Will Trump’s State Department push religious freedom to center stage?


One of the most underestimated movements in Washington today started with a man and a vacuum sweeper.

It was 1999, and Robert Seiple had just been named America’s first ambassador at large for religious freedom, a position created by Congress the year before. An escort ushered him to his new office in the State Department, and left him at the door; the room was so small that no one else could fit in it.

“It was just me and a vacuum sweeper,” Mr. Seiple recalled recently at a conference commemorating the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). “I was grateful for that vacuum sweeper, because that office needed it.”

Indeed, the title – Office of International Religious Freedom – was more grandiose than the space. Today, however, it is run by Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback, a veteran politician who heads up a team of more than 30 people and has millions of dollars at his disposal. And he has powerful political allies in Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fellow Christian conservatives who speak passionately about exporting what they see as a hallmark American value – and defending it abroad.

“We think it’s true in this administration that [religious freedom] is a God-given right,” says Mr. Brownback in an interview. “As a God-given right, then no government has a right to interfere with it.”

In the two decades since Congress passed the IRFA, an often-overshadowed movement in Washington has pushed to make religious freedom a key plank of US foreign policy. Now, in a move many see as driven by domestic politics, the Trump administration is trumpeting religious freedom promotion as a signature issue.

“I think there’s been a sense among conservative religious groups … that recent administrations have just ticked the box of the IRFA rather than genuinely embracing the agenda and investing in it,” says Peter Mandaville, who served as senior adviser of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs from 2015-16. “I think it’s felt that with this administration, they’ve had an unprecedented opportunity to push this issue.”

In July, the State Department convened a first-ever ministerial on religious freedom, a three-day event attended by representatives from more than 80 countries, which culminated in the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action. Several months later, after an unusually high-profile intervention by President Trump, the administration celebrated the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned in Turkey. Brownback says the administration is raising China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians “at the highest levels,” and he and Mr. Pence have issued strong statements in support of Rohingya Muslims.

Such actions are boosting a growing enterprise that stretches across government, academia, and Washington’s think tank world. Religious freedom promotion encompasses an unlikely set of bedfellows, riven by internal divisions and bedeviled by wildly different perceptions of their character and intent, from saintly to insidious. In particular, critics question whether the Trump administration – supported by many white conservative Christians, for whom religious oppression abroad has long been a concern – will put equal effort into non-Christians causes.

As the movement gains momentum, it is stirring vigorous debate about just what it means to protect religious freedom, if and how the issue should be incorporated into US foreign policy, and whether the efforts are bearing fruit. 

Advocates “don’t have as much power in a realpolitik sense, but I think they have the power to frame the narrative that is also very powerful and gets underestimated,” says Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations” and a professor of politics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

She is critical of religious freedom promotion, describing it as an “imperial project” that presumes that the US has figured out how people of many faiths can coexist and is now teaching others about it. But, she adds, “to just demonize it as just a Christian power play is way too simplistic.”

Expanding movement put to the test

What started decades ago as a largely white, male, conservative Christian movement has grown to include Sikhs and Scientologists as well as more liberals, women, and people of color – including Suzan Johnson Cook, whom former President Barack Obama appointed as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in 2011. Her successor, Rabbi David Saperstein, was the first non-Christian to hold the office.

“There are a lot of people on the left who are interested in religious freedom, and they were happy to have had someone who would be a balance in there,” says the Rev. Johnson Cook. “I think I was a game changer.”

When Mr. Trump nominated Brownback, some were skeptical that he would work for religious freedom for all. A man of faith who was raised Methodist but converted to Catholicism in 2002, he had a conservative track record – including stands against abortion and gay marriage – that concerned Democrats and activists. He squeaked through his Senate confirmation 50-49.

Greg Mitchell, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, says that skepticism is softening. The group started with just a few dozen people meeting bimonthly. But with Brownback’s support, Mr. Mitchell says, it now hosts weekly events with around 100 participants from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists.

“They see that he really is advocating for religious freedom for everyone,” says Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology, noting that Brownback visited Rohingya Muslims on his first trip.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar (Burma), a Buddhist-majority country, mostly to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. Brownback, upon his return, wrote that their accounts were worse than anything he’d ever encountered – including on a 2004 visit to Darfur. “The Burmese military ‎and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts,” he said.

This November, Pence took to task Myanmar head of government Aung San Suu Kyi, saying the persecution was “without excuse.” But the Trump administration, which has designated the Islamic State’s aggression toward Christians and other religious minorities as genocide, has declined to follow Congress’s lead in similarly designating Myanmar’s violence toward the Rohingya as genocide.

“The United States, the only superpower in the world right now, must come with some binding resolution,” said Sam Naeem, a Rohingya activist, speaking at the IRFA conference in November.

