Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Hurry-Up Exit from Egypt (A Faith that God Built Book)-A Review

Gary Bower crafts another clever children's book in the A Faith that God Built series.  Modeled after the  the timeless kid's book, This is the House that Jack Built, Bower uses a progression of repeated phrases to sing-song through the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt.  Each phrase has it's own rhyming words. The text has fun hyphenated words like hurry-up, lickety-split and eye-popping. Though a very simple account of the Biblical story, Bower packs in a surprising amount of detail through sentence structure and sequence. The illustrations have cartoonish kid-appeal with characters up close and colorful.

My only criticism is the ending.  It felt too abrupt and didn't give enough finish to the story.  Rather than show or tell how the people escaped Pharoah's army, the last rhyme ends with a picture of a large open book, presumably the Bible, and informs the reader that this book "tells of the day God stopped their pursuers and swept them away." As in all the books in this series, the very last page gives the reference of where to find the whole story in the Bible.  The ending and the note on the last page felt redundant.

Overall, there is plenty to like in this delightful children's book.

This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Last Meal

As I reflected on the Last Supper this past Easter season, I imagined myself in the scene and took John's point of view.  Here is his story.

A complicated excitement fills me as Peter and I leave the group to carry out Jesus' instructions to get the Passover feast ready. "Look for a man carrying a water jar", he said. As we ease our way into the crowded street I see myriads of water jars atop shoulders of women.  A man doing this would be a rare sight and should be easy to spot.

"There he is Peter!"  I point to the water carrier heading towards a house close by. We follow him and see him enter the dwelling. As we approach the house I knock on the door.  A well-dressed man opens the door, and we state our mission using the words Jesus asked us to say.  Almost before we are  finished speaking he is heading towards the stairs as though he anticipated our request. I look at Peter knowingly. We shouldn't be surprised anymore by things working out like this; we had seen plenty of miracles since joining up with Jesus, but it still was a thrill to be in the moment.  The man shows us a room, furnished with couches and a table to accommodate all 13 of us.

After checking what supplies are in the room, we jostle our way back into the street and head towards the market to buy food and drink.  We shuffle slowly forward in the midst of a swelling crowd, come for the celebration.  It will take longer than usual to do our errand.   Peter and I will be busy all day, and hopefully ready, when it's time for this evening's meal. [The Bible doesn't mention that anyone else helped prepare the meal, but it seems likely that the women who served and followed Jesus were there to do the cooking]

After the shopping adventure, we work together to make sure things are set up for all the rituals of the supper-enough wine for each guest, and enough water jars for the hand washing ceremony.  We set up a roasting pit and then walk the premises inspecting the property for any trace of leaven.  As we walk, our conversation becomes more intimate. We recount things we have seen and learned in the last three years with Jesus.  Peter shares the same foreboding I have been feeling as we muse over recent events.

"Why didn't Jesus' entry into Jerusalem by donkey earlier this week lead to some grand finale?"

Rather than seeing a bold, confidant King-to-be, Jesus had been sad.

"Did you hear him sobbing as we got close to the entrance?"

"Yes, and he was declaring how disappointed he was for the city he loves."

"It felt like the people were really behind us and that Jesus' approval rating was at an all time high."

"Yes, a perfect time to act, if you ask me", Peter says.

But we both agree that hatred is brewing among the religious leaders. A few days ago Jesus had been staged with some tough questions that even we recognized as political challenges.
"Jesus sure showed them up".  I smile remembering how dumbfounded they appeared at his answers.

"What did you think of his predictions about the future, Peter?"

"It's very unsettling to me, and yet he said we would be given wisdom when we need it, and we would gain life out of the suffering if we stand firm.  And there was something he said about redemption coming."

"There is so much I don't understand", I sigh. "Jesus keeps bringing up suffering and even seems fixated on his death sometimes. My hopes rise in expectation of seeing that Kingdom of God being set up as we always longed for, only to be dashed into confusion when Jesus holds babies, visits tax collectors and spends time with people I was taught not to associate with."

