Brian’s Book of the Month

         God's Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane by [Howison, Jamie]                   


August, 2017

Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945. Montreal, PQ, & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

Never before has the de-Christianization of Canada been so thoroughly documented from the statistics or so wisely analyzed. Stuart Macdonald and Brian Clarke, two of Canada’s top church historians, have been working on this data and frameworks for making sense of it for over a decade now. Both Brian and Stuart have been good friends and colleagues in the field of Canadian church history since the 1970s. Stuart was a student of mine at Knox College in Toronto and did some fine research on a prominent Toronto pastor’s response to World War One before going on to do doctoral work in witchcraft in Fife, Scotland, during the early modern period. His interest in the statistics on religion in Canada blossomed when he returned to Canada and started to teach at his alma mater, Knox College, in Toronto. Brian and I both served as research assistants in the 1970s to Keith Clifford for his book on the resistance to church union in Canada. Brian’s early research focused on Irish Catholicism in 19th-century Toronto.

This book represents their carefully-considered conclusions on the decline of Christian presence and influence in Canada and it’s a must read for anyone interested not only in the future of the church in Canada, but also for the well-being of civic society in the country. In the face of growing secularism, with its emphasis on individualism, materialism, and consumerism, all branches of the Christian church have experienced startling declines since the 1960s. This will not only change the face of the Christian faith in Canada, in ways dramatically different from in the USA, but also have a profound effect on the ways the common good is served in the country. The reason for the latter impact, the authors convincingly argue, is the role the churches once played in inspiring and educating people for public service. No other institution seems to be replacing that positive influence, however imperfectly it was often exercised. This is a must read for anyone concerned with the future of both church and nation in Canada.

I’ve included this more academic work in my list of books for two reasons. First, it’s a tribute to our friendships and to the ongoing stimulation they have provided to my thinking about how to be Presbyterian in a post-Christendom Canada. Second, from my own historical work, I would argue that The Presbyterian Church in Canada was expelled from Christendom in 1925. Most historians of Canadian religion would date the demise of Christendom much later in the century, but those who refused to buy into the United Church’s vision of being the conscience of the nation had to work out a different way of relating to the country and the culture. For that, they drew on the growing resistance to the Nazification of the church in Germany. The new vision of a church offering service to the people of a state, but proclaiming criticism of that state when it violates the values of the Commonwealth of God, found expression in our Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation (can be downloaded from this page). Participating in and contributing to such a vision of mission may not draw large crowds back to the church in a secular age, but it shapes something more important from a Christian perspective. It does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God. This, according to the writings attributed to the prophet Micah, is what God desires most. That, then, is a worthy goal for all human beings.

July, 2017

Ross Lockhart, Lessons from Laodicea: Missional Leadership in a Culture of Affluence.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016.

Ross was working on this book when he did one of our ‘ted talks’ at Brentwood during Lent of 2015. In those talks, we invited theologians to explore discipleship with us by throwing out some ideas for 20-30 minutes and posing a question at the end of their talk. We then engaged in dialogue in small table groups to dig deeper into the question in light of our own theological wisdom. It was a stimulating process and Ross got us off to a good start with his reflections on this theme. It’s great to have the book now to further the conversation.

Ross is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall at the University of British Columbia, where I was dean from 1985-2001. He is also the founding director of the Centre for Missional Leadership at the Hall. His work is focused on how to form Christian disciples who have the confidence to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture that distorts, demeans, and denies the essentials of that Gospel.

The book is a stimulating blend of sharp insight and good humour. Ross draws on stories from his own years in United Church of Canada parishes across Canada. His mentor in missional theology, Darrell Guder (now retired from Princeton Seminary), has had a profound influence on this volume, especially with his emphasis on the need for the church to continually allow Jesus Christ to convert it into a fuller and more faithful incarnation of the Gospel.

But what is the purpose of that continuing conversation and reformation and what makes the letter to Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-17 so important for the church in our culture?

God holds up a mirror to the people in the church of Laodicea and says, in effect, “See how lukewarm you are in your faith! You claim to be rich, prosperous, and in need of nothing. But you are really wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. You need to be reapproved and disciplined by my love.”

The issues that particularly vex Ross these days are:
• the ways in which we like to mix and match spiritualities and religious traditions that suit our personal tastes;
• our compliance in a global economic system that benefits the top 1% most;
• our devious means of domesticating the Gospel;
• our worship of me, myself, and I; and
• our functional atheism.

Following Jesus, in Ross’ view, means accepting God’s call to overcome confusion through confession that converts us into a new community of faithful disciples. And all of this comes as a gift from God through the grace of Jesus Christ. Ross describes that gift in the final words of the book:

In the end, we must face the world each and every day in a culture of affluence that eagerly anticipates the gifts of silver and gold. However, as children of God, as disciples of Christ, as actors in the Trinity’s great story of salvation, the greatest gift we have is to sit with the beggar’s need, to stand like a child on Halloween with a pillowcase open, to run with joy to tell others in the shadow of the cross and the brilliant light of the resurrection morn we have been made whole by the strong name of Jesus. It’s time to join God in the neighbourhood as missionary disciples. It’s time to say the name. Say the name. (162)

June, 2017

Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.  New York: BlueBridge, 2008.

