Good News Lent: Baptism

 

It began with a baptism. Before Jesus’ forty-day fast—his wandering in the desert to be tempted by the devil—before he took the road to the Calvary, before even his earthly ministry, Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan river (Mark 1:9). Baptisms are always good news. They are a celebration of something new: a new birth, a new sense of belonging, a new work of God in the baptized. Jesus’ baptism is no exception. It inaugurated a new phase for the Incarnate Son. He no longer was biding his time until the preordained hour. With his baptism, something new began: Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.

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The Sour-Faced Evangelists of Lent?

It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy.  Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.

Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:

What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)

Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)

These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God.  Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem  suffering and death await.

I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News.  Christians are God’s Good News People.  We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.

So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him.  We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.

Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.

Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.

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The Bible For Dragon Slayers: a kid’s book review

Sir Wyvren Pugilist, who’s name means Dragon Fighter, previously published Dragon Slayers: The Essential Training Guide for Young Dragon Slayers (Paraclete 2011). That book taught young readers how to battle the dragons in their life using insights from ‘the Ancient Manual,’ AKA the Bible. His new book, Secrets of the Ancient Manual Revealed examines the shape of the Biblical story: how we got in the mess we are in and what the Mysterious Three did to set us free. [Joyce Denham is the secret author but don’t tell your kids].

secrets-of-the-ancient-manual-revealed-every-dragon-slayer-s-guide-to-the-bible-27 Sir Wyvren’s guide is split into three sections called epeisodions. Epeisodion One describes the ‘Agreement Antiquatus’ (the Old Testament). Beginning with Creation, Sir Wyvren tells the story of Mighty One‘s grand plan. This isn’t a complete overview of the Old Testament. The focus is on the story of Genesis (chapters one through eight),  and Exodus (chapters nine through twelve). However chapters thirteen and fourteen give a nice overview of the story from Canaanite conquest to exile and chapter fifteen provides a summary of the entire ‘Agreement Antiquatus.’

Epeisodion Zero is a two page interlude which names the silence of God and the continued suffering of Israel at the hands of Greek and Roman oppressors.

Epeisodon Two, ‘The Agreement Novus Un-Parallelus,” tells the tale of Jesus, the chief dragon slayer, his great and final battle and the community of dragon slayers formed in his name. As with the Agreement Antiquatus, Sir Wyven’s treatment of the New Testament is not exhaustive but focuses on the historical books–the gospels and Acts–and the end (Revelation).

There are a plethora of children’s Bibles and kids’ devotionals on the market. Yet there are not many books which describe the Bible’s contents in manner accessible to children. Secrets of the Ancient Manual is just this sort of book and does it imaginatively. Our guide, Sir Wyvren, is a medieval-styled Dragon Slayer. Each chapter has words and phrases in bold, and underlined keywords. Sir Wyvren has his readers write down these underlined words to help unlock the secrets of the Ancient manual (a glossary in the back provides definitions of these key words).  This, combined with Sir Wyvren’s conversational tone, makes  this an interactive way to learn.

I think this is fun and entertaining way to learn the Bible. This is listed as a book for ‘all ages’ and indeed I enjoyed it very much and found it edifying. My own kids are between the ages of eight and one. My eight year old is entering the age where she can appreciate what sort of book this is. My five and six year old aren’t there yet. I give this five stars and recommend it especially for kids age eight to twelve.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

The Shame in Our Game: a ★★★★★ book review

Shame is  a major part of my own journey. As a kid, I was a classic underachiever, and even today I still hear, in my mind, my parent’s “you have potential” lecture and feel like I’m not measuring up. I also carry the burden of past mistakes, vocational frustrations, and family secrets. I am ashamed for being forty without making an indelible mark on my world. I feel shame acutely when social interactions turn awkward and I feel disconnected from others. Is it me? 

4433Yes, of course it is. But it isn’t just me. Shame is part of your journey too. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson wrote The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves to address our common sickness:

Shame is something we all experience at some level, some more consciously than others. Of course there are the obvious examples: times we’ve felt everything from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation. . . .But many of us also carry shame less publicly, often outside the easy view of even some of our closest friends. Losing a major account at work. The breakup of a marriage. Our child’s seeming disinterest in school. A boss whose motivational tactic is to regularly compare your work to that of someone who is outperforming you. Any of these more common scenarios carry the burden of shame in ways that we work hard to cover up.  And our coping strategies have become so automatic we may completely unaware of its presence and activity (21).

