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How Churches Change the Equation for Life After Prison

One of the hardest days of incarceration may be the day it ends. The church can be there to make a difference.

Two blocks from the North Carolina Capitol, a dozen women are sitting on couches in a circle. Unmarked, with dark windows and fluorescent lights overhead, the upstairs room of Raleigh’s First Presbyterian Church smells musty and damp. Alice Noell’s Job Start program is in session, and the women are here to make sense of their lives.

The women currently live in the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, which they leave five days a week to attend Noell’s 15-week course. Noell—an energetic and passionate teacher—isn’t speaking right now. Instead, she’s invited one of her former students to address a captive audience.

All of the women, equal numbers black and white, lean in as Miea Walker walks in, waves, and finds the recliner in the center of the circle. Walker, 45, was released from prison in March 2012, a date still fresh enough for her to drop the names of wardens and guards.

“I know what it feels like,” she says. “You feel like you can’t breathe. You’re in a box all day long.”

During her own nine-year sentence for embezzlement, Walker received her bachelor’s degree and two associate’s degrees. Beyond the course load, the hardest work was moving past the depression she believes was brought on by strained family relationships and a missing relationship with God.

She scans the room, makes eye contact with each woman, takes a breath, and begins: “Broken people can’t serve broken people.”

Immediately, the women reach for their pens and begin transcribing her words in their notebooks.

An Atypical Story

Walker’s story has many elements in common with the stories of the 600,000 Americans who are imprisoned annually. She’s ...

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We Need More Politics on Social Media, Not Less

How our feeds feed popular opinion.

I hesitated to sign up for a Twitter account years ago, knowing I didn’t need anything else to distract or disconnect me from my real-life relationships. These common stigmas of social media began to fade when someone pointed out to me: “An important conversation is happening and will continue to happen whether you are there or not.”

I quickly learned that she was right. On Twitter, I tapped into new perspectives. I found myself in communication overload, following significant conversations on politics, race, theology, and art. Jon Stewart once said that “the Internet is just a world passing around notes in the classroom.” Except this time, the messages don’t just come from our friends and neighbors, but also world leaders, celebrities, experts, and influencers. Surrounded by so many voices, how could any one of us make a difference? What do I possibly have to offer to these conversations? And given the potential for controversy, wouldn’t it be easier not to try?

A few years of tweeting, retweeting, and replying later, I still find myself scrutinizing and questioning my participation in social media. I’m no expert, and I worry whether it’s actually wise to speak out on every important issue. Plus, we all know how social media can fuel divides, and I’m busy enough without trying to keep up with every highly debated blog post, Internet meme, or viral hashtag.

I know I am not alone. That approach has been an easy default for many people, logging on to keep up with news and updates and to share the occasional lighthearted picture and meme. Well, until now. The presidential election season has caused people to be more vocal than normal. Even the quietest lurkers have written ...

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Moms, Go on with Your Bad Self

In a culture that expects perfection, sometimes failed moms are just doing their best.

My friend Ellen posted a status update on Facebook: “For some reason, Pinterest thinks I’m interested in lists of things I should do to be a super-duper mom who never bruises her children’s fragile egos and aims to make every moment of their days 1,000 percent positive and enlightening.

“Pinterest,” she wrote, “is mistaken.”

The recently released comedy Bad Moms hurls the “Pinterest-perfect mommy myth” against the wall, shattering it like a doe-eyed Precious Moments figurine. Some reviewers have complained that the movie glorifies bad moms and bad parenting, and the Christian review site Movieguide even started an online petition against Bad Moms, saying it insults mothers and is “dangerous” because of “excessive cussing by mom’s [sic], drunkenness, sexual perversion, and disregard of parental responsibilities and safety.” (This begs at least one question: Would excessive cussing by dads be more palatable?)

While there is no arguing that Bad Moms is a raunchy romp, I respectfully disagree with Movieguide’s claim that the movie insults mothers. I believe it attempts to do just the opposite. It both portrays the many ways that committed mothers are overworked and overwhelmed and affirms the value of what is often considered “women’s work,” including parenting, community involvement, and domestic responsibilities.

