited for Kay Warren to arrive, Willow Creek began springing to life. Over in the food court, a group of workers in white uniforms were giving the dining area the once over. In a few hours, the dozens of round tables and chairs would be filled with Willow Creek members who’ve rushed in to catch a bite to eat between work and that evening’s midweek service. In the bookstore, a few people sipped coffee, while others browse the store’s offerings. The selection was predictable: titles on Christian leadership, Christian living, Christian marriage, a smattering of biographies (including one on   Dobson) Bibles, and a large Christian fiction section. The store also features, quite prominently, the Skeptics Guide to the AIDS Crisis by Dale Hanson Bourke and a video curriculum by Lynne and Bill Hybels on getting involved in AIDS ministry

Downstairs, past a waterfall that flows beside the main escalators, a maintenance man was repairing a ceiling tile just outside the Blue Sky Room. Later on this evening, Kay Warren will speak to about 200 Willow Creekers about how AIDS affects women, with a surprisingly frank discussion about sexual violence in the AIDS pandemic.

I settled down in the church’s vast central lobby, in one of half dozen comfortable chairs arranged in a semicircle. Nearby sat an information booth next to a life-sized mock-up of the front porch of a typical suburban home, complete with white pillars, light yellow siding, and brown shutters. The house is an advertisement for “Neighborhood Life,” Willow Creek’s new and improved small group program.

Willow Creek, like most of the more than 1,200 megachurches, (Protestant church with an average attendance of more than 2,000) in the U.S., depends heavily on a network of small groups to knit the congregation together. On the weekends, megachurches services resemble rock concerts or revival meetings. But during the week, often under the radar, church members meet in hundreds of small groups to pray together, study the Bible, and build the ties that bind a church together. Christians sometimes speak of “the body of Christ” or “the communion of saints” when referring to those ties—both being New Testament terms for the followers of Jesus after the resurrection. In a megachurch like Willow Creek, that communion, that body, is knitted together around the coffee table in the homes of church members.

In the quiet of Willow Creek’s lobby, by the Neighborhood Life house, I drank a cup of coffee and finally remembered to call my brother.

It had been weeks, maybe even months, since we’d last spoken. Not because of a rift in the family but because we were both busy. But my brother Paul and his wife were leaving in a few days for the Philippines to finalize the adoption of their first child. For two years they’d been navigating the red tape of adoption in the U.S. and in the Philippines, and finally had approval to bring her home. The last step was presenting their paperwork at the US Embassy in Manila and picking up a visa for their twenty-month-old daughter Connie Marie.

Paul was driving his pickup down Route 95, halfway between Boston and our hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts, when I reached him by cell phone. “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash, played in the background when he picked up the phone.

“How ah ya,” he said, his New England version of “How are you.”

The conversation was brief—as conversations usually are among forty-something brothers who live 1,000 miles apart. As he put it, he was “as busy as a one-armed paper hanger,” running his own company. (A master electrician, he spent most of his time installing the electronics that run cell phone towers).

I wished him well on the trip.

“I’ll give you a shout tonight,” he said.

Then he was gone.

The cell signal was lost.

It was the last time I ever heard his voice.

Once in the Philippines, Paul and his wife got caught up in more red tape and more delays. On the morning of October 22, Paul collapsed while out for a run. He was dead at age thirty-nine.

It was as if someone tossed a hand grenade into the center of our lives.

We recovered, or least survived, because of the communion of saints.

***

The communion of saints takes many forms. Sometimes it’s in a group of Christians gathered for worship; other times it’s a group of church members standing on a rooftop during a mission trip, working together to repair a home damaged by a hurricane. Sometimes you can even see it in a platter of cranberry squares or chicken salad sandwiches.

There were platters of both in my parent’s refrigerator in the days following my brother’s death. They were part of dozens of meals brought over by members of their church. The church’s youth group descended on my parent’s backyard, raking the leaves that my father hadn’t been able to get to. Other church friends came and prayed with my folks, and held them close.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of four friend so desperate to see their paralyzed friend healed that they broke through the roof of a house where Jesus was staying, and lowered their friend down on a mat, laying him at Jesus’s feet. In a similar way, says Arvid Adell, a retired minister and college professor, Christians sometimes practice “surrogate faith” for those who have been paralyzed by life’s circumstances. They keep the faith until their friends can be restored to health.

In the weeks following my brother’s death, the church kept the faith for our family, and carried us along when we could barely walk.

What happened to my family happens every day in evangelical churches, and probably churches of all kinds. When people grieve or need of a friend; when they are sick or lonesome or lost, the church welcomes them, carries them along, and keeps the faith for them.