Whose freedom first?

Proponents of religious freedom evoke lofty notions of America as a shining city on a hill, a country founded at Plymouth Rock for the express purpose of establishing and protecting religious freedom – which they see as a prerequisite of democracy, prosperity, and peace.

“You get religious freedom right, and a lot of other freedoms bloom,” said Brownback at the fall IRFA conference, which was hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. “You get this one wrong, and a lot of other freedoms contract.”

For example, religiously unfree countries have experienced more than 13 times as many religious terrorist attacks as their religiously free counterparts, according to Nilay Saiya, author of “Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism.”

Critics, however, see religious freedom promotion as at best a misguided enterprise, providing a naively simplistic and potentially detrimental lens on global conflicts. Against a backdrop of a foreign policy that has delivered on conservative Christian priorities – from recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to ceasing global health funding for organizations that support abortion – and is led by a man who once called for a “shutdown” on Muslims entering the US, they question whether the Trump administration is committed to religious freedom as a universal value and whether it’s making any tangible impact.

Take one of the most high-profile cases so far: that of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr. Brunson was jailed in Turkey, which – amid a wide-ranging crackdown – issued a bizarre indictment accusing him of spying and links to a 2016 coup. Trump characterized Brunson’s imprisonment as religious persecution in the guise of trumped-up charges, and wielded tweets and tariffs to pressure the increasingly authoritarian government to release him – helping to drive a 40 percent drop in the Turkish lira.

Once Brunson was released in October, the US eased sanctions on Turkey. But another American citizen, Serkan Gölge, whose charges were deemed by the US to be “without credible evidence,” remains in jail. For some, the case of Mr. Gölge, a former NASA contractor with dual Turkish citizenship, illustrates Christian favoritism.

From bark to bite

Other critics say the State Department hasn’t been rigorous enough in going after religious-freedom offenders. Every year, State produces an annual report identifying “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs).

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created as a watchdog on State’s handling of religious freedom issues, recommended adding seven CPCs in 2018. However, it has little leverage; State heeded only one of those recommendations, adding Pakistan to a list of nine other repeat offenders: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

What’s more, the State Department has periodically waived sanctions against some CPCs, such as Saudi Arabia, citing “important national interest.”

There are also omissions by both State and USCIRF that critics find troubling. Israel has never been criticized for its treatment of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, wrote former commissioner and Lebanese Catholic Jim Zogby in a letter of dissent when he stepped down in 2017.

The “naming and shaming” approach has largely failed to produce meaningful reforms, Dr. Zogby argues in an interview, saying USCIRF’s yearly report isn’t even taken seriously within the US government, let alone abroad. He’s also deeply concerned about what he sees as a growing ideological bent to USCIRF, particularly among Republican appointees, with a few notable exceptions.

Furthermore, skeptics worry about prioritizing one freedom over others. After all, there is no ambassador at large for freedom of assembly or freedom of the press, points out Dr. Mandaville, who is now a professor at George Mason University. In an environment where national security and other geopolitical concerns often take precedence over human rights issues, highlighting one right can undermine the rest, he adds.

“The more you dilute the set of issues that are designed to fit together … you jeopardize our ability to advance the broader human rights agenda,” says Mandaville, who adds that as the pendulum of human rights has swung toward religious freedom, it’s swung away from promoting LGBT rights around the world, a signature issue of the Obama administration.

If there’s one thing the left and right can agree on within this movement, however, it’s that bipartisan buy-in is key to their credibility and effectiveness.

“If we lose that spirit of bipartisanship – if this thing becomes polarized the way so much of the rest of our politics is polarized,” says former USCIRF commissioner and Princeton professor Robert George, “then we’re going to be of no use.”


The God of All Comfort: Trinity and Trauma

My colleague, Scott Harrower, has a new book about to release on God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This Age (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, April 2019). This is a book that combines the new area of trauma studies with the old area of trinitarian theology.

Here is the blurb:

How does God respond to trauma in a world full of horrors? Beyond their physical and emotional toll, the horrors of this world raise difficult theological and existential questions. Where is God in the darkest moments of the human experience? Is there any hope for recovery from the trauma generated by these horrors? There are no easy answers to these questions. In God of All Comfort, Scott Harrower addresses these questions head-on. Using the Gospel of Matthew as a backdrop, he argues for a Trinitarian approach to horrors, showing how God—in his triune nature—reveals himself to those who have experienced trauma. He explores the many ways God relates restoratively with humanity, showing how God’s light shines through the darkness of trauma.

Pre-order now!


Questions for 2019


Each of you has been blessed with one (or more) of God’s many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well. If you have the gift of speaking, preach God’s message. If you have the gift of helping others, do it with the strength that God supplies. Everything should be done in a way that will bring honor to God because of Jesus Christ, who is glorious and powerful forever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:10-11 (CEV)

2019 is Upon Us! I’ve been thinking a lot about personal goals and what I want to change this year.

