The Challenge of the Atheist Minister

Earlier in November, the United Church of Canada announced that it had reached a “confidential settlement” with Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who is a publicly self-declared Atheist, allowing her to remain as minister in her Toronto congregation.

This has generated a great deal of conversation and soul-searching among United Church members here at Knox, and across the country. On November 25th, I preached a sermon that attempted to address the two questions I had heard most often: How could she do this? And how could the church allow this?

This is what I said:

How could she do this?

Truthfully, I can’t read Gretta’s mind. None of us can. I could only speculate, which is always risky. It appears that she believes what she teaches, so I am not inclined to challenge her honesty.

In interviews, we have heard that Gretta started off believing in God. When she was ordained, she was able to give “Essential Agreement” to the statements of faith of the United Church, which include many statements about God which do not leave a lot of room for Atheism.

Gretta first became notorious a number of years ago when her congregation rejected “God Talk” on the basis that our language about God has become loaded over time with unhelpful images from past centuries: exclusive masculine terms, God being portrayed as violent, judgmental, and so forth. Under Gretta’s leadership, they chose to seek the truth about God by discarding all our baggage about God, including all traditional language.

Gretta was embraced by a group within the Progressive Christianity movement for the way she challenged traditional thought. It was at such a conference hosted by Snowstar that I heard her speak.

Throughout her process, I would suggest that Gretta moved from theism to non-theism. In modern jargon a Theist refers to someone who thinks of God as a Person (with lots of room for variety of how to interpret that), while a Non-Theist is someone who believes in God not as a person but as something else: an impersonal power or a force in the universe, or maybe something we just haven’t defined yet.

Ultimately, Gretta declared that she had become an Atheist: that she did not believe in God at all. She said that she would lead her church as a community which welcomes all, and emphasizes human spirituality without the need for God.

Having read a number of articles and interviews, it appears to me that Gretta feels prophetic: that she sees herself as challenging the status quo of the church; leading the church into a new era with a re-defined version of Christianity.

In contrast to this vision are those who criticize her by suggesting that the large amount of publicity Gretta is generating is self-serving and maybe even creating a personality cult within the United Church of Canada.

I don’t think I could do what Gretta is doing: continuing to minister in a Christian church while holding an Atheist position. I left the Presbyterian church when I realized that I was in serious disagreement with its position on ordaining openly gay people, and when it became clear to me that the Presbyterians weren’t about to change to my point of view anytime quickly. Leaving felt like the honest thing to do. On that basis, I am very uncomfortable with what Gretta Vosper is doing.

How Could the Church Allow This?

Again, I don’t know! The terms of the confidential agreement really are being kept confidential. While a respect for confidentiality is vital to the work of the church, this lack of openness and accountability about such a public and potentially defining matter is distressing. This agreement has led to public challenges to the credibility and the relevance of the United Church of Canada, which, in turn, has led to all the questions and discussion in our local congregations. That’s why it is important to try to address this, even without the information we should have.

The United Church still believes in God. Our various statements of faith, expanded in recent years, have not suddenly vanished.

It is important for us to recognize that right from the start there has been a broad range of belief about God within the United Church. This was built in from the very start, so that we could include three founding denominations with a range of theologies.

It took 25 years of negotiation to create the United Church, and an almost miraculous level of tolerance for theological differences to make it succeed. The Methodists and Presbyterians were quite different in their theologies and their church cultures. The Congregationalists, while similar theologically to the Presbyterians, had a radically different way of organizing their church. The fact that the United Church of Canada exists at all is a testament to a shared determination to accept diversity, even if that isn’t the language we used in 1925.

We have never required our clergy to swear to every part of any statement of faith. Rather, we followed the lead of the Congregationalists to ask for “Essential Agreement,” thus creating an environment which encouraged a wide range for interpretation.

In this case, as many have pointed out, the existence of God is essential. But the point I am making is that we’ve always encouraged diverse theological positions in our pews and pulpits, and that diversity has ranged more and more broadly over the decades.

In the service on Nov. 25th, we read three passages revealing three very different views of God in the Bible. The oldest, from Exodus 24:9-11, comes close to a physical description, which is remarkable for a religion that always forbade any images of God. The second, from Isaiah 6:1-5, is a prophetic one: visionary and intense. The third, from John 4:21-24, is terribly Greek in its understanding: it defines God as Spirit, which raises a question about the need for a separate name for the Holy Spirit. We have a diversity of views of God within our own scriptures!

Christians have always explored different understandings of God. Starting with the creation of statements of orthodox beliefs under Roman Emperor Constantine, church authorities tried to prevent any but the narrowest explorations. Eventually this led to the creation of heresy trials.

The United Church deliberately encourages an atmosphere of exploration and questioning. We have offered to the world a welcoming space where people could gather without judgment to explore matters of faith and spirituality. The whole idea of prosecuting someone for having the wrong beliefs feels like a betrayal of what the United Church has stood for for decades.

And frankly, if Gretta Vosper weren’t a minister, the question never would have arisen.

But Gretta is ordained, which makes her responsible not only for her own faith but for faith leadership in the church. So the church started an unfamiliar process: preparing for a heresy trial. We have always had rules for the discipline of church ministers, but the ones around heresy are rarely addressed. So just recently, after years of debate, false starts and appeals to determine whether the process was legal and which court had jurisdiction, the way had been cleared and the trial was supposed to start. Then this settlement was announced, ending the process.

In doing this, the United Church has been revealed as a body that is prepared to tolerate an astonishing level of theological diversity.

How was this decision reached? What were the motivations on the part of the church authorities to agree to this? The lack of transparency here is distressing.

There is a part of me that would like to hear some clear declaration that Atheism is not a position we accept in our faith leaders. Like many people, I might find it reassuring to have someone declare that this case is an exception, and not a signal that the United Church is abandoning God.

But I also recognize that our position has been clear all along: all our statements of faith are based on having a relationship with God, even if we can’t agree on exactly how to talk about God. So I have to acknowledge that the issue here is not our belief in God. The issue is about how we deal with a leader who has taken an extreme position.

There is a danger when we use our authority to enforce a theological position. We’re not talking about burning someone at the stake, as in the past (that’s still the first image that comes to mind when many people think about heresy trials). However, there is coercion involved: we would be in a position to force someone out of ministry on the basis of belief. Many in the United Church recoil from that strongly, even where it might be the wisest action from the perspective of church discipline.

I am also aware of the risk of driving the congregation which supports Gretta’s position out of the United Church. If we did that, we would be criticized for being much less tolerant and united than we proclaim. From the perspective of public opinion, we cannot get out this without being criticized.

This issue, with its often over-simplified publicity, makes us feel like our integrity has been damaged. Certainly in some people’s eyes, it has. More importantly, though, it has challenged us to consider what it means to be a family of faith.

For all the distress, we are not in any danger from this. We can deal with publicity. We can address questions about who we are and what we believe. We can be clear that our church has not abandoned God. We can state that Gretta Vosper and her congregation do not speak for us. And at the same time, we can still affirm what we have claimed for a long time: that all people are welcome here, whether they believe in God as a person, as a spiritual force, as an open question, or as not existing at all. All are welcome.

If that’s how we define the United Church, I can live with that.

As I conclude, I would like to make a personal faith statement:

I value the Progressive Christianity movement. It offers a rigorous examination of our scriptures and history, and it demands truth about who we are and what we stand for. The insights it offers have shaped my ministry and my preaching in many ways. An intelligent and informed approach to Christianity is important to me.

I can understand the positions of non-theists & atheists, but I am not convinced by them. I believe in God, and that God is both within and beyond creation. That’s an approach that doesn’t fit within the restrictions of scientific study, which must consider only that which can be measured and observed. Philosophers and theologians, on the other hand, have no trouble with it.

I believe that God is a Person, not an impersonal force. I see personality in people, and the cats and dogs I know, and in the squirrels and ravens that shout rude things at me as I walk the dogs in the woods.

I consider it to be the height of hubris for humans to presume that an impersonal force has developed creation so that this wonderful gift of self-awareness and personality has developed without including the creative force which engendered it. To me that’s just another way for us to claim to be superior in the universe, and I cannot trust any logic that leads to that kind of conclusion. It’s too self-serving.

