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Spiritual Growth Point

COG WEB Spriitual Growth Point


September 2017

ISSUE:  The Christianity of Francis Scott Key     

BACKGROUND:  There was more to Francis Scott Key than just his writing the lines of our National Anthem.  The following references were used to develop the discussion below: The One Year Book of Christian History, by E. Michael and Sharon Ruston, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream Illinois, pp. 428-429;  “Francis Scott Key”, The Biography Channel website, retrieved August 6th, 2017, from https://www.biography.com/video/francis-scott-key-the-star-spangled-banner-26171459695; “Francis Scott Key: A Christian Gentleman” by Diana Lynn Severance,  Directory, Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, accessed via https://www.visionvideo.com/files/FrancisScottKey.pdf on August 6th, 2017;  “The Founders of Sunday School, 200 Years: 1780 – 1980”, by Elmer Towns, accessed via http://elmertowns.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/FOUNDERSETowns.pdf on August 6th, 2017; “The Star Spangled Banner” lyrics by Francis Scott Key, accessed via http://www.usa-flag-site.org/song-lyrics/star-spangled-banner.shtml  on August 6th, 2017.

DISCUSSION:  John Ross Key fought in the American Revolution, arming and equipping a regiment at his own expense.  The Key’s were wealthy landowners from Frederick, Maryland and their son, Francis Scott Key was born on August 1, 1779.  His faith was influenced by his grandmother, and during his college years, also by her sister with whom he boarded while attending St. John’s college in Annapolis.  After graduation at age 17, he studied law in the office of Jeremiah T. Chase where he became friends with fellow law student Roger B. Taney.  Taney later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding over the Dred Scott case and swearing in Abraham Lincoln.  In 1802 Francis married Mary Taylor (Polly) Lloyd whose ancestory included a Royal Governor of Maryland.  Shortly after marriage, Key began a law practice in Washington D.C.  Over the years Francis and Polly “had eleven children, six boys and five girls and their family life together was a happy and blessed one.  … Even in the busiest times, Key never failed to conduct family prayers in his home twice a day, always including the servants …”

Key had strong Christian convictions and at one point considered entering the ministry.  Although he continued his law career, Key’s strong Christian beliefs were expressed in his poetry.  His poem, “Lord, with glowing heart I’d praise thee”, became a well known hymn.  Although he was opposed to his country going to war with Britain in 1812, Key joined the Georgetown Field Artillery Company and volunteered in defense preparations around his home in Georgetown.  In 1814, he served as an aide to General Walter Smith at the Battle of Bladensburg.  In the lead up to that battle, the British occupied the home of a prominent physician in Upper Marlborough, Maryland.  Dr. William Beanes gave an oath of loyalty to the British, but after the battle, had several British soldiers arrested for disorderly conduct.  For this action, the British captured Dr. Beanes and imprisoned him aboard a British ship.  As a last resort, the family of Dr. Beanes appealed to their friend, Francis Scott Key, for assistance in negotiating his release.  So it was that on 5 September, 1814, Key and a Colonel from the Parole Commission set sail on the Chesapeake in a small boat to be received by the British.  Successful in their mission, they were nevertheless held by the British so as not to disclose the impending attack on Baltimore which was to take place 13-14 September.  During and after the attack, Key wrote the famous lines of what later became the “Star Spangled Banner” – the part of Francis Scott Key’s life with which we are most familiar.

After the War of 1812, Key continued his successful law career and for three terms served as district attorney for the District of Columbia.  In this position and as a private lawyer, Key argued many cases before the Supreme Court and became a close friend of President Andrew Jackson who entrusted him with several delicate missions.  On one such mission to Alabama, he stayed at the home of the Governor, John Gayle.  In her diary, Gayle’s wife, Sarah recorded the following words about Key:  “He is very pleasant – intelligent you at once perceive.  His countenance is not remarkable when at rest, but as soon as he lifts his eyes, usually fixed on some object near the floor, the man of sense, of fancy, and the poet is at once seen.  But the crowning trait of his character, I have just discovered he is a Christian.”  He wrote several verses for Gayle’s children including “The Rock of Thy Salvation” for nine year old Sarah Ann Gayle.

In Georgetown, Key helped organize the Lancaster Society for the free education of the poor.  It can be argued that Key had a contradictory stance on race.  In his capacity as district attorney, he was noted to have overseen proceedings that upheld the system of slavery by prosecuting abolitionists.  However, even as a slave owner, he went on record as saying that the system of slavery was full of sin and “a bed of torture.”  Additionally, he was also founder and principal promoter of the American Colonization Society, one of the first such societies devoted to dealing with slavery in America.  Key was also a member of the board and or aided the formation of the General Theological Seminary, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, and the Virginia Theological Seminary.  He taught a large Sunday School class of over 300 men and was one of the founders of the American Sunday School Union.  Key helped launch the Mississippi Valley Campaign or Enterprise seeking to establish a Sunday school in every town between the Alleghany and the Rocky Mountains, or between Pittsburgh and Denver, within two years.  Though it eventually took 50 years, over 61,000 Sunday schools were established reaching over 2.5 million pupils with over 400 thousand teachers and 80 full time missionaries.

Francis Scott Key was a “Christian Gentleman” and accomplished much in God’s name, yet he is best known for the lyrics to our national anthem.  Considering the frequency with which the first and well known verse is played, sung and heard on a daily basis, perhaps Christians should ponder the impact of our nation regularly including Key’s fifth verse, composed that same fateful night:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Deuteronomy 4:9

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” Psalm 33:12

“He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children,..” Psalm 78:5

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20


July 2017 Issue

ISSUE:  Religious identities in a region once dominated by atheist regimes.     

BACKGROUND:   With so much about Russia in the news over the last several months, it is important for Christians to increase their awareness of religious belief in Central and Eastern Europe, where many countries were part of, or at the very least, influenced by, the Soviet Union and then, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia.  The reference for the information summarized below is a report entitled,  “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe”, by Neha Sahgal, Alan Cooperman and Anna Schiller for The Pew Research Center, May 10, 2017.  The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.  It does not take policy positions.  The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research.  It studies U.S. politics and policy; journalism and media; internet, science and technology; religion and public life; Hispanic trends; global attitudes and trends; and U.S. social and demographic trends.  Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.  This report was produced by Pew Research Center as part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Future project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world.  Funding for the Global Religious Futures project comes from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation.  The full report is available at http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/05/15120244/CEUP-FULL-REPORT.pdf

DISCUSSION:  According to the survey, religion has reasserted itself as an important part of individual and national identity in many of the Central and Eastern European countries where communist regimes once repressed religious worship and promoted atheism.  Today, approximately a quarter of a century after the fall of the Iron Curtain and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, solid majorities of adults across much of the region say they believe in God, and most identify with a religion.  Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the most prevalent religious affiliations, much as they were more than 100 years ago in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

In the former communist states of the Russian Federation and Poland, majorities say that being Orthodox or Catholic is important to being “truly Russian” or “truly Polish.”  It is also true in Greece, where the church played a central role in Greece’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire and where today, three-quarters of the public (76%) say that being Orthodox is important to being “truly Greek.”  In Russia, the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Orthodox Christians rose to 71% as of 2015, up from only 37% in 1991.  In Ukraine, those describing themselves as Orthodox Christians rose to 78%, up from 39% over the same time period.

Meanwhile, Catholicism in Central and Eastern Europe has not experienced an upsurge.  This may be because much of the population in countries such as Poland and Hungary retained a Catholic identity during the communist era, leaving less of a religious deficit to be restored when the Soviet Union collapsed.  Over the period from 1991 to 2015, those who identify as Catholic dropped from 96% to 87% in Poland, dropped from 63% down to 56% in Hungary and dropped from 44% way down to 21% in the Czech Republic.  Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three quarters of adults (72%) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or as “nothing in particular.”  These apparently opposite trends in predominantly Orthodox and Catholic countries may be related to political geography.  The Orthodox countries in the region are further toward the east, and many were part of the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, the intertwined nature of national belonging and religion does not carry over to religious practice.  Many people in the region embrace religion as an element of national belonging even though they are not highly observant.  Relatively few Orthodox or Catholic adults in Central and Eastern Europe say they regularly attend worship services, pray often or consider religion central to their lives.  For example, a median of just 10% or 1 in 10 Orthodox Christians across the region say they go to church on a weekly basis.  The same measure of weekly church attendance for Catholics, while more than double that of Orthodox Christians, enjoys a median of only 25% or 1 in 4 people.

Today, many Orthodox Christians, whether Russian or not, express pro Russia views.  Most see Russia as an important buffer against the influence of the West, and many say Russia has a special obligation to protect not only ethnic Russians, but also Orthodox Christians in other countries.  In Catholic majority and religiously mixed countries across the region, there is much less public support for a strong Russia as a counterweight to the West.

The return of religion since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union has played out differently in the predominantly Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe than it has among the heavily Catholic or mixed religious populations further to the West.  In the Orthodox countries, there has been an upsurge of religious identity, but levels of religious practice are comparatively low.  Orthodox identity is tightly bound up with national identity, feelings of pride and cultural superiority, support for linkages between national churches and governments, and views of Russia as a bulwark against the West.

Meanwhile, in such historically Catholic countries as Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, there has not been a marked rise in religious identification since the fall of the USSR; on the contrary, the share of adults in these countries who identify as Catholic has declined.  Yet levels of church attendance and other measures of religious observance in the region’s Catholic-majority countries are generally higher than in their Orthodox neighbors, albeit low in comparison with many other parts of the world.  The link between religious identity and national identity is present across the region but somewhat weaker in the Catholic-majority countries.  Politically, the Catholic countries tend to look West rather than East: Far more people in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and Croatia say it is in their country’s interest to work closely with the U.S. and other Western powers than take the position that a strong Russia is necessary to balance the West.