There’s an exciting project that we are working on in the Collaborating Churches of New West and Burnaby. We are testing out resources and processes for convening conversations among our participants about aging gracefully. We think that churches don’t pay enough attention to the kind of faith development and growth that goes on within and among those over 50 years of age. Most of us have a good 30-40 years of life left on this earth. Our needs and our priorities are shifting now that the kids are grown, if we have them. We are moving into or looking forward to retirement or a shift in careers. We have been through a lot in our lives and most of us have learned from it. Certain kinds of questions are emerging for us – questions about health and wellbeing, about death, about legacy, about different kinds of relationships, and about different rhythms of life. If we’ve been involved in the church for a time, we’d like to know what our fellow friends of Jesus have to say about these questions. If we have not been involved, the Spirit may be prodding us to consider the possibility.

This book is one of the resources that has caught our eyes. Chittister is a Benedictine nun who has become a prominent activist for justice, peace, and women’s rights, especially through her writing and speaking. She is now in her 80s and has not really slowed down a bit. She models the discipline of aging gracefully and writes powerfully about that dynamic.

Here’s a sampling of her wisdom:

It is time for us to let go of both our fantasies of eternal youth and our fears of getting older, and to find the beauty of what it means to age well. It is time to understand that the last phase of life is not non-life; it is a new stage of life. These older years – reasonably active, mentally alert, experienced and curious, socially important and spiritually significant – are meant to be good years. (xi)

The fact is that relationships are the alchemy of life. They turn the dross of dailiness into gold. They make human community real. They provide what we need and wait in turn for us to give back. They are the sign of the presence of a loving God in life. There is no such thing at any stage of human development as life without relationships. In this later stage then, the only uncertainty is whether we will decide to live inside ourselves, alone with our past relationships, or trust that the life made glorious by others in the past can be made glorious again – by new meetings, new moments, new spirit. (83)

The book is organized into short stories and reflections on 40 different topics like regret, possibility, letting go, freedom, sadness, solitude, forgiveness, faith, and legacy. This makes it a lovely book just to dabble in, allowing the wisdom to provoke and penetrate in a rhythm that is entirely your own. Or it can become a source of conversations among spouses, partners, or friends. Let us know if you find any particularly powerful quotes that we might incorporate into our little booklet of conversation starters on aging gracefully.

May, 2017

Peter Coutts, Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future.  Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2013

I believe that most churches will embrace change if their participants are involved in discerning, designing, and deploying changes that they decide will serve their purpose best.  Change has to be a communal and collaborative effort.  It has to be focused on improving what the congregation values most.  Peter Coutts, a friend and colleague who has worked in a variety of missional ministries in Calgary, AB, gets this.  He considered it deeply in doing his doctoral work at McCormick Seminary in Chicago.  He put it into practice in his congregational ministry at St. Andrew’s, Calgary.  He took it to other congregations in his consulting and coaching work.  Much of what he talks about in this provocative book has fueled the revitalization that we are nourishing at Brentwood as we seek to cultivate God’s gift of flourishing among our participants and in their circles of influence.

Peter argues that congregations are entrusted with cultures given to them by God and formed by preceding generations for the sake of living out and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.  There are three essential things in that legacy, each of which shows up differently in distinct congregational cultures.  They are:

  • the Gospel, which conveys to congregations their purposes, mission, values, and principles, which guides congregations to walk-the-talk of their proclamation;
  • the spiritual gifts of congregants, given for the fulfillment of ministry and mission in the world; and
  • the aspiration of leaving a legacy of a healthy, vital, and hopefully stronger congregation that will one day be entrusted in turn into the stewardship of the generation that follows them.

But the key thing is what we do with these things and how we cultivate the motivation to change in a positive direction to achieve God’s intentions for us.  Digging deeply into the dynamics of that process is what this book is all about and what this book does so well.  I can’t really summarize the rich guidance this book offers to the those experiencing change.  So, read it and work out its implications for your own congregation.

We didn’t have this book to guide us when we began to change how Brentwood undertakes its mission, but we got a lot of things right as we proceeded to identify and build on the culture that is Brentwood.  As we continue to change, we will draw on Peter’s wit and wisdom.  I hope you do as well.

You can find out more about Peter’s work in this area at www.choosingchange.ca.

April, 2017

Perry D LeFevre, The Prayers of Kierkegaard.  Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press, 1956

In the years after 2/3 of Canadian Presbyterians went into the United Church of Canada in 1925, thought leaders in the continuing Presbyterian church sought for a coherent theological reason for staying out of union.  They followed Walter Bryden, who taught at Knox College at the University of Toronto, in exploring the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth.  Barth, in turn, drew on the piety and theology of Soren Kierkegaard, especially in his commentary on Romans that did so much to establish Barth as a new voice in Western Protestantism in the years immediately after WW1.  Of particular importance was Kierkegaard’s insistence on the intensity of a person’s experience of the otherness of God and the paradox of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.  Perry D LeFevre’s collection of over one hundred of Kierkegaard’s prayers, pulled out of his published works and private papers, provides a wonderful entre into his devotional attitudes.

Here are some of the passages from the prayers that resonated with me in reading them and reminded me of the theological tradition in which I was raised and to which I now strive to witness in my conversations with those who Jesus Christ draws into the circles of influence of Brentwood Presbyterian Church.

Thou God of love, from whom all love comes in heaven and one earth Thou who didst hold nothing back but didst give everything in love Thou who art love, so the lover is only what [s]he is through being in Thee!  How could anything rightly be said about love if Thou wert forgotten, Thou who didst make manifest what love is, Thou, our Saviour and Redeemer, who gave Himself to save us all! (p11)

 Alas, when at the thought of all your kind action to me I try to collect my thoughts in order to thank you properly – alas, I often find myself so distracted, the most varied thoughts rush through my head and it all ends with me praying to you to help me to thank you – yet this much a benefactor might ask, not to be caused still further trouble by being asked to help one to thank him! (p24)

 Heavenly Father! Teach us to walk before Thy face and grant that our thoughts and our acts may not be like strangers coming from afar for a rare visit to Thy dwelling place but rather like native sons they might perceive that Thou livest in us. (p39)

 The second half of this an intriguing account of Kierkegaard’s religious experience and life that illuminates the soul that composed the prayers.

