The Road You're On

“Jim and I have been called America’s Spiritual Odd Couple. I thought about that. Why are we an odd couple? We’re never at odds. We’re not arguing. We may be different but we’re not arguing. I’d like to help people stop throwing down the gauntlet on these issues. When someone throws down the gauntlet, I usually just pick it up and throw it in the trash. I’m not interested in fighting. What we hope to show people is that it  makes your life a lot more interesting when you embrace the differences of various people.”  Matt Casper

Gayle Trotter: I’m speaking with Jim Henderson and Matt Casper about their new book, Saving Casper: A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Caring Versus Scaring Evangelism. Jim and Matt, thank you for joining me.  Jim, you and Matt go off on this adventure together to do research in the belly of the beast for an atheist – in the church – to find out exactly what churches are projecting that they might not even know that they’re projecting.

GT:     Jim, you are from a Christian background and you would call yourself a believer. What do you mean in your title of “caring versus scaring evangelism?”

Jim Henderson: That idea grew out of my frustration as a believer and later as a pastor around the lack of practice of evangelism. I decided to start to explore and experiment with new ways of approaching it since I wasn’t running into anything that worked for the people I was pastoring. I started exploring ways that evangelism could become a spiritual practice along the lines of prayer or reading the Bible. It’s just something that we do. It takes work. It takes commitment, etc. But we don’t have the anxiety around it, and it’s virtually impossible for Christians to imagine, still today.

GT:     Matt, you describe yourself in the book as currently an atheist. Part of the book’s aim, and was to describe what an atheist sees as he approaches the doors of the church, as he walks in the doors of the church, as he sits and listens to the service, and all of the interactions in the church. You bring up church signs and your take on what church signs say currently and what you think could be a better message. Atheists are paying attention to these church signs.

Matt Casper:    They certainly are. What we see in a lot of these church signs is a lot of wasted real estate, frankly. Churches tend to use them sometimes to test their punning abilities. What you want to do is to be much more targeted in the people you’re trying to reach. It’s very much what churches have out there. The signs typically use “me” language, and it needs to be new language. Their signs are basically saying here’s what we are going to be talking about, not here’s what we want to do for you.

GT: Is that what you see?

MC: Or sometimes, you see on these signs a couple of threats – you know, repent or whatever – and that’s not going to get everybody to come in. They could probably do this a little better if they really thought more about how a local farmer’s market gets people to come there. They’re not threatening people. They’re saying, “Here’s kind of what we have to offer.” I always felt that if I went by a church sign and saw that it was offering something unique like a double espresso for every atheist that comes this Sunday. That’s something that wakes up my mind. Instead of just another church sign, it’s a very targeted and interesting message that’s relevant and unique.

GT:     Matt, you write about your parents’ faith and journeys with different denominations. You go detail your mom’s faith journey and how towards the end of her life, she was involved with the Catholic Church and ended up being drawn into the Catholic Church. You give a lot of credit to the Catholic parishioners who, when she came down with cancer, took her into their homes and took care of her and loved her and didn’t put any conditions on it. Do you see that that is a symbol of God’s unconditional love for us? Or do you see that as those people using their faith to allow them to love someone unconditionally?

JH:      That’s a great question, Matt.

MC:    I’d have to go with the latter because the first would mean that I believe there’s a God who has unconditional love for us. I think that their faith was part of what drove them to do this amazing thing. I’d like to know from them, “Do you think you would’ve done this were you not Catholic?” I think that they would probably say that question is irrelevant because we are Catholic and nothing is going to change that. But I would want to know. I’m sure we can find examples across every faith – and non-faith, too – of people who do these extraordinary things, who do make sacrifices for the wellbeing of others that they don’t even know all that well.

I think in this case, though, a lot of it was fueled by this community, this centered community and the purpose that these people had by belonging to this church drove them to do something. They’re ultimately selfless. I give credit to their faith and their belief in God’s unwavering love for helping fuel their actions.

I think that religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. I’m not in any position to judge who’s good or bad. But here we have good people who speak up and do something beyond good.

GT:     Jim, you tell a really fascinating story where you and Matt go to speak to a group of young people and you share with them about what you’re doing and what your background is. You ask them this really harsh question. You put them on the spot. You both seem upset at the response

JH:      Right. I asked them how many of them thought Matt was going to go to hell, correct?

GT:     Yes. What was the response?

JH:      Matt, you’ll have to help me remember – but I think most people raised their hand confirming it. Is that right?

MC:    I remember that very clearly.

JH:      Yes, you probably would. [Laugh] Let me just tell you. You want to know why I asked the question, Gayle?

JH:      You know enough to know that the general proposition that evangelical Christianity, which is functionally the civil religion of America over the last forty years, the central offering it is making in the marketplace is accept Jesus, you go to heaven, you don’t, you go to hell. That’s much how it’s understood, particularly without the nuances. That’s the pitch. Now I’m not commenting on if it’s valid or anything.

GT:     Right, right.

JH:      Given that, when people are raised with that, I think that they are responsible to take a stand if they’re going to be consistent with their beliefs. Regardless of how moderate evangelicals are, this is ultimately the position they’re assigned to. In fact, Catholics actually believe this, as well. I don’t understand why anyone would be reluctant to admit ownership of that and why they can’t be held accountable for giving an answer about that. In fact, what I wanted to do was create a dilemma for them. I had this other theory that, in fact, when people like each other, the rules change. When it doesn’t touch our beliefs, then it doesn’t go to the foundation. It doesn’t get past that. It’s like, “Well, I like Matt but he’s going to hell so too bad.” I want people to feel the cognitive dissonance around that so that was my purpose in asking that question.

GT:     What do you think is the end result of posing that question? Obviously for Matt, from what he wrote in the book, it was very painful to hear that. It wasn’t necessarily for his benefit. For the people in the audience, what do you think they received from that question?

JH:      I think they’re still thinking about it. I think they’re still thinking about it today because no one else has ever asked them that question.

MC:    I think that Jim said he doesn’t have to guess at their motivations. I do. They are not trying to reach Jim; they’re trying to reach me. To have the person you’re trying to connect with in a position where they’re guessing about your deeply held beliefs and your motivations is a nonstarter. What that question does is it forces transparency. Think about a different issue that’s not related to faith like racism. You can’t have a discussion about racism without first kind of being transparent about your take on it. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that people of different races are different. It’s being transparent about these kind of complicated issues that I think helps us kind of come to find some common ground. I personally don’t think it’s unfair to ask somebody about their deeply held beliefs, especially when they want to share those beliefs with you. Some of the thorniest parts of those beliefs have to come in a question. What we do with a question like that is we force them to be more transparent about their beliefs with themselves and with us, and with the people they’re trying to reach. It’s a good question because I do think it is a cup of cold water in the face. That can be a good thing for a lot of folks.