Of course, international relations are complex, but Christian awareness of religious impact is fundamental to understanding all of the other aspects of worldwide peace and harmony.   Christians possess a unique oneness because we belong to Jesus Christ.  Belonging to Him, we belong to one another.  Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5), so also there is only one Head and only one Body.  In Jesus’ prayer to His Father as recorded in John Chapter 17, he says “My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” and “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  May our prayer also be for a revival of faith in Central and Eastern Europe that results in the unity of believers in the Truth and in the Word of God.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” Genesis 18:18

“My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:3-6


June 2017

ISSUE:  The life of Charles W. Colson and how God used him.     

BACKGROUND:  Much of the current political discussion has included references to “Watergate” and the Nixon Administration.  This Spiritual Growth Point was initially written a little more than five years ago after the death of Charles W. Colson, special counsel to Nixon.   It was a lesson then about how God can use seemingly unlikely individuals to spread His Word.  Now, more than five years after his death, a Christian understanding of the life of Charles W. Colson may be even more meaningful.  The references for the information summarized below included a May 2017 review of the following articles initially accessed five years ago after the 2012 death of Charles Colson including:  “Watergate Figure Charles Colson Has Died at 80”, by Steve Miller, Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2012 accessed via  https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303513404577358261451889928#printMode;   “Chuck Colson and Second Chances”, by John J. DiIulio Jr., Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2012 accessed via https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303459004577361700170847494#printMode;

“Chuck Colson: (1931-2012) – A Life Well Lived”, by Colson Center Staff, Colson Center – www.colsoncenter.org, April 21, 2012 – no longer available online – hardcopy available on request;  “Charles W. Colson, Watergate Felon Who Became Evangelical Leader, Dies at 80”, by Tim Weiner, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/us/politics/charles-w-colson-watergate-felon-who-became-evangelical-leader-dies-at-80.html, April 21, 2012.

DISCUSSION:  The life of Charles Wendell Colson is a wonderful example of how God uses the most unlikely individuals to spread his Word.  In November 1969, Colson joined the Nixon White House as special counsel to the President.  For a 38 year-old Washington lawyer who was always practicing politics on the side, there could have been no better opportunity.  He had achieved professional success despite the fact he was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, amoral man with three young children and a failing marriage.  Born in the fall of 1931 to a stuggling Boston lawyer, he had grown up in fifteen different locations and had attended eight different schools.  His first taste of politics came when he was a teenage volunteer in Robert F. Bradford’s re-election campaign for governor of Massachusetts.  There, he learned “all the tricks,” including “planting misleading stories in the press, voting tombstones, and spying on the opposition in every possible way.”

In 1949, Charles graduated from Browne & Nichols, a private school in Cambridge, and went on to Brown University with a scholarship from the Navy Reserve Officer Training Program.  After graduating in 1953, he married his college sweetheart, and joined the Marines where he became a Captain at age 22.  In 1956, Mr. Colson went to Washington as an administrative assistant to Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a Massachusetts Republican.  After obtaining a law degree from George Washington University in 1959, Mr. Colson next became partner in a Washington law firm, with an eye toward a Nixon presidency.  In 1960 he was awarded, “Outstanding Young Man of Boston from the Chamber of Commerce” but the same year, he was crushed when his candidate lost a very close election to Senator John F. Kennedy.

Nixon later said about Colson, “[His] instinct for the political jugular and his ability to get things done made him a lightning rod for my own frustrations.”  The two men “understood each other,” Mr. Colson wrote in “Born Again,” his memoir.  They were “prideful men seeking that most elusive goal of all — acceptance and the respect of those who had spurned us.” “When I complained to Colson, I felt confident that something would be done,” Nixon wrote.  “I was rarely disappointed.”  Mr. Colson and his colleagues “started vying for favor on Nixon’s dark side,” Bryce N. Harlow, a former counselor to the president, said in an oral history.  Later, he was credited by White House Counsel John Dean with having compiled the “White House enemies list” for the administration.

It was Colson who hired E. Howard Hunt, a veteran covert operator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to spy on the president’s opponents.  Their plots became part of the cascade of high crimes and misdemeanors known as the Watergate affair.  Things began to unravel after Mr. Hunt and five other C.I.A. and F.B.I. veterans were arrested in a botched burglary and wiretapping operation at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.  This led to criminal indictments and convictions of most of Nixon’s closest aides.  In 1973, while looking for work after resigning from the White House, fearing he was going to wind up in jail, Mr. Colson got into his car and found himself in the grip of the spiritual crisis that led to his conversion.  “This so-called White House hatchet man, ex-Marine captain, was crying too hard to get the keys into the ignition,” he remembered.  “I sat there for a long time that night deeply convicted of my own sin.”  Colson shocked the Washington establishment in 1973 by revealing his new Christian commitment in the midst of the Watergate inquiry.

In 1974 Colson entered a plea of guilty to Watergate-related charges; although not implicated in the Watergate burglary, he voluntarily pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg Case, which was prosecuted in the acutely sensitive Watergate atmosphere.  He entered Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama in 1974 as a new Christian and as the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges.  Nixon resigned seven weeks later after one of his secretly recorded White House tapes made clear that he had tried to use the C.I.A. to obstruct the federal investigation of the break-in.

Upon emerging from prison after serving seven months of a one to three year sentence, Colson announced that he would devote the rest of his life to religious work.  In 1976, he founded “Prison Fellowship Ministries”, which delivers a Christian message of redemption to thousands of prison inmates and their families.  In 1983, he established Justice Fellowship, which calls itself the nation’s largest religion-based criminal justice reform group.  In 1991 Colson launched BreakPoint, a unique radio commentary that provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends to 1,400 outlets nationwide to an audience of 8 million listeners.

In 1993, Charles won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and donated it to his ministries.  In 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush restored his rights to practice law, vote and serve on a jury — all of them having been lost with his federal felony conviction.  “I think it’s time to move on,” Mr. Bush said at the time.  With that, Mr. Colson re-entered the political arena.  In January 2001, six days after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, a Wall Street Journal editorial praised Mr. Colson’s prison work as “a model for Bush’s ideas about faith-based funding.”  In 2008, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal.

In his later years, Colson focused full time on developing other Christian leaders who could influence the culture and their communities through their faith.  The capstone of this effort was “The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview”, a research and training center launched in 2009 for the promotion of Christian worldview teaching.  In 2009, Colson was a principal writer of the Manhattan Declaration, which calls on Christians to defend the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage and religious freedom. More than half a million people have signed the Manhattan Declaration.

In all, Colson wrote more than 30 books, which have sold more than five million copies. His autobiographical book, “Born Again”, was one of the nation’s best-selling books of all kinds in 1976 and was made into a feature-length film.  His last book, “The Faith”, is a powerful appeal to the Church to re-embrace the foundational truths of Christianity.  It is truly amazing how God used Charles W. Colson.  Colson died Saturday afternoon, April 21, 2012 at the age of 80.

Could all the current politcal turmoil be yet another part of God’s larger plan to use an unlikely individual and a confusing series of events to demonstrate the power of His transformation?  Well, it certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented!

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Romans 7:6

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:3-4

 “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1:15-16

“Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10


April 2017

ISSUE: What the Bible says about taxes.    

BACKGROUND:  With the deadline for filing income tax approaching, and tax reform on the political agenda, taxes are on the minds of many.  In light of this, perhaps it may be interesting to see what the Bible says about taxes.  According to their website, “WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.”  The name WallBuilders is drawn from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah wherein, “the nation of Israel rallied together in a grassroots movement to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and thus restore stability, safety, and a promising future to that great city.”  WallBuilders states that their goal is to, “exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by; (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and by (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.”  WallBuilders maintains a library of their posts on a multitude of issues supporting their goals.  What follows is based, in part, on their post “The Bible and Taxes”, accessed via www.wallbuilders.com , on 26 February 2017 and on the Bible itself.

DISCUSSION:  Of the many forms of taxation, those on profits, on earnings, on wages, and on estates impact both Christians and non-Christians alike.  As our congressional representatives and the new administration embark on what could be the largest tax reform undertaking in the last 30-40 years, it may be prudent to go to the one constant source for wisdom: His word.

The Capital Gains Tax, a tax on profits, penalizes a person for success by exacting payment for increased profit.  Conversely, in the Bible there is more reward for more profit.  The parable of the minas in Luke 19:12-27, and the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 both conflict with the notion of a tax on capital gains.  From the parable of the talents, Verses 27-29: “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.  ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’”  Thus, the Bible implies that those who do well (e.g. invest) with what they have will be given more.

The parable of the landowner and laborers in Matthew 20:1-16 is applicable to the employer/employee relationship and the issue of wages.  The landowner hires workers at different times of the day and yet pays each worker the same amount at the end of the day.  When the hired workers complain about equal pay for equal time, the landowner replies in Verses 13-15, “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’”  The right of an employer to determine wages and the right of a worker to accept or reject an offer for work is evident.  James 5:4 offers a balance in that the Lord hears the cries of the laborers who are cheated out of wages they are due.  “Look!  The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

The current income tax structure is highly progressive and mandates a higher tax rate or percentage the more a person makes.  This tax system is contradicted by scripture, especially Exodus 30:11-15, which provided equal taxation for everyone numbered.  Verse 15 states: “The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” The Biblical Tithe is not applied progressively, rather it is applied equally to everyone as stated in Leviticus 27:30-32, “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.  Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it.  Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord’”.