Lauren Sandler, author of Righteous, a study of evangelical young people, calls this “the kindness of strangers.”

It is one of the great strengths, perhaps the greatest strengths of the evangelical church; practiced almost entirely by lay people, and often underappreciated by those outside the church.

For a long time, those outside the church included our family.

Back in the 1970s, my parents dropped out of the Catholic faith they’d grown up with. They’d been disillusioned, not with God, but with their parish, a congregation of several thousand where they felt lost in the crowd. For them, there was no small group meeting around a coffee table to bind them to the church. And their parish’s overworked priests had no time to keep track of families wandering out the front door.

The last straw came during a stay at the hospital—while recovering from surgery, my Mom spied her parish priest passing by in the hallway. He stopped in to see her but had no idea who she was, though she had been a member of the parish for years. Soon after, my parents stopped going to church.

It didn’t help that none of their children wanted to go to church either.

For a brief time, out of guilt mostly, my dad enticed my brother Paul and I to go to church. We went along, for a while at least, because of the possibility of donuts.

Dad would drop us off on Sunday mornings near the entrance of St John’s Roman Catholic Church in our hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts. He handing us each a quarter before we scooted out the door. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he told us.

The money was for the offering plate. But Paul and I had better things in mind.

After my dad dropped us off, we stood in a back entryway of the church, watching Mass through the clear windowpanes in the leaded glass windows at the back. (I spent most of my time, especially in the fall and winter, blowing on the panes and drawing pictures in the condensation.) When we’d had as much church as we could stand, we snuck out in search of donuts.

A couple of times a month, a spread of donuts—glazed and chocolate glazed, coconut and jelly filled—would be set out after Mass in the cafeteria at St. John’s Catholic School, across the street and down the hill from the church. In front of the donuts was a tin can, asking for a 25-cent donation.

If there were donuts, our quarters went in the can. If not, they stayed in our pockets.

If there were none in the cafeteria at the school, we ran back up to the convenience store across from St. John’s. A candy bar or a few Ring Dings made an acceptable substitute for donuts.

By the time I was eleven or so, I’d come up with a church exit strategy. On Sunday mornings, about ten minutes before we were supposed to leave for church, I pulled myself away from the cartoons on TV, and snuck out the back door. Climbing on my five-speed Schwinn bike (complete with a banana seat and baseball cards in the spokes), I peddled away as fast as I could, headed towards the woods and paths behind Peter Thatcher Middle School, a mile and half from my house. One the few occasions when my dad discovered I was gone and called after me, I peddled faster and pretended I hadn’t heard him.

When I was reasonably sure that it was too late for church, I rode home. If my Dad was looking for me when I got home, I played dumb—and pretended that I had no idea I’d missed church.

This strategy worked for a few months. Then one Sunday, after riding though mud puddles along the paths in the wood, I turned for home. My clothes were caked with mud, as was my bike. Suddenly, a horn blared beside me, and a green Plymouth Town and Country station wagon, (with fake wood panels on the side) pulled up beside me.

Without a word, my dad got out of the car, tossed both me and my mud-soaked bike into the far back seat, and shut the door.

“We’re going to church,” he said, when he got behind the wheel.

“I can’t—my clothes are soaked,” I said.

At this time of my life, I was already a social outcast—a bookworm who preferred reading the encyclopedia to going out and playing with my friends. I’d become “husky” as I approached adolescence, and already had bad acne and even worse, thick tortoiseshell frame glasses. I did not need to show up in church covered in mud—more proof that I was a complete loser.

My dad won that battle, but the church war was lost. That Sunday was the last time our family stepped foot in St. John’s. My dad finally gave up.

We were done with religion.

Or so we thought.

Time Flies

 

 

 

Ten years ago I turned off my phone and walked into the offices of a magazine in the Chicago suburbs for a job interview.

At that point, I’d been a professional writer for 8 years, as an editor and writer for The Covenant Companion magazine and as a jobbing freelancer.

Life was a bit crazy. We had three kids under 10 and when I wasn’t chasing them around (which was a blast), I was writing constantly, till all hours of the night, just to make ends meet.

Plus I was ready for a change. I needed one job that would pay enough for me to slow down on the freelancing a bit.

That meant giving up on my dream of becoming a full-time religion writer at a newspaper.

I’d been chasing that dream for about a decade–starting in the mid-1990s when I went back to school to get a degree in writing.

That in itself was a huge change. I’d already spent a decade working at nonprofits and trying to save the world and discovered I was terrible at it. Plus I was hardly making any money.

So why not chase my first love–writing about religion? I was good at that– and if I wasn’t going to make much money, I might as well do something I loved.

