Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Clergy Comment column

Here is my article published in the December 22, 2016 Camrose Canadian Clergy Comment column.
The greatest Christmas gift
In our part of the world, giving gifts at Christmastime is a big deal. Businesses love it, since it gives a boost to the economy—especially when some folks get so caught up in consumerism that it may take them many months after Christmas to pay off their gifts.
   Although some may lament the secularism and materialism of the season; one thing that always causes me to ponder is the piped-in music of Christmas carols in the stores. I wonder if the gospel message of Christmas through these piped-in Christmas carols actually does reach the hearts, minds and lives of some frantic shoppers.
   That too causes me to ponder God’s greatest gift to humankind, Jesus. The word becoming flesh, pitching his tent and dwelling among us. The same Jesus who went into unexpected places in the world; befriending men, women and children whom other religious folk would not even think of going near. Jesus who loved and accepted the outcasts of his day; the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, a woman almost ready to be stoned to death because of the sin of adultery, and yes, even tax collectors who were regarded as betrayers of their fellow citizens and colluders with the occupying Roman authorities.
   Maybe we should be grateful for the piped-in music of Christmas carols in stores; as shoppers frantically buy their gifts they hear the gospel message of Jesus’s birth, God’s greatest gift.
   When I think back to Christmases past, I recall as a young boy I would go into a small corner store with my parents to purchase a few items. Each Christmas the storeowner, who loved children, would often delight in giving me some candy along with a Mandarin orange. Nothing seemed to make him happier than the opportunity to give this small gift to the children who came into his store. The joyful generosity of that storeowner made an impression on me and many other children.

   This Christmas, instead of giving or in addition to giving your loved ones gifts, I encourage you to give a gift to the poor and all-too-often forgotten ones in the world. There are many charities doing excellent work with the world’s poor and forgotten in our city, province, country and globally. One organization I would highly recommend is Canadian Lutheran World Relief, to learn more visit their website at the following address:  In response to Jesus our greatest gift may you be inspired to give with joy and peace, hope and love not only at Christmastime, but every day of the year.   

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Book Review: Best Advice for Preaching

Best Advice for Preaching
Author: Edited by John S. McClure
Publisher: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998
170 pages, ISBN 0-8006-2997-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

For starters, a confession: I’ve been rather tardy in reading this work and reviewing it, even though it has sat on my bookshelf for several years now.
   This volume, edited by Professor John S. McClure, is a compendium on the art and craft of preaching in the late twentieth century North American context, from an ecumenical perspective. The contributors are clergy and professors from most of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations. Altogether, there are twenty-seven contributors.
   The book has a well-organized structure, consisting of a preface, and ten chapters. The chapter titles are as follows: 1. The Calling of the Preacher; 2. Getting a Message; 3. Patterns in Sermons; 4. Collecting Supportive Material; 5. Organizing Material; 6. Polishing the Sermon; 7. What to Do while Preaching; 8. Coordinating with the Rest of the Service; 9. Feedback; 10. Essential Resources for Preaching. Each chapter was organized by a homiletician, begins with a brief introduction, followed by the following sections: Goals, Instructions, Things Encouraged And Discouraged, Best Answers to Questions, Conclusion, and Bibliography. Some of these chapter sections may also have sub-sections.
   Even though one contributor organized the chapters, there are an abundance of quotations from other professors and clergy in each chapter. Readers will find themselves inspired and most likely even provoked by these quotations; which may well lead preachers to further dialogue, debate, study and practice.
   Here are three examples of quotations cited: In chapter three, Patterns in Sermons, organized by Professor Thomas G. Long, he cites the following quotation from William Sloane Coffin: “It is a good idea to keep making fresh what is familiar. For example, preach a series on the Lord’s Prayer, the Sunday liturgy, or the Twenty-Third Psalm.” (p. 49)
   Chapter five, Organizing Material, organized by Professor John S. McClure cites the following quotation from Barbara Lundblad: “I encourage preachers to be guided by the form of the Scripture itself. Scripture offers at least the following shapes: visual images, narratives, parables, letters, prayers, songs, conversations, laments, teachings, oracles, visions, and more.” (p. 70)
   The catchy title of chapter seven, What to Do while Preaching, organized by Professor Mitties McDonald de Champlain, cites the following quotation from Fred Craddock: “Once the sermon begins, the total self becomes servant of that message—the voice, the face, the hands, the mind, the emotions, the imagination. All one is and has is burned as fuel in the preaching. One is aware of everything and of nothing. The message is delivered by re-experiencing it in public, and when it is finished, one is both exhausted and exhilarated.” (p. 115)
   After reading the final chapter, Essential Resources for Preaching, organized by Professor Thomas E. Ridenhour—I realized how dated this volume is. Although Professor Ridenhour offers some excellent resources for preaching, nonetheless since 1998, when this work was published, there has come into the forefront a wealth of resource material for preaching on the Internet—none of which the author cites in this chapter.
   In conclusion, I do recommend this volume, with the qualifier that it needs to be remembered there are limitations for contemporary preachers insofar as the work omits significant resources widely available online.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Brief thoughts on turning 65

