Come and enjoy the music

I’m playing a solo gig tonight in Beaumont at Marybeth’s Coffee House(Suite 103, 5001-30th Avenue in Beaumont) from 7.30 – 9.30 p.m. Marybeth’s is a great venue with wonderful staff and atmosphere. No cover charge; donations accepted. I’ll be including some Christmas music in my setlist and will have some of my Christmas CDs for sale.
Hope to see some of you there!

The Suffering King (Luke 23:33-42)

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie The American President, with Michael Douglas and Anette Bening. In one scene from the movie – a scene that seems almost prophetic now – Douglas’ character, President Andy Shepherd, has to respond to a terrorist attack on American troops by retaliating against a Libyan command building. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this action, and one of his aides reassures him that this will be very good for him because he’ll be seen to be ‘acting presidentially’. Shepherd then comments on the tragedy of the fact that ordering a strike that will kill innocent janitors and deprive their families of husbands and fathers is seen as ‘acting presidentially’.

The question behind our Gospel for today is not about ‘acting like a president’ but ‘acting like a king’. How does a King act? In this Gospel reading Jesus is referred to four times in kingly language – and we need to remember that the words ‘King’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ all mean essentially the same thing. Three of these references have a question mark beside them; the speaker is questioning whether Jesus is in fact a king after all. In verse 35 the leaders scoff and say “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one”. In verse 37 the Roman soldiers mock Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. And in verse 39 one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. But in the fourth reference to Jesus as King the penitent criminal expresses his faith in Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when (not if) you come into your kingdom” (v.42).

How can a man hanging on a cross be God’s Messiah, the chosen king of God’s people Israel? After all, the model for the Messiah was David, the great warrior king who defeated the Philistines and established Israel as a great power. During the reign of David Israel finally got some respect from her neighbours! David was ruthless toward his enemies; we’re told that on one occasion he lined up the Moabite men and put to death every third one of them, just to put the fear of Israel into them. On the ‘David’ model, the victories of the King are signs that God is with him, but only a false Messiah would be executed!

But there was another voice in the scriptures of Israel, and the leaders allude to it in today’s reading when they speak about ‘the Messiah of God, his chosen one’. This is a reference to Isaiah chapter 42: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’. This is the first of four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in Isaiah in which we read about a mysterious figure who not only acts as God’s messenger to the nations but also willingly goes through suffering and offers his life on their behalf. In chapter 50 the Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’. And in a famous verse from chapter 53 Isaiah says of the Servant ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’.

This is the model that Jesus accepted for his ministry. He is a King who willingly goes through suffering, rather than inflicting it on God’s enemies, and he gives his life on behalf of his people. This has major implications for followers of Jesus. Not only does the King suffer for us; he also offers us a pattern of faithfulness in suffering.

Read the rest here.

The Anglican Way of Following Jesus #2: Baptismal Promises

Of all the changes that have been made in our Anglican worship in the last three or four decades, the one I like the best is the bringing of baptism into the centre of the Sunday worshipping life of the congregation.

When I was growing up in the Church of England I rarely saw a baptism. Baptisms (or ‘Christenings’, as they were usually called) were usually done at a separate service in the middle of Sunday afternoon, and very few regular churchgoers attended. Most of the families bringing children for baptism were not regular churchgoers and had no intention of becoming such; they mouthed promises about bringing their children to church regularly even though everyone knew they had no intention of keeping them, water was splashed on their babies’ heads, and that was the last we saw of them until the next time they had a child to be ‘done’ (or perhaps until Christmas or Easter).

Not any more. Nowadays, in most Anglican churches in Canada, baptisms are performed at the main service on Sunday – often on Sundays of the year when the theme is particularly appropriate for baptism, such as the Baptism of the Lord, or Easter, or Pentecost, or All Saints’ Day. This means that the baptismal families get to interact with the regular worshipping congregation. Also, ‘drive-by baptisms’ are becoming less and less common; nowadays, perhaps the majority of those who bring children for baptism are fully intending to become part of the worshipping community (if they aren’t already part of it), and adult baptisms are more and more common, too.

All of that is good, but that’s not my favourite part. My favourite part is that the members of the whole congregation get reminded of their own baptism by participating in the service on a regular basis. And there are two sides to this.

