Brief Book Review: Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook

Edited by: Melvin A. Kimble, Susan H. McFadden, James W. Ellor, and James J. Seeber

Publisher: Fortress Press, hardcover, 637 pages, including: Illustrations, Contributors, Forword, Preface, Introduction: Beginning the Conversation, Index of Names, and Index of Subjects

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Contents

This is a very impressive, comprehensive volume. Counting the 4 editors, there are a total of 55 contributors to this volume. The work was funded by the Lilly Endowment, and is the result ofecumenical, interfaith, and interdisciplinary cooperation. It consists of the following parts: Part One: Religion, Spirituality, And The Aging Person, Part Two: Pastoral Care In An Aging Society, Part Three: Congregational Ministry In An Aging Society, Part Four: Community Outreach In An Aging Society, Part Five: Theological Perspectives On Aging, Part Six: Social Scientific Perspectives On Aging. Each of the parts contain several chapters. A Bibliography is included at the end of each chapter, some of which are very thorough. 

Brief Highlights

Since this is merely a brief review, here are a few insightful highlights and observations that may motivate readers of this review to consult this helpful resource.

Harold G. Koenig, in Part One, highlights some of the research done on religion and health among seniors. He claims that there is more evidence supporting the view that religion enhances mental health and less evidence supporting the view that religion enhances physical health. When asked what helped the elderly to cope with issues of aging, they cited the following: i) prayer; ii) Bible reading; iii) trust in the Lord, faith in God, Jesus Christ; iv) going to church; v) support from their pastor or other members of their congregation. 

Longevity was attributed to three factors: (1) activity (“hard work, exercise, keeping active physically and mentally”), (2) a strong belief in God and “Christian living,” and (3) a positive attitude toward self and others. (p. 24) 

In Part Two, there is an informative chapter titled “Pastoral Care of African Americans” by Anne Streaty Wimberly and Edward P. Wimberly, in which they emphasise the importance of the church and family networks, wherein older African Americans make significant contributions to the growth, development and identity of the next generation. 

In Part Three, the chapter titled “Age-based Jewish and Christian Rituals” by W.A. Achenbaum, points out that Jews honour their elders. In the Talmud there are no limits placed on how often Jews should visit the sick. Full membership in Jewish burial societies were reserved for the elderly, and surplus income from burial plots was used for charity, including orphan care. (p. 204)

For this reviewer, the most helpful chapter in Part Four was “Spiritual Challenges of Nursing Home Life” by Dayle A. Friedman. The author highlights many of the significant factors involved regarding spiritual challenges and care in nursing homes, such as: Routinized, tyrannical, and empty time, loss of meaning, grief, disorientation and disconnection, life with meaning, vertical and horizontal connections, family, religious, and individual celebrations, education, and more. 

Part Five consists of seven theological perspectives on aging: Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical, Neo-Orthodox, Process Theology, Feminist Theology, Constructive Theology, with a concluding chapter entitled “Science and Religion in Dialogue. In the chapter on Feminist Theology, author Mary M. Knutsen points out that elderly women live seven to eight years longer than men, and are more likely than men to live in poverty. Over half of the black and Hispanic elderly females living alone lived at or below the poverty level, according to one study. 

The chapter in Part Six by Barbara Pittard Payne, “The Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology” is quite informative. It provides a brief history of gerontology, which came into existence as an area of scientific study in the mid-twentieth century, trends and themes in social gerontology, including health-care costs, caregiving, minorities and gender, trends and themes in gerontology and religion, including faith and aging, religious practices, beliefs and behaviour, nonorganizational religious activities, the differences between religious liberals and religious conservatives, religion and health.

This volume is a comprehensive, helpful “go to” resource for seminarians, pastors and chaplains, as well as others who work with seniors in a variety of professions.

Please note: This review is of Volume 1. Volume 2 was published later, and I have not read it. 