I believe that as we develop our human spirituality we need something or someone outside ourselves to act as a guide and yardstick, so that we don’t end up making our own selves the measure of the universe.

And I believe that our Creator loves us, and wants us to be loving too. The more I study scripture, the more I realize that this is the core of what Jesus taught. My experience of life makes it worth believing.

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Ask Andrew 6 (2018): The Meaning of Jerusalem

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Q: Talk about the history of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: reference to Trump and Evangelical push for this to happen.

There is so much tied up in the symbolism of Jerusalem that it is good to know something of the real history before we try to untangle some of the meaning of this city.

A brief overview of 6000 years of history:

Archaeological evidence suggests that there has been habitation there for about 6000 yrs! The first written reference to the city in Egyptian documents called it Rusalimum about 4000 years ago. The root word for Jerusalem is “SLM”, which refers to Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic). Some have also suggested it might be a reference to Shalim, the Canaanite god of dusk. Personally, I don’t believe the two are incompatible: you have to stop fighting at dusk when you have limited technology: dusk is a natural time for peace to settle.

The Hebrews who escaped from Egypt in the Exodus were not so much farmers as herders: they followed their flocks and had few cities. They had no capital city for the longest time, even under king Saul. It was King David who conquered Jerusalem (the Bible says it was called Jebus then). The Bible calls the inhabitants Jebusites – in contrast to the Archaeological evidence about Rusalimum above.

David’s conquest was in 1000 BCE, about 3000 years ago. David brought in the Ark of the Covenant from Bethel, one of the places of worship out in the countryside, to focus the worship life of Israel in Jerusalem. David was working hard to centralize his nation.

King Solomon, David’s son, built the first temple in Jerusalem, and discouraged the worship centres at Bethel and Shiloh, which served to make the city more and more the heart of the nation’s worship. For both of these kings, this was a political thing: they were making Jerusalem the centre of worship and the nation.

When the kingdom split after Solomon died, the 10 northern tribes, called Israel, declared Sechem to be their capital city. Jerusalem became the capital of Judah, the southern kingdom. This was still a hot political and religious issue in Jesus’ day. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel? She objected to the way the Jews said that people should worship at Jerusalem. Even today the remaining Samaritan community still worships at Mt. Horeb, as they have been for over 3000 years.

But for the Jews, who take their name from the tribe of Judah, Jerusalem became the focus of dreams and hopes. The promise of return from the Babylonian Captivity was focused on Zion: the other name for Jerusalem. There are many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that focus on this same idea: the return of God’s people to Jerusalem.

The city has been ruled by many empires over the years. By Jesus’ day, the Romans were in charge after a few centuries of Jewish independence. In 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome. The temple was demolished except for one wall, now known as the wailing wall. The city walls were pulled down and the inhabitants slaughtered: Jews and Christians alike.

It became illegal for any Jew to live in Jerusalem for centuries. To live there they had to pay the “Jewish tax.” Even Constantine, the Emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire, kept this law going. Eventually it was Emperor Hadrian who finally rebuilt parts of the ruined city and allowed Jews to return.

Christianity, as an organized religion, didn’t care much about having Jews in Jerusalem. Many Christians felt that we had replaced the Jews as the people of God. Besides, after the destruction of Jerusalem, a symbolic New Jerusalem appeared in the Book of Revelations. This was taken as a symbol of Heaven by many, so the actual city of Jerusalem was left as a wonderful tourist destination with lots of pilgrimage opportunities, but without a divine future.

The rise of Islam changed things. Jerusalem was fought over between Muslim armies and Crusaders repeatedly. There was a Christian kingdom of Jerusalem for a couple of centuries, various Muslim rulers, and even a time when the Benedictine Monks were in charge.

Ultimately it became part of the Ottoman empire, and remained there until the end of WW1. In large part it was neglected: some Muslim holy sites were constructed and revered, but there was not a lot of other investment. The Ottoman Turks encouraged Christians to come as tourists too. Frankly, Muslim rulers throughout history have tended to be more compassionate to Jews in Jerusalem than Christians ever were.

The development of modern Evangelical Christian beliefs about Jerusalem:

About 500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation happened. The Reformers rejected the centuries of tradition that had developed in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and chose to emphasize the authority of the Bible. In doing so, the Reformers re-discovered all those passages that talk about the return of Jews of Zion, and started to associate that with the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus.

In England, this didn’t go smoothly. The Anglican Hierarchy swung between Reformed and Catholic influences at different periods. Note one of the most popular Anglican hymns is “Jerusalem”, written in 1804 by William Blake. It is practically a second national anthem for England, and it carries with it the image of a New Jerusalem being built in England.

The Puritans, who resisted Anglican understandings of many things, carried that same idea into the New World colonies they established. As Bruce Cockburn remarks wryly in one of his songs:

Let’s give a laugh for the man of the world, who thinks he can make things work: tried to build a New Jerusalem, and ended up with New York”

The Puritans really believed they could build a kind of New Jerusalem: a nation with a strong faith core that would lead the world in morality and establish the Kingdom of God in the world.

Along with that grew the understanding that the Jewish people would have to return to the Old Jerusalem, as declared in the Hebrew Scriptures, for God’s plan to be completed.

At the same time in Europe, for centuries, the existence of the Jews as a nation without a land led to all kinds of challenges, and contributed to serious anti-Semitism. There were even a series of international conferences about how to solve “the Jewish problem.”

Many “solutions” were attempted, sometimes by Jewish leaders acting independently, sometimes at the urging of various colonial governments who had distant lands to offer:

from 1818-48 New York Jewish leaders tried to establish a Jewish homeland on Grand Island

just near Niagara Falls

1903-05 tried to create a settlement in Uasin Gishu, East Africa

1907-14 tried in Angola (Uganda proposed, but no settlement made)

1933-42 tried Madagascar

1940-45 tried Tasmania

1838-45 tried Surinam (South America)

Each of these efforts had at least some Jewish support. Throughout these efforts, though, a group called the Zionists grew stronger. They were demanding return to lands of the Bible, and to Jerusalem itself.

Just before the end of World War 1 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, supporting the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine. Just after the war ended Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule Palestine.

The British had mixed feelings, which slowed down the process. Some took the Evangelical view of wanting the Jews back in Jerusalem as a fulfillment of Biblical prophesy. Others, including most in power, had a more pragmatic view of the politics of the world, and if they had religious views at all, likely preferred the New Jerusalem interpretation that made a modern state of Israel irrelevant (from a religious perspective).

When the Jewish people took matters into their own hands and created the modern state of Israel in 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to become an international City, within the bounds of Jordan and ruled by the United Nations. In 1948, during the Jewish-Arab war, Jerusalem was partitioned between Israel and Jordan. West Jerusalem included the traditional Christian and Jewish Quarters, while East Jerusalem was the traditional Muslim Quarter. In reality lots of people were forcibly removed from both sections.

In 1967 Israel captured East Jerusalem during the 6 day war and has held it ever since.

Evangelical Christianity has embraced the creation of the modern state of Israel as a sign of Christ’s return. One version had Christ returning within a generation of this event, which would have required Jesus to come back by 1988, since the standard Biblical generation is 40 years. Obviously that didn’t happen. Neither did most of the predictions in the book The Late Great Planet Earth, but that didn’t stop the basic ideas from staying popular.

Evangelical Christians support the expansion of Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas, so that modern Israel might re-claim all the ancient biblical lands and so prepare the way for Jesus to return. In addition to raising a great deal of money being raised for this, there is a political agenda: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Palestine, of course, still wants East Jerusalem as their capital, which is why most countries won’t do it. Joe Clark, elected Canadian Prime Minister in 1979, promised it, and then backed off quickly when his experienced diplomats explained the reality of the situation.

Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem in this way. I personally don’t think Trump believes anything particularly Christian, Evangelical or otherwise, but he knows his support base, and he has pleased many Evangelicals who think this will speed up the return of Jesus and the end of the world.