March, 2017

Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017

They sit on a shelf in my reading room.  Others call it a bathroom.  Whatever it’s called in your house, I find it a great place to do this kind of reading and reflecting.

‘They’ are books of daily devotions drawn from the writings of some of my most provocative mentors in Christian mission.  There’s Thomas Merton, Madeleine L’Engle, Frederick Buechner, George Appleton, Thomas Keating, and Henri Nouwen.  The latest addition to this library of daily wisdom is Old Testament scholar and contemporary prophetic voice, Walter Brueggemann.   A collection of his prayers was the book for Dec, 2016.  It’s worth having him on the list at least twice.

These reflections focus on the daily Scripture readings suggested in the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Brueggemann wrote them for the serious church member who is willing to consider in critical ways the cost and the joy of discipleship.  He deeply believes that God gives us generous gifts – the wonders of creation, the miracles of emancipation and reconciliation, and the surprises of transformation.  The recipients of these gifts, we human beings, are assigned a worthy task as we respond in gratitude.  That task forms the substance of our discipleship, our trusting obedience to God’s law of love summarized so powerfully in Micah 6:8 – do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Brueggemann has always argued that serious Scripture reading is the best source of missional renewal in the church.  We agree with him wholeheartedly here at Brentwood and invite those who participate in the life and witness of our congregation to enjoy this gift and engage this task every week.  We’d love to hear your voice in this discipline.

February, 2017

Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.  Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008

Crouch wants Christianity to engage with, learn from, and contribute to culture in general.  But he thinks the church needs to develop a new vocabularly, a new story, a new set of questions if it is going to do that respectfully, creatively, and constructively.  I agree and found his ponderings on this topic provocative in view of Brentwood’s increasing collaboration with the arts communities in Vancouver.

Crouch grounds his approach in his encounters with the story of God in the Bible.  It’s part of the Reformed/Presbyterian culture he inhabits.  But his take on this story opens up new possibilities for exploring the mission of humanity as culture makers or creative cultivators.  There are constraints and boundaries within which our creativity and innovation take place in faithful, and therefore beneficial, ways in the service of God’s mission of justice, peace, and joy.  But we are called to make something better of the world we have been given.  This is the vocation we humans are given by a gracious and infinitely resourceful God.  It entices and empowers us to create artifacts that bless the whole of creation.

Crouch sees culture as the activity of making meaning.  It is cumulative in human history – we are given the cultural creations of previous generations and then invited to make more of them.  Too often, we have used our culture making freedom to entirely dominate the natural world.  If, however, we saw culture making as God’s invitation to take care of the good things we have cultivated in the past and make them even better in companionship with God, then we can contribute a disciplined care of the gifts – including the freedom to create within constraints – that God has entrusted to us.

There is a clear trajectory for the culture making desired by God.  It is the maturing and the extension of God’s reign of love.  Christianity grew because of a new approach to human relationships, rooted in a recognition that everyone is a beloved friend of God.  The central affirmations of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.  This, in turn, generated safe communal spaces for making cultures of SHALOM – realms of forgiveness, mercy, love, and indestructible life.

Crouch has helped clarify for me what God wants us to do with the musicians, actors, writers, and artists who are and will use the space we have been given at Brentwood.  In daily prayers and practices, we seek to collaborate with those in the visible and invisible church to make God’s love of life more deeply known and more faithfully followed.

January, 2017

Don E Saliers, Music and Theology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007.

Saliers makes a convincing case in this short and very readable book that music can be a key to understanding God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Music is an activity that ravishes the soul and unlocks the hidden contents of our spiritual and emotional beings. This is not one of those books that simply uses music as a prop for someone’s particular version of verbal Christian theology or evangelism. Rather, it treats music in and of itself as a unique and powerful partner in listening for and responding to the work of the Holy Spirit in nourishing our souls to flourish. A more extended case for doing that, as Saliers notes, is found in Jeremy Begbie’s work, especially in Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic, 2007).

Here are three key insights that I hope will tantalize you to read this book for yourself:

1. Music, especially in a ritual setting like worship, activates the formative and expressive powers of sound that shape a process of deep patterning in the human affections. In a world where the traditional means of Christian formation are severely weakened or disappearing, reviving our awareness of the power of music to shape spiritual maturity is crucial. And, if it is so powerful, it is profoundly important to take care that an appropriate theological depth and humility inform our making and hearing of music. Popular music that conveys bad theology simply isn’t faithful enough these days when the core of Christianity is being challenged by other faiths, distortions from within the community, and indifference from a growing number of people in our society.

2. The choice of music in a community for its public worship reveals a lot about that community’s conception of God. At Brentwood, we choose a wide range of music from the church historic and universal that reflects the broad approach Presbyterians take to language, metaphor, and story in Scripture that convey the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and generates the continuing explorations, discoveries, and understandings that the Holy Spirit provokes among us.

3. Music awakes in us an affective attunement to the created and redeemed order of God’s world. If theology is truly to point towards and participate in the realization of the Commonwealth of God, then exploring further the possibilities of an ‘acoustical’ theology to convey the hidden glory and grace of divine self-giving that cannot be verbally expressed.