Book Review: Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Author: Will Willimon, Afterword By Kate Bowler

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019

242 pages, including Prelude, Afterword, and Index, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

About the Author

The following information is from the jacket cover: “Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. He is an internationally renowned preacher and widely read author noted for his humor, his insight into the Christian faith, and his theological commitment. His many books have sold over a million copies.”

Rev. Dr. Willimon, a Methodist preacher and former bishop, is the prolific author of over 80 books, thousands of sermons, and numerous articles in publications such as The Christian Century. He also has a popular website: willwillimon.com. 

A Personal Note

Over the years, I’ve appreciated Rev. Dr. Willimon’s written works and website posts. A few years ago, our synod clergy study conference was privileged to have Dr. Willimon as the keynote speaker. He is an incredibly gifted master storyteller, able to tell one story or anecdote after the other ad infinitum. 

Contents

There are nine chapters written by Dr. Willimon, each beginning with a biblical citation. The chapter titles are as follows: Fortuitous Baptism, Unwitting Call, Inadvertent Summons, Unexpected Church, Unplanned Disruptions, Adventitious Preacher, Serendipitous Writer, Unanticipated Friends, Unforeseen Commission. 

To whet readers’ appetites, I am going to cite one or more quotations from each chapter.

In Fortuitous Baptism, Willimon has this to say about his mother: “My mother ended her day reading her bedside Bible. That one so fiercely independent as my mother daily submitted to the writings of these ancient Jews made a deep impression.” (p. 19)

Also in chapter one, when a grade four student boasted that he gave his life to Christ, Willimon reflecting on such a boast, counters it with this insight: “You can’t give something to somebody who already owns what’s being given.” (p. 37) 

In Unwitting Call, Willimon reflects on calling, identity and God: “Believing that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed, Christians believe the question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?” (p. 45)

In Inadvertent Summons, Willimon observes: “That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. In the New Testament, “calling” or “vocation” refers to discipleship rather than employment.” (p. 53) 

For pastors, according to Willimon one’s calling, one’s vocation is an ongoing struggle: “Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others.” (p. 71)

In Unexpected Church, Willimon shares this humorous tidbit: “To everyone’s surprise, there I was, 1998, delivering the final address at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Successful Church Conference. A thousand pastors had gathered around the theme “How to Succeed at Ministry.” I, of course, chose “Failing at Ministry with Moses, Peter, and Just about Everybody in the Bible.” (p. 86)

There are several thought-provoking Willimon statements in Unplanned Disruptions—some may find them prophetic, others cynical and hyper-critical, yet others painfully true.

On the Bible and family: “Scripture’s lack of interest in childhood, parents, and family is born of the conviction that God is more responsible for you than Mom or Dad.” (p. 98)

A critique of and prescription for mainline Christianity: “Buttoned-down mainline Christianity offers aspirin for those in need of massive chemotherapy.” (p. 101)

On Willimon’s experience of racism: “You already know that I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture. Each day I boarded a Greenville bus that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.” (p. 102)

A critique of natural law: “Natural law is a fiction devised to help us cope with our contingency before God. Sorry, anal-retentive legalists, the world was not created by a lawyer.” (p. 104)

On preachers who pervert the theology of the cross: “Ingratiating preachers transform Jesus’s cross into a snuggly bourgeois blanket.” (p. 107) 

On the upper middle class and pneumatology: “The upper middle class has a myriad of ways to tame the Holy Spirit.” (p. 113) 

On God continuing to work within us: “How easily people like me get it wrong; how disruptively God works to set us right.” (p. 116)

In Adventitious Preacher there are a generous array of homiletical insights. 

