Monday, September 17, 2012

Rock Solid Faith Study Bible For Teens

Rock Solid Faith Study Bible For Teens: Build and Defend Your Faith Based on God's Promises
New International Version
Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2012

This is a NIV Bible in a handsome hardcover printed with a rock wall design, which is repeated on the presentation page. This edition is billed as helping teenage readers, ages 13-16, to "face their questions head on and build a steadfast foundation for their faith. With the Rock Solid Bible, teens discover constant and concrete truths rooted in the unchanging love, guidance, and promises of God."

The Rock Solid Faith edition contains the complete NIV text of the Old and New Testaments, as well as additional features:
Truths that examine Christian beliefs and explorations of other religions;
Principles that apply the Bible to relationships, sex, money, and more;
Promises that call out what is (and is not) promised in the Scriptures;
Plans that explore God’s plan for daily life;
People that provide scriptural examples of overcoming challenges; and
Unshaken God that points out God’s amazing and unyielding attributes.

There are also reading plans, eight pages of full-color maps, Bible book introductions, and other features to help teens grapple with big questions about the world, their futures, and their faith.

Zondervan is publishing the Rock Solid Faith Study Bible in hardcover and Italian leather covers, as well as an eBook version.

This study Bible provides ample footnotes on translations of Hebrew and Greek words, although I may disagree about some of the choices made by the translators. I found the additional features in this edition quite helpful for teens and for providing food for thought, and answers, to their questions.

But this Bible will not be helpful for teens who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Coming from my mainstream Canadian denomination, I ran head-on into the "Rock Solid Truth" that comments on Leviticus 18:1-30 and states that "Homosexuality is a sin - and so are lots of other things." This Truth goes on to say that "the conviction that homosexuality is wrong isn't just based on Old Testament passages - like Leviticus 18:22. The Bible consistently speaks against homosexual behavior, including in New Testament passages like Romans 1:26-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11." This edition does not acknowledge the debate over whether the words translated as "men who have sex with men" (1 Corinthians 6:9) apply to the modern understanding of sexual orientation.

This "Truth" commentary does note that the Bible never depicts homosexuality as the worst possible sin, but lists it alongside such sins as envy, gossip, lying, and disobeying parents - and asks teens "Think: Why do you think homosexuality is a sin - or not?" (although it has already answered that question pretty definitively).

In our mainstream context, the Rock Solid Faith Study Bible will be a good resource for teens who realize that not all followers of Jesus interpret its "Truths" the same way.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Dry Season: Sermon, September 9, 2012

Elijah from Tishbe, who was one of the settlers in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As surely as the LORD lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.”

Then the LORD ’s word came to Elijah: Go from here and turn east. Hide by the Cherith Brook that faces the Jordan River. You can drink from the brook. I have also ordered the ravens to provide for you there. Elijah went and did just what the LORD said. He stayed by the Cherith Brook that faced the Jordan River. The ravens brought bread and meat in the mornings and evenings. He drank from the Cherith Brook. After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land.

The LORD ’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God, the LORD, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the LORD sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the LORD spoke through Elijah.

“Now I know that you really are a man of God,” the woman said to Elijah, “and that the LORD ’s word is truly in your mouth.”
1 Kings 17:1-16, 24, Common English Bible

The LORD ’s word to Jeremiah concerning the droughts:
Judah mourns;
her gates wither away.
The people fall to the ground in sorrow,
as sobs of Jerusalem ascend.
The rich send their servants for water,
but the wells run dry.
They return with empty jars,
ashamed, bewildered, and in despair.
Because the ground is cracked due to lack of rain,
the farmers too are ashamed;
they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field
abandons her newborn,
for there’s no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the well-traveled paths,
panting like thirsty dogs;
they go blind
since there’s nothing to eat.
Jeremiah 14:1-6, Common English Bible

Today it seems that summer is over. I know that the season of summer doesn’t officially end until later in September, but for many of us the Stormont County Fair, and Labour Day weekend, and our cooking contest here at Trinity United mark the end of summer and the beginning of fall. And this summer was, as everyone knows, a dry one. It was a summer of drought. I think it rained all of an hour or hour and a half during the entire month of July. It’s obvious to anyone driving through the county looking at the state of the corn crop that this was a drought year.