First we get reminded of the grace of God and the miracle of new birth. Baptism is all about grace. Baptism reminds us that as Jesus heard the voice of God saying ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight’ (Mark 1:11 REB), so God in his love adopts each of us into his family, long before we have done anything to deserve this honour, and God looks on us with delight as his beloved sons and daughters. And as the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, so the Spirit also brings us to new birth in the family of God and takes up residence in each of us, marking us as God’s own and giving us the power to live as the sons and daughters of God.

Thus baptism reminds us of all that God has done for us, and as we participate regularly in baptism services we have the opportunity to reflect on God’s love and respond with thankfulness and joy.

The other side of the story, though, is that in baptism we take obligations on ourselves – or, in the case of those of us who were baptized as infants, our parents take obligations for us, which we accept for ourselves at our confirmation. Baptism, in fact, is the beginning of a life of discipleship, as Jesus points out in Matthew 28:19-20:

‘Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (REB).

The baptized person has become a disciple of Jesus, and as a disciple is committed to a life of learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in their daily life.

We remind ourselves of this commitment at every B.A.S. baptism service in the Anglican Church of Canada, when we are invited to ‘join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own baptismal covenant’. The covenant as set out in the B.A.S. has two parts, which might be headed ‘What Christians believe’ and ‘What Christian do’. The first part simply sets out the Apostles’ Creed in question and answer format, thus:

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the  Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in God the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

The second part contains five promises which seem to me to represent the heart of what we Christians commit ourselves to when we become followers of Jesus:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.

At least three times a year, our congregation gets to hear again the good news of God’s love proclaimed in baptism. At least three times a year, we get to renew the promises that represent our joyful response to this Gospel. And in our church, as in many other Anglican churches I know, it is the custom that after the baptism the water remains in the font (which  has been brought to the front for the service), so that later on, as people are making their way forward for communion, they can use the water of baptism to sign themselves with the Cross in token that they too are baptized followers of Jesus and that they want to recommit themselves to their discipleship.

Baptism speaks to us of God’s grace and of our adoption into God’s family. Baptism is the beginning of a life of following Jesus and learning to put his teaching and example into practice. Regular participation in baptismal services keeps these things on our minds. That’s one of the things I love about the Anglican way of following Jesus.

Some great words from the new Bishop of Chelmsford

It was in the Diocese of Chelmsford that I gave my life to Christ, and I had some pretty formative experiences of God’s presence at St. Peter’s Chapel, which appears in the first part of this little video. Essex is still the part of England that feels most like home to me, despite the fact that I was born in the Midlands.

I was delighted when I heard that Stephen Cottrell had been appointed as the new Bishop of my home diocese of Chelmsford, and I warmed to his words in this video about the gospel and our call to share it.

(h/t to Sam at Elizaphanian).


The Anglican Way of Following Jesus #1: The Centrality of the Gospels

I’m not a great fan of liturgical processions (and we’ve done our best to cut them down to a bare minimum at St. Margaret’s), but they do share one interesting and instructive characteristic with formal state processions: the principle that the most prestigious position is at the back of the line. The highest-ranking dignitary – in the case of a liturgical procession, the highest-ranking bishop present – comes last, and all who come before serve to prepare the way for him or her

That being the case, there’s surely an intentional dignity about the place of the reading of the Gospels in Anglican Sunday morning worship. We read huge chunks of Holy Scripture on a regular basis in the Anglican tradition: every Sunday morning (if the whole lectionary provision is used) a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm or portion of a psalm, a reading from the New Testament, and finally, at the end, in the place of highest dignity, a reading from the Gospels. This is intentional: the story of Jesus is the main event, and all that is read before it serves to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.

We underline the special place of the Gospel reading in various ways. We sit to listen to the other Scripture readings, but when the Gospel is announced, we stand out of respect for Jesus and his life and teaching. In some Anglican churches, the gospel reader moves down from the front of the church to the centre – a symbol of God coming among us in Jesus in the Incarnation – and everyone in the church turns to face the Gospel book.

