Bruce Cockburn’s new album

Bruce Cockburn’s new album

As I’ve said elsewhere on several occasions, Canadian singer-songwriter, Bruce Cockburn is one of my favourite musicians. I appreciate his lyrics, which reflect contemporary social justice issues, his faith, and creative musical experimentation. Give a listen and watch this new video, from his latest album, the upcoming “Crowing Ignites.” Recently he was interviewed by CBC’s Tom Allen, and on that program Bruce shares some of the background leading up to the title of this latest album.

In the video you will notice—among other things—Martin Luther King Jr., and a biblical quote from Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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Book Review: Basic Christianity 50th Anniversary Edition

Basic Christianity: 50th Anniversary Edition

Author: John Stott

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

174 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Rev. John Stott died in 2011, at 90 years of age. He was a prolific writer of some 50 books. He was rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London; the founding president of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; and served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. Stott was well known in Christendom as a conservative evangelical, and his best-selling Basic Christianity reflects this version of theology.

The book originally seems to have its roots in a series of talks that Stott gave at Cambridge University, appealing to students there. Eventually, Stott became a popular circuit public speaker at other universities around the globe. He had a mission-evangelism spirit which focussed on reaching out to students.

The format of this volume is as follows: Foreword, Preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, Preface, The Right Approach, Part One: Who Christ Is, Part Two: What We Need, Part Three: What Christ Has Done, Part Four: How To Respond, and Study Questions.

In this 50th Anniversary Edition, Stott was somewhat sensitive to updating the language of the original volume to be more gender-inclusive. However, he did not rely on more up-to-date scholars in the body of his text, so his sources, other than the Bible are dated, and, to his credit, he admits this work is dated. Having admitted that, nonetheless the work is easy to read and quite accessible to readers-both Christian and non-Christian.

As for the content, Stott emphasises the orthodox view that God takes the initiative to reach humankind and the two natures of Jesus—fully human and fully divine and cites biblical references to make his case. Although he acknowledges Christ as sinless and the perfect exemplar view of atonement; he also emphasises the importance of a substitutionary view of atonement. His view of humankind also reflects the orthodox one that we are created in the image of God, and we are also fallen sinners who need a Saviour and are unable to save themselves. However, I thought in his discussion on humankind that he could have been more explicitly lucid in making the important distinction between lower case sin and upper case Sin. I also thought that he did not devote adequate treatment to upper case Sin as a state of being in rebellion against God and wanting to be god in God’s place. I was also disappointed in his rather degrading, misogynistic reference to Mary Magdalene in relation to Christ’s resurrection: “Again, we would have chosen someone with a better reputation than Mary Magdalene as the first witness.” (p. 67) In his discussion on the Ten Commandments, he would have been wise to mention that not all Christian denominations agree on their numbering. Instead, he presents the Reformed family of Christians version of the Decalogue, leaving the reader the impression that it is the only way to read, interpret and understand the Commandments. He is quite adamant on the familiar evangelical-fundamentalist language of making a personal commitment to Christ and the all or nothing approach to discipleship.

Stott cautions those Christians who are tempted to place too much importance on their feelings. He states that feelings come and go; and that trusting in God’s promises in the Bible are ultimately more reliable than feelings.

He also laments over some Christians who may describe themselves as “born again” never growing up in their faith. Stott states: “Others even suffer from spiritual infantile regression.” (p. 162) In response to God’s grace in Christ Christians, with the help of the Holy Spirit can grow in their understanding and in the sanctification process.

Stott also emphasises an active devotional life that balances prayer with Bible reading and study—again however his conservative, evangelical preference surfaces as he recommends reading the NIV translation rather than the NRSV.

In addition to an active devotional life Stott advocates membership and regular church attendance; involvement in social justice issues to serve the poor and neglected people in the world; as well as to evangelize the world by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This volume will likely appeal to conservative, evangelical Christians more than anyone else. The Study Questions may be helpful in facilitating small group discussions for adult church groups and students.

A Brief Book Review: A Rare Benedictine

A Rare Benedictine: The Advent Of Brother Cadfael

Author: Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)

Publisher: Headline Book Publishing PLC

156 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Edith Pargeter, writing under the name of Ellis Peters, became a popular historical fiction and crime author with her Mediaeval super-sleuth Cadfael series.

The setting is the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, at Shrewsbury, along the Wales and England border. Readers are taken on a journey with super-sleuth Cadfael as he solves the kidnapping of a prominent abbey resident; leaves behind his worldly life to become a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey; keeps secrets surrounding a pair of engraved silver candlesticks; and tracks down a would-be murderer and robber of the abbey treasury.

