Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A BOok Review

(I was asked to read and review this for Touchstone, a journal produced by United Church folk)

Preacher: David H. C. Read’s Sermons at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
David H. C. Read, edited by John McTavish (Eugen: Wipf & Stock, 2017) Pp.289.

One of the great challenges of being in solo ministry is that you rarely get to hear another person preach. And that is too bad because exposure to other preachers sermons is a great tool to help reflect on one’s own preaching. This is why books like this can be so helpful.

In some circles David Read is likely a big name in preaching. Certainly John McTavish thinks highly of him “...the preacher who has most nourished my soul and stimulated my mind...” (1). However since he retired almost 30 years ago it is very likely that a large number of people have never heard of him or have any familiarity with his work. For this reason it is very helpful that McTavish starts the book with and introductory preface that includes a brief biography. McTavish places Read as a theological centrist and suggests that this may be why he is less well-known that people like William Sloane Coffin or Billy Graham, saying that “...crowds tend to gravitate to simplistic extremes” (2). It is likely that many in the United Church of Canada would not find Read to be a centrist by 2018 standards, but that may well be because a) thirty years have passed, and more importantly b) the centrist position of the worldwide church is quite different from the centrist position in the United Church.

David Read is a product of the early 20th century, being ordained in 1936 at age 26. He served as a chaplain in World War 2, spending most of the war as a prisoner after being captured during the fall of France in 1940. Theologically he was a follower of Karl Barth and so in the neo-orthodox school of theology. In 1955, ten years after the war, Read was offered a chance to work in academia in his native Scotland when a chance event lead him to be invited to cross the Atlantic and begin ministry at Madison Avenue Presbyterian in New York. He would remain there until his retirement in 1989. The forty (well sort of forty-one since the first entry in the Christmas section is actually two Christmas stories from different years) sermons in the main section of this volume all come from Read’s tenure at Madison Avenue. The earliest sermon in the collection dates from 1970 and the latest from 1989, the year he retired.

The forty sermons McTavish has selected for this volume are arranged according to the church year. This gives the benefit of following through a ‘year in the life of a faith community’ with David Read. The downside is that this means they are not arranged chronologically so it is harder to trace how Read’s theology may have grown and evolved between 1970 and 1989. Both organizational schemes would have had merit, so it works to follow from the Season of Creation, into Advent and Christmas, then Epiphany, Lent Easter and Pentecost. In an epilogue McTavish has included a listing of books written by Read and some reviews of some of those books. Then there is one last sermon (from 1967) to close off the book. Before each sermon is an “editor’s introduction” to help set the context when the sermon was originally preached—with the occasional editorial comment added.

Is it worthwhile to read sermons from another city, another country and a whole other era? After all the youngest sermon in this book is 29 years old and we know that much has changed in the last 29 years. Sermons are intended to speak to the current context, what is the value of sermons to another, very different context. Well, people still read and quote from sermons by John Chrysotom and John Wesley and Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon (to name a few). All those sermons are far older than 29 years. Good preaching is both contextually sensitive and also has a timelessness about it. Then again there is the sad fact about humanity that the species keeps acting in the same unhealthy ways, only the details change. So many of the issues that Read addresses echo in the news feeds of 2018 as much as they speak to the headlines of 1970 or 1980 that the sermons continue to speak to the soul of the one trying to follow Christ.

This is a worthy addition to the shelf of someone in preaching ministry. The reader may not follow the same theological path as Read, may not come to the same conclusions, may even argue strongly against his tack. But that helps to make the preacher a better preacher, which seems to be the point of such a book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What New Thing is God Doing? -- A Newspaper Column

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

There are some things that remain constant. People will always be complaining about elected officials and public services. Alberta weather will always have some new curve to throw your way. Online political discussions will quickly become people talking at each other from hardened positions and not listening to each other. And then there is the one thing we have long been told remains constant – change.

The world is constantly changing. Everything in the world is constantly changing. Sometimes those changes are earth shatteringly big, Sometimes they are hardly noticeable. Our task is to figure out how we will respond to those changes. And to do that we need the gift of discernment. Which changes are healthy and need to be embraced and encouraged? Which changes are problematic and need to be questioned and challenged? Which ones are ahead of their time and which ones are long overdue? As a person of faith I also try to ask where God is in the change. How would God have me/us respond to this particular change? Is God’s will revealed in this development? How?