Someone once commented that they had never heard a farmer say, “We got the perfect amount of rain this year.” Farming is a tough occupation, and the weather never cooperates fully. There have been droughts before. But 2012 looks to be an historic drought year, and, as bad as it was here in Eastern Ontario, we didn’t get the worst of it.

July was the all-time warmest month on record in the United States, and precipitation that month in the American corn-growing states was 60 percent less than normal. There’s a debate about whether or not this is due to climate change, but what is certain is that American corn yields are the lowest in 17 years. They’re down as much as a quarter. Farmers in the affected parts of the US and Canada growing corn and other crops have seen their profits wiped out, and are trying to get by on crop insurance payments or savings. Farmers in livestock and dairy are having to sell off part of their herds as feed prices increase. So while farmers’ incomes plunge, the prices of crops, particularly corn, are going up, and these price increases will get passed on to industries that rely on corn, everything from breakfast cereal to ethanol to meat of all kinds, and then on to us who buy food and gasoline. So this drought is going to affect all of us, no matter where we live or what we do. And some researchers predict that this may be the start of a long period of below normal rainfall and high temperatures that could last twenty or thirty years, not even including any impact from global warming.

The Bible does mention drought, because the Bible was written in a dry land for a people who farmed, in an age with no crop insurance or marketing boards or importing food over long distances. In Bible times a drought meant hunger, as it did for the widow and her son Elijah met in our story this morning, and as it still does in much of the world. I just finished reading a book called The Last Hunger Season, about small farmers in Kenya. They experience hunger every year as the corn stored from the previous crop runs out and they wait to harvest the new crop. A crop failure means not just hunger, but starvation. Organizations like those partnering with our Mission and Service Fund and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank are working to end these hunger seasons with access to better seeds and farming techniques and crop storage.

So in our drought this year we can relate to the words we heard from the prophet Jeremiah, about dry wells, and the ground cracked due to lack of rain, and the people bewildered and in despair. And maybe there’s more than one kind of drought. As we lament what the withered crops have done and will do to incomes and prices in our part of the world, we have also been lamenting the state of our church, lamenting declining membership, and reduced givings, and the cost of maintaining buildings, and the decline in church influence in our country. We have been lamenting the state of our society, the behaviours and attitudes that are so foreign to the way Jesus taught us to live, the embrace of greed and vanity, violence that invades movie theatres and political rallies. The people around us, perhaps we ourselves, are lamenting how they feel dried up inside, how they are searching for something to believe, something to give them hope, something to satisfy the thirst they have for answers. Sisters and brothers, we’re not just in a summer of physical drought. We’re living in a time of spiritual drought. One blogger, Tamara Hill Murphy, calls us drought Christians.

And how do we live as drought Christians, in a time of spiritual drought? We can be present to each other whenever we feel parched and thirsty; present to our neighbours who are ashamed and bewildered and in despair and craving hope like the people Jeremiah describes in the drought; present to our society needing healing. We can be like the people Jeremiah talks about a few chapters later in his book, when he says,

Happy are those who trust in the Lord, who rely in the Lord. They will be like trees planted by the streams, whose roots reach down to the water. They won’t fear drought when it comes; their leaves will remain green. They won’t be stressed in the time of drought or fail to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 17:7-8
We can be those trees who remain green, even as spiritual drought turns everyone and everything around us brown.

I said that the Bible deals with physical drought. And with spiritual drought too. There is a story in John's Gospel, of how Jesus meets a foreign woman at a well, and talks with her as he asks her for a drink of water. And he tells her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring that bubbles up into eternal life.”

In this time of drought we are called to follow Jesus, who gives us his living water. We are called to be his presence, being with all who suffer, reassuring and comforting all who are worried – including ourselves in this time of drought for the church – praying, working for justice for the hungry and thirsty, pointing to the living water that Jesus gives to provide relief and peace for all who are afraid, all who feel dried up, all who thirst both physically and spiritually.

