God’s Mayor in Guatemala

Fighting cartels, disease, and poverty, Mayor Jeaneth Ordoñez presides over a safe haven in an otherwise violent region.

In the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, the countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala form a violent triad. The murder rate is higher in this region than in most active war zones. Gangs, cartels, and vigilantes impose their will, taking over or co-opting legitimate police forces and routinely terrorizing average citizens. A recent study identified 54 separate criminal groups in Guatemala alone. For many citizens of this region, fleeing north through Mexico to the US border is a less risky proposition than dealing with daily life in their hometown.

In the middle of this violence sits the town of San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán, a picturesque oasis of calm with a population of about 6,000 people. What sets this place apart are the efforts of Jeaneth Ordoñez, the Christian mayor who has united the townspeople in their quest to keep the municipality free of the violence and upheaval that surrounds them.

“This is a very special place,” says Eduardo Gallo, a Cuban-born medical doctor whom Ordoñez brought to town to help with health care. “We have the opportunity to improve people’s lives and to do it with love. The mayor has created a remarkable environment.”

Ordoñez’s motivation to protect and provide for her people comes directly from her faith. “God has put me in this place and given me a love and desire to serve my people and make their lives better,” she says. “I have faith in God and I love the people.”

About two hours outside of Guatemala City, the municipality encompasses a small town and a large rural area where high unemployment means poverty is all too common, as it is throughout the country. But Ordoñez ...

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The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth

There’s something missing from Oxford’s splendid new Tolkien exhibit.

Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Nearly everyone knows him as the author of two of the most beloved books of the 20th century: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many also know him as a member of the Inklings and a close friend of fellow writer and scholar C. S. Lewis. Fewer know Tolkien’s work as a literary critic, a world-class academic in medieval literature, a linguist, an inventor of languages, and a visual artist or realize that he was also a devoted husband and father.

Much of this is captured this year in a nearly comprehensive exhibit at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries on Tolkien’s life and legacy. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” has been billed as the exhibit of a generation, and it is indeed that. But there’s a glaring omission: any mention of the author’s devout, lifelong Christian faith. Without that piece, we cannot have a true picture of Tolkien.

The Missing Piece

The exhibit is certainly the most well-rounded portrayal of Tolkien to date. We see his imaginative capacity expressed in nearly overwhelming abundance, and we see a tender glimpse of his childhood and of his family life with his wife, Edith, and their four children.

The aim of the exhibit, as expressed in the catalog book, is “bringing to the public’s attention the fullest picture possible not just of the life and work of a remarkable literary imagination, but of a son, husband, father, friend, scholar and artist.”

To that end, it comes close but misses the mark. The exhibit downplays Tolkien’s religious commitment so completely that it is well-nigh invisible. Yet Christianity was a constant presence throughout his life, and not just in a nominal or cultural sense: Tolkien really believed, ...

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Is Your Church Ready to Care for Those Reentering Society?

Churches have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to welcome former prisoners home.

Imagine this scenario: You have been locked up in prison for years and are getting ready for your release. For years, you have lived in a place unlike any other in our society. You are in a world where, every moment of every day, you are reminded of the worst thing you have ever done. Your past even haunts you in your dreams.

Behind bars, you are not known by your name, but by the number on your prison jumpsuit. After years of being locked up, you have been forgotten by family, friends, and your community. You have not received a visitor or a letter from outside these walls in a long time. You are in a place where violence could be around any corner and decision-making has been stripped from you.

For years, this world is all you have known. But soon, you will suddenly be released back into your community, facing a litany of parole conditions and the anxiety of trying to figure out how to transition into life in the outside world without messing up again.

This is the experience of thousands of men and women who are released from prison every year.

I have been involved in prison ministry for 14 years, and I have never met a prisoner who wasn’t nervous about leaving the prison walls. Some are downright terrified.

There are 2.4 million people who are incarcerated in the United States—by far the highest number of prisoners per capita in the world—and 95 percent of them will one day be released to their communities.

You may think that once someone has served his or her time, the punishment is complete and he or she is rehabilitated; the person can move on with life with the expectation that he or she won’t get into trouble again.

The Challenges of Reentry

But the sobering reality is that 67 percent of those who ...

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Jonathan Merritt Wants to Reboot Religious Language for the 21st Century

But his method of restoring “sacred words” to our common vocabulary runs the risk of redefining them.

When was the last time you had a spiritual conversation?

