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The Hidden Blessing of Infertility

Our inability to have kids turned into an ability to do so much else.

There's a certain narrative that dominates most stories of infertility. Their sense of overwhelming anguish and loss, regardless of outcome, contrasts so drastically from my own experience that sometimes I have to remind myself that I, too, have a story of infertility.

That term, infertile, may be medically and technically appropriate, but it's not a word I would use to describe my life. A friend recently asked my advice for someone struggling with being infertile. "I'm not sure," I told her, "because I don't really struggle with it at all."

Even though God has not fulfilled my longtime desire to have children, he has filled my life with so many other gifts that my greatest struggle has been to be a faithful steward of so much abundance.

I was 26 years old when my husband and I threw away the birth control.

But the babies didn't come.

When I was diagnosed with endometriosis—likely the culprit in my inability to conceive—I had corrective surgery. My doctor said I would be pregnant within six months.

Still the babies didn't come.

My husband and I decided that further procedures were off the table. Although we are Baptists, we believe in the principles set forth in the Catholic Church's Donum Vitae ("The Gift of Life"), which distinguishes between medical interventions that assist the marital union in achieving pregnancy and interventions that replace the procreative marital act. We agree with the distinction made by some Christian ethicists and theologians between procreation and reproduction: While reproduction can be achieved any number of ways, procreation takes place in the mystery of two bodies becoming one flesh and producing another ...

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Everything's Turning Up Apocalypse

But in some less-than-obvious ways.

If you, like me, scroll down the list of recent pieces in this column and feel like (save for Wishbone) there's a lot of hellfire and end-of-the-world cropping up in my titles—well, you're right. I get emails at least weekly about upcoming movies that deal with the Rapture or the tribulation or other end-of-the-world judgments (just got another today, in fact), and of course there's the Nic Cage Left Behind reboot in two months.

Actually, I haven't seen much of anything made recently that isn't about the apocalypse: an impending one, or the world right after one. Last week, I saw Snowpiercer, which is about a train-bound post-apocalyptic dystopia. I also saw the upcoming The Congress, a bizarre film about a futuristic dystopia in which people ignore their circumstances by drugging up, in which reality has been replaced by something else entirely, in which people have brought their own apocalypse down on their own heads.

Of course, I'm watching The Leftovers, which has already experienced its apocalypse or is waiting for it, depending on how you read it. And there's tons more on TV and the movies: especially obvious ones, like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games. I wrote about a bunch last summer. Everyone thinks of these as apocalyptic.

But there are less obvious ones, too.

Apocalyptic stories are not just ones in which a catastrophe brings the world to an end. They're more than that. In apocalyptic literature, one way of life is ending, but another one is beginning. The stories pull back the veil on what "seems" real to show what's going on underneath. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature for just that reason. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. ...

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Review: Lucy

Strong women at movies: still the missing link.

mpaa rating:R (For strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality.)Genre:Science FictionDirected By: Luc Besson Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Analeigh Tipton, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi Theatre Release:July 25, 2014 by Universal Pictures

This could have been the summer of strong women at the box office. Rita (Emily Blunt) in Edge of Tomorrow kicked things off in what Entertainment Weeklycalled "the most feminist summer action flick in years"; Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning secured the title card on Maleficent; Melissa McCarthy headlined another McCarthy vehicle in Tammy; even Dwayne Johnson fought beside an Amazonian arrow-sniper in Hercules.

And Lucy could have been a female-driven sci-fi action movie, since it revolves around Scarlett Johansson, an actress who at least knows her way around a martial arts class. But it turns out Lucy, despite the promise of the trailers, is not a movie about a woman drawn into a sci-fi scenario of superhuman enhancement. It's a movie about tapping the full potential of humanism through drugs in which writer and director Luc Besson uses Johansson as a stand-in for a characterless stage in human evolution.

Of course, Lucy is not the only disappointment on this summer's—or any year's—slate of ostensibly female-driven movies. Edge of Tomorrow was a surprise because it's billed as a Tom Cruise vehicle and allows Blunt to more than hold her own. But Lucy is particularly disappointing because the trailers suggest a journey by the title character toward controlling her own circumstances, while the movie actually portrays a woman who is the puppet of external forces.

"I'm colonizing my own brain," she declares at one point, but Lucy is not actually making any choices; the drugs—or evolution, according to the heavy-handed movie logic—are clearly in control.

Besson's previous, better work includes examples of iconic action (The Transporter), sci-fi (The ...