The current Estate Tax can take up to 55% of an estate, leaving 45% to the children; when those children pass it on to the grandchildren, up to 55% of the remaining 45% can be taken, leaving only 27%

of the original able to be passed on to the following generation.  The Bible speaks to the issue of inheritance numerous times.  Proverbs 13:22 states “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.”  Ezekiel 46:18 states, “The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property.  He is to give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that not one of my people will be separated from their property.”  Other scriptures addressing  inheritance include Proverbs 19:14, I Chronicles 28:8, and Ezra 9:12.

Of course, once a tax becomes law, the Bible again provides clarity in the Gospels; here Luke 20:20-26 is cited:  “Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.  They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.  So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  He saw through their duplicity and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius.  Whose image and inscription are on it?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’  They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public.  And astonished by his answer, they became silent.”

What else does the Bible say about taxes?  From Matthew 17:24-27, we learn that Jesus paid tax.  Jesus, who as the Son of God would have been exempted from paying the temple tax, agreed to pay the tax not because he owed it but because he did not want to cause offense.  From Luke 2:1-5, we learn that Joseph, described in Matthew 1:19 as “a righteous man,” traveled about 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a nine-month pregnant wife, on foot and donkey, to “register” and thus pay his taxes.  The Bible also supports the law of tax exemption for work done in service to God.  The decree of the Persian King Artaxerxes is recorded in Ezra 7:24 and states, “You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God.”

As our government officials are faced with what to do about policies and regulations that impact citizen consumers, let us pray that they would consider the Bible as a source of wisdom.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

 “Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering.” Numbers 18:26

“Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” Deuteronomy 24:15

 “So now I charge you in the sight of all Israel and of the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God: Be careful to follow all the commands of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and pass it on as an inheritance to your descendants forever.”  I Chronicles 28:8

“Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.”  Ezra 9:12

“When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”  Matthew 17:25

“Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth.  I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man.  You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’  “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant!  You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?  Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’” Luke 20-23

“Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.”  Romans 4:4

“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them:  If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Romans 13:5-7

“For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Timothy 5:18


March 2017

ISSUE:  Focusing on the Christian aspects of Saint Patrick’s Life.     

BACKGROUND:  Ireland’s most effective Christian witness was an ex-slave and not even of native Irish stock.  The following references were used to develop the discussion below:  How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, Talese, Nan A., Doubleday, 1995, Chapters 4 & 5; The 100 Most Important Events In Christian History, by A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, & Randy Peterson,  Revell, Fleming H. – A Division of Baker Book House Company, 1998, pp. 47-48, “A Brief History of St. Patrick”, by Monk Preston, The Prayer Foundation, accessed via http://www.prayerfoundation.org/brief_history_of_st_patrick_by_monk_preston.htm on 05 February, 2017.

DISCUSSION:  Saint Patrick is one of Christianity’s most interesting figures and, since the March holiday that we celebrate in his name is often associated with drinking and rowdy behavior, it is important for Christians to understand how God really used Patrick.

Maewyn Succat was born somewhere around the year 390 to Christian parents in the Roman part of Britain.  At about age16, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Northern Ireland and forced into labor as a swineherd and shepherd.  During his captivity he became aware of God.  According to his own description at the time, “Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours.  The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more—and faith grew and the Spirit roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again, even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain.  I would pray before daybreak—through snow, frost, rain, –nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because the Spirit within me was ardent.”

Six to eight years later, Maewyn escaped and walked some 200 miles to the coast.  Offering his services as a dog tender, he was taken aboard a ship carrying a cargo of hounds.  Finally returning to Britain via Gaul (France), he had dreams of Irish children begging him to bring the Gospel to them.  Before returning to the country of his enslavement, he went back to France and studied in a monastery, most likely Auxerre although Lerins also claims he studied there.  At least one source suggests he studied at both monasteries.  Following his studies, he was ordained Priest and later Bishop.  Patricius, or Patrick, his baptismal name, was given by Pope Celestine prior to his mission to Ireland.

Bishop Patrick returned to Ireland in the year 432.  He began to realize that through his years in slavery, God had given him courage and had helped him understand the Irish people.  The Druids, keepers of the old paganism put up fierce resistance to his evangelizing.  According to Patrick’s account from the time,  “Everyday I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved—whatever may come my way.  But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.”

Patrick had excellent rapport with the common man and drew upon their previous understandings, largely nature worship, to help explain Christianity.  For example, he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.  Patrick’s ministry ended human sacrifice when contentious tribal people were taught that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient.  Murder and intertribal warfare were reduced and soon the Irish slave trade came to a halt.  In this way, God orchestrated the events in Patrick’s early life to prepare him for great service.

Many years after Patrick’s death in 460, when Western church missionaries came to Ireland, they discovered a thriving Irish faith.  The church in Ireland had developed outside the hierarchical system of Rome chiefly because Patrick evangelized the nation without relying on the established church, preferring instead to organize around monasteries, thus better reflecting the nation’s tribal system.

Patrick is credited with establishing around 300 churches and baptizing around 120,000 people.  It is commonly agreed that he and his disciples converted almost the entire population of Ireland to Christianity during his life.  In the year 1100, Ireland became Catholic when the Pope gave King Henry II sovereignty over Ireland.  Impressed with the way Patrick converted the Irish, the Catholic Church made him a Saint.

Since many of his accomplishments are either not well known or incorrectly exaggerated by storytelling, perhaps Christians could use the secular celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day as opportunities to tell the God inspired story of Maewyn Succat’s life.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,…”  Isaiah 61:1

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

“In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power…”  Acts 19:20

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  1 Peter 4:10


February 2017

ISSUE:  Who was Saint Valentine?

BACKGROUND:  Saint Valentine, the patron of love and marriage, has both an interesting and a confusing storyline, yet one worth Christian awareness.  The following references were used to develop the information in this article:  Thurston, H. (1912). “St. Valentine”, In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, New York, accessed on line via New Advent at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15254a.htm on January 8th, 2017; Kithcart, David, Features Director for the 700; “St. Valentine, The Real Story” accessed via The Christian Broadcasting Network at:   http://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story on January 8th, 2017 and “Saint Valentine – Patron of Love, Young People, Happy Marriages”,  accessed via Catholic Online at:   http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159 on January 8th, 2017

DISCUSSION:  Red hearts, chocolate candy, flowers and love notes are the popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day.  Today’s customs on this special day originated during the Middle Ages with the symbolic and conventional belief that halfway through the second month of the year (i.e. 14 February), birds began to pair.  Thus, in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:  “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.  The day was looked upon as a proper occasion for lovers to write love letters and send tokens of their love to each other.  French and English literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reference the practice.

However, both the origins and today’s customs leave open the question, “Who was Saint Valentine?”  At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in association with the date of 14 February.  One is described as a priest in Rome, another as bishop of Interamna, or modern Terni, a city in the southern portion of the Region of Umbria in central Italy.  Both of these Saints seem to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, yet at different distances from the city.  Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.

Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine.  In the Roman Catholic Church, the name Valentinus does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354.  Yet ‘Valentinus’ can be found in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, a list of Christian martyrs, compiled from local sources, between 460 and 544.  A representation of Saint Valentine also appeared in The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493.  Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, text states that Valentinus was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II].

Valentinus was likely caught marrying and otherwise aiding Christians who were being persecuted in Rome.  Claudius II had announced an edict prohibiting the marriage of young couples.  The prohibition was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers since they would naturally be less worried about what might happen to their wives and children if they died.  There are indications that Valentinus defied the order of the emperor Claudius and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war.  Soldiers were sparse at this time so this did not sit well with Claudius.  Another legend is that Valentinus refused to sacrifice to pagan gods or to deny Christ.

Regardless, for his “crimes”, Valentinus was arrested and imprisoned.  Several legends exist describing events during his imprisonment.  One legend has it that Claudius took a liking to his prisoner, at least until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor, whereupon he was condemned to death.  Another legend has it that Valentinus gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers, the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness, was healed.  On the day of his execution he left her a note signed “Your Valentine.”  Beaten with clubs then stoned, Valentinus was finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate [circa 269], thus martyred for his heresy.

The feast of Saint Valentine on February 14 was established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among all those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”  Saint Valentine’s Church in Rome, built in 1960 for the needs of the Olympic Village, continues as a modern, well visited parish church.  The Feast of Saint Valentine is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Valentine the Presbyter is celebrated on July 6 and Hieromartyr Saint Valentine (Bishop of Interamna, Terni in Italy) is celebrated on July 30.  Members of the Greek Orthodox Church named Valentinos (male) or Valentina (female) may celebrate their name day on the Western ecclesiastical calendar date of February 14.

While it is certainly fine to observe the modern day traditions associated with Valentine’s Day, February 14th can be thought of as a celebration in honor of Christian martyrdom.  Perhaps Christians should also make it a day of reflection, or even of fasting, to focus on the continued persecution of Christian’s around the world.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” Deuteronomy 7:9

“Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart.” Psalm 36:10

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10

“Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” 1 Corinthians 13:4

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22


January 2017

BACKGROUND: The information summarized below is drawn mainly from two articles:  “Those Imperialistic Christian Missionaries”, by Jennifer C. Braceras, Houses of Worship column, Opinion Section, The Wall Street Journal, page A15, December 9th, 2016; and “Into all the World / the Story of Haystack”, by Douglas Showalter, Pastor, First Congregational Church U.C.C., Falmouth, Massachusetts, published on the Chaplains Office webpage, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts website http://chaplain.williams.edu/sample-page/into-all-the-world/  ; accessed on December 10th, 2016.

