Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Keeping Faith in China

The recent growth of Christianity in China has been nothing less than astounding. Check out the following article by Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, who is not a Christian but reports here on the Church in East Asia:

"During the first half of the 20th century, Western missionaries swarmed all over China, yet they converted fewer than a million Chinese and left only a minor imprint on the country. These days, China bars foreign missionaries, and the government sometimes harasses or imprisons Christians. Yet Christianity is booming as never before in China, and some giddy followers say China could eventually have hundreds of millions of Christians perhaps more than any other country in the world.

This boom in religion, particularly Christianity but also including the Bahai faith and various cults, reflects a spiritual yearning among many Chinese. While China has an official Catholic church and an official nondenominational Protestant church, which are not suppressed and people can join freely, the fastest-growing churches are the underground ones usually evangelical without any specific denomination that are independent of the government. The total number of Chinese Christians today probably exceeds 40 million, and some estimates go far higher.

"This is growing explosively," said Wang Wenjing, baptized a year ago and now caretaker of the Ark Church, a prominent underground church whose service I attended in Beijing. The Ark Church, one of thousands of "house churches," meets in a rented apartment on Sunday afternoons. Forty people crammed into the living room, regularly crying "Amen!" as the minister spoke. After two hours, I thought the service was over and then it broke into smaller groups for two more hours. One of the groups heard from a Christian who had been jailed and told about wretched prison conditions, particularly for mentally ill inmates. The meeting also planned a clothing drive to help poor people.

One reason for the boom in Christianity is that China is going through just the kind of turbulent social change, including alarm at the eclipse of traditional values, that often drives people toward faith. And in China's case, Maoism wiped out the traditional religions. The rise of Christianity constitutes one more challenge to the Communist Party by establishing a network the party cannot easily control. That has already happened with Falun Gong, a religious group that China has suppressed at home. Falun Gong members abroad are now among the party's biggest antagonists and developed the software that Chinese routinely use to see blocked Web sites.

In a supportive signal, President Bush met last month with three Chinese Christians in the underground church. One of them, a well-known dissident named Yu Jie, took me to Ark Church to attend its service. "It's like in South Korea in the 1970's and 1980's, when the church was a leader in the democratic movement," Mr. Yu said. The Chinese government cracks down on the underground church, but inconsistently and not nearly as harshly as it persecutes Falun Gong. The worst oppression is in rural areas; in rural Hubei a few years ago, I interviewed evangelical Christians who had been stripped, beaten and given electric shocks to force them to renounce their faith. One woman was beaten to death.

The China Aid Association, a U.S.-based group that monitors religious oppression, says that at least 1,958 Christians have been arrested in China in the last 12 months. The worst abuses are in Henan Province, where the police sometimes beat and torture Christians. But such persecution is the exception in a country where tens of millions of people worship pretty openly and usually without any penalty. In half of China's provinces, there were no known arrests at all. The security authorities don't normally bother to raid ordinary house churches or even spy on them much, but the police do apply pressure on those that are considered potential troublemakers.

The Ark Church, for example, has had to move six times this year because State Security keeps getting landlords to evict the church. State Security also called in Mr. Yu's wife, Liu Min, who has been a Christian longer than he has, and warned her to stay away from the church and from him. State Security suggested that she divorce Mr. Yu; outraged, she told them off. I complimented her on her boldness, and she replied: "Actually, I am scared. But this is the only choice I can make."

More and more Chinese are making that choice, and their faith is reshaping China. One of the oddest legacies of the Communist dynasty may be that after 2,000 years Christianity gains a major foothold in China."

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Has Technology Truly Improved our Lives?

Has technology really improved our lives? That's the question I found myself asking last night while enjoying a nice little value menu meal at Wendy's. I had taken my six year old son, Brennan, and my five year old daughter, Leah, out for a few hours so that I could get some time with them and could give Lori a break with only our two year old, Jason, at home. After waiting way too long in line for our meal, I finally got up to the counter. And as seems to be custom nowadays, the girl at the register gave me an almost annoyed look as if I was somehow interrupting her life by ordering my cheeseburger deluxes and chicken nuggets.

With no smile or cheerfulness, she said, "Can I take your order" in a monotone voice. She slowly punched in my request and meandered over to the drink machine to get our sodas. While waiting for our burgers to get made (I guess they had to kill the cows or something), she proceeded to take a call from a friend on her cell phone, "What?" "No." "I'm at work" "I'll talk to you later." Wasn't a long conversation, but was it really necessary? What was so absolutely important that she had to take that phone call rather than get me my Frosty?