There’s redemption in Bad Moms, too. We witness mothers deeply loving their children, forming new friendships, and offering true compassion and forgiveness. A character who—at the start of the movie—rarely gives her son support or attention, is shown near the end handing him a packed lunch ...

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The Louisiana Flooding, Part 3: On The Ground With Relief Agencies And How You Can Get Involved

More on what's happening and how you can help.

Ed: What is your organization doing right now to help those impacted by the flooding in Louisiana?

Tim Haas, Manager of U.S. Disaster Relief, Samaritan’s Purse: Samaritan’s Purse is leading volunteer teams to mud-out homes that have been flooded in this deadly event. That work includes taking out furniture, flooring, sheetrock, soaked insulation, so that the house can eventually dry out. Currently, we have two base locations of operation: one in Baton Rouge, the other in Lafayette. Our sites are designed to work 100 or more volunteers a day per site. We will be working for several weeks, even months from now to continue to give relief assistance to homeowners.

Kevin Watterson, Response Director, ReachGlobal (EFCA): We are currently gutting damaged homes, gutting and cleaning up a church in order to host volunteer groups, and collecting needed items to help families rebuild their homes when gutting is complete. We are mobilizing local churches in the area to serve with us until we get more volunteer teams from throughout the country.

Gary Fairchild, Director of Global Response, CAMA (the relief and development arm of the U.S. Alliance): CAMA has partnered with the Alliance Southern District to coordinate and assist in recovery efforts. Two small Alliance church plants are located in the disaster area: Burning Heart Fellowship in Greenwell Springs (near Baton Rouge) and New Hope Community Church in Gretna (just outside New Orleans). Both buildings were spared, but more than half of the folks they know in their communities experienced some sort of flooding.

Ed: What is the philosophy of disaster relief within your organization, and how long have you been engaging in relief efforts?

Haas: Samaritan’s Purse has been ...

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The Hollars

What can you do with your regrets?

John Krasinski (of The Office) directed and stars in The Hollars, which belongs to a genre I rather like: the small family comedy about the city kid who comes home when something happens to a family member, and then learns some Life Lessons. (Think Garden State.)

Some of these are pretty awful—This Is Where I Leave You springs to mind. They can be patronizing (“look at the cute quaint home folk!”) or just dumb (“let's revisit everything we did in high school, for no reason!). But American culture is mobile and transient, obsessed with self-discovery and reinvention, and so the feeling of returning home is a familiar one.

In The Hollars, Krasinski plays a graphic novelist named John, who lives in New York City with his very pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick). His mother Sally (Margo Martindale) ends up in the hospital in Ohio, and he flies home, where his hapless brother Ron (Sharito Copley) and worried father Don (Richard Jenkins) are by her side. Hijinks ensue, for reasons of history. Ron is still in love with his ex-wife, whom he divorced, and who is now seriously involved with a kindly youth pastor (Josh Groban). Meanwhile, the nurse tending to Sally in the hospital turns out to be Jason (Charlie Day), who married John's high school flame (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Sally, faced with life-threatening brain surgery, is frankly re-evaluating her choices, while Ron is trying to hold on to the family business.

The Hollars is a film about regret, but not in the way you'd think. Typically, Hollywood romances about regret wind up urging audiences to follow their hearts. Go after the one that got away! Correct the mistakes of your past before it's too late! Live as if you'll die tomorrow! ...

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Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin

Imagine a church that considers its surrounding neighbors and the future majority of our country in developing practices of worship.

How will our future worship witness to the God of all nations? Imagine the year is 2025 and you are congregating in your church. Your mind and heart are focused on the Lord and His invitation to make disciples of the nations. Close your eyes and take a minute now to imagine it (yes, I do mean now). Did your future reflect the reality of a younger, browner, unchurched majority? Were the images you saw the multiethnic, multiclass church singing in many styles and praying in many languages? Be honest.

In the U.S., we are well on our way to seeing no ethnic majority projected for the 2050 census. The latest census numbers show a population younger than 5 years old stood at 49.9% minority in 2012, and among those under 1 year of age, the minority had become the majority*. In only two years, 2018, minorities will become the majority among children.

