Christmas Eve, 2012

Bethlehem

Wise men from ancient east brought gifts, angelic choirs rejoiced, shepherds bowed low, animals bleated, God was born. Just like that. It happened in time and space in the little good-for-nothing town of Bethlehem. The magnificence was because it was God, and something had to be done to mark the moment and attest to its authenticity. But the lowliness of it was so that He could come in us, in the messy, smelly stall of our humanity.

Had He come in grandeur, He never would have come in me.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.

Missional or Nonsense?

 

Santa-Fe-shops-New-MexicoI am reading a book on missional living among non-Christians (pre-Christians, not-yet-Christ followers, insert your favorite phrase here) in a post-Christian world. The challenge is that the author is describing a very specific subset of the population at large. One source he quotes as evidence of how the post-Christian world thinks is a poster he saw in a coffee shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you know anything about Sante Fe it is on the bleeding edge of the twilight zone. Legalizing pot in Sante Fe would be like legalizing gambling in New Jersey, that train left the station a long time ago. That’s not to say that we can’t learn from posters in Santa Fe or from the author’s experience in large, mid-western city. The danger is extrapolating what he experiences in his culture to the culture you minister in.

I lived this first hand in the 1990s when I pastored a small church in rural Texas. I went to a Willow Creek conference and heard Bill Hybels talk about Unchurched Harry and Mary. I thought I’d found the Rosetta Stone for reaching seekers in my little neck of the woods. It turned out that Unchurched Bubba had very little in common with Unchurched Harry. The idea of understanding the mindset of the culture around me is essential, overlaying that mindset on other regions and cultures makes no sense.

I lived in three very distinct cultures during the past three years. (Insert “Can’t keep a job” joke here). I lived for 14 years in South Carolina where we used to say there are no unchurched people there are only former Baptists. (Another joke: Do you know the difference between a Southern Baptist and a Lutheran? A Lutheran will say hi to you in the liquor store.) There are a lot of people far from God in South Carolina, but it is not a post-Christian or post-attractional culture. There isn’t really a need to throw everything out and start over in the Bible Belt.

I lived in Southern California for a year and experienced a culture completely different from the Bible Belt. People there aren’t hostile to the Gospel, they just don’t have time to think about it. They work 70+ hours a week to pay the mortgage, the payment on the Benz and the plastic surgeon. On the weekends they have the beach, the mountains and the desert to attend to. They aren’t thinking about feeding the homeless and social justice, they are thinking about refinancing.

Now I live in Denver. Almost no one goes to church in Denver. They aren’t against it, they just aren’t interested. They moved here to ski, bike or climb mountains. They work to afford a season pass, a new bike or the doctor bills to patch them up when they fall. Pastors here describe “seekers” as “happily lost”. Missional without mountains in Denver is meaningless. (I learned alliteration when I worked at Saddleback)

The point is your community, your neighborhood, your block is completely different from mine. Deep conversations about the meaning of life, community transformation and saving the planet may lead to amazing opportunities to share the Gospel in your context. Or not. Missional should never be translated as a specific mindset or way of interacting. Paul described the true missional mindset when he said he became all things to all people so that by all means he could save some.

So read books, go to conferences, learn from brilliant leaders, but interpret everything you hear through the lens of what you know about the people in your neck of the woods. Don’t feel intimidated into throwing out everything because “the world has changed”, but don’t drag what worked when you lived “there” with you and expect it to work when you move “here”. Remember, we live in a post “there” world.

Letter to a Christian Nation

 

Any of us who have come to Christ later in life know the factors that led us to Him. The Spirit was tugging at me for a while. C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity started it. Like me, he was once an atheist. Until he could be one no more. “In 1929, I gave in, and admitted that God was God,” wrote Lewis, “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

A few committed people of faith did the rest for me, as I witnessed in them the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the power of their lives. The way they lived made them stand apart from other people I knew. And in the fall of 2007, I became the most excited and reluctant convert in all northern Mississippi.

“What brought you to Christ?” my friends asked.

“Christians,” I replied.

“What took you so long?” was the usual follow-up.

“Christians,” I replied. The kind more focused on other people’s sins than their own.

I didn’t meet many of the latter. Much of what I thought I knew about Christians before I became one came through the lens of the media, which tend to ignore the contributions Christians make to American life. That is, when they aren’t actively denigrating Christians as mindless simpletons, or fundamentalists hell-bent on turning our country into a theocracy.

The only time I heard from Christians themselves was in the political realm. Two issues defined them — abortion and gay marriage — leading secular folks like me to believe that Christians wake up thinking only about babies in the womb and gay people at the altar.

That perception changed when I moved to a place filled with Christians — Oxford, Miss. Eventually I became one myself.