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Learning How to Fail: An Interview with J.R. Briggs

People who do ministry are going to fail. The question is: "What are you going to do about it?"

J.R., what made you want to write a book about a topic nobody likes to talk about: failure?

The book came out of a series of events we've hosted called Epic Fail Pastors' Conferences. In these events we attempt to provide and facilitate a safe space for pastors to process the dangerous message of failure. What we found is that pastors desperately longed for these spaces. We saw God show up in undeniable ways to bring healing and relationships for broken and lonely pastors. Writing about failure was a way to faithfully steward these opportunities we're finding.

You write a bit about struggles you faced in seminary and as a Christian leader. What unique problems with failure do Christian leaders face that others may not?

First off, every single person experiences failure and wrestles at some level with how to respond to it appropriately. This is accentuated in our American culture that worships at the altar of success – and the North American Church culture certainly isn't immune to this.

But with Christian leaders, it can be especially difficult to be perceived as professional Christians who are paid to love Jesus. Many churches, consciously or subconsciously, can place burdensome expectations on their pastors, demanding them to fulfill a role that is more often defined by the business world than from the gospel. Many churches can come to expect their pastors to be super-pastors who are never discouraged, rarely sin and who lead with perfection, confidence and inspiring charisma.

In your chapter on the burden of success, you list a couple pages of startling statistics about pastors and the toll ministry takes on them. I'm a stats guy, so I'm interested, which stats troubled you the most and ...

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The Hidden Blessing of Infertility

Our inability to have kids turned into an ability to do so much else.

There's a certain narrative that dominates most stories of infertility. Their sense of overwhelming anguish and loss, regardless of outcome, contrasts so drastically from my own experience that sometimes I have to remind myself that I, too, have a story of infertility.

That term, infertile, may be medically and technically appropriate, but it's not a word I would use to describe my life. A friend recently asked my advice for someone struggling with being infertile. "I'm not sure," I told her, "because I don't really struggle with it at all."

Even though God has not fulfilled my longtime desire to have children, he has filled my life with so many other gifts that my greatest struggle has been to be a faithful steward of so much abundance.

I was 26 years old when my husband and I threw away the birth control.

But the babies didn't come.

When I was diagnosed with endometriosis—likely the culprit in my inability to conceive—I had corrective surgery. My doctor said I would be pregnant within six months.

Still the babies didn't come.

My husband and I decided that further procedures were off the table. Although we are Baptists, we believe in the principles set forth in the Catholic Church's Donum Vitae ("The Gift of Life"), which distinguishes between medical interventions that assist the marital union in achieving pregnancy and interventions that replace the procreative marital act. We agree with the distinction made by some Christian ethicists and theologians between procreation and reproduction: While reproduction can be achieved any number of ways, procreation takes place in the mystery of two bodies becoming one flesh and producing another ...

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Morning Roundup 7/29/14

Seminary Debt; Confusing Emails; Grand Narrative

Is Seminary Debt Killing the Clergy?Leadership Journal

The answer to the question is yes.

I am intrigued, however, by one thing. When seminary students have their schooling paid for (and have no skin in the game), they are often of a lower quality. Yet, when they have to pay themselves, they are often better quality but end up in huge debt.

I'm not sure I have an answer.

How to Answer Your Most Confusing EmailsAlex Cavoulacos

This is remarkably helpful to me... and I plan to start using this right away.

12 Books that Showcase the Grand Narrative of ScriptureTrevin Wax

Very helpful list from Trevin.

Daniel Montgomery is the founder and Lead Pastor of Sojourn Community Church. Daniel is also the co-founder of the Sojourn Network. In this clip, we talk about angry Calvinists. Don't forget to join me every Tuesday at 3:00 PM Eastern for The Exchange.

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The Church Deserves Better than Ugly Decorations

Neither Grannys castoffs nor HGTV trends belong in church buildings.

1987 called. It wants its tissue box cover back. You know the one, made by hand in colonial blue and dusty rose calico.

Author David Murrow appears to have found the final resting place of this artifact in the churches he's visited. He excerpted a section from his book, How Women Help Men Find God, in a blog post entitled "Does Your Church Look Like A Beauty Parlor?", describing the country-folksy décor in some small and mid-sized church buildings:

As I speak in churches, I notice the beauty salon motif everywhere. Quilted banners and silk flower arrangements adorn church lobbies. More quilts, banners, and ribbons cover the sanctuary walls, complemented with fresh flowers on the altar, a lace doily on the Communion table, and boxes of Kleenex under every pew.