A general question someone asked me years ago has stuck with me: “If I keep doing what I’m doing now, will I be where I want to in one year, five years or ten years?” I’ll ask you the same in regards to your spiritual walk – if you keep doing what you are doing today, where will you be by the end of this year? In five years? In ten? Are there things that need adjustments? Are you using your God-given gifts to impact your world and make a difference?

As I think about my walk with Christ this year, three questions come to mind:

  1.  Are there any activities, books, seminars, or men’s groups I could join that will teach me something new?
  2.  What one or two things can I do in 2019 that will make me be a better reflection of Christ?
  3.  Where does Christ want me to give special attention to in 2019?

– Physical
– Relational/Family
– Financial
– Spiritual
– Intellectual
– Professional

I know from past experience my chances of success go way up if any action step or goal is clear, makes it into my weekly schedule, and I have some form of accountability. I’d like to challenge each of us to pray through and answer each question above, then make goals that will be incorporated into our everyday life, and have some way to hold yourself accountable to them. Think about the things that could happen in and through you in 2019! Christ is waiting and ready to help you make a difference in your world this year!

Lord, I want to reach new heights this year and I want to glorify You. Would You show me where you want my focus to be? Help me to choose well and to be a proper representation of You this year. Thank You for fresh beginnings. Amen.

Question: How will you answer the questions above?

By Mike Woodard

Used by Permission

Comments: If you don’t see our response form, please go to https://thoughts-about-god.com/blog/mike-woodard_questions-for-2019/

Learn more about knowing Jesus at: http://thoughts-about-god.com/four-laws/

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Why You Shouldn’t Stop Blogging (or Why You Should Consider Starting)

I have said a few times and in a few ways that I’m concerned about what seems to be a growing trend: Bloggers are shuttering their blogs and instead submitting articles to the major ministry sites. If they aren’t shuttering their blogs altogether, they are writing on them less or using them primarily as a kind of resume to link to the material they’ve written elsewhere. Please hear me: I appreciate those major ministries, I enjoy reading their sites, and I am grateful for the great content they share. What concerns me is that their ascension may be directly related to the decline of Christian blogging. Yet I am convinced the church will be healthier and those ministry sites will ultimately have better material to share if we continue to have a thriving Christian blogosphere.

Today I want to list a few reasons it may be better for bloggers to continue blogging on their own sites, and why we need a new generation of bloggers to take up the craft. Here are some of the benefits you may experience if you maintain your own blog (instead of only ever submitting material to the major ministry blogs). If you have your own blog…

…you serve readers by building a relationship with them. A significant part of the power of a blog is that it combines writing with personality to form a relationship between the writer and the reader. This makes it a deeply personal rather than merely abstract form of communication. Just like the personality of a pastor is a crucial component of his preaching, the personality of the writer is a crucial component of her writing. The relationship between writer and reader is developed over time so that readers are eventually compelled not just by what the writer says, but by who she is. This kind of relationship can be developed far more and far better on a blog than a ministry site. That’s because the identity of the blogger is the key factor in a blog, while the identity of the ministry is the key factor at a ministry site. The primary relationship at a blog is of the writer to the reader; the primarily relationship at a ministry blog is of the ministry to the reader, with the writer tending to fade into the background.

…you have freedom to cover any topic. When big news breaks or important ideas merit consideration, it is unlikely that you will be able to play a role in commenting or analyzing. That’s because these sites have access to scholars, experts, and in-house writers who can take on that role, and once they’ve covered it, you can’t cover it. Even if you have something to say that helpfully complements or humbly contradicts what has already been said, you won’t have the ability to say it without your own blog. In that way giving away your blog gives away your voice. It gives away your ability to contribute on what may be key issues.

…you don’t have to play it safe. The articles you submit to these ministry sites are likely to be “safe,” which is to say they will avoid controversial matters. You’ll write about topics both you and they are comfortable with. You won’t have the opportunity to push yourself in your thinking and writing. You won’t have the opportunity to express dissenting viewpoints. Instead, you’ll be forced to stick with safe explorations of common issues related to Christian living or doctrine.

…you don’t have to swing for the fences. If you only ever submit articles for consideration at the ministry blogs, you’ll become obsessed with the quality of each article. To borrow a baseball analogy, you’ll only ever swing for the fences. So much of life, and ministry, and writing is hitting singles, and learning to be okay with hitting singles, and learning to appreciate how God so often uses those singles to incrementally advance his causes. (Imagine if your pastor would only preach sermons that he believed were a home run!)