None of this is intended to disparage other parts of the Bible (not that this disparagement is not present in some segments of contemporary Anglicanism, but it is not supported by the mainstream tradition); rather, it is to see them in the classical Christian manner as pointing to Jesus. In the words of the anonymous New Testament letter to the Hebrews:

‘When in times past God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in many and various ways through the prophets. But in this the final age he has spoken to us in his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things; and through him he created the universe. He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins,  he took his seat at the right hand of God’s majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs’ (Hebrews 1:1-4 REB).

Somewhere in one of his books Philip Yancey calls the letters of Paul ‘the dirty part of the Bible’, meaning that in evangelical churches they tend to be the most-read portion of scripture and therefore have the most dirt on the edges of their pages. This is a natural development to the Reformation rediscovery of Paul and his doctrine of justification by faith, which became the central emphasis of some of the Reformation churches.

To us in the Anglican churches, however, the Gospels are ‘the dirty part of the Bible’, because the life and teaching of Jesus are the central part of our faith. And this is one of the things I love about our tradition. I haven’t done any sort of scientific survey, but I would bet real money that the sermon in the average Anglican church is far more likely to start from the Gospel than from any of the other readings. And if to be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and to follow him as a disciple, then surely this is as it should be.

Not that we’ve always lived consistently with this emphasis on the Jesus of the Gospels, of course. In fact, an outside observer would probably be struck by the disconnect between the huge amount of money and energy spent on church architecture, ornate robes and elaborate liturgy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the teachings of the one they are all supposed to be honouring. Like all Christians, we could do a much better job of actually living out the teachings of the one we call our Lord and Master. Nevertheless, our liturgical practice calls us each week to remember that this story – the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus – is the central story of our salvation, and that our discipleship consists in living into this story, in putting this teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. And for that, I am grateful and glad to be a practitioner of the Anglican way of following Jesus.

The Anglican Way of Following Jesus

Joe (he of Felix Hominum) and I bumped into each other at Second Cup the other night (I was playing music and he was hovering anonymously in the background conquering the Internet on his trusty MacBook Pro). We chatted a bit at one point during the evening and our thoughts turned to the Anglican blogosphere. We agreed that we were both heartily sick of hearing about the Anglican covenant (from both its supporters and its detractors), and felt that if anyone asked the question ‘What is the Anglican way of following Jesus and why should I consider it?’ they’d be hard-pressed to find an answer right now, as we’re so busy fighting about gays and border-crossings. Joe commented, ‘How long is it since you read an Anglican blog post about how the discipline of Morning and Evening Prayer has helped shape a person’s prayer life? Or how excited they are about how the Anglican way balances the importance of Word and Sacrament?’

Well, Joe got me thinking (as he often does), and so I’m going to have a go at writing a series of posts about why I like following Jesus as an Anglican. This will surprise a few people (and I know a couple who will be laughing), as I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the church of my birth over the years, and recently (as many know) have been strongly influenced by Anabaptism. But I remain an Anglican, because there would be so many things I would miss if I were to leave.

But this series of posts isn’t going to be about ‘Why I like being an Anglican’ but ‘Why I like the Anglican way of following Jesus’. I won’t be writing anything about the glories of cathedral evensong or the intricacies of what C.S. Lewis called ‘the liturgical fidget’, because I have difficulty relating either of them to the Christian way of discipleship that we see in the New Testament.

Off the top of my head, some ideas for posts include the two Joe mentioned (the balance of Word and Sacrament, and the daily office as a help for regular prayer), and also the following:

  • Praying together
  • Sin, grace, and effort (‘thou knowest we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…’).
  • The centrality of the Gospels
  • A rule of life
  • Sin is not just between me and God
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Body and soul
  • Making promises
  • Creeds, confessions of faith, and praying what we believe
  • Idealism and realism

…and a few others!

So – watch this space!


(P.S. I might mention a few of the weaknesses, too, such as the whole Church and State thing, and the yawning gap between our theology of bishops and what we actually let them do…).

Writers who influenced me

Sally Coleman has tagged me on Facebook in one of those meme things – in this case, listing fifteen authors who have influenced you.  As it happens I don’t do memes – there are so many of them floating around on the Internet that once I started it could very easily turn into a full time job, and I already have one of those, plus a family and a very enjoyable other life as a folk musician too! However, Sally’s post got me thinking about writers who have influenced me. I’m not sure I’ll come up with fifteen, but I’ll mention a few, and say a bit about how they’ve influenced me, too – which is always more interesting to me than a list.