This has huge implications for children’s ministry, youth ministry, family ministry, and future leaders of the Church. We have an opportunity to witness to the kingdom through how we form our worship services. We need to be reconciled to God’s vision of the kingdom in our worship practices. I’m not speaking merely of musical style or language, but of content and form of our entire services, including music, prayer, sermon, table, and benediction (sending). We continue to hold onto practices of worship that do not engage the diverse reality of potential future leaders of the Church.

Even in our conversations about urban worship or diverse worship, we seem to be locked into a conversation that does not include the global reality of our urban centers with all of their immigrant populations and multifaith backgrounds. Multiethnic conferences continue to discuss the importance ...

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The Louisiana Flooding: On The Ground With Relief Agencies And Why Christians Are Uniquely Suited To Help

Why Christians are uniquely suited to help in times of disaster.

Ed: Why are Christians uniquely suited to help those impacted by the flooding?

Ross Johnson, Director of Disaster Response, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod: As Christians and congregations reach out, we're able to take care of spiritual and physical needs. FEMA and other organizations are very helpful with temporal needs, but they don’t offer spiritual care like local churches can. Congregations make a great hub of mercy and human care in their community. No one knows there community better than the local church or pastor, especially when a disaster happens and the majority of responders are from the outside, not always knowing the community’s history or culture.

Congregations were there before the tragedy and hopefully will be there for decades after the tragedy. After the first few weeks of the disaster, the congregation remains a hub of ministry, mercy, and outreach for the long term.

And it’s only the Church that has the voice of Christ which brings the peace that surpasses all understanding, whether it is to Christians or non-Christians. We have a phrase that we say: “Proclaiming the gospel even in the wake of a disaster."

Whatever opportunity that we have, we use it to share the good news for the hope that lies within. Our hope is not found in the things of this world that break and are destroyed, but rather, it's in the spiritual peace with God. I think the greatest disaster that one could go through is to die outside of the one true Christian faith.

David Melber, Vice President, Send Relief (North American Mission Board): In addition to the assessments, mud-outs, and feeding, we have a lot of chaplains here who will be ultimately ministering to the people who have lost everything they ...

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What 'No Man's Sky' and C. S. Lewis Tell Us About the Spirit of Our Age

The recent hit sci-fi video game promises an infinite galaxy to explore. Is that enough?

One wintry Minnesota morning when I was nine or ten, in the cold, dark hours before the sun would peek over the snowy woods and fields to the east of our farm, my mother shook me awake and asked me to go outside with her. I followed her downstairs, where she put on her old green parka and I, blinkingly, fumbled into my downy coat and snowpants. We went outside and she pointed to the night sky. At once I was filled with wonder and fear.

The aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, stretched and writhed in the sky above like a shimmering emerald snake wrapped around the world. As my mother walked to the barn, a milk pail dangling in her hand, I cowered beside her while stealing glances at the sky. As she went about her chores in the barnyard, I hid inside a doorway and peered upwards. For the first time in my life, I became aware of something utterly, even incomprehensibly, beyond myself. In that moment, I became like the stargazers of the Middle Ages, who looked on the night sky and saw not mere radiation and configurations of gas particles but the gates of heaven itself.

Around the same time, on the other side of the planet, the night sky of the Australian outback captured the imagination of another youth. Sean Murray, an Irishman whose family transplanted to the outback during his childhood, spent his evenings spellbound by the vast, twinkling vision of the Milky Way galaxy that blanketed the night sky. Unobscured by the light pollution of cities, Murray’s sky glittered and glistened in luminous brilliance. Murray grew up to be a programmer and video game developer. He worked on a variety of different projects and eventually launched a small, independent game studio called Hello Games. Through it all he never gave up on ...

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A Lament for Louisiana After the Floods

As I grieve the tragedy in my home state, Ive found solace in a surprising place.