…you won’t ever release some of your most important articles. There’s also this: we vastly overestimate our ability to predict which of our articles will resonate with people and make a difference in their day or in their life. What we’re convinced is a home run is often a single and what we’re convinced is a single is often a home rum. What I’ve learned over many years of doing this is that some of the articles I thought the weakest were the ones God used in the biggest ways. But I would never have submitted them to a ministry blog, which means readers never would have had the benefit of reading them. How many helpful and biblical articles are sitting unpublished because the writer thought they weren’t good enough?

…you miss the benefit of plodding. One of the great benefits of submitting articles for consideration at one of the ministry blogs is that they are passed through an editorial process. This process can strengthen the article while also providing valuable feedback to improve the quality of future submissions. However, I’m convinced the greater means of growing in skill is the practice of regular writing. Editorial feedback can supplement but never replace this. Additionally, the editorial process is not designed to help you find your voice as much as to help you find their voice. When you submit an article to these sites you may gain valuable feedback, but it’s not analogous to entering into a writing mentorship. What you may consider a key to growth as a writer will displace the even greater key. You need to plod!

…you fail to serve the wider church. Living in the bubble of Reformed writers, you may think that “everyone” reads these big ministry blogs. They don’t. Just ask around at church and you’ll see that the majority of good and godly people don’t. They haven’t formed the habit and perhaps don’t have the interest. There’s an important implication: Just because something has been said on one of these sites, doesn’t mean that it won’t be beneficial to say it elsewhere. If you can speak to a crucial topic and reach fifty or a hundred people who otherwise wouldn’t consider it, you’ve done good work. You may find the most effective way to serve others isn’t to get the message out to the widest audience, but to your audience—the one you’ve built a relationship with over time, the one who likes you, not just what you say.

Keep on Plodding

I encourage you to keep on plodding with that blogging. By all means, submit some of your best material to the ministry blogs! That is of benefit to you and them and all of us. But keep writing on your own blog as well. That’s the best of both worlds.


Googling Online Reviews And Top 10 Lists Are Wastes Of Time

So an annoyance and a likely by product of SEO is the lack of quality articles and reviews on topics these days.  I expected that it would be annoying to search out a possible new theme for one of my sites but I what I found in the search results was a heap of … shit.  Like total crap that served as self promoting noise dressed up as useful reviews.

I Googled “SEO Agency WordPress themes” The top 10 results all pretty much sucked, they lacked any real effort in delivering what they claim to offer.  Lets look at the top result…and how bad it reviews what it claims to review.

This top result on Google is pointless to visit.  They review the same thing ten times essentially and describe features of WordPress that are available to any theme on WordPress as if they are unique to the themes they are peddling.  Notice if we ignore the colors on the page not much else really changes theme to theme.

If you aren’t looking for a full width theme with words serving as a navigation bar at the top of the page and a logo in the upper righthand corner you’ll be pretty disappointed by this review from athemes.com.  They drop the ball totally in providing you with diverse options and meaningful comparisons.

Lines like “SEOLounge combines an impressive selection of pre-built content with some powerful customization options to help you create an effective SEO agency website with WordPress.” Are worthless, SEO Lounge doesn’t offer any more customization options than WordPress itself offers.  The features offered are basically identical one theme to the next.

Even the plugins they use are pretty much the same.  A theme having 55 icons isn’t of value, I can add icons all day long.  A one click installer is … essentially the way any theme is installed.  One click so why is that a point to note of one theme over another? The ability to put demo content into your site is stupid, let’s just call it duplicate filler content that has no relevance to your business.  That isn’t a feature.

Is this a feature of a theme or is this what WordPress does “Of course, if there are any homepage elements you don’t need to use on your website, you can easily deactivate or remove them as appropriate.  ” That’s not a feature of a theme, it IS WordPress.

I dislike Visual Composer, and I consider WP Bakery to be the same product cause it is…even their creator has an article titled Visual Composer = WPBakery.   If we discard every theme that uses that builder in this review we are left with only one theme that notes a different builder.

Wanna know what isn’t a feature of a theme?  A feature of WordPress or the ability to use a plugin thats available to any theme on WordPress.

These are some of the strengths noted of the themes that all look the same and offer nothing of value towards being different from a theme you could use to sale any other business service.   It isn’t necessarily the authors fault but SEOs in general, who forget what the point was in the search they are seeking to rank.

Other reviews in this search included very few good options despite the title’s claims or the site that hosted the content.  The second result listed was https://mysiteauditor.com/blog/top-10-wordpress-themes-for-seo-agencies/.  If you wanted a theme out of their 10 reviewed to not be … a logo in the upper right hand corner with words across the top serving as the site’s navigation then followed by a full width content area you’d have not found anything.

What could have been different?  A theme that included a collapsible fly-out menu?  Maybe a menu that was full width and tiles?  Why the site’s logo has to sit in the upper righthand corner in every theme is anyone’s guess.

