Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Rumours of Glory Book Review

bruceRumours of Glory: A Memoir

Authors: Bruce Cockburn & Greg King

Publisher: Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2014

530 pages, including Acknowledgments & Discography, hardcover

CDN $34.99

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Ever since Bruce Cockburn’s first album released in 1970, I confess that I’ve been attracted to his music. Over against so many singer-songwriters who focus on, and cannot seem to mature beyond the superficial and trivial and “what sells,” Bruce Cockburn is amazingly challenging and inspiring. I find his lyrics quite brilliant and profound, as well as poetic and prophetic. He often speaks out against the evils and darkness in the world today, advocating for the world’s poor, oppressed and forgotten.

There is a wonderful irony and paradox at work in his life and music, in that one has the sense of Cockburn not intentionally setting out to be an international celebrity—yet he is likely more popular, honoured and famous than many of his contemporaries who have long been forgotten or are minimally remembered and celebrated today.

In this memoir, Cockburn recalls his early years growing up in Kingston and then Ottawa, where his dad was a medical doctor; his parents never expressed much emotion, and were only occasional attenders of worship services in the United Church. Cockburn comments: “Ours was a secular household, in spite of the exposure we all had to the surface ideals and imagery of Christianity” (p. 17).

Bruce speaks a bit of sibling rivalry in the early years, he being the eldest of three brothers. He also mentions his early month-long summer camps in the wilderness—perhaps an influence on his music in later years as some of his songs reflect a love for and respect of creation.

In the pages of this memoir, Cockburn speaks at length on: his music and many influences from a host of genres, including of course the 60s and 70s rock and folk musicians such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, his relationships with those closest to him, including his first spouse and several other girlfriends and partners, the process of working with several significant people to record and produce his albums, the political situation in Canada and around the globe, the environment, his encounter with Christ, other Christians, and the Christian faith, his views on religions, his experiences as a world traveller, especially to many poor nations, his work with several NGOs including Amnesty International, among more various and sundry subjects.

A surprising tidbit about Cockburn for this reviewer is that he enjoys guns and shooting them at gun clubs and/or firing ranges. Even though he is a peace-loving human being, he does not consider himself a pacifist. In his own words: “I honour nonviolence as a way of being, and as a political tactic, but I am not a pacifist” (p. 2).

One of the themes that keeps resurfacing is that of Cockburn’s relationship with and response to God or what he refers to as the Divine. All-in-all, Bruce Cockburn is a difficult person to categorize—if I had to describe him in some categorical manner, it would be within the tradition of Christian mysticism, with universalistic inclinations, that encounter the Divine/God through the beauty and tragedy of creation in all of its forms, which connects everyone and everything. His concluding words sum it up well: “It’s recognizing that from the first to the last we are all one in the gift of grace, and that if we hold this gift dear we can be whole again” (p. 525).

I highly recommend this volume to those with an interest in Bruce Cockburn’s music or wish to learn more about him and his long and prolific career.

Training In Christianity Book Review

Training In Christianity

Author: Søren Kierkegaard, Translated With An Introduction And Notes By Walter Lowrie

Publisher: Princeton: Princeton University Press

275 pages, including Preface, Translator’s Introduction, and Index

ISBN 0-691-01959-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 The nineteenth century Danish philosopher-theologian, Søren Kierkegaard is, in most cases, difficult to read, and this work is no exception. Kierkegaard had a penchant for at times paragraph-long sentences, which are rather obscure and too abstract. Reading Kierkegaard is sorenklike running a marathon in that it requires both endless patience and endurance. Moreover, I would not be surprised either if some of the meaning has been lost translating from the Danish into English and making sections of the work in English even more cumbersome than the original text. If one is to understanding even an inkling of Kierkegaard’s works, it is helpful to remember and look for his use of paradox and dialectic in his thinking and writing.

   In this volume Kierkegaard suggests there are two different kinds of history—secular and sacred. Secular history relies on facts drawn from asking the usual questions: who? what? where? when? why? how?

   On the other hand, sacred history does not rely on such facts or questions. Rather, it is taken and written, read and lived with “a leap of faith,” i.e. ultimate, radical trust that its content is true and of divine origin, hence not subject to analysis by the categories of secular history nor dependent on their ultimate results. Authentic faith then tends to become offensive to every secular, rational, natural value of human beings.