Thompson defines shame as more than  simply ‘just a feeling’ but a belief that: ‘I am not enough; there is something wrong with me; I am bad or I don’t matter’ (24).  This is profoundly isolating and demeaning. Shame is that part of us which tries to destroy our soul and derail our story.

Thompson explores the neuro-biological and psychological roots of shame, and points to the practical and theological resources which will bring us healing in the book’s nine chapters.  Chapter one provides a working description of shame (quoted above). Chapters two and three examine shame from a interpersonal neurobiological (IPNB) approach, discussing how shame works in the brain, and in relationships.  This includes biochemistry, the history of attachment, past experiences, etc. Chapter four explores the fact that we are story telling creatures. When shame reigns unchecked, we inhabit one sort of story. Chapter five examines the biblical narrative, especially Genesis 3 where shame corrupted ‘God’s intended creation of goodness and beauty.’

Chapter six begins to unfold the resources for healing: vulnerability and community. We feel shame in the areas that are most vulnerable; the power of shame is broken in us when we allow ourselves to be known. Thompson’s counsel to one client addressed her shame:

It makes complete sense that you would feel vulnerable. This is the feeling that shame activates and that everyone feels to some degree when they are on the verge of being known in what they anticipate may be an unsafe space. To allow yourself to be known is very hard work. (119)

He calls this ‘the gift and terror of being known.’ There are no guaranteed outcomes in how other people will respond to us, but by learning to share ourselves, the power of shame is broken. In chapter seven Thompson explores how sharing ourselves in community can gives us the strength and imagination to counter our internal shame narratives. Ultimately we need to make the shift from the story shame is trying to tell in us, ‘back to the story that is true, the story God is telling at that moment’ (141).  A committed group of people who will tell us the truth about us, and our behavior, and won’t turn and run from us in those moments when we are wrong, are people who can be used by God to heal our shame (144).

This communal burden sharing which allows us to conquer shame is described further in chapter eight, especially in relation to our ‘primary communities of nurture’: family, church, and schools.  I gleaned some insights here on how to  speak to my own kids without re-enforcing their shame. Chapter nine, explores the new vitality in vocation we experience as we experience healing.

Shame is something of a ‘hot topic’ lately. Many of us have read Brené Brown’s books or seen her popular TED talks. Thompson draws on Brown and builds on her insights, but his approach is different. Brown’s writing is more self revelatory, Thompson tends to share stories from his counseling of others. This is also a self-consciously a Christian, theological approach to  the topic of shame, so Thompson explores relevant scriptural passages and the ways in which church aids in the healing process. This is an integrated Christian approach to shame which makes use of the best insights from neuro-psychology.

Vulnerability and community is sound advice. It is also difficult and risky. There are parts of my soul I had to learn to let people know and was lucky enough to have friends who didn’t bail on me for sharing my twisted vulnerable self. Whatever inner healing I have experienced, it is in this knowing and being known by others. However it still takes risk and I have also learned that not every listening ear honors brokenness. The key to Thompson’s model, is a commitment, loyalty and acceptance. Without these, there is no nurturing community to reveal our deep shame.

This is a compelling read and worth spending some time on. The back of the book has questions for discussion and a bibliography of related resources. I recommend it for anyone who has wrestled with shame from past wounds or has experienced the fear of being found out.  There are plenty of insights on how to nurture healing in others as well. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Religious Worship As Political Act: a book review

It is an election year and so the circus begins again. Republicans and Democrats have begun Caucusing. If you examine where the candidates of both parties stand on various issues, you will see evidence of a great divide in the American political consciousness. Democrats and Republicans share increasingly little common ground. However both parties employ a common a strategic use of religious language in support of their divergent political aims.

Sacramental PoliticsBrian Kaylor (Ph.D, University of Missouri) is the Communications and Engagement leader at Churchnet. He is also a journalist who has taught political communication at James Madison University. Sacramental Politics  examines the way religion is co-opted in the political sphere and suggestively explores the political nature of Christian praxis.

Kaylor calls the use of religion in politics,’transubstantiated rhetoric,’ and pulls up plenty examples from the past decades.  The first part of his book, Kaylor considers ‘the obvious examples of worship as political action’: when politicians pray, speak at or attend religious gatherings or church services, or when clergy speaks up on political issues, parties or candidates. In the second half of the book, he turns his focus towards the non-partisan, but altogether political/religious acts: communion, baptism, confirmation, confession, etc.

This is a well-researched book. Kaylor presents many examples from past and current politicians, all documented with copious footnotes. He shows how politicians use religion to justify their ends (i.e. praying campaign slogans) and to project certainty (52). While the Right is the more overtly religious, the political left also makes use of religious rhetoric.

