Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Best Books of 2017 -- the Cornwall List

I read a lot of books in the past year. Most of the books I read during the year are sent to me by publishers to be reviewed on this blog or elsewhere. All the books in the list below were published in 2017, and except for a few, were read in 2017. Most of the books on the list below were provided by the publisher, and to them I offer my thanks. I have been offering a Best Book List for several years. I started out with top ten lists, along with a Book of the Year Selection. In recent years I’ve found it difficult to limit the list to ten books, so you will find seventeen books. Two of them are named Best Book of 2017. The remaining fifteen are divided into four rather loose categories.  All seventeen books are excellent and worthy of reading. Links to reviews are provided (click on the title).

My Best Book of 2017 nod goes to:
Carol Howard Merritt, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church, Harper One
Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Thanks goes to all seventeen authors! What great contributions to the faith conversation. Consider each of the books listed below, and add them all to your "to read" list if you haven't already.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Divine Change of Mind - A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (Jonah 3)

Jonah Preaching at Nineveh - John Martin

Jonah 3:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

                Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He wanted to have nothing to do with Nineveh. As far as he was concerned, it was an evil empire that deserved whatever came its way. When God called him to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s judgment, he ran away. In fact, he got on the first boat out of town, and headed in the opposite direction. You can run, but can’t hide, and God had other ideas. It seems that those other ideas included having Jonah spend some time in the belly of a fish. With no other choice, Jonah gave in and headed off to Nineveh, where he went around preaching gloom and doom to the people who lived in this city he detested.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Promised Land -- Not Yet - A Reflection for Martin Luther King Day

Today we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. While Dr. King has almost universal approbation, fifty years after his assassination in 1968, we have yet to live into to his dream. We may give lip service to it, but we have not yet come to the point where we recognize each other's full humanity. There is a Promised Land that Dr. King believed lay out in front of him (and us), but we haven't yet crossed the river. 

In the message he delivered, on the night before his death, in Memphis, as he prepared to lead a march in support of sanitation workers in Memphis, he spoke of the land of promise. He told that gathering that he had seen this land, but he wouldn't get there with them. He seemed to know that his life would be cut short, perhaps not as soon as it occurred, but he knew the day was coming when he would die. At the same time, he had confidence that a day was coming when the nation would cross the river into a new reality.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Body and Spirit - A sermon for Epiphany 2B (1 Corinthians 6)

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

I find Paul’s Corinthian letters to be intriguing. There is so much going on in these letters. They address real life issues and concerns. So, when I was in seminary, I took two classes that focused on all or part of 1 Corinthians. In fact, a friend and I drove across LA from Pasadena to Westwood in my less than reliable Ford Maverick to study 1 Corinthians with Scott Bartchy. Going to class wasn’t a problem, but coming home around five o’clock on the 405 Freeway was an adventure. But it was worth the effort! When I sat down to plan my sermons for the season of Epiphany, and noticed that the epistle readings in the lectionary came from the Corinthian letters, I got excited. 

Paul wrote these letters to a congregation filled with new converts who came out of a very different cultural context than he did. So, when they heard Paul’s message of grace and freedom, they interpreted it in light of their former lives, and what they heard was an invitation to live with reckless abandon. They heard Paul saying that no rules applied. That’s not what he intended, and so he had to address the situation brewing in that community. One of the issues that emerged had to do with a topic that is rarely discussed in church, and that is sex. So, when I sat down to read the text again on Monday, I asked myself—why did I choose to preach on this passage? This can only get me in trouble. But here we are, with a word from Paul addressing a forbidden subject.    

Friday, January 12, 2018

Disciples Leader Speaks to President's Words

If the reports are true, and I believe they are, the President spoke offensive and derogatory words about persons from the Caribbean and African nations who have come to our nation. The words are ripe with racism. Rather than writing my own reflection, I have decided to share the message published by the Rev. Dr. Teresa Hord Owens, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Unfortunately, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, we must continue to address the racism and nativism in our midst. 


As a follower of Jesus Christ, as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I must speak to repudiate the comments from the President of the United States on Jan. 11, 2018. As Christians, we believe that all humans are made in the image of God and therefore worth of dignity and respect. We are called to love, and Jesus tells us that we will be known as his disciples if we have love for one another. (John 13:35).

