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Culture Q&A

Barbara Duguid

Growing heavenward

Emphasizing grace without ignoring holiness

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Barbara Duguid was an MK, a missionary kid born in Nigeria who grew up partly in South America. She earned a degree in medical technology that equipped her to head a mission hospital in Liberia. She’s the author of Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness and Streams of Mercy: Prayers of Confession and Celebration. She’s also married to a fine theologian, Iain Duguid. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of Patrick Henry College students.

You met Iain at that hospital in Liberia? I was encountering for the first time on the mission compound people who did not think Americans were cool. Most of them were British, so I baited Iain shamelessly and said, “Tell me everything you don’t like about Americans. Let’s just get this out of the way.” He went on and on and on, and I was furious. But eventually I got asked to be in a singing group with him, and fell in love with him.

You’ve now co-authored six children, planted three churches (going on four), and written a book applying John Newton’s thinking on God’s amazing grace. Some fear an emphasis on grace means a de-emphasis on holiness. We are called to try very hard to obey God’s law, but in the trying we will fail miserably. We will sin a lot even in the context of our best obedience, when we are proud of it and boastful. For Newton, maturity is all about being humble and dependent upon God and not a glory stealer, not stealing credit for the work God is doing.

‘The heavenly hosts aren’t saying, “Aren’t these humans amazing?” They’re saying, “Isn’t God amazing that He hasn’t blown them up?”’

You write that when we’ve done something bad, “At this very moment, you are exactly as holy and mature in your faith as God wants you to be. He cannot be disappointed in you or surprised by you if he is the one controlling the entire process of growth from start to finish.” One reason God allows us to fall flat on our face is so we will not be people who stand before Him taking credit for His good work. We get confused about that. If we are strong and victorious in a certain area of our lives, we start writing books about how everybody can be as good as I am on this topic. But if God lets us fall flat on our face and we’re in the dust, we realize, “That wasn’t me. That was God, and left to myself, I’ll be flat on my face.”

When these smart and hardworking students get straight A’s, as I’m sure they all will, should they feel proud about that? What do we have that we have not received from the Lord? So ultimately, no, because if you’re a shining star academically, what did you do to create that in yourself? Did you choose the country and the family you were born into? What shaped your work ethic?

It is theoretically possible that some students here will work very hard but still fail a course. How should they feel about that? First, sadness, and then you begin to ask, “Why is this so very painful?” In asking that question, we’re going to bump up against our idolatries. What are the things we’re worshipping that we’re not getting because we failed this test? Parental approval? I can’t get into the med school or the law school I wanted to go to? It could be other things. You begin to say, “Lord, help me not to find my identity in these things,” but you still feel the failure. It’s important to ask, “Lord, what does this say about my heart? Why would you, as a loving heavenly Father, have me fail this test? How might I better see and live in the glory of my Savior, in the face of no glory for me at this moment?”

You write emphatically: “You will never be able to find steady joy in this life until you understand, submit to, and even embrace the fact that you are weak and sinful.” Here’s the thing: Who are we going to trust for our sanctification, and who is more trustworthy with it, us or the Holy Spirit? If we are God’s workmanship and He has begun a good work, He’s going to oversee it every step of the way and finish it.

God can stop whatever He does not ordain? Through falling down we become more humble and more dependent. It’s a long, long process. God is not in a hurry, but we want to be perfect right away for a lot of really sinful, prideful reasons.

You say John Newton’s response to those who wrote to him in a state of despair over their ongoing sin was never, “How could you do that?” That’s the aggrieved parental tone, but Newton’s response was habitually, “Of course you did that. You’re a sinner and that’s what sinners do.” Does that leave us more optimistic because we’re never shocked when we fail, but amazed when we don’t? Low expectations bring more delight? Newton is wonderfully compassionate because he knows we have a lot stacked against us. We live in a world full of temptation. We have sinfully depraved hearts. We have a really strong adversary, Satan, who is very good at tempting. It’s a marvel that we don’t sin a lot more. What a different perspective that is than, “You’ve been a Christian how long? How could you?” A different perspective: “Of course. You’ve got a lot stacked against you.”