It is the second part of the book that I think is the most interesting. Here Kaylor explores the political dimensions of religious ritual (focused particularly of Christian religious ritual). The power of ritual is not just about forming you into a good American, but the idea is that things like liturgy, Eucharist or Baptism and sacred song makes you into something else. Quoting William Cavanaugh, Kaylor writes, “The Liturgy does more than generate interior motivations to be better citizens. The liturgy generates a body, the Body of Christ–the Eucharist makes the church” (158).  He discusses how religious ritual transcends and calls into question, partisan allegiance. He also shows examples of how church worship and religious practice provided the wherewithal to take stands for civil rights (in the case of MLK or Clarence Jordan) or Nationalism (like the Mennonites).

Kaylor is descriptive of the way religion and politics meld in the American political landscape. He argues that religion inherently carries with it political implications:

[S]everal different types of political actions are possible within religious worship. It may be partisan or nationalistic, or it might serve to offer allegiance to an alternative rule; it may promote public policies or political messages, or it might serve to create a space for doing politics differently. Regardless of which political response is undertaken, religious worship carries  political messages, expectations, and deeds. (225).

The central argument of this book, pushes us toward a conscious awareness of the political implications of our own faith. Kaylor wants to move us beyond partisan religious rhetoric to see how our religious practice shapes us into an alternative polis. Kaylor wants us to see that our worship is poltical, and therefore political worship is a political act (193). This helps us imagine new possibilities.

Kaylor has plenty of examples from the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan administrations. Carter gets few mentions, and George H.W. Bush is missing from his analysis, but the general principles still apply. The book was published in 2015 before the players in this election were sorted out. Thus he covers some of the major players of partisan politics for this cycle (i.e. folks like Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee) but doesn’t address other significant players like Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders.  I  did notice a couple of textual errors(i.e., he mistakenly calls Wayne Grudem, ‘Wayne Gruden’ on page 60), nothing major. Kaylor’s analysis is comprehensive but not exhaustive and certainly more can be added to his argument as this election season shakes out.

This book has a very Mennonite-y feel (which I like).  Kaylor’s arguments reminded me of similar ones made by Hauerwas, and Yoder, though they aren’t cited in the text (he cites Cavanaugh which is enough).  I give this four stars.

note: I received this from SpeakEasy on Tap in exchange for my honest review.

God is For Us: a Lent Review

The season of Lent starts in a week. If you are hoping to find a good Lent devotional, one of the best on the market is God For Us (Paraclete: 2013).  I used it as my primary devotionals a couple of years ago and referred to it throughout the Lenten season last year. The book has a poet or spiritual writer give a week’s worth of daily devotions. Contributers include: Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, Luci Shaw, James Schaap and Lauren Winner. Beth Bevis’s historical articles on the celebration of Lent and various feast days punctuate the text Ronald Rolheiser, OMI writes the introduction and all of this was assembled under Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe’s (both of Image Journal) editorial eyes.

For this Lenten season, Paraclete has just released the readers God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter – Reader’s Edition. The book’s text is the same as the previous edition; however the earlier edition was sort of a coffee table book, with glossy pages full of art. The Reader’s Edition is a simple paperback with french flaps. While I absolutely loved the beauty of the previous edition, this is somewhat more practical and user friendly. I felt guilty about underlining and making notes in the original edition (I still did it) because it was such a pretty book. The Reader’s Edition doesn’t contain the art or the glossy pages and is more portable.

However, I did notice one small error unique to this edition. Page 35 of my copy, mistakenly attributes the entry to the late Richard John Neuhaus (I have a review copy, so I may be looking at a proof copy). My guess is that this a typographical error. Neuhaus contributed to the companion volume God With Us: Readings For Advent and Christmas which Paraclete also published a reader’s edition of, late last year. I checked that page of the devotional because I remembered that the lectionary readings for that day (First Sunday of Lent) didn’t correlate to the passages that Richard Rohr discussed in his devotion. They still don’t.

This doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the overall text. This devotional stands apart for its ecumenical spirit–bringing together an impressive list of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox (Cairns) spiritual writers. the devotions vary, but they are all quality.  If you are looking for a devotional that will deepen your experience and appreciation of the practice of Lent, this is perhaps the best one out there. Bevis’s contributions give this a historical rootedness often missing from devotional literature.  I give this edition 4.5 stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

P.S.–This devotional is also available from Paraclete with a companion CD of Easter themed Gregorian chant. I have not listened to the CD, but I have been impressed with Paraclete’s collection of sacred music and see how popping this CD in as you read the book will help mark sacred time.