So SEOs take some time to compare diverse products and recognize a theme’s feature should be unique to only that theme, not all of WordPress.

Try our free website grader!

Enter the URL of any landing page or blog article and see how optimized it is for one keyword or phrase.

Related posts:


A La Carte (January 10)

There are, once again, a few Kindle deals to take a look at today.  Meanwhile, Westminster Books has discounted 2018’s bestsellers.

(Yesterday on the blog: January New and Notable Books)

Grown Men Are the Solution, Not the Problem

David French is one of many who has responded to some concerning new guidelines from the American Psychological Association. Also, read Joe Carter for a summary of the issue.

Don’t Be Afraid To Repeat Yourself

This is a worthwhile read for pastors and teachers. “We assume far too much of our people. By that, I don’t mean that we assume they are cleverer than they really are. Nor do I mean that we have a tendency to expect them to do too much work in the church. What I meant was that we assume they take in far more from our sermons than they really do. It would probably be more accurate to say that we assume far too much of our teaching programmes and abilities.”

We All Have Theological Blind Spots

Juan Sanchez: “It’s not enough to be an eloquent, competent, educated, passionate, and accurate teacher. To be useful in ministry, the gospel we share must be complete. Gifted teachers may wow and win audiences, but because of their theological blind spots, they may also lead them away from Christ and his gospel. Incomplete theological teaching stunts Christian growth, harms spiritual well-being, and, as we see in many cases on social media and in our churches, causes division.”

Read Your Bible to Fight Unbelief

Becky Pliego asks and answers this question: “Why do we stop reading our Bibles? Really, think about it. It is not because we lack the time to do it. If we are breathing we have time -and God knows we do have time! In reality, we stop reading our Bibles because we lack the faith to believe that God himself speaks to us through it.”

The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Samuel James wrote a response to some of my recent thoughts on blogging. He both agrees and disagrees with me. Let’s all keep the conversation going!

Dutch Leaders Sign The Nashville Statement

Over 250 Dutch leaders have signed The Nashville Statement and, in so doing, have drawn a lot of criticism (and potential criminal investigation).

Before True Love Waits

I find it interesting to see how different people are interpreting the purity movement that swept evangelicalism in the early 90s. This article tells about Josh McDowell traveling with Petra to share the message. “So is it any wonder that when young men are taught they can expect divinely-sanctioned indulgence as a reward for their will power and young women are expected to go from innocent lamb to lusty tiger literally overnight, the marriages of middle-aged evangelicals are still recovering from the effects of the purity movement?”

Flashback: A Day a Week, A Week a Year

I now take one day a week and one week a year away from the digital buzz. And then I fight the daily battle.

If you were a hundred times worse than you are, your sins would be no match for his mercy. —Tim Keller


The Power of Perspective in Your Marriage

Marriage 91101/09/19 Couple with relationship problems

“He’s never going to change,” Jodi said, looking over at her husband. “He’s always been this way and will probably always stay this way.”

She turned away from her husband, Thomas, and looked at me.

“I don’t think you can tell me anything that will help,” she continued. “We’ve been to three or four other counselors and he hasn’t changed for any of them. I’ve been married to him for 30 years and nothing has changed during that time. Why should I believe anything will change now?”

To get help for your marriage from Dr. Hawkins and his qualified staff, please visit The Marriage Recovery Center website or call 206-219-0145.

Jodi stared over at her husband, who now stared back at her. I could sense the tension mounting.

“Is it possible there was something missing in the counseling?” I asked. “Or, that it is going to take even more work with a greater amount of accountability for change?”

“You are not going to be able to convince me of anything different,” she said firmly. “You haven’t lived with him for 30 years. I have no reason to believe the future will be any different than the past.”

Thomas rolled his eyes and looked away.

“Then, why are we here?” he asked sharply. He took his glasses off and placed them on his lap.

“Well,” Jodi continued. “Why should I believe anything can change? It hasn’t for years. I can’t see any reason for hope.”

“What if this Marriage Intensive could be an intervention?” I asked. “What if both of you decided to really have a different kind of marriage? What if what is needed is a change of perspective?”

“That would be great,” Jodi said. “But I need to see change!”

“Yes,” I said. “You both need to see change. But, I’d like to talk to you about the power of perspective.”

“OK,” she said in a surly tone. “I’d like to hear how things can change.”

With that, I shared with them what I had seen thousands of times.

“Folks,” I began. “Change doesn’t happen magically. Change doesn’t happen easily. But change can happen. Both of you have to want change to occur. You have to take note of the things you do that keep life the same, what you want to have different, and what it will take to change things. I call this the power of perspective and attitude. Whether you believe things can change or believe they cannot change, you’re right.”

I waited for my words sink in.

