Where are Christians persecuted?

Open Doors USA has released a list of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. Most are Muslim, some are Communist or ex-Communist — some are both.

The top five:

1. North Korea

2. Afghanistan

3. Saudi Arabia

4. Somalia

5. Iran

You can learn more about Open Doors here.

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Wishing to satisfy the crowd

11 a.m. contemporary Shine worship, First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

I’ve spent my life in small congregations, sometimes ones so small that they didn’t even have a permanent home for worship.

Cozy, yes. Claustrophobic, sometimes.

But chiefly “without many resources.”

First Church is one of the largest congregations in my hometown, but that isn’t why I chose it this Sunday. First Church is also the site of Friday Night Lights, which is a once-a-month rave that attracts 500+ middle-schoolers. Fun? “Made of awesome,” my seventh-grade son says.

So I thought he might not mind accompanying me to a contemporary worship at the very location of so much awesome, i.e, First Church’s Christian Life Center. I kinda figured he’d balk at the traditional worship being held in the sanctuary at the same time. (Two simultaneous services! A first for me.)

“Ooh, coffee,” my son said, coming through the entrance doors to the CLC. “Coffee, coffee, coffee!” Other churches have coffee before worship (see yesterday), but First Church has coffee with optional hazelnut and vanilla flavorings. And hot chocolate. With mini-marshmallows.

“You can take it in to worship, if you like,” said Cheryl, behind the counter. She pointed to the to-go lids and then to the gym behind me, where the band was warming up with a tune I couldn’t quite recognize. All right, then. The boy — converted for the price of a Starbucks — and I took our coffees to seats on the basketball floor.

First Church’s band is of the Christian pop-rock variety, professional and professionally amplified, with lyrics projected on big screens above our heads. The music is way more modern than 19-century hymns, but from my son’s stony look, I gather it’s nothing like what he listens to on his own.

Or maybe he was trying to maintain his cool. “I don’t do singing,” he whispered to me during the second song, as the crowd began to clap on the backbeat.

“Do you do dancing?” I whispered back. He gave me the Preteen Look of Horror, but he did stop frowning.

The rock concert stage may be the chancel of our times, but still, there are no altars in basketball gyms. Rev. Brian William paced in front of the microphone stands to deliver a sermon on Mark 15:15. You know, where Pilate asks the bloodthirsty mob which prisoner they want released, Barabbas the thief or Jesus.

Pilate knew the right thing to do, William said. But Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd — and so a great evil was done. When evil takes root among a crowd of people, what grows is horrific: Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo. On and on.

But in looking around a church built with so many appealing, market-tested features — new classrooms and youth parties, rock music and coffee bars — I couldn’t help but think that sometimes “what would satisfy the crowd” can lead to good. (And not just “good vanilla coffee.”)

First Church sponsors a ministry called Art & Soul at Central UMC in Detroit. Volunteers go on Mondays and Thursdays to help homeless people express themselves through art. (If you think “expressing yourself” is the least important thing a homeless person needs, ask yourself why a homeless person should need it any less than you do.) Only a prosperous church — one that has more than enough resources — can hope to offer a ministry like that.

We saw a short film about one visit, in which homeless Detroiters decorated cupcakes. One man decorated with gusto, piling sprinkles and frosting so high that the First Churcher helping him finally squeaked out, “Less is more!”

“Girl,” the man told her, “less is NOT more.”

Amen.

Suffer the not-so-little 12-year-olds

Another friend, at dinner.

“I don’t want to tell him what to believe. He has his own journey, and I respect that,” she said over appetizers. “I just want him to know what he’s rejecting before he rejects it!”

She has a 13-year-old son, a bright, engaging, thoughtful boy who happens to be best friends with my 12-year-old son, another bright, engaging, thoughtful boy. They call each other “brother.” That sounds right.

And the two of them — maybe because they are bright, engaging, thoughtful boys — have decided that God just doesn’t make “sense.” I haven’t been privileged to hear the 13-year-old’s arguments, but I have heard my son’s: Belief in God is an opinion. There’s no proof. The world is messed up. We’re little more than animals. Etc.