I finally got back to the table and the kids expressed to me how long it took to get the food. I agreed with them and we then got into a conversation about cell phones and computers and other forms of technology. I shared with them how when I was their age there were no cell phones, no e-mail, no games on the internet, and no cable TV. I asked them, "What do you think everybody did with their time?" Brennan responded, "They played all the time!" His answer probably wasn't too far from the truth.

While there have been many benefits that have come about because of technology, do you think our lives are fundamentally better? Do families spend more time together and do people connect on a deeper level in this age of iPods and the internet? I don't think so. Conversations that used to be held face-to-face or even over the phone are now replaced by e-mails and text messages. Families playing a board game together has now been replaced by dad watching Sports Center in the den, mom watching QVC in the kitchen, junior playing Halo on his PS2 and daughter talking with some 45 year old guy on MySpace.

It seems that we're more emotionally messed up, that parents don't know how to connect with their kids, dating tactics are just plain weird and it seems that we don't know how to interact with one another anymore. Is technology solely to blame? Of course not. In fact, I'm using a fairly new form of technology right now to communicate my thoughts on this issue. Technology has allowed millions of people all over the world to visit EveryStudent.com in order to have their questions about Christianity answered. I'm even able to use a webcam to see and talk to my sister, Kelly, and her family thousand of miles away in Japan.

But am I the only person who is growing weary of the interruptions of cell phone calls into our daily lives? And why is it that it seems like every third driver that I pass on the road is busy yapping away on their cell phone? Are these conversations really that important that it can't wait ten minutes until they get home? I'm concerned that my Christian witness may not be that positive if I ever do get broadsided by a soccer mom driving an oversized SUV that is trying to make a left hand turn while talking on her cell.

I'm also tired of being deep conversations with a friend or co-worker only to be interrupted by the chirp of a cell phone. Although this is an intrusion to the conversation, it's a common occurence for the guilty party to take the call without so much as a "Do you mind if I take this call?" It's as if someone walked up to the table, did not ask to interrupt, and proceeded to talk for five minutes. It's rude and frequently changes the mood of a conversation. I'm sure we've all heard our fair share of cell phones go off in church, plays, restaurants, movie theatres and offices. And they always seem to have those annoying ringtones. You may want to check out this site with some suggestions for cell phone ettiquette if you may be feeling convicted right now :).

As I mentioned there are some positive influences that technology has had. But when you look at the state of the world and the emotional well-being of most individuals, it would be hard to argue that our lives are better. Easier in some ways, yes. But not really better. We are beginning to allow the noise and busyness of life to affect how we interact with others. As with most things, technological advances are inherently morally neutral. It depends on how we use them.

Let's just remember that people are still the same as they were years ago. We long for relationship with God and with others. We should never let technology get in the way of meeting our basic needs of relationship with God and others. Maybe tonight we can turn off the T.V., ignore the computer, not listen to the iPod and just sit and talk with a friend or your family or spend some time alone with God. I promise you that you won't regret it.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

To Rescue the Party of Lincoln

A thought provoking article from columnist Clarence Page...

"An intriguing debate has broken out among Republican elites over how to treat black folks. On one side, you have those like Jack Kemp, the former New York congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential candidate, who would like to break the Democratic Party's nine-to-one lock on black voters by reaching out with positive and meaningful gestures.

Kemp wrote a commentary published in late May in the conservative Human Events, the New York Sun and some other newspapers that called on the Grand Old Party to "get on the right side of history" on racial matters. He suggested two ways to do this: By extending all of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, parts of which are set to expire next year, and "by extending the voting franchise to the residents of District of Columbia," which is predominately black and lacking voting representation in Congress.

"Slander," responded conservative essayist Steven M. Warshawsky. "Mr. Kemp's article is an outrage," Warshawsky writes under the headline "Jack Kemp's White Guilt" in The American Spectator. Warshawsky does not necessarily disagree with Kemp's suggestion, but with Kemp's justification: "His premise - that the Republican Party is on the 'wrong' side of history on racial matters - is deeply flawed, both as a matter of historical fact and political philosophy." Warshawsky cites historical examples of the GOP's "strong support for black Americans" dating back to its origins before the Civil War, often with Democrats on the other side, defending slavery and segregation.

Who's right? As with many other questions of race and rights, that depends on what part of history you're talking about. Our feelings about race are based on our experiences with it, which complicates matters because each and every one of us has a unique racial experience.

My own experiences tell me that Warshawsky is right that Republicans too often get a bum rap on race, considering the heroic sacrifices many Republicans have made for racial progress. The Chicago Tribune, where I work, was founded in 1847 by Joseph Medill, who opposed slavery, helped found the Republican Party 150 years ago and support the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln, who's still my favorite president.

