A Week of Reading

We’ve just returned from a little break from the first cold snap of the season and the responsibilities of home. This break actually had a little bit of “required” reading involved, but also provided time to just read. The result is a sort of mixed bag of books.

A couple of weeks aThe-Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World-310x480go, I received an MA (Christian Studies) from Wilfred Laurier University. Augsburg Fortress the Lutheran publisher, gave graduates a gift certificate which we used the same day in their store in Kitchener. J noticed Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther, likely because it was promoted by Rachel Held Evans, and we added it to our little pile. The book was a sobering look into a fundamentalist/cult-like denomination which twisted biblical teachings into something that could only be described as abusive. The book reads like a series of blog posts, arranged chronologically, telling a story but maybe not fully developing characters. Its a good read, pointing to the dangers using a literal interpretation of the bible as a rule of life.

Following2153405 my recommendation, our local pastor’s group read Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I had read this book a couple of years ago and was deeply affected by it. The second time through was no less moving. The fictional story of a woman’s journey with Alzheimers provides a window into this horrible disease and leaves the reader wondering what it is that defines someone as a person.  The story is very believable, following the struggles not only of the main character, but also of her family as both memory and identity is lost.

The break I mentioned earlier was a short visit with another pastor in Florida. She is there on holiday as well as a week of study leave and suggested we read a couple of the books she had chosen to read. They are not books I would have necessarily picked up.. Sometimes having a reason to chose a book is a good thing, at least in terms of broadening horizons.

I had read someErasingHell of Francis Chan’s work before and and found him to be a writer pushing toward the edge, promoting a new way of living in an exciting style. So I was looking to Erasing Hell, a book he co-wrote with Preston Sprtickle to be more of the same. I was disappointed. The book is written as a rebuttal to Rob Bell’s Love Wins and while it does present a convincing argument for the existence of a literal hell it doesn’t do it with the edgy flair of some of Chan’s other work. There are just a few too many word studies, a little to much ancient sociology. I’m thinking the structure may have been more clear if I had read Bell’s book first.

Creature creature-of-the-wordof the Word by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger was a good read, pointing to the importance of keeping the Word central in the life of the church. This isn’t at all a new idea, but it is one that is worth a reminder. The book is not a difficult read and nicely reminds us of the importance of keeping the Word at the center in our teaching and preaching. It asks us to recognize again that the Word is used by the Spirit to change lives in a way that moralistic, or “how to” teaching just can’t do. The title refers to churches, not individuals as creature of the word emphasizing the fact that faith and faithfulness is a community activity not only an individual one.

The final re9780307962553_custom-b5d47bb5eda1dc406a6c1b697a1c2aba37cef254-s300-c85ad of the week, mixed in among some of the others, was The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon. The story takes us back to ancient Greece and the coming of age of Aristotle’s daughter. The book sees the world through the eyes of this young girl and sometimes leaves the reader confused, because she is confused. The story is well written, a good read, but likely requires a block of time which provides little distraction from the story, the long Greek names, and the bits that are known by the central character and not necessarily explained.

And so ends a little more than a week of reading, I’ve got a couple of more books on the go, but I’m back to work with a sermon looming in my future and the gauntlet of Christmas not far away.

 

 

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Do Not Be Afraid

Here is the sermon from the Lucknow Strawberry Fest Service on June 22 2014

Sermon June 22 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

 

How many of you remember Greer’s pond? Back in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s Greer’s pond was the swimming pool for the village of Lucknow. Just outside of the village on what is now called Harper’s line there were two ponds, one for swimming, seemingly open to the public, but without all the signs about using at your own risk, and the other stocked with fish.

 

The ponds are still there, but I don’t see much swimming there anymore. When I was a kid, on hot summer days, Greer’s pond was full of village kids and we would be there too, a couple of time a week.

 

My story really isn’t about Greer’s pond though. To be able to enjoy the pond safely one had to know how to swim. Knowing how to swim is a good thing anyway, so my parents enrolled us in swimming lessons. It was a time before a pool in Lucknow, so off we went to Wingham. I have a vague memory that there may have even been a bus to take us there.