On the nature of preaching: “If a preacher finds the words to bring the gospel to speech, it’s only grace. The Christian faith is inherently acoustical. You can’t self-inoculate the gospel; somebody’s got to tell it to you. It’s auditory.” (p. 122)

A couple of priceless quotes from Luther on sermons and preachers: “Luther said ‘a sermon is a surgeon’s scalpel!’ Hey, he also said, ‘Whenever the word of God is rightly preached, demons are unleashed!’” (p. 127) “God can ride a lame horse or shoot with a crooked bow,” said Luther. By God’s grace, even life’s setbacks can be used by God to re-call a preacher.” (p. 129)

On the process of sermon preparation and when the preacher is not satisfied with their sermons: “When composing a sermon, I apply a theological test: What is God doing in this biblical text, and what might God condescend to do in my sermon? In my sorriest sermons, Jesus may elect to preach.” (p. 142) Yours truly has experienced this numerous times over the years!

On a best thing about being a preacher: “One of the best things about being a preacher is that one preaches from, rather than apologizes for, a biblical text.” (p. 144) 

On clergy leaving the ministry: “Of the twenty people who were ordained with me, only two of us made it to retirement as clergy.” (p. 145) 

On the consequence of preaching: “Preaching is judged by its performance in the lives of the saints.” (p. 147) 

In Serendipitous Writer, Willimon links “good preachers” with writers: “Good preachers are voracious readers, recognizing in writers and stand-up comics our kith and kin who, like our Lord and Dostoevsky, create worlds through words.” (p. 163)

A warning about those who write an autobiography or a memoir: “Gertrude Stein dismissed autobiography as inferior literature that “anyone can write,” then proved herself wrong in The Making of Americans. Be suspicious of memoirists who claim to give you a fully accurate rendition of themselves.” (pp. 164-165)

In Unanticipated Friends, Willimon acknowledges preachers’ indebtedness to other preachers: An unindebted preacher is a poor preacher, though the line between grateful apprenticeship and smarmy plagiarism gets thin. My own incriminating paper trail is too long for me to be righteously indignant that a fellow preacher snitched one of mine.” (pp. 185-186)

On the importance of Willimon’s wife as his friend: “Never a truer word was spoken by my mother than “Without Patsy, (Willimon’s wife) you would be a disaster.” (p. 189)

On God’s forgiveness: “Don’t attempt friendship, in marriage or otherwise, without a God who forgives.” (p. 196) 

On advice from Willimon’s friend Rev. Carlyle Marney: “I called Marney and asked him if I should interview at Duke. “Sure. But if you’re hired by Duke, you must become more adept in using a word:bullshit.” (p. 209) 

In Unforeseen Commission, Willimon reflects on the surprise element of prophecy: “Now anybody God chooses, even betrayers like Peter or me, can be enlisted for prophecy.

On the authority of a bishop, Willimon offers this satirical comment: “I wish that Jesus had authorized lapel pins, Boy Scout badges, corporal’s stripes, judge’s wigs, Tasers, or doctoral hoods to give God’s servants clout, but that’s not how Jesus works.” (pp. 226-227)

This memoir is a brilliant example of how God humorously and absurdly chose and called Rev. Dr. Will Willimon into the ministry. All preachers would benefit in some way from reading this volume. 

Book Review: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Author: Stuart McLean

Publisher: Viking & Penguin Canada Books Inc.

Hardcover, 294 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

Stuart McLean was a best selling author, award-winning journalist and humorist, and host of CBC Radio program, The Vinyl Cafe. Stuart began his broadcasting career making radio documentaries for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning. In 1979 he won an ACTRA award for Best Radio Documentary for his contribution to the program’s coverage of the Jonestown massacre.

Following Sunday Morning, Stuart spent seven years as a regular columnist and guest host on CBC’s Morningside.

Stuart’s ten Vinyl Cafe books have all been Canadian bestsellers. He was a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Vinyl Cafe books have also been published in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

In December 2011 Stuart McLean was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto and former director of the broadcast division of the School of Journalism. In 1993 Trent University named him the first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research. He was also honoured by Nipissing University (H. Ed.D.), University of Windsor (LL.D.), Trent University (D.Litt.), Saint Mary’s University (D.C.L.), University of Calgary (LL.D.), Concordia University (LL.D.), and McMaster University (LL.D.). Stuart served as Honorary Colonel of the 8th Air Maintenance Squadron at 8 Wing, Trenton from 2005 to 2008.