   Kierkegaard comes across as blunt and crude at times in his criticism of the state Church and clergy in particular. He makes all kinds of nasty remarks about their lacklustre character, their indifference, their lack of faith, etc. One does wonder if his vitriolic ranting in this regard at times is unfair and perhaps the consequence of his depressed and despairing state of being; as well as his being regarded as something of a pariah.

   However there are passages in this work that do shine. For example, I like this quote based on Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross: “At the precise place where suffering would have come if I had been living in a militant Church, now comes reward; there, where scorn and derision would overtake me if I had been living in a militant Church, now honour and esteem beckon to me; there, where death would be unavoidable, I now celebrate the highest triumph.” (p. 208) Kierkegaard thought that the established Church lost its sense of contending since it had become too cozy in the world; whereas the militant Church was always in a state of becoming and survives only by contending with the world.

   Training In Christianity is not for the faint-of-heart. If you’re up for challenging, heavy plodding along; if you enjoy theological and philosophical gymnastics; then this work is waiting for you.

CBC Man Alive Host Roy Bonisteel dead at 83

bonisteel

 

Former CBC television host and journalist Roy Bonisteel has died at the age of 83. Bonisteel hosted the current affairs program Man Alive from 1967 to 1989 and became a public speaker, writer and citizenship judge. You can read the Winnipeg Free Press news item here.

Man Alive was definitely my favourite T.V. program for several years! The show’s name was based on second century church leader Iraneus’ quotation: “The glory of God is in man [sic] fully alive.”

Roy Bonisteel was a most gracious, kind, and thought-provoking host. Over the years he interviewed a wide array of some of the most interesting saints and sinners. Too bad CBC could not find a successor to continue with the program on a permanent basis.

Roy’s book, although published in 1980, In Search of Man Alive is well worth reading. In it you can read Roy’s conversations with such people as: Malcolm Muggeridge, Elie Wiesel, the Berrigan brothers, Claude Ryan, Sondra Diamond, Gordon Sinclair and George Johnston, Barbara Ward, Robert McLure, Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Germaine Greer, and others.

My favourite chapter is “The Witness,” Roy’s conversation with Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Wiesel. Each chapter begins with a quote, here’s the opening one from Elie Wiesel: “Silence to me is the soul of the world. It is what cannot be said that is important.” (p. 49) Yet, ironically, Wiesel believes himself to be a witness, to speak of the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust. His closing words summarise it well: “I really see myself as a witness,” he told me. “I bear witness to the past through tales and story telling. I try to reach out, especially to the young and say ‘look what happened. Listen.’ It’s not that awful. It’s not to be sad about. It’s a privilege and a curse at the same time. To live today is to remember. So listen to my tales and spread them.” (pp. 55-56) True to Wiesel’s word in this conversation, I highly recommend his books, and encourage readers to visit his website here.

Thanks to the contributions of people like Roy Bonisteel, the church and the world is more liveable and sane. God grant Roy Bonisteel eternal peace.

How many books do you read?

bkquiz

Where do you fit into this picture? I wouldn’t say that I’m “an international expert” and I’ve definitely read for more than 7 years in my field!

Book Review: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes”

book

“We Are Going to Pick Potatoes” Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story

Author: Irene Levin Berman

Publisher: Hamilton Books A member of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010

185 pages, ISBN 978-0-7618-5011-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The author, Irene Levin Berman was born in Norway to Jewish parents, and her grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to Norway from Eastern Europe—mainly Poland and Lithuania.

   The book has its beginnings in the author’s quest for her identity and realization that she too was a Holocaust survivor.