Tomorrow, I’ll turn sixty-five years old, that makes me an official senior citizen. As I reflect on turning sixty-five, the first thought that enters my mind is Ecclesiastes chapter three, verse one: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Over and again I’ve found this to be a truth in my life. As the years and decades go by, I think there were certain things that one could and could not do unique to each year and each decade. For example, I could not read Luther’s Works at age one or during the first decade of my life. Nor can I run as fast and far today at age sixty-five as I could when I was twenty-five. The way that God orders and structures life affirms this truth.
   Of course one can reflect on the aging process in a number of ways. There is the physical factor: The mind and body both age. Even though we don’t like to admit it, there are ‘senior moments’ of forgetfulness: for example, the ease with which we once remembered the names of other people now requires more intentional effort and can be rather frustrating and embarrassing at times. The body develops more aches and pains, and some parts don’t function as well as they did even five or ten years ago. At this age we are more aware of our mortality, as many of us have lost close friends or relatives around the same age as ourselves.
   There is the socio-economic factor: By this age, one may look forward to spending more time with friends, neighbours and family; enjoying travelling and hobbies; and contributing to the well being of the community perhaps by volunteering for one or more organisations. From an economic standpoint, many will retire at sixty-five; whereas a growing number of people in our society realize, for various reasons, that they’re not ready to retire at sixty-five and work one or more years longer. There is no ‘magic formula’ to help folks when is the best time to retire. Some will have to retire due to illnesses. Others may have to work longer than they wish because of their financial situation. Yet others may wish to work longer but their workplace does not give them that choice.
   There is the spiritual factor: In our society personal identity and meaning is closely linked with work—we are who we are because of what we do. We are more often seen as ‘human doings’ than ‘human beings.’ From a faith perspective, the opposite is true. We are created in God’s image—that’s our true identity, and that is what gives life meaning. Moreover in relationship with God, it is what God through Jesus has done for us rather than what we have done for God that ultimately matters. We are justified by God’s grace through faith, which is a gift from God—not by anything that we do, even though what we do may be viewed as quite significant by worldly standards. As one grows older, hopefully one becomes more conscious and appreciative of one’s need of God’s grace.
     The French writer, Jules Renard, said: “It is not how old you are, but how you are old.” My hope and prayer is that I may grow old gracefully, not be a burden on others, and make some contributions—however small—to the well being of the church and society. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Clergy Comment Article

Here is my article published in the October 13, 2016 Camrose Canadian Clergy Comment column.
Give thanks in all circumstances
Last weekend we celebrated Thanksgiving. The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonica, exhorted them to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). With all of the troubles, tragedies, and suffering in the world, how do we give thanks in all circumstances?
One of my favourite thanksgiving stories provides some inspiration in that direction.
   Martin Rinkhart was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony, Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648. As the story goes, he was the only surviving clergyperson in 1636 or 1637, when a major pestilence afflicted the town which was so crowded with refugees and so ravaged with plague, disease, and famine that sometimes as many as 50 funerals were held in one day. Among those buried that year was Rinkhart’s own beloved wife.
   Yet, in the midst of such difficult circumstances Pastor Rinkhart wrote the beautiful hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” According to one tradition, Rinkhart based this hymn on Sirach 50:22: “Now bless the God of all, who everywhere works great wonders.” Another tradition suggests that it was originally written as a table grace for his family. In any case, the hymn was well received in Germany and has been sung on such special occasions as the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and the completion of the Cologne cathedral.
   Although Rinkhart had suffered much and his family, friends, parishioners and townspeople had suffered much, he was still able to offer God his thanks and praise.
   We too, like Pastor Martin Rinkhart, have many things to be thankful for: everything from the blessings of being in a loving, grace-filled, forgiving relationship with our God and with others, to our church through our baptism into Christ, to life itself, to our health, to family, friends, neighbours, to a free, democratic country, to God’s abundant provision of all our basic needs and much, much more.
   As an exercise in thanksgiving, you may either individually or as a family wish to write down a list from A to Z, of all the blessings God has given each of you and then prayerfully offer your praise and thanks. You may even consider doing this each day or week or month, rather than only once a year at Thanksgiving. This exercise may also motivate you to pursue moving your thanking into acts of loving-kindness in response to what God has given you.
   Those two words, Thank You, can make so much difference in so many ways!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Funeral Sermon for Paul McCann