At Brentwood, we are blessed to work with exceptional musicians who have found our congregation as a space where their musical wisdom and talent find a welcome home and make a profound contribution to our understanding of and service to the God revealed in Jesus Christ through the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. This happens on Sunday in morning worship at 10AM, on Wednesday in Jazz Evensong at 8PM, in the series of benefit concerts we co-sponsor with community organizations who nourish souls to flourish, and in the Sanctuary Sessions in which musicians gather to deepen their composing, performing, and listening to music as Saliers describes it.

Come and enjoy some of these explorations yourself.

December, 2016

Edwin Searcy (ed), Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003

Ed Searcy edited this collection of prayers by biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann after listening to many of them in his Doctor of Ministry classes.  Ed is now retired, but when he edited this volume he was minister with University Hill United Church on the campus of the University of British Columbia.  In choosing the prayers to include in this volume, he worked with a group from that congregation.  The congregation, Ed noted, lives what Brueggemann calls ‘the exilic existence’ that is the place of the church is much of North America.  It sold its building, with much fear and trembling; went through a time of doubt and struggle in new rented facilities; then emerged as a vital congregation that is growing in faithfulness and discipleship.  Searcy credits that transformation to the “missional energy” of the daring speech that is our biblical mother tongue.  And that is what attracted him to Brueggemann’s prayers.  They are full of that language and the life it generates.

The church in exile, as Brueggemann sees it, is a church with little secular power.  Indeed, as in the days of the confessing church in Germany, it is a church with a prophetic vision of a different social order than the one dominated by consumerism and superiority that has emerged in North America.  Here is his way of seeing the act of prayer:

I believe that in an intensely secularized context the task of prayer is to reimagine our life in the presence of God and therefore offer direct address to God [that] invites interaction with the God who has pledged to hear.  I have intended these prayers to be modestly venturesome, not to call attention to the prayers themselves but because prayer is characteristically a dangerous act, and dangerous rhetoric is required to match the intent of the act. (xvi)

These prayers are shaped by the daring speech and missional energy of biblical language.  In many ways, it is Brueggemann’s native tongue.  The prayers are his primer in that language, with all its poetry and imagination, filled with subtlety, surprise, daring, gentleness and dread.  They address a divine love that desires justice, peace, and beauty.

There are 128 prayers here, testimony to a teaching and preaching life grounded in an intimate relationship with the God who is revealed in the diverse and rich records of his mighty acts in the Scriptures.  You might well use them, as I intend to, as a devotional guide over the next year, reading and pondering two or three a week.  You will be awed by the God who listens.  You will become more deeply rooted in a faith that nourishes you to flourish, even in exile.

November, 2016

Jamie Howison, God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.

Jamie Howison is an Anglican priest in Winnipeg, MB, at St. Benedict’s Table, an alternative worshipping community that he founded in 2004.  Among many other things, he is an ardent jazz fan, especially of John Coltrane.  So much so, that he took a sabbatical to explore the theological expressions that he was hearing in Coltrane’s music.  This book contains his initial reflections on that immersive experience.  His ongoing reflections can be found on his Facebook page, God’s Mind in That Music.

As with all of the books I have reviewed on this page of the Brentwood website, this one is too rich and provocative to summarize.  Instead, I will tease you yet again with a few challenging insights that I took from my first reading.

First, Howison is a jazz fan rather than a jazz musician.  He comes to Coltrane trying make sense of what Coltrane is expressing through his music.  And he is curious about what a wide range of people think about that.  That makes the book a wonderful introduction to a wide range of encounters with Coltrane, positive and negative.  But each encounter provokes a struggle with the meaning expressed in the music.  And, for some, including Coltrane himself, it is an encounter with the God who pursues us relentlessly with his gracious and supreme love.

Second, Howison has a deep respect for what music can do when words fail.  There is a depth of human experience and engagement that defies verbal expression.  And jazz expresses that depth in a unique way – freedom within contraints.  Jazz is, as William Edgar observed in Taking Note of Music (SPCK, 1984), a model for God’s improvisational way of redeeming the creation.

Third, Howison exhibits a remarkable discipline of letting God be God in speaking through the music of John Coltrane.  He recognizes that there is much left to hear, many levels of meaning and inspiration yet to be experienced.  It is a bit like reading Scripture over and over again, listening for innovative and surprising dimensions of meaning to be uncovered by the Holy Spirit.

I gave a copy of this book to Dan Reynolds, the wonderful young jazz pianist who is our director of music here at Brentwood.  I am looking forward to hearing his take on Howison’s ideas and continuing to engage in this provocative way of doing theology one conversation after another.

October, 2016

Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2009

Peter Block once consulted with Fortune 50 companies on organizational and leadership effectiveness.  After retiring back to Cincinnati, he began working with community organizations, including churches, to bring the disparate forces in his community together in seeking the common good.  He discovered it’s a challenging task.  But he persisted and, to some degree, succeeded.  This book is about how he did and continues to do that work.

It all happens through conversations that drawn people together around their common interests and good.  Indeed, the task of leadership in our society today, according to Block, is to invite people who don’t normally talk to each other to have conversations about things they don’t normally talk about.  Through these conversations, a shift in perspective takes place in how people view the world and their place in it.  Here are the key shifts:

  • From a place of fear and fault to one of gifts, generosity, and abundance
  • From a bet on law and oversight to one on social fabric and chosen accountability
  • From the corporation and systems as central, to associational life as central
  • From a focus on leaders to a focus on citizens

Over the past decade, Peter Block has worked closely with John McKnight, one of the seminal thinkers in the Community Assets Movement, and with Walter Brueggemann, a provocative Old Testament scholar in the Christian community, in encouraging these shifts in thinking and acting.  The fruits of their collaboration can be found in a recent book they have published, An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).