GT: A good thing?

MC:    The question should make me more uncomfortable than it does. This answer, basically that I’m being condemned to hell by a roomful of strangers and they’re the ones that are uncomfortable with that, not me.

GT:     I’ve done a lot of reading of Christopher Hitchens and other people whom I don’t think resemble you at all. They do seem to have a visceral reaction to that doctrine. I’ve never understood that because as an atheist, hell does not exist. Maybe I’m asking too personal a question, but is the reason there’s a visceral reaction to it is because the person who hears that thinks that the people wish that for them? Or is there something else going on?

MC:    Yes, that’s part of it. I think that it’s insulting. When you, as a believer, tell a nonbeliever you think they’re going to hell, it is insulting and judgmental. It’s condemning. There’s nothing positive about that statement. That’s why there is such a visceral reaction, even though we don’t believe it exists. Someone tells you to shut the hell up, it doesn’t mean you have to be quiet. It’s still insulting, though.

GT:     Yes.

MC:    Someone tells me I’m going to go to hell, but it doesn’t mean I’m going there. It’s still insulting. I’ve heard it enough times that I’m no longer insulted by it perhaps and therefore, it’s absolutely lost its effectiveness. That’s why it’s the scaring thing. Scaring is both wrong and it doesn’t work. That is why we’re trying to show people a different way of doing it. If Jim came at me with that message, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now.

GT:     Right.

JH:      I consider it lazy evangelism. I consider it for people that don’t know what else to say. It’s like I’m going to yell at you and call you a name. The interesting part is that Christians are hardly talking to non-Christians anyway and they’re particularly not talking to them about their faith. Just statistically and anecdotally, we know this is not a common thing. They’re really not out telling people they’re going to hell. When I first became a Christian, I was told to go tell people they were going to go to hell. I lost a lot of my old friends and I made new friends who thought I was being brave and told me I was being brave for doing that. That’s the chaos inside Christianity. Then we play that they’re persecuting you and shake the dust off and all that stuff. And it’s just childishness.

I understand why people disagree with me. That’s fine. Many people would say, “Matt shouldn’t be on this call with us because I should’ve confronted him.” The fact that I didn’t proves I’m not a Christian. We can disagree about that. But to not admit that what we’re doing isn’t working is, to me, not to really be on a mission. Atheists don’t have a book saying go make disciples all over the world. We have the Book. We have the Book that tells us to love our enemies. They don’t have their book. They’re not held to the same standard as we are. If we don’t like it, we can resign and drop out. But as long as we want to say we’re going to follow Jesus, then we’re going to have to suck it up and say, “That’s right.”

We have our own motives. Mine is to say to Christians, “You really don’t have to hide yourself. You can talk out loud about who you are. Just don’t be a jerk about it and more people will talk with you.”

GT:     In church on Sunday, they read a verse that I thought of in the context of your book, Matt. It seems like Matt loves the peaceful parts of Christianity.  But this verse was about how Jesus did not come to bring peace but to create division. What does that mean to an atheist that all these people are following someone who said he came not for peace — which seems to be the only appealing part of Christianity to atheists — but that Jesus said he came to bring division.

MC:    Peace appeals to people in general, so that makes that part of the Christian message appealing to anybody. I’ve not heard that verse before. I didn’t know that Jesus came to bring division. Here’s one thing. He was right about that. The peace hasn’t come but division is certainly here so well done on that one, Jesus. We’re all completely divided. Even in Christianity, it is splintered, shattered. How many sects of Christianity are there? Hundreds? Thousands?

JH:      Oh, thousands. Thirty-seven thousand.

MC:    I think division is done. That’s one biblical prophecy I think we can all agree on. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that means beyond that. It is evident that Jesus and Christianity have brought more division than unity.

GT:     Some atheists like Christopher Hitchens think that religion poisons everything. Other atheists view Christianity as fine as long as it’s this kind of anodyne picture of Jesus as the person with the little children surrounding him, a good teacher, and a good rabbi. If you can accept that, the verse complicates the picture a little bit. Atheists who want to put Jesus in that box of he really did exist, he was a real person, but he didn’t have kind of the moxie that Christians give him. Christians struggle with that verse as well.

JH:      There are a number of things that Jesus said that I find complicated. Not the least of which is to love your enemies and pray for those who spitefully use you. And ultimately, I have to look at the life of Jesus in its total story and what did he live out ultimately.

So based on his life, not to parse Scripture too closely, he was a leader and he brought division. He made decisions, he took stances, and in doing that, any leader is going to bring division. He even said if you don’t love me more than you love your father and mother, you can’t follow me in the context of taking up the cross.

That’s the nature of any kind of commitment of any movement and Jesus exhibited that clearly. What makes it unique, of course, is that I happen to believe He’s God and he was saying that. So to me that’s the context of what really matters out of why Jesus would say something like that. Because he did say it, clearly, but he took the story out of Peter’s hand. You can’t argue that Jesus actually literally meant to pick up swords. The metaphor spins both ways. It cuts both ways, right?

GT:     So Matt, now that you’ve written two books together, what do you think the future holds for your relationship with Jim and what you plan to do in the future?

MC:    At some point in time, I expect Jim will tell me to go to hell.

JH:      We’re breaking up right after this phone call, Matt, I forgot to tell you.

MC:    Jim and I have been called America’s Spiritual Odd Couple. I thought about that. Why are we an odd couple? We’re never at odds. We’re not arguing. We may be different but we’re not arguing. Sometimes people who may have differences will tune into Sunday morning talk shows and they’ll see people with differences sitting at the same table. They may think to themselves they’ll probably pick a side, but they may think I could never do that. I hope that what Jim and I can show people is that you can do it. It’s actually pretty easy. I’d like to help people stop throwing down the gauntlet on these issues. When someone throws down the gauntlet, I usually just pick it up and throw it in the trash. I’m not interested in fighting. What we hope to show people is that it really makes your life a lot more interesting when you embrace the differences of various people.

I’ll give an example. I know more than a few atheists. When they learn about this project of mine the question that they always have for me is, “Give me something I can use.” They think that Jim and I must be really, really good at taking each other apart. It’s just the opposite. We’re not interested in taking each other apart. Jim knows where I stand and I know where he stands and we do discuss differences. We realized that our differences are going to be the things that keep us interesting to each other.

I hope most discussions aren’t like this but should the hell question come up, it’s not a deal breaker for people. It’s not the end of a friendship. Jim lost friends. I’d like to see that never happen again. I’d like to see that we’re able to model a relationship that shows them how it can be done. It’s no secret that we’re more polarized than we’ve ever been before, whether it’s politics, faith, what have you. It doesn’t have to be that way. You talk about Christopher Hitchens as an atheist – he’s an antitheist. He wasn’t for anything. He was against things.