I was born and raised in southern Louisiana, and flooding was a fact of life in our low-slung neighborhood. A summer cloudburst could put us on the five o’clock news in New Orleans, and we’d see our neighbors swimming in the drainage ditches and floating in pirogues down the street. Because I was a kid, this was more exciting than dangerous. School would be cancelled, and my parents would make daiquiris. I used to dream of waking up underwater, the house rocking gently, the window covered in fishing net. Those dreams were never unpleasant.

Now I’m grown with my own kids, and I live 1,000 miles away in Northern Michigan. I watched this summer’s historic flood unfold on my laptop screen. But this wasn’t just a routine summer storm in a neighborhood prone to filling up like a bowl. This was a freak weather event called a monsoon depression, and it dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation across the south of my home state, killing at least 13 and displacing tens of thousands. I watched in horror as one of my closest friends posted video updates to Facebook. Mild concerns about whether the canal behind her house would hold quickly became frantic expressions of disbelief as the water filled her house and she boarded a truck driven by the National Guard.

“Just pray, y’all,” she signed off, her voice shaking. So I, dry and safe in my living room up north, lit my candles and prayed.

I didn’t leave Louisiana for any significant amount of time until I was well into adulthood. Where I come from, you grow up to live around the corner from your momma, but my momma died when I was 14. At 26, I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school. I might as well have moved to the moon.

Those first ...

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The Louisiana Flooding: On The Ground With Relief Agencies And How You Can Get Involved

What's happening and how you can help.

Ed: How is your organization responding to the disaster in Louisiana right now?

Ross Johnson, Director of Disaster Response, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod:

Right now we're partnering with Lutheran congregations across Louisiana, particularly in Baton Rouge.

The first phase of our disaster response is to partner with local congregations that are going to be doing muck-out and dealing with immediate needs of people who have been affected by the flooding.

We're anticipating the first eight to ten weeks we're going to be bringing volunteer teams in. We already have volunteers who going to do the muck-out, tearing out the flooring and drywall. We're also giving out flood buckets and emergencies supplies. We have elders at our churches and congregational pastors who are doing spiritual care during the immediate phase.

We like to blend hands-on help along with spiritual care. I think that's one thing that makes a church-based response slightly different than government-based responses is we don't only help out with temporal needs, but we also help out with spiritual needs.

We find that oftentimes when somebody has gone through a traumatic event in their life and has enormous economic loss or has been displaced, that they also need spiritual care. We have elders and spiritual care leaders within our congregation that are visiting as well as mucking-out homes.

David Melber, Vice President, Send Relief (North American Mission Board):

Right now we are doing a lot of assessing. The expanse of the flooding has impacted somewhere near 100,000 homes, and the estimates are running right now between 250,000 and 350,000 people. It is a disaster of epic proportions in the fact that so many of the people who had their homes ...

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The Pressure Of The Pastorate

In order to truly flourish, pastors need authentic and safe friendships.

Wow. I spoke with another friend and megachurch pastor who was removed from his church last month. As a leadership coach and pastor to pastors, it breaks my heart and causes me to lose sleep every time. What happened? Nothing really. Life. The gravitational pull. Pressure. Pride. That’s what happened.

At the end of the day, the ministry model so common in our day tends to lend itself for this to happen. One thing is sure...this is us, except by the grace of God. This is us, if we’re not careful. This is some of us if we keep going the way we’re going. To finish well, we will need to fight against the gravitational pull, and beat our bodies into submission.

This is our call: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).

The #1 mistake I see pastors make is living in isolation. We don’t mean to, but we just get busy, overcommitted, overextended, exhausted, and sometimes even numb. After a long week of ministry, many of us just want to go home and binge on Netflix or self-medicate in some other way.

What’s missing in the lives of many megachurch pastors I know is genuine friendship, camaraderie, koinonia, and intimacy. We are missing relationships that are FOR us and WITH us, not just BEHIND us or UNDER us.

Jesus is our greatest example. Why did He pick the 12 apostles? Mark 3:14 tells us: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach…”

Even Jesus knew He needed people with Him and for Him. What do pastors really need? If there was one value I would list above all others it’s this: friends. Not acquaintances, ...

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