A master’s degree and some freelancing led to a job as an editor at a church-related magazine. A late night conversation with Jim Rice, the editor of Sojourners, and David Anderson, the former editor of Religion News Service, sparked a freelance career–getting me out of the church world and onto the pages of national newspapers.

A summer at Medill School of Journalism also opened doors, thanks to the friendship of Roy Larson and the late Bob McClory.

I began applying to newspapers for open religion jobs– in Iowa, Kansas, Washington, D.C. Wherever there was an opening, I tossed my hat in the ring.

There was this one job that kept popping up–at the Tennessean in Nashville, that sounded perfect.

I applied three times.  First time, the response was “No.”  Second time, “No thanks. But I really love Bob McClory, one of your references.”

The third time, crickets. At least at first, Then an email, from Ricky Young, who was then city desk editor, asking me to send my writing samples again. He had my resume, but couldn’t find the samples of my work.

I sent an email with samples attached. Then went to Kinko’s and made copies of dozens of stories and mailed them as well.

Still crickets.

I figured that was it. When a local magazine called and asked me to come in for an interview, I went in.

It was a disaster. The work seemed great but the editor confided in me that she was at war with her boss. “I need an ally,” she said. “Would you be on my side?”

No thanks.

Walked out of the interview, turned on my phone and a message popped up from Deborah Fisher, an editor at the Tennessean.

We talked.  It was a Friday.  On Monday, I was on a plane to Nashville.  A week later, I had a new job. A few weeks later, I loaded up the car and headed south. (Kathy and the kids would join my a few months later).

What a ride it’s been.

Six years at the Tennessean– the best of my career. Met great friends like Heidi Hall, Chas Sisk, Tom Wilemon, Brad Schmidt, Kate Howard to name a few.  Covered snake handlersshady charities, the anti-Islam industry,  a Bible-study surrogate mom,  the lovely Pearl Joy Brown, and a Russian immigrant who quit his job because his company kept assigning him 666 on his work ID.

Even a life-changing run-in with diabetes.

So many great and terrible stories.

It was, in a word, awesome.

But all good things come to an end.  Having survived a string of layoffs at the paper and college tuition in the future, I left the paper and went to work with the folks at Facts&Trends, where I’ve learned all about the perils and wonders of public polling and have had time to dig deep into stories.

The freelancing returned as well. A cat cult. A political prisoner accused of domestic abuse.  A church saved by refugees. A congregation that’s taking on big oil in their neighborhood.  A pair of congregations–one in Charleston, one in Antioch, Tenn.–trying to move on after deadly shootings.

Along the way,  I had the great privilege of serving for six years on board of   Religion News Association and Foundation (two as president) as well as a stint as president of the board for Religion News Service.  I even snuck in some time with my good friends as Christianity Today–long enough to discover a cult with close ties to the Christian music biz.

All in all, it’s been a great 10 years. I really am one of the luckiest people in the world, I have a beautiful family, dear friends, and work that I enjoy.

There are so many people to thank over the past decade.

Deborah Fisher for that first call. Ricky Young for sticking with me. Toni Dew, my first editor at the Tennessean. The fabulous Heidi Hall. Lisa Green. Kevin Eckstrom, my former editor at RNS. Debra Mason.  Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post. Manya Brachear, Jerry Pattengale, John Terril, Ken Chitwood, Abe Levy, Peter Smith, Ann Rogers, Jeff Diamant, and a host of other RNA/RNF/RNS board members. Holly Meyer at the Tennessean, who helped pull off a fabulous RNA conference this fall in Nashville. Tom Gallagher, Jerome Socolovsky and the great staff of RNS.  Tiffany McCallen who keeps RNA humming. Carol Pipes and the Facts&Trends crew.

And all my religion beat friends, who are far too numerous to mention.

The last decade has been a blast. Can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring.

 

Apocalypse Chow and the Genius of Jim Bakker

 

In the 1980s, Jim Bakker was a con man and a true believer.

He was also a genius, says John Wigger, author of “PTL: the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s evangelical empire.”

The Bakker’s invented the Christian talk show, built one of the first satellite networks, and created a Christian Disneyland, complete with a water park.

Everyone who was anyone seemed to appear on their show. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan showed up while on the campaign trail. Mother Angelica was a regular (Bakker later claimed he built her first set when she launched out on her own). Even Little Richard came by for a visit in one of his holy roller phases.

The Bakkers even pioneered an early form of reality TV, with their unscripted approach to the PTL Club, argued Wigger in a commentary for Religion News Service.:

In one episode they brought a camel on the show to promote their Christmas program. As Jim described how magnificent the camel was, it peed a river across the set, all on live television. Viewers came to think of Jim and Tammy as part of their extended family.