The Jewish leadership of Israel, of course, considers this Evangelical Christian interpretation to be nonsense, but they are happy for the support and encourage this connection with American Evangelicals

Their vision is that Israel is a place needed to defend the Jewish people, as we were reminded recently in the hate attack on the Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In that situation, the Israeli Prime Minister dispatched a government minister to go to the Synagogue and offer the support of the nation of Israel.

In Canada, this kind of Evangelical theology exists, but it is a fainter echo of the American version. We don’t start with the same vision of our nation as a fulfillment of prophesy the way many Americans do.

In America, the three churches that are closest to the United Church of Canada: the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Congregationalists, have all issued criticisms of the theology that claims that modern Israel is predicted in scripture or is a precursor to the second coming of Christ. We haven’t done that. Rather, a few years ago we adopted a pro-Palestinian Justice approach that caused some serious friction, including formal protests from Knox.

What fascinates me is that politics have always been part of Jerusalem, at least since David conquered it 3000 years ago. Its religious status as a holy city has always served someone’s political agenda, and it saddens me that this is still going on today.

David wanted to centralize worship and his fractured nation. The southern kingdom of Judah wanted to be more authentic than Israel, initially, and eventually the Samaritans. The Maccabees wanted a rallying point, and over the centuries it was used that way again by both Christians and Muslims, back and forth. Now there is a religious cooperation between Christian Evangelicals and Israeli hard-liners.

I believe the best we can do is recognize what is going on, and refuse to play the game. We can refuse to treat modern events as the fulfillment of prophesy, whether it be Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

Jerusalem is a place of historical significance to three world religions. Our challenge is to find a way to celebrate that without causing injustice to any of the people who consider it important.

The call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem is ancient, and it is as significant today as it has ever been in the past.

May God grant us all the wisdom to achieve this peace.

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Ask Andrew 5: The Source of My Views on the LGBTQ Community


Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

What was the transformative experience in your life that most influenced your views on the LGBTQ community?

This answer may be a bit disappointing: it’s like my sense of call to the ministry. I can’t report a mountain-top experience. Like many things in my life, this has been a journey.

I grew up in a very religious home where the tone was Evangelical. For this question the two most important things to know are:

1: I was taught to take the Bible literally in general, but with some exceptions. For example: my family were okay with the idea of evolution. They were prepared to accept that Adam and Eve were (probably) symbolic rather than literal people. Still, they encouraged me to learn the Bible thoroughly by reading and studying it every day, which I did.

2: I was taught that homosexuality was a sin, pure and simple. Men who chose to sleep with other men were defying God. It took me years to wonder why it wasn’t such an issue for two women to be together: that possibility wasn’t even discussed. This touches on a bias of straight men, doesn’t it? To think that male gay sex is disgusting, and female gay sex is the stuff of fantasy?

When I got to McGill, and began to study Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, I had my Biblical Literalism shaken up thoroughly. Learning to read the Bible in the original languages forces you to consider which bits are original, which bits have been edited and tinkered with, and which bits are seriously culture bound. And learning any second language helps us learn that some words just don’t translate easily. Most of us learn French, a language that has no simple way to translate the English word “home.” Greek contains even stronger differences, and Hebrew and Aramaic are harder still.

I already knew that we didn’t obey a lot of the laws of Moses. For example, our family always welcomed pork into our diet, and I knew that modern medicine had much kinder ways to help lepers than Biblical law requires. The idea that things might progress was already obvious in limited ways. But my study of the Bible in seminary opened my eyes to the chance that things that might seem obvious might have other interpretations.

I had already encountered people who were openly questioning society’s assumptions about relationships between men and women. It wasn’t just “Gay and Straight” stuff, but all kinds of things. I was already open to some of this (Scandinavian culture as I’ve experienced it KNOWS that women run the world) but I was struggling with the parts that related to same-sex relationships.

At university, there was a club called Gay McGill. I ended up at the opening of one of their meetings by mistake, and as I finished my slice of pizza and left, it struck me that these were just ordinary people. There wasn’t anything flamboyant going on. More importantly, there didn’t appear to me to be anyone who deserved to burn in Hell.

At the same time as my thoughts about the Bible were being challenged, I started to learn what medical and social sciences had to say about gays and lesbians and, increasingly, those who didn’t fit into convenient categories: which was that sexual orientation appears to be hard-wired. This was not a “lifestyle choice” as I had been taught: it was something that you could identify at a very young age and could not change.

I had a Pentecostal friend who declared that before he met Christ he was a “raving homosexual” and that Christ had cured him. The trouble was that he was a very nice guy who had no real interest in girls and believed he had to abstain from guys.

I began to see this as a real problem. How could a loving God condemn gays to eternal torment for something they couldn’t change? How could God be that unjust? It became a serious issue of divine justice for me.

Eventually I was ordained. My views on this were still developing, but they weren’t an issue for my ordination: the Presbyterian Church simply didn’t ask about this issue at any point during the process.

It eventually became an issue. I was a commissioner to the General Assembly that voted on whether to accept openly gay people as ministers The Presbytery of Montreal had voted to ordain an openly gay student, and some members of that Presbytery had appealed the decision to General Assembly. I attended as a minister, my father was there from Montreal as a representative elder. We voted on opposite sides of the question, and we still “agree to disagree” to this day.

The decision went against ordaining gays, which is still the policy of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I registered my dissent in the minutes (along with many others). After that, according to the rules of that church, I was expected to support the policy of the church, since I had cleared my conscience by registering my objection.

I was uncomfortable with this, and wrote an article in the London Free Press (this was back in the days when newspapers had enough money to pay for religious articles). Strictly speaking, this was a violation of my ordination vows: having had my chance to object formally, I should have towed the line. But it bothered me deeply.

Shortly after that I had a meeting with a man who had read the article and asked to talk to me. He was Anglican, but wanted to speak to any clergy person who was prepared to talk openly about this subject. He told me that he was gay, in a good relationship with his partner, and that he still got along well with his ex-wife and children, who had been very supportive since he came out of the closet.

He then told me that he was convinced that he was going to Hell, and that there was nothing he could do about it. He was sure that God hated him for being gay. His challenge to me was to convince him otherwise.

I did my best, but I failed. When he left my study, he was just as sad, just as convinced that he was damned as when I met him. I was terribly frustrated.

That was the real start of my switch to the United Church I was uncomfortable staying where I was.

About that time I became aware of a movement in the evangelical churches of the United States that was extremely hostile to the LGBTQ community (“LGBTQ” hadn’t been coined yet, but it would be soon). Some churches were hostile enough to openly declare that “God Hates Gays.”

That offended me deeply, especially since I had come out of the evangelical movement myself. At the time I thought it would fizzle into a fringe movement. I was wrong.

Over the years I have discovered how important it is to speak up for God: to fight any message preaching hatred in the name of God. To say that God hates someone feels to me to be the most Un-Christian thing someone could claim. It is still going on today.

In part, my understanding was affected by a couple in Chatham for whom I conducted a same sex marriage, my first and only so far. I expected it to seem strange, but it was a very loving experience: a real marriage, in every sense of the word.

My outrage at the Evangelical “God Hates Gays” movement, combined with my experience of real people wanting to get married and live their lives in a hostile society, motivated me to serve on the two Ottawa Presbytery committees that led Ottawa Presbytery to become an Affirming Ministry of the United Church. That means that the Presbytery is a self-declared welcoming safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. That process taught me a great deal, and I am still learning to this day.

We, here at Knox, had already had our debate about same sex-marriage. At the time, I’d been asked to perform such a marriage, and since we had no policy I had to refuse. I used that opportunity to ask the congregation to decide where it stood. I was very pleased to see the welcoming outcome, but I was even more pleased with the discussion itself. My assumptions that the young would be in favour and the older members would be opposed was seriously challenged, to my great delight!

And when the chance to be part of the Pride Parade came along I decided to attend. I have a previous blog post about what that was like. I encourage you to read it, it wasn’t a totally easy experience. In the several parades I’ve joined, I made a point to wear my clergy collar, which many of my colleagues didn’t. (I am pleased to note that in 2018, most of us were wearing our clergy identity openly).