Since 1998 Stuart toured with The Vinyl Cafe to theatres across Canada and the United States, playing towns from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Whitehorse in the Yukon; from Bangor, Maine to Seattle, Washington.

Stuart McLean passed away February 15th, 2017, at age 68. McMaster University is the home of Stuart McLean’s extensive personal and literary archive.

The Genre

This volume consists of 19 fictitious short stories. The main characters, as in otherVinyl Cafe volumes are a family of four: Dave and Morley, and their two children Stephanie and Sam. The stories focus on, among other subjects: husband-wife and sibling relationships, growing up, aging, death, grief, change, historical tidbits.

McLean had the incredible gift of describing the beauty, the preciousness, the holiness of life in what others would regard as boring, mundane and far too ordinary.

Insightful Examples

Motherhood, she (Morley) thought, as she stood there between the display racks of men’s underwear, was a poorly planned journey. It wasn’t a sailing trip. It was more like a race (p. 4).” Morley’s thought while buying underwear for her growing son, Sam.

There are moments in every life when things change…forever (p. 59).” An observation in the context of an aging shopkeeper and Sam growing up and taking on more responsibility.

Jimmy Walker, from Newfoundland, loved to share tidbits of history that were forgotten by most people. “Well, the thing is that margarine was outlawed across the Dominion of Canada soon after Confederation (p.115).” Jimmy then told folks how Newfoundlanders would smuggle it into Halifax.

Commenting on the reality of children becoming more independent and parents needing to accept this reality, McLean shares the following insight in the story “Home Alone.” “It’s a tricky thing to negotiate, the war of independence. Both side approach the battlefield full of righteous conviction—but righteousness always conceals uncertainty, and conviction is never far from doubt. (p. 172).”

In the short story “Crushed,” photographer Tommy (Stephanie’s boyfriend), took pictures of crushed wildlife run over by vehicles. People thought they were artistic and poetic. However, Tommy and Dave said they made them feel sad. They didn’t regard them as beautiful as some did.

Then McLean observes: “Like poetry, you can find beauty in the most unexpected places: in a snowy wood and on the wings of butterfly, yes, of course. But in sorrow as well as in happiness. In death as well as in life (p. 259).”

I’ll tell you what I think,” said Tommy. “I think it means that beauty trumps morality. I don’t think it should be like that. That’s the way of the world (p. 260).”

Humour

McLean includes some humorous stories in this volume. My favourite one is “Yoga.” It is absolutely hilarious. Daughter Stephanie had planned on a yoga retreat with her friend Becky. However, Becky cancelled out. Stephanie then asked if her mother Morley would go with her, she had a previous commitment. So, by default, her dad, Dave went with her. The retreat had three categories: gentle, intermediate, and vigorous. Stephanie chose intermediate, and Dave chose vigorous. The attendees were given three treatments to choose from as part of the retreat. Dave chose Happy Hour, three honey-mint-refresh-colonic cocktails.

For this reviewer, “Yoga” was almost worth the price of the book!

Book Review: In Transit

In Transit: Between the Image of God and the Image of Man

Author: Tshenuwani Simon Farisani

Publisher: William B. Eerdmanns & Africa World Press Inc.

251 pages, including: Preface, Prologue, and Appendixes

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

At the time of writing this work, the Rev. Tshenuwani Simon Farisani served as a dean and deputy bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa, and was a visiting scholar at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkley, California. He was also the subject of two films: The Torture of a South African Pastor and A Remarkable Man. He is also the author of Diary from a South African Prison (translated into German, Dutch, and French), and a book of poetry, Justice in My Tears.