There are certain roads that love cannot take. Love cannot take the road of discrimination; love cannot take the road of hate; love cannot take the road of oppression; love cannot take the road of racism; love cannot take the road of gender bias; love cannot take the road of homophobia. There is no justification for these hateful and racist comments. None. As the nation prepares to honor the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I remind all  those who claimed to be followers of Christ of Dr. King’s admonition to speak up against injustice, to work for human dignity, for peace, and for equal justice for all. Dr.  King was most disappointed that those who called themselves Christians were telling him to wait until a more judicious time for action.
Today it is clear that we still cannot wait. I call upon those who believe in the dignity of all persons to not only speak, but work together to rid our nation of systemic injustice, to register to vote, and hold those who are not in solidarity with basic human dignity and justice to account. Acts of charity and songs of unity will not be enough to dismantle the structural injustice that exists in our society.  We cannot allow such hatred to stand unchallenged, and we cannot be silent or inactive in the face of words and actions that violate the Christian mandate to love all whom God has created.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Still Christian (David Gushee) -- A Review

STILL CHRISTIAN: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism. By David P. Gushee. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvi + 151 pages.

I am four years older than David Gushee, which means I've traveled similar terrain, even if we grew up in opposite sides of the country and in different denominational traditions. He was raised Catholic. I was raised Episcopalian. He left the Catholics for the Southern Baptists. I left the Episcopalians for Pentecostalism. We both felt the call to ministry and academia. He went to a large Southern Baptist Seminary and then a very liberal seminary for doctoral work. I went to a very large multi-denominational evangelical seminary, earning both my masters and doctorate at the same institution. Unlike David, I have spent most of my life as a pastor, and likely because I took up an area of academic interest (historical theology) that was less controversial, I never found myself in the public eye in quite the same way as was true for him. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Tales of the Religious and the Secular - Sightings (Martin Marty)

It is a new year, and Martin Marty is out and about sighting things religious and secular. In his opening salvo for the year, he takes note of those who seek to find some sense of meaning in the region between secularist partisans on one side who see anything religious being foolishness, and those on the other end of the spectrum who allow nothing that is not "sacred." He takes note of several expressions of religious sensibility living within the broader culture, bearing witness to the transcendent. I invite you to take a read and consider what it means to live in this middle space. I want to commend the Martin Marty Center and the University of Chicago Divinity School for making these columns available --- and allow we bloggers to repost!  

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Tales of the Religious and the Secular
By MARTIN E. MARTY   January 8, 2018
Photo Credit: Fr James Bradley/Flickr (cc)
Setting our sights for another year of Sightings poses our colleagues, counselors, staff, and many presumed readers-to-be at the juncture of realities code-named “religious” and “secular.” We have learned and will continue to learn how difficult it is to disentangle what realities those names signify. We live in a culture conveniently and half-helpfully described as “pluralist,” a term not designed to be satisfying. Can it do justice to either the religious or the secular? Freedom-from-religion advocates have it easy, because they can reduce most signs of transcendence to superstition and folly. The hyper-religious also have it easy, because they can inflate everything to realms they describe as “sacred.” But many kinds of serious people see these two poles as superficial and unsatisfying. They find help from many sources, among them the arts, including poetry, and in academic ventures.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

God Speaks—Is Anyone Listening? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2B (1 Samuel 3)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
                If God were to speak to you, would recognize God’s voice? In other words, would you be listening close enough to hear a voice that you might connect with God? Should we even expect God to speak anew? In some parts of the Christian community it is believed that God finished communicating with humanity, at least verbally, once the New Testament came into being. As we consider the question of whether we should expect to hear from God, we have before us this word from 1 Samuel 3, the first verse of which reads: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Why was that? And, is our day any different?

Monday, January 08, 2018

Death, Immortality, and Resurrection (Edward Vick) -- A Review.

DEATH, IMMORTALITY,AND RESURRECTION. By Edward W. H. Vick. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2017. X + 130 pages.