Some say there’s as much sexual abuse or other sins within the church as outside it. When outsiders see that, some say, “Christianity makes no difference so why should I bother?” How does that glorify God? All we have to do is look at the history of Israel or the world. Has anybody in any country said, “These Christians are amazing. They’re so sinless and they’re so wonderful.” That’s not been how God has decided to glorify Himself. He glorifies Himself with His relentless patience with weak, terrible people who sin a lot—yet He does not let go of them. The heavenly hosts aren’t saying, “Aren’t these humans amazing?” They’re saying, “Isn’t God amazing that He hasn’t blown them up? Why are they even still here?” Ultimately, God has staked His reputation on Christ, not on us.

We learn from this about the character of God. He’s a manager not determined to win every game, but to show His compassion and mercy, and train us in righteousness. He will discipline us. He sometimes lets us go through really painful, hard times. But what gives you the courage to get up tomorrow when you have failed utterly again today, if it isn’t the wonderful news that it’s not your performance that earns God’s favor? He is for you. Your past, present, and future sins are paid for.

You write, “God chose to leave us significantly deformed and imperfect after our conversion because He values something more than our sinlessness.” What’s the something? His Son. We don’t treasure Christ. We are not captivated by Jesus Christ when we are strong and victorious and triumphant in ourselves. We are eager to tell everybody how they can be like us. But when we are shredded with failure, there is nowhere to look but to this Savior. God loves His Son. He loves it when we love and cherish His Son. He loves that more than our sinlessness.

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Fernando Ortega

Singing and sojourning

Trusting God through the sorrows and mysteries of this life

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Singer-songwriter Juan Fernando Ortega, 61, has recorded many traditional hymns and written profound yet accessible songs, such as “This Good Day.” His family lived in Chimayó, N.M., for eight generations: Reviewers have cited that history as an influence on his music. Here are edited excerpts from our interview in Issaquah, Wash.

Did you grow up speaking both English and Spanish? Growing up I didn’t speak any Spanish. When I was 11, my father took a job in South America, so the whole family moved down there. I went to an Ecuadorian school, completely immersed in Spanish. It was do-or-die situation, so I learned.

I heard you talk about living in Ecuador and having culture shock there, and then reverse culture shock coming back to the United States. Your music conveys the feeling of being a sojourner here on earth, not feeling quite at home. Did your experience influence you that way? Hmm. I’ve never thought about that before. It’s beginning to feel that way. Here’s an incident at my daughter’s school just last week. A school play was about some atrocities in history, the main one being the Holocaust. Ruby is in third grade: That’s heavy material for a third-grader. Then, as a response, the teacher was having them sing John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky … no religion, too.”

I took exception to it. I told Ruby, “It’s a cool song, but I don’t believe in imagining there’s no God. It’s just the opposite for us: God will redeem the earth.” I complained about it, and that’s the first time I really realized how the school system was.  … They looked at me like some kind of relic: What? Are you kidding me? That’s really how you feel? 

Your latest album, The Crucifixion of Jesus, follows the flow of your albums as liturgical. As you travel around the United States, are you seeing a need or a desire for a more liturgical form of worship in the evangelical church? I see a desire and a need. One student worship leader at Wheaton College told me, “We appreciate anybody who comes here and teaches us a historic hymn that we’ve never heard before that sheds some kind of light on the character of God.” Those songs connect us to generations of Christians who have gone before us, and give us a sense of groundedness in our faith.

‘[Historic hymns] connect us to generations of Christians who have gone before us, and give us a sense of groundedness in our faith.’

In many of your songs, there’s a tension between the sorrow of this life and trusting God. Do you have a theology of suffering—how sadness is meant to be part of the Christian life? I’ve never really experienced God in any kind of profound way without going through a road of loss or sorrow or suffering. The Sermon on the Mount starts out with negatives: Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the poor in spirit.