Finding the steadfast and everlasting source of nourishment for our collective human soul in making these changes is a central focus in the work and witness of Brentwood Presbyterian Church.  We are a community of belonging that grows through our conversations with each other and all those who participate in our many missional activities – worship, learning, fellowship, and service.  You are always welcome to participate with us in making such community stronger.

September, 2016

Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God.  St Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 2003

When people come into the sanctuary at Brentwood, they often comment on the simple beauty and warmth of the place, as well as the welcome that they receive.  We see welcome as a sign of respect for the beauty of the soul that has visited us.  So I was intrigued when a good friend suggested that I would love this book.  And he was right.

Farmer identified herself as a process theologian.  This school of theological reflection draws on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy and its appropriation for Christian understanding by people like John Cobb and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (who wrote the introduction to this book).

The volume is a delightful collection of short meditations on the kind of beauty Adams Farmer finds in the everyday rhythms of her life and how those remind her of the Beauty of God.  Here is a small sampling:

  • The untamed liveliness of a traditional English garden leads to a recognition that God lavishes on the world a good measure of untamed Beauty.
  • Thinking of a mermaid on a rock, both energy and calm comes to mind – the wild adventure of the sea and the stability of the rock.
  • Discovering an uncooked egg unbroken in her purse after three days, she thinks of the fragility and the strength of Beauty in the world.
  • Reading Hemingway, and Rowlings, and Rilke, she finds the liveliness of God unfolding in the words, find Beauty ripening in the magic of their sound and sense.

These reflections arise from what Adams Farmer calls ‘Beauty breaks.’  In the midst of ordinary activities throughout the day, she chooses to focus on the presence and promise of Beauty found there and then.  She is living consciously and constructively in the tension between the ugly and the beautiful, the repulsive and the attractive, the numbing and the wonderful.  That’s life.  But in the mire and the miracles of the everyday, she discovers that we can be agents of the Divine Beauty’s gifts of love, joy, creativity, forgiveness, courage, compassion, enchantment, serenity and faith.

People who participate in the work and witness of Brentwood in any way at all are nourished by such Beauty for their flourishing.

August, 2016

Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church.  Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1978

At Brentwood, we see ourselves as heirs of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, a covenant in which God promised he would work with the human race to bless the whole of the cosmos.  This is a classic study of what that covenant meant in the Bible and means for the church.

First, Westermann argues that the Old Testament’s idea of salvation includes both deliverance and blessing, a balance that has too often been ignored in Biblical and theological analysis within the church.  Church thinkers have focused almost exclusively on deliverance and ignored blessing.  But the balance is particularly evident in the Psalms.  Some focus on the deliverance God’s people received and others focus on the blessings God bestows – both declarative (what God has done) and descriptive (what God has given) praise.

Second, Westermann goes into fascinating detail in analyzing the reality of blessing in our world and God’s role in it.  In essence, God’s blessing embraces the total “soul” of a human being, encompassing everything around them.  That soul gains strength from that blessing and gains access to the power to share it.  Blessing “means having vital power in its deepest, most comprehensive sense.” (19)

Third, Westermann notes that we must let God be God in distributing divine blessing.  God is in no way bound to any particular forms or acts in the religious institutions that shape our discipleship.  God blesses when and where the Holy Trinity chooses, independent of any institution.  As church, then, we are called to pay attention to both the ways God blesses us through the work and witness of the church and the ways in which God works in and through people not (yet) connected with the fellowship of the friends of Jesus that is the church.

At Brentwood, we experience God’s work of blessing outside of the church as we invite musicians and their audiences to share their souls with us at Jazz Evensong and in events that happen in The Sanctuary in Brentwood.  We participate in God’s work of blessing when we disperse from worship to take our faith into our circles of influence on a daily basis.

July, 2016

C.K. Barrett, Paul: An Introduction to His Thought.  London, England: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994.

C.K. Barrett, from 1958 through 1982 professor of divinity at Durham University, takes Paul seriously as a clear and comprehensive thinker about the implications for human life of the work and witness of Jesus, the Christ.  Paul’s theology, the first laid out by a follower and intimate friend of Jesus, has been a continual source of revival and reform within the Christian movement and its institutions down through the centuries.

Barrett opens his account of Paul’s life and thought by calling him “one of the most hated men in the ancient world.”  OK, now he has my attention.  What’s that all about?

It’s about the challenge that Jesus’ movement, and Paul’s articulation of the impact of Jesus’ witness and work, posed.  The Jews of his generation saw him as a traitor.  The Gentiles of his generation were suspicious of his continuing Jewish frame of thinking.  And those within the early church who he challenged and criticized were resistant to his views.  Paul’s theology was born in controversy with people who saw the world differently.  That context finds significant parallels in our own time and place.

Barrett mines the two key sources for our understanding of Paul – The Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters that have survived.  The focus in Paul’s theology is salvation from what is wrong with the cosmos.  God, whose intention to be on good terms with the human race is a constant throughout history, brings about that salvation in and through Jesus, his chosen Christ and Messiah.  It is a complicated process, still in process, but Barrett makes good sense of it.

We are blessed at Brentwood to have a former student of Barrett’s in the congregation.  We are further blessed to have read this enlightening and inspiring summary of Barrett’s lifetime study of Paul.

June, 2016

Gary W. Burnett, The Gospel According to the Blues.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014

The blues and the Gospel are both about a world gone wrong, about injustice, about the human condition, and about hope for a better future.  Burnett, who lectures in New Testament at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, helps us better understand the nature of the good news that Jesus preached and how it provokes us to participate in God’s mission.

