Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Brief Book Review: Through Prairie Windows

Through Prairie Windows
Author: Susan Halliday Conly
Publisher: Turner-Warwick Publications Inc.
161 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Susan Halliday Conly, at the time of writing this book, was living on a family farm near Macklin, Saskatchewan. She is an award-winning author of other books about the Canadian prairies in addition to this one.
   This volume contains both short stories and essays, and is divided into three parts. Part 1: we look at some of our lamplighters, the pioneers. Part 2: we look at our faith, rooted in their faith and in the Spirit that rides on the wings of the prairie wind. Part 3: side-glances at some of the landscapers of the prairie. The span of the volume then dates from the early 1900s through to the late 1980s.
   In Part 1, Conly tells stories of the Saskatchewan homesteaders who faced many a hardship, roughing it through freezing cold blizzards, welcoming a North West Mounted Police officer riding in the area looking for ‘his man,’ a Cree prophecy of evil sweeping over the land when the European pioneers settled the prairies and the indigenous peoples losing their language and culture, a Grandmother relaxing under an Old Maple and remembering how life has changed since the early pioneer days.
   In Part 2, the author marvels at the joy and wonder of celebrating the Christmas King, “God with us,” as well as the joy in God’s creation—the ducks splashing in a spring pond, the yip of a distant coyote, hoar frost, a moon-lit evening walk, the starlight, the moons of Jupiter, sitting beside a murderer at a World Day of Prayer Service who asked to be prayed for, the determination of Michael who went blind and became a computer programmer, remembering that God is not mocked and our need of repentance, and that: “God’s unmistakable hallmark is joy, and joy is a promise. It is our promise to be His hands and His feet and His voice every day, not just when it is appropriate.” (p. 111)
   In Part 3, Conly tells of getting a swimming pool, a husband-wife debate over whether to buy a ride-on lawn mower or a larger farm tractor, looking for the illusive peace and quiet in a city hotel room, taking correspondence courses in rural Saskatchewan, lamenting how prime agricultural land is being converted into urban development.
   Amidst these prairie stories and essays, Conly employs her wit and humour along with historical tidbits to make this volume an entertaining read.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Food for thought for preachers

The following quotations on preaching are from renowned professor of homiletics, Tom Long:

1 “Every 50-75 years, preaching in North America has a nervous breakdown.”
2 “Nothing invigorates preaching like having something to say.”
3 “Good preaching is hard work done under pressure.”

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Jean Vanier 10 Rules for Life

Earlier this month—May 7th—Canadian humanitarian and founder of the now international organisation L’Arche died at the age of ninety. He touched many peoples’ lives from a variety of denominations, faiths, and nations. Here is a video I came across, which is an interview of Vanier speaking about 10 rules for life. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Book Review: My Father’s Tears and other stories by John Updike

My Father’s Tears and other stories
Author: John Updike
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
292 pages, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

John Updike was educated at Harvard and Oxford, and he lived—he died in 2009—for most of his life in Massachusetts. He wrote in several genres, including: poems, novels, short stories, essays and criticism, a play, a memoirs, and children’s books.
    Updike’s short stories in this volume share at least one thing in common—they are about 90% description and 10% character development through dialogue. I realize that it is a challenge to develop characters in the genre of short stories, however I’m left longing to know more about many of the characters in Updike’s stories. Hence the question arises: Is this intentional on Updike’s part to allude to the superficiality of so many people’s lives today, or is the author himself unable to go deeper into the lives and relationships of his characters by employing lively dialogues?
    In most of Updike’s stories, the setting is the New England states in the 20th and 21st centuries—there are exceptions, with American tourists visiting Morocco, India and Europe.
    The stories have several recurring themes, including: life as a journey through the various stages from childhood to becoming elderly, remembering the past and longing for it, as well as being haunted by it, sex, divorce, infidelity, strained and distant relationships in marriages and families, growing old, attempting to face death, as well as defying it, love, love lost, to list some of the more prominent ones.
    Speaking of love, the following sentence reflects the thoughts of a Lutheran son-in-law of a Unitarian minister, Reverend Whitworth, in the volume’s title story: “It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are in front of you.” (p. 202)
    In “Blue Light,” Fritz Fleischer is a rather cynical sceptical character. At the end of the story Updike may have employed a bit of a double entendre, leaving the reader wondering whether Fleischer is speaking of his dermatological condition or his grandchildren: “He could not imagine what his grandchildren would do in the world, how they would earn their keep. They were immature cells, centers of potential pain.” (p. 263)
    In his final story, Updike once again seems rather cynical and sceptical about life as expressed through a floor finisher: “People are more concerned about the floors they walk on than the loved ones they leave behind.” (p. 286)
    This volume reflects more of a cynical, sceptical worldview than a hopeful, encouraging one. Reader beware, and don’t allow this volume to depress and discourage you—1 star out of 5.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Author: Eric Metaxas

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

608 pages, paperback, including: Forward, Prologue, Notes, Bibliography, Epilogue, Errata, About the Author, Acknowledgments, Index, and Reading Group Guide

In chapter one, “Family and Childhood,” Metaxas looks at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s parents’ backgrounds. His mother Paula, was related to members of the German aristocracy. His dad came from a family of professionals: doctors, pastors, judges, etc.

