Friday, November 30, 2007

Teaching vs. brainwashing

I finally had a chance to see "Jesus Camp" this week. The documentary appeared in theaters last year and tells the story of three Evangelical Christian children who go to a summer camp in Devils Lake, N.D.

What is shown is pretty disturbing - even to most believers I think. Kids should be taught about living their faith and avoiding sin, but the services depicted appear to manipulate kids' emotions to the point that some of them are just hysterical. I'm really not sure what 8 and 9 year old kids from middle America have to be so guilty and upset over.

The filmmakers obviously have their own bias. In what I saw of the director's commentary (I love DVDs), they seem to be almost afraid of people committed to their faith. So I had to wonder if the film just showed the extremes.

Regardless, it raises the question, what's the best way to teach children about faith? A fine line seems to separate brainwashing and teaching them so they take ownership of their faith. How do you walk that line?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Church secrets

Catholicism is known for its ability to keep secrets -- sometimes it's understandable. Sometimes it's unnecessary, and sometimes, according to Bishop Randolph Calvo of Reno, Nev., it's funny.

He was trying to make the point about the difference between secrets and confidential information, so Calvo told the story about when he found out he would be bishop.

It was a few weeks before Christmas in 2005 and he came rushing into his office before a pre-school Christmas pageant and didn't even look at his phone messages. His secretary called his attention to one in particular an urgent message from the Archdiocese of Washington DC. Flustered, he called the number and a woman answered "hello."
"Is this the archdiocese of Washington?" Calvo inquired.
"No, this is the papal nunciature."

The papal nuncio (the pope's representative in the U.S.) got on the phone and informed Calvo he had been chosen by Pope Benedict XVI as the new bishop of Reno. All Calvo could do was mumble appreciation. Then came the hard part -- it couldn't be official until a bishop was named in San Francisco, which oversees Reno. And the nuncio let him in on a "papal secret." The announcement would be "soon." Now, Calvo was left remembering his time in Italy where soon could be today, tomorrow or three weeks from now.

Lucky for him the announcement came the next day. Calvo still couldn't say anything. In his first meeting with the new archbishop and other priests, he kept scanning the face of the bishop for any sign that he knew of Calvo's new job. After the meeting, the men met privately, and Calvo finally asked "Do you know something I know?" The bishop knew.

It only got worse as he had to excuse himself from saying a funeral Mass and leave a water main break in someone else's hands all without explanation.

"That kind of secrecy I can't describe," he said.

I can only hope someone around here is holding onto a similar secret...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Denominational bloggers

Just as in secular politics, bloggers are making a dent in conversations about religious politics -- particularly the politics of American Christian denominations. USA Today's Cathy Grossman explores the topic pretty well in a story in today's paper.

I realized how few of these I read -- partly because of time and partly because of lack of knowledge/interest in the minutiae of various denominations (yes, I'm admitting my bias - the politics of churches outside my own is not that exciting to me. I'd rather write about what you're doing with your faith for the greater good). Here's a few I do check:

Catholic: Whispers in the Loggia
Episcopal Church: Drell's Descants (written by a guy in Alexandria)
Evangelical: Evangelical Outpost (not as much a specific denomination as a movement, and theology rooted in that movement)

I apparently need to find a Southern Baptist blogger... Most of the rest that I check are on more general religion topics. So what about you? Any suggestions on good religion blogs?

Praying for quiet in Queensborough

Cold couldn't stop Jesus from coming to Queensborough.

About a dozen hearty folks gathered for Evangelist Melvin Slack's revival at the corner of Alabama and Fredrick last night. The story made the front page today, but I thought I'd elaborate a little more here. It had been a while since I attended a street revival, and it was good to see the preachers' enthusiasm, particularly when they're addressing tough issues like violence in the neighborhood.

I pulled up to hear Slack calling "revival! revival!" through speakers that could easily be heard for a few blocks. The theme of the night was meekness, which both speakers carried through their short talks.

The Rev. Demetrious Young reminded people that meekness also means patience and thinking before we react to the difficult situations in life. He continued and talked about the destructive kind of pride, when we think our way is best instead of God's.