As in her other Cadfael novels, Ellis Peters has created in this her first in the Cadfael series an engaging page-turner, which many may choose to read in one sitting.

Cadfael, once again—with the assistance of divine providence—is the protagonist who methodically applies his observatory powers and deep insights into the complexities of the human condition to enhance the unfolding of justice and mercy.

Highly recommended summer reading for all historical fiction and crime novel buffs. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

A Lectionary Reflection on John 17:20-26, for 7th Sunday of Easter Yr C

This pericope is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. It is, for the most part, an intercessory prayer for others, and also the conclusion of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples, preparing them for his imminent suffering, death and resurrection (John 13:1-17:26).

Image credit: Jesus prayed for me at LivingLutheran.org

In verse 20, Jesus is praying for all of his would-be followers beyond the first generation of disciples, right up to the present day and into the future: “I ask not only on behalf of these (i.e. his first disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Here Jesus suggests the power not only of his intercessory prayer for all of his followers throughout history; as well as the process by which people will come to believe—“through their word,” (i.e. the preaching and teaching of God’s word, which, combined with the activity of the Holy Spirit works faith within the hearts and minds of people).

Another significant theme in this prayer is an emphasis on the unity of Christians with one another; which Jesus prays for in verse 21 and develops this particular intercession further by saying that such a unity is rooted in God’s own Self: “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” Again such an emphasis highlights that unity is a gift of God’s grace, it always originates from God through Jesus to us. However, this unity is not unity for its own sake. No! Jesus states the ultimate purpose of Christian unity: “that the world (not merely a few privileged folks) may know that you (i.e. God the Parent-Creator) have sent me.” Jesus repeats this emphasis on unity in slightly different words, and then repeats the purpose of unity as well with an important addition: “that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This addition, of course, is consistent with the larger schema of the Fourth Gospel, which emphasises God’s all-inclusive love for the world made incarnate through Jesus. After Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends into heaven, the incarnation—albeit imperfect because we are all sinners—is present in the world through loving servanthood of Jesus’ followers who have been given the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.

Jesus also prays that his followers would be with him “where I am,” which may refer to either his imminent suffering and death on the cross or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven or perhaps both. He asks for his followers to be with him where he is “to see my glory,” and again “my glory” may refer to at least two or more meanings—his suffering and death on the cross and/or his resurrected and ascended state in heaven.

The concluding intercession focusses on knowing God the Parent-Creator and Jesus as well as knowing God’s name, which is closely connected to the gift of God’s love dwelling in all of Jesus’ followers.

There are many homiletic possibilities based on this pericope. One may be to explore what it means to pray today in the life and faith journey of Jesus-followers. How does Jesus’ high priestly prayer inspire and influence our prayers today? Are there visible signs of Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity among Christians of various denominations today? If so, where are they, and how do we rejoice in Jesus’ prayer becoming a reality for us today?

A Lectionary Reflection on Psalm 67, 6th Sunday of Easter Yr C

The Psalter has been Israel’s hymnbook for centuries. For Christians, too, it has been and still is an inspirational resource for congregations at worship.

Psalm 67 is given this title in my Bible: “The Nations Called to Praise God.” A sub-title also confirms that this psalm has been an integral part of worship for ancient Israel: “To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.” It is unfortunate that the legacy of the Psalms has not included the musical scores—one wonders what this psalm sounded like when stringed instruments played the score, or perhaps there were several scores or settings of it for different seasons.

At any rate, it begins on a rather positive note with a benediction in verse 1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.” Of course, those who attend worship on a regular basis will likely recognize these words, slightly different, yet very similar to the Aaronic-priestly benediction, in Numbers 6:24-26, which is proclaimed by the presiding clergyperson at the close of the worship service.

In light of this, and verses 6 and 7, which also affirm God’s blessing; one homiletic possibility may be to explore how our life is a benediction a blessing; in what ways has God blessed you? The psalm mentions a few: God’s way and saving power is known among all nations, God judges the peoples with equity and guides the nations, God causes the earth to yield its increase.

Another homiletic possibility might be to emphasize the connection between benediction/blessing and praising God with music and singing for joy. God’s benediction/blessing awakens within us a grateful heart, which moves us to praise God joyfully with the gift of music and singing. Perhaps Psalm 67 in whole or in part could be incorporated into a dialogue sermon between the preacher and the congregation employing either a psalm-tone (e.g., there are 16 psalm-tones in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 335-338, one or more which could be chosen), or a hymn score-setting of it (e.g. Saviour of the Nations Come, Praise, my soul, the God of Heaven, Joyful, joyful, we adoree Thee, etc).