DISCUSSION:  Near twilight, the Reverend Richard Spaulding passed the Haystack Monument on his way to the chapel at Williams College – it was September 11th, 2001.  On his short walk, the college chaplain observed a group of students quietly praying at the monument, seeking solace and answers from the day’s horrific events.  He realized that, for some members of the Williams community, the monument was much more than just a historic site.  Yet today, 15 years later, he is a member of a committee convened to consider whether the campus memorial and other spaces contribute to an “unwelcoming” campus atomosphere.

It all started on a hot summer Saturday afternoon in 1806, when five Williams College students were forced by a sudden thunderstorm to move their meeting under a nearby farmer’s haystack.  As the storm thundered over the haystack, the students, who regularly gathered for prayer, discussed their concern for the moral condition of Asia.  At the time, there was public interest in India, due to the presence of the British East India Company and English Baptist missionaries who were striving to translate, print, and distribute the Bible throughout India.  One of the students was Samuel J. Mills, Jr., a Connecticut Congregational minister’s son.  Samuel told the group that they should bring the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to Asia’s non-Christians.   At Mills’ suggestion, the remainder of their ‘haystack’ meeting was spent praying for the development of such foreign missions from their young nation.  When they closed their meeting with a hymn, the sky began to clear.  Mills, inspired by America’s Second Great Awakening initiated in his hometown of Torringford, Connecticut in 1798, had been consectrated by his mother for missionary work.  However, when she learned of his decision to become a foreign missionary, she was surprised and filled with tears over the sacrifices such a ministry would demand.  Typical of her time, she assumed that his mission work would only be done in America, on its expanding frontier.

Years later, this small but inspired gathering was celebrated as the Haystack Prayer Meeting, the moment when American foreign missions were born.  On September 7th, 1808, Mills and fellow studens organized a society at Williams College, which has been called the “First Foreign Missionary Society in America.”  Known as the Brethren, that society’ s purpose was “to effect, in the person of its members, a mission to the heathen.”  Its members were committed to taking the gospel overseas themselves, not just sending it with others.  Yet they kept their society’s existence secret and wrote minutes in cipher, out of concern that their efforts might fail and they would be seen as fanatics.  In 1810, the Brethren and its work were transferred to the Andover Theological Seminary when Mills joined some fellow Williams students there for ministerial training.   On June 29th, 1810, an organization which soon became known as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was formed and the first missionaries were sent to India in 1812.  Samuel Mills first served as a home missionary, making two journeys preaching and organizing Bible societies, in St. Louis and New Orleans.  He died in 1818, while returning from a trip to select a settlement site in Africa.

The bonds of secrecy in the original group of students were so strong that for many years after the haystack prayer meeting, its date, its exact location, and even the names of all its participants were not known.  In 1854, Byram Green, the last surviving participant, put a cedar stake in the ground where the haystack had been and described the prayer meeting in a letter to a Williams College professor.   On July 28th, 1867, the “Haystack Monument”, made of polished silver-blue Bershire marble and standing twelve feet high, holding aloft a replica of Earth, was ceremonially dedicated.   On the eastern face of the shaft supporting that globe, the monument proclaims Jesus’ words, “The Field Is the World.”  The monument still stands in Mission Park on the Williams College campus.  Reflecting their Calvinist heritage, American Congregationalists have been reluctant to view any location, even their houses of worship, as “sacred spaces.”  Yet, Christians have found great spiritual significance in this site.  Following the ABCFM’s lead, numerous Protestant foreign missionary societies sprang up in America.  At the time of its 100th anniversary in 1920, the ABCFM was reported to have 595 active missionaries serving in twenty different mission fields around the worked.  Presently, its work is continued by the wider Church Ministries department of the United Church of Christ.

Today, some Williams College professors want ‘context’ for a monument to spreading the Gospel.  The Haystack monument is not the only part of Williams College history up for ‘contextual’ review.  Approximately a year ago in December of 2015, Williams College President Adam Falk established a panel to review a 1942 mural of the school’s founder Colonel Ephraim Williams and his military ally, Mohawk leader Hendrick Theyanoguin.  The panel was convened in response to some students who had objected to the painting that depicts the two men reviewing battle plans.  The mural was covered while the panel met.  The ultimate decision was to uncover and retain the mural, albeit with appropriate captioning, and solicited responses from an “indigenous artist.”  Mr. Falk’s charge also included a directive to consider other campus spaces that could be “problematic in a modern context.”  The monument’s bicentennial celebration in 2006 provided a harbinger of the ‘contextualization’ to come.  The weekend events included twilight vespers, panel discussions on the meaning of mission work today, and Sunday worship services.  But the event also featured a critical reflection in which one professor argued that Christian missionary work is “justification” for violent forms of cultural imperialism.

All of this reflects what Glenn Shuck, a scholar who taught courses on the history of Christianity at Williams for over a decade, calls the college’s “ironic relationship” with the monument:  It is a memorial to something important that happened on campus – but not something of which the college’s current faculty is necessarily proud.  According to Mr. Shuck, many Williams faculty members regard efforts to translate the Bible into other languages to spread Christianity as inherently racist and imperialist, a view he does not share.  Despite the tempest in the media about the Haystack Monument, the statue seems relatively non-controversial among students.  The author of the Wall Street Journal article cited above, spoke with a number of students walking by the monument in December of 2016.  None of them knew what it represented and once told, none took offense.  Despite the relatively small sample size, one wonders why a college would undertake a review of spaces and structures about which there is no current controversy?  One alumnus of the class of ’62 wrote that the college is simply trying “to stay ahead of the intellectual lynch mobs.”

As Christianity and history both come under ‘contextual’ attack, Christians must be aware of these challenges and find both confidence and comfort in the truth.  Perhaps there is a new frontier for Christian missionaries and perhaps, as the mother of Samuel Mills thought, it may not be that far from home.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Remember the days of old;  consider the generations long past.  Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”  Deuteronomy 32:7

“I, even I, have spoken; yes, I have called him.  I will bring him, and he will succeed in his mission.”  Isaiah 48:15

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”  Matthew 4:19

“And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?  As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”  Romans 10:15

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”  Hebrews 13:7


December 2016

 ISSUE: Observations about Americans and Christmas.

BACKGROUND: The information summarized below is drawn mainly from an article entitled, “5 facts about Christmas in America”, by Michael Lipka dated December 21st, 2015.  The first article was written for The Pew Research Center, a part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project and the full version is available at www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/21/5-facts-about-christmas-in-america/.  This article was accessed on November 7th, 2016.  The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.   The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research but does not take policy positions.  In one case, legal clarification is supported by the standing American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) memorandum, “Public Christmas Displays”. The ACLJ’s “Public Christmas Displays” memorandum is located at http://media.aclj.org/pdf/Public%20Christmas%20Displays.pdf.  This memorandum was accessed on November 7th, 2016.  In another case, legal clarification is supported by the standing ACLJ memorandum,

“Christmas in the Workplace”, dated October 16, 2014 and found in the Legal Documents section under Resources on www.aclj.org.  This ACLJ memorandum was accessed on November 7th, 2016.  The ACLJ is “an organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional liberties secured by law.”

DISCUSSION: The Christmas Holidays are never without debate, and opinion polling results, balanced by legal memoranda where necessary, may be of interest to both Christians and non-Christians during the Christmas season.

Celebrating Christmas:  When asked, “Do you celebrate Christmas?”, about nine-in-ten Americans (92%) and nearly all Christians (96%) say they celebrate Christmas.  A large majority (81%) of non-Christians also celebrate Christmas. Of the 92% of Americans who stated that they did celebrate Christmas, just over half (51%) indicated that personally, Christmas is “more of a religious holiday” while just less than a third (32%) indicated that it is “more of a cultural holiday.”

Greetings:  When asked, “Which greeting do you prefer, ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’?”, nearly half (46%) of Americans say it doesn’t matter how stores greet their customers over the holidays.  About four-in-ten (42%) choose “Merry Christmas”, while about one-in-ten (12%) choose “Happy Holidays”.  What is the legal interpretation?  The ACLJ memorandum on “Christmas in the Workplace” corroborates the following:

  • A business may put up Christmas or holiday decorations or instruct employees to greet customers by saying “Merry Christmas”.
  • A business may instruct employees to wear Christmas-themed clothing.
  • Employees may invite other employees to religious holiday events, display religious-themed holiday items in their personal workspace, or otherwise share their faith with other employees.

In the case of the first two statements, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to employees and their religious beliefs unless doing so would impose undue hardship on the business.  In the case of the last statement, an employee’s reasonable request to display religious items in his or her personal work area should be accommodated, unless the items plainly violate the company’s anti-harassment policy or otherwise cause disruption in the workplace.  Similarly, employees should be permitted to hand out invitations to religious-themed holiday events to co-workers, or post them on a common bulletin-board, to the same extent that employees are permitted to invite co-workers to non-religious holiday events.  The employer retains the authority to prevent an employee from aggressively or consistently sharing his or her religious beliefs with another employee to the point that it becomes harassment or creates a hostile work environment.

The ‘traditional’ Christmas Story:  Americans largely believe that elements of the traditional Christmas story reflect actual historical events.  More than seven-in-ten (73%) say Jesus was born to a virgin and 81% believe he was laid in a manger.  Similar portions of the population say that wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (75%),  and that an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus (74%).  Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) believe that all four of these events actually happened while only 14% say that none of them happened.  If nothing else, the above numbers reveal the power of the Christmas story.

Gifts and Feelings:  While gift giving at Christmas is wide-spread, it also sparks mixed feelings.  A majority of Americans said buying and receiving gifts makes them feel joyful (83%) and generous (78%), but considerable minorities also said it makes them feel stretched thin financially (46%), stressed out (36%) or wasteful (23%).  Fewer than half of U.S. adults (45%) say they are looking forward “a lot” to giving and receiving gifts.