   Each of the chapter titles orient readers to the themes addressed and the sense of the work’s flow and continuity. The titles are as follows: Acknowledgments—5 pages in length; Introduction: Why Norway Wasn’t Too Small (i.e. as a country with only about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews, and about 771 perished in the Nazi death camps. Some mistakenly thought the Nazis would not be interested in rounding up, arresting and deporting them to the concentration camps. The author also emphatically makes the case that even though 771 Norwegian Jews died in the Holocaust their lives were equally as valuable and important as the millions of others who also perished during World War II—one should not employ numbers to try and minimize what was done by the perpetrators, and the long-term repercussions for their surviving loved ones); 1 The Escape; 2 Refugees in Exile; 3 Those Who Came First – The Levin Family; 4 Those Who Came First – The Selikowitz Family; 5 The Family That ‘Disappeared’; 6 War and Holocaust; 7 The Silence; 8 Return from Exile; 9 Learning How To Be a Norwegian Jew; 10 Marrying a Jew; 11 Life in America; 12 The Myth about the Danish King (according to the author, he did not wear the Star of David armband in public); 13 Identity; 14 The Journey into the Past. In addition to the text, it includes several photographs—mainly of family members; as well as the Selikowitz and Levin family trees.

   For this reader, the chapter addressing the author family’s escape into Sweden, thanks to the assistance of the Norwegian underground resistance is very dramatic. The family escaped in the nick of time on November 25, 1942; the day before the Gestapo began to make mass arrests on November 26. Those Jews who were not able to leave prior to that day were all eventually deported to the concentration camps.

   In Norway, unlike Denmark who did not resist the Nazis; according to Levin Berman the nation’s police assisted the Nazis in arresting the Jews. Of course the Norwegian Jews felt betrayed by their own police for such horrendous action having tragic consequences. Levin Berman states that she was aware of only one police officer who refused to obey the Nazi order and he was subsequently shot for his defiance. The author also suggests that the situation was somewhat different in Denmark than in Norway—since in the former nation the Danes had information more in advance on the Nazi’s intentions concerning the Jews and therefore they had more time to assist them in fleeing to Sweden than did the Norwegians.

   Much of this volume is focussed on the author’s coming to terms with her family history and identity. She sees herself as having three identities inside one person. She is proud of being born in Norway and appreciates many of the cultural traditions and values of the Norwegian people—including the celebration of Constitution Day on the 17 of May, and the reading, study, translating and attending the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She is also very proud of her Jewish heritage and ancestors who were hard working and devout people; most of them ran well-respected businesses and also contributed to community organisations—including the synagogue in Oslo. Levin Berman chose to marry a Jew and to raise their children in the Jewish faith. However, she married an American Jew and by now has lived most of her adult life in America—therefore she has adjusted to the customs of American life, including the celebration of the 4 of July and Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, she made many trips back to Norway for lengthy periods of time to both vacation and provide care and support for her family there.

   In this volume, Levin Berman also provides bits and pieces of the history of the Jews in Norway. For example, Jews immigrated to Norway later than in Sweden and Denmark. It was only in 1851 that they were able to immigrate to Norway; after the “Jewish clause” in Article 2 of the Constitution was repealed. Norwegian poet, Henrik Wergeland was one of the most influential advocates campaigning to have the “Jewish clause” repealed.

   Most of the Jews in Norway settled in Oslo and Trondheim; with a few scattered in other Norwegian communities. The author’s paternal grandparents, Leib and Henriette Levin, settled in Rjukan, a small town in the middle of Norway, in Telemark county. Here grandfather was given the honour of delivering the keynote speech on the Norwegian Constitution Day of 17 May, 1914. One of his pivotal sentences in that speech reflects how Leib Levin understood his identity: “Om vi ere jøder i religion hindrer de oss ikke av vaere nordmaend i nation” (If we are Jews by religion, this does not prevent us from being Norwegian by nation). (p. 29)

   The process of this volume coming to birth in its English version is interesting. In 2008, the book was published in Norwegian, in Norway as “Vi skal plukke poteter,” Flukten fra Holocaust. (“We are going to pick potatoes,” the Escape from the Holocaust). However, the author, being gifted and trained in linguistics; and wanting to tell the story in America; undertook the task of translating her work into English.

   The phrase, “We are going to pick potatoes,” was a euphemism to tell others they were fleeing from the Nazis into neutral Sweden to live in exile until after the war. One of the conditions of being accepted in Sweden was that the Norwegian immigrants were required to find work in Sweden as soon as possible. Levin Berman’s Far (father) was able to do some very significant social work in settling the Norwegian Jewish refugees.

   Ultimately, I think it is Irene Levin Berman’s passion to tell this untold story of Norway’s Jews and the Holocaust that will surely prove beneficial to those living in the present age and for generations to come—for to honour those who perished in the Holocaust is to remember them.