“In other words, you create your future. Let’s talk about having a perspective of your marriage being able to be exactly what you want it to be. Your attitude, and the things you do when you are here and when you leave here, that will make the difference.”

I shared with them what I’ve seen in thousands of couples–your perspective determines how your marriage will turn out. If you have a limited perspective and keep doing the same things wrong, you will get dismal results. However, if you change your perspective, looking critically at the way you connect and disconnect from each other, much can change.

Here are some further thoughts we discussed that helped Jodi and Thomas and can help you:  

1. Take note of your attitude.

Be honest with yourself about whether you have a limited vision (perspective) about your marriage. Do you believe change is not possible? Have you lost hope and are you stuck? Do you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, surprised by the results?

2. Change your attitude and perspective.

Are you willing to stop at nothing to bring about change? Scripture tells us, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) If we dwell on past failures, we are likely to set ourselves up for future failure. If, however, you believe you simply haven’t found the right combination and know you must keep searching for answers, you are likely to find them.  

3. Develop a plan for change.

Intervention is the key to change. It takes a breakdown in the way we’ve been living to invite real change into our lives. We must stop at nothing to bring about change. Find the best help you can and follow their counsel. Take drastic measures to bring about drastic change. It all begins, however, with perspective.  

4. Create a plan of accountability for change.

Once you’ve cultivated a new attitude, and then have a plan for change, find someone who will hold you accountable. Having a plan is worth little if you don’t have a stringent plan for following through with it.

5. Create a support network to reinforce change.

Change is best kept if we have ample support for that plan. Invite several other couples into your inner circle, letting them know the issues you are working on and your plan for change. Ask them to check in with you to see if you are following through with your plans.


Now That I’m Called – Women and the Call to Ministry

Kristen Padilla
Now That I’m Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.
Available at Zondervan.

By Jill Firth

I have learned that the call is a journey.” At the end of ninth grade, Kristen Padilla’s call was clear, but eighteen years later, the specific direction is still being worked out. Padilla helpfully distinguishes between a call to deliver God’s word, and the shape that might take in serving the church and the world. A personal sense of call is to be tested by Scripture, our gifts, our own personal history and the wisdom of our church’s community. A strength of this book is its applicability within different church traditions, whether our tradition allows women to teach men, or limits our role to preaching and teaching to women or children.

Now That I’m Called opens with Padilla’s own journey as a Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter through university, seminary, and a job at Beeson to Divinity School, to an exploration of formal ministry within the Anglican Church. Padilla clarifies the specific type of calling she is discussing in her book, the calling to a ministry of ‘delivering the God’s Word for the benefit of the people of God.” She acknowledges the broader context of a call to God’s invitation into a relationship with himself, to other ministry appointments, or to other daily work or service, but limits the discussion in this book to a call to preaching, teaching, speaking or writing about Scripture.

The first two chapters set the scene by examining God’s call to men in the Old Testament (Moses, Joshua, David, Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Jesus, Peter, Paul, Timothy). Chapters Three and Four consider women from the Old Testament (Deborah, Huldah) and the New Testament (Mary, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Elizabeth, Euodia, Syntyche and the women of Romans 16). Chapters Five and Six examine theological themes: the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and a theology of spiritual gifts from Ephesians 4:11-13. The final two chapters consider the value of theological education for ministry and practical preparation through internships and mentoring.

An advantage of the book is the invitation to consider different points of view. This is most significant in the chapter on 1 Timothy 2, where Padilla interacts with the interpretations of Andreas J. Koestenberger, Linda Belleville, Bruce Winter, I. Howard Marshall, William J. Webb, Craig Keener, Philip Towner and Philip Payne.

Should women go to Seminary? Padilla invites women to gain the best training they can. In some church settings, male pastors have seminary degrees while women’s ministry leaders have received only informal training or perhaps a year of Bible College. Padilla says, “all who handle God’s Word must learn to handle it properly,” whether they will be teaching the whole congregation or only the women and children. Theological education can involve engagement with Hebrew and Greek, biblical subjects, church history, theology, preaching, evangelism, pastoral care. The timing will vary, as women manage their families and other commitments, and may need to study online or past time. Padilla urges face-to-face attendance at a reputable seminary, where possible. She outlines criteria for choosing a seminary, including the school’s attitudes to the place of women in gospel ministry. Sadly, most women encounter opposition at some point, whether from fellow students, church members or even strangers. In considering a seminary, prospective students are invited to notice if there are any women on faculty, and the official views on the website. They can speak to current students or graduates, and enquire to the admissions officer about policies and opportunities for learning, ministry, preaching and teaching for women in their program.