I've never been inside a beauty salon like that, but I have seen enough churches adorned with the discards from fading home decorating trends to picture the dated décor in women's bathrooms, lobbies, and sanctuary spaces of various older churches.

Murrow contends that girly décor in a church building is off-putting to men. Well, it's off-putting to many women, too.

In the Old Testament, the tabernacle, then the temple, were entirely other and completely different than the homes of his people. That is to say, no one would bring in the ancient equivalent of a toilet paper cover or wall-hanging to adorn such a holy place.

God himself prescribed the design of these buildings to show his people what he was like and how they could worship him. These holy sanctuaries were "a copy and shadow of what is in heaven" (Heb. 8:5), serving as the spiritual home for his people until in the fullness of time, Jesus ...

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Three Views: Would Jesus Hang Out in a Strip Club?

Testing the boundaries of outreach evangelism.

Yes, to Heal the Abused

Dawn Herzog Jewell

An out-of-the-way topless bar and club off the highway was a regular Thursday evening destination for Anne Polencheck and her outreach partner. Every two weeks the women faithfully toted gift bags of handmade cards, homemade cookies, earrings, and lotion to the bar and club. With a word of kindness, a prayer, or a hug, they hoped to share Christ's compassion with women who worked there.

Polencheck, a former software engineer, leads New Name, a ministry to strip clubs, bars, massage parlors, and so-called spas in the western suburbs of Chicago. Volunteers pray together and regularly visit venues. It's a slow-going ministry that emulates Jesus leaving the safety of the fold to seek the one lost sheep. Often the workers are busy with customers or simply aren't interested in chatting.

One week, Polencheck met Debbie, a 20-something who recognized the "church ladies" from their previous visits. "I'm seven months pregnant. I need a new job," she said. After their visit, Debbie stepped outside and prayed: "God, if you're real, can you help me?"

When Polencheck and her ministry partner returned one week later, they handed Debbie a flier for Refuge for Women, a Kentucky residential program for those choosing to leave sexual exploitation. It usually had a wait list, but it had one opening.

Debbie's plea came after years of despair. Her childhood was marked by sexual abuse that started when she was 5. At age 9, Debbie was placed in foster care after she showed up at school black and blue from violent beatings. Twenty times, she was shuffled in and out of foster homes in part due to her anger-driven rebellion.

The wounded ...

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News: Introducing the Bible! Now with Less!

Delete the chapter and verse numbers. Kill all the notes. Make it one column. Make a million bucks.

If you watch Adam Lewis Greene's Kickstarter campaign page for more than a couple of seconds, you can see the number of pledges pop higher. With two days left, Greene's goal of raising $37,000 to print a Bible "designed and crafted for reading, separated into four elegant volumes, and free of all numbers and notes" has been met several times over.

In fact, it just surpassed $1 million.

Greene's project, named Bibliotheca, is a (mostly) American Standard Version Bible (with the "thees" and "thous" replaced). But what's catching attention is the layout. Unlike most Bibles printed since Gutenberg, Greene's version has one column, wide margins, a large typeface, and no notes or chapter marks.

The design choices are meant to enhance the reading experience, according to Mark Bertrand, author at the Bible Design Blog. Orders for Greene's project close on Sunday, July 27, almost a month after Crossway released a similar-looking English Standard Version (ESV) Reader's Bible. Like Bibliotheca, the Reader's Bible is meant to be read like a story, with one column and missing chapter and verse notations. Biblica, which publishes the New International Version, released a similar project, The Books of the Bible, in 2007 and 2011.

"Traditionally, reference Bibles look like dictionaries that you look things up in," Bertrand said. "Reader-friendly Bibles are more like novels. I think what is happening is that we're lamenting that people don't read their Bibles enough, and now we've realized the design of Bibles has an influence on that."

"Reader-friendly" Bibles have been tried before, but never caught on, he said. (The notable ...

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News: Sorry 666: Churches Fear 990 More

How more ministries going digital could unwittingly aid atheists targeting church tax breaks.

Critics of churches' favorable tax treatment gained ammunition from a recent investigation by National Public Radio, which questioned why the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has granted church status to 22 of America's 30 largest television ministries.

Only two are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But such filings can be legitimate, said president Dan Busby. "The advent of new technologies used by churches to disseminate their message has only served to make distinctions between church and parachurch organizations more complex."

Many churches leverage today's technology so those beyond their walls can participate. But Christian legal experts are concerned that blurred lines between "church" and "ministry" will eventually spur the IRS to reexamine what constitutes a church. (The agency last stripped a nonprofit of church status in 2004, largely because the broadcasting- and publishing-focused group mostly ceased to gather its followers in a physical space.)