   I encourage readers to visit the following website for more information concerning the book and the author here.

Book review of the days before easter

the days before easter  

W.A. Poovey, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 128 pages

Softcover

 

A brief review by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

Some books I struggle to read through only once; others I might read twice; and a few rare ones I’ll keep going back to and read several times. the days before easter, in my humble opinion, is worth reading over and over again. It is one of my all-time favourite books to read during the season of Lent.

   Although the volume is a mere 128 pages, the content is incredible. Not only is it well written—Professor Poovey has organized the material in a well thought out fashion that holds the reader’s interest as if it were a fast-paced, page-turner novel.

   After a brief “About this book,” the content is divided up into three parts: Part 1. The Story of Lent, Part 2. Preparing for Easter, and Part 3. Devotions for Lent. In Part 1, there are eleven short chapters titled respectively: A time for reflection, A time for repentance, A time for rejoicing, Four men tell the story, Prophecy fulfilled, Origins of Lent, Customs of Lent, Hymns of Lent, Poetry of Lent, Sustenance of life, The end of Lent. Part 2 consists of eight brief chapters: Let’s have a Seder, Fasting and sacrifice, Who were the people? Symbols of Lent, A Lenten prayer list, A book for Lent, I am Pilate, Meditation for Lent. Part 3 contains forty-seven devotions—four the forty days of Lent, plus the Sundays—all based on the Book of Isaiah. One critique I have of the chapter A time for repentance in Part 2 is that Professor Poovey could have added some comment about the need for Christians to repent of the anti-Semitism and ant-Judaism of centuries past, which were incited no less by Christian leaders during the season of Lent. Another critique I have of the chapter Let’s have a Seder in Part 2 is that although the author tries to be sensitive and respectful toward the Jewish people and this important meal of Judaism’s Passover festival—he even advises Christians to consult with a local rabbi in planning a Seder—he stops short of actually counselling Christians to attend a Jewish Seder in a synagogue or Jewish home.

   All-in-all, this small tome, and albeit older and out of print, still is worth reading by pastors and laity alike for a wealth of information on the season of Lent.   

Book Reviews

A Hidden Wholeness The Journey Toward an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and weaving community in a wounded world Parker J. Palmer, San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 260 pages $23.95, Paperback

 

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

Parker J. Palmer is, among other things, a Quaker by faith; as well as a passionate and gifted teacher and writer. This volume is a helpful resource and handbook for teachers and students; clergy and parishioners; and employers and workers from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in improving the quality of their lives both individually and collectively.

   Reflecting on the content of this work, there are three insights that ring true and are worthy of further examination and practice, if the Spirit so moves.

   First, Palmer suggests that the soul is like a wild animal. A wild animal is shy of human beings or predators and keeps them at a safe distance to ensure survival and safety. The human soul is also shy according to Palmer, and cannot be forced to come out and reveal itself to others—especially when it feels threatened or coerced to do so.

   Second, the human soul opens up and reveals itself only in an environment where silence and careful listening are practiced; sharing is purely voluntary not demanded; confidentiality is kept; and folks are not to fix, nor advise, nor save, and not set each other straight; open rather than direct or confronting questions are asked; paradoxical truth is explored where differences of perspective are respected and valued.  

   Third, the coming out and revealing of the human soul and the inner teacher is most likely to happen in the context of a circle of trust group or clearness committee; which, if the ground rules are clear and observed can assist people in living an undivided life and discern their vocation.

   The last section of the book also includes a helpful reader’s and group leader’s guide to put into practice Palmer’s teachings. An added bonus is a DVD with even more resources to get to know the book and author better.   

As I Journey On: Meditations for Those Facing Death Sharon Dardis and Cindy Rogers, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 128 pages, Paperback

 

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

Sharon Dardis, a registered nurse working with the dying, and Cindy Rogers, a teacher and writer, have provided readers with a wide spectrum of stories of the dying and their loved ones.

   The work is very reader-friendly and was born out of Cindy’s mother’s request to assist her in her journey toward death. The authors’ endeavour to view the process of dying and death not as a taboo, but rather as a necessary part of life. They presuppose questions like: What is a good death? How does a dying person and their family best prepare for death?