GT:     Yes.

MC:    I’m tired of being against things and I’m tired of Christians telling me what they’re against. Here’s what most people know about Christians: they’re against abortion; they’re against gay marriage. Okay, great, we get it. You hate some things. What do you love? What do you care about? Why can’t we talk about those things? I don’t want to sound like a hippie here because I’m not. I don’t even own a hacky sack. But I think that’s what I hope that we can model for people. When you look into stories about Jesus – and again, I hadn’t heard the divide thing before, he keeps talking to people outside of his comfort zone. He’s going out and talking to different people. He’s bringing people together. He’s bringing people of disparate lives and backgrounds together. And I guess what I’d like to see is to help people have their faith be more unifying than divisive. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with me for it to be a unifying force.

I’m on a bit of a quest myself and the reason I always say I’m currently an atheist is beliefs can change. They change all the time for everybody. I still have questions. I want to make sure that when I have questions about Christianity, I’m going to talk with somebody who’s not going to insult me. Hopefully that is what we’re doing here with this book, with this whole weird thing that’s happened to me. Many Christians say that I’m “blessed.” I would say I am “lucky” but “blessed” works too. I’m not insulted by them saying I’m blessed. I know some atheists that respond, “Wow, I can’t believe someone told me to have a blessed day.” So what? Get over it.

GT:     Yes.

MC:    They wished you something nice just now. If you weren’t so intent on proving them wrong, then you would’ve seen that for what it was, which was a gracious gesture, a fine how-do-you-do. There’s a polarization that is, again, political, it’s spiritual, it’s just everywhere and I’m just so sick of it. It’s just so destructive.

I don’t know if I need faith to make that happen or not? I guess if I have faith, I have faith that eventually people end up doing the right thing. So my faith is that the glass is half full. And wow, I think I’m out of breath because that was a very mellow rant.

GT:     You summarized it well. Thank you both for joining me.

We’re not supposed to have hope because we bury our heads in the sand and we pretend that awful things are not happening the world. The real nature of Christian hope is to look at all the terror that we see around us eyeball to eyeball and yet to not be afraid. To be able to speak a hopeful word in the midst of a lot of violence and terror around us, that takes a great deal of courage and strength. It is profoundly and fundamentally difficult.”

Gayle: I am speaking with Jonathan Martin, author of Prototype: What Happens When You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think. Rev. Martin, you explore the concept of the scars we all have. These scars give away a little bit about who we are and what we’ve experienced?

Jonathan Martin:     This has been a profound discovery in my life in recent years. In pop Christianity, there tends to be a way in which people often minimize their scars and wounds. There’s this idea that becoming a Christian or finding religion is somehow about escaping those things. There is, indeed,  healing that goes on. One of the most beautiful things about the witness of Jesus himself is that even after the resurrection, the way that the disciples are able to know that it was Jesus was through his scars. To use an expression coined by Henri Nouwen, through our own wounds we can become wounded healers. Our own wounds can become a resource for others to be able to receive courage, grace, healing and strength. So the idea becomes, instead of pretending that we don’t have scars or trying to minimize our scars, we try to find how they can be used in a way that’s redemptive in the world.

GT:     Are you able to use the experiences in your life to bring hope to the people of your church and your community?

JM:     Oh absolutely! I do all the time. It took me a long time to learn how to be that vulnerable in front of people. I came to see that at first, it feels like it takes a lot of courage and a lot of vulnerability to share some of those things. Consistently, the sermons that I’ll preach or things that I’ll write that seem to touch people and move people the most are always the things that come from those very wounded places. The more that I’ve seen that, the more that becomes a resource for others, and the more that makes me feel at home in sharing those things.

GT:     Our culture seems to relish when people we have put on a pedestal experience a fall from grace. How do you think Christians should respond to those instances where someone who is a role model falls? How do you think Christians should react to those situations when that comes up in discussion?

JM:     I completely reject that idea that people who are Christians are ever called to be the moral police to the world or really the moral police to anybody. I don’t feel like that’s the thrust of the New Testament. For me the really determinative story with all those issues is the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. A friend of mine gave me a delightful phrase. She says it’s not the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s the story of the men who got caught throwing rocks. This rings true to the text because the text is not really about adultery or that kind of immorality at all.

Over and over again through the gospels we find that one of the things that makes Jesus so scandalous is how he’s just not offended or made squeamish by peoples’ sin, by peoples’ sexual sin, or what have you. The ironic thing is that so often I find that Christians end up lining up with those who throw the rocks. For me, it’s just this basic. In the Old Testament, the very first expression that you get to describe the evil one, Satan, whatever phrase you want to use, the devil, is he’s called the accuser of the brethren. Over and over again in the New Testament, Jesus is called an advocate and intercessor.

Jesus stands between the religious people who are throwing rocks and the one who’s accused. One of the things that I find most revolutionary about that is that from all accounts it appears in the story that the woman is in fact guilty of what she’s been accused. I love this idea that even Jesus doesn’t only stand up for those who are innocent and have been falsely accused. Jesus takes a stand for the guilty.

That’s the role that God calls the church. It’s to be those who don’t just stand up for the innocent but those who stand up for those who actually are guilty, for those who really have done it.

GT:     We all face many trials in our everyday life and your book shows about how we can face these trials without fear. Could you describe?

JM:     John says not only that God is love but that perfect love casts out all fear. Fear is the opposite of everything that God is. Fear drives out, if not God, at least our awareness of the presence of God. In the book, I use one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, Devils and Dust. It has this great lyric about how fear is a powerful thing. It can turn your heart black. Take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust. That’s what fear does.

I came to understand the resurrection of Jesus in a very different way. I always understood the resurrection of Jesus in terms of an issue of dogma that we believe that Jesus is risen. Of course, I still believe that, but what I came to believe from the text is that there’s more going on than just the resurrection of one man. Especially in Matthew’s gospel, we see that when Jesus is raised from the dead, you’ve got earthquakes, thunder and lightning and even this very strange moment that no one ever talks about at Easter where people actually see dead folks walking around Jerusalem. I always tell our church that I’m tempted every year to have zombie decorations at Easter rather than pastel colored eggs because I think that’s Easter in Matthew — zombies walking around Jerusalem.

In the resurrection of Jesus, the world itself convulses in a glimpse of what’s yet to come through the resurrection of everybody. The reason that so much apocalyptic language is used is that it’s supposed to signal the fact that, hey, this isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus. Over and over again Paul and John, for example, will refer to Jesus as the first born of the dead. This is a marker of the resurrection that’s coming for all that are in Christ. Through the resurrection of Jesus something about the world itself has been altered that now the creation itself is set on an inevitable course towards this kind of restoration and this resurrection moving through the whole cosmos. We can have hope and confidence in that for ourselves. That’s changed a lot for me because if I really do believe that the resurrection of Jesus has already changed the world, instead of sitting around waiting on the world to change, it alters our perspective when it comes to fear. It certainly has for me.