None of this is fresh, of course. I’m glad my son is thinking about the Big Questions, and thinking hard. I’m glad he has a good friend to talk about them. I know that true faith often emerges only after a desert trek through non-faith.

And yet we, the mothers, are tearing our hair out.

How on earth, how in heaven, how how how do we get our beautiful boys to even consider that God might exist? How do we teach them the broad swath of deep thinking about God and faith that has gone before, if they’ve already shut their minds?

How do we get them to church?

“I’m not very satisfied with the Religious Ed program at our church this year,” my friend said. I have news for her and for all the church leaders: No parent is ever truly satisfied with the religious ed program. A free tip from my pew-hopping so far. (Another free tip: If you want people to show up on time for worship, have a coffee urn in the entrance hall. Amazing how the promise of caffeine can motivate.)

That doesn’t mean religious ed can’t be improved. We didn’t get to the specifics of her complaints before the checks came, but mine are that our neck of liberal Christianity has stopped teaching Scripture and Jesus and turned to vague lessons about how “God loves you” and “you’re special.” And crafts, with snacks. As if our kids didn’t get enough self-esteem inflation at school. Or enough crafts, with snacks.

My friend’s plan of attack so far has been to try to drag her son to Mass (by the ear?) and to hope that her own deep faith might impress him. “And then my husband gives him ‘The God Delusion!'” she wails.

Well, it’s not like the boy can’t google “Richard Dawkins” on his own.

My son has read great swaths of the Bible without pressing from me  — his favorite book is Job — so I’m not worried unto death about the attack of the atheists. But I’m also not all that sanguine about my side’s chances with my boy, either.

What’s a poor mother of Godless to do?

Awe and shock

I was having coffee with a dear friend when the subject of my journey — the one chronicled here — came up. I might have brought it up.

I wanted to talk about a sermon that I had found unsatisfactory. Not “unsatisfactory” as in “D-minus work,” but as in “I came to drink deeply and was left thirsty.” Too much of it had seemed too focused on the little “I” and its ego, and not enough on God.

“I wanted awe,” I said.

“More awe,” she said.

Yes, more awe. But what could that mean? How would it look? And would I want it if I found it?

A book I finished recently comes to mind. “An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order” — who needs a summary when you have a subtitle like that — by Nancy Klein Maguire (Public Affairs, 2006) tells of, well, five young men who entered an English monastery of the Catholic Carthusian order in 1960 for a five-year novitiate. Only one stayed. That tells you a lot.

Why are the Carthusians the “most austere”? Not necessarily because they deny themselves food, though they fast, impressively. Not necessarily because they deny themselves material comfort, though they do. (They even wear hair shirts.)

They’re austere because they deprive themselves of companionship, and in a particularly challenging way. Each monk lives alone in a small house with a small garden, connected to a cloister that leads to the church and other common areas. A monk will spend most of his day alone in his house cell, but will join the other monks for worship and some meals. So he is not precisely a hermit.

But, for the most part, he will converse with the other monks only once a week, on a walk in the country. The rest of the time, no conversation, no greetings, not even eye contact during many hours of communal worship and chanting. The monk is surrounded by people yet alone.

Do you expect me to say, “Isn’t this true of all of us? Are we not each of us essentially alone? Is this not man’s tragedy?” Or maybe point out that the Carthusians seek solitude so that they can focus on prayer and on God? But you guessed as much. Why else?

Why else? I’d read the book because my husband had. He’d come to the end of it a little wistful. The life sounded peaceful, he said, and valuable. “If God exists,” one of the novices says, “then being a Carthusian makes sense, is rigorously coherent.” My husband appreciated that.

What I said:  “It would be nice to know what to do each day.”

What I didn’t say: “If God were to appear to me while I was in prayer in a small, cold, dark house in deep winter, I’d … I’d … I’d … I can’t imagine that.”

A failure of imagination?

Alas, I think it is a failure of awe.