   Each chapter has a theme title, and includes an introductory quotation from various sources, including the Bible. The wide variety of chapter theme titles and quotations remind the reader of the diverse ways in which human beings journey through dying and death.

   After the theme title and introductory quotation, the format of each chapter consists of: a story, a brief prayer, a question to ponder, and a resolution with the title, “Today I will.”

For example, in the chapter with the theme title of “Memories,” the introductory quotation is from Isaiah 49:15-16: “Yet I will not forget you…See! I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” The story told is about a children’s grief group that was asked by Sharon Dardis, the facilitator, to bring a memento of their deceased loved one. There was one boy who did not bring a memento. However, what he shared with the group was how his grandpa taught him to wiggle his ears—much to the delight of everyone present. This prayer was included after the story: “Lord, keep me alive always in my loved ones’ memories. Help me today to continue to create moments that last and to remember that sometimes it is the smallest event that bears the most lasting mark. Amen.” (p. 98) Rounding out this chapter was this Question To Ponder: “How do I want to be remembered?” And this Today I Will: “Create one lasting memory with a loved one.” (p. 98)

   The book concludes with a helpful Bibliography, stating the sources consulted for each of the chapters. This wee volume shall be a beneficial resource to the dying and their loved ones.     

 

Book Review 3 Cups of Tea

 

Book Review: Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time

New York, Toronto, London, et al: Penguin Books, 2006

349 pages, including index, ISBN 978-0-14-303825-2, CAN. $16.50

American Greg Mortenson, a trained nurse and mountaineer, failed to climb the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. His serendipitous descent landed him in a remote Pakistan village named Korphe. The villagers, Shiite Muslims, took him under their wing and nursed him back to health.

Village chief, Haji Ali, offers Greg the following words of wisdom: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,” he said laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own.” (p. 150)

In return for the hospitality and kindness offered him by these village people, Mortenson makes a promise to build them a school. Other Westerners had made them promises before, which had never come to fruition. Greg’s promise was different. Mortenson’s promise was like a fertile seed sown or a pebble causing significant ripples in quiet waters. The more committed Mortenson is to building the school in Korphe, the more his compassion, determination and vision grows. Working day and night, Mortenson makes all kinds of sacrifices—as do his wife and children—to build over fifty secular based schools in the remote mountain villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was Mortenson’s answer to the fight against Islamic terrorism. Greg has a special concern for the girls of these villages, providing them equal access to education. Many Muslims from various traditions agree with Mortenson and out of one person’s love of the Muslim neighbour grows the Central Asia Institute.

For those readers in the Western world who are subject to the media bias of the stereotype that all Muslims are violent and anti-Western; Three Cups of Tea is an excellent antidote. Mortenson and Relin tell a beautiful story of these remote village Muslims and their love of the non-Muslim, Western stranger, who becomes an honored guest, and, after the third cup of tea, a respected family member. Ultimately, this book is about how one person of good will can make a huge difference in the advancement of deeper understanding, friendship and peace between Muslims and non-Muslims. Three cups of tea served by a Muslim to a non-Muslim has made a world of difference.

The Diary of a Country Priest

The Diary of a Country Priest

This summer I recently read The Diary of a Country Priest by the political writer, Georges Bernanos. As the title suggests, it is written in diary form and is set in a poor rural parish in France during the early twentieth century. The priest, an orphan, is young and sometimes naïvely idealistic, while at other times most insightful. As the Christ-figure in the novel, he has his share of suffering and matures in his faith because of it.

For those who may be interested in the novel, here are three rather profound quotes:

Rich and poor alike, you’d do better to look at yourselves in the mirror of want, for poverty is the image of your own fundamental illusion. Poverty is the emptiness in your hearts and in your hands. (p. 62)

It is very easy to surrender to God’s will when it is proved to you day after day that you can do no good. But in the end one would thankfully accept, as divine favours, set-backs and humiliations which are simply the inevitable results of our folly. (p. 190)

Even from the Cross, when Our Lord in His agony found the perfection of His saintly Humanity—even then He did not own Himself a victim of injustice. They know not what they do. Words that have meaning for the youngest child, words some would like to call childish, but the spirits of evil must have been muttering them ever since without understanding, and with ever-growing terror. (p. 292)