Over the years being obvious clergy in a Pride Parade has made me the target of challenges: people who were prepared to walk with me and debate for blocks; and a few people who have shown open hostility to me. More importantly, though, I have become the recipient of the heartfelt thanks of so many people who have felt rejected and excluded by the church and maybe even by God; people who were just standing at the side of the road, watching the parade who felt moved to say that they appreciated seeing clergy supporting them in the parade. One man summed it up this year in these words: “thank you for being welcoming,” shouted out to the whole United Church contingent.

In the end, I think that’s the message that motivates me now: the love of God for all people; the welcome of God; and the chance to stand against a message of religious hatred that tarnishes the name “Christian” in so many people’s lives.

We can offer something so much better than that, and I believe that it truly reflects the message of Christ in this 21st century world.

Galatians 3:28 (NRSV) : There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

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Ask Andrew 4 (2018): Reading the Old Testament

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Should we study the Old Testament, given that it embodies ideas and practices we do not accept today?

[Note on terminology: Today’s usage typically refers to the Hebrew Scriptures instead of the Old Testament. This is mostly accurate, although half of the book of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and the Christian Bible extensively compares the Hebrew text to the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation for correction.

My only objection to this usage is that the Greek part of our Bible is often referred to as the Christian Scriptures (a religious distinction), instead of the Greek Scriptures (a linguistic distinction). I consider that inadequate, as we include the Hebrew Scriptures as part of our Christian Canon. Sorry. Just my little rant there. But I do think this distinction encourages the question above.]

I have been asked this question in more than one United Church congregation. It refers to the fact that the first part of our Bible contains stories that are quite awful:

divinely approved genocide (the conquest of the promised land)

divinely enacted genocide (remember that cute story: Noah’s Ark?)

dreadful laws about how to exclude from society people with severe skin conditions (the leprosy laws)

orders to stone to death rebellious sons

acceptance of slavery (oops, that one exists throughout the whole Bible)

all kinds of things that are sexist, anti-gay, anti-democratic, and, of course, unscientific

some things that are just offensive, eg: Amos 4:1 New Revised Standard Version

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”

A classmate of mine was told by a woman in his congregation never to read this scripture in church again because she didn’t like being called a “cow.” More about that later.

Despite all of these problems, there are a couple of things to point out in favour of continuing to study the oldest books of our scripture.

First point: it is hard to understand what Jesus was all about unless we study his faith. Much of what Jesus said was in response to these writings. A lot of his teachings make no sense unless you know the story of Israel, and can understand the ways in which Jesus both supports and changes what he was taught.

Second point: there are babies in all that bathwater! Throwing it all out means we’d lose so much wonderful material!

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of real people, who are often very flawed. Over and over we see that God finds a way to work with them, even when they have to learn from their own horrible choices.

2nd Samuel 12: 1-15, provides us with a marvellous example. We see King David, once a simple shepherd boy, now so powerful that he uses his position to have sex with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. We should probably call it rape, rather than adultery, as she wouldn’t dare refuse the king.

When she becomes pregnant, David uses his position to try to cover up his crime, first by arranging for Uriah, a foreigner serving in his army, to come home on a pretext, so the man can sleep with Bathsheba, and think the child might be his. When Uriah proves to be too honourable to corrupt this way, David secretly orders his army commanders to strand Uriah on the front lines of a battle, where, of course, he dies. We should call this corruption, conspiracy and murder.

Then David marries Bathsheba to “make it all okay.” Not that Davd needed an extra wife: he had taken all King Saul’s wives when he killed Saul, and had then collected more of his own choosing. (To be fair to David, it was a common practice in those days to marry a daughter to a foreign king as a kind of peace treaty. Who wants to fight with family?)

Can you imagine what the #MeToo movement would have to say about this?

What happened to the decent, faithful, creative David who wrote so many of the Psalms we still use today as deep expressions of faith?

David would be judged today both as the head of a government and as a singer-songwriter. Actually things haven’t changed much, have they? Neither of those fields today are pristine, are they?

They say power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s what happened to David.

Even a good person who becomes isolated from the lives of ordinary people can start to look at others as things instead of people. An object of his lust, for example, instead of a woman in a committed relationship. An obstacle to lust, instead of a loyal soldier in the army.

There might even have been some racism going on too: Uriah was a Hittite, a foreigner. Maybe it felt easier on the King’s conscience to plot to kill a foreigner. Maybe David justified himself with the logic that a foreigner didn’t deserve such a beautiful wife, especially an Israelite one. We know the kind of thinking: “those guys come across the border, taking our jobs, our women. We should build a wall!”

Are any of these topics not important today?

Corruption & abuse of power

Hatred of foreigners

Casual objectification and abuse of women

Forcing people under authority to become accessories to criminal behaviour

This passage even reminds us of the risk of being the whistle-blower. Nathan the prophet was brave enough to confront the king, and was rather clever about how he did it: reminding David of his past passionate care for helpless sheep, and then tricking David into passing judgment on himself.

Many prophets who confronted kings with their wrongdoings were killed, or flogged, or imprisoned and tortured. This still happens in some oppressive countries today, whether we use the words “king” and “prophet” or not. In democratic countries, of course, it is safer: they face having their reputations ruined on Twitter, and being denounced for purveying Fake News. And it is still very hard to hold to account corrupt person in power.

David actually shows he has a conscience: he admits what he did and expresses sincere regret. He doesn’t suffer the awful fate he pronounced on himself unknowingly. He actually seems to learn something out of this confrontation.

What is even more amazing is that God makes something good come out of all this. In a few years David and Bathsheba would have a baby they name Solomon, who would become king instead of his many older brothers. Solomon would build the temple in Jerusalem, would be renowned for his wisdom, and rule over a golden age as the last king of a united Israel.

That’s not to say something trite like “all’s well that ends well.” Rather, it is another affirmation that God can take the worst of situations and redeem them, even to the point of having something good come of them. That’s not a bad thing to remember as we face the terrible situations that confront our 21st century world.

Of course, we all have to do our part. None of this would have worked without Nathan’s courage or David’s ultimate honesty and willingness to change his ways. More importantly, consider Bathsheba’s pragmatism (her chances to live if she refused David, especially once Uriah was dead, were terrible), and her willingness to forgive, as she not only stayed married to the man who murdered her husband but also bore him an exceptional child. It must have been Bathsheba who taught Solomon so much wisdom: David was never around.

There’s no fairy tale ending here. This narrative challenges us at so many levels. But we need this kind of challenge to our own assumptions from time to time, just as we need reminding that corruption, abuse of power, abuse of women and foreigners are not new. People have been struggling to find ways to deal with these problems for thousands of years. Seeing what they managed to do can give us a new perspective on our own situation and maybe even hope and inspiration.

Even the cows of Bashan have a place. Amos was deliberately offensive when he wrote those words. If we take offence at his bad language towards women, we might miss the fact that he was addressing the reality that 3000 years ago there were women powerful enough to oppress the poor and crush the needy and order drinks to celebrate. There were women powerful enough that a prophet had to challenge them in language that demanded attention

These scriptures are challenging. Our calling is to face that challenge, and dig out the message that they still have so many centuries after they were written.

Short answer: of course we should study them! In fact, “study” is an excellent word: just reading them only shows us a surface meaning. It is when we dig in that we find God speaking to us.

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Canada Day 2018: Putting Our Best Foot Forward

Last year, as we celebrated Canada’s 150th anniversary, I had really mixed feelings. I was nostalgic for the unbridled pride and joy of Expo 67, Centennial year, when I was too young to be aware of politics or social issues. But last year, as an adult, my feelings were mixed. I was proud to be Canadian and at the same time I was concerned about the ongoing issues with First Nations peoples and the things in our history we cannot ignore and which don’t make us proud: broken treaties, residential schools, the 60s scoop, and a whole host of challenges that continue.

I’ve had a year to work this through. In the process, I have learned more.

Just last week, I heard a report on CBC’s Ideas program about slavery in Canada. I knew there was slavery here, before Confederation, since the British empire emancipated its slaves in 1833. What I hadn’t known is that Canadian slaves were not only captured people from Africa, traded here through the West Indies or the United States.