My initial difficulty is to know what’s meant by ‘influence’. There are many authors I enjoy – J.R.R. Tolkien, John Grisham, George Eliot, Dante, Homer, Rudy Wiebe, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom – but I’m not sure if they’ve influenced me. Perhaps I’m not the best person to judge; maybe it would be more honest to ask others – people who know the authors I read and who know me – to tell me if they see the marks of a particular author’s writing in my life.

Still, here we go.

Dennis Bennett influenced me to become a committed Christian. When I was thirteen my Dad lent me Dennis’ book Nine O’Clock in the Morning; it was the first Christian book I read all the way through, and when I finished it I was hungry to know more. Dennis was one of the first Anglicans to ‘come out of the closet’ about speaking in tongues and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Before I read his book my default image of God was rather remote, but Dennis introduced me to a God who did real things in the real lives of real people. Today I would probably not go along with much of what he taught, but he definitely influenced my early years.

I know that C.S. Lewis influenced me, because a friend told me so. In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. I went on to read pretty well everything Lewis had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Adrian Plass had a huge influence on me; he helped me believe that God might actually like me. Of course I always believed (in theory) that God loved me, but in 1987 along came Adrian’s hilarious book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4, in which I discovered the life-changing phrase ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It took a few years for that phrase to work its way down from my head into my heart, but when it got there, it helped set me free.

Philip Yancey influenced me not to be afraid of difficult questions and not to be afraid to admit that I didn’t have all the answers. I first ran across him in the early 1980s when I was a subscriber to ‘Christianity Today’, in which he wrote a regular column; I then read his early books Where is God When it Hurts? and Disappointment with God. His writings about grace and discipleship (especially The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing about Grace?) had a pretty formative effect on my worldview. In one of his books he talks about certain authors being, in a sense, his ‘pastors’; I know just what he means, and would include him in that category in my own life.

Grace and discipleship also figured highly in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Tolstoy in his high ideals of what Christianity was all about, Dostoevsky because of his strong sense of human failure and God’s forgiveness. Their big stories – The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, and especially Anna Karenina – were hugely influential to me and remain some of my all-time favourite books.

Jane Austen influenced me because, as well as being such a fine and entertaining writer, she is (as C.S. Lewis once observed) ‘a sound moralist’. She has a common-sense, down to earth attitude toward duty and the good life; she understands sentiment but she is not in the least sentimental, and she’s merciless toward spoiled, self-indulgent, self-pitying types. I particularly like Sense and Sensibility, where I resonate far more with the sense than the sensibility!

Speaking of literature, I hated Shakespeare in school but loved him once I started watching him on stage, and now never a summer passes in our house that we don’t go to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton. I love Shakespeare’s characters, so human and so up front about it, and I love his use of the English language and his love of invention (how many words and figures of speech did he coin?).

Thomas Cranmer has had a huge influence on my devotional life and my approach to theology. Funnily enough I didn’t grow up on The Book of Common Prayer (my Dad was an early promoter of modern liturgies), but in later years I grew to appreciate it, with its balanced approach (Word/Sacrament, Catholic/Protestant, Grace/Faith) and elegant language. I like Cranmer’s books on the Eucharist, too; even today, his theology of Holy Communion still makes more sense to me than anyone else’s, ancient or modern.

The two writers who have influenced my pastoral style the most are definitely Eugene Peterson and David Hansen. Peterson’s books on pastoral work (especially The Unnecessary Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant) have helped me focus on the big issues in pastoral ministry and given me a healthy skepticism about fads. He emphasises prayer, Scripture, relationships – and also patience; Peterson has not given up on the institutional church although he is well aware of its flawed nature. I don’t care for his translation of the Bible, though – The Message – I find it far too interpretive, to the point that at times I can’t really see how it’s related to the original text at all!

David Hansen’s The Art of Pastoring is without doubt the best book about pastoral ministry I have ever read, but once again it’s not rocket science – it’s about prayer, holiness, love, and all those other difficult things that we like to escape from into the latest gimmick.

