Book Review: My Sing-Along Bible

My Sing-Along BibleMy Sing-Along Bible: 50 Easy-Read Stories & 50 Fun Bible Songs, Stephen Elkins, Tyndale Kids, 2015.

My Sing-Along Bible is a fun collection of easy to read Bible stories and easy to sing-along songs. The target “reader” is a toddler or preschooler. But, Baby J already enjoys this book, which includes 50 favorite Bible stories and 5o songs, one for each story.

Here is how the book is organized. There’s a “Let’s Read” section which is the Bible story. Most of them are only six lines. Short. The middle section is a key verse, which is followed by the “Let’s Sing” section, with the lyrics to one of the songs on the CD, which can be found in the front cover of the book. Each story also includes a “Little Lesson,” which is the one sentence main idea of the story.

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Book Review: Burning Bush 2.0

51Eka19YuhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet, Paul Asay, Abingdon Press, 2015

The title is what caught my eye. If you know me, or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I like pondering the intersection of faith and pop culture. So, I was interested in Asay’s take, especially in his take on how pop culture has replaced the prophet.

In each chapter, Asay writes on a theme, weaving in different elements of pop culture. For example, one of the chapters deals with call (the burning bush connection) and Asay uses illustrations from various superhero films. Along the way, he makes valid points about why we should expand our thinking enough to hear what God may be saying to us through pop culture.

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Book Review: I Will

cover64157-mediumChurch researcher and consultant Thom Rainer addresses a growing problem in many churches, mainline and non-denomotional alike. Church member burnout and declining membership.

Rainer begins his little book, I Will, with a short narrative about a divorced, single-mother of three, Heather. Heather joined a church to make a difference, yet she found herself in an unexpected place in her church. It was a place that left her feeling spiritually sick and after four years, she left the church.

It is reported that active church members, like Heather was, are those who attend church events or services at least three times a month. This stands in stark contrast to what was considered to be the norm: three times a week. A lot goes into this change, but for Rainer, it is not enough. He calls for a “church membership revolution.”

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Guest Post: One-Upmanship

by Brock Weigel

washing_3262c-2Read Psalm 31: 9-16

“For my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing; my strength has failed because of my iniquity, and my body has wasted away.” (Psalm 31: 10)

While playing basketball, the goal is to get the ball through the hoop as many times as possible. When I play, however, that goal is not on my mind. Instead of maneuvering the ball, my goal is one-upping the other team, or showing off for spectators. I care as little for the ball going through the hoop as plugging a lamp into an electrical socket. The task itself seems mundane when you remove the context. My joy in basketball is not in the ball, but in the victory.

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CNN Finds Jesus

unnamedThis Sunday, March 1, CNN premieres a new six-week documentary series, “Finding Jesus.” This new series blends science and archaeology as it attempts to discern what is fact, what is faith, and what is forgery. Part documentary, interviewing academics and theologians, part drama, the series explores the value and authenticity of six objects which could bear light on the historical Jesus.

For the last 2,000 years, humanity has been fascinated by the figure of Jesus – the historical man and the divine Christ. Images of Jesus have appeared on icons, stained glass windows, painting, sculptures, television, and film. Jesus has influenced music, politics, education, and philosophy.

But, what is fact and what is forgery? And, what is just simply faith?

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Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous_2011_film_posterAnonymous, penned as a film about the “real” William Shakespeare, is a political drama laced with soap opera-style relational tensions.  The film is set in Elizabethan-era England during the time of the Essex rebellion.  Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, realizes after watching a play put on by Ben Jonson exactly how powerful words can be.  He approaches Ben and offers him a play for him to stage.  But the authorship must remain anonymous.

Ben stages the play (Henry VIII) and at the conclusion the audience demands to see and hear from the playwright.  Ben anxiously looks up to the Earl’s box for some kind of direction.  In the meantime the young, egocentric actor Will Shakespeare (who is like a grown up version of Dopey) runs out on the stage to take the playwright’s bow.  Director Roland Emmerich continues to weave Shakespearean plays in the film as the political drama of who will succeed Elizabeth I unfolds.  In the midst of this weaving, Emmerich sprinkles in a number of flashbacks that help us (or at times confuse us) in understanding the characters more.  For example, in these flashbacks we learn that the relationship between Edward and Elizabeth goes beyond Earl and Queen.