Even more, they knew how to read people– and to tell them what they needed and wanted to hear.

And people loved to give them money–including $148 million from 1983 to 1987–at the height of fundraising for Heritage USA.

In fact, the Bakker’s biggest problem– apart from the sex, drugs, and lying–was that they were too successful at meeting people’s needs. If people hadn’t loved Heritage USA so much–they wouldn’t have shown up in droves, writes Wigger.

And no one may have know that the Bakker’s oversold rooms at Heritage USA–which was the heart of the fraud case against them.

After the Bakkers fell and Jim went to jail, they reinvented themselves. Tammy Faye became a talk show host on her own, with Jim J. Bullock, who was openly gay. She also became an icon–one of the few Christian leaders of the 1980s to be kind to gay men, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis in the US and died beloved.

Jim reinvented himself as well– selling repentance at first and later, the end of the world.

For a while, he even denounced the prosperity gospel, he told Christianity Today in 1998:

I believe the harlot of the Book of Revelation is materialism. Our denomination [the Assemblies of God], at least, used to teach that the harlot was the Catholic church. That was escapist—we wanted to blame somebody else and never look at ourselves. If you study the attributes of the harlot, she’s all about materialism. Everything is about the commerce of buying and selling and stuff. It’s about loving this world and the things of this world.

He also told CT that he preferred working with the poor to returning to television and that the secret of the Christian life was to draw close to Christ and his suffering:

On returning to television. I don’t want to say never on anything. But with the money it takes to be on television—my budget was a million dollars every two days—the tail wags the dog. I don’t want money to be my consuming force again. Now I live in the ghetto of Los Angeles, where I work under a group of men that I highly respect. There are 160 different ministries working together. It’s like a New Testament church, a daily thing, where we are feeding people, working with drug addicts, and repainting whole city blocks. We have about 4,000 in our sidewalk Sunday schools, and 12 different language churches at the center.

The street ministry didn’t last too long. And the end of the world turned out to be extremely lucrative.

Today, Bakker is the star of Morningside, a 600-acre complex near Branson, complete with condos and cabins, when fans and followers can watch the new Jim Bakker show live and pick up buckets full of his survivalist foodstuffs. The end of the world is coming, so it’s best to have a few freeze-dried meals on hand.

For $3,000 you can buy the “Super Grocery Store” bundle of food–a pallet with close to 21,000 servings.

As  Buzzfeed put it:  “Just add water and, as Bakker says, ‘imagine — the world is dying and you’re having a breakfast for kings.'”

It’s easy to poke fun at Bakker, as just another snake oil salesman or crooked televangelist. But Wigger says that it’s worth paying attention to Bakker.

After all,  Wigger says in a chapter called “Apocalypse Chow,” Bakker has a keen eye for what a large number of Americans want.

“In exchanging the prosperity gospel for doomsday apocalypticism, Bakker has found a way to turn a profit by selling freeze-dried survival food and gear, including water filters, solar generators, and camping supplies. It is brilliant, in a way. Just as the abundant life gospel fit the 1980s, a survivalist message resonates in post 9/11 America. Once again, Bakker has proven himself adept at detecting shifting patterns in the cultural currents.”

 

Atheists Vs. The Housing Allowance: Round Three

A federal judge has once again ruled that the parsonage allowance — a tax break that allows pastors to pay all their housing costs with tax-free dollars–is unconstitutional, reports Christianity Today.

The purpose of the housing allowance, ruled  U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb,” is to provide financial assistance to one group of religious employees without any consideration to the secular employees who are similarly situated to ministers. Under current law, that type of provision violates the establishment clause.”

Ministers get about $800 million in tax relief each year because of the housing allowance, according to Christianity Today. So it’s a big deal.

Crabb issued a similar ruling in 2013, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, saying that it was unfair that pastor could get a housing allowance, but the leaders of a secular nonprofit–in this case one run by atheists– ould not.

The Department of Justice responded by saying in essence, “OK–atheists can get a housing allowance.” An appeals court later overruled Crabb, saying that FFRF leaders hadn’t ever asked for a housing allowance.

So the FFRF’s leaders called the government’s bluff. They asked for a housing allowance by filing amended tax returns. The IRS gave them some money but then later, turned down their request.  Atheists can’t get a housing allowance, the IRS said,  according to the FFRF.

“IRC Section 107 specifically requires that to exclude a housing allowance from income you must be a minister of the gospel,” states a letter quoted in Crabb’s new decision. “The IRS does not have the authority to interpret this to include anyone other than those who meet this definition.”