Two authors made me a much better preacher – John Stott and Donald Coggan. I read Stott’s I Believe in Preaching in the 1980s and it definitely changed my practice and made me much more disciplined in my biblical exegesis and sermon preparation. Not long afterwards I read Coggan’s little 1958 book Stewards of Grace, which I still say is the best book on preaching I’ve ever read (and only about 120 pages too!). Among many other things, Coggan prompted me to start writing my sermons out in full (for clarity of thought) and then reducing them to short notes which I place in my preaching Bible for the actual delivery of the sermon.

N.T. Wright definitely changed the way I read the Bible and especially the gospels (particularly in The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God), but I think he didn’t start the process. The one who got the whole process started for me was A.E. Harvey and his book Jesus and the Constraints of History, which was where I first encountered the idea that in the religious culture of his day there were certain categories that were available to Jesus in his self-understanding, and we ought to see him in the light of those categories before turning to ones imported by later theologies.

John Howard Yoder has been a huge influence on me; he has helped form the whole Anabaptist side of my Christian life (especially in The Politics of Jesus and The Royal Priesthood). The revolutionary idea that we are actually supposed to do the things Jesus said (including loving our enemies, which means not killing them) is of course never far from the surface in Yoder’s writings; also other ideas, such as the first responsibility of the Church being, not to manage the world, but to truly be the Church (the city on the hill, a distinct community with its own characteristic lifestyle shaped by the teaching of Jesus), and the idea that Christian ethics are meant to be ethics for Christians, not a lowest-common-denominator system that you can reasonably expect of the nominal and the unbeliever. Through Yoder, the 16th century Anabaptists have entered my life (I think his teaching is really a 20th century application of the thought of Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck).

My approach to writing has definitely been influenced by Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing. Funnily enough, I don’t actually care for a lot of what King has written (I’m not a big fan of the horror genre) although I did enjoy The Stand and The Green Mile. But I liked his common sense approach to writing (things like ‘second draft equals first draft minus ten percent’, or the insight that if you think you’re a writer and you’re constantly saying that you just can’t describe or explain something, you might just be in the wrong job!).

I’m a lover of history and have particularly enjoyed Alison Weir’s fine books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty. Robert Massie’s Dreadnought shaped my understanding of the period 1870-1914 more than any other book. I’ve enjoyed Thomas Cahill’s books (especially The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages). The historical novel is probably my favourite form of fiction and in that regard I especially enjoy Patrick O’Brien, Mary Renault, Ellis Peters, C.J. Sansom, and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance have had a huge influence on me).

Finally, I haven’t been influenced by a lot of poets (except possibly Robert Frost and Wendell Berry) but I have been deeply influenced by the vast body of work produced by that incredibly prolific songwriter, ‘Anonymous’! His (or her) songs have been the mainstay of my music for the past few years and have definitely shaped my own songwriting and performing in more ways than I can fathom.

Okay – I think I’d better stop there!

Remembrance Day Prayer Service and Prayer Walk for Peace:

On November 11, 2010 at 7:00 p.m., members of some local churches will gather at City Hall in downtown Edmonton for a public prayer walk for peace. Participants will carry candles as they proceed from City Hall to the Gandhi statue at the Stanley A. Milner Library. From the library, the participants will go to Canada Place ending up at the War Memorial on Jasper Avenue.

There are many Christians for whom Remembrance Day is a clear reminder that God calls us to be peacemakers. “This event is not a demonstration,” states Organizer Scott Key. “Rather, it is an opportunity for people of faith to proclaim peacemaking as an alternative to war and violence.”

This is the second annual prayer walk for peace. Prior to the walk, people are welcome to join together for a Prayer Service at McDougall United Church (10025 – 101 street) at 6:00 p.m. This interdenominational service will focus on remembrance, reflection and prayer for all victims of war.

The prayer walk begins at 7:00 p.m. and will last approximately one hour. At each location, a local faith community will lead participants in a time of remembrance, reflection and prayer for peace in our world.

“This is a great opportunity to come together with other people of faith to promote nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution,” explains Key.

The prayer service and prayer walk are sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee – Alberta and organized by Holyrood Mennonite Church along with Edmonton Quakers, First Mennonite Church and Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church.

All are welcome to the Prayer Service and the Prayer Walk for Peace.