It was complete news to me that we had also legally enslaved many First Nations people during colonial days, typically after taking them prisoner in small local wars. The First Nations slaves were not as popular as African slaves, because their friends and family would attack to try to release them. Additionally, the slave owners were expected to set them free when, for example, a peace treaty had been signed to end the war with that particular group. Many owners didn’t want to lose the free labour, so they’d change the paperwork and find other ways to keep them illegally.

Given that history, it’s easy to understand why people who have been treated that way wouldn’t want to celebrate all that the creation of Canada, with its colonial history, has meant, and continues to mean, to them.

At the same time, when we compare Canada to other nations of the world, we have done some remarkable things. One of the things we are proudest of these days is the way we have set an example for other nations regarding building a diverse and inclusive society.

We’re trying. We really are. And in many ways we’re being more successful at embodying what I would identify as Christian values than most explicitly “Christian” nations in the world.

So what do we do? How do we go forward with this mix of pride and shame? How do we balance this history where we’ve tried to live up to high ideals while at the same time seriously oppressing the very people whose land we are on?

We are taught not to judge history by modern standards. That’s important to remember. I cannot honestly say what I would have done if I had been alive 400 years ago as a settler here.

At the same time, we cannot avoid the consequences of our history, either. And I believe that it is fair to examine the past in the light of our ideals so we can learn where we made bad choices and do things differently as we go forward.

The Apostle Paul wrote the passage 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 almost 2000 years ago. That means that the colonial powers of Britain and France certainly had access to it, especially those trained as clergy or missionaries. Why wasn’t it applied?

What Paul presents is an attitude to other people that he, as a missionary, used to shape the way he approached people. He came as a servant, respectfully, actually willing to endure all kinds of hardships and false accusations as he did his work.

Paul’s attitude exists in stark contrast to the attitude of the leaders and lawmakers in the colonies. They were prepared not only to make war on the local inhabitants, but to enslave them; treat them as less than human, as property that could be bought and sold.

The physical reality of slavery was appalling. It was dreadfully violent and inhumane for the most part. But the attitude that permits its existence is even worse: to be so arrogant that other people simply don’t count as real. This was the very opposite of Paul’s example to all Christians of every age.

How different would our history have been if we had treated the First Nations with respect right from the start? We can only guess.

We can recognize, though, that respect, honesty, integrity, and love are the values we are given on which to base all our relationships. And we can take note of what happens when these are absent.

I am very grateful that so many of the values taught in the scriptures have made their way into the values Canadians publicly embrace. Having said that, our only honest way forward is to address our past, work for reconciliation, and celebrate the accomplishments we can make not only with refugees and people fleeing oppression in other places, but also with the people we have been oppressing for centuries.

This will be very uncomfortable for us. It will require us to be really honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t forget, though, that another deeply important Christian teaching is all about repentance and forgiveness.

We haven’t always presented this idea well. Too often we’ve let people off the hook by saying they can confess to God and just be forgiven without reconciling with the people they’ve actually hurt.

What Jesus taught fits the model of reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount we are told to leave our offering to God at the altar and run to reconcile with the person we’ve hurt, before we try to be right with God. We need to reconcile with each other. It is central to our calling.

It’s not easy, but it is important, because it is the only way to build a family, a group, even a nation, that will truly reflect God’s love and those other values Paul showed us.

Today marks year 151 of the existence of Canada, and there is a lot to celebrate, especially when we contrast ourselves to so many other nations of the world. We’re especially good at pointing out how much better we are than the Americans, aren’t we?

But that’s not a very high standard, considering the history of empires and world powers, and the controversies we see percolating south of the border. We want to be able to say more than “we’re better than them.”

And as some have pointed out, we aren’t necessarily better, either. We have been separating First Nations children from their parents for decades, except that we send them to foster care or adoptions, rather than institutions, at least since we closed the Residential Schools.

On Canada Day we should celebrate the good that we are doing. It is real. At the same time we should work to do better. We should put our best foot forward as we go into the future.

To do that we must come to terms with our oppressive past and present. We need to reconcile with the people who have provided us with all the space and resources that make Canada such a rich nation.

And from the particular perspective of Christianity, I think we should embrace those values Paul talked about: where we present ourselves honestly, respectfully, without arrogance or presumption; where we go forward in a way that truly welcomes and deals with people as they are, rather than as we want to force them to be.

I regret that we’ll never know how things might have been different if we had come to this land with those values in the past. But it’s never too late to start. The future is stretching out ahead of us, and it’s in our power to make our nation even better.

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Ask Andrew 3 (2018): God the All Powerful and All Good

Question: How can God be all powerful and all good at the same time?

There are some hidden assumptions in this question:

One could be: if God is all powerful and all good, then God would prevent bad things from happening. For example: someone like Hitler could never come to power and commit genocide; there would never be natural disasters that kill innocent people; climate change would be dialed back so small island nations wouldn’t flood and polar bears wouldn’t starve as the ice flows disappear.

Another could be: that God shares the same definition of Good that we do. Hopefully that’s true, since a big part of our faith is to try to align ourselves to God’s values. But we should be honest and admit that our vision of what is “good” is often limited by our own experience. We should be very thoughtful as we consider God’s definition of “good.”

A third assumption could be: that concepts like “All Powerful” and “All Good” are things we can understand. Is that true? Absolutes sound great, and they seem obvious to define, but as soon as absolutes hit real life, everything gets complicated.

I chose Father’s Day to answer this question because when you look in the Bible to address this question the image of God as our Father keeps coming up. That image is not a simple one, no matter how well we think we understand it.

For thousands of years, many societies decided that Fathers had a special role in disciplining children. Some of us are old enough to remember the threat: “just wait until your father gets home.” That wasn’t an empty threat either: Dad spanked harder than Mom did.

And for thousands of years people assumed that natural disasters, including floods, droughts, famines, plagues of locusts, and even personal accidents and disease, were all punishments from God for something people had done wrong.

So today’s question, back then, could have been answered the way our Hebrews lesson says: a good father disciplines his children out of love, so the bad things that happen would be explained as a result of God’s goodness.

We don’t use that kind of logic anymore, do we? We aren’t totally clear on all the aspects of weather (if we understood better we’d have accurate forecasts), but we know that hurricanes don’t happen because God is miffed. Bad storms are part of a big, complex creation that has inter-related systems in which you can use the word “fractal” without embarrassment.

Some weather-related items do have a moral component: climate change is happening because of humanity’s abuse of fossil fuels and other resources. So it’s fair to ask, would it be good of God to take away the consequences of our own bad behaviour? How would we learn? How well are we learning now, even with all the evidence we have?

One of the traditional roles of Fathers has been to prepare children for independence: to protect them when they are small and vulnerable and to “let go of the bicycle” at the right time

knowing that there’s a risk they will crash by themselves. In other words, to encourage them to become responsible adults.

If God were to take control of things enough to eliminate all bad from the world, then we wouldn’t have any choice anymore. It would be worse than being over-protected children: it would be like being robots, where we are programmed only to be good. We wouldn’t be human anymore.

It’s that age-old question: what is the price of free will?

God is not only good: God is loving. Loving someone does not include controlling them. A relationship where one person tries to control everything the other does is the very definition of an abusive relationship.

God gave us the freedom to make choices in life. God let go of our bike, and is watching with concern as we pedal frantically; as we try not to crash into anything.

God is indeed all-powerful, but because of love, God is also self-limiting.

Can you imagine what it would be like if, just before a volcano erupts, a massive divine thumb were to appear and plug the top until everyone could get to safety?

Pretty amazing, true, but as soon as we saw power like that being used, we’d freak out, wondering when that thumb would decide to squash us. We’re already worried enough as Donald Trump changes his mind every 30 seconds and sets the world spinning to nuclear war, then peace, then trade wars, then name-calling competitions; and he’s just a powerful human narcissist.

Would we understand God any better? Would we trust God any more? Would we be happy if every time we came close to making a bad decision, a decision that would cause trouble or hurt, to hear God say: “No, don’t do that!”

We’d never learn good judgement, either as individuals, or as a species. We could never grow up with such an over-protective parent breathing down our necks all the time.

And God, in love, has chosen to let us grow up; to make mistakes; to experience life with both good and bad things happening.