"Yeah, you'd think in order to establish a kingdom he's be making friends with leaders in high places!"

"Yet, Peter, we know how his love has changed us and what he's taught us by example and words has transformed our thinking.  We have no doubts he is God's son, the Messiah. We've seen miracles, we know he is no ordinary man, he's perfect in everything he does."

" But this is all so different from what we expected". Peter shakes his head.

As Jesus and the others arrive for the meal the men are joyous as the holiday warrants. Jesus greets me and I sense he is distracted.  There's something bothering him, even though his eyes are warm with tenderness. Once we are seated, Jesus speaks. "I could hardly wait for this time together alone with you, my friends, before my suffering begins.  It will be the last time I eat a Passover meal with you until it's fulfilled in the Kingdom of God."

I feel confused again. He talks of suffering and yet he makes it sound like the kingdom is very close.
Maybe that's what stirs the quarrel right then. We choose to focus on the Kingdom talk; suffering is depressing and we don't understand what Jesus means by it. We push it from our minds and start to act like competitive school boys, vying to be given top honors by the teacher. I'm drawn into the rivalry.

"Jesus, I know how much you think of me. I can handle being your right hand man in the kingdom. I was picked to prepare the meal today and I've been besides you in all the biggest miracles. I know you love me the best.  See, I've even set my place right next to you tonight.  I come from a good family.  My father is a successful fisherman and my mother is also well known.  She speaks out for the causes she believes in.  She raised James and me to strive for the best. She even spoke to you before about how we are fitted for high positions in your kingdom."

The argument stops suddenly as we notice Jesus standing with a towel draped over his shoulder and holding the foot basin of water.  The servant Peter and I hired for the evening feast stands to the side looking confused and nervous. We are speechless as Jesus,  the Teacher and Son of God, kneels down and begins to wash someone's feet.  I've never seen anyone but hired servants do this demeaning job.

 This isn't right! How can we let this be happening?  Shouldn't we stop him?

He's approaching Peter.  "No, Never Jesus! You can't act like this! I won't let you wash my feet."

My thoughts exactly!

"If you don't allow me to serve you this way, you can't identify with me".

"Then, Lord, wash all of me! I want to be all in with you!"

"I know your heart, Peter, and that you have received my cleansing. I wash your feet only as an example of my desire to serve you."

He turns to the rest of us.  "That goes for all of you, except for the one among us who isn't clean inside."

What can he mean? Haven't we each embraced him as the Christ, and followed him loyally for the past 3 years?  We all have our faults and doubts, but none of us are against him.

Tears burn my eyes as his hands gently wash the dirt from my feet.  That he could be in this position, when I should be taking care of him.  He is my Master, he does miracles, he is the Son of God. I can hardly endure this discomfort; the awkwardness.

When we all have been washed, Jesus says, "I've just shown you what greatness looks like.  My servants don't strive for greatness as the world defines it.  It's not position and power over others, but serving others no matter your rank or status. Follow my example and you will know true happiness. And by the way, you will each have a place of judging and reigning in my kingdom and you will eat at my table. For you have stood by me in my trials."

We recline again at the table. Jesus leads us through the order of the Seder.  He lifts the loaf of bread from the table, holds it up and gives thanks. He breaks off pieces and hands one to each of us."Take this and eat it. This is my body broken for you. Do this to remember me."  That certainly isn't in the script. We continue with the traditional prayers and scripture reading. After we've finished the meal he takes the last cup of wine, holds it up and says, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you." I squirm.  Jesus is mentioning his death again.  What does this mean?

"The hand of the one who is going to betray me is with mine at the table. What happens to me has already been planned, but I pity the one who betrays me."

We look suspiciously at each other. I can't image any of us betraying our friend and master. He has brought new life to us and understanding about God the father.  We are all shocked.

"You're not talking about me, are you?, I say, leaning up close to Jesus' chest. "Nor me, right?", someone else says.

"It's the one dipping bread with me right now", Jesus reveals.  Judas Iscariot?! "Why, surely, it's not me, is it?" Judas echoes the others. "Yes, it is you, Judas", Jesus says sadly. "Go and do what you have planned, quickly."