If recent research is any indication, it’s been a while. Only seven percent of Americans report talking about spiritual matters weekly. One-fifth of respondents had not had a spiritual conversation all year. Surely, self-identified Christians regularly engage in spiritual discussions with friends, coworkers, and family. Right? Sadly, only 13 percent of “practicing” Christians talk about spirituality once a week. As a result, sacred conversations and words such as grace, gospel, God, salvation, faith, sin, and creed are much less common in our day-to-day experience.

Unnerving data like these form the backdrop for a new book from religion writer Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing—and How We can Revive Them, a blend of cultural analysis, linguistic inquiry, theology, church history, and autobiography.

Breaking Down and Building Up

The first half of the book builds a comprehensive case for why we need to start over. Utilizing current data, Merritt asserts that for all our proclaimed religiosity, Americans in general—and self-identified Christians in particular—seldom engage in spiritual conversations. He identifies three reasons. First, many Christians are anxious not to give offense. For them, says Merritt, words like “sin and hell have become so negative they lodge in [their] throats.” Second, Christians who are in the regular habit of spiritual conversation develop a kind of insider shorthand bred of familiarity. Thus, certain words get “uttered so often we don’t know what they mean anymore,” and we forget how they sound to those outside of our religious circles. ...

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How Evangelistically Effective is Church Planting?

Church planting is evangelistically effective only to the degree that it is evangelistically focused from the beginning.

In 2002, pastor and author Tim Keller published a brief article entitled “Why Plant Churches” that has since become a staple regarding the necessity of church planting. In it, he writes, “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.”

His words echo the oft-quoted claim by C. Peter Wagner in his book Church Planting for a Greater Harvest: “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.” Dramatic population increases, the rise of the “nones,” and pervasive church closures would seem to validate this claim, but is it true?

The answer is: It depends.

Church planting is evangelistically effective only to the degree that it is evangelistically focused from the beginning.

From my observation, church planters come in two sizes:

1) Those who plant churches “FOR” evangelism,and

2) Those who plant churches “FROM” evangelism.

At first glance, it might seem like an incidental distinction – but when it comes to evangelistic effectiveness, it is anything but. The former, with an eye toward speedier sustainability, throw everything at gathering a strong launch team, typically comprised of the “already churched.”

While this group is usually easier to congregationalize, this association comes with some complications that are difficult to overcome. The ease with which the planter convinces churchgoers to join his ‘better thing’ often correlates with the ease with which they will become discontented and initiate another ...

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Our September Issue: Nothing to Hide

How much power do secrets hold over the Christian?

My neighbor on the flight from Los Angeles to Chicago was a little cagey, but the usual battery of polite airplane questions eventually shook something loose. He’d studied economics in New York. Left Wall Street to do his own thing. Now he moved wherever the wind and good skiing carried him, enjoying the fruits of an algorithm he’d written that flipped online investments hundreds of times an hour and made him wealthy.

My new friend worried a lot about privacy—prudent, I guess, for a man in possession of a virtual mint. He talked about the extraordinary measures he took to conceal his online activity, about encrypting his emails so thoroughly their very electrons must have been exhausted.

I didn’t share his level of concern. “But everyone has something they wouldn’t want getting out,” he said. I probably did, I told him. It just didn’t keep me up at night.

In his book On Tyranny, Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues that a key to preventing authoritarianism is protecting personal privacy. “Authoritarianism,” he writes, “works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.” This wisdom likely underlies much of our view toward privacy in America. Problem is, it presupposes dirt under the carpet. And while we are all sinners and we all fear the day our innermost thoughts would be laid bare before the world, as Christians we should have precious little dirt. The poor choices of which we’ve repented ought to hold little power over us.

I said as much to my seatmate, a non-Christian. He wasn’t satisfied. Neither was I, honestly. Must you have something to hide to value privacy?

Disentangling a Christian ...

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In the Beginning Is Silence

Why Christian activity should start with non-activity.

In his 1983 Templeton Prize address, Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.” This reality, of course, has bled into the 21st century, and we even see bloodstains in the church.

Christians have not forgotten God as much as set him on a shelf while we attend to more urgent business, like growing churches or preaching hope or fighting injustice. These are all righteous in their own way, of course—except when knowing and loving God becomes an afterthought or a means to an end.

This is not a new temptation. Paul talked about it in relation to the love of neighbor. But it applies even more to our love of God: We might speak in miraculous tongues or with prophetic truth to power, we might have the faith to move the culture, we might sacrificially serve the poorest of the poor—but if we don’t love God, it is nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–4). Why did Paul bring this up if the Christians of his day weren’t so tempted?

