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The Neuroscience of “Spiritual” Disciplines

Fasting. Intentionally going without food for long periods of time. That’s always been a difficult concept for me. Lots of people in this world go without food because they don’t have any. Why would I do that to myself on purpose?

In a recent Christianity Today article, Rob Moll argues that neuroscience can help us understand why spiritual disciplines like fasting are so important. It’s not just about giving up food (or other things) for a time. It’s about engaging in practices that can help shape us into being who we are called to be.

He begins by pointing out that many Christians today struggle with the spiritual disciplines because we shy away from anything that looks like self-denial. We’ll fast for a cause–e.g., solidarity with the poor–but we avoid fasting for other reasons. “But as we relearn to fast, we should remember that these disciplines are very much about us and our own personal faith.”

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15 Reasons I Left/Stayed in the Church

Going to church can be painful. And I don’t just mean that you may have to get up early, surrender some “down time,” and possibly listen to a bad sermon. These are painful enough on their own. But for many, going to church is difficult for much more significant reasons. And, as a result, some choose not to go at all. Others stay, but only after extensive soul-searching.

Should you stay or should you go? That’s not an easy question for many people to answer. Especially when it’s not just a question of leaving one church for another. What if you’re beginning to suspect that all churches are broken? What if you’re not sure that any church will do? What if leaving means walking away from the church entirely?

Here two thoughtful, but very different, responses to those questions. On the one hand, Rachel Held Evans explains why she decided to leave. And, on the other, Hannah from Sometimes a Light tells us why she stayed.

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Ditch Your Safety Bucket and Speak for Yourself

Some kids have a favorite toy that they carry with them everywhere. Whether it’s a stuffed animal, a doll, or a spaceship, it offers a sense of security, a feeling that things are okay. Other kids have a special blanket. Wrapped in its gentle folds, they feel safe, at home.

My daughter had a bucket.

Seriously. A bucket. And it wasn’t even a nice one. It was a plain white, 5-gallon, plastic bucket, the kind you find at Home Depot, somewhat scraped and stained from years of hard use. And she took it everywhere.

It was her safety bucket.

She had a rough winter last year and was sick a lot. Several times she got caught unprepared, which can be rather messy. That’s particularly annoying when it happens at night. In your bed. On your favorite jammies. Her solution was to start carrying her special bucket everywhere. I’ll never forget the sight of my tiny daughter hauling this huge plastic bucket behind her as she climbed the ladder to her bunk bed. But I can understand. It made her feel safe. Prepared.

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How would you describe your church in 5 words or less?

“So, what do you think of your church?”

He had just moved here from out of town, so I probably should have been expecting the question. But I wasn’t. And it caught me off guard.

What do I think of my church? That’s not always an easy question to answer. I like my church. But I’m enough of a critical thinker to notice the many areas of weakness it has as well. (Or, at least, the areas that I think are weaknesses.) So my first instinct is to say something like “It has problems like any other church, but we like it.” Not a terribly rousing endorsement.

Why do I feel the need to qualify my answer like that? Surely everyone knows that churches aren’t perfect. Why lead with it? Why not just jump right in with what I love about my church?

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The Extrovert Ideal

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal–the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual–the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners, who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

Introversion–along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness–is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology….Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, 4.

7 Things the Church Expects from the Seminary

“Turn left!” I shouted. Such a simple command. You’d think it would be easy to follow. Yet I could only stare helplessly as we breezed through the intersection.

The problem: too many voices. I wasn’t the only passenger in the car. And the others also thought they knew where to go. Too many cooks in the kitchen ruins your dinner. Too many voices in the car gets you lost.

signs, confusion, directions, changing directions in seminary educationI think seminaries find themselves in a similar situation today. Everyone has an opinion about what seminaries should do: students, alumni, accreditation boards, government agencies, donors. So many voices. Each with its own idea about where to turn and what to do. Turn left. No, right. Stop! Go!

One of the tragedies of this situation is that the cacophony of voices has at times drowned out a key voice: the church. The seminary exists to serve the church. It’s that simple. We didn’t build seminaries simply to write books, teach classes, and host conferences. We built seminaries to train leaders for God’s people.

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8 Common Misconceptions about Animals (that I’ve heard in sermons)

The frog in boiling water. We’ve all heard it in sermons and read it in books. It’s a great analogy. Unfortunately, it’s only true in one very specific (and unusual) set of circumstances. Check out this excellent little video for the truth about the frog in boiling water, the ostrich with its head in the sand, and other misconceptions we have of the animal world.

I won’t say that I’ve heard all of these in sermons. Only most of them. So I thought this would be worth passing along.

Forced Choices (egalitarianism vs. complementarianism)

Last week’s forced choice asked you to weigh in on who is Paul talking about in Romans 7. And it wasn’t even close. Nearly 70% of you said that Paul is describing the experience of a mature Christian dealing with the ongoing struggle against sin. Most surprisingly (in my opinion) was that the second most common answer (12%) was that Paul is talking about Adam. I wasn’t sure that option would get any votes, but apparently more people see that as a valid option than I’d realized.

This week we’re going to tackle a slightly more contentious issue: gender in the church. And I’m going to return to the stark either/or approach that Forced Choices is supposed to be about. So there’s no nuance in this particular vote. Pick one or the other. Either you believe that there are no gender-specific qualifications for any ministry roles in the church (egalitarianism) or you believe that there are gender qualifications for one or more ministry roles in the church (complementarianism). We’re not going to complicate things by trying to differentiate between different kinds of complementrianism and egalitarianism. It’s either/or today.

So, what do you think? Are you a complementarian or an egalitarian? (Use the poll in the sidebar to vote.)

A Two-Talent Christian in a Five-Talent World

I was doing everything I could, everything I knew how to do. But it wasn’t enough.

It seemed so easy for others. As far as I could tell, they were teaching the same lessons, singing the same songs, and planning the same events. But their ministries were so much more effective: packed meetings, thriving small groups, huge mission trips, changed lives. They were getting it done.

I think I was doing my best. But what if my best wasn’t good enough?

I’ve heard many sermons on the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30). You know the story. Some rich guy takes off on a trip. And before he goes, he entrusts a lot of money (talents) to his three servants: one gets 5 talents, the second gets 2 talents, and the third gets 1 talent. After his long journey, he returns and discovers that the first two have doubled his money. So he blessed them with even more responsibility. But the third was a bit of a lazy coward, and he simply hid his money while the master was gone. He gave the master his original money back, but no more. And the master was displeased to say the least.

Like the parable, most of these sermons I’ve heard have focused on two things: (1) the faithfulness of the first two servants and (2) the unfaithfulness of the third servant. And there’s a lot of good stuff in there. But I’ve always wondered about something else: What about the second servant? What was he thinking?

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The Elusive, Invincible, Savage Monster: A Temptation We All Face

[This is a guest post from Steven Leckvold, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

St. John Chrysostom has an important piece of advice for anyone involved in public ministry: beware the monster.

At the beginning of the fifth book of On the Priesthood, he outlines several temptations and struggles for those who teach the Word of God publicly, specifically through sermons. He has two main categories of difficulties in mind: (1) toe-stepping and its results, and (2) meeting audience expectations. But he thinks that they are both driven by an even deeper problem, a monster that we all face. And his advice? Cut off the heads of the elusive, invincible, savage monster.

What is this monster that we must face? We shall see.


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