Displays on Government Property:  Another perennial Christmas controversy is holiday displays on government property.  When asked if Christian symbols such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property, and if so, whether they should be allowed by themselves or only if accompanied by symbols from other faiths, mixed views resulted.  Less than half (44%) say Christian symbols should be allowed regardless of whether any other faiths are represented, about a quarter (28%) say Christian displays should be permitted only with symbols from other religions, and one-in-five (20%) say Christian symbols shouldn’t be allowed on government property at all.  Aside from polling results, there is the legal interpretation of the law.  The U.S. Constitution and the law provide wide latitude in celebrating Christmas in all areas of the public square.  What is the legal interpretation?  The ACLJ memorandum on “Public Displays” corroborates the following:

  • The “separation of church and state” does not forbid all religious displays on government property.
  • The government can erect holiday displays that include religious components.
  • The display of a Christmas tree is not considered a religious endorsement.
  • Private citizens can be prohibited from erecting religious holiday displays on public property.

Several cases combine to teach the key elements private citizens must consider should they desire to erect religious displays on public property.  They may do so if:

1) the property is a public forum in which the government has permitted a wide variety of expressive conduct (at least where there is a sign informing the public that the display is sponsored by private citizens and the government is not endorsing its message); or

2) the display is accompanied by a variety of secular holiday symbols such that the overall message is not exclusively or primarily religious.  Cases in which one or both of the elements listed above were not met have resulted in prohibition.

It is important for Christians to be aware what Americans think, believe and feel about Christmas, but it is also important for Christians to know where the law stands.

The Christmas season provides a great opportunity for followers of Christ to clearly and boldly communicate their faith to a confused and hurting world.  As aptly stated by Focus on the Family, “For Christians, Jesus is “the reason for the Christmas season.”  While the commercialization of Christmas stands in stark contrast to the humble origins of our Savior’s birth, this sacred-turned-secular holiday provides an opportunity to communicate that Christmas matters to millions of people of faith more than decorations, parties and shopping lists.”

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Assemble the people–men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns–so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.”  Deuteronomy 31:12

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.”  Psalm 19:7

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’”  Mark 16:15


“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”  Luke 2:16


“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  Romans 3:21


November 2016

ISSUE: The origin and establishment of the Thanksgiving Holiday.

BACKGROUND: Most Christians understand that giving thanks to God is a daily rather than an annual obligation.  For much of the secular world, Thanksgiving exists simply to mark the start of the commercial Holiday season.  Regardless, it is worth examining the origin and establishment of the Holiday we observe today as Thanksgiving.  Several web pages and articles were consulted in order to summarize the information discussed below:  “The Mayflower Compact”, (http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/mayflower.htm), accessed on October 8th, 2016;  “George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789” (http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/washingtons-thanksgiving-proclamation), accessed on October 8th, 2016; “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” – 1863 Lincoln Presidential Proclamation,  (http://www.christiananswers.net/q-wall/wal-alincolntgiving.html), accessed on October 8th, 2016; “How Thanksgiving Works”, by Allison Klein, (http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/thanksgiving3.htm/printable) accessed on October 8th, 2016; “Before the Culture Wars Lo, the Pilgrims Gave Thanks Without a Lawsuit”, by Daniel Henninger, page A10, Wall Street Journal, November 25th, 2005; “How the Pilgrims Made Progress”, Editor, page W11, Wall Street Journal, November 25th, 2005; “One Women’s Crusade”, published in “On This Day in Christian History”, by Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishing Co., Nashville, 1997, page: entry for “October 3rd”.

DISCUSSION: According to the information researched:  On 11 November, 1620, 41 of 102 passengers to the New World signed the “Mayflower Compact” which began with words usually reserved for the end of a prayer – “In the name of God, Amen”.  Thirty-seven of the 41 signatory members were separatists fleeing religious persecution in Europe.  The compact became the first basis for written laws in the new world and notably contained the introductory words, “… by the Grace of God, … Having undertaken for the glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, …”.  The Thanksgiving feast the next fall, in 1621, is the feast shared with the Indians and normally cited in textbooks after half the colony failed to survive the first winter.  The 1621 and 1622 feasts were actually fairly meager as the colonists first experimented with communalism that unfortunately invited corruption.  It wasn’t until 1623 that land was divided and given to each colonist to harvest for himself, an action that prompted the colony’s governor, William Bradford, to observe, “This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use… and gave far better content… Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to [discredit] the course [of communalism] itself.  I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

Some Texans claim the first Thanksgiving in America was proclaimed in Palo Duro Canyon by Padre Juan De Cadilla for Coronado’s toops in 1541, seventy years before the Pilgrims.  However, the first officially recorded Thanksgiving observance is referenced to a proclamation by the governing council of the town Charlestown, Massachusetts on June 29th 1671.  During the 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year.  In this period, a Thanksgiving Day was a day set-aside for prayer and fasting, not a day marked by plentiful food and drink as is today’s custom.  Later in the 18th century each of the states periodically would designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop.  Such a Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December of 1777 by the colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.  In 1789, President George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation first assigned Thursday 26 November as the day of devotion to the service of, “…that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good…”. The proclamation began with the words, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor . . .” and cited “His Providence” in the “conclusion of the late war” and, “for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed”.  The Washington Thanksgiving proclamation is associated with giving thanks to God for the newly ratified U.S. Constitution.

In 1817, New York State officially adopted a yearly Thanksgiving Day, and some other states followed suit.  Most celebrated the day in November, and a few observed it in December.   In 1846, Sarah Joesepha Hale, a magazine editor, mounted a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  By 1859, thirty governors had agreed to a common day of Thanksgiving.  That year, as the country headed into Civil
War, she wrote, “If every State would join in union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution!”.  War erupted in 1861, and her persistence led to writing directly to President Lincoln, “laying before you a subject of deep interest … the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a national and fixed union festival.”   The result was Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving 1863 proclamation in which he stated that even in war we can count our blessings for “They are gracious gifts of the most high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, has nevertheless remembered mercy.”  “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”, thereby echoing the words of Washington.  Lincoln went on to implore, “the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier in response to businesses desirous of a longer Christmas shopping season.  Much of the nation balked at the change, and many just kept on celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday.  Some opponents even called Roosevelt’s new Thanksgiving Day “Franksgiving.”  Cleverly, in 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill to officially make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday (vice the last Thursday), in November which meant that in some years Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the second to last Thursday of the month and in other years on the last Thursday of the month.

Thus, while commercialization may have ultimately driven the date, the origin and purpose of Thanksgiving, from our founders forward, is firmly rooted in giving thanks to God and recognizing that it is from Him that all blessings flow.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.”  Psalm 9:1

“All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”        2 Corinthians 4:15

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”        Colossians 3:17

“For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,…”       

1 Timothy 4:4


October 2016

ISSUE:  Understanding Halloween’s history and potential Christian alternatives.

BACKGROUND:  Halloween tends to emphasize fear, horror, violence, death, and the occult.  How should Christians approach this secular holiday?  Understanding Halloween’s origins and history, together with presenting some alternatives for celebration may be valuable to Christians.  The following references were used to develop the information in this article:  “Halloween and Christianity – Parts One – Four and Summary”, written by Richard D. Dover, In His Steps Ministries, 2002; accessed via http://www.creatingfutures.net/archive/previousnuggets.html on 15 September 2016;  “Christian Halloween Alternatives”, written by Mary Fairchild, Christianity.About.com, accessed via http://christianity.about.com/od/holidaytips/ss/halloweenaltern.htm on 15 September 2016.

DISCUSSION:  The Halloween Festival can be traced back to the Druids and others including the pagan Romans, the Greeks and even the Babylonians.  It was believed that on the eve of this festival “Samhain”, lord of death, called together the wicked spirits that had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals within the past year.  The festival, associated with the new-year’s eve, then October 31st in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times, became sinister with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about.  Huge fires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits.  The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes and they were to be entertained with food.  If food and shelter were not provided, these evil spirits would cast spells on those who chose not to fulfill their requests.

Failing to stop the pagan festivals, Rome tried at first to turn them into something Christian.  November was the month when papalism especially prayed for the dead in purgatory.  Traditionally at Halloween, papist families purchased an envelope from the priest.  Inside they wrote the name of a dead relative, and the envelope was placed on the altar so that the relative would not be forgotten in November’s prayers for the dead.  Thus the papist “All Hallows’ Eve” was mixed with the pagan festival of the dead.  Many years later Halloween remains associated with wickedness.  Artifacts from those early festivals can still be found in some of today’s Halloween celebrations.  The historical ties to the Jack-o-lantern, Trick or Treating, Costumes, Bobbing for Apples, Bonfires and Black Cats are summarized below:

The Jack-o-lantern:  Hundreds of years before Christ, on Halloween night Druids dressed in hooded robes and carried a large, hollowed-out turnip with an oil lamp burning inside, slung over the shoulder on a cord.  Carved into the side of the hollow turnip was a face to ward off evil spirits.  When Celtics came to the New World, they found pumpkins much easier to hollow out and carve than turnips.  Among the English-speaking Celts, the hollowed pumpkin was known as “Jock (or Jack) of the Lantern”.  Lore has it that Jack, too bad to get into heaven, yet not permitted into hell, wanders the earth holding “Jack’s lantern” from hell as his guide.

Trick or Treating:  The Druids adhered to strange dietary restrictions, and on the night of the Festival of Death they would go from home to home demanding these peculiar foods.  If the people complied, they passed on in silence; if their demands were not met, the people and their home were cursed with trouble, sickness and death.