I don't know what just happened.  If Judas is the betrayer, why wouldn't Jesus have rebuked him or forced him out before?  It's more likely Jesus needed him to go buy something or give some money away. 
The End

Several things stood out to me about this event. Jesus was happy and comforted to be with his closest friends on earth as he approached his death.  He loved them to the end.  John 13:1.
As I read and reread all the gospel accounts of the last supper, I was struck by Jesus' love for Judas Iscariot.  Jesus refers to Judas more than once.  He mentions that they aren't all clean when washing their feet. He says that someone will betray him and then specifically says it is someone eating right then with him.  He speaks strongly about and pities the one who will betray him. It would be better if he had never been born. I believe Jesus is still hoping Judas will change his mind and repent, not so Jesus can get out of this trial, but so Judas won't suffer the guilt and eventual death that we know happens to him. How could Judas have taken part in the meal and feel Jesus' tender, humble love for him as Jesus washes his feet unless diabolical hard-hardheartedness had possessed him?  How could he not have buckled under the the stern warning about what would happen to the betrayer?  And that none of the disciples suspect Judas or believe what he is capable of, even after Jesus discloses him as the betrayer, speaks of his acceptance among them and of being a credible follower of Christ up until now.

Jesus' last time with this company in his earthly body is around a table of food.  He shares his goodbyes and gives them words to remember as they eat together. I think of other references in scripture of Divine presence at a table.
-He prepares a table before me (rather than watch me eat, he is feasting beside me, his conversation and presence calming any fear of present enemies)Ps. 23:5
-He knocks at our door wanting to come in to eat with us. Rev. 3:20.
-Many parables are set around an invitation to a banquet or feast, intended to show God's heart of desire to sup with us.
-It was over a meal that Zacchaeus abandons cheating, that a newlywed couple receives the gift of new wine, and while at table, Simon's meal becomes the stage for a woman's extravagant worship. Luke 19, John 2, & Mark 14

-"Then the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!' And he added, 'These are the true words of God.'” Rev 19:9

Until that day, we eagerly take the bread and wine of communion, remembering it ties us to him now and forever.  We stay in practice of eating together with those we love, inviting his presence in these sacred meals.  We are invited to his table always. May nothing keep us from responding.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Giving Thanks Always

Ten voices shouting with pleas for mercy, for a touch from the miracle worker.  All of them outcasts and allowed no human contact other than among themselves.  A band of brothers, united by disease. Race, enemy boundaries and class were dissolved as basic needs for survival and support melded them together. Now they dared hope that this Jesus prophet would take up their cause.

Jesus hears them, and calls out to them to go to the priest.  Knowing the law required a priest's examination to be pronounced healed, they go with flickering hope in their hearts.  On the way, each one senses the wounds sealing up, the disfigurements smoothing into normalcy and the joy welling up from a reservoir they thought would never fill again.  Laughter and tears filled the priest's office that day as he struggled to finish the exams in the midst of the uproar.

After the ten were free to go, I wonder if they hurried to family or worried about where to go next.  Did they feel any loyalty to try and stay in touch with each other? What former forbidden activity would they engage in first?

Only one thought to return to Jesus and offer thanks.  He was the foreigner, the one who knew rejection because of origin, not just the shunning from an unclean body. He had reason to be grateful. And when he knelt there at the feet of the healer, he received the blessing of knowing his faith had brought salvation.  He was restored not just in body, but soul as well.

I like this quote by commentator, Matthew Henry.
-“Temporal mercies are then doubled and sweetened to us when they are fetched in by the prayers of faith, and returned by the praises of faith.”

As Jesus highlights the importance of thanksgiving, I'm reminded to live in greater gratitude for his amazing gifts to me- salvation, mercy and goodness that follows me, the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide me, His presence living in me... Expressing that appreciation doesn't always come naturally; I make it intentional in listening to worship music or recounting the blessings in each day as I lay my head down at night. 

