Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Once upon a time, the average-sized American religious congregation had two telephones that really mattered.

There was the office telephone, answered by a secretary or receptionist during business hours. It was the job of this gatekeeper -- who over time became an expert on life in the flock -- to tell the shepherd which calls were urgent and which could wait.

The other telephone was at the pastor's home. Many people knew that number, but they also knew it was not business as usual to dial it.

"People knew they never should call the pastor's home number unless it was a real emergency," said the Rev. Karl Vaters, of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif. "There was a boundary there and people tried to help protect the pastor's time at home. That boundary was there to help protect his family and his ministry."

These days, both of those telephones, for all practical purposes, have been replaced by cellphones for the pastors and members of small congregations -- usually defined as those with under 200 people attending the main worship service. For most clergy, the cellphones in their pockets are always there, always vibrating to remind them of cares and concerns that rarely, if ever, go away.

It was the one-two punch of cellphones and email that first pulled clergy into the social-media age, followed by digital newsletters, Facebook pages and constantly changing congregational websites. Even in small churches, the work of the "church secretary" has evolved, from answering the office telephone and preparing an ink-on-paper newsletter to serving as an all-purpose online networker.

"The old boundaries are vanishing and, for pastors in some parts of the country, they're almost completely gone," said Vaters, reached by telephone.

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

Anyone who visits a typical American megachurch worship service will get a quick education on the mechanics of contemporary praise music.

First, the band rocks into action, while swaying worshipers raise their hands high, singing lyrics displayed on giant screens. There may be lasers and smoke. A guitarist or keyboard player guides everyone through worship songs -- loud then soft, softer then louder -- linked by dramatic key changes and musical "bridges." Eventually, there's a sermon or worship video.

What if something goes wrong? This Babylon Bee headline was an online classic: "Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus."

In this fake "news report," a weeping member of the worship band adds: "It's scary, honestly. … This is our third worship leader who's been sucked into a PCBV (Perpetual Chorus-Bridge Vortex) in the past year."

After the 14th chorus-to-bridge transition, deacons called 911 and the victim was rushed to an emergency room. "Physicians are subjecting him," readers learn, "to a barrage of classic hymns in hopes that he will recover."

This is an inside-baseball brand of satire that allows Babylon Bee creator Adam Ford to gently explore the yins and yangs of evangelical Christianity.

"While we satirize our own camp quite a bit, we don't limit ourselves to evangelicalism. We write about culture, politics, other religions, current events, etc., regularly," said Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. He shares more of his personal story in his own Adam4d.com web-comics site.

Most Babylon Bee newcomers, however, are almost certainly be drawn there by social-media references to the site's popular items dissecting modern evangelical life.

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Like most illustrations in children's books, the image of Mother Teresa is quite simple, showing her kneeling in prayer beside her bed in a dark room, facing a bare cross and a single candle.

The tiny nun's eyes are open and her expression is hard to read. The text on the opposite page is candid.

"Mother Teresa experienced a great sorrow. Ever since she had moved to the slums, she no longer felt the presence of Jesus as she had before. She felt as though abandoned, rejected by him," according to "Mother Teresa: The Smile of Calcutta," a storybook for young children. "In her heart, she felt darkness and emptiness. She experienced the suffering of the poor who did not feel loved. She shared in the loneliness Christ suffered on the Cross."

Only the priests who worked with her knew about this "dark night of the soul," an experience seen in the lives of some other saints.

Working with text by Charlotte Grossetete, originally written in French, Ignatius Press editor Vivian Dudro said she "spent lots of time working on how to phrase that part. … You picture a young child reading about this pain in a saint's life or having this story read to them. How do you explain something like this in a few simple words?"

This dark night is clearly a crucial part of the life of the Albanian nun who was canonized this past weekend as St. Teresa of Kolkata. The formal petition to Pope Francis concluded: "Despite a painful experience of inner darkness, Mother Teresa travelled everywhere, concerned … to spread the love of Jesus throughout the world. She thus became an icon of God's tender and merciful love for all, especially for those who are unloved, unwanted and uncared for."

St. Teresa's sense of spiritual loss was the mirror image of the intense spiritual visions that, in 1946, inspired her to plunge deep into the slums of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) to serve the poorest of the poor.

The Supreme Knight addresses Catholics, voting, abortion and listening to angels

The symbolic fact passed quickly, during a long list of achievements in Carl Anderson's annual report as the leader of the Knights of Columbus.