I joined a great church, one where the focus is on living good lives. We rarely talk politics, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve talked with anyone there about gay marriage or abortion.

Like most Christians, we’re busy trying to live up to the standards of our faith. We sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail. Our church is focused on strengthening our faith and families and giving of ourselves to help others. And having some fun doing it.

The fact is, nearly 90 percent of all homeless shelters are run by people of faith. Not all of these are Christians, but most of them are, and they have a quite a record of compassion in America.

But when I was a secular conservative, I knew none of this. I saw Christian conservatives only as a potential political liability in America’s highest-density populations. I thought they’d hurt the cause of conservatism by chasing secular voters like me from our ranks — and, in doing so, hurt their own cause. Because an ever-expanding government crowds out the private sector, and private institutions like churches. Europeans didn’t wake up one day and all decide to leave the church at once. The state kept getting bigger, and the church kept getting smaller, one day at a time.

So alas, as a new Christian (I am but five years old), I must address two elephants in the elephant house. Many in the GOP are blaming social issues for our loss and for doubts about our future viability as a party, so I figured I’d address both head on.

ROE v. WADE
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that life begins before the second trimester, or that Roe is bad constitutional law. In 1972, abortion was legal in 20 states. Overnight, it became legal in 50, and all because the Supreme Court said so.

Christians have been battling Roe ever since, and though it’s still the law of the land, there are now lots of restrictions on abortion, most with strong popular support — including parental-consent laws, bans on late-term abortion in many states, and a federal ban on partial-birth abortion. In addition, the number of abortions has been cut by 25 percent from the record high in 1990, and Gallup  finds a strong majority of Americans (61 to 37 percent) believing abortion should be legal in only a few circumstances, or in no circumstances.

Christian advocacy is working. And science itself — and especially the sonogram — is helping us along.

The question is this: How far do we push forward before we start slipping backward? The comments by Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on rape and abortion were prime examples of how much damage we can do to our cause when we take our position to the extreme.

The pro-life movement is misguided if we’re demanding that a woman must have her baby once conception has occurred no matter what the circumstances, and no matter how early she makes her decision.

In short, if our goal is 100 percent victory, we risk losing ground with the very public with whom we have been gaining ground, one small step at a time.

Moreover, even if Roe is overturned, the issue would return to state legislatures, and abortion would probably be legal in more states than in 1972. In states where abortion was illegal, leftists would provide their version of an underground railroad, providing safe harbor and transportation for women to get abortions in states where it was legal.

Not exactly a big win for Christians, that scenario. Or for life.

Is this a call to abandon our political efforts? No. But to win any long-term political battle, we need to more profoundly engage the culture. Christians are the majority in this country, but we often act like outsiders. We keep to ourselves, and spend too little time marketing our message and our works to the outside world.

One Super Bowl ad featuring Tim Tebow and his mom did more to engage America in a discussion about life than thousands of political ads combined.

So what can we do? For openers, Christians could let every pregnant woman in crisis know we care about her, not just her baby. Such women, many of them very young, are facing the most profound decision of their lives, and they feel they have only two options: terminate the pregnancy, or go it alone as a single mom. Having a child is different from raising one, and it’s the raising part that terrifies most young single women. Many choose termination without telling anyone; that’s how hard their choice is.

Why can’t we provide a substantive third option and broadcast it to the nation? We hear stories of couples aching to adopt, and going outside the country to do it. How about setting up a network of couples seeking to adopt single pregnant girls?

We’ve got eHarmony and ChristianMingle. How hard would that be?

What if every church in America agreed to adopt one pregnant woman in need for every 100 members of the congregation? What impact would we have on those women? And they on us?

That would be one heck of a pro-life and pro-choice campaign all rolled up in one. Indeed, it would be one heck of a marketing campaign for life. And for Christians.

People who know only the media caricature of Christians would rethink everything they thought they knew about us, and why? Because we were being the best versions of ourselves.

All this storytelling just might make more converts. And a better nation.

I know because one Christian man’s story changed my life forever. His name is John Croyle. He was a star for Bear Bryant’s Alabama team in the 1970s. An NFL career beckoned, but he had a conflicting dream: He wanted to run a ranch for at-risk kids. He had a gift for working with young people, one he knew was God-given. With help from Bryant and friends, he chose the kids, not pro football, and started the Big Oak Ranch in Gadsden, Ala.

Croyle has spent his life raising and loving children whom no one else cared about. His impact has reached 3,000 kids and counting. And all without a single dime from the government. “Big John,” as his kids call him, raises millions of dollars each year, and gives those kids the love and mentoring they need every day. And all this is fueled by his faith.

Can’t we find more John Croyles and share their stories?