Costumes:  The Celts and Druids believed that by wearing masks and costumes, they would confuse the evil spirits into thinking they were one of them and thus would leave them alone.  Villagers began to dress in hideous masks and costumes to disguise themselves from the spirits while dancing around the big Samhain “bonfires.”  Often they wore the skins of sacrificed animals burned in the evening’s festivities.

Bobbing For Apples:  During the Samhain festival, much divining was done to find favor or “good luck” with the evil spirits in the coming year.  A very popular form of this was to kneel around a tub of water with floating apples.  The first one who could get an apple out without using hands or teeth would have good favor with the spirits in the coming year.  If the apple could be peeled in one piece, the peeling had particular power and gained special favor with the spirits.

Bonfires:  Bonfires originally came from the nights of human and animal sacrifices where they would throw the remains of the bodies into the fire leaving only ashes and bones the next morning – hence “bonefires”.  The orange flames lit up the black night, a color combination still associated with Halloween.

Black Cats:  From the 1500s through the 1700s, during the witch-hunts in Europe, it was thought witches and warlocks flew through the air to a meeting with the devil on Halloween.  In addition to witches, elves and fairies were thought to turn into black cats.  Black cats hold high significance with witches and Satanists and are believed to have special powers.

Christian Alternatives:  Armed with the awareness of these historical Halloween ties to pagan festivals, one is hopefully motivated to seek Christian alternatives.  Potential alternatives for Christians on Halloween include Harvest Festivals, Theme Parties, Evangelism opportunities, Youth Group fund raising opportunities and Family Nights.  “Harvest Festivals” are carnivals with booths for food, face painting, skill games or even a board game marathon.  Theme Parties could include a “Noah’s Ark Party”, a “Heroes of the Bible Party” or a “Reformation Party”.  Each of these can reflect the costume aspects of Halloween in a Christian way.  On Halloween, consider turning your front yard into a graveyard, but then mark the gravestones with Scriptures that make visitors think about eternity and mortality.  To the extent the messages spark questions, you may have opportunities to share your faith!  Consider helping the youth group organize a pumpkin patch.  Youth can sell the pumpkins and the profits can go toward funding their next activity.  To increase the interest level, incorporate other pumpkin related activities, such as a pumpkin carving contest, a pumpkin cook-off, a carving demonstration, or even a pumpkin bake sale!

Finally, consider starting a new family tradition this October 31st in your family!  Replace traditional Halloween observances with family activities such as a family night out for a special dinner and a wholesome movie.  You can have a family meeting and make the plans for the special evening.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Surely such is the dwelling of an evil man; such is the place of one who does not know God.” Job 18:21 [NIV]

 “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.” Proverbs 11:6  [NIV]

“He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’  You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”  Mark 7:6-8 [NIV]

“In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.”  Romans 6:11-12 [NIV]

“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Romans 12:21 [NIV]

“Therefore do not be partners with them.  For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.  It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  Ephesians 5:7-12 [NIV]

Michael Phelps

September 2016

ISSUE:  Focusing on the Christian aspects of Michael Phelp’s Life.

BACKGROUND:  The most prolific swimmer and Gold Medal winning athlete of our time was once drowning in depression and alcoholism until he was thrown a lifeline from another well-known Baltimore athlete – and Christian.   The following references were used to develop and summarize the discussion below: “Michael Phelps, Jesus, and You”, by Jennifer Maggio, August 10th, 2016 accessed via: www.crosswalk.com/blogs/Jennifer-maggio;  “Michael Phelps Makes POWERFUL Statement about His Christian Faith”, by Single H, The Political Insider, accessed on August 14th, 1016 via http://www.thepoliticalinsider.com/michael-phelps-christian-faith/;  “Michael Phelps Finds His Purpose” by Eric Metaxas, Christian Post Contributor, August 14th, 2016, originally posted at breakpoint.org but accessed via http://www.christianpost.com/news/michael-phelps-finds-his-purpose-opinion-167892/; “Testing the Limits”, by Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, June 9th, 2016; Michael Phelps, Wikipedia, accessed via:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Phelps on August 14th, 2016.


A significant portion of the international population, of the United States, and especially of those in Baltimore, Maryland tuned in to watch Michael Phelps swim in the 2016 Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janerio.  In what he subsequently announced was his final Olympics, he won the most recent six of his 28 total Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold and of those, 12 are individual.  He is certainly the swimmer of our time and residents of the USA and of Baltimore should be proud.  Phelps is also the first U.S. male swimmer to compete in five Olympic Games — 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and the oldest swimmer, at age 31, to win an individual gold medal.

Phelps’s international titles and record-breaking performances have earned him the World Swimmer of the Year Award seven times and American Swimmer of the Year Award nine times as well as the FINA Swimmer of the Year Award in 2012.  His unprecedented Olympic success in 2008 earned Phelps Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year award.  In winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps broke fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s record of 7 first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games.  Five of those victories were in individual events, tying the single Games record.

Despite his success, life hasn’t always gone “swimmingly” for Michael.  Less than two years ago, in September of 2014, Phelps, most likely having spent the evening playing cards and drinking, left Baltimore’s glittering Horseshoe Casino a little after 1:00 a.m.  The 29-year-old Phelps was pulled over in a white Range Rover on northbound I-95 for speeding on an approach ramp, swerving across lanes and racing through Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Tunnel.   He sped onto southbound Interstate 395, which curves sharply as it feeds into northbound I-95.  The speed limit was 45.  According to the police, Phelps was going 84.  When they stopped him just north of the tollbooth, his speech was slurred, his eyes were bloodshot and he reeked of alcohol.  The arresting officer knew right away who he was, but spelled the name for the radio dispatcher: Michael Fred Phelps II.  “One in custody,” he added. “DUI.”

This wasn’t the first reported incident.  On Feb. 1, 2009, a now-defunct British tabloid reported that Phelps took several hits from a marijuana bong the previous November at a party in Columbia, S.C.  A photo accompanying the story showed a man who appeared to be Phelps using the device.  In a statement the next day, Phelps said he had engaged in regrettable behavior and promised that this would not happen again.  USA Swimming barred him from competition for three months.  In November 2004, at the age of 19, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in Salisbury, Maryland.  He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired, and was sentenced to serve 18 months’ probation, fined $250, ordered to speak to high school students about drinking and driving, and to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) meeting.

As Phelps told ESPN, following his announced retirement in 2012, he struggled to “figure out who he was outside the pool.”  In his words, “I was a train wreck.  I was like a time bomb, waiting to go off.  I had no self-esteem, no self-worth.  There were times where I didn’t want to be here.  It was not good.  I felt lost.”   Phelps was despondent.  He told Sports Illustrated that at one point he didn’t want to live anymore.

In the most recent incident, Phelps was swaying as the officer gave him standard field sobriety tests.  He was at times disoriented and argumentative.  Failing the field tests, he was handcuffed and taken to the Clinton Street station on the Patapsco River waterfront.  There, the breathalyzer test showed he had an alcohol concentration of 0.14 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath, almost twice the legal limit, according to the police.  They confiscated his license.

Phelps called a number of people after he was arrested.  One was retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who had long been a friend and confidante whom Phelps considers a kind of “older brother.”  Seeing the hopelessness and despair in his young friend, Lewis, an outspoken Christian, told him, “This is when we fight . . . This is when real character shows up.  Don’t shut down.  If you shut down we all lose.”  “I basically told him, ‘Okay, everything has a purpose, and now, guess what?  It’s time to wake up,’ ” he says.  He gave Phelps a copy of Christian author Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”.

The book changed Phelps’ life.  Within a few days, Phelps called Lewis and told him “’Man this book is crazy . . . The thing that’s going on . . . oh my gosh . . . my brain, I can’t thank you . . . enough, man.  You saved my life.’”  As Phelps told ESPN, Rick Warren’s book “turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”  The book, which tells readers that “relationships are always worth restoring,” also convinced Phelps to reconcile with his father from whom he had been estranged for more than two decades.  Upon seeing each other, they embraced.

Subsequent to rehabilitation, Phelps developed a newfound maturity and sense of commitment.  He and his fiancée, Nicole Johnson, welcomed their first child in May.  He came to grips with the 16 years of international celebrity that attended, for better and worse, his evolution from boy to man.  “If you looked at Michael like an onion,” says Johnson, “layers [have been] peeled back.”  The core of Michael Phelps has been reached and examined.  “He’s made me a better person because of what he’s experienced.”   Phelps and Johnson, a former Miss California were engaged in February 2015 and plan to marry after the Rio Olympics.

Michael Phelps’ story is a reminder that no matter how big a mess your life may be, no matter how dim the last embers of hope may glow, God is still there.  It’s also a reminder of the role that God’s people are called to play as bringers of hope and agents of restoration.  The results may not be as dramatic as Phelps’ story but they will matter every bit as much.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”  Acts 20:24

 “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  1 Corinthians 9:25

“for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 2:13

 “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”  2 Timothy 4:7

This Spiritual Growth Point is brought to you by the Men of Grace and was compiled by the Spiritual Growth Committee including Brian Repp, Paul Tucker and Eric Rosenlof who serve as a part of the Men’s Ministry led by Joel Prell.

Tragedy in Dallas

August 2016

ISSUE:  Race, inequality, perception and reality in America, crystallized in the Dallas tragedy.

