Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau. 354 pages. 2014.  
****

Lecrae is one of my favorite music artists. His new album All Things Work Together is brilliant, and one of the top releases of the year. Recently, he announced that he is “divorcing ‘white evangelicalism’”. Read John Piper’s response here. I was saddened when I read this, and reached out to Lecrae. He suggested a number of books I could read to help with understanding where he was coming from. From those books, my wife Tammy and I chose to start with Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This well-written and powerful book weaves in some stunning statistics about the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., while telling the heart-breaking story of Walter McMillian (and many others) from thirty years of his work.  It’s the best book I’ve read this year.
Bryan’s story began in 1983 as a 23-year old student at Harvard Law School working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). SPDC’s mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. When he finished his internship he was committed to helping the death row prisoners he had met. He returned to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments.
His time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system. This is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
He writes that there are more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, with an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records. Other statistics about the U.S. prison system that I highlighted from the book were:
• We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
• One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.
• By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons had served in the military.
• Convincing empirical evidence that the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty.
• By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children—thirteen or fourteen years of age—were black or Latino.
• Over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. Continue reading

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My Review of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, rated R
***

This is a well-written and acted film featuring a strong cast, but has significant content issues. It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, two-time Oscar nominee, and winner for the short film Six Shooter.
Frances McDormand, four-time Oscar nominee and winner for Fargo, portrays Mildred Hayes, a recently divorced mother whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered seven months earlier. Mildred lives in Ebbing, Missouri (though the movie was actually filmed primarily in Sylva, a small mountain town in western North Carolina), with her teenage son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea). Her ex-husband Charlie, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), now lives with a nineteen-year old girlfriend.
Mildred is furious with the local police for their lack of progress on her daughter’s case. She decides to rent three abandoned billboards on a rarely traveled road near her home on the outskirts of the town for the purpose of shaming popular Police Chief Willoughby, played by two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson (The Messenger) and his staff, for what she perceives as their ineptness on her daughter’s case. She works with Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones, at the local advertising agency to rent the billboards. Welby’s character will play a significant role in the film.
The billboards become a controversy in the town when the local television station does an interview with Mildred.  A Catholic priest named Father Montgomery, played by Nick Searcy, visits the Hayes home and tells Mildred that he has taken a poll and most folks in the town are against the billboards, and that she should remove the messages. Mildred responds with vitriol toward the priest, taking the opportunity to implicate him in covering up for all priests who abuse young boys.
Chief Willoughby is married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and has two small children.  [Note:  Abbie Cornish is a strange choice for this role – her Australian accent keeps breaking through – you’re probably not going to find many Aussies in that part of Missouri.]  The billboards prompt him to reach out to Mildred. He tells her that all of the leads have dried up; he’s sorry, but sometimes cases take a long time to be solved.
Sam Rockwell (Moon) plays Dixon, Willoughby’s second in command. He is racist, emotionally immature, lives with his mother, played by Sandy Martin, is often drunk, and enjoys comic books. James, played by Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) plays a small but key role in the film.
The film depicts flawed characters. Both Mildred and Chief Willoughby wonder if there is a God, or if there is anything past this life. Even though some of the characters do some very bad things, they are not all bad. The film is rated R for a significant amount of adult language – lots of swear words, some of it of a sexual nature, and includes racist and discriminatory language, some played for laughs, and several abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names. These issues along with the violence may keep many people of faith from seeing this film.
Themes in the film include justice, vengeance, racism, and forgiveness. The film’s unique music score is provided by Carter Burwell and the cinematography is by Ben Davis.
This is a well-acted (especially McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell), written (including a lot of humor), and directed film. However, with the significant content issues noted above, I can’t recommend it to people of faith.


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FAITH AND WORK: Connecting Sunday to Monday

Faith and Work News ~ Links to Interesting Articles

MY JOB:

  • What Do I Do If My Job Is a Bad Fit? Russell Gehrlein writes “Finding a new job in your same field or making a radical change to something new is always a spiritual journey. You may need to boldly step out in faith. God may change the circumstances, or he may change you.”
  • How Do I Glorify God in My Job? In this episode of the “Ask Pastor John” podcast, John Piper answers the question “In Colossians 3:22-24, Paul exhorts his readers to ‘work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.’ Does this mean that any work not done in excellence is sinful? And how do we apply God’s view of work to cleaning our house, writing a paper for school, or working a 9-to-5 job? I have been feeling guilty about the way I handle these things for months now, and I’m not sure if I’m just being lazy, self-righteous, or am I disobeying the Lord?”
  • Can a Work Colleague Be Your “BFF”?Art Lindsley writes “So enjoy, as far as possible, all your friendships at work and play. Appreciate the common circumstances and fun times you have together. But don’t necessarily expect that all those relationships will be equally lasting.”

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLES:

  • Your Purpose Is Revealed in God’s Design and Desire for Creation. Hugh Welchel writes “Deep within each one of us is a hunger to live a life of significance and purpose. The key to satisfying our hunger for meaning is understanding one basic principle: we are stewards of everything we have.”
  • The Four Postures Toward Faith in the Workplace. Jeff Haanen writes “How do should I think about the role of faith in my company? How do corporations in America today handle issues surrounding spirituality in the workplace?”
  • How to Work Hard and Be Happy. J.D. Greear writes “I fear that for many people, you will grow old and realize that you gave away the greatest moments of your lives to an elusive future that didn’t deliver what it offered. I’m not talking about sacrifice for the mission (which we can—and should—joyfully embrace). I’m talking about yearning and endlessly working for that ethereal something to fulfill you somewhere out there in the future.”
  • Dear Cinderella Mamas. Alyssa Miller writes “When we lean in to hear God from a place of contentment, we are free to hear him say, “Stay. Be. Slow down.” And we are free to hear him say, “Go. Move. Do.” He may call you, in addition to the precious and weighty responsibilities of raising children, to pursue a business endeavor or help with a community development initiative. He may call you to a church leadership position. He may call you to homeschool your children. But let the call be from him, not from a desire to fulfill wanderlust or craft a public persona of yourself.”

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THIS & THAT and Favorite Quotes of the Week

THIS & THAT and Favorite Quotes of the Week

Courtesy of World Magazine

CURRENT EVENTS/IN THE NEWS:

  • 9 Things You Should Know About Sexual Misconduct. Joe Carter writes “For the past several weeks, reports and allegations of sexual assault and harassment by celebrities and politicians have been in the news every day. Here are nine things you should know about these forms of sexual misconduct.”
  • Tyler Perry Visits with Eric Metaxas. Tyler Perry recently visited the Eric Metaxas Show to talk about his new book Higher is Waiting. The interview begins at the 21:30 mark.
  • Law and Grace in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Kenneth Moreland writes “Christian viewers may disagree in their interpretations of Roman J. Israel, Esq., but it is nevertheless exciting to see a serious Hollywood production that openly invites such discussion and revolves around such questions.”
  • Religious Liberty and Racial Justice—It All Matters to God. Watch this two- minute video from Jackie Hill Perry. She states “Religious liberty, abortion, marriage, and racial injustice—all of it matters to God, so all of it must matter to us.”
  • The Hidden Hands of Caitlyn Jenner. Andrew T. Walker writes “The hiding of Caitlyn Jenner’s masculine hands show that the way through gender dysphoria cannot be to transition our gender. The holding out of Jesus’s scarred hands shows there’s a different way through all our struggles and brokenness. It’s to come to him, and to find forgiveness and transformation.”
  • It’s Official: Evangelicals Appreciate Chick-fil-A the Most. Kate Shellnutt writes “62 percent of evangelicals considered Chick-fil-A to have a positive impact on their community, compared to 48 percent of Americans on average.”

  • The Christian’s Job Description. Irv Busenitz writes “Our job is to glorify God. This must be our purpose in life, whatever we do, do all to the glory of God. How are we to accomplish this? By placing the benefit of others ahead of ourselves, by foregoing our liberties so that the lost might be saved, and by pursuing the likeness of Christ.”
  • Matt Forte on Sharing the Gospel. Watch this less than two minute video of NFL running back Matt Forte talking about how God has empowered him to share Christ even when it’s uncomfortable.

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5 Ways to be a Servant Leader During Times of Significant Change


Organizations are continually pursuing improvement, and that’s a good thing. We all want our organizations to remain relevant, and you can’t do that without changing. However, the result of this is that our workplaces are always going through transformation. Sometimes that change is significant and it impacts jobs, perhaps those of the leader and their team. Those times are when leaders really need to step up and not check out. Here are 5 ways servant leaders can add value during times of significant change:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I can’t over stress the importance of communicating what you know about the change to your team during a time of significant flux. Email communication is fine, but more important is face to face. Be visible, walk around and visit with your team.  Sit down and visit if you sense that a team member would like to talk. Even though you may be busy, make this your priority.
  2. Listen. Very much related to you communicating what you know about the change is you listening to what is on your team members’ hearts and minds. My leader regularly holds “What’s on Your Mind” sessions. The sole purpose for these sessions is to give members of her teams the opportunity to ask questions and share what is on their minds. During periods of significant change, make time each day to listen to your team members to hear their questions and concerns, their feedback and about the impact the changes are having on them.
  3. Show empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – putting yourself in their shoes. Some leaders are good at this and frankly some aren’t. During times of significant change, it is imperative that servant leaders show empathy. The leader may or may not be personally impacted, but they must enter in with their team members during these times.
  4. Be intentional. The servant leader must be proactive, and do whatever they can to aid their team members during times of significant change. You may not be able to influence the change that is impacting your team, but you can do other things. For example, if jobs are being reduced or eliminated, a leader can:
  • Review internal and external job postings and share ones with team members that they may be qualified for.
  • Reach out to other managers who have openings on behalf of your team members.
  • Help prepare team members by reviewing their draft job postings, providing “mock interviews”, etc.
  1. Pray.  Most significantly, pray for your team members going through the change. Most likely each team member will see the change in a different way. For example, some may see the change as positive, and some may see it as absolutely devastating. And where they are in processing the change may differ from day to day. Lift your team members up to our Heavenly Father for protection and comfort during stressful times of significant change.

These are a few ways that servant leaders can add value to their teams during times of significant change. What others would you add to this list?


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My Review of THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

The Man Who Invented Christmas, rated PG
****

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a heart-warming, family-friendly film about how Charles Dickens wrote his classic book A Christmas Carol, which helped change the way we celebrate Christmas. It could well become a new holiday classic, and is a contender for my favorite movie of the year. The film is directed by Bharat Nalluri, and the screenplay is written by Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford.
As the film opens in 1843, Dickens, well-played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast), is 31 years old, and a well-known and wealthy author. His books Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist have brought him wealth, allowing him to live in a large home, with household staff and a nanny for his children.  But his last three books have flopped, and he is very concerned about finances, and that he will end in debtor’s prison like his father, played by Jonathan Pryce, when Charles was a young boy. Dickens has four children and a fifth on the way. The pressure is on to write another bestseller, but now he has a bad case of writer’s block and a house full of distractions, which include his mother and father, who still struggle financially even with assistance from their famous son.
The film focuses on six weeks in Dickens’ life as he struggles to overcome his writing block, and writes what will become the beloved novel A Christmas Carol, one of the best-selling books of all time. We see that he slowly begins to get inspiration from the people he runs into in his daily life in London. For example, there is an elderly waiter at a club named Marley. He hears the family nanny read the children a ghost story. And lastly, he observes a burial in which only one grumpy old man is there to pay his respects. That character will become motivation for Ebenezer Scrooge, who is marvelously played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (Beginners). And there may be more than a little bit of Dickens himself in Scrooge as well.
Despite help from his longtime friend and manager John Forster (Justin Edwards), Dickens’ publishers weren’t interested in a Christmas novel, as it was at that time considered to be just a minor holiday in England. As a result, Dickens decides to finance the book himself, despite being heavily in debt. That adds more pressure to him, and we see him frantically trying to complete the book in time for Christmas.
As he begins formulating the story, the characters come to life, and he begins interacting with them. I particularly enjoyed Scrooge feeling like he wasn’t being portrayed fairly and thus he wanted to tell his side of the story. Dickens also begins having nightmares, which include flashbacks to his childhood.
The film is well-acted and directed, and is a creative telling of how Dickens developed A Christmas Carol. Stevens is excellent as Dickens, as is Plummer as Scrooge. Anna Murphy portrays the house maid Tara, who gives Dickens some advice on the story, and Morfydd Clark plays Dickens’ loyal wife Catherine. I really enjoyed the costumes and set design from 19th century London.
There are not any content issues in this wonderful, family-friendly film. Highly recommended!


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MUSIC REVIEWS and NEWS


Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 – Bob Dylan (Box Set, Deluxe Edition)
****

I had only been a Dylan fan for only a few years, and not yet a Christian, when Slow Training Coming was released in 1979. He would follow that album with Saved in 1979 and Shot of Love in 1981, in what has become known as his controversial “Gospel Period”. I saw two shows on his 1981 tour. By that time, he had started including some of his older songs in the setlist.
This new collection had been rumored to be the next Bootleg Series release for some time, and I was eagerly anticipating it. It was definitely worth the wait and is one of my favorite albums of the year.
The box set edition features 102 songs, includes 14 previously unreleased songs (including the outstanding “Making a Liar Out of Me”), unreleased live performances and rare studio outtakes. In fact, with the exception of “Ye Shall Be Changed,” which was included on the first in this series, 1991’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3), none of the tracks here have been previously released. The live versions include Dylan with a strong and animated voice, supported by an excellent backing band with female backing singers, bringing an energy to the new songs that the studio versions didn’t. In addition, I felt that the outtakes were often better than the officially released versions. Fans of Dylan know that he is always changing the arrangements of his songs in concert. This is demonstrated in the six versions of “Slow Train” included here, all of which have their own strengths.

The collection is organized as follows: Continue reading