Each chapter concludes with a series of questions for reflection and discussion, making this a useful book to read with a friend or small group. Personal exercises invite the reader into deeper reflection and prayer on Scripture and their own journey. A highlight in the book is the personal stories in each chapter’s “Ministry Spotlight.” Her examples include university professors, itinerant preachers, directors of women’s ministries, discipleship coordinators, ordained ministers, writers and speakers, campus ministers and publishers. Each story is different, showing a gradual unfolding of ministry in relation to call.

I recommend this book and will be lending it enthusiastically to students of both genders and to women exploring God’s call in their lives. It should find a temporary home in libraries and pastor’s bookshelves, between being read by students and parishioners. It can find its way under Christmas trees and into the hands of beloved daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts. It can be circulated among friends, discussed in small groups or form the basis for a sermon series or adult Sunday School classes. Thank you to Kirsten Padilla for this accessible and most practical gift.

Jill Firth is a Lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College. She holds a BA, an MDiv, an MA in spiritual direction, and a PhD in Psalms studies. Jill is an ordained Anglican minister and a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. With a team of women from Ridley, she organises Evangelical Women in Academia, an annual conference based at Ridley College to promote women’s scholarship.

Now That I’m Called – Women and the Call to Ministry

As shutdown’s impact grows, pressure rises to end it


With a government shutdown now 18 days old and coming into sharper focus with the end of holiday season, its impacts on Americans are spreading.

An estimated 800,000 federal workers across the nation are on furlough or working without pay, uncertain when they’ll get their next paycheck and sometimes turning to side gigs to cope.

It means that pandas and other animals at the National Zoo in Washington are being fed, but the public isn’t getting to see them. Applications for federally backed mortgages face delays due to untended inboxes. And Forest Service workers like Matthew Charlesworth in Oregon can’t move forward preparing timber-harvesting contracts as usual.

The chaos reflects a political impasse that’s affecting a large chunk of federal activity. Some government operations (including the military) still have funding. And from the Coast Guard and air-traffic control to the FBI and Secret Service, others have many “essential” workers who are being asked to show up without pay.

All this takes a toll on the individuals and the wider economy – and could create political pressure on both major parties to resolve their budget rift.

That’s because the longer the shutdown persists, the more the effects deepen and become visible. Within weeks, funding could begin to run dry for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), cutting food stamps to some 38 million lower-income Americans. Aspiring young companies may have to postpone public-stock offerings. And public-housing programs will see funds dwindle – or in some cases expose tenants to eviction.

“There are wide ripple effects that I think we’re experiencing…. But some of the deepest impacts will be on the most vulnerable people,” says Susan Popkin, an Urban Institute fellow who focuses on housing policy. “The parts of the safety net that seem to be most at risk are SNAP and housing assistance.”

Already, when federal workers themselves are pinching pennies and staying home due to the partial federal shutdown, the ripple effects include a dent in consumer spending. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but one that’s especially noticeable in the nation’s capital itself.

“I Metro in, and it’s half empty and I think ‘Wow, how much money are they losing?’ ” Ms. Popkin says.

It’s not just Washington

The unfunded agencies, with operations sprinkled across the 50 states, span from the Agriculture Department to airport security and the immigration courts that feature prominently in the stand-off between President Trump and congressional Democrats over immigration policy and border security. Mr. Trump has been insisting on at least $5.7 billion for a wall to help secure the US-Mexico border, and Democrats have stood firm against that idea.

For now, what that means is that Mr. Charlesworth, a single dad, has no income.

A resident of Bend, Ore., he’s normally out in the woods preparing contracts for private timber harvests and other Forest Service operations. But as a “nonessential” Agriculture Department employee, he’s on furlough and has just applied for unemployment insurance to help tide him through however long the shutdown lasts.

“I’ve got enough to float the mortgage and a few bills in the bank account,” he says, describing how he’s starting to juggle carefully to make sure he prioritizes the right order to pay his bills.

He’s seen a shutdown or two before – typically, once the impasse ends, workers get the paychecks they would have ordinarily received. That in turn gets used to reimburse state jobless-insurance funds that were tapped. There’s no guarantee, however, that the current shutdown will repeat that pattern.

Younger workers hit harder

For now, the immediate pinch of lost paychecks may fall hardest on younger workers with modest pay. That may explain rising reports of airport-security workers calling in sick to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). They’re expected to be at work but have dwindling resources for living and commuting.

“It’s a little stressful,” says one TSA worker at Reagan National Airport in Washington, who has just her own income to support herself and her 5-year-old son, who is now old enough to be in school. “I’m glad I don’t need to worry about day care.”

But even two-income households are affected.

“We do live paycheck to paycheck,” says one National Park Service employee, married to another furloughed federal worker, who asked that their names not be used. “The first few weeks were not as bad because we got one paycheck. But the second the [other] paycheck stopped, that was more stressful.”