In late 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS, arguing that churches should be subject to the same Form 990 paperwork as nonprofits are. A Wisconsin federal court decided that the atheist group had legal standing to proceed.

If the foundation prevails, church formation may be stifled, said Chicago attorney Rich Baker. Few of the hundreds of churches he has represented have the financial resources to complete registration forms and audited financial statements.

"Each signals a greater degree of oversight," said Baker. "If they make churches file as charitable entities, it would have major repercussions."

A federal judge in Kentucky recently dismissed ...

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Interview: Meet the Failed Pastor Who Ministers to Other Failed Pastors

J. R. Briggs sympathizes with church leaders who don't live up to expectations.

As a dynamic young preacher at a large church, J. R. Briggs felt God calling him to start a church plant. Gradually, the church grew, but its growth eventually stalled out. Disappointment led him to found the Epic Fail Pastors Conference—"a gathering for pastors and leaders seeking to understand how God works through failure"—and to write Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (InterVarsity Press). Briggs spoke with Drew Dyck, managing editor of Leadership Journal, about redefining the notion of ministry success.

What attracted you to a topic that most people would rather avoid?

It started with attending pastors' conferences. They featured well-known pastors of large churches, but average pastors were never invited to share their experiences. These events were all about success and getting results. I was in the middle of a painful season of ministry. I needed something that wouldn't discourage me or add to my spiritual vertigo. I wanted to talk honestly. I needed an AA meeting for pastors, but there was no such thing.

Many pastors, ex-pastors, and Christian leaders were desperate for that type of forum. I wasn't trying to create a conference. I simply longed for a space where no one was scared by the shortcomings of other sinners, even if those sinners were also ministry leaders.

Do our issues with failure come from faulty notions of success?

I don't like using the word success when talking about ministry. I'd much rather use words like health, faithfulness, and obedience. Our culture is obsessed with success, and the church is not immune. Pastors are inundated with temptations to chase the wrong things. We need to take a hard look at how we define ...

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What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Birth Control'

Meaningful debate requires us to define the terms of discussion.

Widespread acceptance in our culture of all forms of birth control, including abortion, makes it harder for the Christian to discern if, when, and how to incorporate such practices into one's own life, as well as what place personal convictions have in community and in public policy.

I suspect one of the greatest obstacles to constructive dialogue on the questions about birth control raised by the Hobby Lobby case is the imprecision of the terms being discussed. Perhaps, then, the first step toward finding agreement—or at least correctly identifying at the points on which we can agree to disagree—is to employ common definitions.

The debate around the Hobby Lobby case, birth control methods, and insurance coverage illuminates not only how deeply divided Christians are on these matters but also how ill-defined the central questions are. Questions of conscience are matters for all believers to respect in each other even amidst disagreement. If Christians cannot engage with each other with clarity, respect, and good faith on difficult questions, how will we do so with those outside the church?

In an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise muddled war of words, here are some of the questions central to this conversation. They're not as simple as we might assume.

How does the medical community define pregnancy?

At the heart of the debate is the question about whether or not certain birth control methods prevent pregnancy or terminate pregnancy. Part of the problem in answering even this basic question is that even the term pregnancy is not agreed upon universally and has undergone numerous changes, due less to scientific debates than semantic ones. While the American College of Obstetricians and ...

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News: New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs

(UPDATED) But Obama won't withdraw memo on religious discrimination.

An executive order President Obama signed Monday prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in federal hiring may not immediately affect many religious organizations, but leaders are still raising their eyebrows.

The executive order amends a 1965 order prohibiting some forms of discrimination by federal contractors. The old text forbade contractors from discriminating "against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Obama's revision adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" between "sex" and "national origin."

Many religious organizations, such as World Vision, World Relief, and Catholic Charities partner with the federal government, but often receive grants, not contracts, so are not affected by the order, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Religious organizations with federal grants are currently protected: A 2007 religious exemption memo from the federal attorney general's office says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is reasonably construed" to exempt World Vision (and other religious organizations that administer federal funds through social services programs) from religious nondiscrimination requirements on other federal grantees.

The executive order also lets stand a George W. Bush-era provision allowing religious contractors to hire employees "of a particular religion," said Thomas Berg, a professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.).

"Several federal courts have held that this language, incorporated from elsewhere in antidiscrimination law, allows religious organizations ...

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