 

I was the biggest kid in Guppies and I was terrified. I’ve looked at the requirements to pass Guppies since then and I’m not sure what my problem was. It all looks pretty simple now. Bobbing twice, opening eyes under water and retrieve two objects, float two body lengths, tread water for 5 seconds (I never really understood the value of treading water). It all seems pretty innocuous now, pretty simple, but I knew I was a land animal and water was not my normal habitat.

 

The biggest terror though, was the high board. After all of our floating, bobbing and treading, if there was time, the class would be allowed jump off the high board. It wasn’t really that high, six feet off the water maybe, but to an eight year old kid it was enormous. While the other kids in the class weren’t my peers, they were all younger than me, it was peer pressure that got me up the steps and had my toes edging to the end of the board.

 

Did I mention my problem with heights?

 

I’d seen the other little kids jump, it seemed easy, but from where I was now there was no way. But, the next kid in line was already standing behind me, there was no way back, at least no way which would preserve any dignity I had left.

 

The life guard, seeing my predicament, my hesitation, the look of supreme terror that might soon lead to yellow water running down my already wet legs, offered me the end of the hook. This hook was at the end of a long pole and one might imagine it was made specifically for scooping land animals like me off of the bottom of the pool. I took it gratefully, with both hands, and pushing back tears of terror, I jumped.

 

Our scripture passage this morning is in the middle of a longer conversation Jesus has with his disciples about mission, about how they should share the good news of the gospel with the world around them. About how they need to jump off of the high board into a world that was as foreign to them as water was to me, the land animal. Jesus is clear that this job will not be an easy one, he is sending them, he says, like sheep among the wolves, he tells them that their normal support group, their families will turn against them, points out that they should not expect to be treated any differently than he, their teacher was treated, and that didn’t turn out all that well did it.

 

Crosses are frightening things.

 

Jesus recognizes that his disciples will be tempted, to stay on land, not to engage the world, not to step into the world as kingdom builders where building God’s kingdom means running in opposition to the kingdoms already here.

 

He knows what bringing the message of the gospel and proclaiming a new kingdom will mean for his followers. They will be marginalized, they will come last in popularity contests, they will be pushed to the edges of society, in fact he goes as far as to say some of them will be imprisoned and even killed.

 

For over 2000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ, when they are carrying out His mission, when they are actively working to bring the kingdom of God into this world, find themselves resisted and marginalized.  Many of us resist stepping up to the task put in front of us. We are afraid to climb up onto the high board and content ourselves with merely hanging around the pool. Some of us are good at giving money so that someone else swims in the pool, jumps off the high board, but we really hang on to the fact that we are land animals and are afraid of getting wet.

 

And we think we are likely ok where we are at the edge of the pool. We know about grace don’t we. We know that Jesus died for us, to bring us back into relationship with God and that there is nothing we can do to arrange our own salvation. Grace comes through Jesus, and it free. We just need to believe and sit back and enjoy the privileges. Jesus, we say, has let us into the fenced area around the pool, paid our admission, but we don’t need to get wet do we?

 

That’s called cheap grace. Cheap grace is a term coined by Dietrich Bonheoffer. He describes it this way:

 

Cheap grace means grace as bargain basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is poured out without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. . . . Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock again and again.

 

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son—”you were brought with a price”—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.[1]

 

This morning we are called to discipleship, we are called to climb up on the high board and to jump in. We are called to jump into a world where justice is often a scarce commodity, where mercy has been replaced with a drive for profits, where folks who walk humbly with their God as seen as losers, outsiders, misfits.

 

We are called to be kingdom builders this morning, to cast our lot with the poor, the homeless, the mistreated. We are called to advocate for the underdog, the disinfranchised, to care for God’s creation, to stand up for what is right, not what is expedient. We are called to be witnesses to what Jesus has done and what we are called to isn’t popular, isn’t easy, isn’t safe. We are called to get wet in the world, to jump off of that high board, to leap in faith.

