Contemporary church music

Contemporary church music

This past weekend, here in Medicine Hat, we were privileged to have the ordained Presbyterian minister, renowned preacher, composer and journalist, John L. Bell from Scotland’s Iona Community  visit our fair city and lead church folk from around Alberta in several workshop and worship sessions.

John Bell has the gift of inspiring almost anyone to sing. I was astounded how, within three to five minutes of meeting us, he had us singing beautifully, even in harmony, a simple song composed by the Iona Community.

In his talks, John regaled us with several humorous, inspirational stories—everything from dedicating one of his books to two of his former teachers who told him he could not sing; to a visitor causing a stir in a worship service when his glass eye fell out and parishioners by mistake retrieved a mint instead; to having the patience to listen with love and care to a man who spoke with a stammer.

In a more serious vein, one of the insightful observations that John made concerning Christian art and music in the Western Church is that the vast majority of works depict Jesus in a passive manner. He critiqued such classic hymn lines as: “The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Such hymns, according to Bell are not real to life; they rob Jesus of his humanity. So, John and the other members of the Iona Community compose hymns that are based on gospel stories that portray Christ’s humanity and hence are more real and accessible for folks today. In addition to lyrics lauding Jesus’ humanity, the Iona compositions also employ very singer-friendly pieces. The music is simple, often contemporary, yet inspirational—some of the compositions remind me a bit of the Taizé Community chants, once you learn them, they stay with you and you hum or sing them repeatedly internally.

May God grant John Bell a long and healthy life as he shares his music with the world!

Mary Travers dies at 72

Mary Travers dies at 72

The famous American folk singer and member of the trio Peter, Paul and Mary died of cancer on September 16 at the age of 72. For many of us baby boomers, Peter Yarrow, (Noel) Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were our heroes, singing songs with them like Puff the magic dragon, If I had a hammer, We shall overcome, and so on. The trio remained active over the decades, not only singing, but in advocating for human rights and peace around the globe. You can read more here and the trio’s web site here. Us baby boomers will miss Mary, blessed be her memory.

Thoughts on forgiveness

Thoughts on forgiveness

Forgiveness is at the heart and core of Christianity. When asked if there were limits to the number of times a person should forgive, Jesus replied: “seventy times seven,” which is not to be taken literally—rather, it is a figure of speech meaning that forgiveness has no limits. Jesus was the perfect exemplar of forgiveness too, while dying on the cross, he prayed for his enemies-those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on forgiveness understood Christ’s teaching, when he stated: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act it is a permanent attitude.”


In Jewish tradition, forgiveness is also emphasised, especially during the ten-day period from the start of Rosh-ha-shana to the end of Yom Kippur, known as Aseret Y’mai Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. However, the four-step process of repentance applies throughout the year: i) Regret: Realise the extent of the damage and feel sincere regret. ii) Cessation: Immediately stop the harmful action. iii) Confession: Articulate the mistake and ask for forgiveness. iv) Resolution: Make a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.


In addition to the significance of forgiveness in the Judeo-Christian tradition, scientific studies have found that forgiveness is good for our health. According to Professor Kathleen A. Lawler-Row, studies have shown that more forgiving people have lower blood pressures. They are less aroused during stress. They recover off thinking about this experience more quickly. When we look at surveys samples and a variety of measures of health, fatigue, sleep, physical symptoms, number of medications, in every case the more forgiving the person, the better their health.


Some identify two basic stages of forgiveness: i) The letting go of the negative aspect as you think about the other person and how you feel. ii) The positive wishing the other person well, which may even involve at times compassion for the offender or seeing them in a more complex light than merely the perpetrator of the offense.


It’s also interesting to see that people seem to get a little more forgiving with about every decade in life. With college students, starting at eighteen, there’s certainly a wide range of forgiveness. But with each decade the average level of forgiveness goes up. People get a little bit more and a little bit more forgiving, regardless of personality. They just seem to be a little more ready to forgive the other person with age. Thank the LORD for the gift of forgiveness!

Brief Book Review

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok

This summer I had the opportunity to read one of my favourite novelists, Chaim Potok. I read, by now an old novel, The Book of Lights, which like his other novels is autobiographical—Dr. Potok was, in addition to being a novelist, a rabbi and professor and U.S. army chaplain in Korea. As with his other novels, Potok touches on similar motifs: Biblical, theological and philosophical scholarship, the tension between Western secularism and traditional Judaism, the quest for communion with God, survivor guilt, suffering and grief, darkness and light, good and evil, prayer and mysticism to list a few.

In The Book of Lights, protagonist Gershon Loran, a seminarian, is a budding Kabbalist scholar inspired by his Kabbalah teacher Jakob Keter. Another seminary professor, Nathan Malkuson, scorns Gershon’s interest in Kabbalah, and tries to persuade him to pursue Talmudic studies. Gershon gets lost in the ancient and medieval Kabbalist texts, dreams dreams and sees visions. Yet, as gifted a young scholar he is, his life is full of uncertainty and doubts. His parents, on a trip to purchase real estate in Israel, were killed in the crossfire between Arabs and Jews while sitting in a café, leaving Gershon with his poverty-stricken uncle and aunt. His seminary roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur is not a very ambitious seminarian, and does minimal work in his courses. However, again there is irony here, since he comes from a distinguished Boston secular Jewish family. His father is the famous or infamous—depending on your worldview—theoretical physicist, Charles Leiden, who worked with scientists like Einstein to invent the atomic bomb. His mother, Elizabeth Leiden, is a distinguished professor of art history. Arthur did his undergraduate work in physics at Harvard. However, he finds darkness rather than light in physics. The legacy of his father creates much survivor’s guilt within Arthur as a consequence of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. So in a quest toward the light, Arthur agrees to attend seminary.

At the end of their seminary studies, both Gershon and Arthur serve as U.S. army chaplains overseas in Korea. Gershon seems to find his way quite well within the military milieu, gaining the trust and respect of his C.O. and the rank-and-file troops, while Arthur complains about the frugal conditions and continues to seek ways to atone for his father’s sin. I won’t indulge you in further details of the novel, except to say that there are a couple of surprising turns at the outcome—which inspire readers to reflect on the destiny of the characters as well as their own. For anyone interested in Chaim Potok and Judaism’s encounter with the contemporary world, The Book of Lights is a worthwhile read.