But Kemp also is right in explaining why the GOP lost black support after the glory days of Dwight Eisenhower. As an African-American child of the Eisenhower 1950s, I have fond memories of another Republican Party, much more moderate on issues of race and other issues than the GOP we know today. The words "black Republican" would have raised eyebrows only because the label "black" was not yet in fashion. We were still "colored" in those days.

Just about everybody "liked Ike" in my little Ohio factory town, including the "colored" folks. I recall my childhood's greatest political turning point in 1957, when our little black-and-white TV screen showed Arkansas National Guard troops with bayonets on their rifles keeping black students out of Little Rock's Central High School. The next day, I turned on the news to see those same troops escorting those same black students into the high school, past jeering white mobs. What happened? "President Eisenhower must have made a phone call," my father explained. After that, I really liked Ike!

We also liked moderate Republicans like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Sen. Jacob K. Javits, also of New York, and Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator since Reconstruction. And we really liked Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, who rallied enough senators from both parties to overcome fierce
resistance from Southern Democratic senators like Robert Byrd of Virginia, a former Ku Klux Klansman, and Al Gore Sr., of Tennessee, father of the future vice president. Time does heal wounds - and wounds some heels.

But, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's opposition to that Civil Rights Act turned black voters heavily in favor of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and simultaneously lost Southern white voters to Johnson's party, as Johnson predicted it would. To black voters, the act of sacrificing political capital is true heroism, especially on behalf of equal rights. Soon, the Republican Party became known as the party of white flight, an image only partly redeemed in recent years by the success of high-profile black Republicans like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

With all that history in mind, I applaud Jack Kemp. Unlike some conservative zealots, he does not see government as the enemy. He sees it as a vehicle to help individual initiative and free enterprise work for everyone, even those who are still left behind in poverty, substandard housing, high unemployment and low-performing schools after the civil rights revolution.

I've often said that my family did not leave the party of Lincoln; the party left us. Folks like Jack Kemp can help it find its way back."

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The State of Christian Music

In a recent article in Christianity Today Online, author Patton Dodd has this to say about the current state of Christian Music,
"Show me an evangelical between the ages of 15 and 50, and I'll show you an evangelical who can tell this story (or something much like it): I used to listen to secular music, then I discarded it all and listened only to Christian music. Then I realized I didn't like much Christian music, so I slowly started listening to secular music again. Now I listen to the David Crowder Band in the mornings and Radiohead on the drive home."
You can read the rest of Dodd's article here.
I resonate with Dodd's viewpoint. As a church-going youth raised in a Christian home, I was exposed to some Christian music in my formative years. Some Michael W. Smith. A little Amy Grant. A smattering of Carman. And a bunch of music for old people. What I knew of contemporary Christian music (CCM) really didn't meet my tastes. For one thing, the quality of CCM back in the eighties was mostly inferior to what I heard on mainstream radio. Secondly, the type of music that I liked in high school and early college was primarily rap and R&B. Public Enemy. N.W.A. Run-D.M.C. Bobby Brown. Boyz II Men. That sort of stuff.

I wasn't exposed to any Christian music that I really liked until after I became a Christian in college and the Campus Crusade folks got ahold of me. I did get a BeBe & CeCe Winans tape as a first foray into gospel music during my freshmen year of college (and the only reason I got that was because I had seen one of their videos on BET). So after I started getting serious about my relationship with Christ, I thought that, as a good Christian, I should get rid of all my tapes with the "Parental Advisory-Explicit Lyrics" stickers on them. So I did that. But then I found myself asking myself, "So what do I listen to now?"

I went home to my parents for the summer after my sophomore year ended and I made a visit to the local Christian bookstore to see if I could find the type of music that I liked -- but with lyrics about Jesus. If you've ever tried to buy music by black artists at most mom & pop Christian bookstores then you know what I encountered. Let's just say that there was a paltry selection. So I bought the five tapes that had black faces on them (a few rap groups like Dynamic Twins, D.O.C., and Dawkins & Dawkins and a couple gospel/R & B groups like Commissioned) and headed home. And I dug this stuff. It was pretty good.

Then I started to develop "convictions" about what music I listened to. Not only did I get rid of all my "secular" music (I don't know why I thought Whitney Houston was that evil), but I also began to let other Christians know that they shouldn't be listening to that stuff either. They should be listening to good Christian music like Steven Curtis Chapman and Twila Paris. I suppose many young Christians go through that stage of legalism when you're trying to establish your walk with Christ and rid yourselves of the temptations of the world. There probably wasn't anything wrong with deciding to listen to Christian music exclusively -- I just probably shouldn't have told everyone else what I thought God wanted them to do.

So my "Christian music only" period went on for several years (And this was probably good for me. I needed to become grounded in my relationship with the Lord and didn't need to be filling my mind with some of the stuff that I had been). Then I gradually began to introduce other types of music into what I was listening to. I found that as I was maturing as a Christian, that some of the music that I used to listen to didn't affect me like it used to. I was able listen to a fun song on the radio without it negatively affecting my spirituality.