I’m grateful that we’ve grown beyond that idea that an appendix attack is discipline from God. It does make our understanding of life more complex, but it doesn’t have to take away our understanding that God is loving, or good. Nor does it have to challenge the idea of God as all-powerful.

The issue is that we are much less than all-powerful. To deal with us in love, God has chosen not to overpower us so we can learn, and grow, and understand basic lessons: like not building our house on a flood-plain, or the side of a volcano, and not allowing someone like Hitler to get into power.

We get frustrated with ourselves, because we haven’t got everything sorted out NOW. It’s tempting to imagine how much better it would be if God just reached in and fixed it all.

But God is wise, and loving. So God has given us the chance to crash our bikes, or learn to ride.

And God is there, every time, to pick us up and help us try again.

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Ask Andrew 2 (2018) Time to Be Holy

Question: What does it mean “Take Time to Be Holy?” Aren’t we always supposed to BE “holy?” No one is perfect . . . can we be “unholy” sometimes and still be a good Christian? (Dave’s postlude filled my head this morning).

Hymn Reference: “Take Time to Be Holy” by William D. Longstaff (c. 1882)

Scripture Reference: Romans 12:1-8

It’s not unusual to have to sort out the theology of a hymn: many people remember teachings set to music much better than Bible verses.

Very few hymn writers were trained as theologians, and so some hymns give ministers real trouble. I remember one minister who wouldn’t let us sing any Christmas hymns that included “bells” because bells aren’t mentioned in the Bible.

in this question, though, William Longstaff is actually pretty good in presenting a spiritual challenge.

We need to start with a fundamental question: how do we understand holiness?

Holiness is an attribute of God, suggesting goodness, incorruptibility, and freedom from evil or sin. One of the strongest messages of early Christianity is that through Christ, holiness is conferred upon us even though we don’t deserve it.

With that theology in mind you could argue that we are indeed holy all the time “Because God Says So.” The trouble is, that treats holiness like a title or an award, and we know very well that people are more complex than that. That understanding is built into the question. As well, the Apostle Paul understood that too.

Look what Paul does in our lesson from Romans. After 11 chapters explaining how we have holiness conferred upon us without deserving it, Paul then tells us how to behave. As we read his words we come to understand, that in humans, holiness is a process.

Holiness is a divine thing, so for it to work in us we have to align ourselves with God. Paul describes it as the renewal of our minds: discerning what God wants, learning what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.

We are given the gift of holiness, but we have to develop it, make it grow. Holy isn’t so much what we are as what we are becoming. Except that in the divine economy we don’t have to earn it, we’re already counted as holy. But we still have to nurture it.

That’s how we manage to be imperfect, and do bad things, and still not fall from grace.

Working on being holy is not a bad way of describing what Christian Spirituality is all about: trying to align our minds and spirits with our Creator’s; discovering what is good and acceptable and perfect, AND THEN DOING IT.

That’s why we have Sunday School: to get our children started in the process of learning about God, learning to be holy. It’s why we gather, and worship, and sing, and study, and pray, and encourage each other: these are all ways we work on our holiness. We don’t call it that much these days, but it’s still what we are doing.

We are holy because it is a gift from God. Being holy stays with us, even if we do unholy things, because God holds on to us.

Being holy takes time and attention. It is a process of transformation and growth that will never stop because it is a process designed to take our humanity and make it, and us, more and more divine, without taking away who we are.

That’s why we need to take time to be holy: so our holiness can grow.

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Ask Andrew 1 (2018): Jesus’ Women Disciples

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 1 (2018): Jesus’ Women Disciples

We hear about the male disciples. Were there any female disciples?

The short answer is: Yes! Jesus had an exceptional number of female disciples.

To go into detail, it might be helpful to make a distinction in the terms we use:

A Disciple is a student, a follower of Jesus. Every Christian is a disciple.

An Apostle is someone sent out as a representative. The best English translation is an “emissary.”

The word “apostle” gets political, with the specific definition provided in Acts excluding women and most others, even the Apostle Paul! And when the church decided that “apostle” was a term to be equated with authority (as in “Apostolic Succession”), the idea that women might have been apostles was pushed firmly aside.

Jesus would have faced challenges with sending women out as apostles. It would be profoundly unsafe to send a woman or a pair of women into a middle-eastern town to preach and heal. However, we we cannot say that Jesus didn’t send women as apostles during his ministry. The original 12 that Jesus sent out are all named, and all men. However, Luke tells us that after that successful mission, Jesus also sent out 70 others in the same way. These are not named, and their genders are not mentioned.

If you consider “apostle” to be a job description, rather than the charged word we have turned it into, it seems inevitable that Jesus did send women out as apostles. How else would he have attracted so many to follow him in a culture that seriously disapproved? It makes sense that he would have trained them to go into those places where only women were allowed, to openly share their hopes of a world where women would be respected, and and to tell others about this Jesus: a prophet who had a new vision of God’s transformed world, where the last would be first.

Jesus’ ministry and women in general:

Jesus ministry was remarkable for the amazing number of women mentioned in the gospels. That’s hard to see by modern standards of equality, but for that age and place, it is true. By law and by custom, in Jewish culture and most of the other cultures in the Middle East, women were very restricted in what they were allowed to do and where they could go. They were very much under the thumb of male relatives.

In as many settings as possible, women and men were kept separate, and carefully avoided talking to each other on the street, unless they were family. Jesus obviously ignored these rules.

In one of our first looks at Jesus working we find him speaking to a mixed group in a room indoors. He refers to the group as his “mother and brothers and sisters.” This kind of mixing of men and women was not allowed in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor even in early Christian churches. Men and women were separated by walls or screens. What Jesus did was very unusual.

The gospels record a lot of women who interacted with Jesus:

the Samaritan woman at the well

the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ robe and was then proclaimed to be a model of faith

the Syrophonecian woman who challenged Jesus to extend his ministry to Gentiles

Jairus’ daughter brought back from the dead when previous prophets had only ever brought sons back from the dead

Also consider: a large percentage of Jesus’ parables feature women as the main characters: widows, bridesmaids, and homeowners are all featured. Again, this is remarkable for that era.

Jesus’ Disciples: This question specifically asks about Jesus’ disciples: the women who travelled with him, learned from him, and shared his ministry. There were many. Unfortunately, we don’t have names for most of them. They are recorded by Mark, Matthew and Luke as “and many others” who followed from Galilee.

Why are there so few names of women recorded? Just because Jesus was great at challenging sexism, it doesn’t mean that the people who wrote about him were as good. Significantly, even they couldn’t help but notice and record that Jesus had an exceptional number of women as disciples.

Luke records that these women travelled with Jesus and provided for him. This has often been interpreted to mean that the women did the cooking and laundry and so on. But it is a fact that there were women who came with Jesus who had the resources to pay for his ministry. That is exceptional too. In those days women with disposable income were incredibly rare. They had to outlive fathers, brothers, husbands and sons long enough to inherit, and they would have to resist all the pressures to marry men who felt they had a claim on the property or the woman in question. OR they had to have the kinds of characters and relationships that would allow them to have and spend resources while married, despite the laws of the time that made it illegal and a culture that made it scandalous.

Some names that we DO know:

Mary Magdalene: is the best known of the women who followed Jesus. She is recorded in all 4 gospels, and she is even central to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

There is a lot of speculation about Mary Magdalene, linking her romantically to Jesus. We can’t rule it out, although many scholars suggest that Jesus ran a celibate ministry, which was common for religious movements predicting the end of the world. Our tendency to try to make her a love interest is a sign of our own hang-ups around powerful women who are not dependent on men. Why can’t she simply be an important disciple?

And as many preachers before me have pointed out, Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute. She is noted for having seven demons cast out of her.

An unnamed woman disciple poured expensive perfume over Jesus feet before his crucifixion. In John’s gospel, she is identified as Mary, presumably the sister to Martha and Lazarus, since it happened in their house in John’s version. This has led to confusion between the two Marys, and with another, unnamed, woman, a “sinner”, in a totally different setting, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried his feet with her hair. This confusion, once again, is a sign of our religious issues with women who stand out.