A story is told of Matthew Henry when his wallet was stolen.  That night he wrote in his diary what
he was thankful for:
-that he had never been robbed before
-that his life had been spared in the robbery
-that his wallet didn’t have much money in it
-and that he was the one robbed and not the one robbing!

Sharing Christ's goodness with others pays the thanks forward. I am more aware of ways to thank others for their gifts to me.  Handwritten cards cheer any mailbox contents. How about this idea I read recently?

A man gave his wife a journal for Christmas.  She was chagrined as she didn’t like to journal and knew she would never make use of it. Then she noticed that the journal was dated for the previous year and the entries where already filled in.  Her husband had written 365 things he had noticed or observed about his wife, one for each day of the year, that he was thankful for or appreciated about her. 

Anyone want to join me in this way of saying thanks to a spouse?  Shh...It's the surprise factor that makes this gift special.

In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. I Thes. 5:18.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Review-The Centurion

"Then these words, these very seditious words, stole past his lips. 'Surely this was the son of God.'"

The Centurion from the Biblical account who uttered these words at Jesus' crucifixion is our main character in this book by Ken Gire. Gire writes the story from a Roman view point, creating Lucius Alexander Titus as a courageous leader in the Roman army who aspires for higher service to the emperor and the glory of Rome. The unusual circumstances of the crucifixion drives him to know more about Jesus and his followers.  He also sees a woman there whom he once met before, Mary Magdala. When he discovers the group of believers he apologizes for his part in Jesus' death and spends time mingling from them and learning to know them and more about their God.  When he makes his feelings of love known to Mary, she acknowledges her mutual feelings but refuses to allow a relationship between them. Jesus is her first love, she is committed to working in the Kingdom of God, she doesn't have time for a love affair because Jesus will be returning soon and Lucius' love would be a distraction.

Lucius is crushed and angry.  Duty calls him to another region and, except for letters Lucius sends her, he and Mary have no further contact,until later in the story.  There are ongoing glimpses of Mary's life and her sadness in missing Lucius, but she has chosen to stay true to her cause. 

Much of the story tells of Lucius' battle forays and his eventual disillusionment with the Roman empire.  There are many scenes of violence portrayed rather graphically.  While Lucius doesn't hold allegiance to the gods of Rome, like most of his fellow soldiers, neither does he ever have a defining experience of becoming a Christ follower.  He makes a difficult choice in the end of the story that could possibly be interpreted as a conversion, but I wasn't convinced.  The last scene in the book is very moving, so don't read the end of the book first if you want to experience the unexpected ending.

While the book held my interest, I would have liked more character development and less battle descriptions.  The author shows his word skills well in describing his settings. If tempted to skim these details, I was always rewarded by noticing closely,  the interesting word structures chosen to describe the imagery.

The last 55 pages of the book are in a section called "Sources".  The author includes these notes, full of other resources and information,  to give the reader more background on the history of the era and the lives of the characters.  He also hopes to give encouragement to writers by sharing some of his creative processes and how he arrived at some of his decisions in writing the story.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review-A Patch on the Peak of Ararat

by Gary Bower ( a Faith that God Built book)

This is a book that is fun to read.

This is the Nana who read to her grand kids, who turned every page and said every word
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read.

These are the children some big and some small, who looked at the pictures while
the Nana who read to her grand kids, who turned every page and said every word,
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read.

There were words like virtuous, carpentry, Ararat and proceeded,  for explaining to these children some big and some small, who looked at the pictures while the Nana who read to her grand kids, who turned every page and said every word,
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read.

These are the signs of wear beginning to show, of repeating the lines, of voice out of breath and tongue tripping speech, for there were words  like virtuous, carpentry, Ararat and proceeded, for explaining to the children some big and some small, who looked at the pictures while the Nana who read to her grand kids, who turned every page and said every word,
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read.

This is the time when the book words were ended for the signs of wear beginning to show, of repeating the lines, of voice out of breath and tongue tripping speech, for there were words  like virtuous, carpentry, Ararat and proceeded, for explaining to the children some big and some small, who looked at the pictures while the Nana who read to her grand kids, who turned every page and said every word,
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read.