What about doubt? You’ve mentioned in writings and interviews that doubt is part of Christian life. I had a time up to three years ago where I really doubted, questioned whether He had truly ever been in my life or whether I ever knew Him. It was like going through this wilderness where I would just go days on end where I just couldn’t feel Him, I couldn’t feel that He was answering my prayers, that He was even hearing my prayers. I really don’t know what fixed all that in the end, why the anxiety now is gone, as it seems to be gone. There was that long period of doubt, and then it seemed He finally answered my prayer.

You lost your father this year. How has that loss colored your work? It’s made me more aware that there’s a communion of the saints. There’s something mystical that happened: I don’t think I’ll ever think about the kingdom of God or heaven as I used to.

You’re working on an Easter album? I do not want it to be a sad Easter record! I want to include the fact that the women were the ones who found Jesus risen, and then He charged them with taking the news back to the disciples. And then Peter and John, the race to the tomb. I want the road to Emmaus: Did not our hearts burn within us as He was speaking to us? They had been with Christ but they didn’t know. And doubting Thomas. There was tension. I want those things to be part of this Easter record, but I really want it to end with something glorious—yet without the standard timpani and trumpets.

That leads to my next question: You play the accordion, an old-fashioned instrument that’s now cool and hip—a worship instrument? It adds a warmth and charm you don’t find in digital instruments, even digital accordions on the keyboard. It can resemble an organ, and I love the folky element it brings to a lot of pop music. You don’t hear Katy Perry or Taylor Swift using an accordion on their songs—at least not yet.

Advice for young Christian artists. What should they be doing in the church? They should first of all steep themselves in good writers: People who have a poetic sense about them, not necessarily Christians. Good poetry—Elizabeth Bishop or Denise Levertov. Young Christian artists should find how really big the English language is. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories helped me write a lot of my songs.

For example? A pretty consistent theme for her: Pride gets in the way. Think of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or “Revelation.” The woman in the waiting room of the doctor’s office is so proud she’s not “white trash,” as she says—then this girl sitting there and listening gets so disgusted that she finally throws a book at her, conks her, and calls her, “You warthog!” The woman goes home and this thing—that she’s a warthog—festers in her. God uses that crazy girl who threw the book at her to help her find her salvation.

I have a song, “Old Girl,” that always reminds me of that. It’s about a homeless woman I saw in a restaurant. I was going to buy her breakfast. I got so caught up thinking about what a good guy I was for thinking about buying this woman breakfast, that before I ever got a chance to ask her if I could buy her breakfast, she saw me staring at her. She started cussing at me and stomped out of the restaurant. I thought, “Ooo, God used that woman to get me away from my thought.” 

As I was typing out my questions today, two birds came to my bird feeder at the same time, a red-winged blackbird and a woodpecker. How’d you know I like birds?

I read an interview you did last year, and you talked about how you liked birds. I’m a tiny bird-watcher. Before I left to come up here, I had to take in the bird feeders—counted 14. That’s not counting the hummingbird feeders.

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John Freeman

Struggle vs. surrender

Helping Christians navigate a world of sexual sin

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John Freeman founded Harvest USA, a Christian ministry that helps individuals and families troubled by pornography, homosexuality, and sexual addictions. He’s a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and the author of a new book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex. Here are edited excerpts of our interview before students at Patrick Henry College. 

Missionaries speak of “unreached people groups” abroad. What’s the largest one in the U.S.? I sat in Harvie Conn’s missions class in 1983. Even then he said gays and lesbians make up the largest unreached people group, because the church was saying, “Hands off. What do we have to do with them?”

Harvest tries to reach them? We minister to those affected by homosexuality, pornography, and gender issues. We also develop and create materials and resources. 

What’s the biggest growth field? Harvest was originally a 100 percent ministry to gays and lesbians, and to Christians struggling with same-sex attraction. Now, about 7 of every 10 calls we receive concern pornography and sexual addiction. 

Some of those calls come from parents? Parents with a son or daughter who has embraced a gay or lesbian identity want to know how to love their adult child but at the same time say, “I can’t march in a parade. I can’t put my support behind this because I think it’s Biblically harmful to you.” They want a relationship with boundaries. 

Some pastors have told me they won’t talk about these issues because they’re afraid they will lose people.’