Last night's preacher, the Rev. Terry Wesley continued the theme as he spoke about giving our lives to God. It had also been awhile since I heard that style of preaching - where lots of phrases are repeated, and the preacher almost breaks into song when giving the faithful their charge.

"We've got to put our lives in the Lord's hands. I'm not talking about Mayor Cedric Glover or George Bush. I'm talking about the Lord who made the heavens and the Earth... He took nothing and made the mountains. He took nothing and made the valleys."

"He can build up Queensborough. If he can build up Queensborough, he can build up Cedar Grove. If he can build up Cedar Grove, he can build up Highland."

Wesley encouraged them to rethink their priorities so that more children, like 9-year-old Treveon Hunter don't have to die in the crossfire of grown-ups' business. No one was saved last night, as far as I know, but Slack is praying to see some changed hearts by the end of the week.

If you have a chance, stop by and offer your support and prayers. They'll be at the corner of Frederick and Alabama at 6 p.m. each night.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Careful giving

Instead of spending hours at the mall picking out some gift your mother-in-law really doesn't need, how about making a donation to charity? It's quick, will help someone else in need and doesn't require wrapping.

But don't go giving away your money without some thought. Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization, has an impressive site with information on a ton of national charities and guidelines for how to evaluate whether charities are spending your money wisely. Among the recommendations:

* Charities should spend no more than 30 percent (preferably less than 25 percent) of their income on fundraising and administrative costs.

* Make sure a charity has short- and long-term goals, and evaluates the progress its making. For instance, Providence House's goal is to help families live independently and they can tell you the number of families who are still living on their own years after graduation.

* Feel free to ask questions of the organization's director or board. Look through the annual report and IRS forms. Form 990 is the one nonprofit organizations fill out - and they are required to show it to anyone who asks.

* Once you trust the organization, give to their general fund. Organizations need money to keep the lights on and pay for unexpected maintenance issues -- designated funds don't give them the flexibility to do that.

If you're looking for information on local charities, try Guidestar, which posts 990 forms. Also, if a charity receives more than a certian amount of money from state grants (I don't remember how much off the top of my head), they they have to send their audit to the legislative auditor, who kindly posts them on his website.

Of course, I am a little biased this time of year. If you don't want to do the work of looking at the charities, let The Times do it for you and give to the Joy Fund. We'll collect money (and put the names of donors and their honorees in the paper), and distribute all of it to various organizations to fund their Christmas projects. I'll write stories about as many of the charities as I can and keep you posted on what they're doing with the money. After the first of the year, we'll publish a full accounting of where it all went.

Friday, November 23, 2007

New churches everywhere

New churches seem to be popping up all over town this month. This week's religion briefs list two new Assembly of God congregations and last week, I wrote about a new CME church.

The Rev. David Hoey called to tell me about his church, Rhema Word Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, now meeting in Steeple Chase Baptist in West Shreveport. Hoey had been praying about planting a new church for the last two years. In March, he decided to take a little bit of a sabbatical from his job pastoring Lane Chapel CME. Not long after the bishop called to ask him about planting a new church.

Rhema Word (rhema is Greek for 'living word') is the first black Methodist church between Jewella Avenue and Keithville. Hoey described it as a "contemporary Methodist service" with lots of praise and worship music and no dress code. So far he's got about 50 members -- some from other denominations and some who were unchurched.

"It's been a joy and pain," Hoey said of his first church planting experience. "The joy is it gives you the opportunity to start from scratch. The pain is you're starting with no resources."

Rhema Word is meeting at 3 p.m. Sundays at Steeple Chase, 7016 Steeple Chase Plaza.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On gratitude

I'm awake - I didn't want to get out of bed because it was warm. I'm walking. I had food in the fridge. I grumbled because we were asked to be at work early this morning, but I have a job. I even like my job. My parents (who are still married) are coming into town today. They'll take my fiance and I out to dinner tonight. My fiance is wonderful - he changes my tires, makes me laugh, controls his temper when he's irritated with me.

In other words, I have more to be thankful for than I could ever put in one blog post. Between my birthday (today) and Thanksgiving (tomorrow), this is the perfect time of year for me to evaluate and be conscious of all those blessings that have come to me through no effort of my own.