The fallout for them extends from grocery shopping to their aspirations to buy a home.

“My husband and I were in the process of buying a house, and we lost the house,” she says. “You can’t close on a house during a shutdown, so another buyer came in and our contract disappeared, basically.”

Their belt-tightening, she adds, now includes putting clothing items up for sale online, and learning “to eat the same meal and stretch it out with rice for a week, and that’s been interesting.”

Some of their friends, who are also furloughed, are filling in the income gap by doing food delivery for UberEats.

Clock is ticking

Perhaps mainly as a negotiating tool, Trump has talked about being willing to let the shutdown go a “long time,” months or longer, if Democrats don’t cut a deal on border-wall funding. Some analysts predict that pressure will mount for officials to end the current shutdown.

“Imagine the optics and the real hardship if members of the United States Coast Guard are not paid for a year,” writes Jeffrey Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, in a commentary published Monday. “Do we really think Americans are going to stand by and watch members of one of our military services living on food stamps and welfare while they are carrying out their mission?”

The list of pressure points from the public also includes things like closure or littering of national parks, and concern about whether Americans will receive tax refunds on time.

Shutdown-related dysfunction adds urgency to bargaining in Washington, and that can serve a purpose – albeit with an air of needless upheaval – when two sides are at loggerheads. It’s happened before.

What’s different this time is the president’s apparent lack of concern about how long the shutdown might run. Such bravado can be a bargaining chip but also risks drawing public blame on himself.

Trump’s stance softening?

Already there are signs of Trump perhaps starting to walk back an air of recklessness.

His administration has pledged that tax refunds will happen on time (without explaining how a partially shuttered Internal Revenue Service will do that).

“I don’t care that most of the workers not getting paid are Democrats,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 5. “I want to stop the Shutdown as soon as we are in agreement on Strong Border Security! I am in the White House ready to go, where are the Dems?”

In remarks to reporters at the White House Monday, Trump said he “can relate” to the pain of federal workers who aren’t getting paid. He added that “many of those people agree 100 percent with what I’m doing.”

Many federal workers, whether in agreement or not, are simply trying to soldier through a difficult situation. Trump will try to use a prime-time televised address tonight to gain additional leverage, casting border security as both an emergency and a mandate from his 2016 election victory.

But time may not be on the side of anyone who pushes a government shutdown much deeper into the new year.

SNAP, also known as food stamps, could face shortfalls in February and be largely tapped out by March without new appropriations for the Agriculture Department.

And housing authorities have already stopped the flow of repair funds for public housing, with deeper potential funding challenges for the Housing Department looming after March, says Popkin at the Urban Institute. Delays in contracts for privately owned low-income housing could cause tenants to be evicted as the landlords seek income for their properties.

“It’s going to leave people in potentially unsafe situations,” she says, and even before the shutdown there wasn’t “enough assistance to go around.”

Americans step in

Some nonprofit groups and volunteers have stepped up to try to ease the shutdown’s widening effects.

Citizens have arrived with mops and sponges to maintain bathrooms at places like Yellowstone National Park in Montana.

In Washington, experts at American University have been holding seminars to offer career-skill coaching to federal workers while they’re furloughed, from “kindness in management” to tips that might help them keep up their spirits and health while sidelined.

“There’s just been an amazing response,” including 550 people signing up for the mentoring, says Vicky Wilkins, dean of the university’s School of Public Affairs.

Many federal workers say they learn to check their own political views at the door amid the political debates swirling around the government.

Paul Bamonte, a branch chief with the Department of Homeland Security who turned out for the university event on Tuesday says: “It’s that idea of, what can I do to get back to work, continue to care for my family, continue to do a wonderful job at work, and serve my country.”



What’s Your Focus?


There are many posts, blogs, articles and thoughts about the New Year. Make a resolution or not. Turn over a new leaf. Find a meaningful word. What is our focus?

If it is on us, then perhaps it is why we seem to fall short each year. After all, Paul reminds us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

I once heard that both SIN and PRIDE have “I” in the middle. In today’s “me-ism”  world of selfies and all-about-me introverted thinking, our society suffers from too much of a focus on ourselves and not others. Whether we meet our goals or not, the focus is still the same…it is on us. How quickly that can absorb us, right?

In contrast, the Christian is supposed to strive to be more other-focused. Paul also told the Philippians, and tells us –

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!  (2:3-8)

Perhaps, instead of focusing on how we should change, become more aware, adjust our weight, habits, etc. we need to shift our focus to the Cross. Not rely on our own strength, or even ask God to give us strength, but for Him to be our strength. May we choose to be other-orientated and open to being used to His glory. Let God set the path, and be pliable enough to be molded in the way He wishes so we can be His hands and feet in this world and point others to Him, not ourselves

By Julie Cosgrove

Used by Permission

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