Fall is the activity season. As the school year gets underway, families put all sorts of plans and routines in play. Churches gear up their manifold programs. And this being an election year, activists set campaigns into motion. It’s our time of year.

It’s long been recognized that a distinctive feature of American Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is our activism. Certainly, there is the activism of deeds—opening food pantries, starting Bible studies, joining political interest groups. But words are deeds as well, and as such, we ...

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Heaven Shines, But Who Cares?

The Bible's blueprint for paradise lowers the awe-inspiring to the everyday.

What does heaven look like? What are we meant to understand about this coming kingdom from the descriptions in the Bible?
Reading about heaven in the Bible can be confusing—so confusing that we are tempted to look elsewhere to firm up our ideas on the afterlife. The popularity of books like 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is for Real attest to our desire for reassurance that heaven is a reality since the accounts we read in Scripture seem so unreal. Will its building materials really be the stuff of our greediest imaginings—gold, silver, and precious stones?

It’s hard to determine what the human authors of Scripture want us to know is true about heaven. It’s an even bigger challenge to grasp what the mentions of mansions, multitudes, gates, and angels in the kingdom of heaven mean for us now.

I am a competitive game player. A few years ago at a party, the host brought out Pictionary for the evening’s entertainment. Ready to wow the room with my skills, I glanced at the word on my card: difficult. I had played Pictionary for years and had never had a word that hard. My mind went blank.

Nothing seemed to rhyme with it or illustrate it. The timer ran out, and in utter frustration I said, “How ironic that my word was difficult!” Holding up the card as proof, I realized I had accidentally drawn not a card for game play but the instruction card listing each of the categories for different words. Difficult, indeed. I spent 60 seconds trying to illustrate an abstract idea, trying to draw the undrawable.

My dilemma made me think of the Book of Revelation. John, in describing the new heaven and the new earth, is playing the hardest round of Pictionary known to man—he is called upon to describe ...

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The State of the Puerto Rican Church, One Year After Maria

The hurricane that destroyed the island has completely shaken its approach to ministry.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published in the September 2018 print edition of CT. On August 9, the Puerto Rican government released a report estimating the number of deaths in the country rose by at least 1,400 after Hurricane Maria, but noted that the official death toll attributable to the storm remained at 64.

Puerto Rico is a tropical paradise—home to 3.5 million American citizens, an impressive mountain range, white sand beaches, and the only tropical rainforest in the United States.

It is beautiful, and it is in disarray.

From 2000 to 2017, the island suffered one financial blow after another: Congressional tax grants expired, the pharmaceutical industry moved overseas, the US housing bubble collapsed, and Puerto Rico was left with a mammoth debt and no means to repay it.

Then Hurricane Maria came.

The devastation that the almost–category 5 monster brought to the island is unimaginable. The system crisscrossed from southeast to northwest, flattening everything in its path. The aftermath of the event—with the months-long loss of electrical power, communications, and water supply, as well as destroyed roads and closed ports—claimed at least 64 lives (as per the government official figures) and as many as 4,600 (as per a Harvard University study), the majority of them senior citizens with medical conditions living in the inaccessible mountain ranges.

And that’s just the physical impact. The church in Puerto Rico and the spiritual lives of its citizens have not been spared of all of this pain and desolation, but their story is still one of grace and love overcoming loss and suffering.

During those first few days, we pastors were in shock. What would happen with ...

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Have Mercy as God Has Mercy

Mercy is what holiness looks like in the lives of God's children.

I hate to admit it, but vindictiveness comes easily to me. Recently, I was online for less than two minutes before I found myself relishing an opponent getting publicly mocked. He had said something particularly and typically foolish, so he surely deserved it. Right when I was going to pile on, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Plain came to mind: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

It’s often passed over, but it’s an arresting thought. In form, it appears as a gloss of one of the most important commands in the Old Testament: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). The Lord, the Holy One, had saved Israel and set them apart from the nations to be his holy people (Ex. 19:4–6). They had been sanctified to reflect God’s holiness to the nations in their holy worship, conduct, and character.

Jesus teaches his disciples that living as “children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35) means loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, lending without expectation of return, and blessing those who curse us; this will set us apart. Put another way, mercy is what holiness looks like in the lives of God’s children.

Many of us don’t associate God’s holiness with his mercy. Holiness as purity, judgment, and wrath? Sure. God’s holiness is the distinctive glory, power, and majesty of his incorruptible life. But witness God’s self-testimony to Israel in Hosea (11:9):

I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.

The Lord reveals himself as the Holy One precisely in his compassion ...

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