And the children all smiled, the Nana did too, they said the book's like a poem, like a song, it's Noah's ark story revised, but yet true, for this is the time when the book words were ended for the signs of wear beginning to show, of repeating the lines, of voice out of breath and tongue tripping speech, for there were words  like virtuous, carpentry, Ararat and proceeded, for explaining to the children some big and some small who looked at the pictures while the Nana who read to her grand kids , who turned every page and said every word,
And thought, this is a book that is fun to read!

The book is written in a House That Jack Built style, with a few words to explain, with repetition that can tongue tie your mouth and make the reader take deeper breaths and sigh in relief when done.  Even then a very enjoyable book that must be read aloud.  It's an abbreviated version of the story and yet has the basic progression from building the ark to the dove, the rainbow and the promise in the end.  The last page directs the reader to the whole account in Genesis 6-9.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Texting While Driving-Who Does That?

Texting while driving is dangerous for your life, for others lives.  I don't believe I should do this.  I'd tell you not to do this. It is against the law, BTW. Yet, just yesterday I left work and had an important message to relay to someone. Sure, I used my helpful phone voice companion, but as the other party texted back, I read what they had to say. Everything was fine until an emoticon smiled at me and I wanted to smile back.  It was easier to thumb "Lol" then voice the words "laugh out loud" and so there you have it, I confess, I performed an action I don't believe in.

Our Bible study lesson last week from Luke was on Jesus' sharp words of rebuke to the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy defined is pretending to be a certain way but acting and believing the total opposite. Illustrations of hypocrites abound.  Ted Haggard, leader of a church of 14,000, preached passionately against homosexuality and then confessed to having a gay relationship. Or Congressman Mark Foley who decried child pornography and fought for laws to prosecute child exploiters, and was found messaging sexual images to underage congressional pages. Rush Limbaugh spoke against drug abusers when he himself was addicted to prescription drugs.

If we are so prone to pretense and putting on fronts, how do we overcome these natural tendencies and live a life of integrity and authenticity? As Jesus speaks woes to the Pharisees and scribes he also explains where they went wrong. What can we learn from Luke 11:37-12:1-11?

The Woes
1.  In demanding obedience to the letter of the law and priding themselves on keeping every last minuscule detail Jesus said they had lost their love for God and justice.

2.They cared more about the tithe you'd pay on that creeper of mint you grow in your garden than about giving gifts to the poor.

3. People were being corrupted by their influence and getting wrong ideas of what God is really like.

4. Not only were they overbearing on others to keep the details, they wouldn't lift a finger to help them and found loopholes to bypass inconveniences  to themselves.
Take this example from Barclay's commentary–One of the forbidden works on the Sabbath was the tying of knots-sailors knots, knots in ropes, etc. But a woman might tie the knot in her girdle.  Therefore if a bucket of water had to be raised from a well a rope couldn’t be knotted to it, but a woman’s girdle could, and it could be raised by that!

5.They loved the limelight and made ostentatious presentations of honor to past prophets, when they wouldn't recognize John the Baptist and Jesus, the greatest of God's messengers who were living among them. 

6. Guardians of the scriptures, they painted God as a judge waiting to condemn offenders, and hid the key to discovering his true nature of love, grace and justice.

Following these denouncements I can see the leaders lash back with sinister snarls, clenched fists and spitting words of hate. Luke says they were "waiting to catch Jesus in something he would say". One commentary points out that the word catch is the same word used for hunting wild animals.

Right after this, thousands press in closer to Jesus and his disciples, trampling on toes and making it hard to walk.  I'm thinking the disciples may be looking over their shoulders while their stomachs are fluttering with fear.  They've just turned their backs to powerful leaders angry-enough-to-kill and now face humanity so thick they can barely stand. I'd be looking for an escape route, quick!