Democracy in Black: a book review

In the tradition of Cornel West’s Race Matters, Eddie Glaude, Jr’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul offers an incisive critique of contemporary American society and the ways it perpetuates injustice toward the African American community. Glaude is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African American Studies.

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Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Weaving his own story  and experience throughout his analysis, Glaude begins by recounting his time in Ferguson during the non-indictment of Darren Wilson.  He describes, also, how the sub-prime lending of the nineties, had a particularly devastating effect on African American people. Gaulde concludes that the violence against the Black community, the lack of economic aide for African Americans, and discriminatory voter identification legislation are evidence of the on-going white supremacy of our country. By this he doesn’t mean abject racists in white sheets burning crosses but a value gap where “no matter what our stated principles or how much progress we think we’ve made, white people are valued more than others in this country, and that fact continues to shape the life chances of million of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA” (31).

Glaude argues that  this value gap is maintained by racial habits of all of us. For example, there is still discrimination against African Americans in the workforce when assumptions are made about an applicants qualifications are made on the basis of race. The exact same resumé with the name LeKeisha on it, or the name Lisa are viewed differently(58). [I worked with a community development organization in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, and had African American friends who struggled to find jobs based on being from that zip code]. But even if there was no active discrimination against African Americans they still would not be afforded the same opportunity. Careers and job opportunities often come through our networks and Black Americans do not move in the same social circles as White Americans. Glaude observes, ” Seventy-five percent of white Americans report that their social networks are entirely white” (58). This is one example but American racial habits are pervasive:

We are all shaped by racial habits in some way or another. They are as natural to America as apple pie and fireworks on the Forth of July, and come to us as easily as the words we’ve learned since we were on our mother’s knee. In this sense, racial habits are our inheritance: they contain history of white supremacy that has shaped and continues to shape this country. There are millions of accumulated decisions that make inequality an inextricable part of what it means to be American. If we are to undo them (at least some of them), something dramatic must happen. (64).

Another evidence of white supremacy is the presence of white fear. Glaude shares how he, as a well dressed, educated Princeton professor being seen as a threat by a Princeton collegue’s wife in the university parking lot. He shares another tale of discrimination from his son. But his evidence for white fear isn’t just anecdotal. He cites news stories, articles, and studies about how white Americans (and even African Americans) view black people as a threat. This is evidenced by the sixty percent of working-class white Americans that “believe discrimination against whites is a worse problem than discrimination against blacks”(87)! Also by the way politicians on both sides of the aisle, including President Obama, invoke the idea of black criminality in their rhetoric(89-90).

Glaude examines the way in which politicians and leaders invoke the civil rights story and the narrative of racial progress as a way to excuse themselves from making systemic changes that promote justice and true democracy. Martin Luther King’s legacy is co-opted as an example of equality and shared opportunity and an example of  the American dream. However:

It is always a particular version of Dr. King–the King of the March on Washington who dreamed, not the radical King who marched with garbage workers or understood the connection between the evils of poverty, racism and militarism or called attention to the fact of “two Americas.” This whitewashed King often gets in the way of frank and fearless discussions of black suffering, because his words , in the hands of far too many, are used to hide racial habits and sustain the value gap. (96)

On this score, Glaude criticizes both republicans and democrats saving some of his ire for Barak Obama’s betrayal of Black liberalism (see chapter seven).

While the facts of race relations in this country are pretty grim, Glaude closes his book on a more hopeful note. He calls for ‘a revolution of value’ which would change how we view government, change how we view black people and change how we view what matters, ultimately, as Americans (184).  Government ought to be concerned with the public good and  the care for the vulnerable (185-97), African Americans need to be seen and valued ever bit as much as White Americans are (198-202), and we need to subvert the dominant narrative of American exceptionalism:

We have to tell better stories about what truly matters to us. The kind of stories we tell reflect the kind of people–the kind of nation–we aspire to be. Bad stories, like bad habits, typically correlate with bad people. So better stories are needed to change the country. Americans have to challenge directly the idea that we are “the shining city on the hill” or “the Redemeer Nation.” We have to release democracy from the burden of American exceptionalism. To do this, we have to tell stories of those who put forward a more expansive conception of American democracy. (203).

One sign of hope that Glaude names comes from his observation of the Black Lives Matter movement.  The charismatic civil rights leader is a relic of a bygone era. The new movement “insists on the capacities and responsibilities of everyday ordinary black people and urges them to reach for a higher self even in opportunity deserts. Those deserts are fertile ground to be politically creative” (227).

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