Here are three key insights I took from this reading of The Gospel According to the Blues:

  1. Burnett explores the dynamics of “worried blues.” He imagines that they emerge from the deep worries of the oppressed and the marginalized.  Their benefit is that they recognize the pain in its fullness and testify to the hope for something better offered by God in Jesus Christ through the energy of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Burnett encourages us to let God, often through the music itself, to shake us out of the “modern daze” created by the constant pursuit of wealth and self-indulgence that dominates our social ideals in the Western world. The blues remind us too seek God’s ways first and to align ourselves with his saving justice.
  3. At the heart of Burnett’s understanding of the gospel is the revelation that God is fixing God’s world. The blues comes from people who know they need to be healed and restored.  The blues opens us to the possibility for a change and a transformation that leads us to follow Jesus’ way of justice, peace and love.

Here’s the final sentence in the book, encapsulating much of the wisdom Burnett shares in this provocative volume:

If we let them, the blues can help us reach deep into our faith and understand the world, ourselves and the gospel that little bit better. (155)

May, 2016

Diogenes Allen, Theology for a Troubled Believer. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

This is a serious theological read, written by a former professor of philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary. It seeks to answer questions raised in a letter from a lifelong churchgoer who was reconsidering his faith. Allen’s response in this book seeks to make sense of the Christian understanding of God and our life in the universe. There are carefully considered sections on the nature of God, suffering, the divine sacrifices, the new life in God, and responding to God.

What I want to highlight in this brief review is a section in the Preface. Allen summarizes 6 reasons people begin a journey to become Christians:

1. They turn to Christianity to heal lives that have become unworkable, often due to addictions, major illness, a great loss, family breakup, and the like.

2. They are attracted to Christianity by the beauty of its ideals.

3. The portrayal of a God of love, mercy and unconditional forgiveness is appealing to them, offering the possibility of a new and better life.

4. They are aware of a hunger and lack in all that is earthly and find in Christianity a religious faith that satisfies that hunger.

5. They have a unusual, powerful religious experience of the presence of God.

6. They are attracted to Christianity primarily because they are looking for a coherent understanding of their world and their life within it.

Allen’s account of faith seeking understanding keeps all of these reasons in mind.

At Brentwood, we seek to offer a space of grace in which those who are drawn to the grace of Jesus Christ can explore and live their faith in community with the friends of Jesus.

April, 2016

Eugene H Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir.  New York: HarperOne, 2012

While I didn’t know him well, I absorbed much wisdom about being a pastor from Eugene Peterson while he taught at Regent College in Vancouver from 1993 until 1998.  During those years, I was dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian college at the University of British Columbia, and teaching church history at Vancouver School of Theology.  Reading this book brought back wonderful memories of conversations with Peterson about the soul of ministering with a congregation.

Now that I am back in congregational ministry, reading this book both informed and inspired me.

As he recounts his long and winding way into accepting his calling as a pastor, Peterson makes much of the influence of place and time.  He encourages all followers of Jesus to get to know and take seriously the place into which God has inserted them, both for their formation and for their service.  Getting to know your place is a divine calling.  Further, you are in that place at a particular time, pregnant with the possibilities created by the Presence.  You don’t know what’s coming next, so watch for the seeds of God’s Shalom sprouting up in surprising and challenging ways.

Peterson likes small churches where the mysteries of people and the Gospel find the intimacy and space to interact in healing and transforming ways.  It’s about the redemptive encounter with the power of Jesus, the Christ.  It’s about the community that supports as we move forward into the flourishing God has created for us, one frail and fumbling step at a time.  And it’s about the warm welcome that opens us to the possibilities of being God’s friends in Jesus Christ, through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit.

I pray continually that people will find the Jesus Peterson serves so faithfully at Brentwood and that thank God continually that this prayer is answered so often.

March, 2016

Paul J Wadell, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002

There is a passage in the gospel of John in which Jesus says that his disciples are no longer servants of God, but friends of God (Jn 15:15).  The reason for this shift in the quality of relationship is that Jesus has told the disciples everything that he heard from God.  I think is the most important transformation for human beings to grasp in order to follow Jesus into a flourishing future.

Wadell’s exploration of this important theme in Christian theology has enriched by understanding of the attractiveness of this way of framing our relationship with God.

Three things are worth mentioning, hopefully to entice you into reading the whole book.

  1. Accepting the invitation to become a friend of Jesus, the Christ, is a dangerous and risky business. To be faithful to this God in friendship, walking in the ways modeled by Jesus himself, you will find yourself questioning and challenging many attitudes and behaviours that are simply accept as the way we do things in our society.  As opposed to the power of weapons, wealth, status, prestige or wordy arguments, the friends of Jesus lead holy, gracious, joyful and hopeful lives in community with each other and all their neighbours.
  2. Wadell draws astutely on the rich tradition of Christian reflection on friendship, particularly from Augustine, an early church leader, and from Aelred of Rievaulx, an English monk who was abbot of his Cistercian monestary from 1147–1167.
  3. What Wadell sees happening when the church takes up its calling to be friends of Jesus, the Christ, is the work and witness of a community of reverence and hope that blesses the world by its presence. That mission is especially important in a world were acedia (depression bordering on despair) threatens us all.

At Brentwood, you will find a warm welcome into this kind of friendship in Jesus, the Christ.