This fall we need to return to Jesus, as if for the first time, and rediscover him, how to be with him, how to be like him, and how to be drought Christians. This fall I hope will be all about Jesus: who came as one of us to be with us in times of drought and plenty; who died for us and rose again for us; who gives us the living water that bubbles up into eternal life; and who will come again to bring a new heaven and a new earth free of drought, and famine, and all brokenness. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Open Space

I haven't blogged about my experiences as a Commissioner to the 41st General Council of The United Church of Canada, held at Carleton University in Ottawa on August 11 to 18. The week was dominated by receiving reports and debating and voting on proposals, as has happened at all 40 previous General Councils and at the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist assemblies that preceded them.

However, Thursday was novel - the day was given over to Open Space, facilitated by leaders who had previously been the facilitators for a similar exercise at our denomination's Maritime Conference. Open Space comes from the same roots as the Unconference which I've attended at Stony Point NY. Unco has become sufficiently well-attended to spawn a Western offshoot in San Francisco. Perhaps this is the new way of collaborating on new ideas for the church.

Basically, Open Space or Unco are crowd-sourced conferences, with attendees setting the agenda and providing discussion leadership. At the 41st General Council - known as GC41 - Thursday August 16 began with the facilitators explaining how Open Source would work in a one-day setting with 300 elected Commissioners, plus Youth Forum delegates. This was a larger group than Unco has been. Then all ideas were welcome - any Commissioner or Youth Forum delegate with a discussion group idea came up, wrote their idea on a sheet of paper, spoke into a microphone stating their idea, then proceeded to a wall where the pages were posted in time blocks. There were three blocks of an hour and a half each, one morning and two afternoon. Each sheet was then given a number, which matched that on a pole topped with a colourful windmill so people wishing to attend would be able to find each group in the large meeting space.

I jumped up and proposed a discussion on The Challenges of Sustainable and Vibrant Rural Ministry, wrote it on a page and posted it in the first afternoon time slot, where it received the number 13. When the time came I found where pole number 13 was placed on the floor and arranged some chairs in a circle. These were promptly filled by Commissioners anxious to talk about the issues of rural ministry, and I threw out some opening questions and let the discussion take off from there. I asked one of the attendees to take attendance and notes on ideas that came out of the discussion, and at the end of the time slot went to a bank of laptops and typed in the report for Group 13. These reports were later collated and read by church leaders.

It seems that Open Space/Unconference formats are ideal for letting ideas come forth that may otherwise be held back by our proposal format with three courts of the church - congregation, Presbytery, and Conference - passing on formal motions to General Council. The topics covered included several that were only mentioned in passing or not covered at all in other General Council business, such as rural ministry, clergy pay, outreach ministries, suburban church growth, and LGBTQ experiences in ministry. Perhaps our processes will evolve so that a future General Council receives most of its input from crowd-sourced discussions and formal reports and motions occupy the minority of Commissioners' time.

More on Mormonizing

Further to yesterday's post reviewing The Mormonizing of America, here are two articles of interest.

"Mormonism Obsessed With Christ," by Stephen H. Webb was published in First Things in February. Webb emphasizes the Christocentric nature of Mormon devotion while acknowledging that such faith is often at odds with orthodox Christian interpretations, such that "the Mormon metaphysic calls for the revision of nearly every Christian belief."

"Why I Fell in Love With Joseph Smith But Couldn't Commit to Mormonism" was written by Jane Barnes and published on The Huffington Post on September 5. She comes to a similar conclusion to Stephen Mansfield in the book I reviewed in yesterday's post: "Today's Mormon Church is not the church of Joseph Smith. Joseph's church was a wild and woolly institution, constantly adapting to new situations and to the prophet's revelatory twists and turns. That's far from the case now." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints managed to thrive and grow despite hardships and persecution, but inevitably it became conservative and grew away from its founder.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Mormonizing of America?