Dietrich was the third youngest of eight children. His mother, a teacher, taught the Bonhoeffer children at home until they were 7 or 8—then they went to school and excelled. 

The family didn’t attend church too often. Rather, they followed the Moravian tradition of daily Bible reading, singing hymns and prayer at home.

Dietrich’s dad, Karl, held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university in Breslau and later in Berlin. 

In his childhood, Dietrich enjoyed playing the piano; he was good at sightreading; and he could also arrange and compose pieces. The whole Bonhoeffer family was also musical. 

At the age of fourteen, Bonhoeffer announced that he would become a theologian, much to the disappointment of his family. Bonhoeffer’s first year of university was at Tübingen, following family tradition.

The Bonhoeffer family was very close; they kept in touch and visited with each other frequently. 

When he was eighteen, he and his brother Klaus visited Rome, where they attended a Palm Sunday Service. At this service, Dietrich saw people of various cultures and races; and that influenced his thinking about the universality of the church. 

Bonhoeffer transferred from Tübingen to the University of Berlin; where he earned his doctorate at twenty-one years of age. He studied under Adolf von Harnack, Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf Deissman. He was also influenced by Karl Barth.

In Dietrich’s years of study in Berlin; he was also active as a teacher in a parish for young people; and he frequently attended operas, concerts, plays and museums. After he obtained his doctorate; he accepted a one year call to serve as vicar at a German congregation in Barcelona, Spain.

At the age of twenty-four; after he passed his theological examination; which qualified him to be a university lecturer; Dietrich decided to go to America and study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Once at Union, he wrote: “There is no theology here....” (p. 101) He found the students rather superficial—concerned more with economics and politics than theology. Union was a bastion of liberal theology. 

Dietrich’s following remarks reflect his more neo-orthodox-conservative theological leanings: “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” (p. 106)

While in New York, Bonhoeffer discovered Abyssinian Baptist Church, and appreciated Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s preaching the gospel and active opposition to racism.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin from America; he preached a very serious sermon on Reformation Sunday in 1932—calling on the church to wake up to the dark things happening in Germany and to be more committed to following Christ. He emphasized the Sermon on the Mount more often in his sermons.

As a lecturer at the University of Berlin and as a pastor teaching confirmands; Bonhoeffer emphasized the Bible as God’s Word, which speaks to us personally; addresses current events; and helps us live out our faith in practical ways. He also befriended his students and invited them to his home to be with his family for musical evenings, conversations and meals.

In 1933, Germany lost its democracy and the rule of law when Hindenburg signed the Reichstag Fire Edict, and the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, abolishing its existence and allowing Hitler and the Nazis to rule Germany as a dictatorship.

For Bonhoeffer, the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” (p. 154) Here Bonhoeffer was referring the Jews.

Metaxas describes the dark days in Germany as the Nazis’ ideology spread into the “German Christian” church. Bonhoeffer opposed the “German Christians” who excluded Jewish Christians from serving as pastors; advocated abandoning the Old Testament, downplayed the centrality of the crucifixion; and promoted the removal of all Jewishness in the New Testament. At times, Bonhoeffer felt like a lonely voice crying in the wilderness against the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer accepted a call to serve two German congregations in London, where he became friends with Bishop George Bell. This friendship would continue right up to Dietrich’s death; and it would keep the British updated concerning the grave situation in Germany. Bonhoeffer also made other ecumenical contacts; seeking their support in opposing the Reichskirche.

Eberhard Bethge, a student of Bonhoeffer’s at the Finkenwalde seminary, recalls Dietrich’s advice on preaching: “Write your sermon in daylight; don not write it all at once; ‘in Christ’ there is no room for conditional clauses; the first minutes on the pulpit are the most favourable, so do not waste them with generalities but confront the congregation straight off with the core of the matter; extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible.” (p. 272)

At the Finkenwalde seminary, Bonhoeffer introduced worship services first thing in the morning and last thing at night, extemporaneous prayer, and private confession. He chose Bethge as his confessor-pastor.

In 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, which were antisemitic. After that, the Nazis increasingly passed more laws seeking to remove all opposition to Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship—including the Confessing Church. Many Confessing Church pastors were arrested and imprisoned—including Martin Niemoeller, who spent seven years in Dachau concentration camp. Bonhoeffer visited these pastors and their families. 

After the Nazis closed the Finkenwalde seminary, Bonhoeffer tried unsuccessfully to get it opened again. So the Confessing Church organized collective pastorates—illegal seminaries—in remote locations in Pomerania, which were modelled after the Finkenwalde seminary. Bonhoeffer’s spirits remained hopeful, and he enjoyed life in these secluded places.

At the time of Kristallnacht in 1938, Bonhoeffer was meditating upon Psalm 74, when he realized that: “to lift one’s hand against the Jews was to lift one’s hand against God himself.” (p. 316)

Metaxas cites several quotations from Bonhoeffer on how agonizing it was for him to make the decision to go back to America in 1939 to avoid being called into the German military. Once Dietrich arrived in New York, he was uncertain about his decision; he was also quite unhappy and missed his German colleagues in the Confessing Church.

One Sunday Bonhoeffer attended the service at Riverside Church to hear Harry Emerson Fosdick preach. Bonhoeffer—sounding a bit like Jeremiah when he spoke of false prophets—to say the least, was not impressed with this liberal theologian’s sermon: “The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference.” (p. 333)

With his thoughts daily on the situation back in Germany; Bonhoeffer decided to return to his homeland after only twenty-six days in the U.S.A.

In 1940, Bonhoeffer published his book on the Psalms, but had to fight with the Nazis who wanted to censor it. It was published, and symbolically affirmed Christianity's connection with Judaism, the Jewish people and the Old Testament—all of which the Nazi dictatorship attempted to destroy.

Bonhoeffer also developed a different view of the truth; which involved deceit in order to reach a larger goal in conspiring to resist Hitler and the Nazis. In addition to this, he joined the Abwehr—Germany’s Military Intelligence—with the hope that the Gestapo would leave him alone. 

Bonhoeffer was a generous soul—he gave Christmas gifts to family and friends, colleagues and theology students, as well as sending letters. He continued to write and serve as a pastor; sending circular letters to the Finkenwaldian Confessing Church pastors to encourage them as the Nazis intentionally removed them from their pastoral work and drafted them into the military as soldiers. Many of them were killed in the war.

The Abwehr sent Bonhoeffer to Switzerland twice to make contact with ecumenical leaders and to ask the British for a negotiated peace if the German conspirators were successful in killing Hitler. The British were not too receptive of a negotiated peace.

Metaxas goes into some detail to describe the unsuccessful assassination attempts on Hitler.

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was taken by the Gestapo to Tegel Prison, not far from his home. His family visited him there and provided what he requested. There he wrote Love Letters from Cell 92, which would be edited by Maria von Wedemeyer’s sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismark; who would have them published.

While in prison Bonhoeffer maintained his spiritual discipline of meditating on a biblical verse, praying for family, friends and colleagues, and reading the Bible and other books for several hours each day. He also wrote many letters to several people—including two-hundred pages to his friend Eberhard Bethge. The tone and tenor of his letters were often upbeat. Coded messages were sent through the passing of books among the conspirators, including Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was given special privileges in Tegel Prison because his uncle was Berlin’s military commandant. However, Bonhoeffer was appreciated by both some prison staff and prisoners for his kindness and generosity; and they turned to him as a prison pastor. Bonhoeffer’s fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, visited him in prison several times during 1943 and 1944. One of their topics of discussion was about their future wedding.

Bethge was Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, as well as his confessor-pastor. He was able to smuggle letters to him.

Bonhoeffer regarded Ethics his magnum opus. In it he advocated an incarnational theology. Christ is not limited to the realm of religion and the church. Rather, his Lordship is over the whole world. For him, what is of ultimate ethical importance is discerning and obeying the will of God.

When Bonhoeffer was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Berlin; he did not betray those involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler when he was interrogated. He also wrote notes of encouragement to fellow prisoner Schlabrendorff, who wrote I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

While in Buchenwald prison, the allied forces from the west and the Russians from the east were closing in on the Germans; and their prisoners believed that they might be shot or gassed or hanged any day. In this situation English prisoner Payne Best wrote of Bonhoeffer: “he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event of life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was still alive....He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.” (p. 514)

The book concludes with an account of Bonhoeffer’s last days and journey to Flossenburg and his execution there; as well as a description of the worship service in England for him with an excerpt of Bishop Bell’s remarks and the sermon of Pastor Franz Hildebrandt. 

Eric Metaxas has, with this volume, made a significant contribution to the study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by providing much of the historical background that influenced Bonhoeffer’s life and work. For that clergy, laity, academic scholars, and readers of the general public will be grateful for years to come.