February, 2016

Richard J Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

As the cover says, by 1998 this modern classic in spirituality had sold over a million copies. Foster has taken the wisdom compiled in this wonderful book and created Renovare, an intrachurch movement committed to the spiritual renewal of the church in all its various expressions. I have often given copies of their spiritual formation bible to friends seeking to understand and appropriate their faith more fully.

This is a book written in community. Foster is an active leader in the Quaker community. He sees his reading in the masters of spiritual formation as a conversation that with that community of wisdom. And he intends this book to be read in and for the communities of the friends of Jesus who witness and work for the Commonwealth of God wherever they gather and serve.

Foster sees the kinds of disciplines he describes as a means of liberation – following Jesus into the true freedom of friends of God. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Together they make up a way of being in the world that offers, by God’s grace and the inner working of the Holy Spirit, blessings for the healing of the creation.

This book is more than worthy of the grateful reception it has received over the past 35 years and will provoke you to a more faithful and fruitful relationship with God in Christ through the work of the Spirit.

January, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.  New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1954

In a culture of fear and division – Nazi Germany in the 1930s – there was a wing of the Christian church that re-assessed what it meant to follow Jesus and decided that it involved being different from and in opposition to the dominant view of what was good and proper. They are known by the telling name of ‘The Confessing Church.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leader in that movement, eventually being executed by the Nazis for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This is a powerful and persuasive reflection on the kind of church that leads to this kind of compassion and courage.

The book was written in 1938 to ponder and capture the essentials of life together in the underground school for pastors that the Confessing Church set up in Finkenwalde. It opens by reminding readers that “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies” and that when those enemies came to get him, all his disciples deserted him. But God acted in and through this ‘failure’ to seal all the promises given in the Jewish law and prophets. Further, he called together a community – the Church – to work with him in bringing this mission of SHALOM (flourishing) to its final fulfillment.

This book is a masterpiece in describing the life of this community – its worship, its learning, its fellowship, and its service.

December, 2015

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2000)

The title is taken from an old Quaker saying, the Christian tradition in which Palmer lives.  It is a book about vocation – not a goal to pursue, but a calling to be heard.  This is the voice of your true self, the one created by God that flourishes when it drops the protective masks and self-serving fictions and acknowledges the God who is “the root system of the very nature of things.”

Those masks and fictions can drive us into dark places.  Palmer is especially qualified to talk about this dynamic.  He has suffered through multiple periods of depression.  As a result, he insists that self-care is not a selfish act, but simply good stewardship of the gifts that God put him on earth to offer to others.  If we are unfaithful to that true self that God gave us, then we do actual harm to ourselves and others.  Palmer uses the story of Rosa Parks sitting down at the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec 1, 1955, to illustrate what it means to find the courage to live out your true dignity in a world is filled with structures and customs that deny it.

If we live from our true self, Palmer believes, we can lead from there.  The kind of leadership that nourishes communities to flourish arises from a clear identity and a generous service with the gifts given to you by God.  If you exercise this vocation with humility and confidence, you are being faithful to your vocation.

Palmer is an eloquent writer.  This little book is a delight to read and re-read.  I try to do so at least once a year.  Part of the delight is the ease and eloquence with which Palmer uses metaphors.  Three weave their way through this volume – the ‘seed’ of the true self, the ‘journey’ to the true self, and the ‘seasons’ of the true self.  Explore these for yourself by reading the book, over and over again.

November, 2015

Thomas Keating, Fruits of Gifts of the Spirit (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2000)

Thomas Keating is a Trappist monk who is one of the architects of the spiritual discipline known as Centering Prayer.  One of his key assumptions, drawn from the Scriptures and from generations of those who engaged in a reflective practice of the Christian faith, is that God is present and dwells in our lives.  If God were not present, active on every level of our being from “the humblest quark to the highest stage of consciousness,” we would not be here either.  He calls this the “Divine Indwelling” and it forms the fundamental theological principle of his process for taking the spiritual journey.  That journey takes us from the immaturity and delusion of meeting our deepest human needs for security, affection, and power in idols to finding them truly and fully met in community with the Holy Trinity.

In that space of grace, God nourishes us in the fruits and gifts of their Spirit.

These fruits are “nine aspects of the mind of Christ” and Paul lists them in Galatians 5:22-23, one of the most eloquent passages in his great letter on Christian freedom.  They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The gifts of the Spirit enable us to move forward on the spiritual journey to our new, true self.  There are seven – reverence, fortitude, piety, counsel, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  Each gift gets its own chapter in this little book.  Keating’s commentaries on them arise from a rich reading of Scripture and of the Christian tradition, as well as a deep devotion to the reality of God within us and among us.

If you are interested in the practical side of the contemplative tradition in prayer, this is a provocative place to start.

October, 2015

Jurgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978.

This is a book written by one of the twentieth-century’s most provocative theologians for and about congregational flourishing.  The opening words set the tone for subsequent 126 pages:

Where Jesus is, there is life.  There is abundant life, vigorous life, loved life, and eternal life.  There is life-before-death.  I find it deeply disturbing and unsettling whenever I think of how we have become accustomed to death: to the death of the soul, to death on the street, to death through violence – to death-before-life. (19)

The life that Moltmann explores, filled with hope, friendship, and freedom, arises from the passion of God.  In that passion, God’s heart is torn by the suffering that his beloved human beings experience, perpetrated by others and by themselves.  This is a God who suffers with us, most clearly and explicitly in Jesus on the cross.  A life of following Jesus steps into his passion for healing life, accepting the stranger, and “making alive the frozen relationships between human beings.” (24)

Christian congregations, for Moltmann, are a “new kind of living together” that affirm the following:

  • that no one is alone in his or her problems
  • that no one has to conceal their disabilities
  • that there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say
  • that neither the old nor the little ones are isolated
  • the one bears the other even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement
  • that, finally, the one can also at times leaves the other in peace when the other needs it.