GT:     So the John Mayer song, Waiting for the World to Change, doesn’t have as much resonance for you?

JM:     That’s exactly right. Years ago when that song came out, I used it as a negative example in a sermon. I think John Mayer is self-aware, and the song is tongue in cheek about this idea of sitting around waiting for the world. But I do find that to be true in the church and in the world because in the North American Christian culture, I don’t even know that people are exactly waiting on the world to change. They’re waiting at the bus stop for Jesus to take them out of the world. My heart breaks over and over. Those who name the name of Jesus are charged to bring hope to the world the way that Romans 8:18-25 describes in terms of how the creation itself is groaning and sighing for the restoration that’s yet to come. We’re the ones that are charged to bring that hope for the world. Yet in many cases, I feel Christians don’t have hope for the world. I think there’s almost this sense that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, and there’s nothing we can do except sit around and hope that somehow Jesus is going to snatch us up out of this mess. In effect, this removes the hope that we have in us that’s supposed to be given over to the world.

A complaint of mine is the way that I see Christians not only waiting on the world to change, but in some cases, almost waiting for the world to burn. In those circles especially, there’s this idea that the more bad things that happen in the world, the closer we get to Jesus taking us out of the world in a way that almost makes Christians sort of eager for terrible things to happen, which, for me, is definitely not the model that we have from Jesus himself.

GT:     Do you think Christian faith in practice is easy or hard?

JM:     When practiced well, it’s certainly hard because what Christians are charged to do is that we’re not supposed to have hope only because we’re optimistic and we’re looking at the glass as half full instead of half empty. We’re not supposed to have hope because we bury our heads in the sand and we pretend that awful things are not happening the world. The real nature of Christian hope is to look at all the terror that we see around us eyeball to eyeball and yet to not be afraid. To be able to speak a hopeful word in the midst of a lot of violence and terror around us, that takes a great deal of courage and strength. It is profoundly and fundamentally difficult. The faith that we often peddle is a very easy faith that doesn’t require that kind of courage. It becomes either a form of escapism where we put our fingers in our ears and pretend we don’t really hear and see the things that are happening around us, or it becomes a way of like almost retreating from the world. When faith is robust and it’s New Testament faith, then it’s profoundly hard. What we often want faith to do is to medicate us. Any faith that becomes a kind of medication or a form of escapism is easy and way easier than it’s supposed to be frankly.

GT:     Karl Marx would agree with you on that, the opiate for the masses, right?

JM:     Christians are wrong to not take Marx’s critique seriously in that way. Where religion becomes an opiate, then it’s not authentic religion like in New Testament terms.

GT:     You write about the “scandal of the bodily gospel.” What is that?

JM:     When I started reading the gospels again, I was struck that there seems to be something almost, in a beautiful way, obsessive about the touch of Jesus. Clearly he’s God and flesh, and we have these accounts where Jesus will simply speak. Through his speaking, people are able to receive healing and miracles and all that. Yet he seems to go so far out of his way to touch people: touching blind people, touching lepers, touching sometimes in really provocative ways. I always loved that story where he’s touching the man’s ears and tongue and all of these things that seem rather unsanitary. Consistently in the New Testament there is such an emphasis on bodies in general.

In Jesus’ time and culture, Gnosticism is the prevailing thing: the idea that the body is bad but the spirit is good.

Part of the revolution of Jesus’ message is this religion that’s all about bodies, touching bodies and caring for bodies. It’s all about sweat and saliva encased. Now in a digital age, once again we don’t have quite the same kind of Gnosticism, but there is a way in which people really are aching for human touch. People are aching for real face-to-face human experience. They are often pretty deprived of touch.

I’m hoping this sort of bodily nature of the gospel could become scandalous and exciting again. Here’s this way of being human in a way that really embraces the body instead of playing it down.

“Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will do what I command.’  Some people live on the ‘Do what I command’  side of that comma, but we need to get back to the ‘If you love me’ side of that comma.  When you are in love, the relationship becomes this fresh air internal motivation.”


Gayle Trotter:  I’m speaking with Pastor Chris Hodges, author of Fresh Air: Trading Stale Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, Experience-it-Everyday Relationship with GodWhat do you mean by fresh air and how can we experience it?

Chris Hodges:  Everyone has already experienced this kind of culture. Fresh air is a culture where things thrive. All of us have been in either life-giving cultures or we’ve been in life-taking cultures. We’ve all been in homes where it just was empowering and life-giving and free and so you wanted to be around. Others were raised in homes where you simply couldn’t wait to get out of it. We’ve been in churches in the same way. They’re using the same songs, same Bible, but one of them is life-giving and one of them, you’re just looking forward to it being over.

It’s these life-giving fresh air kinds of cultures that make everything in our lives thrive. I base my book around a very obscure little verse out of 2 Timothy where the Apostle Paul referred to this guy named Onesiphorus who visited Paul while he was in prison. Paul said “his visits revived me like a breath of fresh air.” Paul was saying that when this guy came around, he was encouraged and free again. It was all life-giving again.

So many live in the “doldrum state,” a state where there is no wind in your sails. I wrote about applying it to all these areas of our lives so that we can have the wind back in our sails.

GT:  You talk in your book about how the year 1999 was the worst year of your life. How so?

CH:  I’m not a depressed guy. I’m outgoing. But something was missing, and I didn’t know if it was medical. I didn’t know if it was spiritual. I didn’t know what was going on. The best way to describe it is that I was just going through the motions. I was serving as an associate pastor, and I just was going through the motions. It was like where you’re on a journey but the only way you’re getting there is just to paddle really hard. You’re working really hard and nothing is energizing it.

There’s this place called the Doldrums that’s right around the equator. Because of the Northern Hemisphere, the trade winds spin one way and in the Southern Hemisphere, the trade winds spin the other way. There’s a zone right around the equator that they call the Doldrums where there is no wind. Back before there were motorized boats, when it was purely sailing by wind, if you ended up in the Doldrums, you didn’t get out. You died in the Doldrums.

I start the whole book with identifying with what I believe are thousands of people who are simply going through the motions with no wind in your sails and you’re in the doldrums. You’re putting on a smile but inside, you’re dying. I use my own experience of that so people can have the freedom to get out of it with me.

GT:  You write, “The world around us tells us that we must look good to get ahead, which often leads us to spend money we don’t have and invest time in pursuits that bring us only temporary comfort or prestige.” Can you explain?

CH:  When you end up in the doldrums, you still need to go forward so you manufacture energy. You’re padding really hard. As it relates to culture, people will put on the smile or they’ll put on some image with money and spend money that they don’t have to impress people they don’t even like. They’re trying to create something but they’re creating it the wrong way.