Mary Magdalene is recorded as being with Jesus right through from Galilee to the crucifixion and the tomb. All four gospels name her as one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. John’s gospel names her as the first person to see the risen Christ, in the garden. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas names her as one of Jesus’ best students, full of more insight and wisdom than the others.

Just to confuse us, there were at least 4 other Marys who followed Jesus:

Mary the Mother of Jesus (really, does your own mother count as a disciple?)

Mary the Mother of James the Younger & Joses (as recorded by Mark), or James & Joseph (as altered by Matthew, or merely James (as trimmed by Luke)

Mary the wife of Clopas. Clopas was probably another disciple, but we don’t know for sure.

Mary and Martha (identified as sisters of Lazarus in John’s gospel): they are recorded as both disciples and friends. They are different from the others in that they are shown to be living in a house in Bethany that Jesus visited, instead of travelling around with him.

Other names:

Joanna, wife of Herod’s Steward, Chuza:

Joanna was with Jesus right from Galilee, where Herod ruled, all the way through to his tomb. She was obviously a woman of stature, since her husband was king Herod’s senior manager. Equally obvious is the fact that her husband couldn’t tag along with Jesus without losing his position. Joanna had the courage to leave her comfortable existence in the palace and become a disciple. Her husband must have respected her enough not to have her dragged back home in disgrace, which he could have done under the law, or restrict her financial support of Jesus. She was clearly impressive, and I wish we knew more about her.

Salome was another woman who followed Jesus from Galilee, and came to his tomb.

Suzanna was a disciple of Jesus in Galilee. We can presume that she was with him into the days of the early church, or Luke wouldn’t have known her name. More to the point, he probably recorded her name because he expected others to recognize her.

Sister of Mary: in other words, Jesus’ aunt.

Mother of the Sons of Zebedee: ie: the mother of the apostles James and John. She personally asked Jesus for promotion for her sons as Jesus’ most trusted followers. Whatever unfulfilled ambitions she may have had for her sons, she was staunchly there when Jesus died.


Without these women, Jesus’ ministry would never have happened. They provided for the disciples out of their own resources, and we have tended to dismiss that as less important work. But think about it: they had the money, they handled the bills. Today we would call them the finance committee or the trustees, although John’s gospel identifies Judas Iscariot as the treasurer.

And isn’t it easy to imagine those former fishermen getting all keen about learning to preach, and running around healing and proclaiming that God is coming, while leaving the women to ask the practical questions like: “where are we all going to camp tonight?” and “who’s going to feed these 5000 people?”

Of course, that last paragraph is gender-role stereotyping too, and the gospels resist that as well. Remember Mary and Martha? Martha organized the meal and house while Mary sat and learned?

The male disciples all fled when Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death. Only the women were brave enough to attend his execution. Only the women were brave enough to go to the tomb to prepare his body, even though Jewish law requires strict gender segregation for that job. Men have to prepare the bodies of men for burial, and women have to prepare women. It was a man’s job, by law, yet they were the only ones ready to step up and do it. That’s why they were the first to find the empty tomb: they were strong enough not to cut and run when things got dangerous.

Yes, Jesus had women disciples. I would argue that he had women apostles, too.

Without them, we wouldn’t be here. There would be no Christian church

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Gone but Not Forgotten

It’s time for a rant.

I’m getting really tired of having all Christians lumped in together with the literalists, the fundamentalists and the creationists. Too many people who embrace secularism don’t see the distinctions within a faith.

The recent remarks by Julie Payette, our Governor General, underline this. I would have less trouble if she had been more respectful in her choice of words, and I certainly don’t wish to tell someone that they don’t have a right to express their opinions. But lumping all people of faith together into an ignorant group that deserves scorn displays an indifference, or even an ignorance concerning the subtleties of the many people of Canada who have faithful or spiritual beliefs. Her later comments supporting religious diversity are good, but what she said at first exposes an all too common position in a society that considers itself post-religion.

The Reformed branch of the church has always considered itself to be rationally-oriented. And we who are members of that branch have to bear some of the blame for this. We have allowed the literalists of Christianity to define their agenda in the media as the voice of all Christianity. This is particularly true in the United States, where people are trying to get Creationism taught as a “science” in schools, sometimes successfully. We cannot pretend that we don’t get splashed with the same tar here in Canada, and it wouldn’t hurt us to make a point of letting people know where we stand, instead of letting them make uninformed assumptions about us.

We get to say that we believe in God, and not in Creationism. We know that climate change is real. We take the Bible seriously, not literally.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 gives us an opportunity to break some stereotypes. This is the passage of the Bible that people use to justify the doctrine of the rapture: that idea that at the second coming of Christ faithful people will be lifted off the earth to meet Jesus in the air, and be taken off to heaven.

People have had a lot of fun with this idea. I can remember back in the 1970’s some church youth groups joked about wearing “Rapture Helmets” indoors in case there was a roof over your head when Jesus returned. My dad had a bumper sticker which he glued on the dashboard for his passengers to see:

Caution: Jesus is returning at any time. Driver will disappear.

I’m still not sure if he was joking or sending a message, but it upset a few people.

Paul’s message in this scripture passage is part of the tradition of the Day of the Lord, which goes back into the prophetic writings, like Amos 5:18-24 . It is a promise that God will intervene in the world to set things right someday.

Like the passage from Amos, these were often warnings. Here Amos is clearly saying that the people who think they’re in good with God had better see if they are actually doing what God wants. Amos says what God wants: for justice to flow like a fountain.

People can’t get away with simply following rituals and pretending to be good. We are called to make it real, so if God did enter the world suddenly it would only be a good day for us. According to Amos and other prophets, this would be if we were already trying to establish God’s balanced life for the people, so that there wasn’t a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and no one could use the law to to cheat others and get away with it.

Amos, and other prophets were warning against smug self-satisfaction and a sense of self-righteousness. They left a sense that the Day of the Lord was a scary thing to anticipate.

Paul sets a really different tone. He presents the Day of the Lord as Jesus returning to earth to rule in justice and righteousness. He presents it as a happy day, without the threatening tones of Amos. Paul was clear that one of the jobs of the church was to make sure that justice did flow down. He taught the messages of love, mutual support and a community that overcomes social boundaries; that embraces even the outcasts. In this way, Paul saw God’s justice being lived out so the Day of the Lord wasn’t something to be feared: it was a joyful occasion.

Paul pictures the faithful people, dead and living, welcoming Jesus in the air as he comes to earth like a crowd going out into the roadways to celebrate the arrival of the conquering hero as he comes into town. They’re not going to be taken away into heaven! The idea is that they’re going to be around for this reign of Christ. They’re going to come back to earth with him, which is the opposite of what modern “Rapture” theology says.

Really, this is all totally missing the point of the passage. Paul wasn’t really trying to write eschatology (the study of the end times), he was answering a specific concern about people who had died.

Very early in the days of Christianity, everyone expected the risen Christ back literally any day. Understandably, some of the converts to Christianity got upset when their loved ones died before Jesus returned. What did this mean? Was their faith in vain?

They weren’t looking for salvation in heaven. They were anticipating God’s kingdom on earth. But they’d just buried dear aunt Mabel, and what would happen to her? Would she miss out on the Day of the Lord? Where was the justice in that?

Paul was telling the people that dear aunt Mabel and the others who had died might be gone, but they were not forgotten. More than that, on this Day of the Lord that people had been talking about for centuries the “dead in Christ” would have the bonus of being raised up and meeting Christ even before the faithful people still living.

This whole passage is about God’s faithfulness and care for those who have left this life. It’s not about some abstract theology about the end of the world. And yet all you hear about is the end of the world stuff, which is a total twisting of the passage in the first place.

We don’t hear about the reassurance: that people who love God are not abandoned or forgotten by God; the reassurance that death in this world is not the end of our existence.

That reassurance is what Paul was trying to get across, and that’s the part everyone misses.

Of course, for people who are determined to be secular, the idea of life after this one is one they tend to reject. That’s sort of inevitable if you decide that Science is the measure of everything. Science deliberately limits itself to this physical universe and things that can be directly observed.

To imagine a God who could be the first mover, the primary cause, requires us to think outside the box of the observable universe. So does the idea of a spiritual continuity for life beyond physical death.