I have found much of that spirit and practice in the community at Brentwood and trust that I am making my own humble contribution to its enhancement.

September, 2015

Dan Steigerwald, Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard (Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2014)

Dan Seigerwald wants to cultivate hope for the church in the midst of a confusing and conflicted culture. He thinks that Jesus Christ is “re-clothing and freshly empowering the Church” through a reminder that its core identity and calling has to do with the mission of sowing seeds of Shalom in its immediate neighbourhood. The book is an extended commentary on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, especially the encouragement in Jeremiah 29:4-7 to settle down in Babylon and seek the shalom, or peace, or welfare, or wellbeing, or flourishing, of that foreign city controlled by their oppressors.

The core message for the church, in Steigerwald’s read, is that we are called not to give in as captives to our cultures, but to be missionaries of God’s flourishing in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Further, that shalom is to be sown in our own backyard, in the neighbourhoods in which particular churches find themselves or are being planted. Steigerwald has developed a 3-step process for practical shalom-sowing.

1. Immerse and Listen – this has to do with absorbing the aspirations of the neighbourhood and bringing to them the shalom that God offers in Jesus Christ.
2. Connect and Befriend – this has to do with relating to neighbours as friends and partners in the flourishing of the whole community
3. Participate and Enrich – this has to do with aligning with those doing the work of wellbeing in the neighbourhood

As we have listened to our neighbourhood at here at Brentwood, we have discovered that we have gifts, especially a space with great acoustics and a congregation that appreciates music, to connect with musicians in greater Vancouver and to partner with them in enriching the community with their passion and creativity. Steigerwald’s reflections on his experience in Portland, OR, have broadened and deepened our appreciation for those possibilities.

August, 2015

Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1969)

This collection of Scripture passages, reflections, and prayers from Presbyterian preacher and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Frederick Buechner contains one of my favourite lines in all of Christian literature. Summarizing the Christmas stories, Buechner says, “Then, as the Gospels picture it, all heaven broke loose.”

Buechner’s basic assumption in this collection is that we are surrounded by and filled with the darkness of being blind to the way God’s power broke into human history that first Christmas. But, even in the depths of all the darknesses that engulf modern life, there is a God-sown hunger for the light, for God’s grace, for the redemption of the world that came with enlightening power in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His final prayer in the book sums up the message of the reflections perfectly:

Lord Jesus Christ, help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and to hunger in the dark for the light of you. Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing that God has wrought in this world was ever possible. Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not even the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death. Amen.

July, 2015

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1979)

Karl Barth is one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. That is particularly true for Canadian Presbyterians. The core emphases of his interpretation of the Christian faith – the free and freeing activity of the God of the Gospel that precedes and provokes any response from human beings – show up over and over again in the activities and thinking of our denomination. Of greatest importance is Barth’s insistence that the church continually examine afresh the Scriptural witness to the living work and word of God in Jesus Christ. In doing so, the Christian community is continually reformulating its faith under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the loving will of God for its time and place. Just how that might be done faithfully is the focus of this book, based on lectures Barth gave in the United States in the early 1960s.

Theology, for Barth, is a ‘modest, free, critical, and happy science.’ It is guided by the love of its object, the God of the Gospel, who, in the paradoxical reality of the Christian faith, is also its subject. This summary of Barth’s take on Christianity is a challenging, but deeply satisfying, read.

There are a group of us who are going to read through this book together this fall and early spring on Wednesday nights from 5:30 – 7:30PM at the church. We will be looking to be provoked on how to improve our missional practice in our communities. You are most welcome to join us. Here’s a link to the schedule.

June, 2015

Anne Lamott, Thanks, Help, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York, NY: Riverhead, 2012)

Anne Lamott has lived and recorded a life that would drive most people to prayer. She is a recovering alcoholic, a single mother and grandmother, an outspoken social activist, a raw and racy writer and speaker, and a devout Christian (a faith that is nourished to flourish in a small multicultural Presbyterian congregation in Marin City, CA).

Her prayer life and advice reflects that breadth of those interests and that depth of her experiences of grace. She begins with gratitude – thanks for the presence and power of the God of the Gospel in the midst of pain, confusion, sorrow, and depression. Prayers for help are always tempered by the essence of Jesus’ prayers – ‘Your will, not mine.’ And there is always a sense of awe at the surprising and sensational manifestations of God’s love in the world, at times and in ways least expected, but always most needed.

Though not in the title, Lamott ends with a chapter on ‘Amen’ – the ‘Truly’ part of entrusting your life to the God of the Gospel.

This book is a delightful, bracing, and blessed read.

May, 2015

Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005).

Huston Smith is one of most respected scholars of world religions of the twentieth century. In this book, he presents a passionate and urgent case for considering the great truths of Christianity, his own religious tradition (he was born of Methodist missionaries in China in 1919). His focus is on the ideas that give rise to authentic Christianity. He thinks the modern secular worldview is built on a ‘fatal mistake’ – “equating absence-of-evidence with evidence-of-absence”. This way of dismissing the positive influences of authentic religion produced a level of pride and arrogance about human capabilities that is threatening the future of the planet.. Smith finds in the authenticity of the great Christian tradition the sources of peace, justice, and beauty that hold out the promise of saving the world. This is a clear and concise summary of the Christian worldview that I would recommend to anyone curious about the faith or wanting to refresh their understanding of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *