Thursday, March 29, 2018

Clergy Comment column

Here is my article published in the March 29, 2018 Camrose Canadian Clergy Comment column.
   Hope and joy. What or who gives you hope and joy?
   The Bible mentions hope and joy well over 100 times. Stories of hope and joy abound in the Bible. For example, in the Hebrew Bible there are stories like those of Abraham and Sarah, thanks to God’s promise and intervention, being able to conceive and give birth to a son Isaac in their senior years. There is God liberating the Israelites from Egyptian slavery as they miraculously make their Exodus into the Promised Land. In the New Testament, there is Mary being chosen by God to miraculously give birth to the long-awaited Messiah. There is the promise fulfilled that Jesus is the Messiah and Saviour of the world by conquering the powers of sin, death and evil through his life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection. The Christian faith therefore is, among other things, one of hope and joy.
   In the movie Good-Bye Girl, a relationship develops between a woman and a man. The man leaves, and promises to return to her later. She doesn’t believe his promise, and thinks he’s left her until she realizes that he has left behind his most important possession—his guitar.  It was a sign of his promise and his full intention to return.
   The Bible is God’s promise to us of Jesus the Messiah’s return—both his resurrection after three days in the grave, and his return again at the end of time. As Christians, we celebrate that hope every Sunday as we worship together.
   We also are a people of joy. Joy however, as many may think, is far more than a fleeting emotion. Joy goes down deep into our being since it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, listed by the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians 5:22. Joy deep within us, thanks to the Holy Spirit, reminds us that Jesus is always with us in our day-to-day living.
   Author and scholar C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled, Surprised by Joy. Lewis didn’t come into the Christian faith eagerly. Rather, he had the impression that Christianity was a faith that brought people misery and sadness. He was surprised by joy to discover otherwise. Joy comes in realizing that the gift of being in relationship with Jesus gives deep meaning and quality to life, even when one least expects that to be the case. Such was the case for the first disciples as they met the risen Jesus. “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Luke 24:52)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Brief Review: A Passage Through Sacred History

A Passage Through Sacred History: Lenten Reflections for Individuals and Groups
Author: Don C. Skinner
Publisher: Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press
96 pages, ISBN: 0-8298-1216-4
Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Don C. Skinner, at the time of writing this little volume, was a retired United Church of Christ minister living in Forest Grove, Oregon.
   The volume contains a brief Introduction and seven chapters. Rev. Skinner suggests that the book be read, studied, and discussed one chapter at a time to coincide with the seven weeks of Lent.
   The format is as follows: i) A quotation at the beginning of each chapter, from various sources, attempting to compliment the theme of each chapter. ii) The chapter’s content material, based on one or more passages from the Bible. iii) Questions for discussion, which may also lead to further study and research.
   In chapter one, the author focuses on the story of God’s promise made to Abraham and Sarah, and the Hebrew concept of hesed, “radical faithfulness” (p. 7) as a description of God’s character—meaning that God can be trusted to carry out and honour his promise.
   Chapter two looks at God’s covenant with Moses and the Israelites, and emphasizes that a covenant is more like a marriage than a contract.
   In chapter three Rev. Skinner points out one of the oldest theological conundrums for Israel’s prophets—the dialectic of right worship and right action, ritual and social justice, and the tension these often create.
   Chapter four makes the case for the Jewishness of Jesus, the gospel accounts of his compassion for his own people in his public ministry, and a needed emphasis that there is no place for anti-Semitism among Christians.
   In chapter five the author draws some parallels between the Passover and the Last/Lord’s Supper.
   Chapter six focuses on the Christian celebration of Pentecost, which is rooted in the Jewish Feast of Weeks. God offers his grace to Israel in the gift of the law. God offers his grace to Christians in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
   In the final chapter, the author tells a couple of contemporary stories, highlighting unity and diversity, and acts of kindness and mercy in the church.
   This volume has the potential to be a helpful and edificatory resource for the season of Lent.