                There is something about the human spirit that hopes for something more than this life. Several books have been published recently that report experiencing what they consider death, and then returning to life. These testimonies are touted as support for the belief in the afterlife, but I think most of us have developed beliefs rooted elsewhere, most likely in the teachings of one’s faith community. Most religions have taught some form of life after death. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam tend to embrace resurrection, while Buddhism, Hinduism, and other eastern forms of religion embrace reincarnation. One question that rises perennially across the religious/philosophical spectrum is whether there is an immortal soul, one that is separate from the body and can break free of the body. While belief in an immortal soul has often been promulgated among Christians, there is some question as to its compatibility with the doctrine of resurrection.  

Among those who have explored these questions, and has raised questions about the compatibility issue is Edward Vick, who has taught religion and philosophy for many years, mostly in Seventh Day Adventist contexts, and holds the Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. The book’s title covers significant ground, lifting up death, immortality, and resurrection, matters of ultimate concern for many, especially Christians. Standing at the core of the book is the question of the relationship between belief in an immortal soul and resurrection. The question is, might one continue to exist without a body, or is body and soul intrinsically related? More to the point, if the soul continues to exist postmortem, without any involvement of God, how can God be responsible for resurrection as Christianity has traditionally taught? That is, should we not consider whatever form of immortality that comes our way to be a concern of God?  In the eyes of Edward Vick, resurrection is an act of God, and therefore, immortality is not innate to human existence, but is a gift to us from God.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Baptized in the Spirit - A Sermon for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Epiphany 1B)

Acts 19:1-7

Yesterday was the Day of Epiphany, which marked the end of the Christmas season for both east and west. Yesterday was the appropriate day to sing “We Three Kings” to remember the visit of the magi to the home of the Holy Family. Yes, if we still had our creche scene out, yesterday would have been the appropriate day to add the “three wise men.” Of course, if we follow scripture the Holy Family would have taken residence in a house, and the shepherds and the sheep would have gone back to their fields.  

That was yesterday. Today we gather on the First Sunday after Epiphany, which is a season of light and revelation. On this day we remember the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist, who declared that while he baptized with water, someone would come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:4-11). It’s appropriate on this first Sunday after Epiphany, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, to remember our own baptisms, and recommit ourselves to being disciples of Jesus. 

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Day of Epiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas conclude today with the coming of the magi to the little town of Bethlehem. On this day, with the magi, we come to bear homage to Jesus, the one in whom God's light shines upon us, revealing to us the fullness of God's love and presence. On this day, I simply invite you to attend to the reading of this story from Matthew. Yes, in the verses that follow the holy family will flee to Egypt and Herod's soldiers will slaughter the innocents, but can we for a moment simply join with the magi and be overwhelmed with joy as the star leads us to the presence of the holy one?


Matthew 2:1-12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Picture attribution: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 6, 2018]. Original source:

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Stranger God (Richard Beck) -- A Review

STRANGER GOD: Meeting Jesus in Disguise. By Richard Beck. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. 245 pages (Kindle Edition).

An ancient belief suggests that when one entertains strangers one might be entertaining angels (gods) unaware. One of the best expressions of this is found in Genesis 18, where Abraham entertains three strangers, who are identified as "the LORD." These same three strangers visit Sodom, and are while they are welcomed by Abraham's nephew Lot, the community at large chooses not to welcome them, but instead seeks to assault them. This leads to the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, who become symbols of xenophobia and the absence of hospitality. In the New Testament there is no better example of this vision of welcoming the other than in Jesus’ description of the day of judgment, when the king will judge between sheep and goats based on their having served the king in the form of the naked, the imprisoned, the hungry—that is, the stranger (Matthew 25).

In an age where fear of the other has taken hold, when the immigrant and the refugee becomes the new leper, it is time to hear a different word, a word that speaks to the hearts and minds of Christians who claim to be disciples of Jesus, but who struggle to welcome the strangers, and therefore fail to welcome Jesus in disguise. Such a word for our times is found in Richard Beck’s most recent book titled Stranger God. Generally, the reviews I post on this blog are of books that have been sent to me by publishers for reviewing. For some reason, I couldn’t obtain a review copy of Stranger God, so I used some Christmas money to download the Kindle version of the book, because I find Beck’s books to speak powerfully to my life. I am publishing this blog review, because this is the kind of book that I believe needs to be read widely by all who claim to follow Jesus.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Better (Melvin Bray) -- A Review

BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be. By Melvin Bray. Foreword by Brittney Cooper. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. Xiv + 169 pages.