Funeral Sermon for Paul Gerard McCann, by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on Ps 23; Eccles 3:1-8 & Jn 11:21-27, /Burgar Funeral Chapel, Camrose, September 17, 2016, ten o’clock.

A loving husband and father, brother, son, friend, neighbour, and child of God—Paul Gerard McCann, has passed from this life into life eternal. You, who knew and loved Paul dearly, shall certainly miss him. 
   For Paul and you, his family members, the last several years have been challenging. Alzheimer’s and dementia can be a cruel disease. A person who is struck with Alzheimer’s and dementia suffers from both physical and mental losses. Family members can feel rather helpless at times as they see their loved one suffering from these losses. Family members observe how their loved one changes as Alzheimer’s or dementia takes its course and robs them of their faculties; so they no longer are the person that they once were. They can forget so much, even the names of their family members as well as their own name. Past memories of their family history and their own life story disappear. The mind becomes more and more like fog, unable to think clearly. 
   They also lose their ability to talk and walk, and even eating and drinking can become a challenge. They can become totally dependent on others.  When death does come, it may be mixed with both sadness and a sense of relief. Sadness because you certainly shall miss your beloved Paul and your life will not be the same without him. Relief because now your Paul’s suffering is over. Relief also for those who place their faith in God—trusting that Paul is now in the loving, eternal presence of God.
   That is our hope for Paul. As a people of faith with trust in those wonderful words of the twenty-third Psalm: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Notice that death is not a permanent existence. Rather, God our loving Shepherd walks us through death’s valley, we don’t stay in that valley of death forever. As a people of faith, we don’t have to be afraid of death because God our Shepherd is with us. If God is with us, then we can face anything in life, including death.
   So it is that we can affirm the truth of Ecclesiastes chapter three (which we heard sung by the Byrds). You see, the way that God puts order in our lives is through time. God is a God of order and not chaos. That is why God created a time for everything and everyone in life. There are stages of life that each one of us lives through.
   That is why for Paul there was a time to be born. For Paul there was a time for him to be a child, then a time to grow into a teenager, and from there a time to become an adult. There was a time for Paul to go to school, a time to leave school and go to work, and a time to meet and marry his wife Sandra. For Paul and for Sandy, there was a time to have children, Sean and Melanie, and a time to raise them. There were many times for Paul, Sandy and the children to enjoy each other’s company—to do things together. For Paul there was a time to support, be involved with, and encourage both Melanie and Sean in their various activities. For Paul there were many times to show his love for Sandy and the children, because family was important to him. Paul also spent time smiling at others and being kind and friendly towards them and offering to help them. In the words of faith, that is what we call spending time to love our neighbour, and in loving our neighbour we love God, because as one wise person of faith once said, God is as close as your neighbour. As time passed, there was a time for Paul to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, a time to suffer, and a time to leave this life—which leads us to another truth of our faith that takes us beyond time, beyond death, into eternity.
   In our beautiful passage of John’s Gospel, that’s where we are taken, when Jesus speaks those words of promise to Martha who is sad and mourning the death of her brother Lazarus. Jesus surprises Martha with those wonderful words of promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” WOW! What a promise that is! A promise that is yours and mine through faith, thanks to the saving work of Jesus on the cross and through his resurrection. Do you believe this? I know I do, thanks to Jesus who gives me the gift of faith to believe it. I hope and pray that you do too.     
   So, for Paul Alzheimer’s disease is not the last word, nor does it have the ultimate victory over Paul. No! Rather, thanks be to God that Jesus, through his death on the cross and his resurrection have ultimately defeated Alzheimer’s disease and all other powers that work against God.  
   For Paul, there is a final victory over Alzheimer’s disease. Thanks to Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, there is Life with a capital L, eternal life, abundant life for Paul now, thanks to the LORD his suffering is over. That is Paul’s hope! That is your hope and mine! Amen.