In the second story of the Bible, God put two trees in the garden – one, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the other, the Tree of Life. He said, if you’re going to pursue life, if you’re going to pursue me, if you’re going to pursue religion based on just your knowledge, your external knowledge of things, it’ll kill you. What you need is life. What you need is something energizing all of that. And in fact, when I teach this in conferences, I often start with this message and just simply say that there’s a choice. Most of us have a tendency of making the wrong choice of just manufacturing that energy.

GT: You write about generosity. Why is generosity important in getting this feeling of fresh air?

CH: There actually are seven or eight qualities or attributes that I talk about that can get you back into a fresh air kind of a lifestyle. I have bent toward the money thing. My dad was an auditor for the State of Louisiana and I was raised up in this very strong financial culture and I see money as being one of those things where boy, it can be life-giving, one of the best parts of your life. If you get it wrong, it can be life taking. It could be one of the worst parts of your life.

One of the greatest antidotes to selfishness is generosity. I write about bringing some fresh air to our finances.

GT:  You write that, “Religion is man’s external effort to please God but God doesn’t care about all my efforts to get it right. He wants more, something far greater.” What do you think God wants from us?

CH:  In one word, God wants relationship, not religion. Jesus himself said it in Matthew 7. He said there’s going to be a lot of people who will show up in Heaven on Judgement Day who would’ve done the religious motions – calling him Lord, the miracles in His name – he lists all these religious things. Then he says I’m going to tell them plainly “Away from me because I never knew you.” The word “know” there is the same word that the Bible uses where it says, “A man knew his wife and they had a baby.” It’s an intimate term.

In John chapter 14, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will do what I command.” For years, I read that out of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil out of this non-fresh air mentality and here’s how I read it. I heard, “If you love me, you’ll prove to me you love me by doing what I told you to do. If you love me, you will do what I command.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “If you loved me, you will do what I command. All you need to do is fall in love with me and my commands are going to be the byproduct of that love relationship.” And I think there’s a comma there between those two phrases. Some people live on the “Do what I command” side of that comma but we need to get back to the “If you love me” side of that comma. When you’re in love, the relationship becomes this fresh air internal motivation. Here’s the simply way to say it. It goes from the “have to do it” to “you want to do it.” From the “got to” to the “get to.”

GT:  How do we know God without religion, though?

CH:  You don’t know God with religion. Religion is simply things man created to try to approach God. We think that God is impressed with our church attendance or our liturgies but that’s not what he’s looking for. He never came to Earth for those. He came to be in relationship. That was his whole purpose. The liturgies and all of the baptisms and communions and church attendance and giving and serving, they are all important but they are all important as a result of the relationship, not the things that create the relationship.

Let me give you an example. For instance, putting on a wedding band does not mean that I have a good relationship with my wife. Because I have a familiar with my wife, I put on a wedding band to let the world know. Too many times, we’ve thought that those motions actually get us to God and no, you have to get to God so that you can do all of those things.

GT:  It’s interesting you raised that example because now, a lot of young people are choosing not to get married and just focus on the relationship. What would you counsel those who are saying it’s just a piece of paper, it’s just a ring, it’s really all about the relationship?

CH:  All of the actions are important. Again, I’m not dismissing them. I’m just talking about the order that relationship needs to proceed the commands of God in the Bible. All of the commands, including marriage vows and getting married, all those are very important but it’s built on the foundation of relationship. If you do those things without the relationship, it’s almost certain that the relationship will fail. That’s why a lot of religious people aren’t finding a lot of success in their walk with God is because they’ve done the motions without the relationship.

I’m not saying eliminate the commands of God, I’m just saying we need to put them in the right order. When you’re in love, it just changes everything. The motivation changes where it’s something that becomes the delight of your life. I’m just so concerned for people who are trying to fulfill the bible without being in love with God. I’m telling you, Gayle, it’s almost impossible. But when you’re in love, 1 John chapter 5 says, “Now his commands are no longer burdensome because he who has the Son has life.” When you’re in that relationship, it fuels everything where it becomes the delight, not a duty.

GT:  You write also about our relationships with other people and specifically, you write, “Nothing has the potential to drain our breath and leave us feeling alone and exhausted more than other people.” You have some suggestions on how to turn those relationships into something that breathes fresh air into our lives rather than drains us.

CH:  That’s the cool part of the book is that once we unpack this principle of living a fresh air life, there are eight application chapters of let’s get this working in our family. Let’s get this working with our kids. Let’s get this working with our marriage. Let’s see if we can bring some fresh air to our Bible reading, to our worship, to prayer. Most people don’t enjoy prayer. When you approach it from a fresh air standpoint, it’s enjoyable again. Giving money, all these areas are added to your purpose in life.

There are all these applications and probably, without a doubt, one of the areas that can suck the life out of you or it can add life to you, are your relationships. There’s a chapter in there describing Cheers, that saloon where all those people gathered to be revived and refreshed by those close relationships. The theme song is, “Where everybody knows your name.” I maintain that you can be in a big church meeting or in a lot of environments with a lot of people and still be very lonely. I write about how God put in motion a plan for every person to be ultimately fulfilled and receive all that he has through powerful relationships. But they have to be shaped in a life-giving way.

“The only way we can go in and experience the transformative presence of Christ is to go in these difficult places assuming that we’re not coming back.”

Gayle Trotter:  I’m speaking with Shayne Wheeler, author of The Briarpatch Gospel. Your subtitle is “Fearlessly following Jesus into the thorny places.” Where are the thorny places right now?

Shayne Wheeler:  They’re all around us. It’s all of those places that challenge our comfort zone, challenge some of our assumptions about what a comfortable life should be. It’s the places of dealing with people who are different from us, whether it’s socioeconomically or how they think about life and think about God. It’s people who are different from us in terms of the suffering that they’re dealing with, social issues. They’re everywhere. We have an assumption, especially as Christians, that we’re going to come to faith in Jesus, and we’re going to follow God and everything is going to be great.

We spend so much time trying to make our lives comfortable and without any bumps and bruises. We end up trying to avoid all the briarpatches of difficulty. That’s just simply not the way that life actually works, and it’s definitely not the life that Jesus has called us to.  I think he’s called us to go into those thorny places with the gospel of grace, hope and affection.

GT:  Who would most benefit from reading your book?

SW:  I wrote the book with two groups in mind — those who are dealing with difficulty in their lives, whether the reality of suffering, of persecution, and even a difficult relationship that they can’t quite get their theology around. I wanted to be able to give those people a pathway through the difficulty so that they can begin to realize that they’re not abandoned and alone but that Christ is actually walking down this path with them. But then secondly, I wrote it for people who are in relationship with people who are going through difficult times. I wanted people to have the vernacular to speak to someone who is suffering, to speak with someone who is perhaps theologically different than them or in terms of lifestyle.

We have a lot of people here in our church that have very, very close friends who are in the gay and lesbian community and many of them profess faith in Christ. I wanted to be able to give them a vernacular of how we can communicate and love and live together as followers of Christ with people with whom we disagree.

GT:  You tell the fascinating story of two brothers in the movie Gattaca. How does this relate to the briarpatch?

SW:  There’s one brother who is the older brother and is genetically inferior. The younger brother was conceived through the use of eugenics and he is genetically pure. The younger brother is stronger, faster, and smarter. They played this game called chicken where they would swim out in the ocean as far as they could and whoever turned back first lost. The genetically superior brother always won. Then finally the older brother who was supposedly inferior, he won and not only once, but he won again. And so, the other brother said “How did you beat me? How did you do this?” The older brother answered, “I swam out there and I was committed that I was never coming back. I was never going to swim back. I was committing full force into this.”

That’s the sort of mentality that we need to have when we’re entering into these difficult places with people, that we’re following Christ into some of these places where he does his best work rather than saying I’m just going to go and put my time in at the homeless shelter or at the food bank for an hour on Saturday and then I’m going to retreat back to my place of comfort and safety.

We have to say “No, I’m going to give my life to loving people who are homeless, loving people in the gay and lesbian community, loving people who are suffering.” The only way we can go in and experience the transformative presence of Christ is to go in assuming that we’re not coming back. This is a path that we’re going to walk down the rest of our lives. The degree of grace and affection and personal transformation and the palpable presence of Jesus that you experience when you do that, when you’re willing to not turn back, is extraordinary. It’s absolutely life changing. I wanted people to experience in their walk with Christ what I’ve experienced in mine and what we’ve seen happen here in our church.

GT:  How can one find meaning in the crucible of suffering?

SW:  That was probably the hardest part of the book to write for me. Our daughter was diagnosed when she was five with leukemia. I always tell people, as a parent when you imagine what it might be like to hear the words about your child having cancer, it’s ten times worse than you can imagine. I never would have imagined that Jesus could show up in the midst of suffering like we experienced him through those years of dealing with her treatment and almost dying for over two years.

I always remember lying there in her hospital room asking God where he was and asking him how could he allow something like this to happen and does he even care — really just crying out to him for answers. It was almost like the Lord spoke. I’m a Presbyterian so God doesn’t speak in audible voices to me, but I’m telling you as a Presbyterian I heard God speak very, very clearly. “Shayne, this is why Jesus had to come. This is why I had to send my son to die on a cross, to suffer for sin. It wasn’t just to get you into Heaven one day. It was because the world is all screwed up. It’s not supposed to be this way. Little five-year-old girls are not supposed to get cancer. That’s sin as well. That’s the effect of sin.”

Jesus had to come to put the world right. How we met Christ in the crucible of our own suffering was we realized that he was there with us. Suddenly his incarnation and his suffering and his death and his resurrection had meaning beyond just getting me saved. It showed my wife and me that Jesus is concerned about our daughter’s suffering so much so that he came and suffered himself. Knowing that he’s there walking with us even in those dark places in a hospital room was extraordinarily comforting to know our daughter’s suffering and our suffering was not in vain but it was under the gaze of a loving God.

GT:  Describe what makes your church community different from others.

SW:  I assume most of them are wonderful in their own right. But what I love about our church’s community is the deep sense of honesty about who we are. For our church family Sunday mornings is not the time when we get all spit shined and polished and put on our nice little self-righteous Christ veneer and come to church and try to impress everybody. Sunday morning is a time where we come as brothers and sisters in the faith, where many come who are not Christians but who are looking to find God, to figure out if God is even real. We’re coming together to worship God through Christ with all of our successes and all of our failures, with all of our hopes in faith and with all of our doubts.

When you have a group of people who take off all that veneer and they’re simply there as they are, not hiding their joy and not hiding their pain, it creates a very strong sense of raw intimacy. What it also means — people say this all the time when they come into our church — it means that no matter where people are they feel welcomed. They don’t feel judged. They see pastors and leaders and old people and young people who are dealing with the same things that they’re dealing with.

I think what might set our church apart a little bit would be that sense of you don’t have to clean up and dress up. You just have to show up.

GT:  How do we transform the Briarpatch?

SW:  Jesus said very, very clearly, “You are my disciples. Your job is to go. Your job is to not be perfect. Your job isn’t to be religious or anything like that. Your job is to go and love and serve.” They are going to know you’re my disciples he says, by the way that you love one another. He says go and serve in my name when you give food to the hungry, when you give clothing to the naked, or go visit those who are in prison. You do so in my name. What he’s saying to us is that we are the living embodiment of his gospel — the gospel of reconciliation, of grace and mercy and healing and forgiveness.

He says when you go and you serve in this way you’re actually bringing my presence into this world. We’re living as a lamppost saying this is what the transforming of presence of Christ does. We have a hope that when he returns that he’s going to make all things new. He’s going to restore his creation. He’s going to wipe out sin and our job is to be a signpost, a lamppost to what that can look like. We’re not going to do it perfectly. Our light is going to flicker and sometimes even be snuffed out, but we’re still called to go and love and serve in a way that shows that the presence of Christ is real and that something even greater is coming.

Just in practical terms, it means obviously things like you go and serve the homeless and you serve the poor. But, it also means that we go in our marriages, in our families, in our work relationships and we live lives of forgiveness and mercy. It means we don’t hold grudges. It means we show compassion to people — even the people we love the most are sometimes the hardest people to show compassion towards. It means we live lives in repentance. It’s showing the people that are closest to us and the people perhaps who are watching us, observing us from afar, showing them what a life of repentance and faith looks like — a life that’s not lived for ourselves but lived for the glory of God through Christ and lived to be poured out for the sake of other people.

When that happens, when you start infusing forgiveness and compassion and radical love into your relationships at work and at home and in your community then it will necessarily begin to bring transformation. It changes the conversation. It changes the ethos of the place.

GT:   Yes. What’s something that surprised you in writing this book?

SW:  Beyond that it was going to take three years from start to finish?  I was honestly thinking I’ll knock this thing out in like three months, write it, and then it should be on the shelves by Thanksgiving that year. That was two years ago. I was surprised at how much fun it was to write. How much I enjoyed sitting down and working through many, many, many hours of putting these thoughts and these stories onto paper. It was cathartic for my soul. It absolutely was rejuvenating and refreshing to me.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the writing part as much. I was surprised by that. And, I was surprised by how long it actually takes to go from me typing it out on my computer to it actually coming out in book form.

GT:  Was that frustrating for you knowing that you could just throw it all up on the internet?