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Follow Friday: Susan Irene Fox

I first discovered Susan Irene Fox and her self-titled blog after she started liking some of mine posts. Out of curiosity I started reading her blog. Susan has a way of sharing profound, spiritual thoughts that are welcoming and not threatening. After a twenty-year career as an elementary school teacher, that ended due to a permanent disability, Susan started blogging to get her name out there.

She had started a Bible curriculum projected for grades K-6 called Branches. The blog was to give her an online fingerprint for potential publishers. Ever since then, both the curriculum and the blog have evolved. “The curriculum,” Susan says, “is now a biblical devotional series for families.”  Branches, which is based on John 5:14-15, is currently in the editing stage. Meanwhile, the blog has greatly expanded as “a way to edify, encourage, enrich – and sometimes gently exhort – the Body of Christ,” Susan says. The blog has become, for Susan, a way to abide in the Spirit, while building the Kingdom of God.

As I have lifted the focus off me and onto God, the experience has become rich with new insight. Followers have increased organically as the Spirit has led them. And when just one person tells me the words I write have reached his or her heart, that comment keeps me motivated for weeks, because I have been an obedient vessel.

At times, Susan will post a poem, which is an incredible way to express a gospel truth. “Poetry,” Susan says, “is a rekindled love.” She wrote poetry during high school and college. She would teach grammar through poetry writing. Often, as she writes in her personal prayer journal, she will write poems. She never, however, had the courage to make any of the poems public. With great delight, the poems were welcomed and well received. Susan got a number of reassurance and support for them, including from other poets. She now posts a poem every Sunday – “my small way of praising Him.”

Susan, like other bloggers, will occasionally do a series. Currently she is doing a series on the Beatitudes. Susan says there are two reasons that went into her decision to do a series. “The first,” she says, “is because writing a series keeps me motivated, interested, and educated.” It gives her the opportunity to “dive more deeply into a small amount of Scripture,” and then share what she gleaned from that dive with others. “The second reason,” she says, “is that, as I’m editing Branches, I’m relooking at this living text called the Bible.” Susan says that each time she ponders on the Bible, “it seems to speak differently” to her. These new ponderings lead her into areas she may not have been ready to see previously in her life. “It’s an adventure,” she says, “and I love to follow each new path.”

The topics in the series are the same topics that are included in Branches. The first series was on the Fruit of the Spirits. The series after the Beatitudes will be The Twenty Third Psalm. Each series gives an opportunity to chew and digest small pieces of Scripture at a time.

I was curious to know who Susan reads. Every so often she will quote a Christian thinker and ponderer. When Susan first came to faith, she “soaked up Lee Strobel’s books.” She names her pillars as N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster and Henry and Richard Blackaby. She also reads Max Lucado, Tullian Tchividjian, Jonathan Merrit, Francis Chan, Phyllis Tickle, David Platt, John Ortberg, Beth Moore, and Tim Keller. But that is just to name a few.

Blogging has its rewards. I wanted to know what the most rewarding part of Susan was from blogging.

The most rewarding part of blogging is the discovery of new things about Scripture from the most amazing blog writers. I have so much to learn as a new believer, yet just this week I was greatly comforted and inspired that I am not unlike all those other “new believers” in the first century – Mary and Martha, Priscilla and Lydia, Titus and Timothy – and I am humbled and enriched to be in such gracious company.

You can read Susan’s blog at susanirenefox.com and you can follow her on Twitter @susanirenefox.

Easter Feet

Easter Ponderings“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)

A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”

So adorable and innocent. And theological.

Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.

Go and tell.

That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.

We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.

We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.

We are sent out on our Easter Feet.

The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.

Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!

This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.

There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.

Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet. 

We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.

Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”

How are you walking on Easter Feet?

 

Bible’s Major Players: Mary Magdalene

Slide2The Bible is filled with some major players. Mary Magdalene is one from the New Testament.

Mary Magdalene is one of the few women who are named as followers of Jesus. Mary is often listed first among these names. She is often portrayed in movies, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, as a prostitute. Why? Mary Magdalene is often connected with the woman of the street who breaks the jar of perfume and washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. In Luke’s Gospel this woman is nameless. Mary Magdalene first appears in Luke 8. As scholar Fred Craddock points out, “Only popular legend has made her a prostitute.” Luke’s eighth chapter tells the reader that Mary was healed of seven demons. Craddock observes, “Demon possession caused various maladies of body and mind but not moral or ethical depravity.”

Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson's film.

Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson’s film.

Mary plays a significant role in the Gospel story. All four gospels account for Mary being present at the death of Christ. More importantly, Mary was the first witness of the resurrected Lord. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the two men “in dazzling apparel” tell the women, “Remember how he told you . . .” (Luke 24:4,6). This assumes that Mary Magdalene and the other women were apart of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The dazzling men are under the impression that these women were present when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (“Remember how he told you”).

Luke continues the narrative saying that the women “remembered his words” (24:8). The women are told to go and tell the disciples what has taken place. They recalled what Jesus had said and told the eleven and “all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9). As Craddock points out, these women were not “errand runners for disciples; they were disciples.”

Mary Magdalene, the woman saved from seven demons, is one of the first witnesses of the Resurrected Christ. Her role in being one of the first to communicate the resurrection to others, places her among the Bible’s major players.

How are you living as a witness of the Resurrected Christ?

Resources: Craddock, Fred B. Luke. John Knox Press, 1990.

Noah (2014)

noah-poster2At the sound of his name, Noah has become quite a controversial figure these days. The film has been declared “unbiblical” by many, while deeply theological by others. (For example, there is this YouTube video that someone thought I needed to see after posting a comparison chart and some discussion questions.) What follows is a theological reflection on the film. I know that there will be some readers who will disagree with me, and that is okay. I am assuming that you have seen the film. If not, I recommend reading this spoiler-free review.

Entertainment Weekly was perhaps one of the first outlets to say that the director

faithfully follows the message of the slim biblical text in the Book of Genesis, but he fills the gaps with spectacular CG effects, Tolkien-esque creatures

The film is based on the Genesis narrative of Noah, the man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as found in chapters 6-9. The film’s production notes cite the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls as additional sources. These are ancient texts, which are not found in the Christian canon, but were likely widely read in the ancient world.

Ari Handel, the co-writer of the film, told Jacob Sahms of HollywoodJesus.com that they started with Genesis. “The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. The Genesis account wrestles with the themes of destruction and new beginnings (or second chances) and Handel told Jacob that they “wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them.”

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverAdam Hamilton, minister at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, agrees that these are powerful themes in the Genesis account. The themes, he argues, gets overshadowed in the film and when “Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian’s report of ancient history.” I don’t disagree with Hamilton, but I have to wonder if what we carry with us when we enter the dark theater  – our expectations, our baggage, our hopes of a great film or of a horrible film – is what overshadows the themes. Yes, the director Darren Aronofky is a self-proclaimed atheist. But that fact does not eliminate the themes of the Biblical account – the themes of destruction and new beginnings. The way the story is told is different from Sunday school – not unlike Cecil B. DeMille did with the Moses narrative in the classic film The Ten Commandments. The original Noah story was told and retold through oral tradition long before it was ever written down. The fact that artist liberties were taken, should not be a surprise.

Darren Aronofky took the lead as the film’s co-writer and director. Aronofky has been thinking about Noah and the themes of his story since middle school.  The 13-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a poem called “The Dove” in which we get this theological gem:

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.

In many ways this statement is the thesis for Aronofky’s film: “Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.”

The film begins with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as the only descendants left of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth, unlike his older brother Cain who killed brother Abel, remained faithful to the ordinances of God. While the descendants of Cain kill animals to eat (they believe they gain power through the meat) and use up the earth’s resources, Noah and his family live a simple life.

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

One evening, Noah has a dream where the earth is destroyed. Unclear about what the dream is about, he packs up his family and home and they hike to the mountain of this grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah’s father was Enoch “who walked with God.” It is believed that Enoch did not die a physical death, instead he was so faithful to God that one day he just walked into eternity. These are Noah’s genes.

Methuselah mixes some drink for Noah (which has earned him the “witch doctor” nickname). Upon awaking from his sleep, Noah tells Methuselah of his dream about the world being destroyed by water, not fire. As they discuss this, Noah acknowledges that the Creator’s goal is rebirth. Water has long been the theological and spiritual symbol of rebirth. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born again, drawing upon the images of water in the womb. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that in Christ we have a new life.