The Context

This work was written in the context of the South African apartheid regime, which has parallels to the experience of segregation in the U.S.A., as well as the present situation in America, where blacks continue to be treated unjustly—especially by white systemic racism. Rev. Farisani, prior to the publication of this volume, had been held in detention four times by the South African police, without charge or trial. While in detention he had been interrogated and tortured and had suffered two heart attacks. He suffered all of this merely for preaching the gospel message that all human beings, regardless of their skin colour, are equal in God’s eyes, and are created in the image of God.

The Genre and Content

This work makes for interesting and inspirational reading due to its creative genre. It is, simultaneously, autobiography, story, history, dialogue, and lament poetry—reminiscent of biblical prophets speaking truth to power. The chapters are compiled into four parts. The following titles of the parts are: Part I Tshiuda Grows Up; Part II Tshiuda-Tshenuwani And The God Of South Africa: The Creator’s Call; Part III Tshenuwani Answers The Call; Part IV Tshenuwani’s Fourth Time In The Bowels of Hell; and Appendixes A-F, consisting of letters and documents, a meeting report, an application for Tshenuwani Farisani’s release, news releases, and letters to congregations from Bishop Serote and Dean Farisani.

Dating back to 1600, the Dutch first encountered blacks and thought them inferior to whites and viewed them as Satan’s people. The Dutch then proceeded to create an oppressive theology, philosophy, and social, cultural and political system against blacks.

Rev. Farisani’s lament poetry speaks out passionately, revealing apartheid oppression; blacks being forced off of their fertile land to a life of starvation and working as slaves for the whites; of being punished when children come to be with their parents when the latter are working for the whites on land once belonging to blacks. The Afrikaners confiscated and expropriated black land and animals, cattle and chickens, and other possessions.

Rev. Farisani remembered how he was abused and beaten by his employer and not given the wages he was promised. This happened more than once with other bosses he had as well—as it did for far too many blacks in South Africa.

The author also recalls the racist attitudes and practices of a white missionary and school teachers: “…blacks have no mental capacity to learn much of white people’s things. There is no room for both civilization and sophistication in their brains, in their whole makeup (p.74).”

In Rev. Farisani’s call from God, he relates God’s answer to him regarding politics and faith: “Politics is not a dirty game reserved for Satan worshippers; it is among the holiest of responsibilities. (p. 84).” In one important dialogue, between God, Rev. Farisani and South African government officials; the venue is a law court and apartheid is put on trial.

Readers also learn of Rev. Farisani’s description of the status quo racist attitudes at Lutheran Theological College among the whites. He struggles with his anger at the unjust apartheid system and those whites supporting it. He also recites portions of the 1984 Lutheran World Federation Assembly document against racism, which suspended white, apartheid-practicing Lutheran churches in Namibia and South Africa.

One cringes at the vivid descriptions of how several secret police plots and traps tried to convict Rev. Farisani; and his experiences of being tortured while in detention. One poem-prayer lament recalls the abusive interrogation tactics of the white “authorities” who detained him without charge—again reminiscent of prophets like Jeremiah.

After his release from his fourth detention; Rev Farisani’s “in transit” status meant that he had to apply to the government for a visa in order to do his work as Dean.

The so-called government “reforms” were merely window dressing to give the blacks and the international community the false impression that the apartheid regime was not oppressive, racist, and unjust. In the words of Rev. Farisani: “Oppressed people want shelter, food, and clothes, not political gimmicks geared to the gullible racist world which do nothing to correct the fundamental cause of their poverty: racist greed and a false sense of superiority (pp. 202-203).”

A Personal Note

I had the privilege to attend a talk that Rev. Farisani gave in Edmonton sponsored by Lutherans and Amnesty International many years ago. In the talk, Rev. Farisani related how instrumental the work of Amnesty was in contributing to his release from prison. It was this talk that, moved by the Spirit, convinced me to become a member of Amnesty International over 30 years ago now.