Many years ago, in my last year of seminary, we had a discussion about how as clergy part of our role was to be change makers and change managers. Because it was becoming more and more obvious that the old ways of being the church were no longer working. The same can be said about many parts of our society. I think that is still true of my calling. Change is inevitable. So where is God in that? Over the years I find myself asking more often what new thing God is doing. After all many times in Scripture God does new things, that is often what drives the faith story forward. Every Sunday millions of Christians around the world pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven”. As that happens the world will be changed.

So what new thing is God doing in your life? In your community? In your church? How do you react?

There is a challenge of trying to open people to the new thing that God is doing. People don’t like change. It upsets the routine, it makes things different, it requires adaptation. We might have to do things differently, or give up a privileged position, or admit that maybe our old assumptions and attitudes and understandings were wrong. And yet, as people of faith we have to admit that God calls people to new understandings throughout the Scripture story. God routinely challenges people to think and act differently. Some of them continue to find meaning in old patterns and understandings, some take the leap of faith and enter a different world.

I turn 50 next year. In the (almost) half century I have lived on the earth the world has changed drastically. I don’t just mean technologically, but also in terms of how we exist as neighbours in this global village. As a community our understandings of sexuality, race relations, interfaith issues, morality, and social responsibility have been challenged multiple times. Some of those challenges have brought needed corrections. Some have been squashed few times. In every case there were those who thought the change was good and those who fought tooth and nail against it. Some are fights we are still having. I believe that God is behind many of those changes and challenges. So I still have to turn to the question of where God is in this, what new thing might God be doing? That needs to be what guides my response.

God IS doing a new thing with, within, and amongst us. Our understanding of how God acts, of who God is, of how God wants us to behave has changed over the millenia before us. Our understanding of how to live with our neighbours has changed multiple times over the millenia of human existence. It will continue to be like that because one of the only things that remains constant is change.

So the question is this: how will we, individually and collectively, respond to the new thing God is doing? Will we fall victim to the desire to keep in our comfortable routines? Or will we take the leap of faith and try out a new way of being? We might lose some things, but we just might gain things we didn’t know we were missing – and we might not miss what we lose.

Let’s just listen for God to give us a hint of which way to go.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Looking Ahead to September 23, 2018 -- Week 4 of Creation Time: Water

This week will conclude our Season of Creation Time.

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Psalm 104:1-9, 24-35 (VU p.826)
  • Revelation 22:1-5
  • Matthew 8:23-27
The Sermon title is Uisce Beatha

Early Thoughts: Water of Life. That is what those words from Irish Gaelic mean (they also happen to be used for whiskey in both their Scottish and Irish versions -- according to Wikipedia at least):
Uisce beatha (Irish pronunciation: [ˈɪʃkʲə ˈbʲahə]) is the name for whiskey in Irish. The equivalent in Scottish Gaelic is rendered uisge-beatha.[1] The word "whisky" (as spelt in Scotland) or "whiskey" (as spelt in Ireland) itself is simply an anglicised version of this phrase,[2] stemming from a mispronunciation of the word uisce in Ireland or uisge in Scotland. It should be remembered that Irish and Scots Gaelic developed as unwritten languages and had no standard spelling until more modern times so the difference in spelling likely has little to do with mispronunciation; though according to the Whiskey Museum in Dublin, Ireland, the different spelling began as a marketing decision (for increased pricing) - other companies followed the trend. This development may in turn have influenced the Modern Irish word fuisce ("whiskey"). The phrase uisce beatha, literally "water of life", was the name given by Irish monks of the early Middle Ages to distilled alcohol. It is simply a translation of the Latin aqua vitae.[3] 
 As we know water is essential for life. It is also a sign of life.  That is why there is so much time searching for signs of liquid water on Mars. If they find water there is a chance they will find life, there may even be a chance someday we could find a way for Mars to support human life (though I think the latter is a little more far reaching).

Water is also an integral part of our faith story. In Genesis 1 the story begins with the Spirit of God moving over the waters of chaos. Later in genesis we have the story of Noah and the flood. Throughout the Patriarch stories we find oases. Isaac and Jacob and Moses all find their wives at wells. Then later Moses leads the people to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea and Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan. In between Moses finds water for the people in the midst of the desert so that they will not die.