Noah follows the Creator’s instructions and builds an ark with the help of the Watchers. The closest we get to the Watchers in the Christian canon is the nephilim. These are the Tolkien like creatures that Entertainment Weekly spoke of.  These creatures of Earth’s rock each have a dim light within them. The Watchers themselves represent the thesis of the film – there is light within us – there is peace in the midst of evil.  The Watchers are fallen angels striving to redeem themselves with the Creator, which is accomplished when they are faithful in their assistance with Noah’s call.

There are a handful of images that get played and replayed through the film. The image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, both humans are glowing creatures of light. This is followed by the image of a black snake coming out of a green snake, leaving behind the skin. Then, the image of the fruit of the tree, beating like a heart, acknowledging that The Knowledge of Good and Evil is itself life. The fruit of the tree is picked and eaten, which is followed by the image of Cain killing Abel.

Peace has been engulfed by evil.

This series of images communicate a theological understanding of sin and salvation. When Noah tells his family the story of creation (remember that the bulk of Genesis was first oral tradition before it was written scripture), these images repeat themselves. Humanity was created in the image of God. But when the first humans disobeyed by eating the fruit of the tree, sin distorted the image of God. The image of God in humanity continued to get distorted until the point where the wickedness was so great (humanity was striving to be its own ruler – as Ham tells the human leader, “There is no King, only the Creator is God”) that God decided to flood the earth to give it new life. The themes of destruction and new beginnings.

Evil does not win.

But evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Noah ArkUnfortunately the debates about whether or not Noah is Biblical – word for word from the Bible – has overshadowed Aronofky’s thesis: Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin. If you have seen the film, you would most likely agree with me that evil seems to prevail in the film. The film is filled with darkness and it feels worse when the storms and the rain come. Peace only seems to appear at the end of the film, represented by the broad, all-encompassing rainbow.

Noah takes the call to build the ark seriously. Humanity has rejected God and this is a serious offensive. Aronofky and Handel, as they did in other films such as Black Swan, dive into the exploration of obsession. To say that Noah goes a little crazy while he is on the ark is putting it mildly. Noah becomes so obsessed with the wickedness of humanity, that he truly believes that his sons will be the last men on earth. If Shem’s unborn child is a girl, Noah will kill her. But, if the child is a boy, he will let the child live, and he would be the last human on earth.

noah-jennifer-connellyAri Handel tells Hollywood Jesus:

Noah is given an almost insurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.

In this instance so many of us can relate to Noah in a way or another. Noah is obsessed with his mission, that he becomes blind. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) pleads with him to see the good in their sons – in humanity – which she does. But Noah is clear that the task is for humanity to cease in its existence.

Why does this happen? What causes Noah to become this way?

When Noah goes into the human camp, what we assume is to find wives for two of his sons, he is encountered with a wickedness that is overwhelming he cannot handle it. This scene, of animal tossing, cave man like behaviors, and the air filled with cries and hissing, is a pivotal scene. Under the cloak of darkness, a raw piece of meat is thrown over the fence. A longhaired, bearded man, walking like an ape, grabs the meat. He scuttles off, passing in front of Noah. Noah watches him as his chipped teeth bite into the raw meat. As the ape-like man turns to face Noah, he hisses. In that moment the man’s face looks an awful lot like Noah’s. (I only caught this the second time I saw the film.)

Noah sees wickedness in himself. And it changes him. It hardens his heart. And he becomes obsessed with his own wickedness. He is not worthy to be saved, so clearly God’s intention is for him to perish as well.

Is this in the Bible? Literally, no. The Genesis writer provides no account of what happened while Noah and his family were on the ark. But, it is Biblical? We can argue that it is.

We believe that God created the world, and it was good. We believe that God created humanity in the image of God, and God declared that it was good. We believe that sin entered the world and it distorted the image of God within humanity. We believe that the journey we call faith is a journey of redemption, restoring the image of God back to its original beauty. We believe that in the midst of this journey, evil exists. We believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that through accepting the power of Jesus Christ, we reject the spiritual forces of wickedness.  And we believe that the day will come when there will be no more violence, no more crying, no more pain and suffering, only the peace of the Kingdom of God.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.