BACKGROUND:  The information summarized below is drawn from several sources including:  “Analysis Finds No Racial Bias in Lethal Force”, by Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox, New York Times, July 12th, 2016, pg. 1, “The Race Card of the Early Christians – What They Can Teach Us Today”, by Derwin Gray and Frank Viola, retrieved on July 21, 2016, from http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-race-card-of-the-early-christians-what-they-can-teach-us-today-100405, and a Pew Research Center report entitled, “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart”, by Kim Parker, Juliana Horowitz and Brian Mahl and others dated June 27th, 2016.  The findings in this report were based on a national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Feb. 29-May 8, 2016, among 3,769 adults (including 1,799 whites, 1,004 blacks and 654 Hispanics).  An excerpt from this report entitled, “How Americans view the Black Lives Matter movement” by Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Gretchen Livingston was published on July 8, 2016 and is available at www.pewresearch.org.  The full report was completed for The Pew Research Center, a part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project and the full version is available at www.pewforum.org.  The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.  The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research but does not take policy positions.

DISCUSSION:  Dallas, Texas has been the center of American focus more than once in our nation’s history.  The most recent tragedy, where white police officers were targeted and killed while protecting a Black Lives Matter demonstration exposes the deep racial divides in our country.   One cannot begin to cover the complex subject of race relations and inequalities related thereto in one short article.  However, the references cited above provide a good starting point for some quantification of the existing inequalities in America between blacks and whites, national views on the Black Lives Matter movement, and some statistical basis for perceptions and realities in the emotionally charged topic of the use of force by police.

Perception Divide:  An overwhelming majority of blacks (88%) say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites, but 43% are skeptical that such changes will ever occur.  An additional 42% of blacks believe that the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights with whites, and just 8% say the country has already made the necessary changes.  A much lower share of whites (53%) say the country still has work to do for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites, and only 11% express doubt that these changes will come.  Four-in-ten whites believe the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights, and about the same share (38%) say enough changes have already been made.  The survey finds that black and white adults have widely different perceptions about what life is like for blacks in the U.S.  For example, by large margins, blacks are more likely than whites to say black people are treated less fairly in the workplace (a difference of 42 percentage points), when applying for a loan or mortgage (41 points), in dealing with the police (34 points), in the courts (32 points), in stores or restaurants (28 points), and when voting in elections (23 points).  More broadly, blacks and whites offer different perspectives of the current state of race relations in the U.S. White Americans are evenly divided, with 46% saying race relations are generally good and 45% saying they are generally bad.  In contrast, by a nearly two-to-one margin, blacks are more likely to say race relations are bad (61%) rather than good (34%).  Blacks are also about twice as likely as whites to say too little attention is paid to race and racial issues in the U.S. these days (58% vs. 27%). About four-in-ten whites (41%) – compared with 22% of blacks – say there is too much focus on race and racial issues.

Economic Divide:  According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 the median adjusted income for households headed by blacks was $43,300, and for whites it was $71,300.  Blacks also lag behind whites in college completion, but even among adults with a bachelor’s degree, blacks earned significantly less in 2014 than whites ($82,300 for households headed by a college-educated black compared with $106,600 for comparable white households).  The racial gap extends to household wealth – a measure where the gap has widened since the Great Recession.  In 2013, the most recent year available, the median net worth of households headed by whites was roughly 13 times that of black households ($144,200 for whites compared with $11,200 for blacks).  For most Americans, household wealth is closely tied to home equity, and there are sharp and persistent gaps in homeownership between blacks and whites.  In 2015, 72% of white household heads owned a home, compared with 43% of black household heads.  Even though the poverty rate for blacks has come down significantly since the mid-1980s, blacks are still more than twice as likely as whites to be living in poverty (26% compared with 10% in 2014).

Education Divide:  Increasingly, a college degree is the key to financial well-being, while the value of a high school diploma has diminished markedly over time.  Since the 1960s, rates of college graduation have increased significantly for all major racial and ethnic groups, though large gaps persist.  More than a third (36%) of whites ages 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree compared with 23% of blacks, according to analyses of the Current Population Survey.  As college completion rates have been on the rise, the white-black gap in college completion has narrowed somewhat.  In 1995, whites were almost twice as likely as blacks to have a bachelor’s degree.  Today, whites today are only about 1.5 times as likely as blacks to have one.  The black-white gap in high school completion has narrowed substantially over the past half century, driven in part by dramatic increases in high school completion for blacks.  In 1964, just 27% of blacks ages 25 and older had a high school diploma, while today the share is 88%.  By comparison, 51% of whites in 1964 had a diploma, versus 93% today.

Black Lives Matter:  The Black Lives Matter movement came to national prominence in 2014 after the police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri and continues to gain attention following other incidents including the recent tragedy in Dallas, Texas in which white police officers were targeted.  There are four top-line takeaways from the larger report, from which an excerpt was published the same day as the tragedy in Dallas, there are four top-line takeaways:  1) Roughly four-in-ten Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement including 18% whose support is strong.  About one-in-five Americans oppose the movement, and a sizable share (30%) said they have not heard anything about the movement or did not offer an opinion.  2)  Among whites, Democrats and those younger than 30 years of age are particularly supportive of the movement.  About three-in-ten whites ages 50 and older say they haven’t heard anything at all about Black Lives Matter.  3) About a third of Americans familiar with Black Lives Matter say they don’t understand the goals of the movement.  Blacks who have heard at least a little about Black Lives Matter are far more likely than whites who have some general awareness of the movement to say they understand its goals very well (42% vs. 16%). About four-in-ten whites who have heard of Black Lives Matter (38%) say they don’t understand the movement’s goals particularly well.

Study on Racial Disparity in the Police Use of Force:  A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement.  They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.  However, when it comes to the most lethal form of force – police shootings – the study finds no racial bias.   “It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study.  Mr. Fryer is a professor of economics at Harvard who is also the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard and the first to win a John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40.  According to Mr. Fryer, “You know, protesting is not my thing, but data is my thing.  So I decided that I was going to collect a bunch of data and try to understand what really is going on when it comes to racial differences in police use of force.”  He and student researchers spent about 3,000 hours assembling detailed data from police reports in Houston, Austin and Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles, CA; Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida and four other Florida counties.  They examined 1,332 shootings between 2000 and 2015.  In shootings in 10 cities involving officers, the officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white.  Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon.  Both results undercut the idea of racial bias in police use of lethal force.  The results do not necessarily mean that the general public’s perception of racism in policing is misguided.  Lethal uses of force are exceedingly rare.  For example, there were 1.6 million arrests in Houston in the years Mr. Fryer studied but in all of those arrests, officers fired their weapons only 507 times.  What is far more common are nonlethal uses of force and in such uses of force, the study did find racial differences of between 7 and 25% greater when used against blacks as compared to whites with the results being dependent upon type of non-lethal force and whether or not the citizen was compliant.

Summary:  In summary, there are real economic and education divides between blacks and whites in America, but importantly, there is also a perception divide that likely extends to potential misperception about the use of lethal force.  All of this argues for more data analysis, patience in uncovering the facts of individual cases, and conversation both within and beyond local Christian congregations.

As Christians, we can learn much from a study of Christ’s impact on the early church.  As Gray and Viola remark, “In all of human history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred, and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jew and the Gentile.  But alas, in the first-century, there emerged a group of people on the planet who transcended this racial hostility.  Here was a group of people who saw themselves as members of the same family . . . a people made up of Jews, Gentles, slaves, free, rich, poor, male and female.  These were the early Christians. The Roman world stood in awe as they saw a people who hated each other began to love one another and do life together in the Name of Jesus.”

And so it should be with us.  May God grant us the grace to love each other as he first loved us, and by this show the world the true power of the Gospel.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating.  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” Luke 11:17

“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” Ephesians 2:14

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Revelation 7:9

Religion and Gender

July 2016

ISSUE:  Women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians, but can the degree of this gender gap in religion be quantified?

BACKGROUND:  The information summarized below is drawn from a report entitled, “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World”, by Conrad Hackett, David McClendon, Anne Fengyan Shi and others dated March 22nd, 2016.  The report was completed for The Pew Research Center, a part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project and the full version is available at www.pewforum.org.  The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.  The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research but does not take policy positions.

DISCUSSION:  Measuring levels of religious commitment in widely differing societies and faiths is difficult.  Because of this difficulty, the report used a variety of measures of commitment, including religious affiliation, frequency of worship service attendance, frequency of prayer, and whether religion plays an important role in a person’s life.  While data for all measures are not available in all countries, gender gap quantification emerges when the measures are collectively considered.

Globally, women are somewhat more likely to affiliate with a religious faith.  An estimated 83.4% of women around the world identify with a faith group, compared with 79.9% of men, according to Pew Research Center’s analysis of censuses, surveys and population registers in 192 countries and territories.  This gap of 3.5 percentage points means that an estimated 97 million more women than men claim a religious affiliation worldwide, as of 2010.

Among Christians, women attend religious services more often, but among Muslims and Orthodox Jews, men attend more often.  Out of 81 countries where Pew Research Center surveys have asked about worship service attendance, women report greater levels of weekly attendance in 30 countries, most of which have Christian majorities or large Christian populations.  In 28 countries – mostly places with Muslim majorities or large Muslim populations – men report greater weekly attendance than women.  In the remaining 23 countries, the difference between women and men in self-reported attendance is not statistically significant.

Generally, more women than men pray daily.  Pew Research Center surveys have asked people in 84 countries how often they pray.  In about half of those countries (43), substantially more women than men say they pray on a daily basis.  Only in Israel, where roughly 22% of all Jewish adults self-identify as Orthodox, does a higher percentage of men than women report engaging in daily prayer.  In the remaining countries, women and men are about equally likely to say they pray daily.  The difference between women and men in self-reported rates of daily prayer is the biggest average gender gap found in this study.  Across the 84 countries for which data are available, the average share of women who say they pray daily is 8 percentage points higher than the average share of men.  Even religiously unaffiliated women in some countries, including the United States and Uruguay, report praying daily at higher rates than unaffiliated men do.