The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture
By Stephen Mansfield
Worthy Publishing, Brentwood TN, 2012
265 pages

I read this book while watching the Republican National Convention broadcast from Tampa, including the speech by Governor Mitt Romney accepting the GOP nomination for President. There had been much talk online about Romney's Mormon faith and whether or not he would downplay his religion in his speech.

Romney is one of the prominent Mormons mentioned in this book, along with business author the late Stephen Covey, entertainers Donny and Marie Osmond, former ambassador John Huntsman (who had contended with Romney for the Republican nomination), right-wing activist Glenn Beck, and others. Stephen Mansfield, who has written two books on the faith of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, sets out to look at the "Mormon Moment" as seven million Latter-Day Saints, two percent of the US population, seem to have a disproportionate influence in politics, business and entertainment.

Mansfield does this partially through a series of vignettes with Mormon characters - a student athlete, a boy preparing for priesthood and his grandfather, a couple wanting to add to their already large family - often interacting with "gentiles." I found these to a bit stilted, with dialogue that did not ring true, but they did make their points about Latter-Day Saints (LDS) beliefs and actions.

He argues that the success of Mormons in the US and the present "Mormon Moment" are the result of the Mormon religion creating "what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine - a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood government, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the Mormon cause." In fact, Manfield claims, "plant Mormonism in any country on earth, and pretty much the same results will occur." Canadian Mormons do not yet have their "moment," but they make up only half a percent of our country's population, much less than in the US.

Mansfield makes the case that Mormon values and behaviours are also the hallmarks of successful people, and further that these values and behaviours grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. He then sets out an overview of the genesis and growth of the faith of the Latter-Day Saints. The history of the Mormons is laid out from the visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith, his translation of the Book of Mormon, persecution by mobs and governments, and the eventual trek west to Utah. Mansfield does not hesitate to depict Smith, and other early Mormon leaders, harshly when he feels it is warranted. At the end of the book he articulates a view, which he does not say if he believes personally, that Smith "completely imagined the religion he said he received by revelation" and that Smith can be understood as "a manipulative deceiver." Despite this, these "invented religious doctrines...have nevertheless fashioned a capable, ambitious people over time."

The historical and doctrine sections of the book are the most useful for me. The core Mormon beliefs are set out, and contrasted with those held by orthodox Christianity: that God the Heavenly Father has a physical body, and is married to the Heavenly Mother; that families exist prior to the earthly existence; that after his resurrection Christ appeared to Hebrews who had settled in North America; that the churches which were formed after Christ's life were corrupt; that the priesthood authority given to Mormon men is the power of the Holy Spirit to bless, heal, and have revelations; that the Book of Mormon is considered Scriptural on a level with Smith's own reworking of the Bible. Mansfield states that, given the depth of the doctrinal divide between Latter-Day Saints and orthodox Christian churches as well as Mormons' fervent devotion to Jesus, it may be time to move beyond debates over whether or not Mormons are Christians and classify the LDS Church as the fourth Abrahamic religion alongside Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Interestingly, the first version of this book was subtitled "How a Fringe Cult Emerged as a Dominant Force in American Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture." Presumably, there was an adverse reaction to "fringe cult" and the publisher changed it to "How the Mormon Religion Emerged." But Mansfield, who is not a Mormon, is sympathetic to the hard-working, faithful ordinary Mormons, despite the shadows of their religion's past of manipulation, polygamy, and racism. Mormons have both the advantage and disadvantage of belonging to a young faith tradition; the first Christian churches are 2,000 years in the past, while the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

The political and cultural references in this book may become dated soon - if Governor Romney does not win the Presidency in November, his prominence as a Mormon may soon be forgotten. But Mansfield's analysis of the ascension of Mormons in US society, while not deep, will stand as an introduction to the LDS Church and its members in America. It will certainly be of interest to anyone who wonders about the beliefs and practices of their Mormon neighbours, or what is in the mind of Governor Romney as he seeks to be President of the country in which the Latter-Day Saints originated.