But the real question is how do we cultivate that attitude everyday? All world religions endorse thankfulness and even scientists are saying its good for our mental and physical health. So what do you do to keep Thanksgiving part of your everyday life?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving outreach

Christian Scientists are using the thanksgiving holiday as a way to remind us to thank God for our many blessings. The church sent me (and I'm assuming a bunch of other folks) a booklet with Thanksgiving Scriptures and readings from "Science and Health," written by the denominations founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The Biblical passages are perfect for the holiday:

"Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done." (1 Chron. 16:8)

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

"Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations." (Psalm 100:4-5)

It also included an invitation to the church's Thanksgiving services which will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church, 3424 Line Ave., Shreveport.

Here are a few other Thanksgiving services that have crossed my desk:
Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, 939 Jordan St., Shreveport: 9 a.m. Thursday.
Church of the Living God, 1634 Alma St., Shreveport: 10 a.m. Thursday.
Egypt Hill Missionary Baptist Church, 2617 Old Plain Dealing Road, Plain Dealing: 9 a.m. Thursday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bishop watch: Military edition

To all you Catholics at Barksdale AFB, you have a new bishop. This just in from the Vatican:

Pope Benedict XVI appointed "Archbishop Timothy Paul Broglio, apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic and apostolic delegate to Puerto Rico, as military ordinary for the United States of America."

The 55-year-old is originally from Cleveland and was ordained in 1977. He replaces Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, who now leads the Diocese of Baltimore.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dignity for all

Dignity of human life -- all human life -- is the cornerstone of Christian social justice philosophy. In other words, if God created people in his image then all people are deserving of some amount of respect.

I was reminded of this lesson today at Homeless Connect Operation Stand Down. Homeless folks from all over the city converged at the Municipal auditorium in hopes of finding what most of us take for granted. Vision tests, medical exams, haircuts and socks were all in high demand. I watched the guys getting their haircuts and each one smiled the instant they sat down in the chair and had someone pay a little attention to them.

Major Cherry Craddock of the Salvation Army told me a story to illustrate this idea of treating people with dignity. When she and her husband were stationed in Altus, Okla., an older gentleman would come regularly for a bag of groceries. With a smile, she would give it to him, always addressing him as "Mister." One day after getting his bag, he paused: "You know," he said "You're the only person that calls me mister."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

North Louisiana resident to lead Southern Baptists

For the first time in a while, the President of the Louisiana Baptist Convention hails from North Louisiana.

The Rev. Mike Holloway, pastor of Cook Baptist Church in Ruston, was elected yesterday to lead the state's Southern Baptists. He was nominated by the Rev. Randy Harper of Bellaire Baptist in Bossier City. Holloway's opponent was our own the Rev. Chuck Pourciau of Broadmoor Baptist.

The Baptist Message, the convention's newspaper, conducted a pretty good pre-election interview with Holloway, asking about his theology and goals for the conference. He also addressed the issues of declining numbers of baptisms in the convention.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gangster faith

Last week, I picked the "Bee Movie," so this week my fiance picked "American Gangster." It looked like a good story, although probably filled with unnecessary sex and violence. I was pleasantly surprised. Oh, it's violent and has its share of nudity, but it wasn't gratuitous.

What stuck with me more was the strange paradox of faith and life. The movie - set in the late '60s and early '70s - is a classic good cop chasing bad guy kind of deal. The cop has a completely dysfunctional personal life. He's in and out of court battling custody of his son while sleeping with his lawyer. But he's lauded as one of the only honest cops in North Jersey.

On the other hand is Frank Lucas, one of Harlem's most notorious drug lords. He managed to connect with a heroin producer in Southeast Asia, and through military connections smuggled the drugs back to the states. Without the middleman, he could sell better quality stuff for cheaper. He was unashamed about the lives that were destroyed because of his "business." But he still took his mama to church every Sunday. His family appeared healthy and whole. And there was a brilliant scene where his family's festive holiday dinner is interspersed with images of a young woman overdosing on his brand of heroin.

It's an different take on hypocrisy and the contradictions that infuse our own lives. If y'all have seen the movie share your thoughts...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Deck the halls or burn the tree?