SW:  I know. It’s unbelievable. I will give a compliment to Tyndale, our publishers. I was surprised to find people in the publishing industry who were so fantastically competent but also kind and generous and loving. Every man and woman that I worked with at Tyndale has shown more concern for me as a person and as a follower of Christ than they have for me as a commodity.  Writing a book is all worth it just for having met my friends at Tyndale.

“The way that you demonstrate exceptional gratitude is you give freely, from your heart, to those who are in need.”

Tommy Newberry spoke with me about his new book, 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life.  With Christmas fast approaching, I wanted to share with you his thoughts on exceptional gratitude.

Gayle Trotter:     What does exceptional gratitude mean to you?

Tommy Newberry:     Exceptional gratitude is gratitude beyond the norm. It is being grateful for the little things, and the big things. It is more than just gratitude as expressed verbally. Somebody hands us our food and we say thank you. Somebody holds the door for us and we say thank you very much. That is routine gratitude that most polite, mature people implement or they express that in their day-to-day lives. Exceptional gratitude is proactive gratitude, gratitude that has gone the extra mile. It is living in such a way that even if we never actually said thank you, people would realize how grateful that we were. If you are financially successful, then giving of your wealth to worthy organizations, to people in need, that shows gratitude. There is no reason for guilt, but there is reason for gratitude.

The way that you demonstrate exceptional gratitude is you give freely, from your heart, to those who are in need. If you appreciate having the freedom that we have so far in this country, then one of the ways that you show that you are grateful is that you maybe do a little bit of homework and you learn about how you can articulate these principles better. You volunteer in your community and you get involved in community activities that need your input. If you are grateful to be a parent, and you are grateful for your children, then that means that you sometimes say no to other things that would take your time away from being with your family. If you are grateful for being alive and having a healthy family then that means that you say those things to your husband or wife or to your kids or to your mom and dad. You say those things that you really mean and feel while you still have the opportunity before it is too late. So, exceptional gratitude is standard gratitude with the extra mile, doing more than the minimum as far as gratitude is concerned.

GT:     What is the thing you are most grateful for in your life?

TN:     I am most grateful for God’s grace that I do not have to earn my way into heaven. Beyond that, I am grateful for my wife, and I have three great boys that are all healthy: a sixteen year old, a fourteen year old and a six year old. They keep me focused and give me plenty of stories as I teach. I am grateful for my clients, I am grateful to be alive, I am grateful for the great plans that God has for me. That is one of the beliefs that we share with our clients, that if you do believe that God has great plans for your future, then you are going to be expressing a lot more joy than somebody who is melancholy about that. I will often ask an audience, “How many of you believe that God has great plans for your life?” Most people will raise their hand, mainly because they know that is the proper answer. Then I will say, if you believe that God has great plans for your life, then would you not walk around with enormous joy, knowing that there is a promise there that you are anticipating and waiting for? People start to get that joy is not about outward circumstances, it is about an inward frame of mind.

Thanksgiving inspires us to pause and count our blessings of family and friends. Defiant Requiem, a new film showing Jewish life in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin, filled me with similar thoughts of gratitude and admiration.

Many of the inmates of Terezin were musicians and artists. Despite living in wretched conditions of hunger, disease, and forced labor, the inmates relied on their art to give them hope and foster community. They staged plays, composed operas, and created drawings with paper and ink.

An imprisoned conductor, Rafael Schacter, assembled a choir of 150 voices and taught them Verdi’s Requiem. The choir rehearsed in the basement after long days of forced labor and little food. The singers memorized the difficult music because they had no scores.

Verdi’s Requiem is a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass. You might consider this an odd choice for Jewish inmates to devote themselves to learning, but Schacter had a plan.

Part of the requiem contains the Dies Irae, which translated from Latin means “day of wrath.” In this part, the choir sings in Latin, “When the Judge takes His seat/ 
whatever is hidden will be revealed/ 
nothing shall remain unavenged.”

Schacter hoped to have his choir sing this condemnation to the Nazis, without them even knowing it.

The film runs on a dual track. As the story of Schacter and his choir is told, conductor Murry Sidlin assembles a modern-day choir to go back to Terezin and perform Verdi’s Requiem, in memorial to those who suffered at Terezin.

Mr. and Mrs. Krasa were interned at the camp, and they and their two sons accompany Sidlin back to Terezin. Mr. Krasa had been Schacter’s roommate and sang in Schacter’s choir.   He sings again, with his sons, and as a free man.

On the entranceway to Terezin, the Nazis inscribed, “Work will make you free.”

It is hard to imagine circumstances worse than those experienced by the Jewish people in World War II. After watching Defiant Requiem, I once again realized that music truly can set one’s spirit free, despite the subjugating efforts of evil men. I am grateful for that.

Offending seemingly everyone and everything is not easy. Still, the creators of “South Park” managed that feat in their 2004 movie “Team America: World Police.”

The movie includes a scene depicting a Broadway production, “Lease,” a parody of the critically acclaimed, award-winning musical “Rent.” The parody riffs on life under the shadow of AIDS —

Well I’m gonna march on Washington

Lead the fight and charge the brigades

There’s a hero inside of all of us

I’ll make them see everyone has AIDS . . .

Everyone has AIDS!

My grandma and my dog ’ol blue (AIDS AIDS AIDS)

The pope has got it and so do you (AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS)


And so “Lease” offers its unsubtle observation that “Rent” may have gone overboard in depicting the extent of the AIDS crisis. Critics charge that the extent of the crisis cannot be overstated and that the Catholic Church has failed to do enough.

Answering the charge that the Catholic Church is “heartless in its pursuit of principles over care of the sick and dying,” Austen Ivereigh provides Catholics with a way to find their voice in a society that increasingly criticizes the views of the Church and its adherents.

Ivereigh tackles AIDS and other issues in his book, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-Button Issues. Among other nettlesome topics, he covers the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the challenges facing Catholics worldwide.

The Church’s approach to handling the epidemic, particularly in Africa, presents intractable difficulties and generates headlines such as “Pope Tells Africa: ‘Condoms wrong.’”

The Church’s message competes with some evidence that condom usage by high-risk populations in the United States and Western Europe has successfully reduced infection rates. Yet, to critics’ dismay, the Church has continued to promote behavior change as the solution to the African AIDS epidemic, to the exclusion of condom usage.

Last month, the International HIV/AIDS conference met in DC. The Conference billed itself as the “premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic.”

The conference sought to offer the opportunity to “assess where we are, evaluate recent scientific developments and lessons learnt, and collectively chart a course forward.”

With a burning desire to help hurting people at the margins of society, Catholics may take this chance to ask themselves what lessons the Church has learned about HIV/AIDS and what course forward the Church may chart.

From the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, in the 1980’s, the Church served as a first responder to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. “Catholic and Protestant churches had been running exemplary AIDS programs in Africa since the 1980’s,” Ivereigh says, quoting Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure.