Jesus gathers them closer for his next words.  Don't be hypocrites like the leaders you were always taught to respect. Their deceptive words and actions will all be exposed in the end.  Everything will come out in the open. And friends, don't be afraid of them.  How comforting to be called friends in this moment! They belong here with him. What other place is safer? There may be death ahead, but Jesus reminds them that the only one to fear is God, who holds their eternal destiny in his hands beyond what can happen to their bodies.  He reminds them that if their God cares for each sparrow, worthless to the point of throwing in an extra fifth one when four are paid for, how much more he cares for them. He knows how many hairs are on their head!

Furthermore, Jesus says that if they stand up for him and not disown him, he will show them off before the angels in heaven. You will be brought before accusers, but the Holy Spirit will be your teacher, to help you and to teach you what to say.  Don’t worry!

Can you hear the encouragement in these words?  Jesus isn’t denying the seriousness of the situation and what following him means for them in the future.  But God is big enough to take care of them.  No matter what happens it will end up good!

So how can we guard against hypocrisy?

-Keep generous hearts towards others, hearts that are moved to action by others struggles and hurts
-"Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God" --Micah 6:8
-Love God with our whole being
-Bear each others burdens in our weaknesses and different levels of maturity, instead of judging and thinking I’m glad I’m better than that! 
-Keep a heart open to correction and repentance, even if it means embarrassment or being humiliated.  Even if God uses a hypocrite to uncover some pretense in us! "Reproofs of instruction are the way of life"-- Prov 6:23b
-Love God’s Word-
"The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit,  joints and marrow and it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."-- Heb 4:12. Let’s handle God’s word carefully and correctly. Our lives are a living letter- are others seeing what God is like by watching us?
-Pray regularly-"Search me, God and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts and see if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." Ps 139:24

We can be people of integrity, who live authentically and finish well! God has given us everything we need for life and Godliness-his love and friendship,the H.S. to convict us, teach us, give us words to speak, even when wrongly accused, forgiveness when we mess up.  God is able to keep us from falling and to bring us into his eternal presence with fullness of joy.  He cares for us so closely that he knows our hair count, we’re written on the palm of his hand, he collects our tears in a bottle. Serving our God is worth whatever suffering or persecution we may face.  Someday he will smile proudly, embrace us in a hug like none we’ve felt before, while whispering in our ear- "well done", and then turn with a proud smile to the angels and say, "This is my beloved child! Isn’t she something!"


Friday, January 6, 2017

Book Review-Crossing the Waters by Leslie Leyland Fields

I am currently studying the Gospel of Luke and found this book a helpful companion resource to bring context to the stories about Jesus and his disciples. Leslie Fields opens to us her unique perspective on making a living on the sea in Alaska, where she moved from New Hampshire, when she married, Duncan, her Alaskan husband whom she met in college. There have been rocky family times, isolation from conveniences and close neighbors and now some of her 6 kids have just recently left home to pursue their own dreams and adventures, bringing a new season of life for the author.

Leslie's insights come through her wealth of experiences, many of them through her fishing occupation -storms, rugged land and weather, hard fisherman work, and the constant possibility of danger and tragedy.  Leslie says these circumstances give her a special connection to the fishermen who Jesus called, and they have grown her faith immensely.
Leslie also shares wisdom from her travels to Israel. We are with her on the Sea of Galilee, talking to local fishermen, or approaching a priest after a church service asking, "Why do you think Jesus chose so many fishermen?"  The trip afforded her a new journey through the gospels, which she shares with us.

Throughout the book, more questions trouble her.  "Does following Jesus mean we must all leave the material world of commerce to fish for men and women with the net of the gospel?" Or, "I believe he is with us in every storm...Yes, so many saved, but so many lost. (Leslie's mother-in-law died in a fire, a neighbor friend loses a son and father who drowned at sea) I know that 'take up their cross' means to be ready to die.  But who can do this?...If we who follow after him cannot even be sure he will save us, how can we trust him?" How does Jesus bring peace and understanding in spite of the questions?

I was deeply moved by Leslie's story and the spiritual lessons she shares so candidly. Leslie hopes the reader hears Jesus calling. Come follow me.  Do not be afraid. Following Jesus changes us. He never leaves us as we are.

There is a study guide in the back of the book for those who want to dig deeper, individually, or in a group study.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.