Religion is equally or more important to women than to men.  Many Pew Research Center international surveys ask people to assess the importance of religion in their daily lives.  Is religion very important, somewhat important, not too important or not at all important to them?  In 46 of the 84 countries for which data are available, women and men are about equally likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives.  But in 36 other countries, women are more likely than men to regard religion as very important – often by notably large margins.  Only in Israel and Mozambique are men more likely than women to consider religion very important to them personally.

By most key measures of religious commitment, Muslim men and women are more alike in their levels of religiousness than are Christian men and women.  For example, in the 40 countries where data were collected on Muslims’ prayer habits, Muslim women report praying daily more often than Muslim men by an average difference of only 2 percentage points.  A similar pattern occurs in religion’s importance.  There is virtually no difference between the shares of Muslim women and Muslim men who say religion is “very important” to them in the 40 countries with data on this topic.  When it comes to weekly attendance at religious services, however, the pattern is very different: Muslim men are more likely than Muslim women to regularly attend services by an average of 28 percentage points across the 39 countries where Muslim attendance data were collected.

Gender gaps between Christian women and Christian men are more consistent than the Muslim gender gaps.  Across all measures of religious commitment, Christian women are more religious than Christian men, often by considerable margins.  In the 54 countries where data were collected on Christians’ daily prayer habits, Christian women report praying daily more frequently than Christian men by an overall average gap of 10 percentage points.  In 29 of those countries, more women than men reported praying daily by margins of 10 percentage points or more, ranging upward to 25 points in Greece.  Similarly, Christian women are more likely than Christian men to say religion is “very important” to them by an overall average of 7 percentage points across 54 countries.  In 15 of those countries, more women than men say this by margins ranging from 10 percentage points in Peru, Chile and the United States to 23 points in South Korea.  When it comes to attendance at worship services, Christian women are, on average, 7 percentage points more likely than Christian men to report attending services weekly across 53 countries with data on Christian attendance patterns.

The gender gaps among Christians, as well as some gender differences in other faith traditions, vary in size in different regions of the world.  This suggests that while gender differences in religious commitment may be driven in part by the teachings of a particular religion, they also may reflect national habits or cultural views intrinsic to a particular part of the world.

Men and women in the United States differ from each other in their levels of religious commitment to a greater extent than men and women differ in other economically advanced countries for which data are available, including Canada and the United Kingdom.  While American men generally display less religious commitment than American women, both genders are more religious than men and women in other economically advanced countries.

In the United States, the pattern of women being more religious also appears among the unaffiliated (people who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” and sometimes are called the “nones”).  Fewer American women than men (19% vs. 27%) are religiously unaffiliated.  Moreover, unaffiliated women report higher levels of engagement with religion than unaffiliated men across several indicators, including weekly attendance at religious services (5% vs. 3%), daily prayer (26% vs. 15%) and saying religion is very important to them (15% vs. 12%).

Scholars of religion have been examining possible reasons for the gender gaps in religious commitment for some time.  They have advanced many different theories, which cover a wide range of sources: biology, psychology, genetics, family environment, social status, workforce participation and a lack of “existential security” felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.

The theory regarding workforce participation posits that a focus solely on home management, which involves more attention and time spent raising children and caring for sick or elderly relatives, appears to encourage stronger religious commitment and more frequent religious activity.  Conversely, work can interfere or compete with involvement in a religious community, leading to less-frequent attendance at worship services and the weakening of a person’s religious identity.  Work also offers alternatives around which to construct personal and community identities and can broaden horizons beyond the family, exposing people to new ideas and ways of life that can challenge traditional religious belief systems.  A Christian perspective on this theory may translate into an awareness that as society and the workforce have modernized, necessitating work outside the home, it is even more important that Christians in the workforce endeavor to set a Christian example and become the “salt and light” that God intended.

A growing consensus in the academic community is that the religious gender gap probably stems from a confluence of multiple factors, but there is still no agreement on exactly which factors are most responsible for the gender differences.

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Deuteronomy 6:10

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”  John 4:23

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29


June 2016 Issue

ISSUE:  Practical information for Christian fathers and their families.

BACKGROUND:   The history of Father’s Day and what the Bible says about fathers should be of interest not only to Christian fathers, but also to their families.  The following references were used to develop the discussion below: “Timeline of Father’s Day History – ninety years of celebrating dads”, by Holly Hartman, InfoPlease, accessed via http://www.infoplease.com/spot/fathersdayhist.html on May 2, 2016; “A Brief History of Father’s Day”, in Fatherhood, Relationships and Family, by Brett and Kate McKay, June 11, 2008, accessed via http://www.artofmanliness.com/2008/06/11/a-brief-history-of-fathers-day/ on May 2, 2016;  “Father’s Day”, Holiday Topics, History.com accessed via http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/fathers-day on May 2, 2016; “History of Father’s Day”, Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India, accessed via http://www.fathersdaycelebration.com/fathers-day-history.html on May 2, 2016; “Should Christian’s celebrate Father’s Day?”, S. Michael Houdeman, CEO, Got Questions, accessed via http://www.gotquestions.org/Fathers-Day.html on May 2, 2016; “Father’s Day”, Practical information about Father’s Day for Christians, Christianity.About.com, accessed via http://christianity.about.com/od/fathersday/ on May 2, 2016.

DISCUSSION:  Some scholars believe that the origin of Father’s Day is not a recent phenomenon but instead, found in the ruins of Babylon where a young boy called Elmesu carved a Father’s Day message on a card made out of clay nearly 4,000 years ago, wishing his father good health and a long life.  The modern history of Father’s Day in the United States can be traced to three different stories in the early 1900’s.

On July 5, 1908, at the urging of Grace Golden Clayton, a West Virginia church sponsored the nation’s first event explicitly in honor of fathers.  The event was a Sunday sermon in memory of the 362 men who had died in explosions at the Fairmont Coal Company mines.  This was a one-time commemoration as opposed to an annual holiday.

The next year, Sonora Smart Dodd from Spokane, Washington, one of six children raised by a widowed Civil War veteran, tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for fathers.  She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and she was ultimately successful.  As a result of her efforts, Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

Yet another story has it that the president of the Chicago Lions’ Club, Harry Meek celebrated the first Father’s Day with his organization in 1915 to stress the need to honor fathers.  He selected the third Sunday in June for celebration, the closest date to his own birthday!  In appreciation for Meek’s work, the Lions Clubs of America presented him with a gold watch, inscribed with ‘Originator of Father’s Day’ on his birthday, June 20, 1920.

In 1916, President Wilson honored the day by using telegraph signals to unfurl a flag in Spokane when he pressed a button in Washington, D.C.  In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge urged state governments to observe Father’s Day.  In 1926, the National Father’s Day Committee met for the first time in New York City.  When World War II began, advertisers began to argue that celebrating Father’s Day was a way to honor American troops and support the war effort.

By the end of the war, Father’s Day may not have been a federal holiday, but it was a national institution.  In 1956 the observance of Father’s Day was recognized by a Joint Resolution of Congress.  In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson, by executive order, designated the third Sunday in June as the official day to celebrate Father’s Day.  However, it wasn’t until 1972, during the Nixon administration, that Father’s Day was officially recognized as a national holiday.

The Bible is an important source for fathers, offering lessons in what is wise and what is unwise, when it comes to the challenging vocation of fatherhood.  As the first man and first human father, Adam had God as his example yet he failed, plunging the world into sin.  He also had to deal with the tragedy of Cain murdering Abel.  Adam has much to teach today’s fathers about the consequences of our actions and the absolute necessity of obeying our Holy Father, God.

Noah stands out among fathers in the Bible as a man who clung to God in spite of the wickedness all around him.  Noah was far from perfect, but he was humble and protective of his family and bravely carried out the task God assigned to him.  Modern fathers may often feel they are in a thankless role, but God is always pleased by their devotion.

God gave Abraham the mission of being the father of an entire nation.  Abraham was a leader with tremendous faith, passing one of the most difficult tests God ever gave a man with his son Isaac.  Abraham made mistakes when he relied on himself instead of God yet embodied qualities that any father would be wise to develop.

Moses was the father of two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, yet he also served as a father figure to the entire Hebrew people as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  He loved them and helped discipline and provide for them on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.   Moses shows today’s fathers that overwhelming tasks can be achieved when we stay close to God.

Jacob tried to work his own way instead of trusting God.  With the help of his mother Rebekah, he stole his brother Esau’s birthright.  Jacob fathered twelve sons who founded the twelve tribes of Israel.  As a father, Jacob favored his son Joseph, causing jealousy among the other brothers.  Jacob’s life shows us that God works His plan in spite of our disobedience.

One of the most underrated fathers in the Bible was Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ.  He protected his wife Mary and their baby, then saw to Jesus’ education and needs as he was growing up.  Joseph taught Jesus the carpentry trade. The Bible calls Joseph a righteous man, and Jesus surely loved Joseph’s quiet strength, honesty, and kindness.

Every human father, in that he’s created in the image of God, is also a son of God, the constant source of strength, wisdom, and hope.  The gift he gave us in Jesus puts our life and fatherhood in a whole new perspective.  As Jesus said,  “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.”  John 14:7a

SPIRITUAL GROWTH POINT:  What does the Bible say about this topic?

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12

 “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;” Psalm 103:13

“A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a mocker does not respond to rebukes.”  Proverbs 13:1

“The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who father’s a wise son rejoices in him.”  Proverbs 23:24

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”  Ephesians 6:4

This Spiritual Growth Point is brought to you by the Men of Grace and was compiled by the Spiritual Growth Committee including Brian Repp, Paul Tucker and Eric Rosenlof who serve as a part of the Men’s Ministry led by Joel Prell.