This is the third time the housing allowance has been in legal trouble. The first came way back in 2002, when Rick Warren feuded with the IRS.

 

 

 

 

Religion Reporting by the Book

A few weeks ago, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein stirred up a hornet’s nest by criticizing the beliefs of judicial nominee Amy Barrett during a hearing.

Barrett described herself as a “faithful Catholic.”   That bothered Feinstein, who implied that Barrett’s faith disqualified her.

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said, according to published reports.  “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”

This exchange made Barrett’s beliefs into headline news. That got New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein thinking:  “What does Barrett believe.”

Like any good beat reporter, Goodstein went digging. What she found was fascinating. Barrett is a member of the People of Praise, an “ecumenical, covenant community” with ties to the Catholic charismatic movement.

Among the group’s practices: a belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues, and the practice of spiritual oversight, where each member is assigned a mentor or spiritual guide.  They also have a missionary bent:

“As a community, and together with the whole Church, we pray for a continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our time, so that all men and women might come to know, love and serve Jesus,” the group’s site states.

Goodstein found that at times, the People of Praise have been accused of trying to control their members’ lives.  Among their critics is one of the group’s founders. who wrote a paper describing them as “not reliable guides.”

Goodstein also scored a coup: getting the group’s leader on the phone. (As someone who has covered small sects and religious communities for years, that’s no small task. Usually, people go running when I call.)

Craig S, Lent, the group’s coordinator, laid out the group’s beliefs. They don’t control members and individual members have to discern God’s will for their lives, he told Goodstein,  Lent also addressed critics, who worried that the group would try to influence Barrett’s decision on the bench.

“If and when members hold political offices, or judicial offices, or administrative offices, we would certainly not tell them how to discharge their responsibilities,” he told the times. 

To recap:  The religious beliefs of a judicial nominee became a matter of public discussion and controversy.  A reporter tracked down the nominee’s specific beliefs, asked questions of whether that nominee had tried to hide those beliefs, and got the leader of the nominee’s religious committee to answer questions raised by critics.

The piece was textbook religion beat writing.

There’s been some criticism of the article as a “hit piece,” as if reporting on Barrett’s beliefs is somehow hostile.

Still, the controversy over Barrett raises some important questions about religious liberty.  In the past, politicians and talking heads have questioned whether Catholics or Muslims can hold public office–arguing that those faiths undermine the loyalties of their followers, making them less patriotic.  More recently, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that believing hell disqualified an evangelical nominee from public office,

But there’s a big difference between a Senator who discriminates against a nominee on the basis of their religion — and a reporter who asks about a nominee’s faith.  One is a religious test for office. The other is reporting 101,

My two cents: We need more reporters who are willing to ask Americans of all stripes about what they believe and about how those beliefs — or unbeliefs — shape their lives.  Religion is  not going anywhere –and if we’re going to get along as Americans, we need to get how religion works.

That’s a not a  hit piece. It’s journalism 101.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chainsaw Option

Do what you can to help.

That’s the lesson that Sister Margeret Ann wants her students at Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami to remember when they walk out the school’s doors and into the community.

So when she saw a tree blocking the road following Hurricane Irma–Sister Margaret Ann decided to take her own advice. She raided the school toolshed for a chainsaw–consulted Saint Google–and got to work clearing the debris.

Her good deed–like thousands of other acts of everyday kindness in the wake of the recent hurricanes–might have gone unnoticed, had not a Miami police driven by and taped her at work, creating a viral disaster relief superstar.

Sister Margaret didn’t know she was famous until she’d got home.  All the attention seems to have caught her by surprise. After all, she was just doing what came naturally.

So, there was a need, I had the means — so I wanted to help out,” she told CNN.

This is how religion works in America. There’s a disaster–and thousands of people show up to help with chainsaws and willing hands. Someone gets sick and friends show up with casseroles and kindness. A neighbor grieves the death of a child or a spouse or a parent and their community rallies around them so they don’t grieve alone. Volunteers distribute food so kids don’t go hungry.  A church opens its doors to refugees.

Most of the time there are no cameras and no Twitter fame. Just everyday, unexpected acts of grace. They see a need, they have a means to help and they get to work.

With apologies to Rod Dreher, call it the Chainsaw Option.

That’s why I became a religion writer in the first place — to cover the way that ordinary people practice their faith, live out their values, and put their spirituality to work in the real world.

There’s a time to cover the flashy side of faith — the rock star preachers, the cat cults , the lawsuits. But that’s not the heart and soul of religion.

But that’s not the heart and soul of religion in America,

Folks like Sister Margaret Ann are.