Friday, February 9, 2018

Clergy Comment column

Here is my article published in the February 8, 2018 Camrose Canadian Clergy Comment column.
   The ‘D’ word. A word most unpopular in our society. The ‘D’ word I’m referring to is, of course, death.
   Over the wide sweep of human history, death and dying have been treated in a host of ways.
Death has been, and for many still is something to be avoided and feared. For example, we soften our language by employing euphemisms like: ‘he or she passed away, fell asleep and never woke up, has left us, shed this veil of tears, is at rest’—and the list goes on. 
   Another way humans deal with death and dying is by speaking of death as the enemy. One wages war against death, one battles the enemy. Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal illustrates this well, picturing a medieval knight in a classic struggle against death. According to both the Jewish and Christian faiths, death occurs because it is the result of sin—hence it is not only our enemy, but also God’s enemy because it causes suffering for God and for all creation.
   Another way human beings have regarded death is by referring to it as a friend. In this view of death, nothing is to be feared. Rather, death is to be accepted as a natural end to this life. For people of faith, it is something to look forward to with hope, since it is viewed as a release from the sin and sufferings of this world.
   Another metaphor that some employ to describe death is that of a door. For many people of faith, they speak of death as a door that opens for them and then closes behind them at God’s appointed time. Death as a door leads to a better life and is not to be feared.
   Then there is, as Psalm twenty-three describes it, “the valley of the shadow of death,” or “the darkest valley.” It is a great unknown, and too dark to see clearly. Yet, the psalmist remains confident, and not afraid of evil, since the LORD walks with us through this darkest valley, hence it is not a permanent state or place of residence.
   The season of Lent is an appropriate time to focus on the ‘D’ word. Lent assists us all as we focus on the suffering, dying and death of Jesus; we are better able to focus on and prepare for our own suffering, dying and death.
   It is very instructive that the Hebrew word for sacrifice means to draw close. Jesus by willingly, lovingly, unconditionally choosing to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world has drawn everyone closer to God.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Our World Tuesday - 9 January 2017

Winter sunset, taken while driving on Queen Elizabeth Highway 2 toward Edmonton.

For more Our World Tuesday photos, and/or to share yours, click here

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas and New Year Greetings

Last night we had the privilege of attending G.F. Handel’s Messiah, with members of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra and the Rosa Barocca – Chorus & Baroque Orchestra. The Peter and Jeanne Lougheed Performing Arts Centre concert hall was filled to capacity—and for good reason, almost three hours of ‘heaven on earth’ music, celebrating the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
   I have seen Handel’s Messiah several times, and heard it on record, cassette and CD a host of times—yet I never get bored or tired of it. There’s always something beautiful about it that so movingly proclaims ‘the holy’ and fills one for an all-too-brief time with the joy, love and peace of God in the midst of a troubled and all-too-often evil world that would rob us of every God-given gift.
   This time round, Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter nine, verse six, keeps playing in my head: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.” (NRSV) He is the one who is coming to set all things, all peoples, right with the world.
   Here is Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra with the Tenebrae Choir. I love some of the expressions on Colin’s face, he seems captivated by the joy of this marvelous music.
   Wishing all of you, my readers, a very blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Clergy Comment column

Here is my article published in the December 14, 2017 Camrose Canadian Clergy Comment column.
Advent and the “R” word

We are now in the season of Advent, the season traditionally observed as a time of preparation for celebrating the coming of Jesus the Messiah.
   One way of preparing is by focusing on the “R” word—repentance. Last Sunday, Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, heard the Gospel of Mark, chapter one, verses one to eight—John the baptizer’s preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John comes across as a rather eccentric wilderness prophet, dressing like I did back in my hippie days of the 1960s and early 70s, and following a rather strange diet of locusts and wild honey. However, he takes his call seriously as a second Elijah, preparing folks for the Messiah’s coming, like a broken record, wearing out the “R” word.
   What is repentance anyway, and why is it so necessary? The Bible describes repentance in several ways, including: to regret one’s mistakes and harmful thoughts, words and actions, to change one’s mind and behaviour, to turn around, to return. Repentance is necessary since whether we want to admit it or not, we are all sinners—we think and say and do things that are harmful to others, ourselves, God’s creation, and all of this can and often does cause us to drift further away from God.
   The following story is one example of what it means to repent. Some years ago, CBC’s “Fifth Estate” program aired a documentary on “the Squamish Five.” You may remember that they were a group who bombed the Litton plant, which was involved in the production of nuclear weapons. They also bombed other political targets.
   Eventually the police caught them and they were then convicted and sent to prison.
   In the interview with Juliet Caroline Belmas, she admitted that the group’s actions were wrong. She also discouraged others from following their example. Juliet Caroline Belmas’s change of heart was a public expression of repentance—realizing her sins and genuinely wishing to clean up her act. Those who sincerely repent are like Juliet; showing remorse for the sins committed, and sorry enough to quit the destructive behaviours; and helping to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
   This Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus our Messiah’s coming at Christmas do you and I need to reorient, return, change our thinking and behaviours?
   May the grace of God help us so to do as we share the love and joy that Jesus gives us with the world this Christmas!