Look at one Christian couple, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, and what they did for a homeless Memphis ghetto boy named Michael Oher. They took him in and raised him as their own, and watched him become a football giant. Their story, told in Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side, and in the movie made from it, inspired a nation.

We would recruit more people to our position if they knew who we are and what we stand for. And we would engender a lot more respect from those who don’t share our beliefs.

We would also prove the efficacy of private solutions to public problems. John Croyle’s work has not only helped save thousands of kids, it has removed them from the public dole. And from the cold grip of bureaucracies ill equipped to deal with matters of the human heart and soul.

Stories matter. More than legislation or politics, they have the power to change hearts and minds.

A friend of mine recently told me a story about his son and daughter-in-law, and how the two struggled to have a baby. They tried everything modern medicine allowed, and found themselves expecting not one but three babies. Then came talk of a “reduction.” That is a euphemism for terminating a baby in the womb when multiples are involved.

The son asked his dad for advice. The dad is pro-choice. But he told his son that he and his wife should not “reduce” because that decision would haunt them the rest of their lives. Others counseled the couple to do it.

Years later, father and son were in a park watching three beautiful kids playing in the sun. Is there anyone who can’t imagine how they felt about that choice not to “reduce”?

There are stories like that all over America, stories about what happens when we choose life. Even pro-choice advocates routinely choose life. We should tell those stories over and over again, anywhere people might have a chance to hear them.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

This issue consumes a lot of Christian resources, and also divides Americans like nothing else but abortion. Nearly every American knows and cares about someone who is gay.

“What would you do if Reagan was gay?” my mom asked me about my seven-year-old girl on Thanksgiving Day. My mom was very sick, and she has since died. The question came out of nowhere. “I wouldn’t care,” I told her. “I’d love her just the same.” “Good,” said my mom.

“And if that meant me attending a civil service with the girl she loved,” I told her, “so be it. I will still believe she’s a child of God. And that Jesus loves her.” That answer will confound some of my Christian friends. It confounds me. But this much I know: I will always show unconditional love to my girl.

This much I also know: Being gay has never been an easy path in America. What else accounts for so many people lying about their sexuality to their peers? To their families? To themselves, even? It is a kind of pain I don’t know, keeping something so fundamental about yourself a secret. It is a category of rejection I can’t fathom.

The idea that prevails in the minds of some Christians that the culture is producing more gay people just isn’t true. And the notion — in a small corner of the evangelical community — that gay people can be turned straight doesn’t square with what we know deep in our bones. The notion that Anderson Cooper could be trained to be sexually attracted to my wife is as silly as the idea of me being trained to want to have sex with Anderson Cooper’s boyfriend.

Just as science has proven that life begins at conception, and that the beating heart inside the womb belongs to a baby, we may someday learn that gay people are born gay. That it’s genetic.

I know I just lost a lot of Christians there. Some of you are questioning my own salvation. Isn’t that what we do with Christians with whom we disagree?

So what is the answer to gay marriage? From one point of view it should be easy for a conservative. Live and let live has been the credo of economic conservatives; what you do in your private life is your business.

But what should we do, we who believe that marriage is a sacred union ordained by God? Should we keep fighting at the ballot box to prohibit gay marriage? Here’s the answer, though many Christians won’t like it. We should continue to believe what we believe, and keep getting married in our churches. And let gay people get married by the state in civil services. Let the state be the state, and the church be the church.

Gay marriage is simply not the threat to marriage that some church leaders believe it is — certainly not more than adultery, not to mention divorce. I don’t see church leaders fighting to make either of those illegal.

Sensible people are coming to a consensus on the importance of marriage. No government program can replace the love of a family, and many of our nation’s ills stem from the breakdown of the family. The economic costs are staggering. So are the human costs.

If anything, we should be comforted that gay people support an institution Christians and conservatives care so much about, one that our culture has for decades derided as being boring and utterly bourgeois.

In his letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., George Washington reassured those people who had fled religious tyranny in Europe that life in our new nation would be different. That religious tolerance and liberty were inseparable. That our government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief.

Quoting the Old Testament, Washington wrote, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

He wrote, “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

There will still be great churchstate issues before us. The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment commands that religious institutions be allowed to prosper freely and in keeping with their conscience. Christians have every right to defend that freedom, and can and should do it at the polls and in the culture. Gay people have the right to defend their freedoms too.

The most important political debate of our time — the one that dwarfs all others — is about the size and scale of government, and the degree to which the state intrudes into our lives. Are more government programs the answer to society’s ills, or are stronger families, businesses, churches, and civic institutions?

Will we go the way of Europe, or will we return to an America that values freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to pursue happiness and prosperity, all of which are essential to a thriving people?

Winning the argument for freedom is the best way to protect all of us, Christians and non-Christians, gay people and straight people.

That’s the American creed. If only we’d all start living it.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.