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The State of the Puerto Rican Church, One Year After Maria

The hurricane that destroyed the island has completely shaken its approach to ministry.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was first published in the September 2018 print edition of CT. On August 9, the Puerto Rican government released a report estimating the number of deaths in the country rose by at least 1,400 after Hurricane Maria, but noted that the official death toll attributable to the storm remained at 64.

Puerto Rico is a tropical paradise—home to 3.5 million American citizens, an impressive mountain range, white sand beaches, and the only tropical rainforest in the United States.

It is beautiful, and it is in disarray.

From 2000 to 2017, the island suffered one financial blow after another: Congressional tax grants expired, the pharmaceutical industry moved overseas, the US housing bubble collapsed, and Puerto Rico was left with a mammoth debt and no means to repay it.

Then Hurricane Maria came.

The devastation that the almost–category 5 monster brought to the island is unimaginable. The system crisscrossed from southeast to northwest, flattening everything in its path. The aftermath of the event—with the months-long loss of electrical power, communications, and water supply, as well as destroyed roads and closed ports—claimed at least 64 lives (as per the government official figures) and as many as 4,600 (as per a Harvard University study), the majority of them senior citizens with medical conditions living in the inaccessible mountain ranges.

And that’s just the physical impact. The church in Puerto Rico and the spiritual lives of its citizens have not been spared of all of this pain and desolation, but their story is still one of grace and love overcoming loss and suffering.

During those first few days, we pastors were in shock. What would happen with ...

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Should Hymns Keep the Theology of Their Writers?

Experts weighed in.

John Piper needed “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” to match a sermon, so he wrote two new Reformed verses. Many of writer Thomas Chisholm’s fellow Methodists, who “sing their theology,” couldn’t sing along.

Answers are arranged on a spectrum from “yes” answers at the top to “no” answers at the bottom.

“Many gentlemen have done my brother and me . . . the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome so to do, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able . . . to mend either the sense or the verse.”

John Wesley, songwriter and evangelist, in Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780)

“Hymns are theological statements. John and Charles Wesley convey Methodist ethos in and through hymns. Methodism embeds its theology in song: lyrical theology. To that end, and particularly for Methodism, hymns are not theologically neutral but carry theological distinctiveness.”

Swee Hong Lim, sacred music program director, University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College

“Taking a hymn in a new theological direction is far from novel in church history. (Calvinist George Whitefield altered Charles Wesley’s text “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and made it a smidgen less Wesleyan.) Was Piper wrong to transpose Chisholm’s hymn to a Reformed key? No. Is it always permissible? No. Is it always profitable? No. Is it always faithful? One can certainly hope so.”

David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture, Fuller Seminary

“It is more urgent for composers to be less concerned with the particulars of our ...

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Gleanings: October 2018

Important developments in the church and the world (as they appeared in our October issue).

Israel: Christians worry about official secondary status

Israel’s legislature passed a special law this summer officially cementing the nation’s nature as a Jewish state. Most provisions aren’t controversial—they formally establish the flag, emblem, and anthem. But Palestinian Christians and some Messianic Jews, along with other religious minorities, object to statutes declaring Jewish settlement as a “national value” and downgrading Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.” “While the idea of the law is straightforward—it’s hard to argue that Israel isn’t a Jewish state—the actual provisions are controversial, discriminatory, and possibly racist,” said Jaime Cowen, a Messianic Jewish leader. Others like The Philos Project’s Robert Nicholson argue the law doesn’t change anything except sentiment. “The best critique of the law,” he said, “may be that it doesn’t really do anything besides stir up unnecessary trouble.”

Canada: Christian college drops sex standards for students

Weeks after Canada’s Supreme Court ruled against what would have been the country’s first Christian law school, Trinity Western University (TWU) dropped its student community covenant at the heart of the controversy. TWU’s law school quest had stalled in court for years after several provincial law societies refused to accredit would-be graduates, citing the covenant’s prohibition of sex outside of traditional marriage. TWU president Robert Kuhn said the school remained committed to its evangelical principles and mission, and the covenant will remain in effect for faculty and staff. The ...

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Interview: Richard Foster: Effort Is Not the Opposite of Grace

As he retires from public ministry, the ‘Celebration of Discipline’ author reflects on the heart of spiritual formation.

Richard Foster wrote Celebration of Discipline 40 years ago as a young pastor. The book—which has sold over 2 million copies and has been translated into 25 languages—launched a ministry of speaking, writing, and teaching on spiritual formation and the classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. Foster founded and led Renovaré, a spiritual formation ministry, up until 2008 when he retired from his role as president to make space for new leadership. Foster, now 76, will retire from his public speaking ministry after wrapping up a tour this year.

CT editor Kelli Trujillo sat down with Foster at his Colorado home to discuss how the Christian spirituality landscape has changed—and how he’s changed—over his decades of ministry.

You’ve spent more than four decades of ministry focusing on spiritual formation. At its core, what does spiritual formation involve?

It’s important to be clear what we’re talking about when we say “spiritual formation.” Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 4:19: “I am in travail until Christ be formed in you.” The word travail is a birthing image. He’s saying, essentially, “I am in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” That’s a biblical, foundational way of thinking about spiritual formation.

I think of a couple of old hymns that speak to this. The first is “Rock of Ages”—“Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure.” That’s the key—the “double cure.” It then says “Save from wrath,” which is forgiveness, justification. But it goes on: “Save from wrath and make ...

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