Weeks earlier, the powerful Catholic fraternal order had donated its 700th ultrasound machine for use in crisis pregnancy centers. This was appropriate news to share during the Toronto convention, which took its biblical theme from Isaiah: "Before birth the Lord called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name."

"The Spanish language phrase that means 'to give birth' is 'dar a luz,' words that literally mean 'to give light' to the child," said Anderson, in his Aug. 2 text. "Our ultrasound program gives a light to the mother that enables her to see the reality and often the personality of her child in the womb."

Right now, he added, efforts to oppose abortion are linked to other public debates. For example, there are efforts to support the Little Sisters of the Poor's work with the weak and elderly, as well as their struggles against Health and Human Services mandates they believe attack religious liberty, seeking their cooperation with health-care plans supporting contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion.

This kind of work does require involvement in politics, noted Anderson, who held several posts in the Ronald Reagan administration. However, he noted that Pope Francis said: "Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good."

Thus, Anderson issued a familiar challenge to his audience, which included about 100 bishops.

"We need to end the political manipulation of Catholic voters by abortion advocates," he said. "It is time to end the entanglement of Catholic people with abortion killing. … We will never succeed in building a culture of life if we continue to vote for politicians who support a culture of death."

These are fighting words in a tense year in which the GOP White House candidate has clashed with Pope Francis and Catholic bishops -- conservatives as well as progressives -- on issues linked to immigration and foreign policy.

Pastor Rick Warren, Michael Phelps and the story of a #PurposeDrivenSwimmer

Pastor Rick Warren has heard his share of inspiring stories about people reading "The Purpose Driven Life."

That comes when the territory when you write a book that sells about 40 million copies and gets translated into 85 languages. But the leader of Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif., was surprised when he watched the ESPN feature "The Evolution of Michael Phelps" and learned that his book played a major role in helping the superstar recover from a personal collapse that left him considering suicide.

"I haven't met Michael Phelps yet," said Warren, reached by telephone. "A mutual friend gave me his cell, but I thought the last thing he needed was for me to bother him during the Olympics. …

"The key is that he was honest and he did a turnaround. … Wherever he is in his journey, I'd love to hear about it. You start where he is."

Phelps was brutally candid, with ESPN, about his frame of mind in September of 2014, after his second DUI. He thought this was his "third strike" in life.

"I was a train wreck. I was just like a time bomb, waiting to go off. I had no self-esteem, no self-worth," said Phelps. "There were times when I didn't want to be here. … I just felt lost. Where do I go from here? What do I do now?"

The crisis came after the most decorated Olympian in modern history ended his hasty 18-month retirement after a weak, by his standards, showing in London in 2012. After the arrest, Phelps hid in his bedroom for five days. "I didn't eat. I didn't really sleep. I just figured that the best thing to do was end my life," he said.

Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt

This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.

"The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing -- hence, the leaking roof," noted J.D. Vance, in his "Hillbilly Elegy" memoir about the crisis in America's working class that shaped his family.

"Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life."

Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.

"Why didn't our neighbor leave that abusive man?", wrote Vance. "Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn't she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?" And ultimately, "Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?"

Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.

"It's a classic chicken and egg problem," said Vance, reached by telephone. "Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people -- children especially -- are caught in a vicious cycle."

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics.

Did the terrorists who murdered Father Jacques Hamel know what they were doing?

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015 they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. … That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

Couples looking for a wedding venue in Albuquerque, N.M., used to be able to consider the modern, high-tech facilities at Desert Springs Church.

That was then, before the word "marriage" became a legal landmine.

This is now. This nondenominational flock's leaders recently decided that they needed to update their foundation documents for the age after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Thus, their written policies now specify that the only weddings held there will be rites requested by church members -- as in believers who have vowed to honor its doctrinal statement.

On marriage, that doctrinal statement now reads: "We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds -- male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent." A detailed support document adds: "Gender is a part of God's good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth. …"

In other words, the church's leadership realized that, in this litigious day and age, they would have to define, in highly specific terms rooted in doctrine, who could get married in their church. That would be safer than trying to define -- in a legal crunch -- who could not hold a wedding rite there.

"In some ways, all of this is a bummer," explained the Rev. Trent Hunter, the church's pastor for administration and teaching, in a telephone interview. "You don't go into ministry to be restrictive. You don't want to do things that limit the scope of your ministry. But we're learning that you can't take any of this for granted, because the government is forcing us to be very open and specific about what we believe and why. …