Turning to the Christian Scripture we have more water. John the Baptist baptizes with a baptism of repentance in the Jordan, John then baptizes Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus turns water into wine at the beginning of his ministry. In that same Gospel, in Jesus' longest conversation with one person, Jesus meets a woman at a well and discusses water -- both the water in the well and the "living Water" that Jesus manifests. Many of Jesus' teachings take place on or beside the water -- including the passage we read this week about a storm at sea. And the faith story ends with the river of life flowing through and from the New Jerusalem.

It seems that water is important. It is a vital gift from God to the people of God.

Even in practical terms we know water is important.  Most of the Earth's surface is covered by water, though most of that water is not suitable or available for drinking and irrigation. Our bodies are mostly water (I remember a Star Trek: TNG episode where an alien contact referred to the Enterprise crew as "ugly bags of mostly water").

If water is so essential to Life why have we done so poorly by it? We in Grande Prairie, like most people in Canada have the luxury of turning on our tap and getting clean safe water. Not everyone in Canada, much less around the globe has that luxury.

If water is life, if water is a gift from God, how might we best honour the gift and support Life?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Looking Ahead to September 16, 2018 -- Creation TIme Week 3 -- Air

A reminder that folk are invited to bring their backpack this Sunday for a Blessing of the Backpacks

The Scripture Readings this Sunday are:
  • Psalm 19:1-6
  • Psalm 148:1-6
  • Jeremiah 4:23-28
The Sermon title is What Does the Sky Reveal?

Early Thoughts: Next time you are outside, look up. What do you see? What does it tell you?

The sky can reveal many things. Many of us have at least a beginning ability to predict (or at least guess) what the weather might be be looking at the sky.  Some of us have developed that ability more than others.

Some of us look up at the sky to see if it is safe to go out side.  Think of our smoky days this summer and remember that there are people for whom that air was not just inconvenient but dangerous. And many people used language like "apocalyptic" to describe those skies [As an aside, I have been told that one of those really bad days in the Edmonton area had air quality that was the same as a bad day in Beijing.Given that Beijing is noted for poor air quality at the best of times that is really saying something.]

Some of us look up to see if there is a plane coming in to land or taking off. Or to see if the geese are heading south (or north depending on the season)

We look for all sorts of things in the sky.

But think of the glorious hues of a sunrise or sunset. Or maybe the sun peeking out from behind a storm front. Or maybe a rainbow, or even better a fire rainbow. Or the thousands of twinkling bits of light on a clear night. OR a giant moon that makes you want to sing Sinatra

What do those images reveal?

Might they reveal God's presence? Might they push us to think beyond what we can see to the God who is within and beyond all things?

The Psalmists certainly thought so. To them the sky revealed God's presence just as much as the Torah did.

The apocalyptic passages of Scripture, those ones that talk of destruction and the "end times", often talk about the sky as well.

What does the sky reveal to you? What might it reveal next time you look up?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Looking Ahead to September 9, 2018 -- Creation Time Week 2: Soil

This Sunday marks the start of the Sunday School program for this season.

The Scripture Readings are:
  • Genesis 2:4-15; 3:17-19
  • Luke 12:22-29
The Sermon title is From Dust Comes Life

Early Thoughts: From a pile of dust and a puff of the Spirit comes... life. And when the breath departs we return to the dust. WE are a pile of dust (stardust some will say)

There is something about dirt. It fascinates many a child (and bothers many a parent to be fair). There is something about playing in the dirt that draws many of us. Maybe it is adding water and making mud pies. Maybe it is taking a stick and drawing pictures. Maybe taking a chunk of clay dug from the ground and turning it into a pot or statue. Or maybe we are ambitious enough to take some rock and some tools and carve a figurine (or in the case of ancient Ethiopia a whole church). But something within us knows that dirt can become...something. The second story of Creation in the book of Genesis tells us God knows that too.

Dirt is the source of life. Dirt is, in the end, where most of our food comes from (especially if like me you do not eat fish or seafood). For most of human history land (which tends to be made largely of dirt) has meant life and wealth. Maybe we need to regain our love for dirt and mud and dust.

We live in a world where we have been told the dirt is a problem. We have so bought into the line the cleanliness is next to godliness that dirt must be far removed from godliness...right? But God creates life from dirt. Life continues to come from dirt. And in the end we are going to become dirt again. Maybe there is some holiness in the dust on every flat surface in our house after all...