It's Nov. 7, red and green decorations have already taken over the stores and holiday bazaars are appearing in the paper's religion calendar.

Also appearing are several women's events to help curb the stress that can come with this time of year. I wrote briefs for three different workshops or speakers today. This is the first year I've noticed this much attention being paid to holiday stress by local churches. Are we really that consumed by too much holiday fluff?

Looking at my life (and I don't even have kids) probably so. Work has already blown into full-fledged holiday mode for me. And I know I've already started shopping with gifts in mind, making travel plans, and filling in the calendar with holiday parties. Another couple of weeks of this, and I can see the potential for wanting to burn down the tree.

What do you do to regain some of the fun and spirituality that Christmas is supposed to bring us?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Clarification from the steeple people

A couple of weeks ago my story about churches meeting in distinctly non-church buildings ran with the headline "Here's the church, where's the steeple?" Well, this apparently upset the steeple manufacturers of the world, who sent me an e-mail. I admit that I laughed at first, but the guy had an interesting point: these new, trendy churches, eventually have a need to be established.

From David England, vice president of sales/marketing for Campellsville Industries: "We find after these churches are established and grow to a sustainable size, they begin to acquire traditional church symbols (such as a steeple or cross) to establish themselves as a church. Many find that their lack of a steeple or cross sometimes leaves them unnoticed in the community, as one pastor who telephoned us said: 'People have been asking if we are an office building or a school, and yesterday someone asked if we were a Pizza Hut.' He was calling to inquire about a steeple for his church."

So what do you think? Does a church need to look like a church?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Non-gift gifts

November and Decembers are quite possibly the most difficult months to be a religion reporter. Just as churches are pulling out all the stops for the celebration of Christmas, religion writers are expected to do the same. I have an idea that could be my best Christmas story yet, but I need some help.

Here's the concept: a series of stories about gifts you could give that don't involve tangible objects. I'm thinking about things like a genuine apology or gratitude. What do you think? And what would you add to the list?

From dairy farm to stadiums

Billy Graham did make it to our North Carolina itinerary last weekend. Just west of downtown Charlotte, a new library and museum dedicated to the evangelist sits in the woods in a gated compound. It's open to the public and the gate guard was very friendly, but I thought it was kind of odd to have to stop and check in before entering.

The major part of the library is in a barn shaped building with a huge window cross. Visitors enter to be greeted by Bessie the talking cow, who tells you a little about "Billy Frank's" childhood on a dairy farm. From there each group is shuffled through a series of rooms with video presentations about different parts of the Graham ministry.

Video of Graham's preaching is prevalent, giving visitors a real first hand glimpse into what he's all about. And for those us of who are younger, you can hear the power and conviction in his preaching from younger days. More interesting to me were the cases with artifacts from his career. They included Bibles he made notes in, letters from people around the world (including presidents) and various awards.

No trip to anything Graham related would be complete with out and opportunity for salvation at the end. The tour truly does give all the credit to God for talents he gave Graham, and spends time recognizing all of the support people who made the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association what it is. So it made sense at the end to continue his tradition and allow people time to speak with a counselor and pray.

Outside you can visit the grave of Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of the evangelist, who died earlier this year. An entire room of the exibit is devoted to her, a daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China who obviously had a great sense of humor. Notice the inscription on her headstone: "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."
It's hard not to be in awe of Graham and what he's accomplished, but I have an even greater respect for him after visiting the museum. I even bought a book about his leadership style (to be shared whenever I get to read it). I know this has been said before, but I was most impressed by how he was able to keep his message simple but powerful. He didn't ignore sin or the need to repent, but he didn't water it down or make Christianity soft either. If you're in Charlotte it's definitely worth the trip.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Honoring all the saints

Happy All Saints Day! Catholic school children around the diocese are no doubt dressed as their favorite saints (and St. George is probably out there beating St. Catherine with his sword on the way into Mass), to celebrate this feast of all those who have gone before us in faith.

I know it's more of a Catholic feast, but I think everyone can learn from the general theme here. It's not just about recognizing those canonized saints, but everyone who has lived their faith and shared it with the people around them before going on to their eternal reward.

Who would you remember as someone who helped shape your faith?