When parents ask whether they should invite their child’s same-sex spouse or partner to come to dinner and then share a bedroom, what do you advise? That only God can tell you how to extend love and mercy without enabling. It takes a lot of prayer and wisdom. We have parents who say yes to dinner but they cannot let their adult child’s spouse or partner sleep over because that encourages a more intimate relationship.

Should the parents go to a same-sex wedding? We don’t believe there’s a hard-and-fast rule except that your child should know where you stand. Some parents say, “I can’t go to the service, but I’ll send them a gift to show I care about them.” One Christian parent might say, “I’m going,” and the other says, “I’m not.” It causes a conflict. 

How often do pastors with a gay child change the way they read the Bible? We encourage them to remain faithful to Scripture, and to think of how they can never be more loving than God is loving. The harder road to walk is, “I love you and want you to be part of my life, but I’m not approving this.” The easier road to walk is to just give in.

Some say there is as much heterosexual adultery within the church as outside of it, and that pastors are as likely to view pornography as people in the pews. True? The statistics are a little bit lower concerning adultery. On pornography, probably 70 percent of pastors under 40 bring a history of use into their ministry. We’ve started five support groups for pastors.

Do some churches deal well with sexual sin? One church 150 miles from Philadelphia has multiple groups for parents with a gay or lesbian loved one, three groups for men struggling with pornography, and two groups for wives of men who are struggling with pornography. The church had none of that 10 years ago. We did a seminar there, “Sexual sanity in a sexually crazy world.” That was on the marquee in the front. Some people came in for the first time. 

What’s been the result? People go to the church and see it’s a place that can handle this. People are coming to know Jesus more personally and powerfully. They’re having idols dislodged in their hearts. Those aren’t nice issues, but the gospel isn’t about being nice people. It’s about being new people.

Why is it so hard for churches? We’ve not been honest that we’re a redeeming and forgiving people but we struggle with the same things others struggle with. Sometimes church leaders are committed to educating people in a worldview of sex and sexuality the way God intended. But some pastors have told me they won’t talk about these issues because they’re afraid they will lose people.

A pastor in Milwaukee told me that if he really preached firmly against adultery, he’d lose two-thirds of his congregation. When someone tells me that, I ask two questions: Are you content with the world’s culture continuing to be the primary educator and discipler of your people? How do you give the person sitting in despair the hope that Jesus can do something powerful in his life? I’ve never had a pastor answer those questions. They just stare at me.

Why do we get so upset about homosexuality but we often accept heterosexual adultery? In one church a person told the pastor about his homosexuality, and the pastor said, “If you had told me you were having an affair, I could understand.” That pastor was revealing something about his own heart. All these things are on the same level with God, but we have downplayed the impact of the playboy mentality for the last 50 years. One pastor sent a letter out to every male in his church over 18. The essence was, “I know you’re probably struggling with lust on some level. I want to hear about it. Come and talk to me.” About 25 people in three weeks came to talk to him. 

Churches sometimes advertise seminars on purity or chastity. Do those draw crowds? We had a church that did a seminar on sexual purity and 35 people came. Another church named its seminar “Sex in the City” and 480 people came. Millennials could attach to that, but not to the idea of purity. 

What are options when church leaders refuse to address those issues? Members themselves can start getting together in homes to discuss those issues. That pushes pastors in a good way. 

You write in one chapter about a “Kevin” who is about to become a member of a church on a Sunday. Several days before, he tells the pastor he’s gay. How did you advise the pastor? I said, “You’ll have a lot of conversations between now and Sunday to figure out what that means.” Is Kevin struggling with things he knows aren’t right before God, or is he saying being gay has as much legitimacy and power as following Jesus?

If Kevin says, “I am struggling. I know this is wrong. I don’t want to do it” … If he is being honest and says, “I know God is calling me to something deeper. I don’t know how to get there. I failed at it.” … We all fail at being who we should be as believers, and the body of Christ can help. But if a person says, “My sexuality and gender has as much of a place and authority as my commitment to Christ,” then you would say, “We’re sorry.”

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