A Lectionary Reflection on John 13:31-35, 5th Sunday of Easter

Agape Love

This pericope is part of a larger section of the Fourth Gospel, described by scholars as the farewell discourse of Jesus, consisting of 13:1-17:26. In the discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Prior to this pericope, Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him. Then Jesus speaks of his glory. Often in conversations, people will employ the word glory, glorious, etc., in association with power, respect, honour, success, and victory. For example: “What a glorious victory,” in reference to a hockey team winning the Stanley Cup. Or: “She basks in glory now that she has sold over a million copies of her book.” In the Gospel of John however, the word glory, glorified, etc., is associated with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are the exact opposite of the ‘worldly’ meanings—albeit Jesus did win the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil, yet that victory came in the most unusual of ways, through his weakness, suffering and dying on the cross. Power in the world is often associated with military force or someone of great wealth. Respect and honour are often associated with outstanding achievements such as earning a PhD., excelling at a sport, becoming a Prime Minister, President, King or Queen. Success means becoming a famous movie star.

Reference to Jesus being glorified is also associated with what comes next in this pericope—his words concerning his departure from the disciples.

In place of his presence, he gives all of his would-be followers the love commandment in verses 34-35. He describes the commandment as “a new commandment.” Some might debate both those words “new” and “commandment.” For instance, the Torah teaches the faithful to love God and to love one’s neighbour, and Jesus himself sums up all of the commandments in the Torah by teaching the faithful to love God and one’s neighbour. Moreover, some would question whether love can be commanded—to command one to love may place conditions on loving, and true love is unconditional.

The word for love in this pericope is agape. Agape love is of the highest kind—it involves unselfish giving, loyalty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service. Agape love goes the extra mile, considers the needs and interests of others even before one’s own, is willing to face suffering, embarrassment, misunderstanding and even rejection at times for and with others. At its very best, agape love is prepared to die for another.

Such love is always there for us, thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us as his people to share it with the world, so that: “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

In a world with more and more hatred, divisions, conflicts and wars, agape love is needed more now than ever. May the LORD help us all so to love!

A Lectionary Reflection on Revelation 5:11-14, 3rd Sunday of Easter Yr C

Image credit: Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apokalypsis, means revelation, to unveil what was previously hidden. Apocalyptic literature has been associated with historical contexts of the persecution and sufferings of faith communities. One of the main purposes of writing in this genre is to communicate hope for the future and encourage communities to keep the faith and persevere. The language employed in Revelation is highly symbolic, a kind of underground language, written with the hope of preventing authorities hostile to the faith community from seeing it as in opposition to them and censoring it. Accordingly, the author, one John, was believed to be in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. He addresses his letter “to the seven churches that are in Asia,” i.e. modern day Turkey. Revelation contains several visions of John.

In our pericope, the author describes, in symbolic language, a vision that emphasises the worship, the adoration of God on the heavenly throne along with Jesus the Lamb.

John sees myriads of angels, the living creatures and the elders surrounding God’s throne and singing loudly a hymn, a song of praise, first of all addressed to the Lamb. The word Lamb, referring to Jesus, emphasises the sacrifice of Jesus for humankind on the cross. Lamb is also reminiscent of the Passover, wherein the Israelites, while in Egyptian slavery, were commanded by God to place the blood of slaughtered lambs on their doors, so that the angel of death would pass over their homes and save them from death. So, in both faiths—Judaism and Christianity the symbol of a Lamb or lamb’s blood is associated with life, deliverance and freedom. The hymn of praise to Jesus the Lamb here in verse 12 is incorporated into Christian liturgy as a hymn of praise, sung by millions of Christians today.

As the vision continues in verses 13 and 14, the worship now expands to include every living creature in the universe, singing their hymn of praise addressed this time to God who sits on the throne and the Lamb. The attributes to describe God and the Lamb in both hymns or one ongoing hymn are similar: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory, and blessing.

One homiletic possibility may be to focus on the question of what does it mean to worship God and Jesus the Lamb today? In relation to that, a focus on the significance of music and liturgy in worship to offer our praise and sense of awe and wonder together in the presence of the faith community and of God, may be one way to develop a sermon. Each Sunday is a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the consequences of that event for the church as well as all of creation.