The people make up the Church. So when the people of Africa have AIDS, Ivereigh argues, the Catholic Church itself has AIDS.

Critics blame the Church for not advocating condom use to combat the spread of AIDS. This “wrongly assumes that condoms are the key to combating AIDS in Africa,” says Ivereigh.

Instead, the Church uses a different approach by seeking to promote responsible sexual behavior, including a call to chastity and fidelity.

More important, the Church has been working tirelessly to overcome the stigma of AIDS and poverty.

Ivereigh counsels Catholics seeking to put the Church’s case in the public square to recognize the positive intention behind the criticism. Critics argue that, in the interest of saving lives, the Church “should be willing to accept condom use, even at the risk of condoning adultery, fornication, incest, and other abuses, or apparently violating Church teaching against artificial contraception.”

Underlying this critique, Ivereigh suggests, is a concern that “Christians should recognize from the Gospels.”

The way forward for the Church, according to Ivereigh, is to continue “assisting people in avoiding infection, providing tests to find out if people are infected and offering physical and spiritual care to those who are.”  The Church can continue “working in communities to combat stigmatization and discrimination; caring for those affects (especially widows and orphans) helping those infected to ‘live positively’; and advocating on behalf of persons living with HIV and AIDS.”

Through its experience, the Church has shown that programs focusing on behavioral change are more effective than those merely promoting condom usage. In Uganda in the 1990’s, HIV infection rates declined from 21% to 9.8%, mostly because of a change in sexual behavior, including a “reduction in non-regular sexual partners and an associated contraction of sexual networks” that form a superhighway for infection.

Another lesson learned: Comments from bishops and the pope can ignite firestorms of controversy. Some Church leaders had mistakenly reported that condoms are “porous” and do not protect from disease.

When the pope spoke out against condoms in 2009, critics accused him of ignorantly opposing condoms because they were porous. Instead, the pope’s comments against condoms actually followed a concern that they are an ineffective strategy.

Catholics and the Church care deeply about an effective response to HIV/AIDS. This is because they live in communities ravaged by the disease, Ivereigh points out. The Church is on the front line of the effort to help prevent infection, help those infected lead good lives, and care for those made orphans and widows by the unforgiving disease.

The Catholic Church and those Catholics on the ground in highly affected areas like Africa should not be shunned from international discussions and efforts to respond to HIV/AIDS.  Although their views are unpopular, they have decades of experience in the trenches, and they care for those left abandoned by the rest of the world.

“Learn to do right; seek justice,” the prophet Isaiah instructed the people of Israel, “Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”  Today the pope and his bishops lead the way for Catholics to do the same.

“You possess a rare beauty, my love, in here,” Snow White’s mother tells her as she touches Snow White’s heart. “Never lose it.” The new film Snow White and the Huntsman captivates the audience with a dramatic retelling of the old fairy tale.  The key themes are beauty, power, and the desire to avoid growing old.

The film relies on beautiful scenery and costumes to transport the viewer to a time of medieval knights and French ambiance.  In this world, Snow White is a threat to the power hungry queen, Ravenna, who fights the ravages of time by sucking out the life of young countryside maidens.

Snow White’s strength comes not only from her physical beauty, but also her childlike purity.  She makes dolls and plays with girls much younger than she is.  She remains kind and faithful, even praying the Lord’s Prayer as she spends years locked in solitude in a dark and fetid prison cell.

Her character reminded me of St. Joan of Arc.  St. Joan was a young French girl who led forces in battle, in obedience to the voice of God.  A deep prayer life sustained Joan as she faced many challenges, including a trial for heresy.

Modern Christians also need a deep prayer life to sustain them through the trials we each face.   Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi’s fourth book in his Pillars of Faith series, The Prayer We Offer: A Catholic Guide to Communion with God, calls us each to a deeper understanding of prayer.

“Christian life, “ Vaghi explains, “is marked by much outward activity and a corresponding need for regular inner retreat.”  Even Jesus had a hard time escaping his followers to find a quite place to reconnect with his father in prayer.

To imitate Christ in his dialogue with his father, we employ the prayer known as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer.  Vaghi explains how this prayer is “the fundamental Christian prayer,” and he encourages us to make it central to our prayer lives.

While most of us will not have to face a supernaturally powerful and evil queen aiming to suck the very life out of us, most of us face problems that seem as dark and inescapable.

When we remember that prayer can give us supernatural strength for the journey, we will have a rare beauty, in our hearts, that can never be lost.

Tomorrow at noon, in cities all across the U.S., people will be gathering in support of religious freedom.  These Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rallies follow the successful March rallies held in 145 cities across the nation, drawing 63,000 people.

The rallies respond to the Health and Human Services federal mandate that requires almost all employers to provide through their health plans controversial medical procedures and drugs or pay heavy fines.

Despite knowing that the provision of these items violates the faith of millions of Americans, the Administration has refused to rescind the mandate.

While the Supreme Court debates the merits of Obama’s signature health care law, Americans are not merely waiting to see the results.

Instead, they are reaching out to their communities and lawmakers to help them understand how a threat to one citizen’s religious faith is a threat to all of our freedoms, and not just religious freedom.

For the citizens of a country founded on the principle of inalienable rights, these rallies are a great opportunity to remind our lawmakers that there should be no fine on faith.

Watching the HBO Sopranos series recently, I was captivated by the story of a mobster, Tony Soprano, who does horrible things to make a living and yet has to deal with the typical problems every father, son, husband, and brother have to face.

The three episodes I have watched could be entitled “The Commandments We Do Not Keep: A Guide to Living an Immoral Life.”

Some of the mobsters do not seem to have any pangs of guilt about their transgressions, but Tony Soprano’s visits to a therapist give evidence that Tony does experience guilt about his egregious violations of the Ten Commandments.

In The Commandments We Keep: A Catholic Guide to Living a Moral Life, the third book in his Pillars of Faith series, Monsignor Peter Vaghi holds up the Ten Commandments for our generation.

“Living the faith is about free choices,” Vaghi suggests, “at home with our families, in the workplace, at places of recreation, and during the time we spend alone.”

Although following the Ten Commandments is essential, Vaghi recognizes that “the moral life is about life in Christ Jesus, about following him and living in him.”

At the end of the book, Vaghi appends a guide to confession and an examination of conscience.  These “exam” questions are designed to help us confront our sins, be forgiven, and not repeat them.

Tony Soprano first seeks out a therapist when his actions cause him to have panic attacks, and he experiences a loss of consciousness.  Sin has a corrosive effect on our souls and our bodies.  Without a way to confront our sins, the sins just multiply.

We do not need to lead the life of Tony Soprano to reap the benefits of reforming our actions.  When we strive to keep his commandments, God’s love is perfected in us.