Christians—and people of faith in general—live by our stories. For Christians and Jews, these include the biblical story. We also have other stories that describe and define our identities. Some of these stories are good and some are not. Some empower, and others disempower. The way we tell and retell the stories have implications for our lives and for our world. Melvin Bray invites us to tell “better” stories. He invites us to deconstruct many of our stories, taking them apart, but not leaving them in that state. Moving beyond deconstruction, he invites us to reconstruct our stories so that our lives and the world itself might be transformed.

Melvin Bray is an African American man who grew up in a very conservative church. You might call it fundamentalist. Although this congregation was ethnically diverse, its theology was narrow and confining. Bray would break free of that theology, because the way it told the Christian story was not constructive. As to who he is, Bray is married, has children, served in para-church organizations including Young Life, and has spent time as a teacher. Each of these experiences, and many others, including encounters with the police that were less than friendly, contribute to his ability to tell and retell important stories. Sometimes the way he retells biblical stories can make one uncomfortable (at least if you are a white heterosexual male, who is used to having the power to construct and tell the stories of the faith). Bray writes of his project: "What I am arguing for is reimagining the way we tell our faith stories---which for me, a follower of Jesus, is the biblical narrative---so that they point to beloved community and beyond."

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Light Shines into Darkness - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 1B (Genesis 1)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

                According to the “secular” calendar this is the first Sunday of the New Year. What better way to begin the new year than with a reflection on the story of creation. While the Gospel reading speaks of the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11), an event that marks the beginning of his ministry, the reading from Genesis, while mentioning waters, is less about water and more about light. The lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible focuses on the first day of creation, the day when God separates light from darkness. Yes, at the moment of creation “darkness covered the face of the deep.” Then, as the Spirit/Wind of God moved across these dark waters, God invites light to come into existence. God speaks the first words of creation: “Let there be light.” When God spoke these words, light emerges from the darkness. When God sees the light, God declares that it is good. Yes, take note that God does not declare the darkness to be good, only the light.

Monday, January 01, 2018

2018 - A New Year; A New Beginning

The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus has two faces, one looking back, and one looking forward. As a new year begins, part of the process is looking back to take stock of what happened during the previous twelve months. We think of the people we've met, the people we've bid good-bye to, the new opportunities that came our way, and perhaps the challenges we faced. Each year brings with it both good and bad. This past year seems to have had more bad than good. We saw mass shootings and terror attacks around the world. Our political system seems under duress, with a President who has challenged most norms of decency. In other words, 2017 has been a season of lamentation We cry out with the Psalmist: "Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me" (Psalm 31:2). 

Here we stand at the beginning of a new year, the year 2018. In the words of a Brian Wren hymn:
This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on,
time to believe what live is bringing, laying to rest the pain that gone. 
As a follower of Jesus, I take comfort and encouragement in this word from Paul: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old is gone, and everything becomes new. It is an eschatological message. We don't know what this coming year holds for you. In many ways the slate is wiped clean. We are invited to write upon it, creating new realities. 

This will be a momentous year for me and my family. I will complete ten years as pastor at Central Woodward. Cheryl and I will celebrate thirty-five years of marriage. I will turn sixty. Brett will head off to Claremont for graduate school, finally emptying the nest. Nationally and locally there will be important elections. I have a friend who is making her initial political venture, running for State Representative. Padma  is Hindu, a woman, and an immigrant. She doesn't look like the "traditional" American politician. That's a good thing. There will be other elections of note. We have the opportunity, here in the United States, to make a difference. One way of doing this is to vote, and do so with intention and responsibly. 

2018 will be an eventful year. We will meet new people, make new friends, and say goodbye to others. We don't know how the year will progress, for even those elements that we thank are set in stone can change. So, yes: "This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that's gone." For:
In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new.