Book Review: Where Is God In My Praying? Biblical Responses to Eight Searching Questions

Where Is God In My Praying? Biblical Responses to Eight Searching Questions

Author: Daniel Simundson

Publisher: Augsburg Publishing House

93 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Dr. Daniel J. Simundson, at the time this volume was published was professor of Old Testament at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary. Dr. Simundson had previously authored Where Is God In My Suffering? Biblical Responses to Seven Searching Questions, also published by Augsburg.

The eight questions Dr. Simundson addresses are: 1. Why Should I Pray? 2. Why Is It So Hard to Pray? 3. Must We All Pray the Same Way? 4. Can I Tell God What I Really Think? 5. Dare I Ask for That? 6. What Good Does It Do to Pray for Others? 7. Does God Always Answer Prayer? 8. Does God Need Our Thanks and Praise? Professor Simundson looks at each of these questions in light of both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts.

In addition to these questions, Dr. Simundson also addresses other questions like: How do I know God is listening? Do our prayers actually affect what God will do? Will God be angry with me for saying that?

God created us to be in relationship with him. Through prayer, we can communicate our thoughts and feelings with God. God has commanded us to pray. When we find it hard to pray, we can read the Psalter and find examples of prayer for the entire range of human circumstances.

Sin and broken relationships; our contemporary secular world; worry over speaking the ‘right’ words; feeling our prayers go unanswered or answered with a “no;” all contribute to why we find it so hard to pray. When we are unable to pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).

There are, of course, many different kinds of prayers for the wide array of life’s circumstances. We can be utterly honest with God in our prayers. Biblical examples of this are Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus—among others. Prayers of lament, as in the Psalter, are often the best, most honest prayers.

Professor Simundson has a helpful discussion of both the downside and upside of intercessory prayer. He cautions against manipulating God and people by intercessory prayer. One example he cites is that someone may tell you: “I am praying that God will give you a wonderful spiritual experience so that you can see the light and leave that wishy-washy church and join up with some true believers” (pp. 67-68). He also cites biblical examples of intercessory prayers: Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Jesus’ prayer for his enemies. In both cases God does what God wants—he ends up destroying Sodom and we do not know how or if Jesus’ prayer had any positive affects on his enemies.

Regarding unanswered prayer, Dr. Simundson states that it is not likely that God is angry with the person praying; nor does he or she necessarily lack enough faith. Unanswered prayer does not necessarily mean that God is uncaring either.

In the Bible, God said no to Moses, Paul and Jesus. Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Paul did not have the thorn in his flesh removed. God did not remove the cup of suffering from Jesus.

According to Dr. Simundson, God doesn’t need out praise and thanks—however, God may like or enjoy our praise and thanks, as in the case of the father in the parable of the prodigal son’s return home. Our praise and thanks may also improve our quality of life by giving us joy and gratitude like the leper who was healed by Jesus. We can praise and thank God for the blessings of creation and for God’s saving work throughout history.

However, in times of great suffering, war, natural disasters, COVID-19, and so on; it may be more appropriate to cry out to God with prayers of lament. Even then, it is possible to praise and thank God; for ultimately his will and purposes shall prevail.

This little volume is beneficial to both pastors and laity (especially those who struggle with prayer) and is very easy to read—highly recommended!

Book Review: How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

Author: Reginald Stackhouse

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

147 pages, Hardcover

Questions, questions, questions. Human beings are curious creatures; curiosity often leads to asking questions; and questions can and do result in growth, learning and more meaningful living even when questions are not answered satisfactorily. In Jesus’ public ministry, he would teach by employing questions.