 

But, we don’t leap alone. Just like the lifeguard extended the hook for me to hold on to, Jesus promises not to abandon us, not to leave us, encourages us not to be afraid. We are so important to our Father, God, that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. The most insignificant part of us is known and important. As we make this leap into mission, this step toward discipleship, work that will change us and the world around us, we do not go alone. Just as I grabbed that lifeguard’s hook and held on with both hands as I jumped into a very hostile environment, the water, we can wrap our arms around Jesus, in fact, he wraps his loving arms around us as we leap, sheltering us, watching over us, giving us courage for what is to come, for the work before us. Jesus encourages us as we go, just as that lifeguard long ago did, shouting, don’t be afraid, I’m here, I’ll take care of you.

 

So, what did Greer’s pond have to do with this whole story anyway. It did give some local flavor to my story, but I think it can be larger than that as well. You see, there were no lifeguards at Greer’s pond. No high board either but there was a diving board, and even though I didn’t pass Guppies that year, I think they gave me a Minnows badge instead, it wasn’t long before I was diving off of that low board at Greer’s pond, by myself and swimming underwater to the other side.

 

Something that seemed so impossible as I stood trembling and wet on that high board above the chlorinated clarity of that pool, became something of a second nature in the brown murkiness of Greer’s pond. Oh there were still times of panic in the water when rough housing town kids held the little farm kid underwater for just a little to long, the water never really became my friend, I was still a land animal, but because a life guard with a hook on a pole encouraged me, told me not to be afraid I was able to find a place in it.

 

Many of you here this morning are standing on the edge of the pool, your admission was paid by Jesus Christ, you stand afraid of fully committing to a life of mission, a life of kingdom bringing, a life which makes a difference which brings Jesus into real life through you. You have found it comfortable on the edge, living quietly while injustice and misery go on unchecked around you and around the world. You know you should act, you should jump in, you should do something, but you let fear hold you back.

 

This morning, hear the voice of Jesus ringing through the litany of bad things that will happen when we truly act as his disciples, with a clear do not be afraid, you are valued, you are loved, you are watched over, now go, jump into the water, jump into the mission I have for you here, share the good news of the gospel and bring change to the world in which you live a change based in loving God and Loving neighbours. It won’t be a popular movement, it won’t be a safe task, but you don’t need to be afraid, because a God who cares about falling sparrows, knows the number of hairs on your head is there to protect you to guide you to watch over you because to this God you are worth more than many sparrows.

 

Amen

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2003), Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4. Fortress Press pg 29

Today We Butchered the Easter Bunny (in Church)

I’ve never really understood what Easter Bunnies, and Easter Eggs, have to do with an empty tomb other than a way for the merchandising machine to capitalize on this holiday. Chocolate tombs, or tomb closing stones for that matter, really wouldn’t cut it up on the shelves of our local grocery store. Bunnies do though.

So today, for the children’s message, I looked for a way to link the two ideas. There is a common thread, but to get there, we needed to butcher the bunny.

After getting the bunny out of its pink cardboard and cellophane box, he was laid on a cutting board and a very large knife was produced. One of the fifteen or so kids suggested that the bunny’s head be cut off. So that is what we did, in one fell swoop.

Guess what we found out. The bunny is empty, just like the tomb on Easter Sunday. There is nothing inside. One of the kids even thought looking down the bunny’s headless torso, that the emptiness looked like a cave, an empty cave.

So there you have it. The Easter Bunny is a legitimate purchase since it helps us remember the tomb is empty, while at the same time providing a chocolate fix.

Noah: The Movie

MV5BMjAzMzg0MDA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzOTYwMTE@._V1_SY630_SX426_We went to see Noah last night. It was surprising that it turned up in our local movie theater so soon after it’s release, but there it was. After hearing the CBC review yesterday morning, it seemed like a good idea.

There were a number of folks at the show who I knew; church folks. On the way out, one of them stopped me and said, “Well that sure was a disappointment”. He looked like he’d been held up at gun point and lost his watch and wallet.

I’m not sure what he expected, or what I expected, for that matter. Noah is not a retelling of the Sunday School story, although all of the well known elements of the story are there. The Creator speaks, Noah builds, the animals come as does the water, the dove flies, and something of a rainbow appears. Oh, and wine is invented too. So, you can’t say the creators of the movie aren’t faithful to the few verses of scripture they had to work with. From there, though, they let their imaginations fly and in so doing answer a lot of my childhood questions about the story. How did all those animals fit in the ark? How did that little band of people keep them all fed and watered? How could they have enough feed along? And what about all the manure? How did Noah and his family manage to build such a big project? Where did all the wood come from? Why didn’t everyone else in the world force their way on to the ark as well?

The answers to my questions are surprising and imaginative. As a drama, a story, of a family working against the odds toward a vision it was a wonderful two and a half hours, money well spent.

So, what was my friend’s problem? He may have been looking for the Gospel to come through somehow. There was one, but it was more of an environmental message than a Christian gospel. In fact, I don’t think God was ever named God; it was always “The Creator”. Noah’s understanding of the Creator’s plan for the second chance is actually very Calvinist (and he never smiles), a totally depraved humanity is responsible for all the trouble in the world. Creation comes first.

Anyway, go and see the show. The scenery from Iceland is breath taking, the special effects are amazing, the story has enough action, and art, to satisfy both sides of the couch; there is romance, new life, and cute cuddly creatures. But, don’t go thinking that this is any sort of proof of the literal truth of a man named Noah, or that your Sunday School version of the story will be supported.

This is Hollywood, and Hollywood knows the name Noah would put more bums in more seats than Gilgamesh would.

 

Reading

Someone asked the other day, what I have been reading. At that point, the answer was not much. I was part way through a Booker prize winner from a few years ago, which was not really grabbing my interest, as well as a book called Lamb, by Christopher Moore, a comical, but thought provoking, fictional epistle recording the childhood of Jesus, through the eyes of his childhood friend, Biff. I haven’t finished either of them and they continue to languish, one on my ipad, the other on the bathroom floor.

Three more books have come into my life since the question was asked. One from the questioner herself, the rest through a web page suggestion from Nettie at This Dusty House. None are fiction, all have to do with the Christian church, and they just seemed to compliment each other, as I read them together, over this past week.

imagesThe first was Mark Buchanan’s Your Church is too Safe (Zondervan). Following on the theme of his earlier book Your God is Too Safe, Buchanan pulls out well known, well loved, Biblical passages and presents them in a new light. He portrays God as a God who expects us to take “some hell-bent-for-leather risks” if we are to truly be faithful. He encourages churches not to try to choose between fellowship and mission, but to see them as partners together. He suggests that we get back to the basics of being church, devoting ourselves to “teaching, fellowship, sacraments, worship,and stewardship” and to stop spending energy on vision casting. He points to the “religious spirit” which works its way into many churches as being the most difficult to remove, the most harmful to the growth of the church, and often the most counter to God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s working. Buchanan is Canadian and writes with a Canadian accent, which I appreciate,

cover30351-smallThe second book this week is a brand new one, due to be published this week. Aliens in the Promised Land (P&R Publishing), by Anthony B. Bradley, provides a hard hitting, frank, overview of the place of minorities in American churches. As a Canadian, I’m sure some of the criticism Bradley aims at the white dominated denominations in America can be brought across the border as well. As part of a bi-national denomination his words come with a sting. His language and writing style are colourful and provocative, setting the tone already in the introduction by labeling some of his detractors as “John Calvin-loving racists” and going from there to point an unwavering finger at all of the mainline churches as he enumerates their misdeeds and missteps. Bradley has gathered other voices as well as his own African American one. Chapters by Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and other African Americans all tied together by the work of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and their report: Racism and the Church. The book is not all negative. Each chapter provides corrective words and encouragement to the church. Its final chapter is a what’s next, step by step plan for the future. Bradley himself states, in the closing words, his hope that this book will start a conversation, to get folks to listen to someone outside their tribe, to move toward embracing our common human dignity.

cover27745-smallFrom moving to unsafe, uncharted territories, to the issues of racism  it just seems right that the final book of this trio be one on we one thing we as churches, in one way, or another, share, worship. R.C Sproul’s How Then Shall We Worship (David C. Cook) is coming out in it’s second edition. First published in 2006, this book takes us through the Old and the New Testament in an effort to reground our worship practices in scripture, to reclaim the symbolism of the sacraments, and to have us rethink the meaning of worship. I was particularly taken by his study of the Church as a house of prayer recognizing that the practice of worship in ancient Israel included praise, prayer, and sacrifice, he wonders why  Protestant churches in North America are not houses of prayer, why prayer is pushed to the side by other elements we apparently find more exciting. Sproul does a wonderful job of connecting the elements we find in worship to scriptural anchors, in a very readable way,  resonating with my own Calvinist background.

The Lectionary

How do you choose a text for a sermon? I haven’t got all that many sermons under my belt  yet, but this question always dogs me as I begin to write new one. My tradition in the Christian Reformed Church leaves the choice of the text fairly open, each pastor finding an appropriate passage to work with. There is the mandate, stated in the Church Order, to preach weekly from the Heidelberg Catechism. As second Sunday services have declined, so has catechism preaching. Many pastors roll through the Bible choosing texts, some will preach a series of sermons focusing on a particular theme, chapter or book of the Bible. Some will use the work of a popular Christian authour to guide them through a theme and provide a starting scripture for their work.

One of the beneficial bits coming from my training at the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary has been my introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary provides scripture readings for each Sunday of the year in a three-year rotation. These choices include and Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Each year focuses on one of the first three gospels so that parishioners will hear a consistent gospel voice over the year rather than the random readings often found in non-lectionary churches. This common lectionary is used by liturgical protestant churches, Lutherans, Presbyterians along with others, and by Roman Catholic congregations. While it is not mandatory in these situations to always follow the lectionary, it is advised.  There are a few pastors in the CRC using the lectionary regularly, but not many.

The lectionary serves to tie the churches together. Recently, I preached a sermon on the parable of the Prodigal Son which just happened to be the lectionary assignment that day. As I drove to the church, I passed others where the sermon theme was posted on the sign out front and saw all sorts of renditions of my sermon title. It was neat to realize, even though we may be separated denominationally, we are hearing the same word and are joined in it. This week will be the same, but in this case, I actually went to the lectionary for the text and found it both challenging and new. Preaching from the lectionary takes away the tendency to find a text which matches the theme of the sermon you want to preach. It forces the sermon writer to begin with the text.

0664237983Those in the pew can benefit from the lectionary as well. Since the texts for the week are set, they can study those texts, live with them, for the week, and then recognize them as they are blended into the service. A number of study helps have been designed just for this purpose. One of these came a cross my desk this week from Westminster press. Daily Feast:Meditations from Feasting on the Word, provides a structured approach to meditating on the texts for the week along with thought-provoking questions to take the reader further into the text and to apply it to real life. Written reflections, while short, are well written and take the reader to the heart of the text, preparing the reader for Sunday worship, but also keeping them in the Word throughout the week.

The Hitchhiker

“I’m trying to get to Waterloo. How far are you going?”, he says, as he opens the door of my car.

“All the way to Toronto”, I reply,  he climbs in happily, and I’ve got another hitchhiker.

I like picking up hitchhikers. I rarely pass one by. They make the miles go faster with their conversation. They give me things to think about, new perspectives, glimpses into lives much different than my own, a sense of respect for another point of view, new stories.

The hitchhiking community, as I’ve experienced it, is almost exclusively men, mostly between the age of thirty and fifty. Virtually all have some issue which has led to the lack of a driver’s license. Their stories remind me of the old maxim “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. They make me feel grateful, humble, and sometimes challenged. Since their world, their lifestyles, their experiences, are so different from mine, our conversations can be very wide ranging, from child custody issues, to their work situations, to the difficulty they have finding adequate places to lives, to their struggles to make sense of life.

Saturday’s ride was no exception. “A” turned out to be a guy I had gone to high school with,  although we didn’t finish together. He’s worked as a labourer all across the country, never doing anything long enough to actually get any professional certifications. Now he’s come back, working at jobs he can find, just getting by. He has a driver’s license but can’t afford a car. His life experience though has made him a bit of a natural philosopher/theologian and, by the time we were 30km into our trip, we were on to the Holy Spirit, the need for Christians to be part of a church, and the prosperity gospel. I’m not sure any of my profs gave me as tough a workout. He never stopped talking for the whole trip. It was wonderful!!!!

I’ll likely never meet “A” again, but, there will be another one, soon, standing beside the road, with a thumb out and I’ll be pulling over and rolling down the window to meet the next adventure.