Life after death can’t be proven. They’ve tried. I remember hearing about experiments where people were weighed continually before, during and after the time of death. The people running the study came up with an unexplained weight loss. They reported that it was the weight of the soul.

Unfortunately for the experimenters, no one else could get the experiment to work. It was what you call an irreproducable result: not scientifically trustworthy.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Hamlet when he says “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The learning we gain through science is vital. We need it to advance. Critical thinking is at the core of our ability to grow in understanding in any field: it was an important part of my training in seminary. But however much we learn, we must never think we have all the answers. We cannot assume that our view of the world is complete. And become arrogant when we feel we get to heap scorn on people who disagree with us.

We who are people of faith have a responsibility to be engaged with people who just don’t get it. We should take up these issues with people who are concerned with them and let them know where we stand, what we believe. We used to call this “apologetics,” and it has nothing to so with saying “sorry.”

We have let things slide. We have let others define our position for us, and now we are bearing the consequences: we are dismissed as irrational fools.

In fact our faith gives us room to struggle with important questions. It gives us the room to see possibilities and hopes that are not limited by what can be measured in this world.

Our faith tells us that there is more to life than what we can see, and that the source of all life will not forget us.

That’s worth defending

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A Change of Heart

Remember Joseph and his Amazing Coat of Many Colours? (Note how I carefully avoided copyright violation there?)

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, after briefly plotting to murder him. Over the following years, Joseph was a slave, a wrongfully convicted prisoner, and a dream interpreter to the king, which finally led him to a position of power. He was responsible for famine relief for an entire nation.

Joseph’s family were affected by the famine too, and his brothers came to buy grain. They didn’t recognize Joseph, but he knew them well enough, and used his bureaucratic powers to make their lives miserable for a few weeks. They were investigated as spies, arrested as thieves using planted evidence, and were just terrified by what might happen to them.

In Genesis 45:1-15 we see Joseph break down, and end his campaign of revenge and harassment. Not only did he forgive his brothers, but he invited his whole extended family to move to Egypt to escape the famine. He saved all their lives.

Central to all of this is the fact that Joseph, regardless of his resentment, his (totally justified) anger, and his secret delight at tormenting his brothers, ultimately couldn’t do it anymore. He knew their suffering, because he had experienced it himself. Once the thrill wore off, he couldn’t bring himself to treat them badly anymore. His own experiences gave him the room to be empathetic to the people who had oppressed him so badly, and caused him to end his own oppressive behaviour when the tables were turned.

They say that love and hate aren’t opposites. Apathy is the opposite of love, while hate is the flip side of the coin of love. Some of the bitterest feuds and fights have started in love and built from there. But as we can see with Joseph, those feuds can be resolved and the hate can be reversed if only those who feel bitter can manage to remember the humanity of those opposite them.

Actually, the group Life After Hate suggests that we should really say: “remember their own humanity.”

This is their mission statement:

LIFE AFTER HATE is dedicated to inspiring individuals to a place of compassion and forgiveness for everyone, including themselves.

As I understand it, this is an organization of people who used to be White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Skinheads, and members of other hate groups. Their leadership has been interviewed a lot on CBC with what is going on in the States and Canada right now.

As former members of violent, racist groups themselves, one of the points they make is that these hate groups are full of people who can’t see the humanity in the people they target. They suggest from their own experience that the real problem is that they have lost sight of the humanity in themselves, and can’t empathize.

Joseph had good reason to be angry with his brothers. But his own anguish as a slave, as someone unjustly accused and jailed, and his own ability to remember how that felt prevented him from inflicting too much vengeance, even on the people who deserved it the most.

An amazing example of this came from an interview on the CBC Radio Tapestry series in 2015. A black lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, was defending someone in the deep South prison system. The prisoner was a young man with a mental disability. He had indeed done the crime, but he was being given a terribly harsh sentence. Stevenson tried to show the court that the young man’s life in “the system” as a survivor of multiple foster homes, and frequent abuse, had contributed to his situation, and a different kind of sentence would be appropriate.

Whenever Stevenson visited his client in prison, a particular white guard deliberately made his life miserable. Not only was he disrespectful, but he subjected him to strip and cavity searches every time he visited his client, while letting all kinds of white visitors through with barely a glance. This same guard had a confederate-flag decorated pickup-truck in the prison lot with the bumper sticker: “If I’d known it would be like this, I’d have picked my own cotton.”

One time this same guard accompanied Stevenson and the prisoner to a court hearing. He heard what Stevenson was arguing. The next time Stevenson showed up for a visit, the guard treated him with great respect. He nervously apologized for his previous behaviour. Then he thanked him for what he was trying to do for this young black prisoner. The guard, it turned out, had been in the same foster system, and had suffered similar abuse.

When he heard Stevenson’s words, the guard was re-connected with his own humanity. He was able to see the humanity of the prisoner under his authority. He even became able to appreciate this lawyer who was trying to help: a successful black man who represented everything he formally and deliberately hated. This is as close to a modern miracle as I can imagine.

Jesus himself showed us how this worked. (See Matthew 15:21-28) He was effectively on vacation near Tyre and Sidon, an area outside of the traditional Jewish lands. A Canaanite woman who lived there wanted her daughter cured. Now, a parent who desperately wants help for a child can be one of the most stubborn and persistent humans in the world. This woman’s constant shouted pleas for help were annoying Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus ignored her. That was pretty rude, but her people were ancient enemies of the Hebrews. And under Jewish law, as a Gentile, she was unclean, and female to boot. Men weren’t supposed to speak to unrelated women in that region, although Jesus made lots of exceptions to that rule for his own people.

Jesus declared that his mission was to the lost children of Israel, which is like saying: “Sorry, technically you’re not worthy, and it’s out of my hands.” He didn’t really say it to her, but he said it so she could hear it.

What follows is a clever but rather insulting debate between Jesus and the woman. Jesus is very rude to her. He basically calls her and her daughter bitches, which is an even worse insult in the Middle East than it is here. And yet he is so taken with her clever response, and possibly with her courage and dedication, that he has a change of heart and helps her.

Look at the steps involved:

Jesus demonstrates the cultural assumptions he grew up with, the same ones everyone else shared and assumed were right, and maybe even ordained by God. He completely ignores her: he won’t even say “talk to the hand.” It’s like she doesn’t exist, she doesn’t deserve the slightest attention. Formal apathy is what we see.

The next step is engagement. It’s hard. It starts with a nasty debate. More of a test, as this man with power puts the woman totally on the spot. Before she even has a chance to make her case directly to Jesus, he explains how unworthy she and her daughter are: lower than dogs.

At least an argument is better than silence. The woman does her best to break through Jesus’ position, and her best is quite amazing. She manages to maintain her dignity, standing before him in debate, while refusing to be baited by his provocative language. She not only accepts the humiliating name of dog, but she cleverly uses it to her advantage.

The final step is that Jesus sees her as a human being. As Luke’s gospel puts it, he is moved to love her, and help her.

Jesus has gone from demonstrating coldness, possibly apathy, or maybe just an inherited, ritualized prejudice with no fire behind it, to showing full acceptance of her humanity, in one brief encounter.

That is the example we have of the steps needed for reconciliation between people who are far apart. It matches what we are hearing from others today: we need to learn to see others as fully human people; not as stereotypes, or categories, or any other kinds of objects.

As individuals and as a society we are called to refuse to remain silent, to be unwilling to turn our backs. We have to enter into dialogue and be ready for it to be difficult. We can predict that it’s likely to include old-fashioned name-calling at some stage.

As we are engaged in that difficult dialogue, we are called to discover the humanity of the other person or group. And in the process, we may rediscover those parts of ourselves that need healing, or help, or forgiveness; those parts that make us sensitive, or angry, or reactive. We all have them. Jesus did: do we dare to pretend that we’re better?

And in building relationships with others who provoke us for some reason, we can discover that the healing ministry of Jesus is still active: as we heal relationships, and as we find unexpected healing for ourselves.

You could call this our model for reconciliation:

1: we listen

2: we learn about the human reality of someone different

3: we open ourselves to the possibility that we will feel moved to help.

That last one is the proof that this works. Love won’t let us sit still and do nothing.

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