At the time of writing this volume, Dr. Reginald Stackhouse was a minister and professor at Toronto School of Theology, and formerly a Canadian Member of Parliament. In addition to the book’s title in question form, all seven chapters are also titled with a question: Chapter One: Why is This Happening to Me? Chapter Two: If You Could Be God for a Day, What Would You Do with a World Like This? Chapter Three: What Kind of World is This When the Innocent Suffer and the Evil are Rewarded? Chapter Four: Must We Just Suffer or Can it Make Us Better People? Chapter Five: Is This World a Fair Place if One Has to Pay the Price for Everyone Else? Chapter Six: Must Suffering and Death Have the Last Word? Chapter Seven: How Can a Person Make it Through a World Like This Successfully?

Dr. Stackhouse writes in a very accessible way, which engages the reader. He cites example after example of the wide array of situations that happen to humans and explanations of how they might be understood.

In chapter one, he states that the problem of evil and suffering haunted him as a pastor, professor and politician. One example is a parishioner who was given two months to live after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He cites Plato and Augustine, Leibniz and Voltaire, and then turns to the Book of Job, where he identifies six theodicies, that do not provide a definitive answer.

In chapter two, Dr. Stackhouse wrestles with questions like: What kind of God can allow the crib death of a newborn baby, and a bicycle rider on a country road to be run over by a careless driver? On the other hand, believing in nothing is not much better. In attempting to answer such questions, Dr. Stackhouse cites Justin an early Christian philosopher and martyr who found truth in the Bible as well as in the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. Their answer to suffering and evil was to “Trust nature,” and trust in providence. God ordained everything in life. By so doing, if we were God for a day, we could not do any better than God. Life events come together—in ways we sometimes shall never know—to find some kind of harmony and balance. Professor Stackhouse also turns to the cross of Jesus for an answer. “The message of the cross of Jesus can be applied to all innocent sufferers.” (p.52)

In chapter three, Dr. Stackhouse addresses the suffering of the innocent and the rewarding of the evil. Suffering does not always mean sin—nor does success always mean righteousness. One example of this given is his brother Benjamin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and went on to live a full, meaningful life right up to the end. Professor Stackhouse also provides a thoughtful discussion of technological evil, institutional evil, and the evil of nature causing natural disasters. As people of faith, we believe in a God who suffers with us and shares our pain—that is the message of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In chapter four, Dr. Stackhouse describes how a bed-ridden parishioner cheered him up when he went to give him Holy Communion. Since evil is as prevalent in the world as is goodness, it is better that we try to learn from our suffering. He explains that a couple of ways to learn are what he refers to as “the law of compensations” and “the law of prospects.” A couple of biblical examples of these were the apostle Paul and Moses. A couple of political figures are also cited—Nelson Mandela and John A. MacDonald. The former released from prison and leading South Africa out of apartheid. The latter immigrating from Scotland poverty-stricken and becoming a Canadian Prime Minister. Jesus taught (Luke 9:23-25), that those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

In chapter five, Dr. Stackhouse unpacks the significance of the Latin word vicarius. He believes that: “Vicariousness runs through the Bible.” (p. 110) According to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there is no greater love than to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. Human beings also need to realize their corporate identity to make sense of life. In sharing our common humanity, we are more compassionate toward others and more willing to make sacrifices and serve others.

In chapter six, violent examples like Tiananmen Square, the killing of Roman Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, and Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, raise the question of whether suffering and death have the last word. Dr. Stackhouse agrees with philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that human life is too short to gain justice in this world. Hence, for Kant a life beyond this one was necessary to right the wrongs suffered in this world if God is just. This, of course, is a problem for those who do not believe in a world beyond this one. However, citing philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “Wager Argument,” Dr. Stackhouse makes the case for believing in an afterlife. His conviction that there is was confirmed when he made a pastoral call on a couple who lost their thirty-year-old son who died in an accident. The father, in tears, said to Dr. Stackhouse: “There has to be something.” (p. 128) What we believe about death has a significant influence on how we live our life in this world.

