Archive for category Reviews

Love, a Tiara and a Cupcake – Rev. Susan Sparks -www.goodfaithmedia.org

Susan Sparks has created a profound book of faith wrapped in humor with her latest publication, Love, a Tiara and a Cupcake.

Melding her many talents as a lawyer, stand-up comedian and preacher (she is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City), Sparks has produced a work that truly feeds the soul while stimulating our sense of humor.

She weaves in a lot of her North Carolina upbringing to make it real.

Sparks finds spiritual nourishment in the TSA agents confiscating her pimento cheese and in her trips to Kmart. She encourages us to be as enthusiastic about our faith in Jesus as Elvis fans are about keeping “the King” alive.

Elvis fans are happy to talk about him and to connect with other fans. They proclaim that he is alive, although he has been gone for 40 years.

Her premise is, “When we were born, God crowned us with a radiant tiara – a holy stamp of approval, a sign of our belonging.” We should wear it proudly.

She contends that the person who has the most influence over our lives is the person we refuse to forgive. She quotes a recent fortune cookie message, “Anger after 30 seconds is ego.”

Anger can steal our joy quickly and cause us to say things that divide us even further. The Bible warns about not guarding our words, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

On a teaching trip to Las Vegas, she saw a sign that conveys the message, “Civility is in you. Pass it on.”

According to Sparks, worry can tarnish our tiara. She devotes three chapters to this topic and employs Jesus, Dr. Seuss and John Milton in her argument.

Worry has become a national pastime but worrying will not solve our problems. We only make progress when we bring our worries into the open and deal with them.

She quotes Milton, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.” Worry or believe – we can’t do both.

Sometimes, we need time to mature, which Sparks calls this the long way around, using Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt as an example.

There was a shorter way to the Promised Land, but the Israelites were not ready for the challenges they would encounter. So, God led them on a much longer journey to better prepare them.

To make it personal, suppose you found your dream job, but you didn’t have the skills you need to be successful in that job. So, you had to postpone that dream job until you acquire the skills you need.

It can be hard when we feel that we are not on the fast track. We worry about being passed over.

Yet, Sparks contends that it is not our timetable that matters. We can fight it, or we can trust the process, “Knowing that long way or not, God will eventually lead us home.”

In the chapter, “Do It Now,” she tackles one of our biggest problems: self-doubt.

We are always finding excuses for not fulfilling our dreams. It’s too late. I’m too old. People will laugh. I’ll do it later. I don’t have time.

For this last one, she adds, “You don’t. Do it now.”

We spend too much of our lives doing useless things like complaining. “We can spend our entire life complaining and then it’s gone,” she observes. “No one is saying that the path to your dreams will be a straight line. Look at my road: trial lawyer to standup comedian and Baptist minister.”

As I finished reading each chapter, it became my favorite.

This is no Pollyannaish book that pretends that faith is a magic bullet that will make all of our problems disappear. It does give us new ways of looking at our problems.

The author believes that God has given us everything we need to solve our own problems. Even in the miracles of Jesus, human participation is a necessary component.

The last two sentences in this marvelous book sum it up. “Each one of us has a divine potential. We just need to stretch our mind, body and soul toward its light and do what we were born to do: love.”

A member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, he is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.

Tags: , , ,

Movie Review – Michelle Obama ‘Becoming’

If you have never been discriminated against, passed over through no fault of your own or felt the subtle sting of rejection, you have no way of understanding the pain that such behaviors inflict.

In watching the movie, “Becoming,” a Netflix documentary focused on Michelle Obama’s book tour, it is painful to feel some of the unfair criticism she received.

During the time before the election and her time as first lady, she was criticized for everything from her gestures to her hairstyle, her sleeve length to the words she used.

Both she and President Barack Obama were painted with the same brush as their former pastor, as being anti-American. Although they conducted themselves with grace and charm, their every move received the maximum scrutiny.

While rather slow moving and in need of some sharper editing, it nevertheless presents an accurate portrayal of an accomplished woman being judged unfairly at every turn.

The counselor at Michelle Obama’s high school told her she was not Yale material even though she was an outstanding student. That stung and it has stayed with her until now. Likely, it will continue to plague her.

Near the end of the movie, she reveals how much she was upset by the failure of the black community to turn out to vote in the mid-term elections. She said it felt like a slap in the face.

She takes these things very seriously.

According to a December 2019 Gallup poll, Michelle Obama is the most influential woman in the world for the second year in a row. She was also the most admired woman in a July 2019 YouGov survey.

This is outstanding when you consider her “competition.”

It is gratifying to see an audience composed of black and white people together standing and cheering a black woman.

Michelle Obama’s philosophy of hope and love shines through when she is on screen.

There are still the detractors. Those diehards who think that Barack Obama’s election was the result of some kind of plot to undermine American democracy or those who feel he is a Muslim plant. There are those who feel the couple still hates America.

The movie seems to be intended for supporters like me and likely will have no effect on the naysayers, except perhaps to inflame them.

Thankfully, the majority of Americans see the Obamas for what they are – decent hard-working American patriots.

The movie itself needs focus. I wanted more of the book tour and less of walking through hallways.

I wanted less chitchat and more emphasis on the advice she was giving young people, as well as additional focus on her interaction with the public on the tour. She is at her best when interacting with individuals.

Her advice to “look each person in the eye, don’t look over them or around them” is right on target. She has mastered those skills.

Her book, “Becoming,” is an excellent portrayal of an accomplished woman in her own right discovering her own voice and finding her place in the process.

Unfortunately, for me, the movie falls short of reaching that same high mark.

MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and brief language.

Director: Nadia Hallgren.

Cast: Michelle Obama; Barack Obama; Phoebe Robinson.

The documentary’s website is here.

Tags: , , ,

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Christian and a Democrat By Eric C. Miller |

| November 5, 2019 – Baptistnewsglobal

(Fotosearch/Getty Images) Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

Of all the myriad intersections between religion and politics in the United States, perhaps none is at once so significant and so personal as that occurring within the heart and mind of the nation’s executive. Though all U.S. presidents have claimed membership within a faith—indeed, to this point all have claimed strains of Christian faith specifically—the particulars of their religious and political views have varied, and so assumed different forms upon being mixed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to name one example, was influenced by the Episcopal Church, by the Social Gospel movement, by polio, by poverty and war, and, of course, by Democratic politics. A new religious biography examines these influences closely.

The late John F. Woolverton, an Episcopal priest, taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas, and was the author of Colonial Anglicanism in North America and The Education of Phillips Brooks. After his passing in 2014, his A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt was ushered to publication by James D. Bratt, an emeritus professor of history at Calvin College and the author, previously, of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat and Dutch Calvinism in North America.

Eric C. Miller recently spoke by phone with Bratt about the book. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?

James D. Bratt: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral, and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.

For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just ploughed along, chapter by chapter.

My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.

R&P: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?

JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.

His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.

R&P: Did the Social Gospel influence his politics?

JB: Very much so. To understand its influence, you have to go back to his time at Groton. FDR was raised in splendid isolation at the family home in Hyde Park. He only left the house to attend boarding school when he was 14, and at that time his father was a pretty old man. Sara Delano was James Roosevelt’s second wife, and he was old enough to be her father—old enough to be Franklin’s grandfather. He was frail, and sickly, and far removed from his son. So when FDR arrived at Groton, Peabody assumed a paternal role and became a new father figure.

Peabody was also very devoted to Social Gospel thinking. He brought a steady stream of Social Gospel figures to the school to deliver lectures, and the boys were sent out to do social mission work—often in the rough neighborhoods of Boston. I think FDR very clearly absorbed the principles of the Social Gospel and quickly became acclimated to the lifestyle associated with it. The movement sort of burned out following World War I in the prosperity decade of the 1920s, but I think Roosevelt revived and incorporated it into political and social policy during his presidency. Much of the New Deal legislation is very clearly indebted to Social Gospel ideas.

R&P: Can the New Deal be understood as the political expression of Roosevelt’s faith?

JB: That’s very well put! He wasn’t alone in shaping it, of course. Harry Hopkins, who served as Roosevelt’s right-hand man throughout the administration, was a committed Social Gospel Methodist from Iowa. Eleanor Roosevelt had worked in Social Gospel programs following her return from boarding school abroad. And Frances Perkins, who served as FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury for all of his 13 years in office, was very devout and theologically informed, and she was the architect of Social Security, among other programs. She very consciously pursued her political work as an expression of her Social Gospel commitments.

R&P: How did contracting polio affect his faith?

JB: I think it had an enormous effect. By most accounts, FDR struck people for much of his life as a “lightweight,” or as “smug,” or as someone who we might today call “entitled.” This characterization followed him from his youth at Groton to Harvard to his time in the Albany legislature and as assistant secretary of the Navy during World War I. When he contracted polio—or maybe polymyalgia rheumatic, the diagnosticians remain unsure—FDR entered a period of profound crisis, a dark night of the soul. Everything he thought about himself and about his career was thrown into deep question. His mother wanted him to quit public life and become like one of those late Victorian invalid women—an Alice James, or something like that. It was a fairly familiar pattern among the Gilded Age aristocracy.

But FDR determined that the diagnosis would not be the end of him. Without taking it in the evangelical sense, I think you could say that he really was reborn. Part of his self-image and his projected future died and was reborn as something much deeper and more empathetic, with a much more detailed sense of vulnerability. As a consequence, he became a much more humble, wise, and compassionate person. Oddly, even though it made him immobile in a literal sense, the disease increased his mobility in other ways. He spent a lot of his time at Warm Springs, the sanitarium that he built in Georgia. He poured the better part of his personal fortune into financing it, and he had custom-made for himself an automobile with hand controls that allowed him to drive around the Georgia countryside and to get to know the farmers and laborers and other regular people who lived well outside of his previous orbit.

I believe that this conversion experience—this death and resurrection—marked the other strand of his religious narrative, alongside the youthful influence of Endicott Peabody.

R&P: What about his handling of World War II? Did he subscribe to any particular theology about violence or pacifism?

JB: That would be more on Eleanor’s side, I think. Like much of his social class, FDR had been pretty gung-ho about getting America into World War I, and he did not agonize about the casualties of the second conflict in the way that Lincoln had during the Civil War. That’s not to say that he was callow about it all, of course. He recognized the deaths of American soldiers as profound sacrifices. But in his view the prospect of humanity itself was in jeopardy owing to militant fascism and the Second World War was nothing less than a crusade to save democracy.

For FDR, democracy was a political system with a sort of religious value—the closest political correlate with Christianity in that it recognized and provided opportunity for humanity and dignity and all of the good that is in human capacity. Democracy was the political field in which these qualities could be realized. To him, the war was existential. It was much more than an assertion of American nationalism. America was simply the providentially appointed protector of democracy, charged with leading other nations by example.

R&P: Though most of the chapters cover broad, sweeping topics, the book also includes an entire chapter devoted to a conversation that Roosevelt had, over dinner in 1944, with a 29-year-old assistant minister named Howard A. Johnson. Why devote so much attention to that discussion?

JB: Professor Woolverton knew Howard Johnson personally. He met him following a lecture that Johnson had delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary, after learning about the dinner through an anecdote that Frances Perkins had included in her memoirs. So one night, over dinner with Professor and Mrs. Woolverton, Johnson told the story of the conversation he once had over dinner with President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

That conversation is recounted at length in the book because it provides a glimpse into Roosevelt’s mind and his thinking about the problem of evil. As we discussed, FDR had had a pretty sunny religious upbringing within a liberal Protestantism that H. Richard Niebuhr once dismissed as “a God without wrath saving a people without sin through Christ without a cross.” It was a faith perhaps too naïve to process the world crises of the 1930s and 40s. In conversation with the Roosevelts, Johnson complicated that theology by invoking Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard was behind a major theological reorientation, associated in Europe with figures like Karl Barth, and in the United States with thinkers like the Niebuhr brothers, and offering a sort of rejoinder to this sort of liberal Protestantism. Johnson drew on this discourse to challenge FDR’s thinking, and FDR rose to the challenge. Even though Roosevelt was not a philosopher, he was a very quick study. The conservation showed him going back to his theological origins and struggling to understand profound evil of the Nazi sort.

R&P: The other chapter that may strike readers as a little odd is the 60-page afterward drawing comparisons between Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and Roosevelt. Why those three?

JB: This is entirely Professor Woolverton’s work, and at first, I, too, found it a bit peculiar. But then I came to appreciate that FDR’s particular set of emphases emerge in clearer relief when compared to Lincoln on the one hand and Hoover on the other.

Because FDR and Lincoln are routinely ranked among the nation’s greatest leaders, their comparison is one of success with success. Both men saw the nation through immense crises, but they did so with very different dispositions and very different reflections on the meaning of it all. Woolverton draws out the residual Calvinism behind Lincoln’s mature, solemn, almost deistical faith, casting it opposite Roosevelt’s far more benign, benevolent God who calls us to rise up to our obligation given the many blessings that we’ve had.

Hoover was the immediate predecessor to Roosevelt, and is often cast as the terrible failure preceding the great man. But as Woolverton points out at the start of that chapter, Hoover and Roosevelt were very much alike in the 1910s and early 1920s. Hoover was one of the most successful individuals to come out of World War I. He was a great, progressive humanitarian who had achieved remarkable success in civil relief work during and immediately after the war. But there were some aspects of Hoover’s Midwestern Quakerism that prevented him from acting more dramatically in response to the Great Depression, while there were some aspects of FDR’s liberal Episcopalianism that inclined him to pursue the policies that he did. That divergence is important to understanding the religion and politics of both men.

Overall, the closing chapter is strange and idiosyncratic but also very insightful on the interplay between presidential politics and religion in times of crisis.

R&P: In your view, what are the prospects for a comparable Christian Democratic politics in the present? Is a new Roosevelt—maybe running on a “Green New Deal”—in the offing for 2020 or beyond?

JB: Well, you’ve just articulated my daily prayer! The prospects for it, however, may be more difficult. Pete Buttigieg has been the most forthcoming and frank about his liberal Christian commitments, even though his same-sex marriage is a nightmare to the so-called Christians in the Republican Party. Elizabeth Warren has a background in Methodist social ethics similar to that of Hillary Clinton, and may ultimately do a better job of expressing it.

Regardless of the candidate, though, the changed times may make the platform a harder sell. FDR lived in a time when a common Christian—he was the first president to call it a “Judeo-Christian”—tradition was in sync with the values of American democracy. I’m afraid that’s been lost. Christianity has become a sight of contention, especially among white people.

If this sort of politics is to reemerge, I think it is mostly likely to come out of the African American community or the Latinx community, rather than from another white male candidacy. Out of the right sort of mouth—or maybe rather the left sort of mouth—FDR’s brand of politics may reacquire some contemporary plausibility.

Tags: , , ,

Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

Tags: , , ,