With CCM we have created a whole subculture of music by Christians that is for Christians. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. It's good for Christians to listen to music that is explicitly about God, even when we're outside of church. But when singers talk about wanting to use their music for ministry to non-Christians and then only do concerts in churches and at Christian music festivals and only have their CD's sold in Christian bookstores, I have to wonder how many non-Christians are they really reaching? There is a growing trend of Christian musicians who refuse to be identified as "a Christian band." It is not because they are ashamed of Jesus, but because they don't want to be associated with the Christian ghetto that the CCM industry has become. They know that some listeners may not give them a hearing if they are labeled as a Christian band.

I remember back when Jars of Clay had a huge mainstream hit with the song Flood back in 1995. They were instantly given an audience among non-Christians and they took advantage of it. They began playing gigs in bars and clubs and were living out Christ's admonition in Matthew 5 to let their light shine (Read the passage here). They never denied their faith in Christ, but were merely seeking to go to the types of places that Jesus did while He was on earth. And boy did they catch some grief from some Christians for this. They were accused of selling out, blah, blah, blah.

Look at what prolific church planter Neil Cole says:
"If you want to win this world to Christ, you are going to have to sit in the smoking section. That is where lost people are found and if you make them put their cigarette out to hear the message they will be thinking about only one thing: “When can I get another cigarette?”
I am concerned that we have created a Christian music industry that is so "positive and encouraging" that it doesn't address real life. It may be nice music, but it may not get to some of the nitty gritty of everyday life. I think that music that truly honors God is music that addresses all areas of life. Yes, we need to sing about Jesus and praise God and sing about heaven and all that stuff. But we also need to sing about heartbreak and love and disappointment. Just like a two-foot long sugar stick, some modern CCM is so candy-coated that it's hard to swallow. It's why I really like Christian artists like Nichole Nordeman and the late Rich Mullins. They sing God-honoring lyrics, yet they are able to sing about the real struggles of life. If Christian artists produce good quality music that addresses the whole of life, people will buy it.

I recently finished the book Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman. Stockman does a great job of showing how this group has consistently had Christian themes in their music and is now having a tremendous influence in reaching out to the poor and oppressed all over the world. Before being so quick to judge Christian artists that are seeking to make an impact, maybe we should wait and see how God might use them. There have been a number of Christian singers in recent years that have found mainstream success that has opened new doors for them to share Christ with others. Let's pray for them instead of throwing stones at them.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

More on Erik Steffen

The Indianapolis Star had an article about Erik's life which can be found here.

Erik's complete memorial service and different segments of the service can be viewed here.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Erik is Home

A friend of ours, Erik Steffen, went home to be with Jesus this weekend. Erik was a fellow staff member with Campus Crusade and we worked alongside of him during our time in Indianapolis. He had courageously been battling brain cancer for over a year and a half and the Lord finally decided to take him home. Erik leaves behind his wife, Kelly, and their two young boys, Alex and Jensen.

I, along with many others, had been praying for a miracle and that God would completely heal him. Erik had gotten been getting better until this spring when his health began to deteriorate. When things like this happen, I do wonder what God's plan is in this whole thing. Erik was a good person. He had faithfully followed Christ, served Jesus with his life and was involved in reaching people with the Gospel all over the world. And now his wife is a widow and his sons don't have a dad.

Lori and I have had too many friends and family members pass away over the past couple of years. I've honestly lost track of how many people we care about that have died. The reality is, though, that those that know Jesus do not die without hope. Erik now understands this much better than we do as he is complete and whole and doesn't have to fight anymore. Though he was ready to meet Jesus, he didn't want to go yet. He was only 35 years old. He wanted to grow old with Kelly. He wanted to see Alex and Jensen grow up. He wanted to lead more people to Christ.

But in God's sovereign plan, Erik is now home. I think of what the great evangelist D.L. Moody once said to a friend,

"Someday you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody of Northfield is dead. Don't you believe it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone higher, that is all - out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that sin cannot touch, that sin cannot taint, a body fashioned into His glorious body. I was born in the flesh in 1837; I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die; that which is born of the Spirit will live forever."

Erik is now home, but Kelly and Alex and Jensen and the rest of his friends and families are left to cope with the reality of his passing. Erik touched many lives during his time on earth. Just read the guestbook entries on their website. Would you join with me in praying for Kelly and the boys as they grieve and mourn Erik's death? And let's not forget to celebrate a life well lived. Just as it was true of the Apostle Paul, it can be said of Erik Steffen:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." ~ II Timothy 4:7,8