In chapter seven, Dr. Stackhouse speaks of how much his parents’ beliefs gave shape to his own. His parents’ faith helped them stay together as a family and cope with the hardships of the Great Depression. “Although they [his parents] never used the term “mystery” to refer to God, I can see now that was how they understood him.” (p. 139) What happened in life was also a mystery and human beings, created in God’s image are a mystery as attested to in Psalm 139, we are: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” His parents, like Sören Kierkegaard knew that to be a human being means that there will be suffering. They taught Dr. Stackhouse that one cannot expect life without troubles—rather, one can trust that God will help us to cope with them.

This volume shall be helpful for clergy, laity and academics, I highly recommend it.

My New Book: Praying The Lectionary Cycle A

Please check out my new book Praying The Lectionary: Prayers Of The Church Cycle A, available for purchase from the CSS Publishing Company. This resource is for pastors and those responsible for preparing the Prayers of the Church for Sunday Worship. The lectionary readings are also listed for each Sunday of the church year. The prayers may be used as is, or edited to meet the needs and context of the worshipping community.

PLEASE NOTE, my correct bio is as follows: Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson attended and received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and his M. Div. degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatchewan, Canada. He recently retired as the chaplain at Bethany Meadows in Camrose, Alberta, Canada. He enjoys hiking, bicycling, traveling, reading and amateur photography. He is married to Julianna who is also a Lutheran pastor. 

Click on the image to view further information and purchase.

Book Review: When The English Fall

When The English Fall

Author: David Williams

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

257 pages, including Acknowledgments, An essay-The Root Of Apocalypse, and Questions For Discussion, paperback

David Williams is an American Presbyterian pastor, and this is his debut novel. As a first novel, it has gained considerable acclaim by various reviewers, and rightly so. Williams writes in a brilliant way, simple yet profound.

He describes this work as “Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” (p. 247), and “an epistolary novel,” (p. 255). It is written as a journal by an Amish farmer, husband and father of two children. The daughter is afflicted with seizures, yet is given what some believe to be divine visions or insights.

Williams tells readers that the novel was inspired by at least three things: i) his study and curiosity of the Amish as a university student; ii) reading about the solar storm called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859; iii) and his personal daydreams and creative imagination about the Amish.

The novel is set in rural Pennsylvania, in an Amish community. All is going reasonably well among the Amish, until an apocalyptic-like event occurs, which knocks out almost all of modern technology—everything from household appliances, to vehicles, machinery, etc. Banks are impractical since all the financial records were kept on computers. Martial law is imposed, travel is limited, the military does its best to keep law and order and oversee the distribution of goods and services. The weather wreaks havoc with high winds and heavy rains and flooding—damaging and destroying property.

More and more people are carrying guns and turning to violence. In one scene, Jacob the writer of the journal, thinks about his gun, which he uses only for slaughtering animals on the farm. These thoughts lead him to others concerning “the English,” a term the Amish use to describe all non-Amish people. He thinks the English keep many guns for very different reasons than the Amish. “It seems to me that it is all based on a feeling of fear. To keep a gun because you are afraid of dying, and because you want to be ready to kill another human being, it just feels like such a strange thing. So filled with pride, and so dead to God. I do not understand it. Why would I fear dying, when we all die?” (pp. 136-137)

As the violence of the many English moving into the Amish community becomes more threatening; Jacob agonizes over whether he and his family should continue to stay in the community or leave for what some Amish hoped would be a safer place to live in Ohio. Jacob consults with his daughter Sadie about it. “Which is God’s will? Both. Neither. And the many ways between. There are so many ways in between.” (p. 232)

I hope this spiritual-ethical dilemma serves to spark enough interest in those reading this review to find out for themselves what happens in the end.

I was impressed with the thoughtful way in which Williams emphasised the complex relationship between the Amish and the English. It was not a black and white one for certain—both were influenced for ill and for good by one another. One lesson to be learned from this novel is that we are our neighbour’s keeper, whether we are Amish or English. We all need one another as members of the human race, and we all have things to learn from one another.

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.